Monday, December 10, 2007

Seeds of Doubt

This is a continuation of my previous post entitled, What is God? The Mormon Version.

I had a couple of powerful experiences that convinced me that God existed and loved me. I also had many experiences where the church's teachings seemed so right and resonated with my soul. I felt strongly that if the world would just embrace the gospel as taught by the church then most of its problems would simply go away.

However, beyond that I never observed anything that I found miraculous in the sense that I believed that God had intervened. I never observed miracles or anything that defied a natural explanation and required a supernatural explanation. Growing up I heard accounts of miracles, but for some reason I never found them very compelling. For example, there was the tearful testimony by a man who blessed a person with cancer. Subsequently the cancer went into remission and the person was cured. However, I knew that not only did many non-Mormons and non-religious people spontaneously remiss from their cancers, I also knew that many people received blessings and subsequently died. From what I could tell, blessings had little effect beyond comforting the sick person. Beyond that, nature ran its course and the best choice for the sick was to receive the best medical care they could obtain.

This train of thought carried over to historical events that I read as a church member. One that stands out was the account of Joseph Smith miraculously healing the sick in the malaria ridden settlements of early Nauvoo. It was hard for me to see anything terrible miraculous because I knew that there was a terrifically high mortality rate. It seemed more like everyone got blessed and then the church cherry picked the cases where people were healed and recorded them as miracles. What about those that died? If God healed some, why did he let so many other people die? It was much easier for me to believe that God wasn't that capricious and that what people chalked up as miracles were just random chance; some people get better, and some don't.

I can't explain some other experiences. But I also know that just because I can't explain them doesn't mean that they can't be explained and doesn't mean I must accept the supernatural. For example, my father once told me a story about a troubled family that he was visiting as a church home teacher. Apparently this family had many problems and my father thought that there was something satanic going on there. He told me that one time he was on the phone at home sitting on his bed and while talking to them he felt the whole bed shaking and coming off the floor. My mental picture was like something out of the exorcist. Did it really happen? If so, that would be pretty tough to explain. My father isn't prone to fabrication but I've learned that his beliefs strongly color his perceptions of everything so maybe his account is an accurate description of his perceptions of something that was less incredible. I'm willing to say I don't know and I'm not too proud to admit I could be wrong. It just seems extremely unlikely.

I've also had very vivid dreams, usually in the twilight of sleep where the mind is awake but the body is still slumbering. I first remember these during my mission where I was immersed in religion and religious reading. While I was reading Jesus the Christ I had a vivid dream of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane coming to his slumbering disciples. This was a strong confirmation of my beliefs, but I was troubled when later in my mission I had a similarly vivid dream that my father, who was a member of the bishopric at the time, was having an affair and cheating on my mother. I awoke and remembered every detail of the dream and it had a palpable sense of reality. I was distraught because I just knew that it was true. I knew it every bit as much as anything else religious that I'd experience. I have never asked my father about it. Part of me is afraid to discover that it might be true. If so, maybe the dreams really are true and I need to reconsider my current lack of faith. But, I was fairly certain then and am more certain now that that particular dream wasn't true and this led me to doubt some of my earlier spiritual experiences since it seemed that they could be equivocal. Part of me knew that my spiritual experiences could have more mundane explanations, but I didn't want to believe that.

I attended Brigham Young University which is the crown jewel of the Mormon church's educational system. I received a top notch education in engineering and enjoyed almost every aspect of my college years. Strangely, for me at least, the low points of my college experience were the religion classes I was required to take. Some of the classes were good, but some were incredibly bad. The worst ones were not the ones taught by random professors who were not part of the religion department; the worst ones were taught by the faculty of the religion department. Ironicly, Mormonism is founded on a deep seated distrust of professional religionists and my experiences at BYU confirmed those beliefs.

While a missionary, a member had smirkingly (I thought) asked whether it was true that Joseph Smith had 23 wives. I admitted that I had no idea although I thought it could be possible since Joseph received the church's revelation allowing polygamy so it made sense that he would have been the first person to practice it. Even if he did, I didn't think it was a problem. After all, all the other Mormon prophets from Brigham Young to Heber J. Grant had practiced polygamy openly. That means that out of 15 church presidents, 7 of them were polygamists and they governed the church for 115 years of its 177 year history.

One of my last purchases in Utah before graduation from BYU was Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard S. Van Wagoner. When I saw the book in Deseret Book (I think) I immediately picked it up because it was the first treatment of the topic I'd ever seen. I wanted to know more. Given the importance of the practice in 19th century Utah and the central part it had in the church's revelation on celestial marriage it had always struck me as strange that it was never really discussed in church. Part of me believed that if there was nothing wrong with it, then there was nothing to be ashamed of. But the silence on the topic created a suspicion that something was being hidden and I wondered what the story was and whether the church was hiding something. I made it part way through the book, but I never finished it. I had trouble reconciling the details with what I'd been taught about the character of Joseph Smith. I could easily see how the doctrine might have been introduced as a justification for Joseph Smith's lusts and desires and it became apparent why the church didn't have Sunday School lessons about the origins of polygamy in the church. I came away with a belief that the church was embarrassed by polygamy and just wanted to bury the topic.

Around this time I also read an article in the church's magazine, The Ensign, written by Milton V. Backman, Jr. Bushman that included the different versions of Joseph Smith's First Vision along with an apologetic explanation that while the stories were different they were substantially the same and that if they had been more similar then it would be evidence of a fabrication. I remember thinking, "Those stories aren't substantially similar at all. They are completely different. The only similarity is that he had a religious experience."

I had doubts, as I've no doubt most Mormons have had, but I'd done with them what I had always been taught to do; I put them on a shelf with confidence that at some point, perhaps in the next life, all my questions and doubts would be explained. After all, I'd accepted my spiritual witnesses as evidence that the church was true. It it was true, then there must be an explanation even if I didn't have it.

This process came to a skidding halt in 1990. The bishop announced from the pulpit in sacrament meeting that all temple endowed members should make arrangements to go through the temple as soon as possible. Changes had been made and due to the sacred nature of the temple he obviously couldn't say what they were, but he promised that they were wonderful. I wondered what could change. What could they have added? I'd always found the temple endowment disturbing and perplexing. My wife and I went and I was amazed to find that they hadn't added anything. Instead they'd removed many of the parts that I'd always wondered about. How could this be? The church teaches that its ordinances were given by revelation from God and that they couldn't be changed. If the endowment was the highest and most sacred ordinance, they how could it be changed? If God revealed it, then it should be correct. If it wasn't, then maybe it wasn't really from God. If the prophet can't get the most sacred and holy ordinances right, then what could he be trusted to get right? God is supposed to be unchangeable, so why would the covenants of the temple need to be changed. Furthermore, it seems like the ordinances had been changed because they were found to be offensive by some members. If the ordinances were from God, wouldn't that indicate a problem with the members taking offense? Shouldn't they humble themselves and accept what God was requiring? If God and church members face off, shouldn't God win? Why was the church changing God's revelations in response to public sentiment? The rather obvious answer, to me, was that the temple ordinance must not be from God. From that point on the underpinnings of my religious belief were undermined because here was a clear contradiction. I simply couldn't reconcile this with everything I'd been taught about the church and God.

It took another 13 years to finally dig deeper and go beyond strong doubts and look for more evidence of deception. But once I looked it became crystal clear that I had been deceived my entire life.


paranoidfr33k said...

Your story is similar to mine in many ways. Thank you for sharing. Its difficult to get past the feelings that even though things don't seem right, they will eventually work themselves out because we are taught to trust the church explicitly. Once the seeds of doubt are allowed to flourish, the history of the church that is right there in the church's own history books causes the church's claims today to crumble.


Bull said...

I'm currently listening to an interview of Bushman over no and am amazed at the level of discrepancy an extremely intelligent man can tolerate while still "believing."