Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why I leave, part 5: The Aftermath.

Every year in April my BYU department's student association hosts a social. It had been a while since I spoke to Dave at length, but I now saw his position in a new light. While I didn't feel like I could announce my lack of belief to the world I at least wanted him to know I understood his position. At an appropriate time, we got together and I let him know of my struggles, my change in heart, and my new found lack of belief. He and another friend named Nate were then the only people I knew who didn't believe in the department.

A lot has happened since then. Dave and Nate introduced me to some new friends. I've made other new friends, lost some old ones (and even some of the new ones), moved to a new state (twice) and started graduate school. I've also had a chance to deliberately, slowly study and restudy the issues I ran into during the first four months of 2011. Part of me hoped that the evidence might bring me back, but that hope has been dashed to pieces, ground into a powder, and thrown to the wind. I've also run into further problems with claims made by the church. It seems that no matter where I look the myth I grew up with has been proven to be just that - a myth.

Now you might ask me if I'm more happy now than I was. To be honest, I don't know. The roller-coaster of emotion I've been through in the last two years hasn't been easy. Giving up over 20 years of belief doesn't come easily. I've discovered depths of despair and heights of joy I never knew were possible. I've learned a lot about myself in these two years, too. I've had to rebuild my moral world from scratch and have attempted as best I can to create something, at least for myself, of value. I don't know if I've yet succeeded. Maybe that will become clear in the future.

I've also learned what it means to truly tread your own path in the world. I now no longer have someone above me that can tell me if my decisions are right or wrong. I have to make that decision myself and live with whatever consequences that decision entails. I'm starting to see the world as less black and white and more gray. Not every decision has a clearly right, more right, or wrong choice to it. Treading this path hasn't been easy - but as they say in the church, I think it has been worth least so far. In any case, I've met some good people along the way who have helped.

I must say any relationships I have now feel more real than they were when I lived under the yolk of Mormonism. I tend to over-think things quite a bit, and the Mormon tendency to assign a heavy weight to all decisions didn't help when I was a true believer. I now feel free to make mistakes and learn from them. I don't always beat myself up over things I perceive I've done wrong, and I often assume my acquaintances will act the same way. I also feel I can sometimes take my decisions lightly and see where they lead without worrying if the decision is right. This has been freeing for me.

I'm also more comfortable with doubt and uncertainty. I don't always know the answer, and that's ok. I don't feel I always need a ready rebut for criticism of my position. If my way of thinking is proven untenable, I'm more free to abandon it. To be honest, though, I still occasionally allow my human tendency for validation overcome my better judgement. I'm still human, after all.

I also see people differently now. I no longer look for what someone believes in my interactions, because I just don't think that matters. (Well, mostly. I still find myself occasionally putting someone in a category because of what I think they believe. That thought pattern seems to be the hardest to get rid of.) More important is how that person acts. A person can be a religious jerk or a religious saint, an atheist hypocrite or an amiable atheist, a self-righteous non-believer or a tolerant non-believer. People are people, not beliefs. It's that simple.

So what do I now believe? Well, I don't know. After dropping my Mormonism I briefly considered mainstream Christianity as an alternative, but that idea soon fell flat on its face. I also considered Buddhism. Buddhist thought was appealing, but I just couldn't accept the supernatural elements of the religion. I spent some time studying Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, Confucianism and Taoism, but I just couldn't bring myself to accept any of their creeds. It all just seems man-made to me now.

If I were to label myself anything now, It would be "agnostic". I can't really prove god doesn't exist, but I also don't think there's any credible evidence that proves  he/she/it is there. Maybe god started the universe and let it go, kind of like a computational physical simulation. Maybe god IS the universe. Or maybe there is no god. Maybe we are all part of a universe inside of a computer, living out our lives in fantasy. Who knows.

What I do know at this point, though, is that I now can never take claims of divine intervention without a dose of skepticism. Don't expect me to accept at face value your claims without some backup. Expect me to challenge your position. Don't think the challenge means I'm trying to slight you personally, though. After all, the only way we can figure if our worldview is valid is by testing that worldview against others. In the world of ideas, the best ones should rise to the top regardless of who conceives of it.

I'm excited to see what the future holds. I've always been curious - and now my whole life is an unwritten book. I don't know where it will end up, but I'll be happy to see the result when it's all over. After all, what fun is a story when you already know the conclusion?

Why I leave, Part 4: Loss.

I loved the Book of Mormon when I was younger, as did everyone around me (as far as I could tell). By my mission age I had done what was asked of me: I read the Book of Mormon (more than once), I prayed about it, and I got that good feeling that everyone told me later was the "confirmation" that the book was true (whatever that means).

I really let myself really get into the book, too. My favorite story was of both Mormon and Moroni, the final characters in the book. Mormon amazed me because of how strong, yet loving he seemed. He was a leader of an army at 16, and until his death was an untouchable, nearly unbeatable General. His always seemed the inferior force, yet he managed to squeak put draws from the jaws of defeat more than once. He didn't love war, though, and whenever he could he tried to stop the wars from continuing. I admired his courage, his conviction, and his willingness to step into danger for the sake of those he cared about, even when he knew his efforts were ultimately in vain.

It's somewhat embarrassing to admit this now, but I even created a fanfic of the story when I came home from my mission, though I never wrote it down entirely. In short, I was a Mormon fanboy in every sense of the word.

Moroni hit me even harder because of the clear loneliness he must have felt (or at least what I imagined he must have felt) after his father (Mormon)'s death. He spent over 30 solitary years wandering the wilderness after his people were destroyed. He was a warrior, too. I had in mind a picture of a lone wolf, who avoided fights when he could, but wasn't afraid to defend himself when the need arose. But he was filled with the same love his father had, so I was sure he would choose not to kill his enemies if he could avoid it.

I connected with him even more because of his clear weakness. He was a prophet, but he wasn't afraid to write down his struggles and difficulties. More so than Mormon, Moroni seemed approachable, human, not so different than me. I often thought that if Moroni could live alone for all the years he did, and yet grow during that time, certainly I could get over my problems, fears, and difficulties. Even now I still admire the character somewhat, though the story has since lost some of its luster for me.

Like I mentioned before, by mid-March 2011, I had found physical evidence that proves almost conclusively the Book of Abraham isn't what it appears to be. My emotional attachment to Mormonism wasn't really in that book, though, so I thought I'd be able to jettison my faith there while still remaining Mormon if only I could keep my faith in something else. The Book of Mormon seemed an obvious object of that faith.

Inevitably, though, my struggle with Abraham had given me inklings of problems in other areas of Mormonism. The Book of Mormon wasn't immune. My other studies made it impossible for me not to investigate the claims.

I wasn't naive enough this time to go directly to an apologetic source like Fair Mormon, so I went first to the critics. It was refreshing for me to find that the good critical sites (such as did their best to present both sides of the argument. Rather that slogging through lop-sided dither like I found at Fair Mormon, I quickly understood both the official position of the church (where it existed) and the detailed arguments and evidence that challenged that position. Mormon Think even had links directly to apologetic information like Fair and Farms (now the Maxwell Institute).

I studied the evidence for some time (it was at least two weeks). Although the information was much easier to bring together this time, I was much more reluctant to give up my emotional connection to the truth of the Book. The evidence was clear, though. Let me again give the main points. I'll be a little more detailed here because of how important the book was to me. I'll try to start with the most damning evidence (in my view) first.

  • The Book of Mormon claims (or at least it did when I was on my mission years ago) that the Lamanites, originally from the middle east, are the principal ancestors of the American Indians. (since then, the introduction to the the Book of Mormon has been changed to say they are "among the ancestors" of the American Indians.) If this is actually the case, there should be evidence, in the form of mitochondrial DNA, that would show the connection between Middle Eastern and Native American groups. A detailed explanation would take too long, but in short there is absolutely no evidence of Middle Eastern mitochondrial DNA in any Native American populations ANYWHERE in the Americas. Their DNA, which fits with evidence from other sources, indicates ancestry from east Asia, not Europe or the Middle east. This has been confirmed by both Mormon and non-Mormon scientists.
  • If the Book of Mormon record is correct, we'd expect evidence of large scale wars with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Just counting the final battle in Mormon suggests over a million dead Nephites. That evidence just doesn't exist, though. This is in contrast to the campaigns of the Roman Empire, for example, where much smaller forces left easily identifiable evidence of the battles they fought. Even if, as apologists claim, the evidence has been lost to the more humid central and South American climate, that doesn't explain why clear evidence of the Mayan, Olmec, Incan, and Aztec civilizations exist. The Mayans even existed at the same time the Nephite-Lamanite civilization supposedly did, yet only evidence of the former civilization has come to light.
  • Even in Texas evidence of a small civilization has come to light, a civilization that is much smaller than the claimed size of the Lehite civilization. Yet still the sprawling Lehites are nowhere to be found.
  • The Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms. It suggests the existence of horses, wheels, wheat, barley, and steel, just to name a few, where none of these things existed in the Americas before Columbus. No mention of Native American staples like pumpkins, squash, or potatoes exist in the Book of Mormon, even though archaeological evidence continually recovers these staples, but never finds evidence of wheat or barley. 
  • The Book of Mormon contains many passages that appear to be complete quotes from the King James edition of the Bible. As the King James version is a translation of a translation of a translation (of many transliterations), it contains mistranslations and errors that clearly didn't exist in earlier versions of the text. Tellingly, the Book of Mormon contains many of these mistranslations word for word from the King James version.
  • The place names and people in the Book of Mormon bear an uncanny resemblance to names of cities, towns, and geological features that existed in upstate New York in the early 1800's. Some names are exactly the same, while others are just one or two letters away from the New York names. If only a few names bore this resemblance, we could chalk it up to coincidence. The problem is there are literally hundreds of these parallels in the Book of Mormon. It is difficult to explain this fact inside a Mormon context.
This isn't everything. The list continues like a bad dream. Only this dream was real. An apologetic response might be able to explain one or two of these points alone, but with each new point of evidence it became more difficult for me to reconcile my beliefs on the Book of Mormon with the evidence. By the beginning of April 2011, I had concluded to my own chagrin that the Book of Mormon was fiction. I felt like I had lost a good friend. I could no longer use Moroni as an example of a real person I could emulate - clearly that "real person" was only real in the eyes of the original author of the Book of Mormon.

At this point, the blocks just came tumbling down like the house of the foolish man in that primary song. President Gordon B. Hinckley said it best: "Each of us has to face the matter - either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing." He was and is still right. Problematically for the church, though, the evidence doesn't support the kingdom of God theory in the slightest, and I knew it. I had to acknowledge the fact at this point that I no longer believed. I could no longer consider myself Mormon in any meaningful sense.

Why I leave, Part 3: Cracks become holes, then broken dams.

The Book of Abraham. Oh, the Book of Abraham. Never did a religious innovator leave such clear proof of his fraud than Joseph's Book of Abraham. If Muhammad had been born in the 19th century rather than the 7th, I wonder if he might have been exposed as quickly or thoroughly as has Joseph Smith. I doubt any believer can come through an objective study of the book and still be the same.

The Book of Abraham was the real rabbit hole for me. Growing up in the church I was taught that the book was written by Abraham as a captive in Egypt, that he eventually escaped captivity (from his idolatrous father, no less), and that Joseph Smith got a hold of these papyri and translated them. The book contains large portions of the most important doctrine I was taught as a child, including the scriptures on the "noble and great ones" (Abraham 3:25, I think). While my testimony didn't stand or fall on the book, if the book was proven a fraud it would force me to abandon one of the core doctrines I had been taught: that Mormons are exceptional, better than the world.

Dave's first mention of this Book of Abraham was the first time I had even heard there was a problem with it, or at least the first time that the possibility there was a problem registered in my mind. I first looked to church sources for a discussion, but that proved as fruitless as listening to an average sacrament meeting talk. So I went elsewhere. My search eventually led me to the Fair Mormon website. The content has changed somewhat since then, but most of the original information I found there still exists.

Fair was my first exposure to real apologetics (although I've realized since then my position was that of an apologist for the majority of my discussions with Dave). It didn't take long for me to discover there were problems with my idea of the book of Abraham, but the Fair website was somewhat scant on the details. This is about what I was able to piece together from the fair information:

Joseph did, in fact, purchase papyri from a vendor that passed through Kirkland, Ohio in 1835, and did claim to translate it. Joseph said the papyri he purchased were the Book of Abraham and the Book of Joseph (son of Jacob). After he "translated" the papyri, he left them, along with some other Egyptian artifacts, in the care of his mother Lucy.

Following Joseph's death, Lucy decided not to follow Brigham west. When she died in 1855, Emma took custody of all the Egyptian artifacts, and about a year later sold them. It was thought that the artifacts were taken to the Chicago History Museum. In 1871, a great fire destroyed large sections of Chicago, and the History Museum was destroyed, and presumably so were the papyri.

In 1966, though, some of the fragments were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The papyri were given to the Church in November 1967 and reported they had them in the church's "Improvement Era" in January of 1968. The article mentions that 11 papyrus fragments were found, that one was signed by Emma Smith and was a common funerary document, and that "It is not clear at this time whether the 10 other pieces have a connection with the Book of Abraham". A later, frankly incoherent article from Hugh Nibley recounts some historical objections to the Book of Abraham made by non-Mormon Egyptologists, but what their objections were isn't immediately clear through his insulting rhetoric.

Further Fair reading revealed more, though:

  • Fair never puts it in their headings, and doesn't advertise the fact, but translations by both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptolygists reveal absolutely no connection between Joseph Smith's translation and the text of the papyri found in the Met.
  • While we can't be sure if all the text Joseph had when he "translated" are available (Joseph never actually says how many there were), but at the very least the first facsimile from the Book of Abraham was in the documents.
  • Fair acknowledges the lack of connection between the funerary texts and the Book of Abraham. They come up with a number of theories to explain this, but none of them are very plausible. Therefore, the opinions of the critics can't be lightly dismissed.
Fair's final statement provided little comfort to my increasingly troubled mind. The text is basically the same now as I remember reading two years ago:
We do not claim to know why the text of the Book of Abraham (or the missing Book of Joseph) is not in evidence on the fragments of papyrus that were recovered. Critics, of course, simply assume this to be conclusive evidence that Joseph was a fraud.
At this point I could no longer justify ignoring the critics. Although I had been cautioned by leader after leader not to dabble in research that isn't faith promoting, I realized these leaders were the same people that taught me Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham directly from papyri I now knew didn't contain that translation. I'm an adult, I reasoned. I can decide for myself whether their arguments are valid or not. I was willing to deal with the consequences.

What I found didn't help me much, though. In contrast to mainstream Mormons (who never seem to even think about these kinds of things) and apologists like those at Fair (who seem mostly reactionary), the critics had science, history, and logic on their side. In about two weeks of frenzied study (I was still taking my final semester of undergrad classes at the time, so I couldn't devote all my time to it. I probably spent more time than I should have with it, though), I concluded that the evidence sits squarely on the side of the critics. Since the information is readily available, I won't elaborate too heavily, but I will give what I see as some of the most damning points:
  • Although apologists suggest Joseph might have been receiving revelation, rather than translating the papyri, Joseph himself didn't agree with them. He stated in multiple accounts that he was "translating", not "receiving revelation". He even kept notebooks detailing his idea of Egyptian grammar - and the grammar was clearly taken from the papyri found in the Met.
  • Every Non-Mormon Egyptologist that has ever looked at the facsimiles and Joseph's Interpretation has rejected them in no uncertain terms. The scroll that Joseph clearly was "translating" from was none other than the common "Book of Breathings" for one Hor, who died over 1500 year after Abraham supposedly lived. There is no Abraham, no familial sacrifice, no escape from Egypt, communion with God, deep astronomical doctrine, or Abrahamic promises. The papyri are simply not what Joseph claimed.
  • Critics knew of these problems long before the papyri resurfaced on 1966, but church leadership at the time chose to ignore their objections, just like they have since the papyri resurfaced.
  • Anachronisms in the Book of Abraham (mentioning things, places, and objects that didn't exist when the the document was claimed to be written) suggest the "translation" can't be what it claims to be.
Beyond the physical and textual evidence, though, I was dumbfounded by the Mormon apologist tactics I saw over and over again during the course of my study. Back when I read the God Delusion, one of the more compelling arguments Dawkins made was against the "God of the gaps" theory employed by the average Christian (and Muslim, I imagine) apologist. As science finds more an more evidence for evolution and against a traditional Christian God*, apologists increasingly look for the gaps in the theory and claim them as proof of divine intervention.

For example, consider the debate on human evolution. Although the fossil record isn't the only, or even the most compelling reason to accept human evolution as fact, it does provide an easily recognizable piece to the puzzle - the gradual divergence of human and chimpanzee fossils from a recognizable common ancestor. As more and more intermediate fossil forms are discovered across the world, though, the Christians simply point to each new gap between an intermediate form and the original two forms and say "Hey look, now you have TWO gaps in your precious theory! Take that science". They just have no concept of following the evidence to the explanation with the most explanatory power.

When I read about these tactics in Dawkins' book, I took comfort in the fact that Mormons don't use them. The Book of Abraham destroyed this illusion for me. Mormon apologists were no better, nor less stubborn in their apologetics. Coming from that side, I can understand their position when a central point of scripture of theirs is under attack, but that doesn't justify the half-truths, misdirects, and in a few cases outright lies that apologists use to defend their position. Beyond destroying my faith in the Book of Abraham, the real damage the apologist tactics did to me was destroy my faith in apologetics. I could no longer trust apologists to look at a subject with anything more than a completely biased, self-serving eye. Objective information would never come from Fair Mormon.

It was mid-march 2011 when I came to this conclusion. In hindsight, my "testimony" of Mormonism was probably already dead at this point, but my upbringing wouldn't let me give up yet. I honestly didn't have the emotional attachment to the Book of Abraham that I did to other stories and scriptures, mostly in the Book of Mormon. My battered and bruised zombie of a faith still stood, although you could say it had lost at least one of its arms, both of its eyes, and at least a few toes.

* By traditional Christian God, I mean a god that created the earth, basically in its present form, 6000 years ago and designed all life on earth in its present form, as well.

Edit: May 21, 2013: Changed grammatical mistakes.

Why I leave, Part 2: Troubling revelations.

My discussions with Dave continued. One morning in January or February of 2011 I found Dave reading "The God Delusion", by Richard Dawkins. I had no idea who Dawkins was, but the title made the book's purpose clear.

This discussion stuck out to me for two reasons. One of Dawkins' arguments was based solely on the implausibility of an omniscient, yet omnipotent God. If God knows everything, he certainly knows what will happen in my conversation now. He also knows everything I've done, everything I'm doing, and everything I will do in the future. Problematically, though, if God is also omnipotent, he can change anything he wants to - that means that he can change my future, my past, or even the present in an way he wants. In principle, then, he can change the future into something he doesn't yet know.

But even if we ignore this idea, an omniscient, yet omnipotent God precludes even the possibility of free will. If God knows everything and he can do anything, none of our actions aren't known by God already. In short, we have a set fate and there is nothing we can do about it. Although my previous experience learning about the workings of the brain proved to me that I don't have total control over everything I think, I still felt an attachment to the idea of free will. I didn't want to believe that God had already set me on my path and I couldn't do anything about it.

So I did what I had done in the past - I rationalized. If an omniscient, omnipotent God can't exist, then God must be just really powerful and really smart, so powerful and smart that he seems all powerful and all knowing to someone like me who can't understand his position. Luckily, this position fits with the LDS doctrine of Eternal Progression. Joseph himself said that "As man is, God once was, as God is, man can become". My faith was still unbroken.

Our conversation didn't end there, though. Eventually something more troubling eventually came out. Dave mentioned problems with the historicity of scripture during the conversation. I don't remember exactly what it was that brought the subject out, but I was least at first. After all, I could just hide behind the "correct translation" clause in our articles of faith, and without further study my "shield of faith" remained whole. What I didn't anticipate, though, was a passing comment Dave made on a subject I utterly dismissed at first - the Book of Abraham. I no longer remember his exact statement, but it was troubling enough for me that I eventually felt the need to investigate further.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This February conversation left me feeling empty. All the rationalizations I had made up to this point were no longer cutting it for me. So I made a momentous decision. I decided to read Dawkins.

Many of the true believers at this point will say "well, now I know why you've fallen away: you've allowed yourself to be led by the devil and his minions...". If you've come this far, though, please continue, at least until the end of this paragraph. I wasn't reading Dawkins because I wanted to give any credence to his arguments. On the contrary, I was reading with the following idea in mind: "To defeat your enemy, you must understand him". I had been blindsided often enough by Dave that I felt I needed to understand what was behind his arguments. What better way to do this than to read his source material? If I understand the arguments well enough, I'll can anticipate his ideas and counter them before they come out.

So I read. Dawkins is no Thoreau, but regardless of his eloquence he was refreshingly frank. He laid out his position, piece by piece, relentlessly attacking every argument I mustered, and many others I hadn't even conceived. Even today I don't agree with everything he says, but at the very least he brought to me a perspective I couldn't ignore. Clearly fundamentalist Christianity and Islam are difficult to reconcile with science.

Most Mormons feel slighted when they are called "not Christian", and with good reason. The term "Christian" as it is used today in the US, is synonymous with a "good person". No one wants to be slighted by being told they aren't good. Ironically, though, after reading Dawkins I was able to escape into the world of the Non-Christians. Christianity does have a history of violence and coercion, but that doesn't apply to Mormonism, went my reasoning. That was just what happened because mainstream Christianity fell away from the truth. Sure, modern fundamentalists are crazy, intolerant, and self-deluded, but that doesn't apply to Mormons. It isn't a delusion when it's the truth. Ironically, the church doesn't take an official position on most modern scientific issues, so that left me free to contort the doctrine however I wanted to make it fit with what I had uncovered.

Still, I was unsatisfied. I was conflicted enough at this point that my faith was no longer enough to satisfy my feelings. Remembering Dave's statement on the book of Abraham, I set out to prove once and for all that while other religions were incorrect and clearly conflicting with modern science, mine was not. Surely there was evidence of the Book of Abraham's divinity and Joseph's inspiration in translation.

Why I leave, Part 1:

I'm writing this to come clean, so to speak. I no longer feel I can live a two-sided life. I understand this "confession" may hurt my credibility in some circles, but that doesn't matter to me. While I can't say I have a commitment to "the truth" in a Mormon sense, I do feel I have a need to be true to the evidence and logical in my evaluation of that evidence. The scientist in me requires this, I think.

I don't intend to pull any punches in these next posts, so for those afraid for their testimony feel free to stop at the end of this paragraph. I no longer believe in the truth of the Book of Mormon or any of the LDS Cannon. I don't believe Joseph Smith ever actually spoke to God, Jesus Christ, or any angels, received or translated any ancient records on gold plates, or received any modern revelation from God on any subject. My reasons for this change of heart follow, but please don't think I do this because I want to sin or because I was offended in any way by members of the church. On the contrary, my interaction with members of my home ward has never been anything less than pleasant. Those interactions, though, can't override my painstaking research. The doctrine of the church stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of how kind, accommodating or good any individual members are.

I should also mention that my story isn't unique, nor is it even the most compelling story I've read in the past two years. I have personal friends who have been disowned, abused, forced into divorce, and fallen into depression because of their loss of faith. Others I know of have been driven to suicide because of the loss they felt. I'm lucky in that most of my immediate family has been accommodating, if not agreeable, as I've gone through my time of doubt and darkness.

I struggled pretty heavily with depression after returning from my mission to Japan. I might give more details later, but the digest version is I took a leave of absence from school in late 2007 to deal with some of these issues. It was then that I first began to wonder if God actually existed. I hadn't lived perfectly, that's sure, but I also didn't see where I had gone so wrong to deserve the mental anguish I felt. Did God really want me to suffer like this?

To help me understand my mental state, I learned a bit about how the brain works. Cognitive Psychology has advanced far enough today to prove that our feelings and moods are not always within our own control. Our brain chemistry determines pretty directly many of our thought patterns. Drugs, and more recently electrode therapy (here's a fascinating Ted Talk on the subject) have been used, often with great success, to help people overcome many of their mental (and physical) pitfalls.

I grew up thinking I was in control of my own mind. In my view, this life was a test where we needed to "prove" our control over our passions. Thus it was something of a relief to me when I discovered that our brains don't give us complete control over our moods. At the same time, though, I realized I needed to jettison at least one of my erroneous beliefs that, while may not have come directly from the church, was at the very least reinforced by the church's teachings.

I eventually decided to continue believing in God, not because I thought he was just, but because I was afraid of what would happen after I die. The seeds doubt were sown, though: I no longer felt I could entirely trust my feelings on things. Erroneous emotions were the primary source of my descent into depression, and only by distrusting my feelings and looking with a colder, more logical eye could I get myself out of my funk. My experience as a whole also led to more liberal political views, by the way, but that's a story for another time...

I eventually went back BYU to finish my degree. About a year into my remaining two-and-a-half years of coursework, I got to know Dave. Dave happened to join the same research group I had, and I quickly found out he went to Japan on a mission as well. Dave was intelligent and articulate, and since I like to talk, we ended up as sparring partners of a sort. Eventually the topic of religion came up. As a BYU student, I naturally assumed at first that he must believe (BYU is 99% Mormon, after all). Before long, though, it became clear to me that he not only doubted, he didn't subscribe to any of the core beliefs of Mormonism.

The two of us argued over religion quite a bit. Naturally, I found myself defending the religious positions, but I never really felt I had the upper hand in our arguments. Often I felt more like I was rationalizing a weak position than supporting a strong one. I never let myself accept any of his core positions (at least at first), but I did slowly allow some of the less essential beliefs to fall by the wayside when they were proven untenable. Let me give an example.

The Bible teaches there was a universal flood in both the old testament and the new (see: 1 Peter 3:20-21 for the new testament info. I don't think I really need to mention the old). Mormon teachings reiterate this (see these links for proof). Problematically, though, no extra-scriptural evidence exists to corroborate the story:
  • If the flood really did happen, we'd expect a break in the fossil record around the the time it occurred. There is no known break during the period generally cited as the time of the flood. There is evidence in the fossil record of OTHER breaks, such as the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, but not for the supposedly more recent flood.
  • Massive floods leave clear evidence. For example, geologists have discovered clear evidence of a massive flood in the Grand Coulee river valley in Washington State about 18,000 years ago. No such evidence exists for a worldwide flood around 2000-3000 BC.
  • Noah's ark wasn't anywhere near large enough to hold all species on earth. There is just too much biodiversity. Even if it WAS large enough, though, it wouldn't have been able to sustain life for all those species for the length of time the earth was supposedly covered. At the very least, the carnivores would have died long before the voyage ended.
This is just a taste of the evidence on this subject. Every other subject that had the possibility of physical evidence ran into problems similar to the ark, to some degree. The evidence just didn't fall on the side of the church. For a while, I was able to rationalize away the lack of evidence, but every time I did I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. I did manage to take comfort in the idea that the Book of Mormon and the rest of the central cannon stood unchallenged, as far as I could see. My conviction had wavered, but I thought that to lose my faith entirely I'd have to be "dragged kicking and screaming" through the "clear truth" of the BOM.

If nothing else, my discussions with Dave made me realize how empty church discussions were. Taking with Dave challenged me. It forced me to learn more, to dig deeper into troubling issues, to try to fit things together in unexpected ways. In some ways I still allowed my preconceived conclusions to overcome the logic of the situation, but many of Dave's arguments were good enough that I had to abandon my untenable positions entirely.

In contrast church was repetitive, patronizing, and childish. Talks from the pulpit weren't really engaging, discussions in Sunday School were shallow. I was far more stimulated intellectually by the lively, yet admittedly troubling discussions I had with Dave. Gospel doctrine discussions never moved beyond the basics. If I brought up any issues I had discussed with Dave, the points were either dismissed or eventually the discussion would come to "well, God just knows better than us. Eventually we will find how these issues are resolved". I was disappointed, but I tried to keep my faith.

Syria - as an average american layman.

I'm not a foreign policy expert. Or a journalist. Or a government official. I'm just some average, run of the mill guy when it comes to Syrian happenings. All my information comes from secondary sources.

Even so, it's hard to ignore the war there. Long before Boston was hit by a (marginally) domestic terrorist, Syria had been embroiled in years of war. Hundreds of bombs like the ones detonated in Boston have exploded all over the Syrian landscape. I remember a particularly shocking (for me) report I read something like two years ago of a bomb that went off in a coffee shop in a university that killed dozens.

The Internet has a long memory, so I decided today to look for that report - but I couldn't find it. It's not as though it was buried, though: there have just been too many other reports that appear to be far worse than the attack that shocked me so much those two years ago. The list seems endless:

April 8, 2013: Damascus Bombing kills 14 and injures hundreds
February 22, 2013: A series of bombs kill "at least 83 people"
January 15, 2013: (report on the 17th): Aleppo university bombing kills 87
December 12, 2013: "As many as 200" killed in an attack on a minority sect
March 27, 2012: Two terrorist bombs kill 27 police and civilians in Damascus
January 7, 2012: 26 killed in a bombing in Damascus

That's just a few of the bombings. Is it any wonder that the rest of the world seems to scoff when we rage against terrorist bombing that occurred a week and a half ago in Boston? I in no way wish to diminish the suffering of Boston's victims, but I can also understand why our outrage falls on deaf ears. I also see why, after two years of conflict, religious control of opposing factions seems to be the norm, rather than the exception.

What right do we have to control the world for our own ends, America? Why must we force ourselves into other's pies. Why must we try to mold the world into a society that matches our own? Expansion of American ideals, American democracy is a pipe dream that won't come to fruition as long as we try to force the issue. Our presence in the middle east has been little more than a trigger fomenting violence for years. Even after our most direct middle-eastern intervention, violence continues unabated.

Some may call me a pessimist; I prefer the term realist. The deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Persians and Arabs hasn't resulted in a decisively democracy loving, people-controlled, peace loving middle east, now has it?

But maybe I'm wrong. I honestly would like to be. Years of direct evidence has proven at the least that a change in the middle east won't come easily. Even should the change happen, I wonder if the middle-eastern people will see us as liberators or tyrants. My instincts suspect the latter.