[Cross-posted from Mike Ash’s personal blog.]
My first book attempted to assuage the faith-crisis concerns of struggling Latter-day Saints. The work continues.
The First Step
At the risk of sounding boastful, I’ve authored three books (with a fourth on the way) and hundreds of articles (both in print and on-line) in the hopes of reinforcing and safeguarding the faith of Latter-day Saints. I don’t mention these accomplishments to brag, but rather to lament. Despite hundreds of hours researching and writing thousands of pages of material, I find that through the years, over and over again, members who struggle with their faith fall trap to the same problems I addressed a dozen years ago.
Earlier this year (2020), I received an email from someone who asked if my views expressed in my book Shaken Faith Syndrome (2008 and updated in 2013) have changed since I wrote the book. My answer was that the arguments I made in that book are virtually unchanged and that the cognitive suggestions and observations I made then, are equally applicable now.
As I’ll try to address in future articles, members today stumble over the same cognitive dilemmas (often of their own making) which sets them up for problems when they encounter faith-challenging material. As a people, we haven’t matured in our intellectual approach to gospel topics (despite the fact that even the Church had made attempts to update our thinking with articles such as those included in the Gospel Topics, essays).
It’s also important to point out that some members have misunderstood my purpose for writing my books and articles. When discussing my first book (Shaken Faith Syndrome, hereafter SFS1) with some members, for example, those members have sometimes responded with erroneous assumptions about my intent and the perceived strength of their testimony. Hypothetical Elder’s Quorum President, “George,” for instance, might state something like the following:
Your book is obviously targeted to members who are struggling with their faith. My faith is fine. I don’t really pay attention or worry about what the critics are saying, because I have a firm testimony in the Restored Church. I lean on the Spirit, not on the arm of flesh.
While I certainly wrote SFS1 to help members who were struggling with the challenging issues presented by critics, I also wrote it to help prevent testimony damage (this applies, in fact, to virtually all of my LDS writings). Many former members were once stalwart members who didn’t think their testimony could be shaken.
The first edition of SFS1 was published in 2008. While my book was not the first to address the long list of “problems” that seemed to contribute to the faith-crisis of some members, I believe my book was the first to offer a somewhat comprehensive discussion of the general attitudes that were common among those who eventually left the Church.
Prior to my book there were other books that engaged specific LDS critical arguments (such as Book of Mormon anachronisms, the First Vision, as well as theological issues), and there were at least a couple of studies that studied the exit narratives of former Mormons in an attempt to understand why these people had left the Church. Howard Bahr and Stan Albrecht, for example, published researcher about disaffected Mormons in 1989[i]—the same year American Online (AOL) launched, a year before the World Wide Web protocols were finished, and two years before the first web page was created (1991).[ii]
When I wrote SFS1, I was unaware of the journal research of Bahr and Albrecht. Looking at their studies now, I see hints of what was coming, but some significant differences in the road to disaffiliation than is experienced by Mormons who live in an Internet age. I believe my book was unique in addressing LDS deconversion from a perspective that examined the issues, feelings, and cognitive process of those who encountered faith-challenging information on the Internet.
In SFS1 I pointed out that in this day of easy Internet access, some members stumble upon LDS-critical website accidentally while doing personal research (or perhaps research for a Church lesson or talk). I explained that LDS critical material often caused cognitive dissonance—a feeling that LDS truth claims and secular research led to opposite conclusions. I argued that black and white thinking, and the belief that the Church was hiding the truth were two powerful perspectives that often initiated some church members to exit the faith. I also argued that a larger religious worldview that embraced greater secular education could strengthen testimonies or could help prevent a faith crisis.
Since 2008, a number of other books, blog articles, and surveys have expressed similar ideas to what I argued in 2008. This would include Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (2015, Patrick Q. Mason), and A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History (2016; Laura Harris Hales. 12 of the 17 topics in her anthology, were already addressed in the first or second edition of Shaken Faith Syndrome).
Several of these later studies also bolstered my argument that many ex-members left the Church over their impression that they discovered serious challenges to historical, scholarly, and scientific issues that contradicted what they had learned in Church. In 2008, I wrote:
The critics know that if they can show that Joseph was a fraud then he was not a prophet (and hence the Church is false). They generally attempt to demonstrate Joseph’s fraudulence by trying to prove one of the following: (1) the history, lifestyle, comments, or speculations of Joseph Smith or subsequent prophets are not harmonious with what one would expect of prophets; or (2) the Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon are fictitious, thereby proving that Joseph was deluded or dishonest.[iii]
In the summer of 2008, right after SFS was published, I was invited to participate in a Sunstone Symposium discussion about my book. Sunstone is known for their liberal religious bent on Mormonism. The title of the presentation was “Author Meets Critics. Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt.”
Among the panel members (“critics”) who were to address my book (and all of them had read my book) was John Dehlin, a Latter-day Saint psychology student (who later went on to get his doctorate ). Dehlin was a blogger, podcaster, and (when he addressed my book) was the executive director of the Sunstone Education foundation. Although an active Mormon (at the time), he was not shy about sharing his doubts and struggles with various LDS issues. During his Sunstone presentation about my book, he mentioned some things he liked about my book and things he didn’t like about my book. I recall how he enthusiastically showed me how marked up his copy of my book was. He had numerous textual underlinings, and notes in the margins on many pages.
By 2011 Dehlin began an on-line (non-scientific) survey of former Mormons and their thoughts, feelings, and impressions as to why they had left the Church (to be discussed in greater detail below). In 2015, the same year Dehlin received his PhD, he was excommunicated from the Church.
According to Dehlin’s survey, among the primary reasons that his survey volunteers left the faith was over Doctrinal Issues, Historical Issues, as well as the loss of faith in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. While the results of his survey have been called into question by some,[iv] many of the primary findings not only support what I wrote in 2008, but have found continued support since Dehlin’s research was published.
What I wrote in 2008 was not based on polls, surveys, or on original scientific research (although it relied, in part, on the scientific research of others). Many of my findings were based on my personal research, anecdotes of struggling members and former Mormons, as well as my personal experiences talking with struggling members and former Mormons. I believe my thoughts on the topic has, thus far, withstood the intervening years, and that it can argued that my book influenced (uncredited) the perspectives of other writers who have followed.
I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming that Dehlin plagiarized anything from my book or that he knowingly borrowed from my book without credit. All of us are, to some degree, children of our environment. We think, talk, and act in ways that are influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by the words, actions, and writings of others (regardless of whether the source of that influence comes from books, movies, blogs, music, or personal interaction).
From a strictly psychological aspect, it’s an inescapable conclusion that some of the thoughts, perspectives, and conclusions that influenced Dehlin’s survey and research would have come from sources that preceded his own work (2011). So, likewise, my thoughts, perspectives, and conclusions were influenced by environmental influences before I wrote SFS1 (2008). I can’t see how my book didn’t, in some ways, play some part in Dehlin’s environmental influence.
Dehlin’s research was publicized in 2012—the same year I finished an updated, 2nd edition, of Shaken Faith Syndrome (hereafter, SFS2). At the time, I was unaware of Dehlin’s project (which was publicized in 2012). SFS2 was published 2013. As Dehlin’s survey became more widely known, two of Dehlin’s friends took his work even further.
Faith Crisis Report
LDS historian Gregory Prince, and independent researcher Travis Stratford, prepared a report on Mormon disaffiliation (based on Dehlin’s survey) with the input from other LDS researchers and historians.[v] As far as I know, Prince and Stratford are still members of the Church, although some of their beliefs on LDS issues might be described as unorthodox by the average Sunday School Latter-day Saint (which is not a slam against them, since some people believe that some of my views are unorthodox as well).
In 2013 (the same year SFS2 was published) a report based on Dehlin’s research, and entitled LDS Personal Faith Crisis Report (hereafter, FCR) was apparently presented to President Uchtdorf and later to other members of Quorum of the Twelve. According to Prince and Stratford’s report, “Our data show a significant number of Church leader (who have traditionally been stalwart, active, and highly committed) are leaving the Church….”[vi]
Five years earlier, in SFS1, I had likewise written: “Members who do have spiritual testimonies, however, are not immune to personal apostasy. Sadly, we know from history that even some formerly stalwart members with significant spiritual experiences—such as Sidney Rigdon and the Three Witnesses—apostatized. Even some modern-day Church leaders have forsaken the faith despite having had real testimonies.”[vii] We find a number of other similar conclusions, discussions, and concerns in FCR and SFS1.
FCR: “Not addressing the Faith Crisis issue will compound the challenge for future leaders and future generations of members.”[viii]
SFS1: “It has been said that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Exposing and examining the issues are the only effective ways of understanding the issues….”
The second goal of this book [SFS1] is to strengthen member testimonies by educating them in new perspectives and ways of understanding history, science, bias, prophets, and even personal revelation. Members who develop more mature ideologies about the nature of religion, prophetic leaders, the scriptures, and the limitations of human knowledge are less likely to be troubled by potentially sticky issues.[ix]
FCR: “The Internet democratizes information. Today, literally no question goes unanswered. Through the Internet, our members now have access to uncorrelated Church historical data, details, and doctrine that vary—and sometimes conflict—with our traditional LDS narrative. The Internet presents this “uncorrelated” information from vastly different perspectives (from apologetic to highly critical).
… Adam (a pseudonym) was a young man in my New York City ward when I was in the bishopric. Adam had a leader to youth ratio of 3 to 1 and was, by all accounts, a solid y oung man with great leadership potential within the Church. In mid 2011, Adam discovered through Facebook the anti-Mormon web site, iamanexmormon.com. This antagonistic web site mimics the “I’m a Mormon” campaign by presenting videos of members telling their disaffection stories. A few weeks after discovering this website, Adam lost all faith in the Church. Feeling betrayed from not being told “the whole truth,” and wanting to share his pain with others, he posted a link to an “I’m an Ex Mormon” video on his Facebook page.[x]
In this wonderful age of information access, the Internet affords students and researchers the latest scoop on a variety of topics and newsworthy events almost as they happen. …With so much information available—from so many different sources and from so many different authors with a wide array of opinions and varying degrees of knowledge, authority, and expertise—we are sometimes left uncertain as to the value of some of the expositions we uncover.
Sometimes we encounter information that conflicts with previously held beliefs, or perspectives. …More members than ever before are encountering doubt-generating “discoveries” because of the Internet. Some, for instance, stumble upon anti-Mormon literature while doing research for a talk or lesson.[xi]
In Dehlin’s report, from 3,000 people who had responded to this survey, the top reasons listed as to why they left the church were: “I ceased to believe the doctrine/theology,” “I studied church history and lost my belief,” “I lost faith in Joseph Smith,” and “I lost faith in the Book of Mormon.”[xii] The historical issues that ranked highest on the problematic scale for these former members were: the “Book of Abraham,” “Polygamy/Polyandry,” “Blacks and the Priesthood,” and “DNA and the Book of Mormon”[xiii] (all of which—with the exception of the “Blacks and the Priesthood”—were covered at length in SFS.[xiv] The priesthood ban was addressed in the 2013 2nd edition, the same year FCR was published[xv]).
FCR quotes one anonymous responder: “It’s not any one of these historical issues, but the accumulation of them combined with the Church’s lack of addressing these concerns on their own.”[xvi]
In SFS I quoted Benjamin McGuire, another believing scholar who wrote: “If critical material is accepted uncritically, after a while the sheer mass of it attains enough weight to unbalance even a personal testimony, if they are not dealt with in other ways.”[xvii]
In FCR another anonymous responder wrote: “I defended the church to associates who brought up some historical issues. When I did my own research, I found they were true. My issue wasn’t that they were true but that my whole life I was never told about them… I felt betrayed by the church.”
I feel like I cannot trust the general leadership on any spiritual issues because they cannot even be honest and open about our past.
…The Church needs to be honest with its history and contradictions… instead they make us who have discovered the complicating facts look like the evil ones. I am shunned by my family. They think I am a liar and a deceiver when it is the Church and general authorities who have deceived us. [xviii]
In SFS1 I wrote:
If an acceptable solution [for LDS challenging issues] is not found quickly, then those feelings of turmoil can quickly turn to feelings of frustration and betrayal…. The pain is exasperated by feelings of betrayal because it is often assumed that the Church is lying, hiding the truth, or leading the member down a rabbit hole of false hope. Once disaffection overpowers belief, faith is lost and the original challenging discoveries are no longer the issue; the greater issue becomes the feelings of infidelity and deception—feelings that are not easily overcome even if serious answers are later forthcoming. A testimony lost at this stage can be hard to restore. What might have been sufficient answers earlier become insufficient once resentment—as a result of presumably being deceived—replaces faith. At this point logic and rationale take a back seat to emotion. When some members discover information that conflicts with their previously held assumptions, they may feel as if the “real truth” was suppressed; that they have been deceived and that the Church is responsible for the deception. As LDS scholar Kevin Barney noted, “People can absorb hard facts when presented in a context of faith. But they cannot absorb the feeling of being lied to.”[xix]
During the Catalyst stage, many struggling members begin experiencing cognitive dissonance—or feelings of discomfort—when presented with data that contradicts their previous beliefs. This dissonance can often be magnified by well-meaning leaders who—in an effort to bolster faith present dichotomous messages that leave little room for nuance, error, or leader fallibility.[xx]
Ex-members, for instance, generally claim that issues such as polygamy, the translation of the Book of Abraham, or Brigham Young’s racial views created cognitive dissonance that eventually caused them to leave the Church. Usually, however, the actual competing cognitions are generally a set of assumptions or perceptions of “what a prophet is and how a prophet should behave—compared with evidence about what the prophet was and how the prophet behaved. One critic, for example, noted his bewilderment at how the Book of Mormon could be a very poorly written text, if it “were truly dictated from the mouth of an omniscient god….” Likewise, he seems perplexed as to how Brigham Young, who claimed “to speak for the same omniscient god,” could have fallible thoughts about the cosmos. Another ex-Mormon claimed, “every last thing that came from Joseph’s mouth and/or pen should have been Universal truth.” Unfortunately, sometimes, believing members seem to share this fundamentalist assumption.[xxi]
From two anonymous responder in FCR:
Please stop with the apologetics as well. FAIR and the Maxwell Institute contributed to my leaving the church. Sincere believing members want to hear [about troubling issues] from the leaders they set apart as prophets, seers and revelators.
The problem is we have NO WHERE to go for official answers. You do a search on LDS.org for polygamy and get a talk from Elder Ballard about why people should stop asking us about it.[xxii]
…some members think that modern prophets should never make mistakes in matters of history, geology, or geography—especially if they believe such matters relate to scripture. We should not expect prophets (including modern-day prophets) to have a complete understanding of all gospel principles or all gospel related issues, nor should we expect them to be free of prejudice, cultural bias, and traditions.
Regarding those issues for which we have no revelation (such as Book of Mormon geography, for example), prophets may offer speculations like any other student or scholar. Those speculations could arise from analysis, evaluations, and arguments based on their understanding of the evidence. Their intellectual reflections, however, do not carry the same weight as revelations.[xxiii]
Among FCR’s suggested “insights & potential strategies” for mitigating faith crises for future generations:
The gap between the history currently taught and factual history is—in certain instances—highly differentiated. …Inoculate current membership and future generations by closing the gap between our historical narrative and factual history.[xxiv]
The intent of this book [SFS1] is twofold. The first goal is to expose members to potentially troubling issues in a faithful setting, thereby inoculating them against the damage that might be inflicted by critical attacks. The world is not perfect. Humanity is not perfect. Past and present prophets were and are not perfect. We do not have all the answers and sometimes we have to live with ambiguity. We should not, however, hide from imperfections, uncertainty, and controversy. Sooner or later—especially in today’s Internet world—we will likely have to face some troubling issues or ambiguity. If we cannot face controversy, it may sneak up and bite us.
….The second goal of this book is to strengthen member testimonies by educating them in new perspectives and ways of understanding history, science, bias, prophets, and even personal revelation. Members who develop more mature ideologies about the nature of religion, prophetic leaders, the scriptures, and the limitations of human knowledge are less likely to be troubled by potentially sticky issues.[xxv]
FCR offered “Estimated Outcomes” as a result of presenting the Brethren with their report:
On October 6, 2013—a few months after receiving the faith crisis reports—Uchtdorf delivered his seminal General Conference address, “Come, Join with Us,” in which he acknowledged to the Church’s worldwide membership that past leaders had “made mistakes” that had caused some members to have doubts, an admission that was a significant shift in tone towards members with questions. Uchtdorf also taught that it was inappropriate for other members to assume those with doubts “have been offended or are lazy or sinful.” Two months later, on December 6, 2013, the Church published the first of its “Gospel Topics Essays,” which seek to address many of the historical and doctrinal issues raised in the LDS Personal Faith Crisis and Faith Crisis Chronicles reports. According to Church History Department leaders, the essays were administratively spearheaded by Uchtdorf.
In the months following delivery of the LDS Personal Faith Crisis and Faith Crisis Chronicle reports, several General Authorities told Stratford that the team’s work had been reviewed by several other prominent General Authorities—and that both reports were on file at the Church’s “restricted” research library (with only top leaders able to access the sensitive reports). The notable shift in leadership tone and transparency between 2011 and the end of 2013 should not be solely attributed to the team’s faith crisis work. But several General Authorities remarked to Stratford that the initiative was instrumental in facilitating changes.[xxvi]
While I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the FCR helped influence the Church’s direction to begin addressing the most significant faith-challenging issues, I should also point out that (according to first-hand conversations and reliable sources), several of the Brethren also own copies of SFS1 or SFS2. Whether most have read the book or what they think of the book is mostly unknown. I do know, however, that President Uchtdorf has read SFS1 (prior to the publication of Dehlin’s data, or the FCR), and expressed a positive opinion on the work,[xxvii] so it’s seems reasonable to assume that both FCR and SFS were two, of possibly multiple sources, that influenced Church leaders to address the member disaffiliation dilemma.
A Continuing Problem
So what’s the point of this post? Why bring any of this up? The point is that, members still continue to leave over intellectual issues that not only have solutions, but that could be mitigated with inoculation and more critical thinking (a topic for another discussion). Neither Dehlin or the FCR ever credit’s SFS1 as an influence on their research. Prince and Stratford (FCR) may not have been aware of SFS1 because their report was based on Dehlin’s survey.
While Dehlin was very familiar with SFS1, he may not have realized that my research influenced his survey, he assumptions, and perhaps conclusions. In fairness, none of us are typically aware of all our sources of influence. SFS1’s influence on Dehlin might have been of indeterminate nature as part of his overall environmental worldview of Mormon issues.
The same challenges that faced members more than a decade ago (and in some instances, several decades ago) are still with us, rising up like a rodent’s head in a Whack-a-Mole game. It won’t ever stop, and there will always be members who leave the faith over, what they see as, intellectual challenges. But as I argued in 2008 (and will argue again in greater detail in my forthcoming book), some of the intellectual challenges can be averted if we change how we think now—and, quite frankly, that entails an increase in critical and mature thinking. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corin. 13:11)
Latter-day Saints need to put away their “childish” ways of thinking, embrace new perspectives, paradigms, and even ambiguity—all of which can potentially shore up our faith and strengthen us against the supposedly challenging issues of Mormonism. The arguments I made in 2008 are as important and applicable today as they were a dozen years ago.
[i] Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, “Strangers Once More: Patters of Disaffiliation from Mormonism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (June 1989), 28:2, 180-200.
[ii] William Craig, “The History of the Internet in a Nutshell,” (15 November 2009), https://www.webfx.com/blog/web-design/the-history-of-the-internet-in-a-nutshell/
[iii] Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt (The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 2008), viii-ix.
[iv] See Tonya A. Boyd, “Leaving Zion: The Experience of Disaffiliation from the LDS Church,” Doctoral Dissertation, School of Professional Psychology, Pacific University, Hillsboro, Oregon (26 July 2013), 12.
[v] LDS Personal Faith Crisis (June 2013), 135.
[vi] Ibid., 10.
[vii] Ash (2008), 14.
[viii] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 10.
[ix] Ash (2008), ix.
[x] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 14, 18.
[xi] Ash (2008), vii.
[xii] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 31.
[xiii] Ibid., 32.
[xiv] Ash (2008), 111-128, 215-229, 157-162.
[xv] Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, Second Edition (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 2013), 289-302.
[xvi] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 34.
[xvii] Ash (2008), 14.
[xviii] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 35-36.
[xix] Ash (2008), 9-10.
[xx] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 47.
[xxi] Ash (2008), 21.
[xxii] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 63 and 65.
[xxiii] Ash (2008), 25-26.
[xxiv] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 27.
[xxv] Ash (2008), ix.
[xxvi] LDS Faith Crisis Report, 138.
[xxvii] Personal conversation.
Michael R. Ash, a FAIR member for more than twenty years, has been featured in nearly 90 podcasts and 30 videos. In more than two decades of writing LDS-themed material, and as a former weekly columnist for Mormon Times (owned by the Deseret News), his works include over 160 on-line articles, as well as articles in periodicals such as the Ensign, Sunstone, Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s FARMS Review, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Michael is the author of three popular LDS books: Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt (also available in German and Italian), Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Bamboozled by the CES Letter: An honest response to the .pdf pamphlet entitled “Letter to a CES Director.” Michael’s newest book, Rethinking Revelation and the Human Element in Scripture: The Prophet’s Role as Creative Co-Author, is slated for release in mid-2021.
I’ve a friend, once strong in defense of the Church who stumbled when a family member could not live the church’s teachings. His search for answers led him down rabbit holes into areas that led to a complete collapse of his faith. He is now as stalwart in his unbelief as he once was in his belief. Just as he was a missionary for the Church he is a missionary against the Church. (With less tracting)
We talked about the many things he’d learned since his crisis and I realized there wasn’t one thing, new to him, that I hadn’t known for twenty or more years. The difference, in my estimation, was that he had a flickering flame of doubt and opened a fire hose to put it out, drowning in the process. I, on the other hand, had had sipped over may years to drink what drowned him.
I was blessed to have a mission president who was a church historian. We got glimpses of controversy from a position of faith from him so that when I later heard or read of them I was looking to better understand rather than doubt. I also read widely, Nibley, BYU Studies, back issues of The Improvement Era, BH Roberts, etc. Multiple hidden accounts of the first vision? Horrors! No, Improvement Era sometime in the 1960s early 70s. In my file. Want to see it? Problems with polygamy. Here, read my gg grandmother talking about it in the 1890s. Brigham Young!!!!! Yep, what a character. He was human. Joseph Smith! Worst pyramid schemer of all time. The list could go on.
The last point is that, once he experienced his crisis, he was would not grant those speaking in favor of the Church the same credibility he automatically gave critics. He was never skeptical of those causing doubt. They never had bias or an agenda. He would read to prove the Church defenders wrong, not to prove the detractors wrong. He connected with unbelievers to fortify his resolve rather than than believers. I suspect this is, in part, because most believers are not widely read and do not have the background to have a meaningful discussion about his new “truths.” Being a unbeliever became his hobby. Most people, no matter their background, cannot compete with a passionate hobbyist.
(Never read any of your books but have enjoyed podcasts where you speak of them)