Thursday, July 20, 2006

My deconversion, part 2: the evidence

disclaimer: I will be recounting my own experiences in a direct and straight-forward manner. None of this is intended as disrespectful to those who believe differently, it is merely a statement of my personal conclusions and how I reached them.

Continued from this post.

The last straw that pushed me out of Mormonism was the question of whether this religion -- or any other -- could have the true and final word on the nature of God and the afterlife.

Before getting there, however, there were a few glaring sign-posts along the road. The first one was the evidence -- or lack thereof -- for the Book of Mormon.

Where did the Native Americans come from?

I knew that the "true" answer was written by Nephi and Moroni and all the rest in the pages of the Book of Mormon. I also knew that no one -- outside of Mormonism -- proposed that the Native Americans had arrived by boat from the Middle East.

I remember sitting in American History class -- probably in the seventh grade -- watching a film showing how the Americas were populated by migrations across a land bridge from Asia.

I thought to myself If only they knew the truth. If only they had the idea to look for evidence that these people arrived by boat, they would find it.

Another part of me said These researchers promoting these theories of Native American origins -- they aren't bitter anti-Mormons out to destroy the church. The church probably doesn't even show up on their radar. They say the Native Americans migrated on foot from Asia because they dug up evidence out of the ground and that's the conclusion it pointed to. If the same types of researchers used the same types of evidence to piece together the history of some unknown tribe in Africa or an island somewhere, I would believe them.

But some incompetent and mistaken archaeologists and anthropologists weren't sufficient to dissuade me from the truth.

Worse was later when I heard from some Mormons who were all excited about the research of Thor Heyerdahl and how it was such a boon to proving the Book of Mormon right. I pressed for details and found that he had constructed a boat using ancient techniques and had sailed it across the Atlantic. So he had shown that Nephi and Lehi's journey was not physically impossible. Do we have any evidence that it actually happened? No.

I was left forcing out of my mind the obvious question: That's the best you can do?

The point that was the most painful for me to try to rationalize was later -- when I was about fifteen or sixteen -- and I heard my parents talking about the Book of Abraham.

Like any good Mormon kid, I knew that Joseph Smith had translated some ancient Egyptian documents, found with a mummy, and that they had turned out to be a record written by Abraham of his time in Egypt. I had also learned that the original papyrus was lost, and was thought to have been destroyed in the great Chicago fire.

This story made perfect sense from a Mormon perspective. Like the golden plates that were taken back into heaven after Joseph Smith translated them, and like the Nauvoo Temple that was destroyed by fire after the Saints left for the promised land in the Salt Lake Valley, the Lord took Abraham's writings back once their purpose was fulfilled.

Then one day I heard my parents say that this story wasn't true, and that, in fact, the Book of Abraham papyrus had been found, and was in the possession of the church!!! Not only that, it had been in the possession of the church since before I was born!!!

This was very upsetting. I couldn't see why I would ever have been told this "Chicago fire" story unless... Unless the existence of the original was something that we needed to avoid talking about. The nail in the coffin was when I learned the rationalization in the very same conversation: "Maybe Joseph Smith didn't really translate the papyrus, maybe the papyrus inspired him to receive the Book of Abraham text as a revelation."

This was a terrible blow, to learn that the physical evidence had been hidden away as a shameful thing and to hear an upsetting hint as to why.

I know that today's modern, Internet-savvy Mormons all already know that the papyrus is in the possession of the church and that no scholar -- Mormon or otherwise -- claims that it is anything other than ordinary Egyptian funeral documents that have nothing to do with the Biblical patriarch Abraham nor are even remotely from the right time period to have been written by him. So one might claim that it was my own foolish ignorance or lack of study that led to me to be shocked by this information. I suppose that nowadays they're saying that they never really claimed that Joseph Smith literally translated a record that Abraham himself had written "by his own hand upon papyrus" and that information about it was never obscured or hidden away. But that's not what it was like back in the 1980's. People just didn't talk about such "deep doctrines."

For a teenager, I was actually relatively well-informed about the "meat" of Mormonism (as in "milk before meat"). I knew about polygamy and "celestial polygamy" (the fact that Mormons believe that there is polygamy in the afterlife even if polygamy is not currently practiced by the church).

I had learned in seminary about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the "Vilate Kimball test of faith" story. That's the one where Joseph Smith has a revelation that he is to take Heber C. Kimball's wife Vilate as one of his own plural wives, Heber and Vilate are terribly distraught but finally agree because it's the will of God, and then Joseph Smith says that God was just testing their faith, and that in fact God would be okay with Heber keeping Vilate as long as they give Joseph their fourteen-year-old daughter Helen in her place...

For both of those stories, I remember thinking "Hmmm, that's pretty weird."

But as disturbing as those stories were, neither one struck at the root of my faith like the question of whether Joseph Smith really had the ability to miraculously translate ancient records.

to be continued...


Anonymous said...

I actually tried to use the story of the native americans in school as a "missionary" opportunity - after class I asked my teacher if she wanted to read another testament of christ.

She turned me down delicately.

I also hear what you're saying about the meat - I have to say, though - I didn't realize that one of our ancestors was a polygamist until I was in my early 20s (and no longer mormon). But our families were different - I'm not sure we ever talked about the BoA.

C. L. Hanson said...

Trying to convert your teacher -- hilarious!!!

I knew we had somoe polygamous ancestors before I left the church. I heard about it from my mom when she was talking about genealogy.

Cyn Bagley said...

Cl.. Hanson...

You know my family has also been Mormons since the beginning... And, I am amused that they are now saying that the Egyptian papyrus inspired the Abraham text because in the 1960's and 1970's... it was taught the other way.

What a bunch of goobers. Also, a lot of the "misunderstood doctrine" came out of the writings of the older prophets. LOL

As for the landbridge... I think that stuck in my head for years. So when the DNA showed the landbridge story as truth, the whole thing was not a shock to me. OH well.. I was already out of the church by then.

Also... funny how those solid doctrines of yore.. are now considered untaught myths.

Cyn Bagley said...

Another Mormon myth shot to pieces:

A story that I heard through the Mormon church was that archeologists wanted Mormons to translate papyrus and other texts in that region because the Mormons were more likely to translate them right because of the Abraham papyrus. LOL

What a crock.

Anonymous said...

What can I say? I was young and deluded.

Just one of many said...

I have no pioneer heritage to blame. I joined the church out of sheer stupidity! Once I found out about joseph smiths inability to keep his weiner in his pants I left the church...too bad it took 13 years!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

It's so true about how the solid doctrines change and it becomes anti-Mormon to recount what you were taught as doctrine as a kid.

Also, those faith-promoting legends are funny!!! :D

Hey Just One of Many!!!

Don't feel bad -- it happens to a lot of people...

The Sinister Porpoise said...

Since my parents were converts, there were no polygamists. My heritage is Pennsylvania Dutch -- I'm most certainly not of Pioneer stock. On the other hand, given that the name is mendioned in The Martyr's Mirror heresy is something of a family tradition.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

The Martyr's Mirror -- that sounds interesting... What is it?

The Sinister Porpoise said...

It was meant to be The Martyr's Mirror italicized, but the HTML tags didn't work. It's a book primarily referred to by the Mennonites and Amish -- a Mennonite organization recently put up an English translation. The original is in German.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JLO!!!

I think a lot of people have this same sort of experience where the evidence starts building, and it's upsetting as you encounter each new point that you have to rationalize.

Until the moment when the dam breaks...

My final straw was a little different from yours. Your scene of realizing it was false in the moment of being called upon to shore up somebody else was amazing because what you were feeling at that moment came through so clearly.

I'll probably post my third installment on Friday.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

In my case the idea of organized religion was really what fell. But the Mormon-specific doubts helped the process along...

Jessica M. said...

I enjoyed your story as well. Once you see all the glaring inconsistencies it makes you wonder how you could have EVER believed it in the first place!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Jessica!!!