The first week of October, millions of Mormons spent the entirety of their weekend watching or listening (or napping through) the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I spent the weekend in the mountains hiking with friends through golden aspen forests, exploring cliffs and lakes, and admiring the innumerable stars that only a moonless night in the remote wilderness can properly frame.
When I returned, my inbox had several messages from Latter-day Saint friends pleading with me to listen to a talk by Elder Russell Ballard. Scrolling through Facebook, I could see many others commenting about the talk.
Though Conference isn’t my cup of tea (my cup of tea is really just a cup of tea, something Mormons aren’t supposed to drink), I decided to accept my friends’ invitations to listen.
I don’t think my reaction is what they had in mind.
Despite Ballard’s “ heartfelt plea” to “understand those who are struggling with their faith,” his talk showed no actual understanding of the issues leading an unprecedented amount of people out of Mormonism. Rather than address what skeptics ACTUALLY experience, he threw out a few strawmen and then admitted he doesn’t “pretend to know why faith to believe comes easier to some than to others.”
Well don’t worry; I’m here to explain.
The very first problem with this talk is the introductory anecdote. Ballard shared the New Testament story of the individuals who abandoned Jesus because they “found it hard to accept his teachings and doctrine,” implying that the same thing is happening today.
Okay, first of all: Mormons do NOT have a monopoly on Jesus. Just because a person leaves the church does not mean they stop being a Christian.
And even if a person stops believing in Jesus, that doesn’t mean they stop being a good person. Most of the finest people I know are not Christian. I know this is hard for the faithful to imagine (especially ones who were indoctrinated from birth), but people are capable of being charitable, kind, generous, and happy without a belief in a god at all.
And if you want to understand those people, the first thing you ought to do is stop condescendingly implying your happiness is superior to their happiness.
The second problem with his scriptural anecdote is the implication that those who leave the church do so simply because it’s too hard.
Were he to practice what he preaches and actually mourn with those who mourn the loss of their faith, he would understand that 99.999 percent of people don’t leave because it’s too hard. In fact, losing faith in the church can be one of the most difficult things a person does in their life.
After drawing the condescending parallel, Ballard begins to lay out the things he thinks skeptics struggle with.
1. They struggle to understand church policy
This is probably in reference to the policy change that barred the children of gay couples from baptism. Since the policy change was leaked in November 2015, tens of thousands of members have resigned in disgust, myself included.
We didn’t resign because we “didn’t understand” the policy change (though the church tried to obfuscate as much as possible with mixed messages about the policy’s alleged revelatory origin and with later alterations). We resigned because we understood it all too well.
We understood that the petty policy targeted the most innocent group possible: children — for the homosexuality of their parents (an orientation they did not choose).
We understood that this policy would do more than bar children from baptism. It would also create psychological distance from their peers who would be baptized and confirmed members of the church, effectively “othering” them during the most formative years of their lives.
While others would receive the “gift of the Holy Ghost,” the children of gay couples would be left comfortless. While other boys would receive the priesthood and bless and pass the sacrament, boys of gay couples would sit on the sidelines like spiritual lepers, unclean by association, until the age of 18 when they’d be required to renounce their parents’ lifestyle before finally being fully accepted.
Not only that, the policy would have, and has had a terrible effect on members who wrestle with their sexual identity. This policy change has only made them feel even more out of place in an already hostile environment. It’s not too far of a leap to suggest that such church policies have had an influence on the spike of LGBT suicides in Utah.
Maybe the church should take seriously the warning of Jesus: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
We understand that the Jesus who said, “suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not,” would have nothing to do with such a policy.
2. They are concerned with church history or imperfections of some members
Church leaders allude to the imperfections of Joseph Smith as if their greatest crimes were forgetting to say “Amen” after a prayer.
Let’s just talk about some of the so-called “imperfections” of Joseph Smith:
He coerced 14-year-old girls into marriage. Adultery is supposed to be the sin next to murder, but Joseph Smith committing adultery with underage girls in fine because… ? Tell me, how come it’s bad for Warren Jeffs to do that but not for Joseph? Because he was a prophet? Yeah, that’s what the FLDS say too. That’s what every faith group with a sexually manipulative leader says.
Don’t give me the baloney about “marriage age was different back then.” Check the census records. It was not at all common for a 38-year-old man to marry a 14-year-old girl, especially after telling her that she would be destroyed if she didn’t.
Not only did he marry multiple underage girls, he also wedded married women — contrary to his own revelation — some whose husbands he had personally sent on missions!
Not only did he do this, he also lied to church members about it, setting a precedence for manipulative polygamy and “lying for the Lord” whose rippling effects are still felt in the church today. Not only that, he only went to Carthage Jail because he destroyed the printing press that was exposing the truth about his polygamous activities! That doesn’t sound like the actions of an honest man!
LDS polyamory is just one issue that could be analyzed exclusively for over a year and would still renew more and more horrifying twists (as a matter of fact, an incredible woman has already done just that! Check out the Year of Polygamy podcast!)
There are still many other concerns, including:
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Each of these topics, and many unlisted topics, are each a rabbit hole of jaw-dropping information.
Isn’t it odd that a church which claims to have prophets, seers, revelators, and apostles — something Ballard mentions as a reason not to leave — cannot even answer basic questions about its history and doctrine?
Platitudes like “doubt your doubts” and “stay in the boat” are not enough to resolve the overwhelming quandaries facing skeptics. Nor are the often speculative and self-contradicting explanations of the church’s intellectual dirty workers, the apologists.
Ballard said, “The answers are always there and if we seek them — really seek them with real intent and with full purpose of heart, prayerfully — we will eventually find answers to our questions.”
Not providing answers to any of their questions, Ballard subtly implies that those who leave the church didn’t “seek with real intent, with full purpose of heart, prayerfully.” Or perhaps he thinks they just didn’t hold out long enough to find answers. Well Elder Ballard, it’s been almost 200 years, and we are still waiting for good answers from the church.
He quotes Neil Maxwell, saying, “We must not assume because something is unexplainable to us that it is unexplainable.” That’s just the thing, Elder Ballard — many things are unexplainable by you because no matter what, they will not support your narrative. They are, however, perfectly explainable. You just don’t like the explanations.
3. They tire of living a religion that requires so much
“They were just lazy.” Yeah, no. Many who leave the church were very active leaders in the wards and stakes. There are also examples of higher-ups leaving the church after a lifetime of devoted service. These include area authority Hans Mattsson, and Jeffrey R. Holland’s personal friend, Tom Phillips, who received the highest temple ordinance, the second anointing.
Suggesting that skeptics are essentially too lazy to continue in the church is perpetuating the kind of myth that hurts individuals and relationships far more than their initial disbelief.
4. They weary in well doing
Again, what?! How many times do I have to say it? YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A MORMON TO BE A GOOD PERSON! When people outside the church engage in “well doing” it’s to actually help and get involved in the community instead of performing self-serving acts like preparing lessons and cleaning the chapel.
To Whom Shall Ye Go?
Ballard, apparently unaware of the fulfillment existing outside the Mormon bubble asks doubters, “to whom shall ye go?”
“Where will you be go to be taught about a Savior who is your best friend?”
Literally any Christian church. And most won’t sing “Praise to the Man” in sacrament meeting or require you to completely submit your intellect and conscious to a mortal intermediary. Here’s a novel idea: instead of learning about your best friend through others, why don’t you get to know him yourself?
Of course, you may discover that your best friend is just actually just a myth like Hercules or Gilgamesh, and in that case, you’ll have the chance to make new best friends who won’t threaten to send you to hell for not giving them 10 percent of your money! It’s a win-win.
“Where will you learn about the plan?”
Emanuel Swedenborg, maybe? Don’t forget, the church has been parroting the beloved Plan of Salvation for ages, but we never learn anything new about it. So don’t worry Elder Ballard, we get it. Instead of subscribing to your plan, we prefer to discover our own.
“Where will you go to find a detailed church organization?”
Again, literally any other church. The interesting thing about the LDS organization is that it doesn’t even conform to the structure given through revelation! The church operates today as a giant corporation, not a simple band of believers.
“Where will you go to find living prophets and apostles?”
If the self-contradicting, homophobic, racist, sexist, anti-intellectual geriatrics who have been wrong on almost every single social and scientific issue of the last two centuries are prophets and apostles, then I don’t care to find one ever again.
The latter-day prophets don’t speak for God. When was the last time they offered a prophecy? No, I don’t mean a press release or a proclamation. I mean a bonafide “thus saith the Lord” revelation. When was the last time they shared a vision they had or revealed a previously unknown truth about the metaphysical world? The LDS church perpetuates an idea of prophets that do not prophesy, seers that do not see, and revelators that do not reveal.
If you want someone who uses the recycled talks covering the same tired principles over and over and over, you can go to literally any other church. And the other churches will likely be far more entertaining. A quick perusal of YouTube will reveal much more inspiring and intellectually stimulating talks than have ever been offered in General Conference.
“Where will you go to find people who live by a prescribed set of values that you share?”
Here’s the fun thing about leaving the church: you don’t have to live by a prescribed set of values. You get to decide how you want to live — you know, like intelligent adults do. That also means getting to choose your friends, who can be found — you guessed it — literally anywhere.
Some religionists say, “Without God, what’s to stop you from murdering or cheating on your spouse or being dishonest?”
Religion never stopped people from doing those things. In fact, it gives them a justification for doing bad things. Joseph lied. Nephi lied and murdered and stole. Joseph cheated on his wife. The Book of Mormon teaches racism. And don’t forget the Old Testament where God endorsed genocide, rape, looting, misogyny, and even slavery! Instead of saying, “Wow, that’s really bad,” we say, “It’s okay because God said so.” WHO IS THE MORAL RELATIVIST NOW?
The religious can justify any misdeed, now matter how grievous, yet somehow it’s the irreligious we need to watch out for!
“Where will you go to experience the joy that comes through the saving ordinances and covenants of the temple?”
Apparently the joy I felt in the mountains this weekend wasn’t as good as dressing up in business attire to try to stay awake through a two-hour presentation of material that I have seen dozens of times? Apparently lifelong committed relationships aren’t quite as meaningful if they aren’t accompanied by secret handshakes?
Elder Ballard, you’re shooting arrows and painting targets around them. You are essentially saying, “I do this particular thing and I feel happy, ergo, this action is required for everyone to feel happy.” Your post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy doesn’t help reassure people, it only further convinces us that you have no concept of what life is actually like outside the church.
“What brought you to your testimony?”
This question deserves an entire post of its own, but in short, I’ll say what brought me to my testimony of the LDS church is the same thing that brings Muslims, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hare Krishnas, Scientologists, and even Mormon fundamentalists to the testimony of their religion: indoctrination.
Mormons think they are experiencing something truly unique when they get warm fuzzies. Turns out, the same things (including visions, angels, revelations, voices, tongues, healings, etc.) are experienced by people of every faith. If they weren’t, nobody would join any of them!
Here’s a terrific video explanation how people of all faiths become absolutely convinced their religion is true, even at the expense of their own lives. Watch it and then tell me your testimony is somehow better than theirs:
Like an abusive partner (or a cult, imagine that), Russell Ballard has tried to make us fear life without the church.
Where will we go? We’ll go wherever the hell we want to go. We’ll go to the real world where science can teach us about the elements and the origin of the earth and species, where rationalism can help us form values and opinions without relying on a magical worldview, and where technological and medicinal advances are causing more lame to walk, more deaf to hear and more blind to see than religion ever has.
We’ll go where truth is the authority, rather than the inverse. We’ll go where we can let our intellect sprawl without limitation. We’ll go where questions and progressive views are valued rather than suppressed. We’ll go where doubt is recognized as the beginning of wisdom, and not a spiritual “infirmity.”
We’ll go outward, becoming a more integrated part of a local, national, or global community. We’ll go to groups who are radically accepting of everyone, including LGBT individuals. We’ll go to those who value internal character instead of issuing judgments based on the outward appearance, like skirt length or facial hair, or arbitrary moral qualifications, like drinking coffee or masturbating. We’ll associate with those who actually promote gender equality instead of just offering hypocritical lip service.
We will go inward, discovering who we are when we aren’t told who we are supposed to be. We will go in glorious imperfection, understanding that mistakes are just a part of the human experience. We’ll go onward, discovering that the happiness the church sells us in sacrament-cup-sized portions grows on trees all around us.
Wherever we go, it will be because WE, not an ancient book of fairy tales or a businessman with an ecclesiastic title, decided to go there.