Choosing science over religion

The following was written by a university professor.

What should a believing Mormon do upon discovering the church’s hidden history: maintain the appearance of belief for family’s sake or openly acknowledge disbelief? The answer, I suspect, depends on individual circumstances. Perhaps this story will help others facing the same dilemma.

Growing up in a Salt Lake Mormon family in the 1960s meant church was an every Sunday event. There we learned that Mormonism was “true” and that founder Joseph Smith’s stories were historical facts. There wasn’t any controversy about his claims. The only question was who would conform to LDS teachings and who would not. Even as children we knew this was serious business. Though not always directly stated, the stories told repeatedly in church about fallen souls who threw away their salvation by rejecting Mormon Christianity made it clear that one’s state of belief in Joseph Smith’s stories had “eternal” consequences [see also story #112 at].

As was expected of boys my age, I left home at 19 on a church mission. The first two months of intense Japanese language study in Laie, Hawaii were enjoyable. The challenge kept me going. Upon arriving in Tokyo-Yokohama the Japanese-culture shock was nothing compared to the missionary life-culture shock. Most of the other “elders” were decent fellows, but it was hard to imagine that their enthusiasm for what we were doing was all genuine. Nevertheless I suffered silently and kept busy memorizing the church’s prepared teaching material in Japanese. That first year in Japan was miserable. At the halfway point I was ready to go home and accept the shame of not having completed an honorable mission. But my mission president persuaded me to give it one more try for a week and sent me to a small town out in the countryside. That did the trick. Somehow I found a way to keep going and for the second year I was pretty much on-board with the program. I felt like I had been converted and had a strong belief in Mormonism. Even in post-Mormon life, I’m still glad for that initial exposure to Japanese culture; it opened the door for several future opportunities in Japan.

Upon returning to secular life I got degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah and the University of California at Berkeley and along the way got married. At Berkeley I was exposed to how scientific research works. After Berkeley we did a post-doc in Japan and then came back to Salt Lake to begin a teaching career at the University of Utah. Four years later we decided to leave the “U” and found ourselves agonizing between two opportunities. One was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the other from BYU. Illinois had a well respected graduate program in engineering. But anyone familiar with Mormon culture knows the lure of teaching at BYU for a believing Mormon. We concluded that going to BYU from Illinois would be a future option whereas the other way wouldn’t so we went to Illinois. For the next eight years I still debated going to BYU and almost did a few times.

Illinois turned out to be the right move. At Illinois I had the good fortune of working on some interesting research problems with some very talented and bright students. In the process I learned how easy it is to be misled and create false belief systems, particularly if I (a) didn’t get enough information, (b) didn’t keep an open enough mind, and (c) ignored evidence that contradicted my assumptions. But I also learned it’s actually possible to get right answers in many cases. To do so requires (a) gathering and critically evaluating all the information that exists on a given problem and doing the necessary experiments to generate new knowledge where it doesn’t exist, (b) keeping an open mind to all possible explanations, and (c) constantly re-evaluating initial assumptions in light of new evidence. I started to learn how science works. I later recognized this as the same process that works in any search for truth, whether in journalism, criminal justice, or history. But I didn’t think to apply these principles to my religious beliefs. I had been conditioned by my upbringing and mission experience that questioning Mormonism was a not a good road to start down.

In May 1994 I saw an advertisement for books on Mormonism published by the University of Illinois Press which included B. H. Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon. This caught my attention because I knew Roberts was held up within the church as a defender of the Book of Mormon; but at the same time University of Illinois Press was a reputable, scholarly publisher. What was going on? As soon as I started reading Roberts’s Studies I knew it was something important. Though dry in the beginning, towards the end it became clear where Roberts was going. After a life of defending the Book of Mormon, he had come to hold serious doubts about Joseph Smith’s claim of translating an ancient record. He pretty much seemed to be saying that he thought there was a good chance Joseph Smith had produced the Book of Mormon, based on “common knowledge” of his day, his fertile imagination, his pious upbringing, and his desire to defend the Bible. Parallels between Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (a book I’d never heard of) and the Book of Mormon were enough, it seemed, to persuade Roberts that Joseph Smith had used it to produce the Book of Mormon. Roberts’s Studies caught my mind at the right time and provided a way for me to consider a previously unthinkable idea, which was that I had been wrong about the Book of Mormon.

Once I started taking a new look at the Book of Mormon, including the possibility that it was generated by Joseph Smith, old problems and inconsistencies in the book came back to my mind. I tried looking for solutions to those problems with a different set of starting assumptions. In particular, the ambiguous references to a single set of “plates of Nephi” almost everywhere in the Book of Mormon always seemed odd since there were supposedly two separate and distinct sets (large and small). That distinction was crucial to the structure of the book (i.e., the lost manuscript episode) so I went back and looked at the whole issue again and found a better explanation, at least to my mind, based on the assumption that the Book of Mormon was generated by the mind of Joseph Smith through a series of evolving plans.

With the barrier to enquiry down I was amazed at what I found out about Mormon history and how it kept putting the pieces of the puzzle together in a totally different but more complete and consistent picture: the Book of Abraham Egyptian papyri discoveries in 1967, Joseph Smith’s secret Nauvoo polygamy, the parallels between Masonic oaths and Mormon temple ceremonies (although those are gradually being erased), the changed Doctrine and Covenants revelations, the influence of magic in early Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s involvement in money-digging. In a short time I became skeptical of Joseph Smith’s credibility as a witness of external events (those outside his own mind). I also lost confidence in the ability of most LDS leaders to consider openly and objectively evidence that seems to threaten either their own emotional or economic security.

At first I chose not to share my discoveries with extended family–it felt like telling a young child not ready to hear, about Santa; but I had to tell my wife. Within six months I felt I had to ask for church membership cancellation. Within a few years strain in our marriage was growing. The main issue was our children. From my viewpoint it appeared (and still appears) that the church’s programs and teachings impair or destroy children’s ability to develop healthy normal skepticism about certain fantastic claims and stories. LDS teaching also causes children to feel unnecessary false guilt for certain normal human behaviors and feelings. From the church’s (and I think my wife’s) point of view, the church was true and failing to teach children to believe in Joseph Smith’s stories when they were young and impressionable was neglect of sacred responsibilities. I found that in trying to bring about a moderation with respect to what our children were being taught I was no longer a harmless, pitiable heretic who’d lost his own way but a potentially dangerous influence that needed to be curtailed. As with Joseph Smith’s fantasy Book of Mormon villain Korihor, it became “better that [my] soul should be lost than that [I] shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction.” (Alma 30:47).

My wife’s family found out about our situation and I tried to explain what had happened. Our marriage continued to weaken while my wife’s relationships with LDS supporters, local friends and family, strenthened. Eventually she suggested we separate and filed for divorce. I don’t blame her for what must have been a terrible situation, feeling torn between me and an extensive network of LDS family and friends. She suffered long with me. I do believe that the church at large, institutionally and through a few members individually, was responsible for playing a significant role in breaking up a good family. Out of this sad experience I concluded that when it comes to families the LDS church plays for keeps. Behind the positive family-friendly public image the church likes to cultivate there’s a dark side. When someone effectively challenges their methods they see it as holy war. In that mindset, no sacrifice is too great in the cause of saving a soul. As one gospel writer said in the mouth of Jesus when early Christianity was losing the battle with and breaking away from rabbinic Judaism: “he that loveth father or mother . . . son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” I guess some things never change.

My own extended family also eventually began to suspect something was wrong. When my disbelief finally came out I usually explained enough and offered enough of the new evidence to give an idea of what I had discovered. Almost universally the response was one of surprise, that they hadn’t heard of Roberts’s Studies, or View of the Hebrews, or the re-discovered Egyptian papyri before. Sometimes they accepted reading material and said they would get back with me. (So far no one has.) Most of them have been understanding; some have not. I’ve been threatened by well-meaning relatives and former church leaders alike with misery in this life and damnation in the next. Such spiritual bullying and intimidation in the church needs to be recognized for what it is. I feel sorry most of all for young people who are subjected to it, whether it’s in connection with missionary service, proselyting, temple ceremonies, or even baptism. I did notice an interesting correlation though: generally, the higher the church calling a person had achieved the more personal and disturbing their warnings to me were (i.e., stake presidents more threatening than bishops than elders quorum presidents, etc.).

Max Planck, discoverer of quantum theory and the law of blackbody radiation, observed that: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents. Rather, its opponents grow old and die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” I think that process works in the gradual establishment of scientific truth because scientists tend not to work too hard at indoctrinating their children so as to perpetuate strong beliefs in things that are either questionable, undeterminable, or have been shown false. In religion, however, it seems to be quite the opposite. In most of the world believers or adherents of one system or another are free to impose what they will on innocent children. I feel bad for children who are abused in any way, including those unfairly burdened with strong religious convictions that a little historical study would dispel.

I’ve concluded that the human, fallible leaders of the LDS church are much like Joseph Smith or even Catholic authorities in Galileo’s time in that they’ve convinced themselves they really are chosen servants to the point that if they sense something that might undermine people’s belief they won’t even consider the information seriously. Galileo concluded that those men who wouldn’t even accept the invitation to look through his telescope were more interested in their authority than in the truth. The mindset of men who have become convinced they are God’s chosen servants is that they are doing a noble, righteous thing (even in being closed-minded) so they don’t really see it as choosing authority over truth. They start with the assumption that they’re right (have the truth) and see their unwillingness to explore controversial information itself as a virtue. My experience has taught me that that process is a recipe for disaster in terms of ever reaching the truth.

If I had it to do again, knowing what I know now, I would think more about maintaining the appearance of belief, especially with my wife. Going at a slower pace might have given her a chance to become curious herself and not feel compelled to look ahead to the social and family implications so quickly. As it was we didn’t have much chance to discuss historical information that was new to us in a non-confrontational atmosphere. Now it seems too late for that discussion. Being a closet-doubter may seem disingenuous, but given the stakes and the powerful institution involved it’s probably a justifiable pretention.

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