Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Oh Say, What is Truth

My bishop approached me recently, telling me that he feels it is time for me to return to church.  He is a kind and loving man who I know has nothing but the purest and best intentions toward me.  His encouragement to think it over has given me occasion to review my beliefs and priorities, and I thought I would organize my thoughts here a little before replying to him.

I think the LDS hymn I find most poignant is #272, "Oh Say, What is Truth?"
The first verse reads:
Oh say, what is truth? ’Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch’s costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.

The hymn continues on in the same vein, praising the value of truth beyond all else.  And I agree.  Nowhere in the hymn is the nature of truth laid down, nor the best method of its acquisition, simply the idea that all ought to be sacrificed in pursuit of the noblest prize of all: truth -- "eternal, unchanged, evermore."

Now, I'm no fool, and I won't claim to be in possession of absolute truth.  My perception of what is true and what is not is based on my best efforts to mesh fallible human experience through fallible human senses with a fallible human sense of reason and pattern-establishment.  Though parsimony is not necessary for the acquisition of truth in theory, my limited resources of time, perception, and reason practically demand I utilize powerful heuristics to sort through data and potential roads of inquiry.  It turns out one of the most powerful heuristics I have at my disposal is parsimony -- the assumption that if two models of truth are indistinguishable, it is a better use of my resources to examine the less complex first.  Parsimony frees the human psyche from endless ruminations on even the simplest of conclusions: I assume my senses are roughly accurate rather than an elaborate hoax, simulation, self-deception, or unlikely amalgam of random signals.  In this assumption, indistinguishable from the possible more-complex-but-unconfirmable alternatives, I free my resources to examine other questions.  It may be that one of these alternatives is the actual truth, but there is no way for me to ever know, barring the appearance of new information that supports the truth over the simpler model.

But enough about my epistemological foundations: while many might have difficulty articulating it, more-or-less the same method is employed by sane humans in general.  The important thing to assert is that my perception of truth will always fall short of perfect, but is defensible given the momentary glimpse through a pinhole that is my entire opportunity to form a model of truth at all.

I have been accused on more than one occasion of over-thinking things, particularly in regard to the truth-claims of the LDS church.  My intellectualism has befuddled me, and my clever mind has run far ahead of my true capacity to know anything.  I'm told I place too little importance on the role of inherently-subjective feelings in finding truth.  Allow me to answer such accusations as honestly as I feel I can after careful introspection:
I am absolutely guilty-as-charged.  Without a doubt, I place undue weight on logic and structured, mathematical models while grossly undervaluing some of the most powerful heuristics available to human beings: intuition and emotion.  I am always hesitant to admit that my day-to-day life would collapse into useless constant rumination without these powerful tools.  It also rankles me to have to admit that my entire sense of right-and-wrong depends entirely on these.  Indeed, my reasons for doing anything at all are ultimately rooted in these subjective, irrational reactions.  I kind of hate it (and don't worry, the irony of that irrational hatred is not lost on me!)

All this being said, I am aware of my prejudice and have striven to correct myself, though I still have far to go.  Still, though my obsession with the scientific and rational has indeed seemed at odds with my faith at various times throughout my life, I never quite abandoned belief entirely because of intellectual concerns.  For me to make such a drastic and painful step took a profoundly-subjective experience.

I had always felt that my faith was poorly-founded, I'd never felt the strong feelings related by so many others, though I had tried very hard to live a Christ-centered life.  I had some positive experiences, usually moments of profound distress when I found prayer had a calming effect on me.  I could usually expect peace from prayer in this way, but no clear answers from God.  This changed in my early twenties, when I fell into a depression deeper than I had experienced before.  My grades were slipping, I lost interest in my former dreams, my life started falling to pieces, and I experienced a constant low-grade distress I could rarely shake.  At the same time, prayer slowly ceased to be comforting; in fact, the lack of peace through prayer began to contribute to my distress.  Desperately, I tried to establish contact with God; if I couldn't have peace, could I at least know that God was listening?  I would dedicate an afternoon to study and prayer, and feel nothing but the walls staring back at me, uninterested.  I hiked up a mountain, determined I would overcome my hardheartedness and establish contact with my creator like the prophets of old.  I studied my favorite passages of scripture and spoke for hours, but my words seemed to dissipate unheard.  Over the course of many months, my repeated attempts to talk to God were met with nothing but emptiness.

I determined that if I could not feel what others felt despite my tears, pleas, and devotions, I must change tactics.  Perhaps, despite my efforts to humble myself and contact God in His way, I was just too emotionally stunted to receive the replies.  Truth is truth, I told myself, and ought to be the same regardless of the avenue through which it is reached.  If I was somehow too numb to the Holy Spirit to find God that way, I'd study too confirm his existence.

For me, determined study was the death of faith.  It was not the criticisms of the LDS church's doctrine that were able to destroy my belief, it was the mediocrity of what the church itself had to offer.  I found apologetics sad and desperate, the work of countless scholars seeking to start with a conclusion, manipulate the information shamelessly, and then convince themselves they had been objective about the whole thing.  The core doctrines of the church were familiar to me, and the more I studied them the more inconsistent and trite they seemed.  I slowly realized how unremarkable the faith of my upbringing was.  I avoided anything critical of the church, and ignored anything I came across: anything naughty that Joseph Smith may or may not have done pales in comparison to the lack of anything uniquely profound in the church's own doctrines and texts.

I don't know when the balance tipped.  One day, I realized I now realized that I now doubted the claims of the church more than believed them.  At this point, I stopped restricting my studies so much and allowed myself to read more third-party analyses of the church's doctrine and history.  What I found shocked me a bit: the squeaky-clean history of the church I had learned was sadly incomplete, glossing over all sorts of misbehavior and bizarre statements by its founders.  Still, this did far less to quench the failing embers of my former faith than simple, didactic analyses of the church's doctrines.  What I had already begun to suspect when laid out before me in terribly clarity: the claims of the church did not make sense and failed to mesh with verifiable evidence.  After the initial tipping-point, the death of my faith was fast and devastating.

Having lost all hope for the LDS model of truth, I briefly flirted with the idea that another faith might still hold answers.  However, my failure to establish contact with any sort of god coupled with the easily-extended conclusions I'd already come to regarding my former faith soon led me to conclude that in all likelihood, all religious metaphysical claims were equally nonsensical and impossible to confirm.  This avenue of truth-seeking had turned up a dead-end.

Some will claim that any who leave the church secretly wanted to leave, because of a desire to sin or guilt over current sins.  While be no means perfect, I was, in behavior, an exemplary practitioner of the LDS faith.  I was temple-worthy and worked very hard to remain so, worrying over the smallest of slips in thought or behavior.  Perhaps some mundane sin was my downfall, but in that case one marvels that there are any who do not leave.  So, throw your stones if you will, but I assert that any suspicions as to my hidden guilt or desire to debauch myself were and are unfounded.
In fact, losing my faith was the most crushing, terrible thing that has ever happened to me.  My existing depression exploded into a suicidal despair.  I had no foundation, my previous goals and dreams fell with the foundation that was my faith.  I no longer believed in god and, irrationally, hated him for not existing.  I turned to secular philosophy for comfort and a new foundation, but it failed to offer me the self-assured comfort it has provided for some others in similar circumstances.  Anyone who suggests I wanted to leave the church has no idea what I have suffered.

Forgive my long foray into my own story: I wanted to make clear that my conclusions are not come to lightly, and my loss of faith is not a simple product of prideful lack of effort or intellectualism.

I have struggled to keep from being angry: the practitioners of the LDS church are largely kind and earnest people, and I knew they didn't deserve my rancor.  Still, the bitterness consumed me at times, and it took me  years to return to a neutral feeling toward the church.  I felt betrayed, and all the more angry that there was no one I could feel justified in blaming.  However, with time I have become more amiable, and have even felt willing to participate in my wife's LDS ward outside of worship services.  I have an amazing father-in-law to thank for his example in overcoming the anger and bitterness of this transition, which he made years before.

One promise I've made to myself during all this is I will never again commit myself to a set of beliefs with a determination to never change them.  I will not blindly believe anything on sheer momentum.  One important corollary to this is that I will not determine, once and for all, that the LDS church's claims are not true.  It's possible, though it seems unlikely, that I have not been exhaustive in my examination.  Perhaps new information will come to light that reverses my conclusions.  To be a seeker of truth, I must be prepared for this contingency, along with reversals of any other conclusions that new experiences or evidence cast into doubt.

Still, I am hesitant to take suggestions that I re-examine the LDS faith.  I am not anxious to relive the vulnerability and emptiness of throwing myself into prayer and study only to find emptiness.  The wounds of the loss of my foundation and much of my identity have healed substantially, but I fear they may reopen if I don't keep my distance.  No new evidence has come to my attention that casts any significant doubt on my previous conclusions, and I feel that my personal search for truth will not be served by repeating the same as-yet-fruitless activities countless times (barring new experiences that upset those conclusions, of course).

So: if it is true, I would love to believe it.  However, my efforts thus far have not been promising along the particular route of the LDS faith, and in addition I feel I may need more time before giving it an objective chance is possible.  I have no intention of dismissing the thoughts and feelings of others, but I expect the same courtesy from them: I have as much reason for not believing as they have to believe, and vice-versa.  We are all on our own limited, subjective search for truth, and use the best tools we have available.


  1. Still, I am hesitant to take suggestions that I re-examine the LDS faith. I am not anxious to relive the vulnerability and emptiness of throwing myself into prayer and study only to find emptiness. The wounds of the loss of my foundation and much of my identity have healed substantially, but I fear they may reopen if I don't keep my distance. No new evidence has come to my attention that casts any significant doubt on my previous conclusions, and I feel that my personal search for truth will not be served by repeating the same as-yet-fruitless activities countless times (barring new experiences that upset those conclusions, of course).

    Fair, but why not participate/engage on your own rules (and let your bishop know that is what you plan on doing, and if he has a problem with it, he can deal with it.)

    I guess the thing is...so, the husk of literalism is cracked and broken. You've outgrown it. The goal isn't to try to re-fit it, and undo that particular metamorphosis, but to see if there is any other way...any other approach to Mormonism.

    I think the liberal/uncorrelated/unorthodox/whatever you will call them Mormons suggest that there is...the question is whether or not it can work for any given particular person (e.g., you)

    1. You raise a good point. I have given some thought to the liberal / new wave Mormon philosophy. I poked around staylds.com for a while, but I don't know if I could practice something that I couldn't verify in a literal way.
      I'll have to give it some more thought, because you are certainly right that there might be alternative approaches the Mormonism that I *haven't* considered.

  2. A very eloquent and honest post.

  3. Wow. What an eloquent recap of your journey to date. Thought-provoking, honest, and spot-on with many of my own experiences (but not the dice prediction test!). Scattered entries in my own journal tell a very similar story, but you tell it better. Thanks for the props about getting past anger - I'm still processing that, and it looks like I'll be learning from you now. Rock on.

  4. this was my favorite of your posts, very beautifully written

  5. Thanks for sharing so much personal info! Very insightful and an enjoyable read. I felt like I was reading my own thoughts. One thing that has been of interest to me is reading the Book of Mormon through the new lens of disaffection, with an eye towards attempting to discern its origins (i.e. whether a product solely of Joseph's imagination - ala B.H. Roberts, or the collaborative effort of Joseph and all the other potential sources including Spaulding, Rigdon, Cowdery, etc.). It is fascinating to me because I can see so much now of the first books of Nephi as an autobiography of Joseph. This was a very interesting new outlook that cast a new light on Joseph Smith the (con) man.

    If nothing else, it is showing me how stories can have such a huge impact on human behavior. I find the first books of Nephi much more compelling than the rest of the Book of Mormon. I think this is because these chapters were likely mostly due to the necessity of crafting them mostly out of Joseph's experiences. It is where I think we find Joseph's raw creation most filled by what he knew since it had to come out of desperation.

    At any rate, my opinion has softened toward the church somewhat due to some extraordinary circumstances in my life in the last few months and I have found it a fascinating look into human psychology and what motivates behavior.

    I also see there are many phrases that get rehearsed in church services that are designed to fill the mind to quickly serve to overcome doubts and questioning tendencies. I think it is very hard to leave the church and it could be seen as a great intellectual accomplishment to have done so. Not just intellectual, though, but really an act of supreme self mastery. It is a difficult accomplishment in my opinion, if only for the fact there is so much programming to re-write. Congrats on making it to where you are! May your journey only lead to many more exciting vistas.

  6. Your experience mirrors my own. I'm so sorry for your loss and I hope that you find peace in your new frame of belief. I am still on my journey, and often have discussions with others of faith that are extremely difficult. I understand the pain of losing your entire foundation. You are not alone. I hope you are well. -John