Repenting of Racism is “Well Doing” – A Response to Elder Cook

“Brigham Young also said things about race that fall short of our standards today.  Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time. During this period, Brigham also taught, with respect to race, ‘Of one blood has God made all flesh.’ ‘We don’t care about the color.’”

Elder Cook said Brigham Young also expressed admiration for Native Americans. “He said they had as ‘noble spirits among them as there are upon the earth.’”

Church News Report on an August 24th talk by Elder Quinten L. Cook
Fort Utah in Provo, 1849

A pathetic, small group of 26 women and children huddled under a cannon platform in the center of Fort Utah on a bitter cold February 1850 morning. It was so cold that a dead body killed just a few days before would already be frozen. So cold that the gruesome task of sawing the heads off those dead bodies left on the battlefield was made a much simpler chore.

The huddled survivors of the “battle” could see the 40-50 heads of their husbands and fathers in the boxes in front of them, ready to be shipped east for “scientific examination.” The head of their leader “Old Elk” was stuck on a pike as a warning against further Indian aggression.

Squaw Peak, named for the wife of “Old Elk,” who died from a fall scrambling to escape from the Militia.

Just a couple days before, Daniel H. Wells, with the blessing of Brigham Young, issued an Extermination Order against the Timpanogas tribe in Utah Valley.

Wells was ruthlessly efficient. On the first day of fighting he destroyed the main group of belligerent Indians, who refused to surrender. The survivors split in two and fled in different the directions. Wells split his militia in two; one group following a trail of blood east into Rock Canyon, slaying those they found. Wells led another group to the south side of Utah Lake where, in what today would be considered a war crime, he killed 29 Indians who had surrendered and then took their women and children prisoner. The prisoners were sent to homes in the Salt Lake Valley to be Christianized, but within a few months they all had either died or ran away.

On January 4, 1857, Daniel H. Wells was ordained an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and became Brigham Young’s second counselor.

“Alluring Alternative Visions”

There is a strain of thought in the Church which Elder Cook promotes that Brigham Young was like your crazy uncle, who says the most bizarre, embarrassing things, but deep down he would never act on those racist things he said. According to Elder Cook, “some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time” but to call any of his actions wrong is to adhere to a Satan inspired “alluring alternative vision.”

I argue that the narrative Elder Cook is portraying is in and of itself an “Alluring Alternative Vision.” The reality is that Young’s words and actions did have lasting effects that shaped church culture for decades. Here are some facts of history:

  1. When the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley there were an estimated 20,000 Native Americans. Within a few decades war and starvation pushed that number was down to less than 3,000. The extermination of the Timpanogas was just one of many bloody conflicts. The cultural heritage of these “Lamanites” was actively stamped out. Reading the definition of genocide sure makes me squirm.
  2. Utah was the ONLY western territory to legalize slavery, and they did it for both Blacks and Native Americans. It remained legal even as Civil War raged and was only made illegal due to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln. Three slaves were part of the initial company that entered the Salt Lake Valley. Several Apostles owned slaves, and slavery was a large part of the settling by Latter Day Saints of San Bernardino California.
  3. There was a Priesthood/Celestial Kingdom ban that created inequalities based on race that caused immense pain. Families were eternal, except for Black families. To pin it all on Brigham Young is fallacious, as every prophet from Young to Kimball upheld the ban.
  4. The language in the Book of Mormon was at the very least broadly interpreted in a racist way in the Church by its leaders and in Church literature.
  5. The Church leadership did NOT support the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, with the exception of Elder Hugh B. Brown, who for his efforts was one of few councilors in the First Presidency history to be removed when Harold B. Lee became President. It is particularly ironic that Elder Cook would appeal to the Civil Rights Movement as a paragon to aspire to saying “In contrast to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where leaders were motivated by their devotion to Christianity, various movements today are deeply opposed to religion and people of faith.” He was a grown man when Elder Ezra Taft Benson, as an apostle, regularly railed in conference talks about the Godless Communists who were secretly controlling the Civil Rights Movement. Utah was the last state in the Union, after all the southern states even, to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  6. The Church did teach that mixed race marriages were sinful. Mixed racial couples could not be sealed together as a family in the temple.

These are all racists actions. It is so alluring and comfortable to simply believe that Brigham Young and others never made mistakes or always acted with the best of intent. There is nothing alluring about confronting the sins of your past. It is much more difficult for an organization to humble itself, feel Godly sorrow, and repent of its past mistakes.

Elder Quinn: “President Hanks made it clear that if anyone had feelings of racial superiority, they needed to repent”

The Church as an institution sinned. It absolutely DID promote racial superiority. Justifying actions, covering sins for vain ambition or any other reason will ultimately corrupt the Church from the inside.

– It doesn’t matter if the racism was a doctrine or a policy. It still happened.

– It doesn’t matter if Brigham Young and others were well meaning in their racism. Indian populations were still decimated. Humans were still enslaved. Ethnic groups were still excluded from exalting ordinances.

– It doesn’t matter if there were also nice things that Brigham Young and others said and did to those of other races, which there undoubtedly were. It does not negate the bad things that were done no matter how good.

– It doesn’t matter if the priesthood ban was a product of the culture of the times. The culture was wrong. Certainly we should be empathetic to the motivations of those who grew up in that time, and “judge not that we be not judged,” but whatever their motive, the end result was still horribly wrong.

– It doesn’t matter if, as Elder Cook says, in the Book of Mormon the “skin of blackness, related solely to that people during that period of time.” That it was a long time ago does not justify racism, even in 600 BC.

– It doesn’t matter if some Indians were stealing cattle in Utah Valley or elsewhere. Brigham Young undoubtedly faced a daunting task in keeping his people alive in a hostile desert. It doesn’t justify the mistakes that he and others made.

Even if all the above were true, no matter the rationale, the Church as an institution still sinned.

Building the Church Up

Elder Cook quoted historian Matthew Grow, who cautioned,

“Be careful about sources of information that just seek to tear people down.  Look instead for sources of information that are based on the records left by the people themselves and that seek to be fair to them.”

Matthew Grow

This is wise advise. Being dogmatic is not helpful when it comes to finding truth. Trying to put oneself into the shoes of the person making the tough decision is difficult.

No church or organization is perfect. They ALL have made mistakes and continue to make mistakes. Brigham Young made mistakes as the leader of the Church. So did many of the other leaders of the Church in the name of the Church.

We can show empathy for these people, be fair to them and the situation they were in, while at the same time not excuse their behavior. We can still honor the sacrifice they made, the trials they went through, the brutal rejection and horrors they faced in Missouri and Nauvoo, and still reject their actions in other regards.

If we do not recognize and rid ourselves of our Church’s sinful past, it will rot the Church from within.

The theme of the conference where Elder Cook spoke was “Be Not Weary of Well Doing,” Repenting IS well doing.

How do we Repent?

Here are some ideas for how to repent of past racism:

  • Actually apologize. For whatever reason, Dallin H. Oaks has come out pretty strongly against this. It was just 2013 that the Church disavowed past doctrines for the Priesthood/Celestial Kingdom ban on black people. It is time to disavow the actual doctrine/policy.
  • Condemn white supremacy specifically that still exists in the Church today. Excusing past racism gives tacit permission to to excuse racism today.
  • Don’t edit out the Native American perspective, and be fair to them. In the Church History book “Saints,” the story of the Timpanogas Extermination is not even mentioned, and one is left with the impression that relations between Native Americans was mostly jovial, with minor disagreements that were quickly worked out. This complete disregard of the Native American perspective is glaring.
  • Incorporate the Native American experience into July 24 Pioneer Day celebrations. Elder Marlin K. Jensen gave a strong recommendation to do this about ten years ago.
  • Stop using artwork that portrays white people as good and black people as bad. Stop using artwork with Jesus looking like a Scandinavian supermodel with deep blue eyes.
  • Change wording in the Book of Mormon to not even appear racist. Joseph Smith frequently edited the Book of Mormon text to clarify misunderstood passages, so there is precedent.

Letter to President McKay

I end this response with a letter from a faithful brother in 1967 to President David O. McKay that speaks to the incredible suffering the priesthood/temple ban caused. I urge you to weep with this Brother. Read of his pain and “be fair to him.” Go beyond a mere disavowal of the reasons for the ban. Be braver than Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who so callously stated, “the word ‘apology’ doesn’t appear in LDS scriptures.” How do you repent without an apology? We can be better.

Should we not repent?


Ogden, Utah June 4, 1967

Dear Beloved, President McKay:

I too, have been born of goodly parents and have been taught to love The Lord and to live as He wants us to. I have spent many wonderful and happy hours attending Sunday School, Primary and other church activities with my friends. There we have been taught of the love of Christ for little children and those who love The Lord. I remember what great joy and happiness filled me when I reached my eighth year and was taken into the waters of baptism. I remember talking with some of my friends, that day, as we waited for it to happen. Some of them expressed fear at the thought of being held under the water, yet I had no such feeling because, I could remember so strongly the teaching of my mother and Sister Wilson, my Primary teacher. They had taught me that Jesus loved me and I knew that if Jesus loved me there was nothing to fear in this whole, wide, wonderful world as long as I loved Him in return.

After my baptism, I remember, I was so happy I thought I heard angels singing. Then, the even more wonderful feeling that came to me as I sat and felt Bishop Jensen’s hands on my head as he confirmed me a member of the Church and promised me the gift of the Holy Ghost, if I would do what was right in the sight of God. The years that followed have been wonderful and happy ones as I have felt myself grow in the Gospel under the wise teaching of my parents and others.

As I now look back and recall how quick the time passed and I was twelve years old, this age is a mile stone in the life of most Mormon Boys. It is an age when a whole new life begins to open up. I soon passed my twelve year of life, I saw my friends receiving the Aaronic Priesthood and become active in their Deacon’s Quorum, but for some reason I was not there with these friends with whom I had enjoyed Primary so much. They were able to learn their new duties in the Church by passing the Sacrament, the emblems of Christ’s suffering on the Cross of Crucifixion for me, yet, I couldn’t join my friends in this. They were able to bring the Fast Offerings of the faithful ward members to the Bishop, this I could not do. I could still go to Sunday School and MIA where I joined the Boy Scout Troop and there had the association of my friends.

I saw my friends advancing through the quorums of the Priesthood, learning more ways of service. Although I was in Sunday School and advancing through the ranks of scouting, I often felt left out because they had the brotherhood of the Priesthood. As I grew older I sometimes sensed a feeling of distance on the part of these, my friends, who had been so dear to me in my earlier years.

As the years passed I found myself attending fewer Sunday Schools and MIA meetings. Soon I was nineteen and I saw my lifelong friends being prepared to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood as well as preparing to go on missions for the Church. I sensed disappointment as I realized I could not be a missionary and carry the wonderful knowledge of Christ to others who don’t know Him as I had learned to know Him in my childhood.

As these my friends left to serve The Lord as missionaries, I lost my last real ties with the Church and I began drifting away, I seemed to have the feeling that I had reached a spiritual ‘dead end.’

I continued my education in college, where I made many new friends. I tried to be active in Institute even as I had been in Seminary, but it all seemed so different. I guess it was because those childhood friends were no longer with me. I found myself associating more and more with young people who did not have the same ideals as my Mormon heritage had given to me. But, at least, there was no gulf between us because I didn’t hold the priesthood, since they didn’t either. As much as I seemed to enjoy these new found friends, life with them was lacking something. It just wasn’t like it used to be when I was active in church.

One day, quite by chance, I met Lisa, a wonderful girl and we seemed to have so much in common. As we got better acquainted we found that both of us had been taught much the same when it came to an understanding of the love of Christ and His great sacrifice made to open the way whereby we can come back into his presence. The months passed and my heart filled with happiness and thanksgiving for having found such a wonderful girl as Lisa. We began to make plans for our marriage. Some of those old friends who had by now returned from their missions and completed a couple of quarters of college work, were also making plans for marriage. But, what different plans they were. Oh, to be sure, we had Bishop Thomas perform our ceremony, but my old friends were taking their brides to the Temple, where dressed in the robes of the Holy Priesthood they were sealed for all time and eternity, by the power and authority of God. Bishop Thomas, by the power invested in him under the laws of the State of Utah married us for ‘until death do you part.’ Why the difference? I knew because I had been taught that the Temple Sealing is reserved for holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood, and that I did not have.

As my old friends continued to return, Lisa and I renewed old friendships and soon we attended church more frequently. I saw these old friends bearing their testimonies and relating the wonderful experiences of their missions. Their personalities glowed with fine qualities of leadership and I saw them being called to positions in the ward and the stake. On the other hand my spiritual progress seemed slow. At times I seemed to be at a standstill. Lacking the priesthood made it impossible for me to be called to serve in any responsibility of leadership in the Church. Because I was an Eagle Scout I did have an assignment with the Scouts in MIA which brought me great joy.

The day approached when my wonderful and faithful wife, Lisa, gave birth to our first child. After the birth of our son she became very ill. The Elders were called in. They administered to her, while all I could do was stand at the foot of the bed and watch and pray. Because of our faith, the mercy of God and the power of the priesthood, of these friends, exercised in her behalf, she was healed and soon took her place in our home again. She has been the type of mother to our children as mine was to me, teaching them to pray and trust in the Lord.

The day arrived when our first born son, David, was to receive his name and a father’s blessing. What a dark cloud seemed to hang over me as I realized I could not give him that blessing reserved for the Priesthood holder. Our wonderful Ward Teacher, Brother Drayton, carried our son to the front of the chapel. In the circle were friends holding my son, and a lifelong friend giving him a Father’s blessing by proxy. I was denied the privilege that some fathers have had since the dawn of creation, because I lacked the Holy Priesthood. I could sense, written upon my face, a feeling of sadness and yes, for the first time, some bitterness.

With the passing of time a second child, a beautiful girl, was given to us. She was a lovely child and because of her beauty and cheerful nature many were the friends who sought her companionship as she grew. Little did we realize the short life she was to share with us and others. At the age of six she was suddenly taken from us. A cold chill coursed down my spine as one day my wife said: “We will not be able to raise our little Jill in the hereafter, as will the Randall family who lost their daughter last year.” They were sealed in the Temple and their children were sealed to them. Since our marriage will dissolve when we die, we’ll not have need for children and our family life.

Nearly eight years have elapsed since our son was born. He is now ready for baptism. He has been faithful in his attendance at Sunday School and Primary, and I see in him a reflection of my own happy childhood. I contemplate and wonder about his future, will it be like mine has been? I find myself praying that he will not lack the blessings of the Priesthood as I have. Again, as it has so many times in the past, my friends will substitute for me in the baptism and confirmation of my son, again I will stand on the outside.

Now, I feel developing within me a spirit of bitterness the likes of which I have never felt before. I find myself on my knees, again and again, asking God to free my soul of this canker. But it persists. I see others who have recently been baptized into the Church, and after a few short weeks receive the Priesthood. Now we have ‘Project Temple’ organized in our stake and I see men with whom I have worked and associated for years being given special lessons and concessions. Men who have been indifferent to the Church, men who have had their nasty little jokes about the Word of Wisdom, about Tithing and many of the things that have meant so much to me. Men who had received the Priesthood in their youth but who denied its power and through their own ignorance had damned themselves far more than I who had not received the Priesthood. Men, who though they held the Melchizedek Priesthood had thought so little of the women they loved that they denied them the blessings of a Temple Sealing. Yes, and some who had scoffed so much at the Church that they were married by a justice of the peace. Now, I see these men suddenly so swept up in a wave of religious revival that after twelve short weeks of special lessons are to be given the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood and take their wives and children to the Temple where they will be endowed and sealed. This, in spite of my faithfulness, I am denied.

I begin to wonder of the justice of such things and as I wonder the realization strikes me like ten thousand bolts of lightning. I see myself a man, a child of God, one who knows of the great love and mercy of God, one who knows of the great redemptive powers of Jesus Christ, one who knows of the tremendous power embodied in the Holy Priesthood of God. Yes, one who knows that without the Holy Priesthood there can be no Church, nor can man reach perfection, eternal life and Celestial Exaltation.

As these truths dawn on me, even as they have many times before, I find myself shocked out of this nightmarish day dream with the realization that it is not merely a bad dream, but it is the truth. I realize more fully than ever before that as things stand now, I cannot receive the Holy Priesthood nor can my son for we are black, and the blood of Cain courses through and contaminates our mortal bodies. One question stands foremost in my mind, is this the will of God or the will of man?

Sincerely yours,

David Gillispie

A Letter to my Family

Introduction

Truth is a light that brightens our path in life.

I want to live with a loving God in the Celestial Kingdom, surrounded by my family and posterity, ever increasing in truth, power, knowledge, and perfection. Could anything be more wonderful? I love the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I owe so much to the Church. It has provided me with confidence and a belief that I and every other person are children of God. I have basked in the love of a divine Savior who knows my name and believes I am important. The church has given me a purpose in my life, a purpose in my marriage, and a purpose in my family.

The only problem is: I struggle deeply with how true the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is. There is much in both doctrine and history that is troubling and implausible to me.

Make no mistake, this has been the most painful journey of my life. It means questioning treasured beliefs, doubting Church leaders who I respect, and causing real emotional pain to those who I cherish more than my own life. It is incredibly tempting to just fake my concerns and live a lie. However, I cannot. I want to choose the right, and I cannot choose the right if I don’t know the truth. I must search for truth, no matter how painful, no matter the consequence.

I need the truth to brighten my path.

The Book of Mormon contains a promise that if I read the book and ask God if it is true, then he will reveal its truthfulness by the power of the Holy Ghost. Despite years of pleading with a truly sincere heart, absolute real intent, and faith in Christ, I have not received an answer to my prayers. Why is that?

Ultimately, the church does not need to make logical sense. I recognize my limited power of reasoning, and that “God’s ways are not my ways.” An omnipotent God need not follow any laws of physics or logic. If this is the case, then so be it. I will “trust in the Lord with all my heart, and lean not on [my] own understanding.” However, in absence of revelation from God, I am left with nothing but my limited power of reasoning to find the best way forward.

This essay is an attempt to document my journey. My intent is not to tear down the faith of anyone who reads this, but to explain clearly to my loved ones how I got to where I am.

Foundational Question

The question I seek an answer to is this:

“Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the one and only true, living church on the face of the earth?”

If this assertion is true, then the doctrines taught in the church are true. Jesus is the Christ. We lived before coming to earth and will be resurrected after we die. Families can be together forever. Life on earth has a known purpose!

If this assertion is false, then I must seek elsewhere.

Why Haven’t I Received an Answer?

Critical to answering the foundational question is knowing if the Book of Mormon is true. I have never received an answer about the Book of Mormon. There are various reasons I might not have received an answer:

My motives were imperfect. Nobody’s intent is perfect, and it is impossible to know anyone else’s motives. The intent of my prayers has always been because I want to be a part of God’s great work and build up his kingdom. I have never asked with the intent to bring down the church or hurt anyone.

It wasn’t God’s will. For whatever reason, God might not want me to know the truth yet. If that is the case then I will be faithful to the light and knowledge he has given me. I will do the best with what I have.

His answer was “yes, but not yet.” It’s a possibility, but this is not distinguishable from no answer at all.

I didn’t believe hard enough. I do not know the exact threshold of acceptable faith I must have before I can receive an answer. While my faith is certainly lagging now, I did have enough faith to leave my family, sacrifice two years of my life, and live in a dangerous, South American country to knock on thousands of doors to spread his word. I loved my mission, and I did serve for altruistic reasons.

I am too wicked. I am not a perfect man. At the same time, I have been legitimately worthy to hold a temple recommend for almost 2 decades, and do not have any intention of breaking any of the commandments.

There’s a life lesson I have to learn. I truly hope I will learn whatever lesson God is trying to teach me.  By not answering me though, I am left to my own devices to best determine truth.

I have received an answer, but I either refuse to acknowledge it or don’t recognize it. This might be true, but I stand by my claim that I have not received any answer that wasn’t ambiguous.

God doesn’t jump through hoops and perform! He does promise that if I lack wisdom, he will grant it liberally, if I ask with real intent and faith in Christ. My faith in Christ has wavered recently, but this was not always the case and I never received an answer then. I don’t expect God to part the Red Sea for me, nor am I searching for a miracle.

God is there but isn’t a loving God and just doesn’t care. If this were the case, it would be as helpful as him not existing at all.

God does not answer because the Book of Mormon is not true. After 36 years of life, pleading on almost a daily basis, I must contemplate the possibility that maybe I have not received an answer because Moroni’s promise is false.

Why do I need an answer to the foundational question?

If the church is not true, I want to know! My choices are based on my beliefs. The better I understand the truth, the more deliberately I can live my life. 

The various answers to the foundational question will lead me down very different paths. The path I take should be based in truth. I don’t want it to be a random choice.

How do I get an answer to the foundational question?

How do we know the truth about anything with absolute surety?

It is possible that I am a brain in a vat floating in a void of space living a virtual reality. There could be wires plugged into my brain sending me all kinds of signals. When I see something with my own eyes, it is really just probes poking my brain to perceive this reality. When I feel a raindrop roll off my hand or cry during a sad movie, it is really just a wire feeding chemicals to my brain. 

This is absolutely ridiculous. There is no reason to think that I am a brain in a vat floating in the void of space. Despite the ridiculousness of it though, there is no way to prove it false either. There is no evidence that can discredit the theory that I am a brain floating in a vat. In pondering the brain in a vat problem in the 1500s, a Frenchman named Descartes came to the conclusion that the only thing we can be certain of is that we exist! “I think therefore I am” he famously wrote.

The question is altered: How can we be 100% convinced that anything else is true with absolute certainty? We can’t! So how can I ever get an answer to the foundational question?

I must perform a risk analysis, consider every possibility, and then take action on what I believe. This belief could be so strong that for many things I could say that “I know.” For example, I believe so strongly that 1+1=2, that I have little qualm proclaiming that “I know it is true.” For the purposes of this essay, when I talk about knowing, what I mean is strongly believing.

Naval Officers, before we do any kind of operation, perform a risk analysis. We do not know exactly what will happen. We try and identify the risks, assess their likelihood and severity, mitigate them, and decide if the benefit derived from the operation is worth the potential risk with mitigations. 

Image result for risk analysis chart

Salvation without exaltation is damnation. At best, the consequence of not believing is damnation in the Terrestrial Kingdom away from my family. Assuming the church is true, believing sets me on a path of eternal bliss in the Celestial Kingdom. The consequence if I choose to believe and am wrong, is a fairly happy life as a Mormon, but potentially wasted purpose and time. With such catastrophic risk, I should choose not to believe only if the likelihood that the church is true is unlikely/remote.

My continual goal then, is to assess the likelihood of the foundational question. If there is more than a remote possibility that it is true, then I will believe. Otherwise, I will not.

Ways to Know Truth

There are two widely accepted ways to know something is true, enough to make decisions based on it.

1). Logic: Mathematical proof, deduction, critical thought, the scientific method, and Alma’s seed test (Alma 32). We try and test, think and deduce.

2.) Faith in a trusted entity: Trusted entities might include scientific journals, parents, prophets, the Holy Ghost, scriptures. We gain faith by testing their teachings, and answers to prayer attesting to their truthfulness. As long as our source is trustworthy, faith enables us to learn faster and achieve greater heights.

A teaching of Mormonism is that we start out knowing through faith. Plant the seed of faith, and line upon line, precept upon precept, we are given greater light and knowledge till we become as God, knowing perfectly. Faith is transformed to logic. “… That light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.”

Faith

Faith is much maligned by intellectuals. “Faith means not wanting to know what is true,” said Nietzsche. “Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It is nothing to brag about,” quips Bill Maher. I adamantly disagree with these statements. They denote a gross misunderstanding of faith.

If we can never be 100% sure of anything, then there is always an element of uncertainty. “Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things,” said Alma in the Book of Mormon. Faith is the foundation of action. Faith is liberating; it enables us to move forward without knowing the outcome. If we waited to make choices until we had a 100% knowledge of anything, we would either be paralyzed into inaction by fear, or our choices would be random.

Based on the brain in a vat thought experiment, there is no way to prove with absolute certainty that anything is true. At every point, ALL must act in faith, or be acted upon. At EVERY junction where a decision is made, there is no possible way to know with a surety what the outcome of our decisions will be. Faith is essential to moving forward. Some atheists rail against the illogic of believers in God. But they just don’t understand the logic of it.

In Defense of Faith

If the truth of God is revealed directly, then all other things must make sense somehow, even if there are not simple explanations. God is the ultimate trustworthy source.

Imagine the following conversation between an atheist and a literal believer in the Bible:

Believer: “I believe Noah’s ark is real and the entire world was covered in water.”

Atheist: “There is no rational explanation or scientific evidence that a global flood occurred.”

Believer: “You have to have faith.”

Atheist: “That’s ridiculous! Faith is the excuse people give for believing something when they don’t have a good reason. You’re being irrational.”

Rational faith should be grounded in something. There must be a reason or evidences for believing anything is true. Certainly if there existed massive amounts of scientific evidence that a global flood occurred, faith in its existence is justified through logic.

Even in the absence of scientific evidence, the believer could rationally say that he knew it was true.

Believer: “I have received a confirmation from a trustworthy source that the flood happened. This source has proven so trustworthy, that I know it is true despite the lack of scientific evidence. To deny this source would be even more irrational.”

Gaining Faith

The wise man built his house upon a rock, the foolish man built his house upon the sand. Faith MUST be built on the most solid foundation possible. We should have good reason for choosing our beliefs over the alternatives and constantly improve the foundation of our faith. I must have good reason to have faith in the Mormon worldview, over the Baptist, Muslim, Scientology, Anglican, Jehovah’s Witness, Community of Christ, or ISIS (etc.) worldview. Building a foundation is done through two methods:

1. Performing Alma’s test and seeing the results, witnessing miracles, studying the evidences.

2. Performing Moroni’s promise and increasing trust in the source of faith.

There is an innumerable range of beliefs humans are capable of. For example, there is a group of people on an island in the South Pacific that believe Prince Phillip is a divine God, a group in India that believe dropping babies from 50 foot heights ensures good health and prosperity, self-crucifixion, flagellation, and many, many, many others. Why are there so many? How did they come about? How do I know that Mormonism is not just another strange belief?

The human brain is a complicated thing. There are barriers to learning the truth that must be constantly battled to find truth, not just in religion. Cognitive Dissonance, Logical Fallacies, and Cognitive Bias all distort truth and replace our foundation of bedrock with shifting sand.

I would like to go through each one and apply it to a faith context. I believe they provide an explanation for the incredible diversity of beliefs held by the billions around the world.

Cognitive Dissonance

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable … And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore, and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Cognitive dissonance is a mismatch between our belief and our behavior. This dissonance is uncomfortable, and sometimes emotionally painful. There are four options for overcoming cognitive dissonance. The correct option depends on the circumstance, and there are scenarios where each option might be the right choice. I got the below from a person who was experiencing discomfort over eating animal products despite being a vegan (this is not meant as an endorsement for or against veganism, it’s just an excellent example).

  1. Change behavior to match beliefs(no longer eat animal products);
  2. Justify behavior by changing the conflicting cognition (“It’s natural to eat animals and I’m not killing them myself, anyway”);
  3. Justify behavior by adding new cognitions (“I’ll go volunteer at an animal shelter to tilt the scales in favor of my being a true animal lover”); or
  4. Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (“Animals don’t suffer at slaughterhouses.  They don’t even know what’s happening!”)
Image result for cognitive dissonance

The stronger the belief, the easier it is to avoid discomfort. It feels better to give in to comforting falsehoods over uncomfortable truths that require us to humbly change. It is more tempting to justify actions than to modify them, to add to belief than to change it. Sometimes justifying actions or adding to belief IS the correct course of action. However, no honest, truth-seeking person should make a decision based on the amount of pain they can avoid.

One of the worst things for me about my search is the emotional pain it has caused to others. There is pain and discomfort in those who I love as I tell them of my faith struggles. There is pain and discomfort in myself as I see the suffering it causes in them. Cognitive dissonance is real, and it is painful.

When a friend or family member leaves the church it is easier to believe that they just want to sin than it is to believe it is a thoughtful, prayerful, painful decision. At least, that has been the case for me when I saw loved ones leave the church. That an apostate just stopped believing was much harder for me to mentally resolve. 

Mistaking the Spirit for Reduced Discomfort

In March of 1844 in upstate New York, tens of thousands of people from all over the United States gathered to witness the second coming of Jesus as predicted by William Miller. When Jesus did not come, it was devastating to his followers. They had given up property, staked their reputation on the event, and shown great faith. Said one follower, “I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.” These believers were faced with serious and painful cognitive dissonance.

While some modified their belief after so dramatically being proven false, the movement did not die out. There were others who added to their belief. Miller recalculated and discovered he was six months off! It was October 22nd that Jesus was to come. When that date also passed, the group split into several factions as different resolutions to the dissonance appealed to different groups.

In December of that year, a young, 17 year old Millerite girl named Ellen White received the first of over 200 visions she would receive in her lifetime. Her revelations comforted the remaining Millerites. They confirmed that Christ actually DID come but not to the earth; it was just the beginning of a glorious movement. The Seventh Day Adventists have grown into a 20 million member church.

As emotional pain is washed away by newfound ways of thinking, the great and sudden relief can be mistaken for the Holy Ghost’s confirmation of those new ways. I do not mean to come across as mocking the Seventh Day Adventists, or thinking that I am better than them. It is a temptation native to us all, and irrational thinking is SO much easier to spot when on the outside. It must be recognized and avoided. Otherwise we are creating God in our own image and bringing Jesus to ourselves, rather than ourselves to Jesus. 

Comforting falsehoods must never prevail over uncomfortable truths. Our behavior must conform to the truth. Again, I must have good reason to have faith in the Mormon worldview, over the Baptist, Muslim, Scientology, Anglican, Jehovah’s Witness, Community of Christ, or ISIS (etc.) worldview.

The shelf and doubting doubts

On the surface, ignoring the conflict seems like a bad idea. In the church I’ve been encouraged many times to “doubt my doubts before I doubt my faith,” and to put my doubts on a shelf till I have time to study ponder and pray. Eventually, I was told, God will resolve each doubt. Given that on a balance, my faith greatly outweighed any doubts, this was not necessarily a bad idea. Core beliefs should not be abandoned on a whim. This is something I have done for over 20 years now. From the time I put my first, small doubt onto a shelf, I held onto my faith, trusting that it would be resolved.

My shelf has broken under the weight. I cannot ignore the conflict any longer and resolve the cognitive pain. There is just too much evidence to process that I cannot place my doubts on hiatus any longer. They must be confronted so that I know my beliefs are built on solid ground and not on a sandy foundation.

Logical Fallacies

In order to understand my search for truth, it is important to go over some typical lines of reasoning that are not actually helpful. There are many reasons given for faith that are just not valid. This is not to say that EVERY believer has fallen for these, or even most. These are assertions I have heard and even fallen for that are problematic. These logical fallacies are a sandy foundation for any belief system and should be avoided by true believers, even if they boost faith.

So many people could not be wrong!

It is impressive to look out over the huge assemblies of the faithful gathered in unified worship. It offers a confirmation that you are doing something right since you are part of a larger community. There are at least three problems with using this to justify belief though.

1. No religion has a majority in this world. Mormonism represents a very, very small fraction of the world population (0.2134%). The vast majority of people believe Mormonism is wrong, if they have even heard of it. If this argument is valid, then Mormonism is definitely wrong.

2. Truth is not determined by popular opinion. Otherwise the earth would still be flat until enough people were deluded otherwise.

3. There are many examples in history where the majority opinion WAS wrong.

The Bible is True Because the Bible Says So!

This is an example of circular reasoning. I could write on a piece of paper that “Mushrooms on pizza is a really good idea,” and then at the bottom write, “This paper is true.” It does not make anything on that paper true.

Misattribution

Consider the following silly statement: “God is a block of cheese and told me that water instead of soda will lead me to better health.” Certainly, drinking water is better for health than soda.  I can follow Alma’s advice, and exercise faith in this principle by not drinking soda. I can gain a testimony of the principle as I become healthier. I might even receive a good feeling about it at the realization that I’m on a path to great health. I can turn this faith into knowledge as I see the benefits. This does NOT mean that God is a block of cheese or that God told me anything! In the scenario, I gained a testimony of drinking water, but I still cannot prove the existence of God. 

Likewise, following the principles of the Gospel can give me a testimony of those principles without establishing the existence of God. This is a big limitation with Alma’s seed method. There is no way to test if any commandment can be attributed to God. It is GREAT for testing the virtue of the commandment, but not the source. To test the source, we must use Moroni’s method.

Further logical fallacies

There are many patterns of thought that maintained my faith, but no longer work for me anymore. The pro LDS website FairMormon has a pretty good summary of logical fallacies, and how they have been applied to attack Mormonism. Being familiar with them is critical to not falling into a trap.

Cognitive Bias

A different obstacle to truth is cognitive bias. Sometimes our brain distorts inputs and outputs and arrives at irrational conclusions.

Being susceptible to Cognitive Biases does not make a person weak-minded or delusional. It is a part of being human. It is in our DNA. Biases have been observed in human beings time and time again and are actively exploited by politicians and advertisers everywhere. Scientists jump through hoops, perform double blind studies, and submit to peer reviews to weed out these biases, and still agonize over the possibility that their unconscious might skew their results.

There are dozens of identified cognitive biases that MUST be mitigated against in order to state with any confidence that something is true. I shall discuss a few that are relevant.

Bias Blind Spot

First of all, 85% of Americans think they are less biased than average. For whatever reason, it is much easier to detect bias in others than in ourselves. I have had to consider that with each of the following biases.

Anchor Bias

We are predisposed to give more credence to the first piece of information that we receive. A famous study demonstrated anchor bias by asking people the following questions: 

“Is the percentage of African countries in the United Nations greater or less than 65%?” 

“What is the exact percent of African countries in the United Nations?” 

The text of the first question heavily influenced people’s answers to the second. When 65% was used in the first question, respondents on average answered 45% to the second. When 10% was used in the first question, respondent averages were 25%. Researchers have observed the same effect by spinning a roulette wheel in front of the respondent and asking just the second question.

Since its description in the 1970s, anchoring bias has been well-documented in many different fields and scenarios, from real estate to politics.

A good indicator of which religion a person belongs to is to look at which religion their parents belonged to. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people on my mission would not listen to our message because they were a “Catholic family.” 

Would I be a Mormon if I were not born into the church?

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypothesis. We tend to draw conclusions and then find evidence to support that conclusion. It is the root cause behind thousands of debunked scientific studies, unjust wars, moral panics, and conspiracy theories. 

To overcome Confirmation Bias one must observe the evidence, and THEN draw the conclusion. As new evidence is produced, the conclusion must be abandoned and reevaluated. This is easier said than done, and I sincerely doubt that any person has not fallen prey to serious confirmation bias at one point in their life.

Early 20th century evangelist and faith healer F. F. Bosworth presented the following, “Any man or woman can get rid of his or her doubts by looking steadfastly and only at the evidence that God has given for our faith. Seeing only what God says will produce and increase faith.” I do not believe in evangelical faith healing, but if I were to ignore anything that disregards it and cling to any supporting evidence, my belief in evangelical faith healing would probably grow.

Moroni states “dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith (Ether 12:6).” Jesus states, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Demonstrating faith in the absence of evidence appears to be a virtue, and the fewer pieces of evidence, the greater the virtue.

A real hurdle for me is to exhibit evidence-deficient faith without falling prey to confirmation bias. Once I have a desire to believe then I naturally interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms my faith and selectively discard other bits of evidence.

Observer-Expectancy Effect

Sometimes a researcher expects a given result and therefore subconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it. Boyd K. Packer stated, “It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’ Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” I so DESPERATELY want that witness. How do I protect against the Observer-Expectancy effect and clearly distinguish the Spirit confirming my testimony?

Availability Cascade

Repetition begets believability, and our beliefs are influenced by the beliefs of those around us. Spend 30 minutes watching Saturday Morning Cartoon commercials for kids to see a blatant exploitation of this bias. If something is repeated enough it becomes more and more important until it becomes a part of communal culture.

The best part of waking up is…

Every kiss begins with…

Break me off a piece of that…

An apple a day keeps…

Count sheep to fall…

No use crying over…

Bless the food that it will…

I’d like to bear my… I know… I love…

I’d be ungrateful if I didn’t stand and…

I love the one-ness of the church, how we help each other out, and how members genuinely like to be with each other. However, being such a tight knit group increases the risk of this bias, especially where repetitious and confirmatory testimonials are common.

Authority Bias

We have a tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure. This was hilariously spoofed in Old Spice in a 2008 commercial. The actor touts the benefits of Old Spice by wearing a lab coat. “That’s why I can recommend [Old Spice deodorant], I used to be a doctor for pretend!”

In many ways, the church recognizes and actively tries to mitigate against this bias, both on the part of the leader and the followers. Authority figures in the church do not have degrees, or wear special clothing to highlight their authority. A point is made that, “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the Priesthood.” The bishops and leaders I have known were all good, humble men.

That said, immense respect is given to our leaders. I am not saying this is wrong, but it does create a risk for this bias.

Cognitive Dissonance, Bias, and Fallacies Summary

Our brains’ deficiencies must be overcome to properly discern truth and gain faith. Biases are all around us, and recognizing them will help us mitigate their effects and come closer to the truth.

These are extremely powerful and explain how so many people can believe such different things.  If these do not explain it, then I would eagerly and  honestly ask, what other explanation is there?

Miraculous Events as a foundation for Faith

Many examples exist in the scriptures (Children of Israel, Laman and Lemuel) of those who see wondrous miracles and still lack faith. I am cautious to even add this section in, because it is clear in the scriptures that “Faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe.” I still include this section because miracles have been large foundation for my faith. In the absence of a discernable answer to my prayers, they were what I clung to.

Miracles are God’s divine blessing to his followers.

On May 13, 1917, three Portuguese children ages 9, 8, and 6 received the first of six visitations from the Virgin Mary, teaching them many things. They were instructed to pray the Rosary daily to bring about the end of World War I, shown a vision of hell, and told that two of them did not have much longer to live on the earth. They were told the purpose of their visions was to spread the Catholic message and increase devotion to the immaculate heart of Mary.

Mary told the children that she would appear on October 13 and a newspaper reported that she would perform a miracle. The story of their vision spread like wildfire all across Portugal, and a huge crowd with low estimates of 30,000 people gathered to where Mary would appear. On that day, “the Miracle of the Sun” occured.

“According to accounts, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to be significantly duller than normal, and to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careened towards the earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position. Witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes became ‘suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground that had been previously soaked because of the rain that had been falling’”.

Lúcia Santos (left) with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto

Within a month, World War I had ended, and within several years, two of the children died. In 2017, the Catholic church canonized these two children. The third died in 2005 at the age of 97, having devoted her life to spreading the message of devotion to Mary. These miraculous visitations are widely accepted by the Catholic church and have thousands upon thousands of corroborating witnesses. 

Many claimed miracles have occurred through the history of the world, not just in the scriptures. How can these miracles be accounted for, especially when they sometimes lead to contradictory conclusions? If it comes from God, then should I not devote my life to the Sacred Heart of Mary? If not God, then how is it explained? I do not believe that the Virgin Mary was appearing to these three Portuguese children. How do I know which miracles are of God and which are not? The following is an attempt to categorize all possible explanations for miracles, including this one.

Flat out Deception

Some purported miracles have later turned out to be fraud for money, fame, or a stunt. Many have fallen victim over the centuries to the lies of the cunning. It’s often difficult to catch an outright scam, however I’m fairly confident that most televangelists are frauds.

Benny Hinn is a great example of this. With a net worth of $40 million, he wows audiences by healing dozens, even through the television screen. Desperate people are whipped into a frenzy by lights, beautiful music, and a large crowd of people singing and swaying. They truly believe that they will be healed, so they go up on the stage with this great man. Hinn touches them, and they are overcome with emotion and healed! Until they die because they stopped taking their medicine. When they die, it’s because they didn’t believe enough, they lacked faith. If there is a hell, Benny Hinn has a reserved seat.

Thousands of people fall for faith healers and donate billions to their causes. Jesse Duplantis, who owns a multi-million dollar home, recently asked his congregation to buy him his fourth private jet for $54 million. There is every reason to believe that his followers are 100% sincere. They REALLY have faith, and back it up with money. What is driving that belief?

There is a lot of incentive to believe. Believers are told that if they stop, then they are under Satan’s power, or that they must believe if they want their miracle, or that if they stop believing they will experience eternal damnation.

Sincere Self-Deception

I am very grateful that LDS Church does not flat out deceive. You do not see prophets and apostles living in multimillion dollar mansions, or dramatizing sacrament meeting to whip up a frenzy. Whatever the church’s faults, with few exceptions, I believe the leaders of the church to be sincere.

But what if both the leaders and followers are deceived? I believe that the leaders of MOST churches are sincere. I very much doubt that the Pope, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and various Ayatollahs are frauds. I don’t think the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult was a fraud either; He put his faith to a test when he, along with his followers, committed mass suicide to get to the spaceship behind a comet. These leaders all believe deeply what they preach. They all believe they have a divine connection with God.

How are so many sincere people self-deceived by miracles? Based on the fact that literally billions of people on this earth believe in mutually exclusive miraculous events, it is not a low number. Sincere leaders with sincere followers can create a positive feedback loop. A leader will give a blessing of healing -> the follower responds positively -> faith in miraculous power grows -> the leader’s faith in his blessing power is increased. I think that the visions of the three Portuguese children most likely fall into this category.

License plate miracle

Driving along the road, you see a random license plate with your birthdate and initials. The probability of seeing that exact number is incredibly rare; it must be a miracle! This is a silly illustration, but interpreting rare events as miracles is common. Extremely rare events do happen.

In 2001, a girl named Laura Buxton released a red balloon with her name on it, asking that whoever found it return it to her. The girl who returned it was 140 miles away, the same age, and also named Laura Buxton. Both girls had 3 year old black labs, rabbits, and guinea pigs as pets. Sounds miraculous, right? But as it turns out, they were selectively choosing those commonalities. The person who found the balloon was not actually the second Laura but someone who knew her. Joe Dimaggio’s remarkable hitting streak, winning the lottery twice, two Dennis the Menace comic strips opening in different countries on the same day, are all rare. But rare does not necessarily mean a miracle.

After this, therefore because of this

This is a conclusion that assumes that if ‘A’ occurred after ‘B’ then ‘B’ must have caused ‘A.’ Example: I drank bottled water and now I am sick, so the water must have made me sick. 

I met a guy on my mission who saw the outline of the Virgin Mary on an arepa (a thick pancake). It actually made it in the newspaper, because on that same day he was shot (he lived). He believed that God had given him a sign in his breakfast food that something would happen that day.

Misinterpreted Miracles

A certain percentage of cancer patients are going to get better with or without divine intervention. Which ones can be attributed to God and which ones to the law of averages? People who die from cancer after a healing blessing are unable to testify, only those whose cancer is healed or went into remission. Those who are not healed but didn’t die are also unlikely to testify (at least in religious circles) about the failed miracle.

Mis-remembered events

One of my favorite Mormon shows growing up was the Windows of Heaven, where Lorenzo Snow received a revelation from the pulpit that if the saints of St. George Utah would pay their tithing, then the windows of heaven would literally open, rain would fall, and the horrible drought would end. Unfortunately there is no contemporary evidence that President Snow ever said that, and it was not mentioned in any journals or records of congregation members in any of the dozens of places he preached. Furthermore, the drought didn’t end for several more years after the event. The story of the prophecy originated from the memory of his nephew LeRoi Snow some 35-40 years after the event.

It is possible that LeRoi Snow was malicious, but I doubt it. There is a large body of research showing that memory is malleable, and few memories reflect exactly how reality played out. Those memories can feel so real. This is incredibly common and another part of being human.

We think of memory like a video recorder that captures exact events. Memory is more like a jigsaw puzzle, drawing pieces from different parts of the brain to reconstruct an event. It can even be manipulated.

A tragic example of this is DNA testing. Since DNA testing was introduced in the 1990s, 239 convictions have been overturned. Of those convictions, 73% were based on eyewitness testimony, and 33% had two or more witnesses.

I could write literally hundreds of pages of examples like the above demonstrating how unreliable our memory is, and how memories can be actively induced in people to believe everything from aliens to seeing car accidents in ways that never happened.

The point is, events are often misremembered or given more weight overtime until they are considered miracles.

Regression to the mean

There is a superstition that those who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated will be cursed with poor performance afterwards. Athletes have an average performance, and random variations mean that sometimes they perform better, and sometimes worse. A player is most likely to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the times when they are performing at a peak. When the random performance variation goes back down to average, it has been attributed to being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

People also have random variations on how they are doing from day to day. Some people pray harder when they are at their low points. “There are no atheists in fox holes” as the saying goes. If on the next couple days, things improve, the person could possibly misattribute the results to miraculous intervention due to prayer. It could also be that their life would have just gotten better due to the law of averages, even if they hadn’t prayed.

Satan

Pharaoh’s magicians performed miracles, and based on the New Testament, Satan clearly has power to possess the bodies of animals and humans. He can overpower a fourteen year old boy in a grove praying to God. Some “miracles” could really be deceptions of Satan.

God

The power of God could truly be the cause of miraculous events. 

Summary

How big are the God and Satan category of miracle? I am not aware of any miracle that can be positively and verifiably attributed to God or Satan that does not plausibly fit in one of the other categories. The foundation of my faith cannot rest on miracles.

Back to Moroni’s Promise

The foundation of my faith can only rest on revelation from God. The pattern for receiving revelation is clear. Prayerfully ponder and sincerely ask God if it is true, and then he will answer you. I believe that there is something that truly happens when people pray. I think the “burning in the bosom” is real. While never felt during prayer, I have felt powerfully good feelings at other times, including in religious settings. There are two alternative explanations:

  1. God is speaking to me.
  2. There is something powerful happening in the brain that is mistaken for God.

The Ambiguity of the Holy Ghost

The promptings of the Holy Ghost are purposefully ambiguous. Visions of angels, burning bushes, or seeing God face to face are not common events, even among faithful members of the Church. I am not aware of any LDS prophet or apostle who has unambiguously claimed to have seen Jesus in the last 100 years. Even for those who have seen Jesus, it is a rare event. The most common mode of revelation is through a “still small voice,” or a “burning in the bosom.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated in reference to Alma the Younger’s miraculous visitation,

“I’ve never had an experience like that and I don’t know anyone among the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve who’ve had that kind of experience. Yet every one of us knows of a certainty the things that Alma knew. But it’s just that unless the Lord chooses to do it another way, as he sometimes does; for millions and millions of His children the testimony settles upon us gradually. Like so much dust on the windowsill or so much dew on the grass. One day you didn’t have it and another day you did and you don’t know which day it happened. That’s the way I got my testimony.”

God, speaking to Moses, Miriam, and Aaron said, “If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not dark speeches.”

A common question by members of the church is “How do I tell the difference between my own feelings and the promptings of the Holy Ghost?” Good feelings can come from music, art, winning a video game, watching sporting events, drugs (so I’ve heard), and hugs. Many prophets and apostles have discussed how to understand and distinguish the Holy Ghost from good feelings, but more often “quiet and small … incremental … simple.”

When God reveals things to us, it seems they are not meant to be clear, at least not initially or in the majority of cases. Learning to feel and understand the promptings of the Holy Ghost is essential to receiving revelation. 

There might be many good reasons for why the Holy Ghost is ambiguous, but regardless of the reason, it makes it difficult to know if my feelings come from God or my brain.

Boyd K. Packer and others have asserted that there is no way to describe how the Holy Ghost feels to one who hasn’t felt it. To him, it is like salt. You can say what it doesn’t taste like, and you can describe what it looks like. But like the spirit, one who has tasted salt cannot provide a way to tell someone who hasn’t tasted salt what it tastes like. Said President Packer, “We do not have the words (even the scriptures do not have words) which perfectly describe the Spirit.” It appears that the Spirit is something that you know it once you feel it. 

What if the Holy Ghost were our Brain?

What would the world look like if the Holy Ghost were really brain chemicals? We would see massive confusion in the world as each religion would receive “answers” confirming their pre-existing beliefs. Essentially what we see right now.

Please see Appendix A for hundreds of testimonies of people from other religions, many of whom claim their God sent them a powerful, overwhelming feeling confirming the truth of their religion. They speak of the burning in their soul, the overwhelming peace they feel, and the sense of knowing. Believers of these religions are sure that God gave them the truth. Why would God tell so many people different things?

A common answer is that God gives some truth to all people, and the Spirit testifies of those truths. If God is sending his Spirit to testify of the partial truths each religion possesses, it is sure causing a lot of confusion. People cling to their complete belief system after feeling ambiguous divine confirmation, even to those parts that are clearly against Mormon teachings.

Consider this testimony: “I’ve been searching for a witness of this work and of this church. And just tonight I got my witness. And it’s burning within my soul at how important this work is and how true it is. I know it is. And it’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was in high school. I was in plays. I was a typical teenager. And now I’m in a plural marriage and struggling. I’m not going to lie to you. But I know without a shadow of doubt that this is the Lord’s work, that I have finally found it. And I love you guys, and I’m thankful for your prayers and for all that you have to offer me. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

This is a catholic testimony:  We “were spoken to by the Holy Spirit, Who told us, ‘This is the truth. If you reject it, you are in danger of hellfire. Do you accept My teaching and will you say ‘Yes’ to the Catholic Church? Or will you reject My teaching?”

These people received a confirmatory spiritual answer that specifically told them something against God’s commandments was true. As Appendix A shows, these examples are not rare or cherry picked.

I believe these people are feeling something. I don’t think they make it up. If they aren’t feeling the spirit, then am I? How do I know that I’m not feeling exactly the same thing that billions of others are feeling, and not the Spirit? If it is truly the Spirit that we all feel, testifying of some truth, then how do I know that it is not me who has the partial truth? Am I conflating my experience with the rest of what comes with Mormonism? Who am I to say that billions of others are confused into believing the rest of what comes with their respective religions? 

Spiritual experiences can also be mimicked with drugs. In other words, we can replicate the feeling of the spirit by changing the chemicals in our body and brain.

In 2016, a study was done on faithful Mormon volunteers, all of whom were returned missionaries. They read scriptures, prayed, and watched “Mormon Messages,” and were asked to press a button when they felt the Spirit. The same pleasure/reward parts of the brain that light up when people are in love, hear beautiful music, and are under the influence of euphoric drugs lit up in the brains of the volunteers. These are people who knew what salt tastes like.  This particular study on Mormons confirmed the results from previous studies on Franciscan Nuns, Pentecostal women speaking in tongues, German-Christian Evangelicals, Danish Christians, Brazilian Mediums, and Chinese Christians. People’s brains do light up with chemicals when they feel the Spirit. 

In short, when Mormons sense the spirit they feel physically similar to how people in other religions feel the spirit. It is possible that the Spirit is more than just good feelings. But if so, one must sense and discern it by wading through the good feelings caused by the brain’s chemistry. Discernment is that much harder, and ambiguity is increased. 

It is possible that I have felt the Holy Ghost. One thing I can say with certainty is that I have never without a plausible doubt in my mind been able to attribute these feelings to any supernatural power and not my own brain. I do not know what salt tastes like.

The Foundational Answer

“Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the one and only true, living church on the face of the earth?”

I cannot say “yes” to that question with integrity.

At this point I am agnostic in my thinking. I don’t find any convincing evidence for God. I do not have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. I do not have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer. I do not have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days.

I believe the feelings I felt the love of a divine Savior came from my brain.

I am still open to the possibility and would be ecstatic to find out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. It would be so relieving and make my life a lot easier.

If the Church is not true, what then? 

This is truly a frightening proposition. I don’t want to leave the church. There is a lot of comfort and stability in being a part of it. Leaving would be like sawing off a limb with a dull blade. 

Faking a testimony is a very real temptation. It’s kind of a perverse choice. If I lie, then I keep my temple recommend. If I tell the truth, I risk losing it. Faking a testimony decreases stress and sorrow in my relationships and keeps me associated with a wonderful organization. Telling how I truly feel risks social ostracism, not being able to baptize Penny, or ordain my little boy to the Priesthood. It means potentially missing my children’s weddings. It tears my heart in half, desiring a double life, yet loathing the hypocrisy.

Would God punish me for faking a testimony? Wouldn’t that be lying?

Even if it is self-delusion, is it ok to believe what I want? Instead of believing the most plausible thing, perhaps my ethic should be to believe something that is less plausible but that brings me greater joy. If reality turns out to be depressing, that there is just a dark void at death, that there is no purpose, or right and wrong, then does truth really set me free? Why not believe a wonderful, fake reality? The placebo effect is a real effect, so why not just enjoy the placebo? 

If it is impossible to prove the existence of God, then does it matter if I just choose to believe in God despite the evidence? If believing in God, going to church, and singing hymns provides me with contented fulfillment, and not believing in God sentences me to a lonely life of anguish and bitterness, then why not just believe?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions yet. I do know that my beliefs and actions have ripple effects across generations, which is indeed a frightening responsibility.

To Those I Love

If there is anything in this document that you feel was disrespectful or argumentative, please let me know so I can change it. I want people to understand my point of view, not disrespectful of your cherished beliefs.

I know that even after reading this, there will be those who still just don’t understand why I would think this way. I don’t think you are an idiot if you feel I am still wrong. There are those who will suffer lasting emotional trauma as they cope with this new reality and for that I am so sorry. It was never my intention to hurt anyone.

I am open to talking about it. Please don’t feel like I will hold it against you if you send me quotes from church leaders or passages from the scriptures. I am truly touched that you would share something with me that is so important to you. If I am wrong I want to know!

I don’t want to argue about it. I don’t want to tear down your belief. I care about you, and if it is important to you, then it is important to me, and I will treat your cherished beliefs with respect.

There is not a single person that I want to cut off my relationship with because of this.  I owe so many people so much, and am so grateful for all the love and understanding that I have been given throughout this journey.

Appendix A – Testimonies of other Religions

Below are hundreds of testimonies of other religions, a great number of them feeling exactly what I would describe as the spirit.

http://testimoniesofotherfaiths.blogspot.com/

https://www.christian-faith.com/christian-testimonies/salvation-testimonies/

http://www.hopeforthebrokenhearted.com/faith-testimonies/

https://www.islamtomorrow.com/converts/women.htm

Heaven’s Gate Final Testimonies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8bHkGtL95Y  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXFYtgSfbgs  

Fundamentalist Mormon Testimonies

https://www.thisamericanlife.org/21/transcript

“I had an experience where four dispensation heads came across the veil and laid their hands on my head– Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses– restoring again the apostleship. And this happened on a Sunday. They were magnificent resurrected beings clothed in white garment, white clothing, their robes hung to their ankles. They had white hair and beards. They were magnificent, and I was overwhelmed with the Holy Ghost. And it’s been interesting to observe. People give up their careers and their professions, their businesses, and begin to gather here in Manti.”

-Jim Harmston

“I’ve been searching for a witness of this work and of this church. And just tonight I got my witness. And it’s burning within my soul at how important this work is and how true it is. I know it is. And it’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was in high school. I was in plays. I was a typical teenager. And now I’m in a plural marriage and struggling. I’m not going to lie to you. But I know without a shadow of doubt that this is the Lord’s work, that I have finally found it. And I love you guys, and I’m thankful for your prayers and for all that you have to offer me. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Shaker Testimonies

https://archive.org/details/holysacreddivinestew

“…Language cannot describe the sensations of my soul . . . all became calm; and an inexpressible feeling, as of a consuming fire within, filled my mortal frame.”

-Philemon Stewart; 

May 4, 1842; New Lebanon

Shaker Prophet, prior to receiving a revelation 

“I have an evidence within my own heart, beyond all wavering or caviling feelings whatever… These things have been made as plain to my view, as the natural elements above, or the inhabitants of the earth below; therefore it would be as reasonable for me to dispute my existence, as to dispute the reality of them. I therefore stand as a witness before God and all men, through time and in eternity, that it is in truth and reality the word of the one and only true and living God, which is contained in the pages of this sacred Book.”

-Harriet Goodwin

February 18, 1843

One of the 11 witnesses to the Holy Roll and Book pg. 291

“I looked and beheld an innumerable host of flaming heralds, having wings; and they moved swiftly forward to meet us. They held in their mouths the preceding Sacred Roll. . .I have both seen and felt the irresistible influence of his holy power, which I cannot deny.”

John Allen

April 17, 1843

Why there are no U.S. Gringo Missionaries in Venezuela

it wasn’t just because it was dangerous

This is a crazy story of illegal missionary border crossings, arrests, document destruction and jailing. This is a story of ethical fading.

It is a common belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pulled its North American missionaries out of the country in 2005 due to the increasing tensions in that country. That may have played a part, but as Dale Bills, the spokesman for the Church pointed out, the Church also had trouble getting or renewing visas for its U.S. missionaries. There is a reason for that.

I showed up to my mission in Venezuela in mid-2001. The immigration official asked how long I would be staying. “Two years!” I blurted proudly. The official scoffed and returned my passport, with a tourist stamp lasting for just a couple months.

Portion of the passport that was laminated

Immediately upon arriving to the mission home, I surrendered my passport, and was returned a copy, laminated in plastic. When I asked about the tourist stamp, I was told not to worry about it. If I was asked by the police for my passport to show them this plastic copy. My actual passport was stored in a safe in the mission office (a smart idea, because Venezuela was in fact dangerous).

On the last day of a mission, the passport would be returned, along with a handful of curious stamps from Colombia showing the missionary had dutifully left and returned per Venezuela law. The missionaries had in fact never left Venezuela. But the passports showed that they had.

What REALLY happened with the passports

The Church office building where Brother Pacheco worked and passports were taken is right next to the Caracas Temple. (photo By Guillermo Ramos Flamerich – Own work (Personal Work), CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2685239)

Every couple months or so, the passports from all four Venezuelan missions would be given to Bishop Pacheco, a dutiful employee of the church, who would take them in a bag and return them a while later with the Colombian stamps. I was told he flew to Colombia to get the stamps from a contact he had there, but there is no reason to believe he could not have forged it in Venezuela.

After the Church got caught doing this, Bishop Pacheco was the target of a lot of the blame (but was never fired). My mission president, President Andrus made it sound like Bishop Pacheco was either incompetent or dishonest and that he himself did not know any better. With several decades of perspective, I find the character assassination of Bishop Pacheco shameful, and regret my part in spreading it. The Mission President was a former two star General in the Air Force. He should have known better.

Venezuelan Immigration Control Finds Out

In early 2002 a group of about a dozen or so missionaries were returning home from their mission. As one of them handed his passport to the immigration agent, they noticed something was strange about the Colombian stamp.

“No it’s all good, see, mine is the same!” blurted another missionary, trying to help. The official saw that the other missionaries stamp was also awry. They looked at all the missionaries and even asked to see the Assistant to the Presidents passports, and all looked wrong. Security was called and the missionaries were rounded up and thrown into jail. They asked to see President Andrus’ passport, but apparently he refused and left somehow (his passport might have actually been correct).

The missionaries, who thought they would be seeing their families again that day, instead had to wait in a Venezuelan jail for several days, and then under house arrest for another month or so.

The Cover-Up

The Venezuelan Government was on to what the Church was doing. They asked to see the passports of EVERY foreign missionary serving in Venezuela. The Church did not turn them over. Instead, they destroyed every single U.S. missionary passport. The hundreds of U.S. missionaries were sent to the U.S. embassy in Caracas, where we were issued new passports. There was a note in the booklet stating that it was a replacement for a mutilated passport.

There was a Dutch missionary who was driven by the one of the Assistants to the President to the border of Colombia, crossing surreptitiously in the city Cucuta. From there he was flown to the Dutch Antilles where he finished the remainder of his mission transferring between the islands of Curacoa, Bonaire and Aruba. I don’t know why his passport was not destroyed. I was told there was no Dutch embassy that could issue passports.

Aftermath

Our passports received tourist visa stamps again, and missionaries were shipped out of Venezuela every couple months or so to renew the visa. I myself went to Trinidad, stayed an hour in the airport, and then was shipped back. Several months later I went to Colombia for a week and received a year long visa.

Getting visas and renewing them became time consuming and expensive for the church. Missionaries were delayed weeks and months from arriving to Venezuela, and flying them in and out at periodic intervals was also a burden. Slowly North American missionaries began to be sent to Venezuela in fewer and fewer numbers until 2005 when the Church finally pulled the plug on North American missionaries in Venezuela.

Why I am Posting This

This sad story is a classic example of ethical fading. Missionary work became so important that the underlying values the Church espouses became swallowed up and ignored. Individuals self-deceived, justifying their actions.

Too many members justify unethical choices as OK if it “furthers the work of the Lord”. This is complete hypocrisy, and does anything but further the work of the Lord. I hope the Church will root out this strain of ethical fading thinking, and be better. I hope they will follow the example of early BYU president Karl Maeser, who once he gave his word, would never break it no matter what.

We go in the front door, we go in legally, we go in with the public officials knowing what we are doing. We don’t try any subterfuge.

President Gordon B. Hinckley on Larry King Live September 8, 1998

What President Hinckley said and what the Church did was different. The Church did commit passport fraud. They did it without public officials knowing.

“Do what is right, let the consequence follow” are words to live by. I don’t expect the Church to be perfect. It will make mistakes and this was one of them. The Church sinned and needs to repent. I used to think this story was a unique one off, but the older I get, the more I have seen a cancer within the church that needs to be forcibly removed. My story is not unique, and similar stories exist in many countries in many parts of the world.

The Church has core principles and must stick to those, no matter what.

Did the April 10th Day of Fasting Work?

Many aspects of religion are required to be taken on faith. Elements of the religion are inherently untestable or unmeasurable. The call by President Russell M. Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer provides a rare opportunity to measure the impact that faith has in real world events with real data. Results indicate that the fast did not cause any positive deviations from predictions by scientists.

Fasting has been shown to reduce the immune systems ability to fight viral infections. Unless clear benefit can be demonstrated by fasting, it should NOT be encouraged even for asymptomatic individuals. Fasting could be increasing the spread of the disease and subsequent death toll of the greater society.

The Call for a Worldwide Fast

During April 2020 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson asked the Church to “unite in pleading for healing throughout the world.”

“I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10th, that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized,”

President Russell M. Nelson, April 4, 2020

Using data about the pandemic and economy, we can look for indications that these four objectives were met, and how effective fasting and prayer are compared to other practices like social distancing and hand washing.

The effects of the pandemic were within the ranges of those predicted by experts on the eve of the fast. Certainly fasting was not nearly as effective as washing hands and social distancing.

Impact of the Fast

Control of the Pandemic

We can use the case of South Korea as a control, to see how the epidemic moves through a society without fasting and prayer. The wave of COVID-19 had pretty much moved through South Korea before the worldwide fast, and South Korea has excellent data collection. A COVID-19 wave that is muted by mitigating factors such as social distancing will look this. Death toll curves will look similar, but lag by a week or so.

Number of active COVID-19 cases in South Korea over time. The wave had hit Korea before the fast.

CountryPredicted date of peak deathsPredicted daily deaths at peakActual date of peak deathsActual daily deaths at peak
United StatesApril 101,983April 212,693
United KingdomApril 171,674April 211,172
ItalyMarch 27969March 27969
SpainApril 2961April 2961
FranceApril 71,417April 151,438
NetherlandsMay 4468April 7234
BelguimApril 7403April 10496
SwedenMay 4379April 21185
GermanyApril 8333April 8333
SwitzerlandMay 4124April 475
Table of projected/actualbased on data from IMHE, and Worldometers. Data varies slightly depending on the source, but still falls within predicted ranges.

The following chart shows the death count from COVID-19 worldwide in black, and the top 5 most infected countries below. The dark blue vertical line is April 10, the day of the worldwide fast.

The Coronavirus on April 10th
The Coronavirus on June 3rd. The curves followed predictions by scientists.

Each individual country has followed a predictable pattern. Rapid exponential growth, followed by a leveling off and slow decline a week or two after each country implemented social distancing measures. France and Italy began to see a peak and decline in late March.

On the eve of the fast, on April 9th, the death toll projections in the United States, and nationally were predicted to be 60,415 (See Dr. Fauci, Health Data.org).

Worse than what was predicted, the United States daily death toll actually reached its peak on April 21st, about a week later than projected. The peak daily death toll was also higher than predicted, coming in at 2,683. The total daily death toll of the first wave will also be far higher than the 60,415 projected on the eve of the fast.

There is no indication that the fast was successful in achieving its objective of controlling the pandemic. If anything, things became worse after the worldwide fast. Given the COVID-19 dataset and no context, no researcher would be be able to determine the date that the fast occurred. Behavioral changes like washing hands and social distancing have far greater measurable impact than fasting and prayer, at least in this instance.

Protection of Caregivers

Measuring the impact the fast had on caregivers is difficult because not much data has been gathered.

It is clear though, that caregivers have born the brunt of the COVID-19, and their infection rates are higher than the general population. If there has been an impact, I know of no research that indicates a significant change on or around April 10th. There are no reports of worldwide healing or reduced infection of caregivers. The effects of the fast on caregivers has not been noticeable.

Economy Strengthened

Is the economy better off because of the worldwide fast? Data shows that outcomes were not different than predictions. One indicator is jobless claims.

Week EndingPredicted Jobless Claims (million)Actual Jobless Claims (million)
April 125.1055.237
April 194.5454.442
April 263.53.867
May 33.03.176
May 102.4502.687
May 172.2902.446
May 242.1202.126
Predicted vs. Actual Jobless Claims per Trading Economics.

By the time the fast occurred, the downward acceleration had already begun. In nearly every week after the fast, the actual jobless claims were worse than predicted. Just two weeks after the fast, continuing jobless claims hit a new record of 22.647 million in the week ended April 25th. For reference, the peak weekly job losses during the great recession was never more than 1 million. These are horrific numbers by any measure.

Jobless Claims in March-May 2020

On April 9th, at the same time that jobless claims were increasing, the stock market was also going up. Stock investors are paid to predict the future economy, clearly they though things would get better in the future, despite the jobless claims.

There is little indication that the fast had a positive impact on the economy. The economy has responded well within the range of what was predicted.

Life Normalized

Even when the black plague hit Europe, it could be argued that life eventually became normalized. Without a time frame, or stronger definition of what exactly “normalized” means, this is objective is impossible to measure.

I am not aware of any prediction anywhere that feels life will not eventually normalize.

Interestingly, on June 2nd, the Church announced that the October General Conference would be closed to the public. It seems that life is not expected to be normalized by the first week of October.

Problem with the fast – specificity

Although the objectives are mostly measurable, they lack specific details that would help determine what success means. There is no timeline for fullfillment. Perhaps in the Prophet’s mind the fast was meant to be fullfilled at a later date.

Without specificity, the Church opens itself up to to the same criticism leveled at Horoscopes. Astrologists are able to convince their readers by creating predictions so general or obvious that they will always come true.

Because the experiment is not repeatable (hopefully!), we cannot decisively state that the fast worked or not. What we can do is state definitively that there was no difference between the predicted outcome without the fast, and the actual outcome after the fast.

Response by the Church

The lack of impact of the fast should indicate to the Church that something went wrong. Either fasting in general does not work, or miracles have ceased due to a lack of faith. If fasting does not work, then it should be stopped. If there is a lack of faith, it should be acknowledged, with probably a call to repentance.

Seven days after the fast, President Nelson apparently felt it was successful, writing on Facebook:

“I wish to express my deep gratitude to all who participated in the recent fasts. … Fasting reminds me of the supreme sacrifice that our Savior, Jesus Christ, made for each of us. As we look forward to a recovery from this worldwide pandemic, I pray that we will find a stronger relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our Master Healer. He will heal our broken hearts. He will bestow upon us personal peace and comfort.”

President Russell M. Nelson, April 17th

Certainly fasting can be a spiritually fulfilling experience, and this is the aspect of success that President Nelson focused on. However he conspicuously neglected to comment on whether the stated objectives of the fast were fulfilled, only vaguely mentioning that he looks forward to a recovery.

On April 20th 2020, 10 days after the worldwide fast, Elder Dale G. Renlund posted on Facebook about the 1918 influenza pandemic,

“The only things that really made any difference were the same simple things that we can personally do to avoid infection: washing our hands, not touching our faces, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, and not going to work when sick.”

Elder Dale G. Renlund, Facebook Post, April 20th 2020

It is striking that fasting and prayer are not on that list so soon after the global fast. I don’t want to twist Elder Renlund’s words. He is not explicitly stating that fasting is not effective nor is it the point of his post. That said, his response and attitude are typical, and unconsciously, an unintended recognition that fasting and prayer are not effective on blunting the spread of COVID-19.

If fasting and prayer really made a difference, the logical response would be sending missionaries to give blessings at hospitals around the world, similar to when malaria plagued the Church in Nauvoo. As with any other treatment, the effectiveness of prayer and fasting could be observed and measured.

On May 7th, a a Church news release titled “Global Fast Touches Many Lives” talked about the uniting impact of the fast, but again neglected to address the the stated purpose.

Constructive Recommendations

– Don’t call for any more fasts. It is reckless. Cancel first Sunday of the month fasts. Research indicates that fasting is dangerous for those with viral infections. Although the Church noted that people should only fast if their health permits, most people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and should not be fasting. The worldwide fast might literally have killed people.

President Kimball’s call for a fast had a measurable, positive impact.

– If you are going to fast, fast with greater purpose. The first two worldwide fasts in the Church’s history were called for by President Spencer W. Kimball In the 1980s, as a result of an awful famine in Ethiopia where millions died. The fast was called to raise money to alleviate the suffering, and the church raised $11 million, a significant sum for the Church in those days. This is an unambiguous, measurable, positive impact. There is lots of suffering that could be helped with money raised by a fast. The church has donated just $5.5 million as of April 30th, 2020, a truly pathetic number compared to the resources the Church has available to donate. This is so disappointing.

– Be more specific. Fast and pray for a certain percentage to be healed in a certain amount of time. There is nothing doctrinal that prevents this, nor is it immoral to do so.

– Gather data from priesthood blessings and compare it to a population who did not receive a blessing. Doing this over time would provide Church leadership with a useful metric for tracking faith. Assuming God is changeless, the percent healed will go up and down with the people’s faith. If done with the right motive, this would not be a sinful act.

– If data indeed shows that fasting, prayer and priesthood blessings are effective means of stopping the spread, it will show up in the data and be a useful missionary tool, be convincing evidence of God’s existence, and encourage others testimonies. Missionaries should be sent to give blessings at hospitals around the world, similar to when malaria plagued the Church in Nauvoo. By doing so the effectiveness of prayer and fasting could be observed and measured.