Does Studying Church History Lead to Apostasy? (Part 1 of 2)By: Jake
This week has seen a plethora of articles regarding church history enter the media. The focus on Mormon history and its impact on faith and membership is supported by the prelimary publication of John Dehlin’s results from his survey on why people leave the church.
The survey states that the top reasons why people leave the church are:
- “I lost faith in Joseph Smith”
- “I studied church history and lost my belief”
- “I ceased to believe in church’s doctrine/theology”
The bottom three reasons being:
- “I wanted to engage in behaviors viewed as sinful by the church (e.g. alcohol, extra-marital sex)”
- “I was offended by someone in the church”
- “Lack of meaningful friendships within the church”
The actual results of the survey are hardly groundbreaking. It is not rocket science to work out that those who inhabit the nether regions of the bloggernacle often have issues with Joseph Smith, church doctrine and policies and faith and trust in their leaders. Whereas the Pew research threw up some surprising results (who would have thought 80% of mormons found polygamy morally wrong?), this study concludes what many of us already worked out intuitively.
However, this research does raise something distinctive and worth considering in the light of the recent Salt Lake Tribune article on mormon history: why are church doctrine and historical issues a primary factor in disaffection with the church? Both the article and the report suggest that there is something about learning church history and church doctrine that magically and irrevocably erodes faith. This is unique to Mormon exit stories, as other research (top reasons why people leave a christian church) from shows a very different set of reasons for leaving:
- The church was not helping me to develop spiritually. (28%)
- I did not feel engaged or involved in meaningful church work (20%)
- Church members were judgmental of others (18%)
- The pastor was not a good preacher (16%)
- Too many changes (16%)
- Members seemed hypocritical (15%)
- Church didn’t seem to be a place where God was at work (14%)
- Church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement (14%)
- Pastor was judgmental of others (14%)
- Pastor seemed hypocritical (13%)
We do not see hordes of Catholics losing faith over some of the dark secrets of Catholicism’s past, which frankly has a longer and far more disturbing past than we do. So why is doctrine and history such a big issue for the disaffected Mormon?
As the writer of the recent article in the Washington Post says: “I spiritually imploded after learning these things and other facts outside official church curriculum.” The importance of history is also brought up recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune that discussed the church’s changing attitude towards its history due to the fact that Google is having a detrimental effect on members’ faith. As they quote Marlin Jensen: “Never before have we had this information age, with social networking and bloggers publishing unvetted points of view.” This polyphony of view points means that “the church is concerned about misinformation and distorted information, but we are doing better and trying harder to get our story told in an accurate way.”
There is certainly a lot of hyperbole regarding the levels of disaffection with Jenson saying that: “Maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a period of – I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having now,” this rhetoric of an apocalytic level of ship jumping can be seen in quotes from John Dehlin, and even Teryl Givens who use medical metaphors of an epidemic to describe the current scenario. To me it is an exaggeration. I do not know that many people who have left the church regarding church history or doctrine, and I associate with many who are familiar with the historical issues. Certainly, the popularity of sites like Mormon Stories gives the impression that those who struggle with historical issues is on the rise. Perhaps, this is simply because when a forum is created, people naturally fill it. People who previously would have remained silent, thanks to the wonder of the internet, now find kindred spirits across the globe and unite.
Why is it that history and doctrine is so important to the loss of faith?
Historical facts do not have any intrinsic power; they are only significant inasmuch as we endow them with power. Facts are like words and only carry the meaning we give them and that they derive from other facts or context; yet understanding facts is a very subjective business. The fact that a 12/14/16 year old said a prayer in a grove of trees about 180 years ago is only significant when it is part of a bigger narrative of Joseph Smith being God’s chosen prophet. For those invested in the significance of the event, it adopts new levels of meaning and weightiness. For others, that event may not be as important or significant. It clearly did not have the same level of significance to Joseph Smith at the time it happened, as he hardly spoke of it and only wrote it down in obscure passages in his journal initially. We have taken the facts and given them a life above and beyond that which they had in the context of their own time.
In Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea the writer Antoine becomes sceptical about the history he is writing of Rollebon he realises that:
“I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved. These are reasonable hypotheses which take the facts into account: but I am only too well aware that they come from me, that they are simply a way of unifying my own knowledge. Not a single glimmer comes from Rollebon himself, the facts adapt themselves at a pinch to the order I wish to give them, but it remains outside of them.”
Sartre realised that in writing history he was imposing a meaning upon them that the historical figure himself did not give them. The meaning we give to Joseph Smith’s life is not that which he had himself. As James Anthony Froud described history, the past is
‘like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.’
The words and stories we tell gain layers of meaning and significance over time as people interpret their significance based on their own perspectives. We in turn become emotionally attached to the stories, endowing them with epistemological significance to transform them into a certain truth about the past. Every one who writes history is guilty of selective bias to conform to their view of what is significant and what is not. Every history has this flaw, so why is it that we are outraged by selectivity in the church?
In part 2 (next week), I’ll tackle another issue raised by the survey.
- Why do you think that history and doctrine is so important to members?
- Is church history dangerous to faith?
- How do you reconcile the orthodox interpretation of history with other versions?
- Why do you think people leave the church?
- Is the church dishonest in how it presents its history?
- Is greater access to alternate views causing a rise in apostasy?