Sunday, April 28, 2013

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.

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