I believe the church is testable (part 1)

As religions go, Mormonism is young. It’s less than 200 years old. Because of this, there is a deep supply of records available related to the origins of Mormonism. Also, historically the church has kept very good records and much of it is available to study. Between the records the church has kept and other available records, there is an abundance of sources available to study Mormonism.

But it’s not just the availability of sources that makes the church testable. The church also makes unique, testable claims that other churches don’t make.

To give you an example, let’s compare the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Mormon church. These two churches are similar in many respects. Both churches began around the same time. Both were founded in the United States. Both churches have a strong focus on spreading their message door-to-door. Both churches have similar numbers of active members. Both churches claim to be the true church on earth.

Despite the similarities, there are some key differences. Doctrinally, the Jehovah’s Witness church is focused on their interpretation of the Bible. They claim their religion is true based on their belief in their superior interpretation of the Bible compared to other churches. When a claim is made based on the interpretation of the Bible, it can be difficult to test it because interpreting scripture can be a very subjective endeavor.

In Mormonism, the claims are not based only on a superior interpretation of scripture. The church claims that the Book of Mormon is a real record of real civilizations that existed in the Americas. This is not a spiritual claim. It is a physical one. Things that exist in the physical world can be tested.

The Book of Mormon tells us where the people came from (the Tower of Babel and Jerusalem), it describes the geography of the land they lived in, it describes the cities they built, it describes how they worshipped, it describes their technology (chariots, steel, silk, etc), it describes their money, it talks about animals (honeybees, sheep, horses, etc), it talks about plants (barley, wheat, etc), it tells us how many people died in battles, it describes their form of government, and so on.

The Bible also describes the area in which the events happened. The Bible talks about people, cities, plants, animals, how people worshipped, and so on. Not every person and event in the Bible can be authenticated with a high degree of certainty. But for the most part, the text of the Bible matches the society in which the Bible says it took place. The people, plants, animals, religion, cities, etc, that are mentioned in the Bible match the people, plants, animals, religion, cities, etc, that have been discovered in that area through historical and archaeological research.

If the Book of Mormon is a real record of real people, it can be tested by a study of history and archaeology just like we can study the Bible and every other ancient civilization on earth.

There is indisputable evidence that Vikings settled on the northeastern coasts of North America hundreds of years before Columbus reached America. The civilization that the Book of Mormon describes is far more extensive and lasted far longer than these Viking settlements. If there is indisputable evidence that Vikings reached the remote shores of North America, there should be evidence that the Book of Mormon civilizations were real.

Keep in mind that the church does not claim the Book of Mormon is an ordinary book. Joseph Smith stated, and the church has often repeated, that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on earth. It should be held to the standard of what it claims to be.

Joseph Smith said Moroni, the last person in the Book of Mormon, appeared to him as an angel and led him to the Gold Plates that he (Moroni) put into the ground. If a real person named Moroni put real plates in the ground that contained a real record of real people and really appeared as an angel to Joseph Smith 1,400 years later to show him where these plates were buried, we are talking about the real world, not myths, metaphors, and symbols.

The Book of Abraham is also testable. The papyrus that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham exists. The church owns it. It can (and has been) tested to see if it is what Joseph Smith claimed it to be.

Priesthood power is also testable. The church claims that it has exclusive access to God’s true Priesthood power. One of the ways the Priesthood is used is by the giving of blessings to comfort and heal. If the Priesthood is a real power that has access to a greater portion of God’s power than the rest of the world, this can be tested. If a Priesthood blessing can really help someone heal better than a normal prayer or better than doing nothing at all, this can be tested.

Due to the availability of records, many claims about church history can be tested. Did the church build a temple in Nauvoo? Yes. This is obvious based on historical records and the remodeled building is still there. Did Emma Smith remarry after Joseph Smith was murdered? Yes. The historical records make this clear.

Some scientific and historical information is challenging for some Mormons to accept because it conflicts with their beliefs about Mormonism. Often times, when Mormons are challenged with a piece of information, they will label it “anti-Mormon” and disregard it.

It should make no difference whether information is “anti-Mormon” or “pro-Mormon.” It shouldn’t matter if it is faith promoting or not. What should matter is this: is it true? Then, if it is true, what does it mean? Or, if the facts suggest the claim is a lie, it should be treated as such, regardless of whether it promotes faith in the church or not.

Sometimes the facts lead to only one plausible conclusion. If someone looked at the facts and still insisted Emma Smith didn’t remarry after Joseph Smith was killed, they’d just be wrong. There’s no reasonable interpretation of the facts that allow for the conclusion that she didn’t remarry.

Sometimes things are not so clear and people will look at the available facts and come to different conclusions. But even though interpretations vary, people can hopefully agree on the facts.

 

I believe I have one brain

Geology is the study of the earth – what it’s composed of, the pressure different parts of the earth put on each other, and how the earths’ composition changes over time.

Geologists have determined that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. It’s hard for our minds to even comprehend how old that is. In the grand scheme of things, the length of our lives is less than a blink of an eye.

When we look at places like the Grand Canyon, we are looking at something that has been created millions of years ago.

I have a friend named Mark who is a geologist. As long as I’ve known him, Mark has always believed in the church.

When my beliefs started changing about the church, one of the things I was having a hard time reconciling was the age of the earth compared to what I read in D&C 77:6 where it says that the earth has a 7,000 year temporal existence. Temporal means “physical” or “material.” Saying the earth has a temporal existence of 7,000 is like saying the materials that make up earth are 7,000 years old. Even if this means 7,000 years since the Fall of Adam and doesn’t include how long it took the earth to be created, the Bible Dictionary says there was no death before the Fall of Adam and there are countless fossils of dead animals and humans that are more than 7,000 years old. Also, I wondered a lot about the Flood and if a global flood was supported by geologic evidence.

When I thought about these things, I naturally thought of my friend Mark who believed in the church and was a geologist. So I called him. When I talked to Mark, I asked him specifically whether the things he learned at church were compatible with the things he learned studying geology.

I’m paraphrasing, but this is what he told me, “When I was in college there were some things I learned about geology that didn’t seem compatible with the gospel. I had a Mormon geology professor and I decided to ask him about it. He said to me ‘There is part of my brain that I use for church, and part of my brain that I use for geology. I keep these two parts of my brain separate so there is no incompatibility.’”

Mark said that this idea of having two brains worked for him and he no longer bothered himself with trying to reconcile what he learned at church with what he learned about geology. One brain for church. One brain for geology.

This way of thinking is called compartmentalizing. When people compartmentalize, they suppress thoughts or feelings that conflict with other thoughts or feelings in their brain. Rather than dealing with conflicting thoughts, the brain sends each thought to a separate compartment and does not let the compartments talk to each other.

The reason people compartmentalize is to avoid cognitive dissonance. The word cognitive relates to thinking, and the word dissonance means inconsistent.  So essentially cognitive dissonance means “inconsistent thinking.” The term is also used to described the feeling someone gets when they are confronted with ideas that conflict with ideas they have in their head. Often, it’s like your brain short circuits because it can’t process both thoughts because they contradict each other. Your brain has has to pick one.

Why do people want to avoid cognitive dissonance? Because cognitive dissonance doesn’t feel good. Confronting cognitive dissonance requires admitting that something you think is wrong, and people typically don’t like to be wrong. Often, they’d rather be incompatibly right. When strongly held beliefs are involved, cognitive dissonance can be very painful. I’ve experienced it.

People react differently to cognitive dissonance. Some people pick the thought they like best and don’t consider the other one at all, some people compartmentalize so they can keep both thoughts in their head, and some people try to figure out which idea is right and which is wrong.

For my friend Mark and his Mormon geology professor, they held in their heads two opposing ideas about the age of the earth and the Flood. One set of ideas they learned at church. The other set they learned through the study of geology. These ideas were incompatible with each other. But rather than analyzing which set of ideas were correct, they kept these two sets of ideas separate from each other in their brains to avoid having to choose one over the other.

When figuring out what I believe is true, it only makes sense to me to have one brain. I can’t have one brain to study science and one brain to study the church. The church makes claims that are testable with science. These claims include the age of the earth, a global flood, the existence of the Book of Mormon civilizations, the ability to heal people with a Priesthood blessings, and more.

The church also makes historical claims which can be evaluated the same as any other historical claim.

When I study the historical and scientific claims the church makes, I have to use the same tools I use to determine the truthfulness of any other scientific or historical claim. It makes no sense to me to use one brain to think about church-related historical and scientific claims, and use another brain when I think about everything else. Having two brains would lead to more error. I realize I will never be free from error, but as much as I can, I’d like to be less wrong. If I had different brains to study different things, I would be wrong more often.

Everyone compartmentalizes in one way or another. We are all human and everyone’s brain plays tricks on them without them realizing it. I’m not immune. I’m sure I have opposing ideas in my head that I unconsciously compartmentalize so I don’t have to deal with figuring out which one is right.

Some forms of compartmentalizing make sense and are healthy. When I was in college, I helped one of my college professors on a documentary film about the training of prison guards. We closely followed a group of future prison guards through their 8 week training course. One thing I noticed was that they were trained to act as if everything a prisoner told them was a lie. When they were at work, they were never to trust a prisoner. Think about what it must be like to spend every day at work not trusting almost all the people around you.

In a situation like this, it would be good for the prison guard to have one mindset for his relationships with all the prisoners at work and another mindset for his family and friends at home. This is a form of compartmentalizing. It’s good for a prison guard to compartmentalize in this way so they don’t act like a prison guard towards their family and friends.

But it’s a very different thing to compartmentalize in order to avoid asking the question: which one of these two contradictory beliefs in my head is wrong?

It is this latter type of compartmentalizing that I am talking about when I say that I have one brain.

I’m not a scientist. I’m not an historian. But I can use my brain. It’s surely not the best nor the worst brain in the world, but it’s the only one I’ve got to work with. This blog is not intended to be academic or scientific papers, but rather a summary of things I’ve learned and thought about.

If the church is supposed to be for all people, then it cannot be something that can only be understood by scientists or historians. It must be able to be tested and understood by anyone of average intelligence whether or not they have any historical or scientific training. I believe that it can be.

I believe the Mormon church is full of good people

The Mormon church is full of good people. There are some bad people who are Mormons, just like there are bad people in every other group. In my experience, people, whether Mormon or not, are generally good people. When I look back on all the Mormons I’ve met in my life, I believe that the overwhelming majority are good people who live good lives and are doing their best to get through life just like everyone else in the world.

There’s a common saying in the church that goes like this: “the church is perfect, but the members aren’t.”

I think this saying has it backwards. To me, the opposite of this statement is much closer to the truth. The members of the church are not perfect, but the members, in my opinion, are far better than the church itself.

But as much as the people in the church are generally good, and as much as I love the Mormons in my family, when I think about the church I realize that the goodness of the people is besides the point.

When people get up and bear their testimony it is common for them to say say “I know the church is true.” They don’t commonly say “I know the church is full of good people.” Why is this? It’s because the point of the church is that it’s supposed to be true.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” In this verse, Paul is saying that if Christianity isn’t true, then Christians, of all people, are most miserable. I think Paul exaggerates the point. I don’t think Christians are potentially more miserable than anyone else. But I like this verse because I believe it conveys the right framework to think about the church. It’s supposed to be literally true. If Mormonism only gives people hope in this life, then what’s the point?

The church currently has roughly 80,000 missionaries working all around the globe. Once upon a time, I was one of them. The focus when I was a missionary is the same focus as the missionaries today. The focus is to teach people that the true gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored to the earth and to invite them to join the only church on earth with the power to baptize people and unite their family in heaven. The “mission” of a mission is not to invite people to join a good church with good people. This is an afterthought. The “mission” is to invite people to come unto Christ by being baptized into Christ’s only true church on the earth.

It can be tempting to conflate criticism of the the church with criticism of the members. Despite this temptation, it is critical to separate the two. Just as I am an American, but not America, the members of the church are Mormons but not Mormonism. If someone tells me “America is awesome!” or “America sucks!” they are not praising or attacking me personally because I am not America. At most, I’m only 1 out of 300,000,000+ Americans. And the truth is that in some ways America is awesome and in some ways it does suck.

The same is true for Mormonism. In some ways, the church is good. In other ways, it sucks. But just because I think the church sucks in some says doesn’t mean I think the Mormon people suck. Mostly, they don’t. Criticism of the church is not a criticism of the members.

But not all members of the church are equal. It’s much easier to separate a random member from the church itself. It’s much more difficult, however, to separate Joseph Smith or the any of the subsequent presidents of the church from Mormonism. These individuals play such a big role in what the church has been in the past and what it is today that they can’t be easily separated from the church.

When I think about the church, my focus is on the church and not the people in it, with the exception of the leaders. But overall, I believe the church is full of good people because that has been my experience knowing Mormons all my life.

“I like to bear my testimony, I know the church is…”

I have a testimony that the Mormon church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a fraud. Gordon B. Hinckley said that Mormonism is either the most important thing in the world or a great fraud. I agree that this is the question, but disagree with him on the answer.

I have a testimony that the Mormon church must be evaluated on the basis of what it claims to be, which is this: Mormonism claims to be the one true church on the earth with a prophet that will never lead the church astray. It also claims that the Book of Mormon is a record of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and that the Book of Abraham contains the writings of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus. It also claims that ordinances available only in Mormon temples are required in order for families to be united in heaven.

I have a testimony that the church is the means of much good in many lives, but I also have a testimony that this is besides the point, because the point of the church is that it’s supposed to be true, not just good.

I have a testimony that all the unique, fundamental claims of Mormonism are false.

I have a testimony that Joseph Smith never experienced the First Vision.

I have a testimony that Joseph Smith was never visited by John the Baptist, or Peter, James, and John and I have a testimony that these people never gave Joseph Smith any priesthood authority.

I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is a work of 19th century fiction, that the people in it never really lived and the events described never really happened.

I have a testimony that the Book of Abraham was made up by Joseph Smith and the text has nothing to do with the papyrus Joseph Smith claimed he translated.

I have a testimony that temple ordinances are immaterial to the afterlife of individuals and families.

I have a testimony that Mormon doctrine requires a literal global Flood and a literal Tower of Babel. I have a testimony that these events are myths and never literally happened.

I have a testimony that since the time of Joseph Smith, each President of the Mormon church has knowingly or unknowingly perpetuated a lie.

I have a testimony that a current Mormon leader lies every time they allude to an experience “too sacred to share” because that they know these words are interpreted by many members to refer to a literal, face-to-face meeting with divinity.

I have a testimony that many members of the Mormon church are kept from the truth because they have been conditioned to interpret cognitive dissonance as an evil spirit.