Deconstructing Mormonism

Part of a series about My Faith Journey.

At a young age, I was thoroughly converted to Mormonism and devoted no small amount of my time and money serving the church. I wasn't going to leave it behind until I was thoroughly convinced that it was erroneous. Here are some of the sources I turned to in order to satisfy myself.

Podcasts

I discovered a number of (post-)Mormon-themed podcasts. In earlier years, I enjoyed listening to talk radio shows, so podcasts felt like an old friend. Best part: they were available 24x7, on demand, and I could download them to my smartphone and listen to them whenever I wanted. I could even listen to them at work at my desk. Here are some of my favorites:

Mormon Expression: This was the single most useful podcast I listened to. The host (John Larsen) artfully deconstructed and examined Mormonism from a critical/skeptical angle. I was amazed at how many (ludicrous) Mormon teachings I had simply accepted without giving them any rational thought. Something I appreciate is that he wasn't 100% negative. (That would've been a turn-off for me.) Instead, he took apart Mormonism piece-by-piece and examined all the pieces, exposing them as any of: healthy, negative, disturbing, funny, fanciful, useful, and weird. He really helped me to gain the perspective that I needed and helped me to mentally break my ties to the church.

Mormon Stories: The purpose of this podcast is to give members an opportunity to tell their own, authentic, stories. In church, people are encouraged to only tell "faith-promoting" stories, but not all stories are "faith-promoting" -- and that's okay. As John Dehlin interviewed people, he didn't demonize the critics or lionize the faithful, he just humanized everyone. This was so refreshing to hear.

Infants on Thrones: A panel of post-mormons discuss a variety of topics, most of them religious or philosophical. It's nice to hear a group of intelligent, articulate folks who have experienced faith crises, have fully recovered & reconstructed themselves, and are now comfortable in their own skin.

My Book of Mormon Podcast: A well-read, well-educated, atheist does exactly what the church asks people to do: he reads the Book of Mormon (cover to cover) and ponders on what it has to say. He makes numerous insightful comments along the way. I had been raised all my life believing that the Book of Mormon was an amazing volume of scripture (nay, "the most correct book on the whole earth") so I uncritically accepted everything it said. It was rewarding to hear someone read it without bias goggles. He calls attention to all of the silliness, anachronisms, illogic, and ludicrousness that pervades the Book of Mormon. He also helped me to appreciate the book in a very different way: as a compilation of early American frontier folklore that has great comedy value.

Exmormon Foundation: They have a number of recordings from previous conferences that are available in podcast form. The content of these presentations were very substantive; the presenters clearly did their homework.

Naked Mormonism: The host (Bryce Blankenagel) does an in-depth study and retelling of Mormon history. Turns out it's not at all what you heard at church. It's much weirder and much more fascinating.

A Thoughtful Faith: Kiwi Mormon and non-orthodox member Gina Colvin interviews ordinary members about their experiences in the LDS church. Something I appreciate about her is that she encourages people to express their own, authentic, beliefs and hopes. She believes that Mormonism will be stronger, better, and more flavorful if thoughtful discourse is encouraged, rather than sticking to the correlated stuff.

Mormon Discussion Podcast: Host Bill Reel, a faithful member, openly discusses difficult issues of the church and gives his views on how he remains faithful. His conclusions don't resonate with me, but I appreciate his openness in addressing the problems. The "Radio Free Mormon" guest episodes are especially good.

Essays

There have been a number of attempts to spell out the problems with Mormonism.

Essays on LDS.org: These are official publications from the church, hosted on LDS.org. Reading these validated my concerns and made me aware that the church knows about all of the problems with their history, doctrines, and practices, and that they've been doing their best to hide them. Also useful is Mormon Essays which provides commentary on the LDS.org essays.

CES Letter: A letter of questions written by a Jeremy Runnells (a return missionary, and at the time of writing, believing member) to the Director of the CES (Church Education System). For three years his questions remained unanswered, until he was called in to a disciplinary court. He repeatedly asked for priesthood leaders to correct him where he was wrong. They gave him no answers or corrections, but threatened him with excommunication instead. (His questions remain unanswered by any official church sources.)

Mormon Primer Bill Reel (faithful/active) addresses some of the most controversial issues of the church from four perspectives: mainstream (faithful, unaware), critical (secular, aware), apologetic (faithful, aware), and reconciled (faithful 2.0, synthesized).

The Mormon Challenge: This one uses only quotes / material approved by official church sources.

"Literally": Very well-written, articulate essay that explains how the church teaches it's members that they need to accept scripture stories as literal events, but they just don't hold up.

Letter to my Wife: A husband's impassioned plea to his wife to please investigate the church's truth claims after she threatened to divorce him when he announced that he could no longer believe.

Gentle Awakening: A summary of major concerns about the LDS church. Intended to help gently introduce believing or doubting members to "the rest of the story".

Leaving the Church: A Compilation of the Evidence Against the LDS Church

Latter-day Perspective Subtitle: Recognizing Patterns in Mormonism.

Open Letter to Elder Holland: Written by Bob McCue, a former bishop / former member of the church. He very intelligently articulates the problems with the "reality gap" that has been created between the "faith promoting" narrative of the church and its true history. He also examines the need for a mature, questioning, spirituality rather than an unquestioning, infantile, literal view.

Articles of Doubt: A rebuttal to the LDS Articles of Faith.

(Couple other good ones on this page)

Websites

MormonThink: This site lays out member beliefs, critical observations, apologetic responses, and rebuttals. It presents all sides of controversial issues and allow the reader to decide for themselves what to believe. It is very objective and thorough. It was the single most useful website for me when I was going through my faith crisis.

Mormon Bandwagon: A collection of essays and articles questioning Mormonism submitted by folks around the web.

Exmormon Reddit: The best exmormon forum on the Internet. Here you will find an online support group for people in all stages of recovery. You will find a mix of anger, irreverent humor, and sympathy here, all of which are necessary parts of the healing process.

Zelph on the Shelf: A post-mormon website hosted by some funny & articulate millennials. They also have a number of videos on their YouTube channel.

20 Truths about Mormonism Twenty broad categories which outline various problems with Mormonism, complete with supporting sources and apologetic responses.

Exploring Mormonism: A website devoted to the study of all religions that have sprung from Joseph Smith Jr.

Book of Mormon Origins: A site that takes the 1830 text of the Book of Mormon and traces it, verse by verse, to contemporary books that Joseph Smith plagiarized from.

Stuff You Missed in Sunday School: "An unfiltered look into the Mormon narrative". Features quotes by LDS leaders and facts about science, history, Bible scholarship, and Book of Mormon authorship.

Mormon Infographics: A collection of compact yet highly informative captioned images.

(More good links here)

Videos

Top 10 Mormon Problems Explained: A great place to start if you are looking for a primer on the difficult issues with the Mormon church.

Brother Jake: YouTube channel where a guy uses satirical, rapid-fire, apologetics to call attention to some of the crazy things about Mormonism.

FlackerMan: A YouTube channel with an impressive set of videos that lay out and critically analyze the truth claims of the LDS church. Check the playlists for an organized collection of related videos.

In the Shadow of the Temple: A documentary film about the plight of people who lose their faith in a high-stakes / high-expectation religion. The film was produced by non-mormon filmmakers, so they have the perspective of people "on the outside looking in". They allow the interviewees to tell their own, authentic, stories, many of which are painful.

Awake My Soul - A Faith Journey: A four-minute video that describes the thrill of exiting from Plato's Cave. It uses clips from The Matrix, The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and Tangled all set to the tune of "Awake My Soul" by Mumford & Sons. I really like this video.

Books

Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control: An exmormon author lists 31 tactics used by cults and gives a detailed description of how the Mormon church uses all 31 of these. This book helped me to understand the shady manipulative tactics that were used against me by the church.

The Changing World of Mormonism (full 593 page book): Describes the various ways Mormonism has changed over the years, which raises the question of why the truth restored to Joseph Smith would need so many "edits" made to it.

An Insider's View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer, former CES employee who discovered that the current, correlated, version of LDS history is far removed from the original, truthful, narrative. Very significant is his research into how Joseph Smith's foundational visions were embellished over time.

An American Fraud: One Lawyer's Case against Mormonism A lawyer examines Mormon truth claims and makes the case against it. She shows that if the church was held to the same standards as a normal corporation, it would be found guilty of fraud. She cites laws on the books and legal precedent to support her claims.

No Man Knows my History by Fawn Brodie. The first "uncorrelated" biography of Joseph Smith, giving a historically accurate account of his life and times. Since its first publication in 1945, it has never gone out of print. It can be read online or downloaded in many popular formats (PDF, E-book, Kindle, plain text, and more).

Mormon Apologetics

I wanted to give time to the other side to see if there were any believers who had wrestled with these troubling issues and had come up with faithful answers. I learned about "apologetics" and what the word means. It doesn't mean "to say you're sorry" or anything like that. Instead, it means "defense of religious doctrines".

The leading apologetic site is FAIR Mormon. I read a lot of what they had to say, and I was unimpressed. Here are the problems I have with Mormon apologetics

Legitimized my Doubts

The first problem was that the apologists validated my doubts. I was hoping to find refutations of the problems I had encountered, but instead I found open acknowledgements of the problems with Mormonism (multiple First Vision accounts, Joseph Smith's polyandry, bogus translation of the Book of Abraham, etc.). The apologists further eroded my faith by not providing any sensible answers.

We shouldn't ever need apologetics

I was raised to believe that Mormonism shouldn't ever need apologetics, with quotes such as this:

"The Church, the custodian of the gospel on earth, looks with full favor upon the attempts of men to search out the facts and laws of nature. It believes that men of science, seekers after truth, are often assisted by the Spirit of the Lord in such researches. It holds further that every scientific discovery may be incorporated into the gospel, and that, therefore there can be no conflict between true religion and correct science. The Church teaches that the laws of nature are but the immutable laws of the Creator of the universe." -- John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, Bookcraft, 1960, pg. 139

If all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, then there are a lot of problems with Mormonism because many of the "truths" they teach are in conflict with science (age of the Earth, great flood, Adam & Eve vs. Neanderthals & dinosaurs, Native American DNA shows Asian origins, etc.). Faith and reason should never point in opposite directions. If they do, then it either calls into question your faith or your reason.

No prophetic statements

Where are the official statements from church leaders? FAIR Mormon includes the following disclaimer on nearly every page: "Any opinions expressed, implied or included in or with the goods and services offered by FairMormon are solely those of FairMormon and not those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". We're supposed to have living "prophets, seers, and revelators" on the earth, so where is the outpouring of prophetic revelation that will definitively answer member's concerns? Why do the Lord's anointed remain silent and let amateur apologists do their job for them?

A different brand of Mormonism

Apologists who have plumbed the depths of the difficult issues of the church and managed to emerge faithful on the other side believe in a brand of Mormonism that is unrecognizable to me. I've learned that there are terms used to describe these differences: "Chapel Mormons", who believe in the correlated narrative that is preached from the pulpit and taught in official church lesson manuals, and "Internet Mormons" who can defend the faith with apologist answers to criticisms.

Here's the problem I had: After learning the uncorrelated narrative, I could never be a Chapel Mormon ever again, but I didn't want to be an Internet Mormon either, because the version of the faith they believed in seemed completely foreign and bizarre to me. I also don't think I could ever be okay with hearing something preached from the pulpit that was so totally different from what I would need to believe in as an Internet Mormon. I just couldn't do the cognitive dissonance thing.

Shady tactics

Another thing I was disgusted with was the shady tactics used by apologists. Here is just a small sample.

Desperate attempts to remove scrutiny

Mormon apologists often try to handwave evidence away. A good example of this is the Book of Abraham. Once the scrolls were discovered, doubts were raised when scholarly translations didn't match Joseph Smith's translation. In response, apologists would claim that the scrolls Joseph used were now lost; that there was a third "long scroll" that we don't have now.

This is a desperate attempt to move the problem from the realm of the testable into the realm of the untestable. Because, you see, while the problem exists in the realm of the testable, the claims can be tested, and shown to be false. The typical apologist endgame is to convince people that they should rely more on "warm fuzzy feelings" than draw logical conclusions about evidence that we can examine with our natural senses.

Words, words, words

A thorny problem for apologists is that the Book of Mormon mentions numerous things that didn't exist in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, including: crops (wheat, barley), animals (horses, elephants, goats, donkeys), and manufactured goods (silk, steel, the wheel).

The apologist response is to say that Joseph Smith saw an animal in a vision that existed in Mesoamerica and, not being able to identify it, simply used the name of an animal that he was familiar with. Therefore, a horse is not a horse, a sword is not a sword, a chariot is not a chariot, etc. I heard one apologist say that a "horse" could be "any animal that moves and eats", which (conveniently) doesn't rule out a lot of animals.

This doesn't explain how Joseph Smith was able to give not only the names but the spellings of ancient Nephite coinage (senine, seon, shum and limnah, senum, amnor, ezrom and onti, shiblon, shiblums, leahs), as well as as-yet unidentified animals (cureloms, cumoms).

A related problem is reconciling Joseph Smith's use of the word "translated", especially with regard to the Book of Abraham. For years, faithful Latter-day Saints understood that word to mean what most people expect it to mean: transcribe from one language into another. When Joseph Smith's translation was shown to be at odds with the scholarly translation, apologists embarked on a quixotic quest to redefine the word "translated" to mean "revelation" or some such.

Inability to distinguish between possibility and probability

Here's an example of this: Geneticists have conclusively proved that 99.96% of Native American DNA is Asian in origin. This ought to be enough to disprove the claims of the Book of Mormon that Native Americans are of Hebrew origin. However, Apologists will desperately cling to the the 0.04% possibility that some Native Americans might be of Hebrew origin. (Spoiler alert: the remaining 0.04% comes from Western European and African ancestry that was introduced post-Columbus.)

Here's another example: Grant Palmer, in his book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins showed that 75% of the content of the Book of Mormon can be found right in Joseph Smith's backyard: revivalist sermons, stories about ancient seafaring explorers who populated the Americas, dreams his dad had, etc. Apologists will cling to the notion that the other 25% is inspired, and that's enough.

The lack of any evidence to support Mormon truth claims is only part of the problem. The larger part of the problem is the abundance of evidence that refutes Mormon truth claims. Many apologists are patiently waiting for evidence that will finally prove the truth of Mormonism, while turning a blind eye to the (increasingly large) body of evidence that disproves it. Vegas casinos stay in business because of people like these who want to gamble on low-percentage odds.

Disagreement among apologists

Also dispiriting was seeing conflicts among apologists. One example is the two major competing models for where the Nephites & Lamanites lived: one camp favors the Mesoamerican model (down by Yucatan, Panama, etc.) while another camp favors the "heartland" model (up in the good ol' U-S-of-A where Joseph Smith found the plates). This underscores the problem of not having official church answers to these problems; people on the Internet can just espouse their own pet theories.

And I already mentioned it earlier, but it is worth noting again that these arguments could be completely put to rest if the prophet of the church were to pray to God, ask HIm where the Nephites lived, get the answer, and point to the place on the map that God told him about -- but that kind of clear, prophetic, answer never comes.

The whole is less than the sum of the parts

I was also disappointed to discover that there is no unified system of explanation. In order to come up with a faithful answer to one problem, apologists will tout one proposition, but then disavow that same proposition when it it would support the critics on a second problem. One example: apologists will tout that the presence of chiasmus (A-B-C-B-A structured writing) in the Book of Mormon is evidence that it was revealed through a "tight" (literal, word-for-word) translation. However, when the Book of Mormon says that the Nephites used horses, but no evidence of Mesoamerican horses can be found, they will then switch and say that it was a "loose" translation (impressions, ideas) and that the "horses" referred to are actually tapirs.

Full Retreat

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Mormon apologetics is just how much ground they have given up as the light of truth has been shined onto Mormonism.

One example: For the first 150+ years of the church, members believed that the Nephites and Lamanites filled the entirety of North and South America and that the "narrow neck of land" was the isthmus of Panama. As DNA, linguistic, and archeological studies show no evidence of ancient civilizations of Hebrew origins, apologists have shrunk the size & scope of Nephite & Lamanite civilization smaller and smaller until it's almost nowhere to be found. (At the going rate, they'll probably shrink away to nothing by the end of the 21st century.)

Another example is the global flood at the time of Noah. Samples of ice cores taken at the poles have shown no evidence of saltwater deposits that we would expect to find had an actual, global, flood taken place. Apologists have reimagined the flood to be a local phenomenon only that occurred in Noah's close vicinity. (Much like the Lamanites, the global flood keeps shrinking in scope.)

Yet another example is how much apologists have diminished the value of modern-day prophets and apostles. Mormons are trained to believe that there are living prophets on the earth who receive the truth directly from the mouth of God, as indicated by this bold statement from Bruce R. McConkie:

"—the gift of the discerning of spirits is poured out upon presiding officials in God's kingdom; they have it given to them to discern all gifts and all spirits, lest any come among the Saints and practice deception.— There is no perfect operation of the power of discernment without revelation. Thereby even 'the thoughts and intents of the heart' are made known.— Where the Saints are concerned— they Lord expects them to discern, not only between righteous and the wicked, but between false and true philosophies, educational theories, sciences, political concepts, and social schemes." -- Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 197

There are obvious examples of prophecies and declarations made by Mormon leaders that have proven to be false. Examples:

The apologist response is to say that "prophets are only human; they're not infallible", or "the Lord has to work through imperfect men", or (a personal favorite) "they were just speaking as men". That last statement is much closer to the truth than the apologists realize.

The problem with "faithful" answers

A final tactic used by apologists that I find disingenuous is that they disparage people who have "studied their way out of the church", saying that if they had just studied a leeeetle bit more, they would've found some faithful answers just a little farther off. (Sometimes this is phrased as "Don't study church history too little.") The problem is that there are faithful answers, and there are honest answers, but there aren't any answers that are both faithful and honest.

Many apologists are BYU professors who would be unemployable outside of BYU because of the poor scholarship of their writings. That's a conflict of interest that prevents them from making objective observations. For people whose judgement isn't clouded by confirmation bias and sunk-cost bias, the "faithful" answers just aren't plausible.

"When an honest man discovers he is mistaken, he will either cease to be mistaken or he will cease to be honest." -Anonymous

My explanation

I'm often baffled at how people who are aware of the problems with the church are able to stay active & involved (especially apologists). The only explanation I can come up with is that it's a triumph of cognitive biases over reason (confirmation bias, ingroup / bandwagon, sunk cost / post-purchase, status quo, etc.)

Cult Practices & Tactics

All my life growing up in the church, I often heard the charge levied that the Mormon church is a cult. Faithful members would usually hand-wave that accusation away and I trusted in their dismissal. Now that I was on the other side, I was more willing to investigate why people described the Mormon church as a cult. I found some very startling answers.

Warning signs of a cult: Nothing in here is Mormon-specific, it is all generic warning signs. I was dumbfounded at how many of these occurred in Mormonism.

The BITE Model and Mormon Control: A former member of the Unification Church ("Moonies") named Steven Hassan escaped from the Moonies and came up with a generic model for defining / identifying cults. The acronym stands for for Behavior / Information / Thought / Emotional controls. It is startling just how perfectly the Mormon church fits the BITE model.

The Methods of Thought Reform: Luna Lindsey, a former member of the LDS church, has done extensive cultic studies. She lists 31 tactics used by cults to control their members and describes how the Mormon church uses all 31 of them.

Cults 101: Checklist of Cult Characteristics The list on this page was the topic of this Mormon Expression podcast and this Mormon Expositor podcast (part 2 here).

What Is A Cult? Recognizing And Avoiding Unhealthy Groups The Mormon church scores 10/10 on this list.

I also found a number of "one liners" that answer whether an organization is a cult:

Most believers / defenders will continue to insist that the Mormon church isn't a cult. There's the old saying: "If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, it's probably a duck." Well, the Mormon church recruits like a cult, extracts money like a cult, controls its members like a cult, and fawns over its leaders like a cult, so ya know what? It's probably a cult.

Comparable Cultic Religions

One other thing that greatly helped me with my faith transition was to see how Mormonism compares to other new religious movements that originated in 19th-century New England. There are three others that are strikingly similar to Mormonism, notably in their use of cult practices & tactics.

The LDS church teaches that all of the above religions are false. Well, the Mormon church is about the same size and shape and color and texture as all of those, so what does that say about Mormonism?

Other churches that are strikingly similar:

The Anabaptist rebellion in Munster

The Anabaptist Rebellion has virtually all the major elements of Joseph Smith's Restoration including: