If You Can’t Beat Them, Kick Them out

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Last night I bumped into an LDS acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. He asked me what ward I lived in and I told him that I didn’t attend church and I started to explain. He tried to cut me off, assuring me that no explanation was necessary, however, I pressed forward just getting out that, “It was my inability to suspend my disbelief.”

It never fails to surprise me, when the topic of my disillusionment with the church comes up, members (for the most-part) don’t seem to want to know why I’ve lost my faith. I think it’s because members of the church don’t like to acknowledge when someone leaves the faith because of tough questions. Recognizing that there are questions that have ugly answers says ugly things about themselves and the church.

The feelings I have about the church are certainly a mixed bag. One of the things that bothers me is my own fear of speaking up. I’ve been trained not to speak of my disillusionment for fear of church disciplinary action even though it’s just an honest search for truth that has brought me where I am today.

Having concerns about the church is not grounds for excommunication, however it’s in publishing those concerns that can get you in trouble. Is there trouble for publishing even this short blog post about my own disillusionment? Probably not, but the fact that I’m so worried about telling my story demonstrates the level of fear the church has instilled in me.

This morning I found a link to a press release about a member, Jeremy Runnells, facing excommunication because of his widely publicized questions about the church. To my knowledge, he’s never said anything that anyone can demonstrate is false — if he’s like me, he would LIKE to be shown that the church’s claims and history are what it claims it is. However, it’s disciplinary action like this that spreads fear. Instead of answering hard questions, the church takes punitive action against those that dare query.

From Jeremy Runnells’ press release:

Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular Letter to a CES Director faces excommunication from the LDS Church on charges of apostasy

American Fork, UT (February 9, 2016) – Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular Letter to a CES Director (also known as CES Letter), has been summoned to a disciplinary council by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on charges of apostasy. CES Letter represents Mr. Runnells’ sincere attempt to obtain answers to legitmate questions and doubts through proper church leadership channels. Instead of providing pastoral support to Mr. Runnells, the LDS Church has chosen to continue its recent trend of excommunicating members who openly question or doubt church teachings.

CES Letter began as a letter Mr. Runnells wrote to an LDS religious instructor (CES Director) outlining his questions, concerns, and doubts about LDS Church foundational truth claims (e.g., Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham historicity, Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry, LDS priesthood restoration, multiple first vision accounts). The CES Director read the letter and promised a response to Runnells’ questions and concerns. No response ever came.

Upon its public release, CES Letter went viral and immediately became a Mormon internet phenomenon, providing validation and support to tens of thousands of questioning current and former LDS Church members. CES Letter has been downloaded an estimated 600,000 times to date, and over 12,000 LDS Church members have reached out to Runnells after reading the CES Letter.

Runnells reports that he met twice with his LDS Stake President, Mark Ivins, in the fall of 2014. During these discussions Runnells sought answers for questions posed in CES Letter and raised concerns about the LDS Church’s recent historical essays (http://lds.org/topics/essays). President Ivins assured Runnells that he wanted to help, and that he would obtain answers. Runnells did not hear back again from President Ivins until January 25, 2016 when Ivins telephoned Runnells to inform him of his intention to challenge Runnells’ LDS Church membership. Runnells requested a delay until March 15th, citing a close family member in hospice care, which was originally accepted by Ivins. On February 8, 2016 Ivins reversed his decision and informed Runnells of his disciplinary council scheduled for February 14, 2016.

A public press conference has been scheduled for Runnells on February 10th, 2016 at 7:00pm Mountain Time at 50 West Club & Cafe in downtown Salt Lake City (50 Broadway, Salt Lake City, UT). The venue is open for dinner prior to the press conference at 6:00pm. Parking is available in surrounding lots. All interested media, along with supporters of Runnells, are invited to attend and show support.

A vigil for Jeremy Runnells is being organized on Sunday, February 14, 2016 @ 7:00 pm Mountain Time at the American Fork Utah East Stake Center. Address is: 825 E 500 N, American Fork, Utah.

For more information and developments on this story, see http://cesletter.org.

14 thoughts on “If You Can’t Beat Them, Kick Them out

  1. Thanks for posting this, Jeff.

    It’s ironic that a church founded on questioning the establishment is so keen on protecting the establishment, that a church founded on questioning is so focused on discouraging questioning.

    1. My pleasure, Kim.

      Perhaps the church will someday be restored to a model that appreciates difficult questions and the ensuing unpleasant answers.

  2. Part of the problem with Jeremy Runnells looking for answers from CES Instructors or Stake Presidents is that in matters of faith, other peoples answers don’t really matter that much. They could give skilled answers but would they be convincing to Jeremy? Faith is kind of a personal journey, and “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things”. (Alma 32:21)

    The other thing is that the CES Instructor and the Stake President might not have the same questions. To them the answers are abundantly clear so they can’t fully understand the concern. Most Stake Presidents are not historians or scholars and are not trained in the kind of evidence Jeremy Runnells is looking for.

    One becomes a CES Instructor or a Stake President because most of your questions are resolved. From my point of view others can help but faith is really between us and God. That is what Joseph Smith’s story is all about. If you lack wisdom, ask God.

    What I don’t know is… what do you do if God is silent?

    The other thing is certainty isn’t the greatest virtue. The Phairisees were convinced they had the truth but they didn’t. They could have benefited from a little self doubt. There will be people who were absolutely convinced they know God, but ultimately won’t make it. Let’s hope there are some of us who aren’t so sure, who do make it.

    1. I don’t think most (if any) of the questions in the CES letter are matters of faith. I think they focus on things that are hard for members to swallow and church leaders like a CES director or a Stake President should have answers or access to those that do. They promised they would get back to him with answers; instead they got back to him with excommunication.

      For example, the first question he poses asks: What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? An ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?

      Perhaps you are suggesting that the overlapping errors between the 1769 KJV and the BoM are not suspicious and therefore we should take it on faith that Joseph Smith never copied huge swaths of text from his copy of the bible. If that is what you are suggesting, then yes, I agree: I don’t think Jeremy would find that answer very satisfying.

  3. Thanks for your response.

    What really got me curious about your post was your statement “It was my inability to suspend my disbelief.”

    It is interesting to me because I come from a multi-generational LDS family that is starting to go on diverging paths because of the disbelief of some and the belief of others.

    I am curious what allows one to believe and other to not believe. Even the stalwarts among us have questions and even unresolved questions but believers seem to have the ability to suspend disbelief. You might say they are blind followers of charlatans but it is not that simple.

    Despite the fact that the BOM may contain verbatim transcriptions from a 1769 KJV there are some sections of Isaiah that are unique and with improved readings. It is possible that the printer had the same bible and compared the printers manuscript with his bible? Perhaps is you put enough monkeys with typewriters together in a room they could eventually type out the Book of Mormon, i don’t know.

    Believers seem to be able to suspend belief because they admit they don’t know or have all the facts or there are other facts or beliefs that carry more weight than the object of belief. Why can’t unbelievers like Jeremy Runnels move past these questions and see the many positive evidences that exist?

    The other factor is inconsistencies don’t bother some because they have neither the time nor the energy nor the expertise to tract down all the available documents and even if they could it is unknown what is lost in the mists of time.

    I am very curious what allows some to believe and other to not believe. I don’t have many answers but I appreciate the question.

    1. Wikipedia’s entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief sums up my feelings. “if a writer could infuse a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative”. The narrative, in this case, is very implausible.

      Earlier you mentioned Alma 32: “[T]herefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”

      This scripture doesn’t account for things which are not true. It merely asks us to hope for things which are true. For the critical thinker, hoping isn’t enough. Tellingly, the church instructs us to file away concerns rather than think about them. (https://www.lds.org/youth/article/when-you-have-questions?lang=eng and many other examples if you desire). It’s unclear how long this “shelving of concerns” process is supposed to take or how it’s supposed to help.

      Mormonism historically makes claims both spiritual and temporal. Any question that doesn’t fit the spiritual category by necessity must have an answer that either vindicates the church or condemns it. Categorizing the question of copied text from the bible in the Book of Mormon as spiritual manipulates the framework upon which one makes an informed conclusion about the truth claims of the Book of Mormon.

      If your hypothesis were correct, however unlikely, that perhaps “the printer had the same bible and compared the printers manuscript with his bible”, then first off, it’s a pretty terrible printer to take things into his own hands and a pretty big deal for nobody to have noticed these changes. Secondly, there’s been plenty of time and opportunities to make corrections and set the record straight. Joseph’s seer stone is just sitting in a vault somewhere, waiting to be activated. But I do want to acknowledge that at least you’ve shown that you’re willing to consider the question and provide an answer, unlike the CES Director.

      You ask about moving past these questions to see the many positive evidences — as a purveyor of truth, I don’t want to pick and choose between positive and negative evidence. The facts of the case are neutral; conclusions are positive or negative.

      It’s important to put our time, energy, and expertise to track down all the available documents because the truth is worth it. The excuse that, “it is unknown what is lost in the mists of time” is what is known as cherry picking or the fallacy of incomplete evidence. That thinking, when broken down is saying, “the evidence that we have is no match for the evidence we don’t have.”

      What allows some to believe while others don’t, I think, comes down to ones willingness to suspend disbelief for the benefit of a fantastic tale. I, however, am no longer willing to suspend disbelief when the truth is so much more healthy.

      Please don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to talk about these things and I think it’s helpful to have the discussion. I hope I don’t come off as insincere or unable to try and see your point of view. I want believers and past believers to get along. I also want those questioning to know that even though leaving the church is scary, difficult, and traumatizing, it gets better.

  4. OK. Now I am starting to understand where you are coming from. I think your definition of ‘suspension of disbelief” is much larger than I had understood.
    I think you might overstate the implausibility of the narrative but I accept your analysis of the evidence. I would prefer to side with Richard Bushman who says that the historical evidence does not make it impossible that Joseph Smith is a prophet. It really comes down to what kind of a story you want to paint with the historical evidence. He grants the fact that people like Dan Vogel or D. Michael Quinn have also drawn equally compelling pictures with the same evidence. The historian’s dilemma with Richard Bushman is that he allows for the possibility that God acts in history. This is typically a no-no in historical writing. Given the general rules of writing history I see what you mean by “suspension of disbelief”.
    But I don’t really want to engage in apologetics here. Especially, on a blog. Apologetics don’t usually work too well on the web. I hate reading posts that scroll on forever without much continuity.
    You don’t have to answer any of my questions but I am curious…
    Were you ever a believer?
    And if so, how does your current disbelief cause you to view the church?. Is it with regret, anger, disdain, or something else? Was there anything you wish you could keep from your believing days?
    And how do you currently view believing family, friends or neighbours and has it impacted relationships with them in any way?
    If you wanted any kind of dialogue with believers what might it look like? What would you want them to know about your experience?
    Also do you disbelief in God, or spirituality in general or just as it is specifically practices by Latter Day Saints? Could you stomach a Catholic path, or a Lutheran path, an evangelical path… or are you over religion completely?

  5. It’s difficult to remember my feelings as a believer. I remember thinking things then that I find ludicrous now, so please understand that there are some really harsh realities that are difficult to swallow when a non-believer trots them out — seemingly gloating about the historical warts. I can’t be clear enough when I say, I’m not gloating, I’m disappointed that the faith of my fathers (and mothers) turned out to be… as softly as I can say it, less than it claimed.

    The idea that it “comes down to what kind of a story you want to paint with the historical evidence” is something which I must respectfully disagree. I think instead, for the believer, it comes down to what kind of story you want to believe despite the historical evidence. For example, there is no pleasant way to paint , ‘a dirty, nasty, filthy affair’ pleasantly, even if Emma did forgive him. The church tries to sidestep by saying, “Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding [it].” https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng

    I appreciate your reluctance to get into apologetics as there are other more appropriate forums for that type of back and forth. Instead I will follow your example and focus on building bridges instead of insisting you see things my way.

    In answer to your question, yes, I was a believer. My current thoughts on the church are shaped by how I remember dealing with cognitive dissonance. I feel silly now, but when questioned on the church, I felt persecuted by what I believed was an ex-mormon agenda. I feel regret, anger, and disdain but also many other feelings. I think I especially feel disappointment, disillusionment, and embarrassment.

    I’m not sure there is anything I wish I could have kept from my believing days. I made a decision to keep all of the good things and discard the rest. Ironically, I live a much more authentic life now and I’m happy with my decision.

    I view current members as indoctrinated. I don’t want to sound condescending, I remember the criticism when I was a member, “Mormons are all brainwashed” and how frustrating it was to hear. I felt that if you don’t believe in the church, fine, now, go mind your own business. Now I see believers as stuck in a belief system that they’ve been inculcated to believe. Is stuck too harsh? I would’ve been offended by that word at the time.

    My battery is about to die and I need to go to bed,

  6. Sorry to keep you up so late.

    I appreciate you efforts and your civility. Regardless of who is right in the debate over belief or unbelief civility is more important.

    I appreciate what you were able to articulate in a few short blog posts.

    I have very dear people in my life who have disassociated themselves from church activity and belief and that alone creates some distances and frictions surrounding events such as temple weddings, what do we do Sunday afternoon at a family reunion, whether I attend church when I visit them while on vacation, or what to talk about.

    I know people from the LGBTQ community who even though I treat them as respectfully as I know how, still it seems there are wedges based solely on something as simple as what I believe.

    I appreciate your comments, not that my unbelieving friends are the same as you, but helps me be a little more understanding, open, and respectful.


  7. I want to finish answering some of your questions from earlier.

    “If you wanted any kind of dialogue with believers what might it look like? What would you want them to know about your experience?”

    I try and refrain from much of a dialogue with believers because trotting out the facts of the case makes them feel defensive. I would love to have the conversation about where my quest for truth has taken me. I would love to discuss how hard the cognitive dissonance affected me in the church. I would love to explain why faith is not a positive emotion. I would love to teach them the meaning behind ecclesiastical abuse, cognitive dissonance, Occam’s razor, Pascal’s Wager, polyandry, and the specifics of the age differences in JS’s marriages, the newspaper fiasco and how I was lied to about the facts in church. Instead, I keep the peace by just acknowledging that even though I’m a seeker of truth, others just don’t want to know.

    As for other religions, I’m done with mystical thinking. I have found that the world is a much less scary place when we put our hope and trust in rational thinking. I probably would have liked going to the RLDS church (I didn’t even know there was one in my city) but that would have just delayed my inevitable casting away of all superstition and wouldn’t have solved anything but the fear of finding a new group of friends.

    When it comes to frictions surrounding events such as “temple weddings, what do we do Sunday afternoon at a family reunion, whether I attend church when I visit them while on vacation, or what to talk about”, I think I might have some advice.

    Temple weddings: considering acknowledging that they are divisive. You belong to an exclusive club with high dues (monetary or otherwise) and your post-mormon friends/relatives are not invited to attend. This is hurtful, but admitting it might be a step in the right direction.

    Reunion Sunday afternoons: I think there is no good solution here. My recommendation is those that want to go to church, go. Those that don’t, plan something else. It stinks that there isn’t a compromise that would make everyone happy. I think it would be nice, however, if everyone over the age of 8 gets to make their own decision on how they want to spend that particular sabbath.

    On vacation: go visit them while you are on vacation — (this contradicts my last point) don’t leave early to go to church. You make a point of not missing church the rest of the year, this is a chance for real bonding with someone you know and care about and whom you don’t get to see that often. Perhaps it makes more sense to skip church for a reunion and not for a vacation, so I’ll just admit I am full of contradictions.

    What to talk about: The world is full of interesting things to talk about. It doesn’t matter what your passion is, however, it’s easy to get caught up talking too much about one topic. If they are familiar with the church, no need to discuss it. Talk about your other interests. If you don’t have anything to talk about besides the church, you might want to pick up a new hobby. I recommend, just listen to the news and discuss. If all else fails, there’s always the weather.

    If I were gay / queer, etc, I would keep my distance from Mormons. Not because most Mormons would do or say anything to offend but it’s just that you belong to an organization that is literally causing a huge amount of pain and suffering for gays and lesbians. Leaving the church is hard enough even if, as you left, it didn’t insult you with, “And take your [sinful?] kids with you”.

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