I never thought I’d write a blog post that would end up empathetic toward Mormonism. That ought to reflect more on me than on mormons in general. I’m married to a staunch member of the faith, almost all of my family and circle of friends are members, and it still influences a great deal of my personal life. Feeling encompassed by its influence even as I would set a trajectory far from it, it’s no wonder I should harbor animosity. But, I should also, reasonably, be willing to praise the good about mormons and Mormonism.
I abandoned my faith about five years ago. In the last two years, my oldest sister and her family have found their way out of Mormonism. In addition to being very happy for her, it’s a relief to no longer feel alone in my family tribe. Despite having little to do with their decision, I do take some pride in her choice. During a conversation recently, we mused on the experience of someone close to us who endured an unconfirmed faith for more than two decades and who encourages us, despite our well-founded doubts, to follow their example. My sister expressed her sorrow for this person who lived two decades unfulfilled by her faith. One of realizations that started my faith transition was that, if you live in the midst of enough social pressure, the longer you expose your intellect and reasoning faculties to a particular idea, the easier it becomes to believe it and produce emotional experiences with it. In response to my sister, I texted, “You spend that long looking for meaning in something, your chains will begin to feel like wings.”
Being forced to love something or someone you also fear is, as Christopher Hitchens said often in debates, “the essence of sadomasochism.” Yet, we all live in this dichotomy, choosing to see our fetters as feathers that do not bind us but grant us the power of flight.
A knee-jerk platitude I adopted to maintain my sanity in relating to Mormons after abandoning their ranks was an adaptation of the famous line from novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, in Molly Brawn, that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” My mantra replaced the word beauty with “truth.” Inspired by my adaptation, I even attempted a free-form poem that, at the time, seemed quite good. I declared, “Like beauty, so is Truth, In the beholder’s eye.” I further mused:
Facts do not require, neither do they ask,
For open eyes or open heart;
For Facts unseen, in the lonely dark
Of ignorance or deceit, Facts remain.
In my ever-expanding study of philosophy and eager swan-dive into the refreshing pools of reason from the fright-inducing platform of faith, I find a strange comfort in the not-so-cold shadows and oddly-decompressing depths of the unknown. Where certainty was once my crutch for the unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable; where I once relegated all complicated queries–that had no revealed response–into the hands of my omnipotent and omniscient creator to answer after I passed from this veil of tears; now I find solace in allowing whatever is, simply, to be. Recently, I found broader application of the well-known prose of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in one of its preceding permutations–that of 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. In one of his essays on morals and politics he said, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” Like beauty, so is Truth.
Several years after writing my poem, I’ve become increasingly disinterested in attempting to understand what made myself as a Mormon–and those I still love and admire–defend the faith. How can one make rational that which, by definition and practice, is irrational? Yet, this point came home to me again as I read, by chance and within hours of one another, two essays.
The first essay is from Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic magazine, April 2002, titled, The Medals of His Defeats. Hitchens provides an iconoclastic, well-sourced synthesis of critiques on the life and character of Winston Churchill. It is a challenge to the romanticized, messianic ethos surrounding this mammoth figure of history.
The second comes from George Orwell published in 1946, titled, The Prevention of Literature. This essay is a rebuke of opposition to open-minded, untethered creation of prose in literature and journalism. The suppression of creativity should sound a warning to all of the slow and subtle march to tyranny we have always and will likely always face as a species.
I stated in my previous post titled, A Theocracy By Any Other Name Would Smell As Foul, that I have come to believe that the real, eternal struggle of the human species, is against totalitarianism. Theocracy–particularly the monotheistic kind–by my definition, is totalitarian. Seemingly secular, totalitarian governments thrive by learning from religious theocracies and adopting their forms. People need miracles, shame, a sense of duty to the divine, some person or entity to fight against, and leaders that are, if not divine, a little more than human.
Orwell said, “The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism.” Take, for example, a well-known quote from former Mormon church Apostle and President of its Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Boyd K. Packer. “I have a hard time with historians… because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and up-lifting.” Even as a true, believing Mormon, this struck a dissonant chord in me. I guess it was an early sign of my heretical propensity since, as Orwell put it, “A heretic—political, moral, religious, or aesthetic—was one who refused to outrage his own conscience.” To their credit, the prophetic counsel of Mr. Packer did not sit well with a great many believing Mormons.
The first step to hiding the facts is, simply, to hide them. As Orwell said regarding the years following the defeat of fascism and the rise of communism, the powers that be and the public at large “conspired to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed to him from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth.” Make the creative and critical minds into people who speak for the state. Give them approved talking points and encourage strange interpretations that are not a danger to the leaders’ power.
So long as an apologist with some credentials after their name is willing to follow Packer’s “counsel” by sharing only uplifting and inspiring facts, their truth is not in danger. “Uplifting” and “inspiring” are euphemisms here for the sinister idea that “the end justifies the means.” Lies are okay if they don’t harm faith. When one of the earliest stories in the Book of Mormon is the story of Nephi murdering a man who is essentially helpless just so he can recover an obscure collection of brass plates that contained the law of Moses inscribed upon them, and that act of murder is celebrated and justified, what means could not be justified in your defense of faith? Even the absurd assertion that the word “horse” in the Book of Mormon might refer to a strange animal known as a tapir that is evolutionarily related to a horse, is okay so long as it is designed to promote the faith. If you’ve seen a tapir, you might understand the absurdity since there are Book of Mormon stories of these early Americans riding their horses to war. Despite the fact that horses in America from the sixth century B.C. to the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 15th century A.D. stand as one of the more glaring anachronisms to Joseph Smith’s seminal work of faith-promoting fiction, the fact that tapirs share an ancestry with horses is of little help to the apologist. Rhinoceros share the same ancestry, but I suspect even devout Mormons who can swallow the camel-like tapir would likely strain at the gnat-like rhino loan-shift for the burdensome claim of horses in a purportedly ancient text.
Despite what form Mormon apology takes, the reality is that the facts simply do not affect the perception that mormons take of their beloved truth. Like beauty, so is truth…
Compound this with covenants made in sacrosanct ceremonies in their hallowed temples to not “speak evil of the Lord’s anointed” and people feel they are bound by a promise to God to never say anything unfavorable toward any leader of the church past or present. Fact or not, it must not be spoken or even considered. The apologists that do speak of the unsavory and even criminal actions and words of prophets of the past tread carefully for they tread on the dreams of believing, devoted Mormons. And then to have current demagogue and ingratiating Mormon apostle and all-around asshole, Dallin Oaks say, on camera in a 2007 interview with PBS, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” The statement alone should pose a huge red-flag to anyone born and raised in a democracy or republic. Add to that the smug grin he wears as he says it! A normal, rational, free-thinking person shouldn’t need to hear more from Oaks to recognize a dictator masquerading as a saint. Then again, don’t all dictators put on the face of piety?
Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes an interesting observation regarding his murdering, adulterous uncle, “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Watch current president, Russell Nelson, speak about anything then imagine him telling impoverished members of the church in Africa that the cure for poverty is to pay tithing. It’s a brilliant tactic to say reprehensible things with a smile on one’s face; the populist tyrant feigning concern for the common man and woman when their real concern is maintaining their influence over them and padding their already bloated coffers.
But, I’ve grown. There is still anger in me for I, too, gave two years to spread the church’s lies–lies I was told were truths and supported by any and all facts. As my relationship with the church has died, I have gone through the stages of grief. My faith meant everything to me when I was fully-invested in it. For me, I did what most Mormons continue to do, I denied my doubts at first. Denied for many years even after I began to feel in my heart that theism itself was baseless. When I began to understand that my doubts were as valid as my faith, I bargained for a time. Then, I got depressed. This lasted only a short time before I accepted. When my relationships with EVERYONE important to me became a constant strain and uncertainty loomed over my marriage, I got angry. This lasted a very long time and, frankly, its a roller coaster I continue to ride.
This week, however, I learned something new. Perhaps I knew it all along, but now I see it from a different, clearer angle. The dilemma, I realize, is not that a Mormon cannot accept the fact that Joseph Smith married, under coercive threats (the euphemism for threats that clergy prefer is promises or the heart-sell term, blessings), a fourteen-year-old girl serving in his home. It is not that they would reject the fact that Joseph couldn’t get his own story straight about the event erroneously and sensationally referred to as “The First Vision.” They may know that the narrative the church promotes regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon is incomplete and even a bit misleading. They are less likely to know about the tyrannical leadership of the church under Brigham Young. The disgusting and barbaric manner in which polygamy flourished in Utah under these ego-maniacal apostles. Facts are not in dispute in these disagreements. When they are, we shouldn’t be shocked to to see a believing member turn one-hundred-eighty degrees on their heel and defend what they had, only moments before, denied.
I wasn’t wrong, but my attitude about it wasn’t strictly applicable in the manner through which I both pityingly and pompously viewed my Mormon family and acquaintances. You see, as my faith dwindled my truth became utterly informed by and contingent upon facts. Since my closest friends and family, based on feelings, were prone to disagree with concrete facts of history and science, in my eyes, their truth disregarded facts and outraged reason. It’s not that I feel I’m right its that I believe in the context of constant application of agreed-upon morality and standards of evidence that even they apply to any other facet of their life, their truth with regard to their faith is often in direct conflict with facts.
The church knows the dominant narrative is unsustainable. As Hitchens said regarding Churchill, “A close reading of the increasingly voluminous revisionist literature disclosed many further examples of events that one thinks cannot really be true, or cannot be true if the quasi-official or consecrated narrative is to remain regnant.” Thus, the church with little fanfare and some clever placement on their website, published some well-known but little-read essays regarding complicated doctrines, practices, and history of the church. They have rewritten the first volumes in a multivolume history for members to read titled, Saints. Admissions without accountability. Acknowledging previously denied facts as if they were never suppressed or that the new information doesn’t really matter that much. Hitchens compared the details of Churchill that they, “not unlike the navels and genitalia in devotional painting, are figleafed in denial. They cannot exactly be omitted from the broader picture, nor can they be permitted any profane influence on its sanctity.”
This seems like progress-of-a-kind considering I was a missionary who, though I thought my leaders gave me the complete and honest story to share with future tithe-payers, ended up deceiving investigators about the church’s history and defending early cult leaders’ debaucheries. I shouldn’t be surprised since, like Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, the saints of God are always at war with the forces of the devil and “worldly” society. The primary difference is that Mormon’s are in a never-ending war with both Eurasia and Eastasia. So many things go down the memory hole in Mormonism, so much newspeak is introduced, that I can’t believe I bought into Churchill’s injunction that, in a time of war, “truth is so precious that she must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Notice, it is not fact, but truth that Churchill chooses to employ in his rhetoric. And, if you can keep the war going in the minds of the populace, you always have a justification for lies. For the Mormon who believes the absolute historicity of the Book of Mormon and Bible, they have already justified murder to defend their faith in the eternal, spiritual war.
You create an environment where, like Hitchens observes of Churchill, “action is judged by reputation rather than reputation by action.” Covenant to speak only good regarding church leaders. Remember it’s wrong to criticize them even when the criticism is true. Perhaps a trifle, Hitchens further says of Churchill misquoting Shakespeare, that “The thing is not to be right about Shakespeare. The thing is to be Shakespearean.” I might make a small change to show that, when you write the history as sympathetic, apologetic Mormons will do, the things is not to be right about history or doctrine or science, the thing is to be Mormon.
Vilify the opposition with this tired trope identified by Orwell when speaking of communism and Catholicism that they “are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists it out of selfish motives.” To be terse, anyone who disagrees has already been anathematized by the church in how it conditions members to think. This happens before the vocal doubter can even utter a word of dissent. My opinions and perspectives are not welcome with my family. They exist in a carefully crafted and sternly maintained echo chamber and want nothing more. They have become prisoners to their own opinions by silencing any dissent or even sincere questions.
In public addresses, Mormon leaders fall into the same patterns as communist leaders in seeking to maintain their grip on power. Orwell speaks of the attack on individualism with “words of abuse” that “do not have any agreed meaning” and “are difficult to answer. In this way the controversy is manoeuvred away from its real issue.” At the recent, April 2020 Mormon General Conference, Dieter Uchtdorf of the Twelve Apostles classified those who choose to leave the church as “headstrong, unruly child[ren].” Once the beloved apostle of exmormons due to his history of offering honest and generous appraisals of doubters, this single labelling may have undone the Silver Fox–at least in the exmormon community. The leaders maneuver away from real issues that drive faithful members from the church in exchange for belittling them as bratty, ungrateful kids. This isn’t an isolated thing. It is a chronic, systemic, proven tactic for keeping the faithful in line.
But it works because humans, evolved primates that we are, don’t use facts to inform our truth. We rely on our truth to inform and filter our facts. It’s not sinister in any way. I’m certain, despite my claims to the contrary, that I do have truths I hold that facts may not fully inform. My hope is that, if confronted with facts that contradict my truth, I would be quick to admit my error. Perhaps an important distinction is that as a mormon, I wanted my uncertainty to be certain. Now, I’m content with my uncertainty remaining uncertain.
For my family still stuck in the grips of theocracy, I love them. I don’t expect them to hear me with their carefully tuned fact-filters running at full power. What did it take for me to change my idea of truth? That’s hard to answer. Mostly, it was gentle and pressure-free exposure to contradictory ideas with a willingness to admit error. But I had to come to those states of mind on my own. Quiet reflection and willingness to speak with others. It took a desire to come to a knowledge of actual truth informed by facts. Mormon’s have a desire to come to a knowledge of the truth–it’s an injunction in their scriptures (2 Timothy 3:7).
I still struggle to hear harmful truths taught to my children, and I attempt to redirect their sights as necessary when I hear murder or child-rape excused or justified. Recognizing that their truths will stay with them means that I don’t often have to alter the truths they are taught, but I can insert other facts into the foundations of their thought. I can encourage them when they ask why god would command a man to kill another. I can praise them for their questions and pursue the course such inquiries take rather than degrade the idea and subdue it.
I still believe that truth is in the eye of the beholder. But facts, unseen, do fact remain. It doesn’t matter if either changes. They will both change over the course of our lives. Probably many times. What’s most important is to allow one’s mind the freedom to change; to hold to truths that can be falsified; to allow others the freedom to change their mind when new information is discovered. We cannot make ourselves the prisoners of our own ideas or truths by being unwilling to censor ourselves and our icons or to listen openly to contrary ideas. This is both how truth is refined and beauty is experienced.