Does learning about Mormon history necessarily destroy faith?

Does learning about Mormon history necessarily destroy faith? May 12, 2018


Pie chart "Why I'm an Ex-Mormon"
Ultimate Provenance Unknown


Someone shared this little pie chart with me a while back.


Now, there’s no question that some people have lost their faith because of learning things about the history of Mormonism that they were unable to reconcile with their previous belief.  Sometimes true things.  Sometimes incorrect things.


It’s a cute little chart.  But anyone who takes it seriously must, necessarily, be either uninformed or in need of remedial logic.  Here’s why:


First of all, it’s factually untrue that nobody ever leaves the Church because he or she simply never had faith.  I know several people personally who fall into precisely that category.  I also know people who apparently never cared much, who seem not to have prayed much (if they prayed at all), and whose departure from the Church was a painless drift rather than a traumatic rupture.  Moreover, there are definitely folks who left the Church without having searched the scriptures very much; I’m personally acquainted with ex-Mormons who wouldn’t be able to find 3 Nephi even if they spent all day searching for it in the New Testament.  I know lots and lots and lots of people whose lifestyle (“wanted to sin,” “was disobedient”) took them out of the Church.  I’m related to quite a few of them; they like their coffee, enjoy the occasional beer, prefer to spend their Sundays hunting, and so forth.  And, of course, there are more serious sins that lead some away from church attendance.  Finally, I’ve met people who, once active, stopped attending because they were offended.  It’s flatly false that nobody ever becomes an ex-Mormon for such non-intellectual issues.  In fact, I would guess that most who leave church activity do so for non-“academic” reasons.  Most of my inactive relatives, I suspect, if they ever think about it, probably think that, yes, the Church is probably true.  They just don’t think about it very much and don’t particularly care.


Second, the inference that we’re supposed to draw from this little graphic, I think, is that serious study leads of Mormon history leads to loss of faith.


But that idea is easily disproved.


Consider, for example, the standard rule of basic logic known as modus ponens, which may be expressed as follows:  If p, then q.  Given pq follows.


Obvious illustrations of modus ponens are easy to come up with:


If this is the ocean, it will be wet.  It’s the ocean, therefore it’s wet.


If Sheila is dead, she’ll have no pulse.  She’s dead.  Thus, she has no pulse.


If Balthazar shows up, the party will be dull.  Balthazar has shown up, so the party’s going to be dull.


The implication of the pie chart above seems to be Studying Church history destroys faith in Mormonism.  Bob studied Church history.  Therefore, Bob lost his faith in Mormonism.


But, as a matter of empirical fact, this rule simply doesn’t hold up in the matter of studying Mormon history.


I could use myself as an example.  I know quite a bit about Church history.  I’ve been reading it seriously since my mid-teens.  But I remain a believer.  Unfortunately, since many critics know me to be shamelessly dishonest and to be obviously motivated by mercenary greed — as a member of the faculty at Brigham Young University I’m indirectly an employee of the Church, and I know where my self-interest lies! — I wouldn’t be a convincing counterexample.  I’ll return to my own case in a moment, but let’s look at some other instances:


Leonard Arrington, often regarded as the dean of Mormon historians and the founder of modern Mormon historical study, remained a faithful believer until his death in 1999.  Thus, it would be false to say that Leonard Arrington studied Church history and, because of his study, lost his faith in Mormonism.


Richard Bushman, eminent Mormon historian and, among other things, author of biographies of Joseph Smith, has served as a bishop, a stake president, and a patriarch, and gives every appearance of being a believer.  His study of Mormon history seems not to have destroyed his commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


For many years, my wife and I have belonged to a monthly reading group that includes the former Assistant Church Historian James Allen as well as Professor Thomas Alexander, both of whom are emeritus holders of the Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr., Professorship of Western American History at Brigham Young University.  It also included, until his death in 2007, Davis Bitton, who was a professor of history at the University of Utah and a former Assistant Church Historian.  None of the three has ever given any indication that they’re anything other than the believers they claim to be.


Richard Lloyd Anderson, the preeminent authority on the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, is very plainly a believer, as is his brother Karl Anderson, who, although not trained as a historian, has made himself one of the Church’s leading experts on the Kirtland period of Mormon history.


Milton Backman was definitely a faithful Latter-day Saint.  So was Stanley Kimball.  So is Kenneth Godfrey.


Gerrit Dirkmaat and Michael Hubbard Mackay, whose work I strongly recommend, are pretty plainly believing Latter-day Saints.  So, I can testify, is Alexander Baugh, a former president of the John Whitmer Historical Association.  So is Steven Harper.  So are Richard BennettDouglas Alder, and Carol Cornwall Madsen.  So is Reid Neilson, who is here in Egypt with us.

Brian Hales, a Utah physician (and a friend of mine) who has become a leading authority on early Mormon plural marriage — not, perhaps, the most obviously faith-promoting subject — is both the immediate past president of the John Whitmer Historical Association and a committed and believing Latter-day Saint.  Another authority on Mormon polygamy (see here and here) is my friend Craig Foster, who is also a faithful member of the Church.  (My friend Ugo Perego, a geneticist who has devoted considerable attention to the same subject, currently serves as a bishop in Rome alongside Pope Francis.)


My friend and longtime colleague Jack Welch has published extensively on Mormon historical issues and has long been a central player in Latter-day Saint scholarship of all kinds.  The founder of the Foundation for Ancient Studies (FARMS), the chairman of Book of Mormon Central, and the longtime editor of BYU Studies, he’s most definitely a believer.


Mark McConkie, who has gathered up an enormous quantity of historical testimonials about Joseph Smith, is a believer.  Gordon Madsen, who has devoted years to studying the legal issues surrounding Joseph Smith and the legal cases in which he was involved, is a committed Latter-day Saint.  Dallin H. Oaks, who did important work on Joseph Smith and the law and on the trial of the Prophet’s assassins (e.g., this), seems likely (given his membership in the First Presidency) to be a believer.


Even D. Michael Quinn is a believer. “He may know more about the Mormon past than anybody alive,” the Methodist scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps has said with perhaps some exaggeration, but he continues to affirm the truth of the founding events of Mormonism despite his 1993 excommunication.


I could go on.  These are not marginal figures.  Many are past presidents of the Mormon History Association.  I know (or knew) many of them personally.  It would be quite untrue to say that they studied Mormon history and therefore lost their faith.


So let’s look at another standard rule of basic logic, a rule known as modus tollens, that’s relevant here.  It can be expressed as follows:  If p, then q.  However, not q.  Therefore, not p.


If this is the ocean, it will be wet.  It’s not wet.  Therefore, it’s not the ocean.


If Sheila is dead, she’ll have no pulse.  She has a pulse.  Thus, she’s not dead.


If Balthazar shows up, the party will be dull.  The party’s not dull, so Balthazar must not have come.


The relevant formulation here might be Studying Church history destroys faith in Mormonism.  Bob hasn’t lost his faith in Mormonism.  Plainly, therefore, Bob hasn’t studied Church history.


Try substituting any of the names above for Bob.


Richard Bushman hasn’t lost his faith in Mormonism.  Plainly, therefore, Richard Bushman hasn’t studied Church history.


Richard Lloyd Anderson hasn’t lost his faith in Mormonism.  Plainly, therefore, Richard Lloyd Anderson hasn’t studied Church history.


Leonard Arrington didn’t lose his faith in Mormonism.  Plainly, therefore, Leonard Arrington didn’t study Church history.


Such claims would obviously be absurd and counterfactual.


So the study of Mormon history doesn’t, by itself, cause the loss of faith.  If it did, all of those who studied it to any serious degree would lose their faith, and that’s plainly not the case.


It might, of course, be the case that the study of Mormon history when accompanied by other factors causes the loss of faith, just as drinking, when accompanied by certain other factors, leads to alcoholism.  My negative example, for instance, might suggest that flagrant dishonesty and gross mercenary greed such as mine can interfere with the collapse of faith in Mormonism, since, otherwise, I would surely have become an anti-Mormon.  If critics of the Church want to make the argument that all of the folks above retain their faith despite their historical studies because they’re either dishonest or brazenly self-interested, those critics are certainly welcome to do so.  (And some already do:  For example, I’ve seen secularist anti-Mormon claims that Richard Bushman, whose academic career has been spent principally at the University of Delaware, Columbia University, and Claremont Graduate University, remains a publicly faithful Latter-day Saint because his salary is paid by the Church.)


It seems more reasonable, however, to conclude that people lose (and gain) faith for reasons pretty much personal to themselves, and that a thorough knowledge of Mormon history isn’t, by itself, a reliable cause of loss of belief.


In other words, the cute little pie chart above is bogus, useful as a bit of anti-Mormon needling but quite unhelpful as a guide to reality.


Posted from Cairo, Egypt



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