By the time I was 8, all of my friends had stopped believing in Santa. As a passionate Santa-believer, this made me sad, especially because I’d seen at least a couple of movies where Santa’s sleigh wouldn’t fly unless the children believed in him. They’re being exactly like the mean kids in that movie! I’d think, while wishing they’d just believe in Santa again so he wouldn’t be sad.
My friends would occasionally try to convince me that Santa wasn’t real. They’d tell me stories of having seen their parents come into their rooms with presents, and I’d dismiss them as either lying, or not understanding that Santa must have left the presents downstairs only to have their parents bring them up to their bedrooms. I began having some doubts about Santa when I deliberately didn’t tell my parents I lost a tooth one time, and the Tooth Fairy didn’t come. That was a blow for me, I’ll admit. But Santa was the big one, so I retained belief in him for months longer than I believed in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.
Then, one fateful Christmas as a 9-year-old, I saw my parents come into my room with presents. My then-fragile belief in Santa was shattered, and I realized that my friends had been right all along. Thankfully, I still continued to get presents from my loving parents every year, so Christmas didn’t stop being magical.
President Uchtdorf said at conference last weekend that Satan “slyly suggests that the doubter, the skeptic, the cynic is sophisticated and intelligent, while those who have faith in God and His miracles are naïve, blind or brainwashed. He will advocate that it is cool to doubt spiritual gifts and the teachings of the prophets.”
Given that the definition of the word skeptic is, “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions”, it’s surprising that President Uchtdorf would condemn skeptics, as church membership requires one to doubt the accepted opinions (and facts) of the rest of the world.
Choosing to “be not afraid but only believe” is what leads thousands of Utahans to fall for fraudulent schemes each year. It’s an attitude that can cause us to fall for anything. But of course, President Uchtdorf is only condemning skeptics of the church–I doubt he’d have a problem with people wanting facts and evidence before accepting other life-altering things.
The LDS church is in a transitional period–one that most religions must go through. General Conference this month only confirmed what we’ve known for a while now—that “choosing to believe” is the new “you can have certain knowledge”, because people are becoming aware of how strong the evidence against the church is. DNA evidence now conclusively shows where Native Americans came from (and it sure wasn’t Israel), Joseph Smith’s polygamy is admitted by the church after years and years of denial (which began with Joseph himself), scientists agree that there was no worldwide flood, the Earth definitely isn’t 6,000 years old, and so on and so forth.
If you’re a reader in the Mormon bloggosphere, you’ll have noticed months ago how many posts people are now making about “choosing to believe”, written usually along the lines of, “I read damning information about the church and was terrified. I didn’t know what to do because it seemed really legit, but eventually I remembered the nice feelings I once had about the church, and the idea of the church not being true was way too scary and impossible-seeming, so I determined that it’s true again/I chose to believe.”
Richard C. Edgley said, “I do not know where the city of Zarahemla was, as referred to in the Book of Mormon. I do not know why my beliefs sometimes conflict with assumed scientific or secular knowledge. Perhaps these are matters our Father in Heaven described as the “mysteries … of heaven” that will be revealed at a later date.”
Things former leaders of the church once declared as certain are now up in the air by current church leaders, who rarely speak about anything original or of real substance anymore. (I’m all for family love and charity, but let’s not pretend these are somehow prophetic teachings or that the word “ponderize” is an acceptable use of language.)
Anyway, back the point of this post. Is belief a choice?
If both sides of an argument are equal, then sure. When evidence is balanced and there’s not one side tipping the other, it would be reasonable to say that a person can decide which side they choose to believe. But life doesn’t really work like that, and Mormonism doesn’t work like that.
I couldn’t sustain a belief in Santa after I saw my mom come into my room with a sack of presents for me. I could sustain belief in him when I hadn’t seen the evidence for myself, though. I could believe my friends were lying or misguided, and that they just didn’t “get it”. In the same way, members of the church can choose to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet providing they minimize, deny, or simply don’t see any evidence against him. Truly investigating both sides of the argument without bias rarely leads people to believe the church is true—hence why people study themselves out of Mormonism, not into it. When the only spiritual, religious-based feelings you’ve had in your life are related to the LDS church, it’s easy to think that the LDS church is special/”true”.
L. Whitney Clayton said, “Your courageous decision to believe in Him will bless you immeasurably and forever.”
I personally do not understand why believing in something that has significant legitimate evidence against it is “courageous”. (I’m talking specifically about the God of Mormonism here, not God in general—there’s a ton of evidence re: Joseph Smith and the Mormon church, but less about the existence of God himself, for obvious reasons.)
If you believe a multi-level marketing company is going to make you tons of money, even when there is data showing that people rarely make a lot of profit from those types of schemes, you may choose to ignore said data in favor of your dream of getting rich. The dream is certainly nicer than the reality, just like the church being true feels like the FAR more preferable truth when you’re in the thick of it.
I studied the history of the LDS church from a faithful perspective. I searched for answers to questions so that I could strengthen my faith. (And in the end, with the desperate hope that I could keep it.) Though my bias was 100% toward the church being true, I concluded that it was not. This is what I wish people would understand about ex-Mormons who leave because of “anti-Mormon” material (reality: church-approved resources)—we wanted it to be true. We didn’t “give up easy”, “not have enough faith”, or “think too skeptically”. I studied so much because I cared so much. I had the faith to believe that there were answers to difficult questions. I wasn’t looking for “proof”, just an explanation for evidence that would certainly trouble any reasonable member of the church.
I don’t think we choose what we believe. I think we choose how hard we seek to educate ourselves. We can choose to only educate ourselves on one side, which makes it highly likely that we’ll adopt that side of belief. That is why I have a problem with religions telling their members not to look at any information that is critical of their church. For example:
We are the sum of our experiences, and those who choose to stay in the church after learning the incredibly damaging evidence against it are, in my opinion, acting out of fear and desperate hope. That’s not an insult. I totally understand why, because I did it for a while. I also think that choices we make in our life can impair our ability to choose things in the future. Similarly to The Matrix, there comes a point where it is almost impossible to open someone’s mind to truth, because they’ve had so much falsity ingrained in them for so long. At that point, it doesn’t seem like they’re even capable of making a decision, because they’re so entrenched in the one they made a long time ago. That’s why I hear things such as my father-in-law saying, ‘There’s nothing you could ever show me that would make me doubt that Joseph was a prophet.”
I hope that we can all realize the importance of living without fear, and with authenticity. So many people are trapped in the LDS church because of family, or attendance at a BYU school, or the fear of total isolation in a Mormon-saturated area. My heart truly breaks for those people. I have such incredible respect for people who are brave enough to go against what’s accepted by others in favor of what is true and what is right. That’s what real courage is, not just believing in something that’s provably false.
Further reading: CES Letter