Questions and Doubts

An article in the March 2015 Ensign is stirring up all kinds of discussion: “When Doubts and Questions Arise.” Read the article and you will see what the fuss is about. On the positive side, this and other recent articles and talks addressing faith questions at least provide acknowledgement that many faithful Mormons have issues with certain features of LDS doctrine and history. The new essays in Gospel Topics at likewise provide groundbreaking official responses on several troubling topics. But the Ensign really has to do better than this polarizing and dispiriting discussion.

This helpful statement is buried in the middle of the article:

Some incorrectly suppose that having sincere concerns about Church history or doctrine is evidence that one is not living up to the standards of the Church. Having questions does not mean you are guilty of some great sin.

Yet the balance of the article seems calculated to encourage Latter-day Saints to view those with questions and doubts as disobedient apostates. “The doubter’s posture is generally to withhold obedience or limit it, pending resolution of the doubts.” And this invocation of Korihor, signaling to the reader that doubters are to be viewed as sign-seeking junior antichrists: “One problem with doubt is the intent to obey only after the uncertainty is resolved to the satisfaction of the doubter. This is the attitude personified by Korihor, who said, ‘If thou wilt show unto me a sign … then will I be convinced of the truth (Alma 30:43).'” (Ellipsis in original.)

Our friends at FPR posted a long and detailed critique of the article, cleverly titled “Doubting Our Doubters.” Rather than plow the same ground, I will simply identify a few alternative sources treating this topic more productively. First, this recent statement posted at, issued by The Council of The First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which states in part:

We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. …

Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.

Second, President Uchtdorf’s Conference talk “Come, Join With Us.” He counseled:

Some might ask, “But what about my doubts?”

It’s natural to have questions — the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith — even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.


Therefore, … first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Third, this fine article in the Spring 2014 BYU Magazine, “Keeping the Faith,” in which two BYU profs provide advice on how to deal with questions about LDS doctrine posed by one’s children. In a section titled “Destigmatizing Doubt” (which seems to be just the opposite approach to that taken by the current Ensign article) the following advice is given:

LDS culture tends to communicate disapproval of doubt, say the professors, sometimes to the point of causing someone with questions to feel that he or she is unfaithful or unworthy. If someone musters the courage to raise a question with parents or friends and is met with shock or disgust, he or she is often left feeling alone.

“If they can’t find an open, candid, and supportive place to work through honest questions, that’s tragic,” says [J. Spencer] Fluhman. “We stigmatize doubt to the point that people feel guilty for even having the questions. That’s not conducive to spiritual growth.”

Finally, here is a simple passage from the August 2013 New Era, responding to the prompt, “Is it okay to have doubts about the gospel?” The response:

It is normal to have questions about the gospel and even to experience doubt. Pondering your unanswered questions can often be healthy if it motivates you to sincerely seek greater knowledge and truth. In addition, such questions are often part of “the trial of [our] faith” that is required before we receive a witness from God (Ether 12:6). However, doubt is a dreary destination, so it should never be a goal in itself.

Remember, God is merciful, and if you maintain hope and a desire to know the truth, He will reward you with the answers you seek or at least with the peace and reassurance you need in order to continue in faith (see Matthew 7:7; 2 Nephi 32:3; Alma 32:21–22; Moroni 10:5; D&C 6:36).

Wow. It’s a little embarrassing when The New Era, aimed at kids, gives a better discussion of a topic than The Ensign.

115 comments for “Questions and Doubts

  1. ABM
    February 27, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    I think the negative reaction to this article has been a little misplaced. The author is essentially saying that the best way to get answers to the gospel is to remain in the gospel and seek answers the Lord’s way. And any feeling to distance yourself from the church until your questions are answered is not of God.

    “I have learned from personal experience that we cannot turn our back on God and then expect Him to answer our questions on our terms.”

    Do we disagree with this?

  2. BL
    February 27, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Turning your back on a church that had abused you isn’t the same as turning your back on god.

  3. Jettboy
    February 27, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    BL, it depends on if you think that the Church is God’s or not. If you do, then turning from it is the same as turning your back on God since He is the one who founded it under His Authority. Therefore it is up to Him and Him alone to decide if it needs changed and how.

  4. Old Man
    February 27, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    BL, the Church is a pretty big place. Hunker down and do your best.

  5. Jeff G
    February 27, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I actually think that church article is pretty generous in catering to a modern ideology that (following Socrates and Descartes) praises doubt rather than condemning it like the scriptures do over and over again.

  6. Dave K.
    February 27, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    The fundamental error in this article, as well as some other recent church statements (including from Elder Uchtdorf, who I adore – “doubt your doubts”) is the premise that “faith,” “belief,” “doubt,” “questioning,” etc. are inherently true or false in their own regard.

    The reality is that these concepts are meaningless until they are attached to some concrete idea or action. Faith in Christ is good. Faith in Lucifer, not so much. Overcoming a doubt that you cannot ride a bicycle is good. Ignoring doubters who say it’s unwise to scale El Capitan without ropes can lead to tragedy. Asking tough questions as part of an audit of a public company is a good thing. Asking tough questions regarding your future mother-in-law’s competency to cook lasagna is …. well, probably worse than having faith in Lucifer.

    That is why there is so much disagreement and contention regarding these articles. Just saying “have faith” or “doubt your doubts” is wholly inadequate without specifying the “what” in which you have faith or doubt. And the “whats” span a very wide range. There is a big difference between doubting the atonement and doubting whether a no-beard policy is prudent.

    Adding to the complexity is that the church itself has, and continues to, shift its position regarding many “whats.” As one example, consider the curse of cain doctrine. In 1949, the First President openly taught this doctrine as coming from God. In 2014, the church officially renounced the doctrine, leaving open the question as to whether the ban itself was approved of by God. So when did it become acceptable for a member to doubt the curse of cain doctrine? 1960? 1979? 2014? And more importantly, is it acceptable for a member today to doubt God’s involvement in the ban itself?

    Simple platitudes of “faith” and “doubt” are insufficient. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Hopefully, the spirit will get into the details soon and start shedding some light down there. I can’t see the contention ending until that happens.

  7. An Anon Nom
    February 27, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    My experience is that questions and doubts formed long before I had access to more concrete information. Once gaining access to additional information and perspectives, things actually made much MORE sense.

    The view of the Church that I perceived as being put forward by the Church–the one that seemed disjointed and doubtful–completely crumbled to reveal something very different. Unfortunately, this different thing is not something I am interested in associating with. What’s frustrating is that I find it difficult, from a practical perspective relating to family and relationship issues, to put my association with the Church behind me.

    While the official conversation is finally acknowledging the existence of doubters and the possibility (if not probability) that they are not offended sinners, it has a long way to go in letting go of those who have little or no interest in continued association but find it frustratingly difficult to leave.

  8. Jeff G
    February 27, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Dave K,

    I definitely agree with what you’re saying, but I think that point only helps with cases that nobody is really worried too much about. Nobody looses their testimony of the church because of the beard policy, per se. The whole point at issue is that the world (especially within the academy) teaches us to doubt and question any and all authority figures while the church teaches us to doubt and question all the *other* authorities. We are taught to have faith in, believe and follow the living prophets in the same way that Christ taught His disciples to follow Him during His life time.

    More generally speaking (I hate dealing with the disqus format at FPR, so I’m responding here), the article pegs my own reasons for leaving the church perfectly. My whole point was that when somebody is telling me to do something other than what I want to do, then it is not enough for them to merely claim that you can’t prove them wrong. But this is a modern, classical liberal ideology through and through that finds little if any support in the gospel. In other words, my desire to sin and my gnawing doubts/questions reinforced each other to the point that I eventually led myself out of the church.

    This symbiotic relationship between temptation and doubt is not only very dangerous to one’s testimony, but is also, dare I say, quite sinful.

  9. Chris B
    February 27, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Perhaps the issue that needs to be refined is whether we believe the history of the Church is complicated and at times disingenuous and whether or not we believe Jesus is the Christ. Prophets are flawed, as the Old and New Testament show. Christ is perfect. He can only lead the Church through imperfect individuals. As we receive personal revelation concerning whether or not they are teaching by the Spirit or revealing their own prejudices, it becomes easier to remain in the Church, building our testimony on the foundation of Jesus Christ and not fallible mortals.

  10. Steve Smith
    February 27, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    I doubt that people reincarnate into a different life form after they die. I’m fairly sure that if I were to go around pressing the idea of reincarnation among active believing LDS people that they would admit to doubting reincarnation as well. Doubt means two things: 1) a lack of confidence in one’s ability to cope with challenges, and 2) skepticism towards a given proposition or set of propositions. The first type of doubt is bad and we should help others overcome those types of doubts and gain confidence in themselves. The second type of doubt is just a fact of life. Should I go around calling reincarnation-denying LDS people faithless, sign-seeking unbelievers?

  11. Jeff G
    February 27, 2015 at 4:44 pm


    I think a question that needs to be addressed even before those is what the purpose of church history is in contrast to that of secular history. I utterly refuse to believe that the purpose behind either of these, the purpose that justifies the immense energy and time we dedicate to it, is mere curiosity or trivia. Both kinds of genealogy is meant to subvert or vindicate some narrative or another and it is only against these purposes that we can measure disingenuities, flaws and complications in both scholars and revelators.

  12. Dave
    February 27, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Dave K. (#6), good points. What enters into LDS discussions of faith, questions, and doubt is something like what enters into general Christian discussions of faith and reason or faith and science, but with a narrower and shallower approach. The term “faith” as used in these LDS discussions is something like a proxy for “be obedient and don’t ask questions,” which is why the complement to faith in the LDS discussion is not science or reason but simply asking questions.

    Furthermore, there seems to be a disconnect between the more open and tolerant approach held out in the official sources I quoted (but not the Ensign article, which sounds like it was teleported straight from the sixties) and what is actually happening at the local level. Judging from continuing reports, there is a fair percentage of bishops who regard asking questions, if done on Facebook rather than say in secret to your pillow, as the basis for releasing a member from callings and terminating a temple recommend. So the Church really needs to figure out what its position is, communicate it to the membership and local leadership, and get some compliance.

  13. Jeff G
    February 27, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    “So the Church really needs to figure out what its position is, communicate it to the membership and local leadership, and get some compliance.”

    Why must this be the case? Since the influence that a person’s public questioning will have is typically localized, it seems that the local level is very much the best place to decide such issues. It is not at all obvious to me that the local leadership should be administering correlated policy decisions, rather than shepherding their local fold.

  14. Remi
    February 27, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    Simply put, doubt is the church’s problem and not the doubter. The church is making the claims so the church should have the burden of proof. Then if there is reasonable doubt, and there certainly is, it is up to the church to provide credible answers.

    It has not unfortunately and the essays have not helped.

  15. Fred Foster
    February 27, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    It seems like it’s just blaming the victim again. The Church wants you to assume it is “true” and right so anyone who doesn’t have that belief must have a problem by definition. Even though the Church claims seem questionable, doubters must be the ones with the problem because the Church already proclaimed it is beyond reproach and question. It’s not they who have the problem, it’s you, doubter, Korihor. This attitude seems surprising from an organization that claims to have the truth. If it really did have the truth, wouldn’t one expect it to be taking a different approach with the so called “doubters”? How about a little compassion and understanding? How about some solid answers from “prophets”? Instead you get needless, unhelpful negative labeling of the questioner. Or you get “just believe.” This attitude is abusive, but, alas, what is a Church to do when its members find out it’s not what it claims?

  16. whizzbang
    February 27, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    if you ask a question to someone who isn’t humble, they don’t want to like a fool and turn it around on you and question you and all that sort of thing, but like Church leaders of the past have said, it’s okay to say ‘that’s a great question, I have no idea’

  17. February 27, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    I agree that this article was poorly written. I don’t think creating dichotomies between “doubts” and “questions” has any value—they are the exact same thing, and creating distinctions only serves to inspire guilt for people with honest concerns.

    I don’t think the gospel requires us to start from the assumption that it is true; it isn’t that weak. Asking with real intent is all about really wanting to know the answer to something, and being willing to do whatever comes from it. What assumptions you start with have nothing to do with it. To me, the article implied otherwise.

    And finally, I don’t think we need to be afraid of making mistakes—that is half of what mortality is all about! If a person feels more comfortable in his or her faith by going off and trying another religion, or several other religions, I think that is a great idea. We learn from our own experiences what is right and what is wrong. If we are sincere, and the gospel is true, we will find our way back. Fear is the opposite of faith, and that includes, I feel, being afraid to step away from something we’re unsure of.

    With that said, we shouldn’t try murdering someone just to see if it’s really bad. But that’s the exception: there are a lot of things in life that are easily reversible, so as long as we’re being honest with ourselves about our motivations, we shouldn’t be afraid of trying something to find out whether it’s right or not.

    There are some religions that say don’t read anything except the Bible, but we as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aren’t one of them. Questioning and doubt and exploration are an important component of our faith. It’s not something that only worked for Joseph Smith. His experience is as applicable today as it was back then.

    I think the writer truly meant well, but it just didn’t come across right. I blame the editor.


  18. Dave
    February 27, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Mirror (#18), I agree — it isn’t the author I have a problem with. His view is, I think, shared by many active Mormons. But why would the editors, who ought to be familiar with the more tolerant line taken by senior LDS leaders, endorse this retrograde approach and publish it?

  19. Julia S
    February 27, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    As a doubter and questioner who is struggling to find a reason to stay in the church, but hoping for one, I felt like the article in the Ensign was a slap across the face. Name calling seems like a strange way to reach out to the struggling.

    First I’m called a sinner and then a Korihor. Of course I’m a sinner – we all are – but I haven’t broken any covenants and have avoided all the serious pitfalls of life. I’m not seeking a sign. I’m looking for truth. I’ve been told my entire life that the gospel encompasses all truth and not to be afraid to seek it. Growing up I was always told anything I heard that was negative about church history or Joseph Smith were vicious lies told by enemies. Now it is becoming clear that many of those stories were true. Why wouldn’t I have doubts and questions? But instead of addressing those issues THE official church magazine is transferring the blame to my shoulders.

    The image that continually comes to mind is from The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

  20. FarSide
    February 27, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    Here is my conundrum. There are many things taught from the pulpit that I do NOT believe, to wit:

    • That our leaders are incapable of leading us astray
    • That the “rising generation” is somehow more special than its predecessors
    • That the Book of Mormon is a literal translation of golden plates (note: this does not mean that I reject the Book of Mormon as a work of scripture; rather, it simply means I don’t believe it was literally translated by Joseph)
    • That the stick of Joseph and the stick of Judah referenced in Ezekiel 37 refer to the Book of Mormon and the Bible
    • That the Book of Abraham is a literal translation of papayri or any other writing
    • That polygamy was commanded by God

    Please note: these are NOT doubts. Rather, based on all available evidence, I firmly reject each of the foregoing church teachings, along with a few others, though I am receptive to new evidence on each point. I do, however, believe in the resurrected Christ and His infinite atonement. I also believe that Joseph Smith (along with his successors) was divinely inspired in many of the things he did.

    So, my question is: do I belong in this church? Am I welcome? Or have I been irretrievably seduced by the legions of Korihor? (These questions are not facetious, they are sincere.)

  21. February 27, 2015 at 11:52 pm

    Unfortunately, Dave, I think the public positions of senior apostles is part of the problem. Many seem to be taking the inviting, tolerant line you mentioned, like President Dieter Uchtdorf and President Monson; others, though, have been more ambivalent in the message they convey.

    This article seems to reflect that ambivalence. In many ways it mirrors the talk “Stay in the Boat and Hold On” given in October of last year by Brother Russell Ballard, when he spoke of how important it was to stay in the church, and how questions and doubts can help people fall away. Brother Russell Ballard qualified his statement by saying asking questions isn’t incompatible with being a Latter-day Saint, but went on to talk about how we need to focus on what he called “the important questions,” thereby devaluing others.

    It’s easy to see how someone could come to write the article in question based on her or his interpretation of Brother Russell’s talk. Doubts versus questions isn’t that far a concept from important versus appendage questions.

    Members sometimes place an enormous amount of weight on what the apostles say, and some will even disregard scripture in favor of an apostle’s opinions, or what those opinions are perceived to be.

    It’s not just one side or the other that does this. More forgiving Saints quote to President Dieter just as often as condemnatory ones quote Brother Dallin Oaks or Quentin Cook. The diversity of opinion in the quorum of the twelve, which I love, and feel I learn a lot from, also makes it very easy to find what you believe reflected there and deemphasize the rest. I know I’m guilty of it, and I think many other people are the same.

    That’s probably part of why the words of the current prophet are supposed to be the only ones that can ever be given as commandment. That, though, seems to be getting deemphasized or ignored more and more often, with people focusing on concepts that President Thomas has never publicly addressed in General Conference, like opposition to gay marriage, anti-feminism, or not asking questions, and making those issues a gauge of other members’ perceived commitment to the gospel.

    President Monson for whatever reason has decided to stay largely above the fray. He has instead focused on general living, like walking as Jesus walked and putting our rudders toward the Lord.

    Maybe there’s a message in that: maybe those are what make us Latter-day Saints, and the other things, while still important, shouldn’t be points of contention or exclusion for the sides that disagree with one another. And since those things are impossible to judge, maybe we shouldn’t be judging one another, or one another’s questions, at all?

  22. FarSide
    February 28, 2015 at 12:24 am

    Members’ faith in their leaders would probably increase if those men would, from time to time, acknowledge some doubts of their own—doubts that are certainly warranted given some of the serious mistakes made by their predecessors, along with the abandonment of doctrines once said to be eternal and immutable. “Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt” is not the badge of honor many of them seem to think it is.

    In reality, it seems that this innate tendency to marginalize those with serious doubts is a byproduct of the myth of prophetic infailibility or its modern incarnation, “unstrayability.” As John M. Barry stated in his recent book about Roger Williams and the early Puritan communities in Massachusetts: “Conformity is a function of the desire for certainty; the greater or lesser that desire, the greater or lesser the demand for conformity.” It seems that our church’s desire for certainty rivals that of the Puritans. The resulting insistence upon conformity is inevitable.

  23. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 3:34 am

    Julie S. –

    I can give you a reason to stay in the church: stay for our friend FarSide. He needs you. And FarSide, I need people like you in the church. All those things from the pulpit you mentioned? Yeah – I don’t believe them either; I think they’re more or less false. And I don’t think God is going to punish me or others for not believing false teachings.

    The church needs more Julie S’s, FarSide’s, mirrorrorrim’s, Dave’s, and P’s – not less of them.

  24. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 3:49 am

    The parable of the wheat and the tares seems appropriate. Traditionally in the church, I think we’ve imagined wheat = very orthodox, tares = less orthodox.

    Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the wheat are the people who see a lot of truth in the church, but who also embrace truth from outside as well. Maybe it’s the people who have the courage to not believe false teachings of the real tares, yet to meekly fellowship with them and bear witness of truth.

    Or maybe I’m just wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time or the last.

  25. Steve Smith
    February 28, 2015 at 7:13 am

    First I’m called a sinner and then a Korihor

    As a side note, Korihor is too often portrayed as the epitome of all evil simply because he held a philosophy that was different from many others in the lands of Zarahemla, Jershon, and Gideon, but had every legal right to do so (“there was no law against a man’s belief…if he did not believe in [God] there was no law to punish him” Alma 30:7, 9). Yet Alma violated his own law by allowing the people of the land to physically bind him and bring him before judges to be cross-examined. After some questioning, Alma proceeded to shout him down and cast a curse on him causing him to lose his physical powers of speech. Korihor was a prisoner of conscience and a victim of religious persecution. If anyone calls me a Korihor, I’ll certainly wear it as badge of honor, not necessarily because I agree with what he had to say (I don’t), but because according to the account in the BOM, Korihor spoke what he thought to be true in the face of massive opposition and before people who claimed to respect freedom of conscience and belief but really didn’t. And even if he did recant, he did so under apparent duress.

  26. Steve Smith
    February 28, 2015 at 7:20 am

    The church needs more Julie S’s, FarSide’s, mirrorrorrim’s, Dave’s, and P’s – not less of them.

    Well, the recent round of excommunications and disciplinings (Dehlin, Kelly, Waterman, Snuffer, etc.) suggests that church leaders want them to either stay quiet or get out.

  27. FarSide
    February 28, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Thanks, Blake. Your words of encouragement, and acceptance, mean a lot.

  28. February 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Doubt is easy. We will never have perfect knowledge here, so doubt is a constant companion. But faith is hard. Real faith is choosing the better part: moving forward in trust that God is in control, and that God’s love is a love that can save us all.

    There are two stories I see here: what to do with our doubts, and what to do with those who doubt. The article is mainly addressing the former. It would be unwise to interpret it as the latter. People aren’t generally excommunicated for doubting. Fear and not rationale argue that. They are excommunicated for nurturing those doubts in others.

    It is a complicated business to know how to support and encourage doubters without supporting and encouraging their doubts. The inconsistencies of the approaches of the Brethren on doubt melt away when you parse which story they are addressing.

    It takes a great deal of humility to admit that you might not understand something, to choose to follow the patient and slow path. Criticism and judgment are far more satisfying in the short term, but ultimately keep up from learning at the knees of the Savior.

    He has chosen this Church as a vehicle to disseminate His will. You either believe that, or you don’t. If you don’t, than nothing any member of the Church says in support is going to convince you. If you do, it is worth it to exercise patience and humility, immersing yourself in the parts of the Church you can support with a whole heart, and waiting for whatever corners that need to be knocked off to become smooth (whether those corners ultimately prove to belong to the Church or to you.)

    That is discipleship: faith in God and trust in His power to change hearts and minds. Even yours.

  29. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 10:05 am

    O, SilverRain, thank you for giving me an opportunity to choose charity over anger. Because in moments of less self-control, I would take your binary view of things (“You either believe that, or you don’t”) quite negatively.

    I think back to what President Kimball said about how God answers prayers, but that He usually does it through another person. Yes, this is the Lord’s church, but he perfects it through its individual members. We all have a role to play in that. And thus – surprise, surprise – we find out that the world is not actually binary. It is possible to believe this is the Lord’s church, but requiring further perfection that we can help enact.

    One way the church will be improved is through greater tolerance of “doubters” who, in reality, or really just people honest enough to admit imperfection when they see it. May we all be as honest as some of the posters today. Perhaps if you humble yourself, SilverRain, He will allow even you too to be an instrument in perfecting the Church.

  30. Aaron T.
    February 28, 2015 at 10:37 am

    I wish people would quit conflating doubt with reasonable conclusions based on available evidence. To say that commenters above are “flawed” or “struggling” because they don’t accept silliness is unhealthy for the church. It is both rational and sane to reject Joseph’s polygamy, a historical translation of the Book of Abraham and the likelihood that the BOM is not a literal translation. There is no reason to conflate those conclusions with doubt. What causes the dissonance is the chasm between the reality of those conclusions and the fact that the church leaders can’t seem to allow for the fact that those positions are absolutely rational. Instead, the solution seems to be an insistent effort for the rational to return to a place of irrationality. That’s what is wrong with how the church is handling this (and other) issues.

  31. Julia S
    February 28, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Blake, thank you. Seriously. You have lightened a burden today.

    Aaron, thank you for your clarity. Yes. You said what I think and haven’t been able to put into words. If I can’t be both rational and a member of the church I will have to choose.

  32. February 28, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Blake, if you honestly think the purpose of my comparison was to narrow the world into a binary view, it’s safe to say you entirely missed the point. There are many more subtle reasons to draw comparisons than that.

    But if lashing out at me over the internet makes you feel better, than I can understand why you would choose to interpret it that way.

  33. February 28, 2015 at 12:01 pm


  34. Ryan
    February 28, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    First some contextualizing remarks: I used to frequent LDS-related blogs more than I do now. Reading the back and forth between posters tended to leave me saddened at the camps that I saw (through a glass however darkly) form around different perspectives, however. It wasn’t the difference of opinion that bothered me, but the (what I saw as less than Christian) way those with different perspectives were dealt with. I did not find the discussions as engaging as my graduate seminars, although posters and commenters did often make observations that I appreciated.
    A propos of the discussion at hand, Julie S., I’m sorry you are struggling. We have never met (that I’m aware of), but the scriptural injunction to ‘mourn with those that mourn and comfort . . .’ has touched me, so if I can extend a virtual hand of fellowship, I want you to know that I hope you stay. I hope you have those close who can vicariously wrap you in the Savior’s arms and tell you how much your Heavenly Parents love you.
    FarSide, I don’t think I have met you, either, but please accept my encouragement to hold on to your belief in Jesus and his atonement. I believe one day all of our most earnest questions, doubts, issues, whatever, will be answered, resolved, clarified, or whatever else needs to happen. Until then, let’s hold on and hope on. I offer my virtual hand of fellowship to you, too. We teach that we are all children of loving Heavenly Parents. I believe that; I believe you are.
    SilverRain, thank you for reminding me that Christ is or should be central to how I live and treat others.
    Blake, thank you for encouraging our brothers and sisters to stay.
    I’d like to offer my view of the issues, but I’ll do so in a separate post.

  35. Steve Smith
    February 28, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    It is a complicated business to know how to support and encourage doubters without supporting and encouraging their doubts

    A satisfactory explanation might help. I once knew a person who doubted that the 9/11 attacks could have been the work of 19 Arab plane hijackers. By using a logical explanation tied to strong evidence, I was able to dispel his doubt and he now accepts that the culprits for the 9/11 attacks were the very 19 Arabs named by the FBI.

  36. p
    February 28, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Silver Rain #29, analogs to LDS doubt-policing abound, many predating our church by centuries, most famously “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (Latin: Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, C.D.F.), formerly the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” These things always turn out poorly (see Copernicus, Galileo) (see Strengthening Church Members Committee- Quinn, Dehlin) but it takes a courageous, enlightened leadership to finally realize this and turn the boat around – to realize that a doubling-down of conformity-demands, an insistence on the supremacy of the irrational and the anti-historical and the manifestly false as these are embedded in belief narratives, is not only counterproductive but immoral. Minimizing the conundrums illustrated in #15 above is, for example, akin to our once-institutionalized Priesthood counsel to struggling homosexuals, i.e., pray the gay away and marry a female. Not only did it not work (the homosexual orientation remained), it led to infinitely more serious problems: confused, desperate children; depressed, divorced wives; homosexual suicides.

  37. Ryan
    February 28, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    I think there are a couple of points that should be kept in mind when considering the Korihor account. Firstly, I can appreciate holding our collective feet to the fire on respecting differences of opinion. Whatever the relationship between politics and religion looked like in Alma 30 times, it does appear that there was a law of the land protecting one from legal problems simply for one’s views. I think the Ensign article author left this distinction (between the political and religious sphere) out, which has unfortunately caused tension. Especially since his freedom of thought rights are injected into a discussion dealing with church governance. I think a ‘Korihor approach’ can and is regularly countenanced in many nation-states today. I do think it more problematic within the Church, though, but not necessarily for the reasons some might think. Korihor at one point says he does not deny the existence of God, only that he does not believe (v.48). Yet earlier he contradicted this agnosticism (v. 12, which is admittedly the narrator’s assessment, in which case, v. 16 would purport to be a direct quote). For me the lesson isn’t that doubts or questions are bad, or that his rights were violated, it’s that the problem lies in making the positive claim that God doesn’t exist. And then preaching that message in an attempt to dissuade others from persisting in indulging in the ‘effect[s] of a frenzied mind.’ And it doesn’t help that he flat out lies about Alma making money off of others’ labors while operating in his religious office (if, that is, you take Alma at his word). There may be an argument against how Korihor was treated back then, but applying the message to a solely Church ambit today at least brackets out the issue of one’s legal or political right to free speech.

  38. February 28, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    This discussion reminds me of the interview on NPR with the author of The Bishops Wife. She talked about when she had a miscarriage the response by everyone in the church was “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to raise him in the millennium.” She did not find that comforting. Which makes sense, it’s a solution to a problem, not necessarily comfort. The problem is that we like there to be one answer for each issue. But that’s not always the case. Many times the exercise is left to the reader. As a result the President isn’t getting up and telling everyone “Here’s how your supposed to feel about this.” So they encourage staying in the church, hoping that they’ll work out on their own what they need to work out.

  39. ABM
    February 28, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Aaron T. & Julie S.,

    I don’t think the church forces you or even asks you to accept Joseph’s polygamy, a literal translation of the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon. I don’t think that accepting these things is necessarily irrational either. With respect to these things I think the church asks its members to believe that God through Joseph restored the fulness of the gospel and that scripture, be it the BoA or the BoM is inspired by God and contains his teachings.

  40. Dave (not the author of this post)
    February 28, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Isn’t the “answer” to these doubts that the church simply isn’t what it claims? Its hard to come to terms with this conclusion but it seems to be the answer that holds up.

  41. February 28, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    p, I’m not sure how to respond, because I’m not sure how your comment applies to mine. Nor do I take for granted that the leaders of the Church are “doubling down” on doubts. To the contrary, I see the trend moving towards being more encouraging, open, and accepting while still maintaining that SOME boundaries cannot be crossed while remaining a member of the Church in good standing.

    Not a comfortable take, but one I find comforting. I prefer to believe that my efforts and actions matter, no matter now difficult it may be to suffer the consequences of those actions.

    To me, the emphasis should be on showing love regardless of Church standing, rather than making Church standing meaningless. That is an emphasis I see increasingly made in Church discourse.

  42. p
    February 28, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    #42, admittedly no direct connection/corollary, but thought I’d address it to you anyway. We seemed to be in the ballpark. You are pedantic and binary (I’ve read you in other venues), and I generally disagree with your frequently militant orthodoxy, but you are also confidant and well-spoken and there’s something about you I like. Pretty much that simple.

    #41, Well that’s the question, isn’t it?

    Of all things, I fall back on an X-File episode during which two young girls were suddenly endowed with supernatural powers one Halloween when the planets lined up just so. A voice-over at the end concluded with, Sure, it’s a ridiculous unbelievable witch-tale – then again, here we are, on this tiny planet on the outer fringes of this insignificant galaxy, flying through space at tremendous speed. We don’t know where we’ve been, we don’t know where we’re going. How could anything else be more strange or unbelievable?

  43. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    ABM (#39) – “I don’t think the church forces you or even asks you to accept Joseph’s polygamy, a literal translation of the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon.”

    I sort of agree with this. You can believe anything you want privately. Culturally, though, don’t you think it’d be hard to raise your hand in Sunday School and say, “Joseph didn’t actually translate the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon – he was just inspired to write them.” I just don’t think that would fly very well. So the Church doesn’t “force” any particular interpretation, but the culture actually does enforce a certain amount of orthodoxy within chapels. Until we have a few prominent apostles speaking of how they love reading the Book of Mormon as inspired, non-historical literature, I think that culturally there will always be pressure to speak of the Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon as actual “translations” of something real and ancient.

  44. ABM
    February 28, 2015 at 5:14 pm


    There certainly is cultural enforcement… as there would be in any culture. Let’s be honest, if the majority of members and leaders believed the BoM to be “inspired fiction” and you raised your hand to suggest that you thought it was literal history, it wouldn’t go over very well there either. Simple human nature.

    Also, I think the church takes the position it does because, unlike many in the bloggernacle, it doesn’t see the case for historicity (to any degree) to be all that hopeless.

  45. February 28, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    #40, Dave. The church may not be all that every leader has ever claimed it to be. But it is the Lords organization on earth, and He apparently allows for more leeway in how the mortals tasked with running it are granted, than what some members think is appropriate.

  46. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    ABM (#44) – I think you’re on to something. But how hard would it be for a prominent church leader to explicitly say something like “Although past and current church leaders believe in the literal translation of ancient records in the Book of Mormon/Abraham, there are plenty of church members who do not, but still feel the books are inspired of God. We gladly welcome both groups of believers in our church.” Or the same type of conciliatory statement regarding any number of things (prophetic fallibility, polygamy, etc.).

    In a church this hierarchical, it would be so incredibly easy for prominent church leaders to explicitly make room for “doubters” and others with these types of conciliatory statements. Inexplicably, they choose not to. It’s frustrating. I’m *not* about to leave the church over it, but it annoys me to no end.

    Similarly, the apostles could quickly end witch-hunts against doubters allegedly going on by publicly stating that Bishops and Stake Presidents are not to discipline people for (spell out A, B, C…), and that if they do, they will be released for disobeying apostolic authority. Simple. It ends the problem. Yet the apostles don’t.

    I think all this reflects fundamental divisions in the uppermost Quorums about how to treat doubters or less orthodox people. As Dallin Oaks once put it, “You can’t stage manage a bear,” and we have a couple of them in the Q12. The only way to reign things in would be for the prophet to announce (preferably publicly) the new way things needed to operate. Given President Monson’s health and the viewpoints of the next leaders in line, I doubt this will happen anytime soon.

  47. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Interesting post Dave. Thanks for bringing the Ensign article to folks attention. (I confess that I really miss the Ensign from the 80’s. The format it’s had in the last decade or so is pretty underwhelming. I get that it’s trying to provide basics for recent members and have more of a practical focus but all too often it just doesn’t grapple with the issues in a satisfying way.)

    What I think is missed is that beliefs and doubts are not volitional. We don’t get to pick what we believe or don’t. Belief is a result. So if I go outside and see a blue sky I can’t make myself think it’s pink. It’s just not physically possible. This has pretty significant implications I think for religious belief and doubt. I think the article though wants to distinguish between what I call doubt (simply not believing in a proposition) with certain possible implications of that doubt (acting as if the thing doubted is false). This happens all the time in practical life. Someone tells you, “I’ll catch you” and you doubt they will. Yet if you still act as if they’d catch you then that’s obviously significant. The article wants to focus on this “acting as if it were true even when you don’t believe.” This is clearly a traditional component of religious faith. (Although I’d argue it’s not the same as religious faith)

    The article doesn’t really do a good job, primarily because of how it uses the term “doubt.” I suspect that had the author used a different term it would have been a much better article. We want a term that is opposed to hope or faith. The problem is that culturally, as Jeff noted (5), doubt is culturally viewed as a good and noble thing. Of course culturally that praise tends to be contextually applied. Climate doubters or evolution doubters are viewed the way Dave sees religious doubts as being viewed. (I could go political and note that many have a double standard here – but I’m not sure that’s too fruitful)

    Anyways, reread the article replacing “doubt” with “distrust” or “suspicion” and I think you’ll find you come away with a different reaction.

  48. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Replying to comments (in reverse order)

    Blake (46) I think there would be significant problems were the brethren to say the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham weren’t related to an actual text in some way. There are ways to nuance this but that level of nuance gets tricky fast. If they asked my advice I’d certainly tell them not to say that even though I personally am very open to the translation containing reasonable amounts of expansion.

    How much of this is due to differences of opinion on the matter among the brethren and how much just a reasonable acknowledgement of the implications isn’t clear. The problem with doubts is that the issue then becomes how to deal with pushing of doubts as normative. It’s far trickier than it first appears IMO.

    Blake (43) while I suspect a big part of this is simply norm enforcement by the laity I suspect it goes beyond that. Of course regular people often enforce norms that are just plain wrong, since often the average member is just fairly ignorant of what the church frequently teachers. Folk doctrines get propagated and often are norm enforced in places it’s inappropriate. I notice that a lot of Evangelical beliefs get norm enforced within the Church for instance. Likewise for a long time rhetorically using the term “grace” was disliked and norm enforced. (That’s changed, primarily due to the actions of people at BYU in the 90’s – which shows how these norms can rapidly change)

    I think the issue fundamentally though is that not all beliefs are seen as equally significant religiously. So the truth of the Book of Mormon is seen by most as much more than being an inspiring story. Likewise the truth of Joseph Smith as a prophet is seen as more than just providing ethical guidelines. So some norm enforcement as tied to those issues seems quite natural and perhaps often justified.

    Where I think we as a community could do better is in how we push those norms. A little more love and understanding can go a long way. I don’t think praising or normalizing doubts is an appropriate way to do this though. It’s the old tricky problem of distinguishing the belief from the person. It’s very hard for most humans to do that distinction well.

    Jader3rd (38) It’s interesting as what comforts us really varies a lot by the individual. So for me knowing a miscarriage either will be raised in the millennium or (as I suspect with early miscarriages) simply given an other chance to be born later has been extremely comforting. To such an extent that miscarriages haven’t bothered me at all. However I know others don’t feel that way at all.

    You’re right though that what people want is comfort, not answers. My weakness is always thinking in terms of answers whereas I should be comforting instead.

    Aaron T (30) the issue is always, rational in terms of what evidence? There is about as much evidence for God as there is the Book of Mormon. Indeed nearly all religious tenants are not based upon public evidence. It might be quite rational for people to be atheists, but I think the Church would quickly fall apart if it made that the ground state of belief. I’d also add that you conflate reason with public evidence. But of course most of our judgements are not made on public evidence at all yet are quite rational. I’d say that the majority of believers are being quite rational in their belief in God or the Book of Mormon even if it might be quite irrational for certain others to belief in that way. Again though, I’d note that beliefs are not volitional. We don’t get to pick our beliefs. Beliefs are what happens after we investigate.

    FarSide (22) if members do poorly at keeping separate individuals from their beliefs, I think critics do as well. I bet nearly all believing members have doubts on some things or at least have doubted at various times. It follows that most believers understand doubt quite well, having dealt with it themselves. Now of course how they respond may vary. I don’t think noting what are social norms within the Church is inappropriate. However clearly we must do better at how we address these.

    That said clearly most members believe the truth of many things that some within the Church doubt. While we can and must be accepting of others, I don’t think that means we must accept their doubts as accurate. Again, within the more general public secular sphere I’d note that there are many things socially unacceptable to doubt.

  49. Aaron T.
    February 28, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Clark – did I understand your first point to be “act like you believe things which you have found to be false?” Seems like the last thing we need or the Savior would want is pretense. Besides, that notion contradicts a pretty basic notion of honesty.

  50. Julia S
    February 28, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    Clark, your statements about beliefs not being volitional are very comforting. It seems like the message I get from church is the opposite – that I can just choose to accept things on faith and I have literally heard that members who don’t have faith are under the influence of Satan. That’s certainly not how it feels to me. I think my thoughts are coming from my own rational head, and that I am not in league with Satan.

    Since you have all been so supportive, let me beg a little further help.
    Right now my calling is what you might call a “non-doctrinal” calling. I’m not a teacher, nor am I in leadership. So I haven’t had to teach in a long time (I’ve been in my calling for several years and before that I was in music for many many years). But undoubtedly that will change at some point. So, how do I handle that? Do I tell my bishop I can’t in good conscious teach because I couldn’t teach things I don’t believe? Even something like primary lessons cover material I don’t believe.

  51. ji
    February 28, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Julia S,

    Yes — if invited to accept a teaching calling, you should tell your bishop that you “can’t in good conscious teach because [you] couldn’t teach things [you] don’t believe.” That’s being honest. It would be dishonest to accept a calling as a teacher and then not to teach what you agreed to teach. A person unable or unwilling to teach the doctrines of the church shouldn’t be a teacher within the church.

  52. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    Clark (#48) – Just a point of clarification on what I said. I suggested that the apostles affirm that while they believe in the literal/historical translation of an ancient text, they recognize that some members do not, and that such members won’t be disciplined for holding, discussing, or even advocating their views. In that case, its crystal clear what the apostles’ position is, but also explicitly provides a safeguard.

  53. Julia S
    February 28, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    *conscience. (Sorry about that)
    Ok, so my real question is, what does it look like to “stay in the boat” when there are so many things you don’t believe?

  54. Blake
    February 28, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    Julia S. – If you are asked to teach, what you tell your Bishop is up to you. If you don’t want to be open with him about your doubts, I’d just decline the calling (perhaps explaining that you’d prefer a non-teaching calling). Unless you REALLY want the Bishop to know about your doubts! Some Bishops, by the way, are pretty good about helping people with doubts, so you may want to assess whether to just open up with your Bishop straight away – he might have some good resources to help you (or not).

  55. Jeff G
    February 28, 2015 at 8:43 pm


    “What I think is missed is that beliefs and doubts are not volitional. We don’t get to pick what we believe or don’t. Belief is a result.”

    I definitely reject this. The machinery by which we acquire, maintain, interpret and justify our beliefs is complex to be sure, but we are very much in control. What would we say to somebody who believed that the earth was flat? Of course we could try to call him out and push back a couple ways, perhaps by telling him to fly around the world. But he could always simply justify each of his beliefs, no matter now absurd, by saying that he can’t help it – he has no choice when he believes that the airline industry is conspiracy. etc.

    In the end, we will tend toward those beliefs that we are incentivized to have with our particular social community. If we feel like we are being drawn toward rejecting some part of the church, we have to analyze what the incentives are in our lives that are fueling those doubts. And then we can freely change we ways in which we situate ourselves with respect to those incentives.

  56. p
    February 28, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    “Jehovah’s Witnesses: How To Help – Lately I’ve had several people writing in to ask if there was some specific line of logic or reasoning that worked more effectively when attempting to help JW’s.
    Believe me, if I had found one I would have already started using it. The problem is that the logical aspect of what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe is merely a facade. It is what we call in business a ‘paper tiger’. It looks real and it looks plausible but once the “paper tiger” has been torn up to bits with logic, the belief remains. Why?
    It is because logic has nothing to do with what a JW really believes. Oh they’ll say everything is grounded in logic and reasoning. They even have a publication named ‘Reasoning from the Scriptures.’ Yet when all of the arguments are ripped to shreds from a biblical perspective the JW adherent sticks to his or her guns doggedly even when they don’t have a leg to stand on from a biblical or even historical perspective.
    The ‘logic’ of a JW’s belief is merely a distraction from what is really going on. It is like an onion. Once you peel one layer back and expose the falsehood you find another, tougher layer embedded even deeper in the JW mind. This ‘logic’ is designed to carry the JW through the self doubt that is always at the ready in cults. Why do you think the Watchtower is constantly publishing articles and having talks on doubt? It is because it is rampant within the Jehovah’s Witnesses! Doubt is the doorway to apostasy in the JW mind and that link has been put there by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society!
    What are you really dealing with when trying to help a JW out of the cult? Four things:
    Deep-seated emotions of fear and guilt.
    Low self-esteem.
    An artificial personality that has been constructed by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. (The ‘old’ personality is either deconstructed or is held in check by the new belief system and is considered ‘evil’ and ‘of the world’ by the JW’s and their organization.)
    Cognitive dissonance.” (from:

  57. February 28, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Some incorrectly suppose that having sincere concerns about Church history or doctrine is evidence that one is not living up to the standards of the Church. Having questions does not mean you are guilty of some great sin.

    Just this month in Relief Society, one of the teachers said, “Questioning is from the adversary.”

    True story.

  58. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    Aaron T (49) I was more thinking of acting when you don’t know not necessarily when you know it is false. I didn’t address that point. I say that mostly because I think the topics in question are typically indeterminate. That is, there’s lack of positive evidence but I’m very skeptical there’s strong positive evidence that they are false. I know Dawkins and company try to argue that with regards to belief in a personal God but I don’t think they do a good job. At best they argue for agnosticism I think. I think in some cases one can argue there’s strong evidence a particular way of believing the Book of Mormon and company is false. But that’s different from believing in false.

    Of course I was also distinguishing between belief and justification. I don’t think beliefs are under our control. They just happen. However while we can’t deal with belief itself we can deal with the justification for those beliefs.

    Julia (50), I think the Church is effectively making a distinction between action and belief. So one might not believe but can act “as if” you believe. The original Ensign article was attempting (somewhat poorly) to make that point. I’ve never heard anything suggesting you can just choose to believe. At best the Church (typically following Alma 32 or Moroni 10) offers ways to inquire so that you can believe. But we should distinguish between inquiry and belief itself. And of course I’d say inquiry doesn’t always lead to belief. There I think some members do make a mistake with Moroni 10 since, as any missionary knows, not everyone gets answers to prayers they recognize.

    As for being a teacher. Honestly I would tell the Bishop. Just say, “I’ve been keeping these things to myself, but I have some doubts. Because of that I don’t think I could teach in the spirit like you’d want.” Or something like that. I bet nearly all Bishops would be quite supportive.

    Blake (52), yes, that’s how I took you. I just think the Brethren would understandably balk at your “advocating” part, depending upon what you mean by it.

    Jeff (55), if what you say is true I should be able to look outside and believe the sky is green instead of blue. I am unable to do that. Why, if beliefs are volitional?

  59. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Alison (57), if someone said that in a class I was in I’d immediately call it out as false doctrine.

  60. February 28, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Julia S., right now my calling is to teach out of a manual with which I often fundamentally disagree. A lot. So when I prepare my lessons, I just try to find one thing in the lesson that I agree with, and I build my lesson around that. Sometimes my lessons end up a little weird: a recent lesson on Adam and Eve ended up being all about not judging other people. Sometimes I even can’t find anything I relate to, so I just teach a lesson based on some of the scriptures listed at the end. No one has had any problems with my lessons, and I’m not a very good teacher.

    If you are called to teach, I’m sure you will have a lot more insightful things to share than I ever do. A lot of members get really tired of the same old lessons over and over anyway, so I’m sure a lot of people will find it refreshing to have someone present something different. If more people teach those kind of lessons, I think it will help expand our minds about what the church is really about.

    There’s way more to the gospel than could ever fit into a year’s worth of lessons, so we all have to pick and choose, regardless of our beliefs. Just pick whatever resonates with you.

    And in the right setting, I don’t think it is wrong to mention in a lesson that you don’t believe a certain thing. Some of my favorite teachers are ones that have done that, even when I haven’t ended up agreeing with them. If done with the right group in the right way, it can be a great catalyst to open, honest discussions.

  61. February 28, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    p, I think the comparison with the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a good one, although I’m never for tearing down anyone’s beliefs—the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a beautiful people. Last month I started attending their meetings and blogging about my experience (my eventual goal is to do this with lots of different religions), and I have been amazed by how many similarities they have to us Latter-day Saints. In many ways, the congregation I visit strikes me as seeming like a ward of super-conservative Latter-day Saints.

    And I would disagree that those four things you list at the end are particular to Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any set of religions. Every person deals with those things; we just find different ways to handle them.

    Of course by “we”, I probably just mean “I”. :P

  62. Jeff G
    February 28, 2015 at 10:00 pm


    The church isn’t teaching anything close to the claim that doubting the sky is green is a sin.

  63. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    Jeff, the issue is whether belief is volitional. That thesis doesn’t depend upon how significant the belief is.

  64. p
    February 28, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    Impressive, mirrorrorrim, I admire your ecumenical spirit. When you do Rock House Holiness Church I’d love to see some pics.

  65. Jeff G
    February 28, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Right, but it does depend upon the immediacy of the belief, the standards by which we justify it, the degree to which it is so justified, the social consequences of the belief, etc. The example you mentioned couldn’t be more different all of these categories, especially that of social significance. Indeed, I would say that significance is VERY relevant to all faith claims.

  66. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    Just to expand a bit on that Jeff. Consider the person who believes the earth is flat. We might provide some arguments (ships slowly disappearing over the horizon, pictures from space, etc.) However if they are not convinced would we not simply say that they are suffering from mental illness and unable to think correctly? i.e. the typical response would be to assume they are not volitionary.

    I think what happens is that issues of inquiry get confused with issues of belief. That is we think that people who deny fairly well established science such as vaccines, evolution or global warming simply are only looking at research that supports their views or not examining conflicting evidence with an open mind. Open mind here doesn’t mean open to belief but actually taking the arguments seriously and not cutting off inquiry. Now it may be that after this some still don’t believe, for whatever reason. However I think that underlying the whole notion of rationality is that by rationally confronting arguments and evidence they lead us to believe. Of course the underlying psychology is a bit more complex, as we see with vaccines for instance. But I honestly think the real issue is inquiry and not belief.

    I’d add that I think this is the LDS position as well. Whether or not our critics agree, I think most LDS respond to doubt by providing means of inquiry assuming that through inquiry people will be led to believe. You can see this is the article under discussion. I think for many believing Mormons it’s hard for them to understand how others can inquire and not come to know. It’s clear that many do of course. I think that clearly knowledge via revelation works a little differently from other forms of empirical evidence. (I clearly think revelation can and often is empirical, albeit of a private rather than public sort)

  67. Clark Goble
    February 28, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    It’s true that to act on a belief its consequences matter a great deal. I’m not sure that’s quite the same as believing. But perhaps we could call it the degree of belief with that degree being the level to which we’re prepared to act as if it were true. Again I suspect there’s not a lot of volition in this, although clearly action are typically voluntary or at least are to some degree.

    So if I think there’s a poisonous scorpion in a box poised to sting me I’m not apt to put my hand in the box. If I think there isn’t such a beast then I’m more apt to put it in. The degree to which I trust the belief, or perhaps more accurately the degree to which I believe, will determine my action.

    I think the way to discuss all this is that whatever cognitive process that lead us to believe is determined by quite a lot. It almost surely is tied to our web of other beliefs and their strengths, our expectations, our fears, and perceived consequences. None of that implies that they are volitional though. They merely point towards the underlying functions that give us belief.

  68. Steve Smith
    February 28, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    Clark, great observation about belief. We aren’t in full control of what we believe, it is largely involuntary. Belief choice is somewhat of an illusion.

  69. March 1, 2015 at 1:08 am

    Clark, I wasn’t trying to say that people only want comfort, I was trying to say that Church has gotten good at the “You have a question, here’s the answer” paradigm, but is realizing that that isn’t working out like it does for the current leadership. I think it’s backing away from that paradigm, in part because certain personalities want something besides answers at certain crossroads in their lives, and because some of the ‘answers’ which were given, have turned out to be more personal opinions.
    So instead of being caught giving an incorrect personal opinions (ie, JFS man will never go to the moon), the leadership is keeping to principles, but still has yet to have comfort and empathy fill the small void.
    I think part of the issue is that many life long members are used to having to extract comfort from answers (because if you can’t do that you leave), and since all of the leadership are life long members they aren’t accustomed to these strange creatures which are searching for empathy, and not answers.

  70. Cameron N.
    March 1, 2015 at 1:13 am

    @Allison (57)
    “Just this month in Relief Society, one of the teachers said, ‘Questioning is from the adversary.’ True story.”

    Wow. I think so many in the church really don’t mentally process what leaders ACTUALLY SAY or consistently ponder things, instead of making up random stuff in sunday school. That statement has been overtly debunked at least 5 times in the last two general conferences in no uncertain terms…

    In terms of viewing belief as illusion of choice–Jesus usually treated belief as a choice, giving direct encouragement to those seeking His help, saying “believe.” It seems belief is quite separate from knowledge as well. Laman and Lemuel saw an Angel but chose not to believe that difficult things were necessary, and let enmity transform their hearts. We see a lot of this today, with public figures who adamantly resent a God they don’t believe in, due to their own misperceptions of his character.

  71. rah
    March 1, 2015 at 6:54 am

    I really feel for the church in this situation. The one thing they can’t seem to be able to say is that they are able to respect or understand someone who evaluates the evidence or their spiritual feelings differently than the orthodox Mormon position. That is where these articles fail for me. Sure it is ok to ‘doubt’ but it is never ok to come to a different conclusion about belief or activity. This then makes anything they say feel insincere because it leaves no place of honest seekers to come to any other conclusion but their conclusion. I just don’t think you can say you sincerely welcome questions if you have the only one legitimate answer to the question. It makes people feel manipulated.

    You can understand why they feel they must hold this line and the most orthodox version of Mormonism has pretty much come to require it. But I do think there is another way to go about this that doesn’t require them to compromise their testimonies or their principles or not give their best answers in good faith. It requires relying on a broader, more universalist strain of Mormon thought. It requires saying “we understand how people may choose a different set of beliefs. we wish them well. we encourage everyone to treat them with respect and we as saints should look for all the large common ground that still remain.” Instead what I got from this article is the sense that you can believe or disbelieve whatever you want as long as you behave the way the church says you should behave. Again that feels more manipulative than loving or respectful. In doing so they show again how much they don’t understand people with honest doubts and honest searches for truth. This makes us much less likely to keep them. Sometimes the “tighter the grip…the more that slip through your fingers”.

  72. Blake
    March 1, 2015 at 8:12 am

    The discussion about whether belief is volitional is really fascinating. I find myself agreeing with parts of both camps. For example, before I served a mission in college, I was agnostic. “How do you know God is there?” I would ask. After a variety of events – reading about Pascal’s wager, seeing how much religion benefited some people, not getting clear answers to my prayers or questions – I decided that I was going to “choose to believe” in God. It really was a choice. Perhaps one could quibble whether I chose to “believe” or just “act as if I believed” – but I went through all the motions, becoming active in the church, serving a mission…now, years later, I actually do believe, not just act it.

    On the other hand, I’ve never been able to choose to believe there was no death before a literal “Fall” 6,000 years ago. Perhaps I just don’t desire to believe this strongly enough. It just conflicts too deeply with science and other paradigms of knowledge I consider fairly reliable.

    In short, I’ve found that some beliefs are volitional, and that some aren’t. Some may depend on desire, yet often depends on external circumstances or our internal hardware. It seems to really boil down to the idea of free will – to what extent are our choices really free?

  73. Jeff G
    March 1, 2015 at 9:01 am

    Clark, I’m not sure what it would even mean to speak of a belief that is completely independent of our acting upon it or our articulating or communicating it. I’m not sure what’s left over.

  74. Steve Smith
    March 1, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Jeff G, try an experiment. Try believing that your mother is actually your father. I bet you can’t do it, unless of course some really really bizarre evidence emerged which confirmed that. Beliefs are caused.

  75. Dave
    March 1, 2015 at 1:24 pm


    I used to agree with the men are fallible and it is still God’s church, etc. However, after a lot of study and contemplation it doesn’t make sense to me that God would want us to remain in a child-like state, dependent on “prophets” who really never prophesy about anything of importance. Doesn’t the demand of “follow the prophets” take away some of our responsibility for own our decisions? Does God really want that? Also, does God even want a hierarchy? At a certain point doesn’t the child reach equality with the parent? A hierarchy won’t allow that and will want to keep those under it in a perpetual state of childhood. Additionally, why was it necessary for someone to die in order for God to forgive? I can forgive and my son remains alive.

    Given the above, looking at what Joseph Smith claimed and did and the various contradictions in his theology and teachings as time went on, it seems that he got caught up in constantly bringing out new doctrines without regard to what he said previously. Someone should have checked his new and improved doctrines for contradictions with his past doctrines, then maybe there wouldn’t have been the changes in 1 Nephi regarding “God” or “son of God.”

    And for me, I simply cannot square the racial priesthood ban, dark skin curse, or polygamy. Our ancestors married teenagers for heaven’s sake. So, please forgive me if I don’t take up pascal’s wager with respect to the Church that won’t let independent auditors look at the books.

  76. March 1, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    p, haha, if I ever did Rock House Holiness, I’d have to take pictures of it, to convince myself I was actually brave enough to do or even witness something like that. I’m not Indiana Jones bad, but snakes really aren’t my thing.

    On the discussion of whether belief is a choice or not, I think it is. The things we tell ourselves over and over again become the things we believe. p talked about “paper tigers” being a cult tactic, but I think they’re actually just a natural function of our brains and are a core survival mechanism all people develop to deal with life. We deceive ourselves as a way of handling the things we can’t cope with, and we all do it.

    As an example, someone who is extremely unhappy may tell herself, “Things will be better tomorrow.” In reality, things won’t be any better tomorrow—nothing about her reality will change—but that self-imposed belief enables her to get through the day. The more and more she chants the mantra, the more she believes it is really true. This allows people to endure otherwise unbearable oppression. Or a person with an addiction may tell himself, “This is the last time,” when in fact he will do the exact same thing in a day or week or month. But he tells himself that over and over again, and really believes it, and it allows him to live with his hated addiction. Or a spouse tells himself or herself, “My partner cares about me as a person and isn’t just using me to meet physical urges, and we have a deep connection that goes beyond biology,” and believes it, even when the relationship is abusive, and this allows him or her to stay in it.

    Some people who don’t believe in God have said that’s what all religion is: a societally- or self-imposed belief in a greater power in order to handle the unlivable reality that existence is empty and meaningless. As Marx so eloquently phrased it, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

    In short, I think we all make ourselves believe what we need to believe, as consciously or as subconsciously as we take breaths. In the end it doesn’t matter if those things are real or not, as long as they are good and practical, since it’s impossible for us to know reality anyway.

    Now, saying all that, I do believe that God is literally real, that He literally speaks to and cares about everyone and performs real miracles in all of our lives. I just know there’s no way I can know that for a fact right now

  77. p
    March 1, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    RE: is believe voluntary or involuntary?: Ironically (very ironically) it is highly possible that the ability to “believe” per se may have been positively selected in the evolutionary process commencing approximately 400,000 years ago during transition to anatomically-modern humans. Those individuals able to coalesce AS A GROUP around a strong leader who adhered to or advanced a pro-social religious codes were simply more likely to survive.

    “In the context of evolution, certain traits or alleles of genes segregating within a population may be subject to selection. Under selection, individuals with advantages or “adaptive” traits tend to be more successful than their peers reproductively—meaning they contribute more offspring to the succeeding generation than others do. When these traits have a genetic basis, selection can increase the prevalence of those traits, because offspring will inherit those traits from their parents. When selection is intense and persistent, adaptive traits become universal to the population or species, which may then be said to have evolved.” (Wiki under “selection”)

    – meaning, basically, that a proclivity to religiosity may be genetically transmissible.

  78. Clark Goble
    March 1, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    P (77), I’m quite sympathetic to that although I tend to follow Atran as seeing it also as tied to other basic cognitive functions such as agent detection. That said, just as eyes were a successful evolutionary trait because of the reality of light and its relation to objects, it may well be that evolution of religiosity is tied to success because of the reality of some underlying components of religion. i.e. the reality of the spirit.

    Mirrorrorrim (76) Why do you think reality is impossible to know? There’s a whole lot to unpack there that would probably go beyond the scope of this discussion. Overall it seems at a minimum to be a quite problematic position more or less verging into solipsism or relativism. That said, a lot of the discussion here seems tied to the inherent tension between pluralism and truth. (More on that below)

    Dave (75) I think the brethren have been pretty unanimous about us developing on our own. I’d argue much of the point of the Church is getting us to live by personal revelation. (In fact I’d say if there’s a problem in the Church it’s emphasizing personal revelation so much to just get people to live by it that we don’t spend enough time warning about the counterfeits of revelation) I don’t think in the least the brethren want blind obedience. Rather they give general laws in hopes of getting us to the stage we can live by the spirit.

    Jeff (73) I’ll probably write more on this tonight on my blog since we’re getting a bit afield. I tend to see belief/truth in terms of cognition as a functional disposition. As such it’s a kind of habit of reaction. While in one sense this is tied to actions, I think we have to be careful not to give a behavioralist definition ala Skinner back in the 50’s. The other problem is that we don’t have one belief so marking out beliefs is tricky since any action is the result of many beliefs often in tension.

    Blake (72) The “no death before the fall” isn’t technically a doctrine although obviously many have believed it although many other GAs did not. For instance Brigham Young held to a cataclysmic view of creation where this creation was made on the ruins of other creations and so dinosaurs were from a prior creation. (More or less the tale of Noah’s ark writ large) Others tended to adopt a view that the garden (terrestrial world) was literally a different world from this telestial world. Thus the angle had to guard Eden after Adam’s expulsion because it was literally a different place and was still there. i.e. the fall was leaving Eden for an other place. There are lots of other theories and from what I can tell the church doesn’t take a position on any of them. The “no death before the fall” theory comes primarily from a few prominent GAs like McConkie or JFS in the mid 20th century. People obviously still believe it, but there are lots of other mainstream views. (Not sure which Blake you are, so if you already know all this my apologies for confusing identities)

    Rah (71), it seems to me you hit on the core issue although I’d not characterize it quite the way you do. I think there’s an inherent tension between pluralism and commitment to truth. As I’d alluded earlier I think you see this on many contemporary issues in science and the public. Is science merely an other way of knowing with people denying science just taking an other view which should be treated the same? I think most scientists would strenuously disagree and think that we know truths within physics, biology, etc. This is why scientists get quite upset at say vaccine deniers.

    Within religion it’s the same sort of thing I think. Admittedly for many things we have much weaker evidence and (most importantly) much of the evidence to be interpreted is private rather than public.

    The question is whether commitment to truths can be reconciled with acceptance. Again I think we need only turn to controversial issues in politics and science to see the problem with an “anything goes” approach.

  79. p
    March 1, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Clark RE: religion & genetics – you’ll have a difficult time selling “reality of the spirit” to peer-review evolutionary biologists. Group cohesion might be a more reasonable middle ground, encompassing as it does all the above.

  80. ji
    March 1, 2015 at 9:45 pm


    Why would any care what peer-reviewed evolutionary biologists think about matters of the spirit? Are their words dispositive in these matters?

  81. Clark Goble
    March 1, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    P (79) I think I was pretty clear about distinguishing between private and public experience. Science can only deal with public ones. But of course there are lots of prominent evolutionary biologists who’ve been at BYU and I’ve heard testify of the reality of the spirit. And yes, they were peer reviewed. But let’s not conflate truth with science. Science is one of, if not the, strongest way to discover certain truths. But it’s not the only way we learn truth. I’d dare say few of the things you hold as true you arrived at via the scientific method.

  82. rah
    March 2, 2015 at 2:36 am


    I don’t think it is “anything goes”. Within the realm of science and generally positivist ways of seeing the world there are many areas where people disagree, even strongly, while acknowledging that those that take another reasonable side can have valid view points. Especially in areas like religious experience where commonly held experience or evidence is less often available respect needs to play an important role. I can respect my Mormon friends different interpretations of many issues based on their feelings. I can respect the religious feelings of my Catholic and other religious friends as real, valid and legitimate to them. I can respect my atheist friends reading of the evidence and their own experience as well. Within the framework of Mormonism (or any religion) this becomes much easier if you take a more universalistic view of God’s grace. If you really believe your Catholic friends are damning themselves (or them me) for all eternity then on that premise you can see how it difficult to accept their religious experience as valid as it must be of necessity outside God’s will.

    Where I do have a beef with religious people is when they make claims that are demonstrably and provably false and want to substitute their “feeling” for reality. Within our community, for example, arguing that women have equal say in the governance of the church is simply factually, observably false. Now someone can feel this isn’t important, or its God’s will or at peace with this. I can’t disprove their feeling about how to interpret it. Similarly the earth isn’t 6000 years old. There was no world-wide flood. Joseph married women and lied about it to Emma. These are just facts. I can be patient and kind. I can be understanding. But I can’t “respect” the beliefs of things that are demonstrably false. It doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do to argue every time or to value that over maintaining a relationship. But I don’t feel myself honor bound to respect things that are patently false, especially under the guise of a religion that believes in the search for truth no matter from whence it comes.

  83. Blake
    March 2, 2015 at 5:45 am


    Where can I find out more about the various theories of creation that you mentioned? (Other words, cataclysmic view of creation, etc.). Learning more would be a huge deal for me. Thanks.

  84. Steve Smith
    March 2, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Cameron N (70), I’m not sure if there is a set doctrine in the LDS church on whether or not belief is volitional. It could easily be construed that belief isn’t volitional since it is often said that the spirit testifies of the truth to people thus causing them to believe x doctrines.

  85. Terry H
    March 2, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Blake @ 83 and others. An excellent and little-known book that would be helpful is “Science, Religion and Mormon Cosmology” by the late Erich Paul. It provides a wide range of information that many on this thread would find helpful. His death at a fairly young age was tragic for those who knew him (of which I was not one, sorry to say) but I believe he would have been a helpful voice for those struggling with these issues today.

    As for the post which began this thread, I agree that the New Era treatment is better for this topic, but I believe that the majority of the article is correct. One caveat I would add to Elder Anderson’s statement about faith being a choice is that in order to exercise faith there has to be some element of plausibility that one can use to generate the seed Alma speaks of in Alma 32. If the historical issues bothering some are not “plausibly explained” to the individual’s satisfaction (my own phrase), then they can’t really exercise faith. I believe that’s why there are so many different statements by the early brethren (and also so many by those defending the Church now). What works for them may not work for others, but we also shouldn’t be so closed-minded as to close off others’ faith (or even our own completely) because something isn’t as plausible as we think it should be. I believe that’s where the “faith is a choice” element comes into play.

    One further point. God and Christ will judge us mercifully, but we should do all we can to ensure that the choices we make on these issues (i.e. faith and doubt) are as informed as possible. If we simply rely on the spin (from both pro and con), then we will suffer. Having spent quite a bit of time looking at the information from the con side (which hasn’t affected my beliefs), I can simply say that there are as many or more problems in their presentation of evidence and assumptions as they accuse the “apologists” of.

  86. RW
    March 2, 2015 at 11:43 am

    I a hard science setting “doubt” does not seem to apply. Questioning does. We cannot doubt the law of gravity even though we can question its basis or question situations where it does not apply or needs to be extended. We can only doubt assertions and opinions, which, by their nature, are untestable. The assertions of religion fall into this category, the assertions of faith.

    The proofs of assertions are generally feelings which cannot be independently and scientifically verified. When we doubt an assertion it is because we have a feeling that it is not an accurate representation of the facts of the matter. Thus we can argue about assertions whereas hard science is amenable to testing by repeatable experiment.

    The solution to doubt is to establish better feelings in the doubter. We hope that prayer will do that in a religious setting, that God will touch the hearts of the individuals. Another solution is to help people love the Church in a broader sense. If people love the Church then the effect of doubting its assertions will be substantially minimized by feelings of “rightness.” So, I assert that to counter the feelings of doubt the Church should foster feelings of “love” and “rightness.” IMHO, it is nearly impossible to tell people not to doubt assertions they do not fundamentally like.

  87. RW
    March 2, 2015 at 11:44 am

    “IN a hard science setting…”

  88. Clark Goble
    March 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Blake (83), I’d second Terry’s recommendation of Science, Religion and Mormon Cosmology. It’s not complete but it does a good job laying out a good overview of many of these topics. Beyond that doing searches at some of the major blogs would be helpful. (I’d say mine, but I’ve not yet had time to restore my old posts from before I rebooted the blog) The other place to read is simply old LDS books like Discourses of Brigham Young (more or less a selection of quotations from his sermons in the Journal of Discourses that the Church used to publish up until I think the late 90’s.

    Steve (84) I don’t think the Church has positions on anything terribly detailed or esoteric. Certainly not cognitive science or fundamental epistemology. That said a common belief is that one way the spirit works is by making some things appear certain. Now of course feeling certain and knowing are not the same thing even if they are sometimes conflated somewhat. This is a common folk view and I suspect were I to search I’d find talks adopting that view. Of course that view assumes that at least some times beliefs aren’t volitional but are given to us. (And of course even those espousing such views don’t think that the only way the spirit works)

    RW (86) I think one problem in the discussion is there’s a fair bit of equivocation over what doubt means. In some cases it is being used as believing something false. In other cases it’s used more as being unable to believe. In other cases it’s being used as a more positive action. Within science though I think as a social phenomena there is plenty of doubt. Most pseudoscience and what is seen as inappropriate skepticism (vaccine denialism, young earth creationism, global warming denialism) is a phenomena of doubt of various kinds.

    Certainly inquiry is an important component of science though. Even if Popper’s notion of falsification is problematic, there is a sense in which science adopts a thoroughgoing fallibilism. Further science (at least in its ideal if not always its practice) tends to see its theories as eternally tentative with a latent hope of overturning them with more knowledge. All that said I think it incorrect to say we can’t doubt the law of gravity depending upon what one means by that. After all the change from Newton’s law of gravity to the more accurate form within General Relativity entails a process of doubt. Likewise opinion and assertions are propositional dispositions with the key factor being communication of ones stance to the proposition. And of course propositions (at least good ones) are testable.

    Rah (82) I’m always careful using the “positivist” label. Partially because they are often a strawman in philosophy but also simply because I’m never quite sure what people mean. Rarely does it seem they mean the mature thought of Carnap for instance. Rather it seems more often an appeal to a kind of naive scientism. Which is of course bad, but I’m never quite sure what people mean.

    I know it’ll seem like I’m being pedantic but I also don’t like the term “valid” since again it’s not clear what is meant by that. I assume you mean “a position others should respect” but I’m not sure that works. For instance ethics famously are not open to science. (If only because “is” can’t entail “ought”) However very few people are able to adopt an “anything goes” view of ethics. The question of what constitutes reasonable in ethics is thus inherently problematic. Of course I don’t in the least think religion is only about ethics but I think it highlights the problem of what we mean by reasonableness when we can’t adopt anything like scientism.

    Certainly I agree on issues where we can show something to be false. I’m perhaps a bit more sympathetic to people since typically they just don’t have the background to establish what is historically accurate. Also, to be quite frank, I think many people say things are so when it’s much more open. (On both sides although you clearly are just pointing to the believing side) Also I’d note that people typically don’t know how to argue about these issues. Many of us, primarily due to our college education, know how to argue and what counts as soundness. Most people don’t and have a very hard time withdrawing their emotional responses. (I’d say even academic debates have a hard time avoiding emotional responses as the phenomena of “academic bloodsport” attests)

    Should we respect things that are false? Well again that gets us to the issue of pluralism again. You want to draw a line of disrespect for what is publicly established. I’m actually fairly sympathetic to that view but think it’s trickier than you suggest. In either case you find yourself with the very problem religious people struggle with. Love the sinner hate the sin. Only here’s it’s in a form of love the wrong believer but hate the belief. People struggle with making let alone communication well that distinction.

  89. March 3, 2015 at 12:12 am

    Clark, to respond to #78, what you consider problematic I find comforting. And if you set aside your fancy words for a moment, I’ll try to explain why. Let’s for a moment assume that the definition of “truth” is something that you can convince another person of. I know that’s probably not how you define it, and that’s fine—just imagine for a moment.

    With that definition, do you accept that truth becomes very relative? You can convince one person of something, or many people, but inevitably if you search long enough, you will find someone whom you cannot get to see your way, no matter how hard you try. Your truth falls apart.

    If you cannot convince every other person of something you believe, then how can you believe it yourself? The only way is to somehow separate yourself from the disbelievers, to find some distinction between you and them.

    Perhaps you are richer. But then, what of those richer than you? According to Forbes, the holder of all truth would be Bill Gates. Do you believe that? What about education? You seem like an intelligent person, so surely that is attractive. As you said, your college education has taught you to argue soundly, not like your lessers, always resorting to emotion. That, too, becomes problematic, though. What about Stephen Hawking? He is probably smarter than you are, and he’s an atheist.

    Examples could continue without end. No matter what measure you devise, there will always be someone better, someone further along to prove you wrong. If you turn to democracy, believing whatever most people believe is correct, you will also be let down, since Christianity, the world’s biggest sole religion, is believed by a minority of the world—less than a third. And even they can’t decide on what Christianity even means.

    So no matter how you look at it, you will always disagree with someone or something more qualified than you to be right. With that, what confidence can you have that you are right? It is the height of arrogance to believe somehow you alone, or as part of whatever small group you belong to, are right when everyone else is wrong. That is the ultimate deception. In all likelihood, by every means logic or history or science or any other measure humanity can deduce, you are wrong.

    You can spend your life worrying about that, or not worrying about it by judging others for the society-or-self-imposed deceptions they are under that make you so much better than them. Or you can let that all go, assume you’re just as deluded as everyone else, and do the best you can, following what is good and useful, always ready to accept something more and better as it comes to you.

    That’s why, I feel, Jesus said, in both the New Testament and The Book of Mormon, not to judge. It’s not because judging is bad—God does it all the time, and we want to be more like him. It is because we as humanity are unqualified to do it. To know the truth well enough for that, you would have to be more than human.

    You would have to be God.

    So, say my beliefs verge on whatever self-satisfied classifications you want to put them in. But please tell me what part of the above is wrong.

    In my experience, the basis of faith is accepting the above. Only when we know our own lack can we have faith in Someone greater.

    I hope my words were not too forceful—I don’t mean to offend you. And I accept I am almost certainly wrong. If you can show me how, I will be grateful to you.

  90. Josh Smith
    March 3, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Steve Smith (74 and 84):

    I’m also interested in whether belief is volitional. What about this thought?

    There’s significant research showing that the lion’s share of our thinking is “unconscious” or “subconscious.” We’re actually conscious of only a small fraction of our thoughts.

    Could it be that we can “program” the unconscious part of our mind to believe something that our conscious mind rejects?

    I’m actually open to the possibility that an otherwise rational person *could* ultimately accept that his mother was his father. I’m open to the idea that our minds are actually that malleable.

  91. Clark Goble
    March 3, 2015 at 11:59 am

    MirrorMirror (9) the problem with that is that people are able to persuade others of false things rather commonly. Again the example of vaccines is an other example. If the only limit on relativism is persuasion power then you’ve pretty much reduced truth to sophistry.

  92. March 3, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    Clark, I agree. But with that being true, you’re faced with the problem I outlined—you have to assume that you are one of the people being falsely persuaded. That was what I was trying to get across. It’s not that I actually think truth should be defined that way. The entire problem is that it can’t be.

  93. Steve Smith
    March 3, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    Josh Smith, I’m not so sure we could consciously program an unconscious part of our mind. It seems that thoughts are either caused by some external force or they appear randomly in states of both consciousness and unconsciousness. And thoughts are the foundation for beliefs. I get the sense that we are in more control of what we accept as evidence, but it is evidence amid other external factors (social factors, etc.) that are driving belief, thus making belief involuntary.

  94. Clark Goble
    March 3, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    We can affect our unconscious and we can change indirectly involitional parts of our cognition. To give an example most, if not all, people in the United States have racist biases that are largely unconscious. There are simple psychological tests that can demonstrate this. Yet once you take the test (usually reacting quickly to pictures and then seeing aggregate scores) you can see your biases. When you notice your biases and try to consciously counteract them your unconscious biases have less effect and are even reduced over time.

    So we should distinguish between control and direct volition. To give an analogy a person on certain drugs may not have control. However they can control when they are out of control by not taking drugs.

    The analogy to belief is that even if I can’t directly control my beliefs I can often indirectly control them. This can be done negatively through the techniques often brought up in false memories. (It’s surprisingly easy to lead humans to have false memories and thereby false beliefs. Abstract ideals are harder to impart but certainly not impossible.) The solution is to continue to inquire.

    I think most believers fully acknowledge that a searcher can sincerely pray and inquire and get an answer different from theirs. Just as skeptics and disbelievers can think they’ve sincerely prayed and received an answer the believer is wrong. I think there is compelling reason to think that if both parties continue to inquire that they will eventually reach the same answer. (Well, given enough time and focus — I recognize that often will not happen given our short lifetimes)

  95. Josh Smith
    March 4, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Steve, I’m certainly no expert on the human mind or the basis for beliefs. It’s my own experience that much more than just evidence goes into a belief. I’m leaving the door open that a significant source of belief is a part of ourselves that we cannot consciously control.

    One example that comes to mind is attitudes and beliefs about our own abilities. Regardless of evidence, many of us consistently overestimate our own intlligence, leadership aptitude, physical abilities, and sexual prowess. Those beliefs seem to be buried deep down inside. But, it seems possible that conscious actions could affect those beliefs, no?

    As to religious beliefs … admittedly, I do not understand the statement, “I choose to believe.” I don’t think I’m able to “choose” to believe things. Maybe the volitional believers really mean, “I behave as though I believe,” or, “I act as though I believe”?

  96. Steve Smith
    March 4, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Clark, I agree that beliefs can be indirectly controlled.

    Josh, indeed, there is much more than evidence that is causing belief, social and biological factors included. I have a brother who believes that the earth is flat, and seems sincere in his belief. I imagine that there are a number of psychological factors that explain his belief, but I certainly do not believe that he chose it. “Choosing to believe” also doesn’t make much sense to me.

  97. Josh Smith
    March 4, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    It’s not my intention to go too far afield of the original post. I think this conversation is related.

    Re: “I choose to believe”

    Many people I know approach life as believers, the “natural believers.” That is, the natural believer first believes and then must consciously choose to disbelieve. This is the case for all sorts of things, not just religion. For example, they’ll watch the news and become completely emotionally invested. They immediately believe the narrative. Note that I say this without judging one way or the other. I’m just making an observation that some individuals are “natural believers.”

    It’s an absolute hoot to watch movies with the “natural believer” because they are completely committed to the story. They scream out at appropriate times. Sob. They have a physical response to the story because … well, they seem to believe the story so completely that it absorbs them. Again, I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing. I know and love people who are able to do this sort of thing.

    Then on the other end of the spectrum we have the natural disbeliever. The natural disbeliever looks on from the sideline and can never join with others in belief, no matter how much he’d like to join. It’s not that he “doubts” so much as he can’t “believe.” The natural disbeliever is seemingly physically incapable of belief. Even when the natural disbeliever sees that a belief would benefit him, he is still unable to believe it. The natural disbeliever is just as capable of “choosing” to believe as he is capable of jumping off his back porch and flying out over the pasture.

    What if the natural disbeliever can secretly sneak a belief into his unconscious mind that he is incapable of believing with his conscious mind? Kind of a backdoor approach to belief.

  98. Clark Goble
    March 4, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Josh I think what you describe is engagement not really belief. That is to what degree to people do a double move an distance themselves from the experience and analyze it. An other way of putting it is to ask how reflective people are. The problem with your analysis is that of course there are plenty of reflective people who carefully analyze things who do believe.

  99. Josh Smith
    March 4, 2015 at 3:55 pm


    How would you distinguish between “reflection”/”analysis” and “doubt”? Personally, I much prefer to be a reflective person than a doubting person.

    For example, some of my beloved family members are Catholic. They believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe. I think it would be better for me at Thanksgiving if I were “reflective” rather than “doubtful.”

  100. Clark Goble
    March 4, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    As I said, I think people equivocate over doubt. I think it’s helpful to think of doubt as merely “chaotic moves” around ones disposition to a belief (i.e. not necessarily disbelief but not having a habit of believing) So to disbelieve a proposition isn’t doubt. It’s a type of belief. Doubt is more to not have a position

    Given that doubt is important to reflection since it is doubt that will direct one to reflection so one can come to know new things. Doubt leads us to inquiry.

    Of course it’s more complex than that. We can inquire or reflect independent of doubt. But doubt drives us in a way. It’s like a canker in our mouth that attracts our focus. Especially when the doubt is of things that are important to us.

    To reflect is thus just to move beyond my unconsidered living and reflect on that living. To think about such things in a more theoretical stance. Doubt is what we encounter in terms of rough hypothesis as we think about such things and can’t believe. So if I am raised in a Catholic culture there are all sorts of experiences that I can reflect upon. What does it mean to say that the bread is the body of Christ? Whereas the unreflective merely takes the bread without thinking about it much. Doubt comes when you can’t adopt your first given set of beliefs on it. (I don’t mean given in any strong sense, just that there is a representation of the experience you first get in your early reflection) Doubt happens when some of those can’t be believed. You can then either choose not to think about it more, choose to try and come up with new hypothesis and so on. Doubt merely indicates there’s a problem in this first representation of your experience.

    Of course you can also doubt new hypothesis you form. And you may find after inquiry your first reflection was right and your later hypothesis wrong.

    The point is to continue to inquire.

  101. Josh Smith
    March 4, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Clark, Thank you for this thoughtful response. I’m going to re-read it tonight and comment when I have more time. These are some interesting thoughts and I want to give them more time to digest.

  102. March 4, 2015 at 9:52 pm


    Real faith is choosing the better part: moving forward in trust that God is in control…

    God is in control of what? In order to meet your criteria of true faithfulness, specifically what do I have to believe he controls?

  103. Josh Smith
    March 4, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Well Clark, I’ve had some time to read over your post (100). Again, thanks for the thoughtfulness.

    I’m probably a natural disbeliever, with a few exceptions. Listening to choirs at Temple Square moves me deeply every time. At least for an hour, I suspend disbelief and let the music take me to a better world. Christmas is another exception to my general agnostic nature. Something about Christmas stirs belief. The nativity stirs belief. The image of the nativity allows me to suspend disbelief, if only for a moment. I could probably find other elements of organized faith where I am able to temporarily “believe.” … And moments out in nature. I muster all kinds of faith when I’m out in the natural wonders of this world.

    As I sit here, “reflection” does little for my belief, to be honest. The part of me that “believes” in things is not the part of me that “analyzes.” I’m going to give more thought to your distinction between disbelief and doubt. I think there might be something there. I also think you have it spot on that doubt leads to reflection and thought. However, it hasn’t been my experience that reflection and thought lead to increased belief. That hasn’t been my experience at all. But, if someone tells me they’ve had a different experience, I’d like to take them at their word.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful post.

  104. Scott Roskelley
    March 13, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    One question I have is who is Adam Kotter? Why was he chosen to write this article for the Ensign read by millions? People have doubts and questions not about the personal opinions of prophets but about the false doctrines taught by prophets. Kotter says, “Some people also stumble over statements made by Church leaders that have turned out to be incorrect, not about doctrine but in their personal opinions.” For example in a letter to Lowry Nelson signed by the prophet George Albert smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay they state “From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” This is an example of a doctrinal teaching taught by prophets, which is entirely false. Or, historically, how do we respond to members questions concerning the personal relationships of the founding prophet? For example, it is an historical fact that Joseph Smith was married, and sealed to over 30 women without the consent and approval of his wife Emma. He also had sexual relations with at least 12 of these women. It is difficult to simply consign these to the category of human imperfections of a prophet. Many in the church work in the technology or scientific fields, so when apostles or prophets teach in the official 1909 statement on evolution that the facts of organic evolution, are the “theories of men”, it is disheartening as it implies that the work technology people do all day is like reading fictional story books. It is a scientific fact not a “theory” that most humans carry ~2% Neanderthal DNA. It is a fact that the earth has experienced around 5 major extinction level events before the fall of Adam.

  105. Ben S
    March 13, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I suspect he wasn’t sought out and asked, but submitted something that was accepted. The Ensign solicits articles. Guidelines are here (pdf link.)

  106. Mark B.
    March 13, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    If Scott Roskelley really believes that “millions” read that article in the Ensign, I’ve got a bridge about a mile up the street that I’ll gladly offer to sell him.

    I suspect that his statement about the likely readership of that article came from the same well of certitude that produced his “without the consent and approval of his wife Emma” and “sexual relations with at least 12 of these women.”

    It’s odd that one who seems interested in “scientific fact”–whatever that is–is so willing to manufacture historical facts out of thin air and even thinner evidence.

  107. March 13, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Mark B., have you studied Joseph Smith’s polygamy much? I don’t think any serious scholars contest that some of Joseph’s polygamous marriages were secret from Emma—in fact, there are accounts of him remarrying certain wives once he got Emma’s consent. The same is true for the assertion that at least some of his polygamous marriages were sexual. For a primer, I would recommend Lindsay Hansen Park’s Year of Polygamy series. It’s extremely well done.

    The first 35 or so episodes are about Joseph’s polygamous marriages. If I remember right, Eliza R. Snow was one of the wives Joseph didn’t initially tell Emma about, so that might be a good place to start.

  108. March 13, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Tip for commenters responding to Mark B.: He means what he says, not what you read into his comments. He is one of the last people in this conversation to need a referral to anyone’s “primer.” He isn’t debating the details of historical polygamy, but is pointing at the certitude of Scott Roskelly’s claims (a point that also applies to Lindsay Hansen Park). We can be sure of some details of historical polygamy, supported by the historical record; we can make reasoned assumptions of other details, not fully supported by the historical record but based on knowledge of, say, human nature; we can make wildly speculative leaps on other details, totally unsupported by the historical record or by fairness, but based on wishful thinking, religious bias, and other unreliable tutors. We simply do not have reliable historical records to support the blanket statements Scott Roskelly has thrown around, and Mark B. knows that.

  109. Steve Smith
    March 14, 2015 at 9:51 am

    It’s odd that one who seems interested in “scientific fact”–whatever that is….

    Well, it is quite odd that someone who defends the LDS church’s bold and often evidence-lacking claims about history and nature to the point of accepting those as facts (and I base this on the years of reading comments by Mark B, provided he is the same Mark B, posted on T&S) invokes an almost postmodernistic attitude towards that which is asserted as scientific fact. If you’re going to flirt with postmodernistic thinking, why do it just for your own convenience? Why not go the full nine yards and just completely adopt the postmodernist mantra altogether, which is that most claims about reality are overstated and overconfident, not only those made by scientists, but all religionists and religious organizations? If scientists and historians can’t know as much as they think they do about history and nature through reasoned scientific inquiry, then it would logically follow that religionists know even less about nature and history through some esoteric “spiritual” inquiry, which seems to be nothing more than intuition. Skepticism about what is “scientific fact” may be a valid question on its own, but it is absolutely useless as a defense against some unliked, and often confidently stated, narrative of reality in favor of a different confidently stated narrative of reality. If you don’t like what many strongly evidenced and logically sound narratives have to say about history and nature, how about you confront the issues on their own terms rather than protect your narrative of reality by retreating to postmodernistic cynicism? For the postmodernist frame of mind is no support for religious claims at all, but is a foe to all who think that their perception of reality can transcend mere perception itself.

  110. March 14, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Ardis, I’m glad that you have a good personal relationship with Mark and can come to his defense; he is fortunate to have you as a friend.

    I don’t know him, so all I have to go off of are his words, where he says, “I suspect that [Scott Roskelley’s] statement about the likely readership of that article came from the same well of certitude that produced his ‘without the consent and approval of his wife Emma’ and ‘sexual relations with at least 12 of these women.’
    “It’s odd that one who seems interested in ‘scientific fact’–whatever that is–is so willing to manufacture historical facts out of thin air and even thinner evidence.”

    The structure of this post pretty directly ties Scott’s belief that Joseph entered some polygamous marriages without Emma’s consent and that some of his polygamous marriages were sexual to “manufactur[ing] historical facts out of thin air and even thinner evidence.”

    If that’s not what you were trying to say, Mark B, then please forgive my criticism, but you formed the structure of your post poorly, because that’s the association that rises out of a natural reading of it. If that is what you were trying to say, then I believe you do need a primer on Joseph Smith’s polygamy. You may not agree with those statements, and that’s fine and legitimate, but the vast majority of scholars do, so it’s just inaccurate to say they’re being created out of thin air.

    Unless, like Steve Smith talks about, you’re taking a view that all historical truth is actually unknowable, so all of what we consider history is based on insufficient evidence.

    That’s not far off from my own view, particularly in relation to religious matters, so if that was what you were trying to say, then I sympathize.

    Ardis, as for Lindsay Hansen Park, while she clearly (and openly) has anti-Latter-day Saint-institutional and anti-polygamous leanings, I feel she does a good job generally of trying to be as even-handed as she can. And Lindsay often (admittedly not always) does a very good job of not just saying what she believes, but telling what evidence there is to support that belief. For example, referring to Eliza R. Snow again, Lindsay points out the problems with the historicity of the oft-repeated story that Emma pushed Eliza down a set of stairs and thereby forced her to miscarry. She has also has tried to interview professionals from all different spectrums about polygamy, including the very conservative Latter-day Saint Brian Hales.

    So is she perfect? No. Does she generally do great work, and is she much more balanced, even-handed, and thorough than most sources, including the recent essays on polygamy? Most certainly.

    Sorry to disagree; I hope you’re not offended.

  111. Steve Smith
    March 14, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    If Scott Roskelley really believes that “millions” read that article in the Ensign

    He wrote that the Ensign is read by millions, which is true, not necessary the article in question.

  112. Really?
    March 14, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    Where do you find subscription figures/readership numbers for the Ensign, Steve Smith?

  113. Clark Goble
    March 16, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Ensign has about 350,000 likes on Facebook. I’m skeptical the number of readers is in the millions depending upon what one means by that. After all many may subscribe but not read. Then there are many who read electronically via the scripture program but don’t subscribe. (Honestly why would you subscribe in this day and age when it’s on your iPad or Android device?)

  114. Steve Smith
    March 16, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    If we took a time frame of 15 years and counted every individual who had just glossed over an article of the Ensign as a reader, I don’t think two million different people (thus being millions) is a far-fetched figure. Then again, maybe it is a little overstated and could have been better phrased, “hundreds of thousands of regular readers,” or something like that. Nonetheless, the vast majority of periodical publications would kill to have the readership numbers that the Ensign boasts.

  115. Clark Goble
    March 17, 2015 at 11:30 am

    As I said it really depends upon what we mean by readers. After all nearly all active priesthood holders read at least the First Presidency message. I confess that’s about all I read from it with a few exceptions. I suspect its similar for many others.

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