A Relief Society President searches the Internet for material on a lesson. A High Priest Group Leader follows various links on the Web preparing for a talk. A returned missionary watches some “Mormon” videos that were sent to him from a friend in his student ward. All three eventually leave the Church because of testimony-shaking material they “discovered” on the Internet. Most of us know someone who might fit such general scenarios.
Not only do they discover unsettling contra-LDS information on the Web, but they might not know where to turn for answers or help. They may feel that it wrong to question or doubt. They may be apprehensive about expressing their questions, concerns, or doubts to other Church members (or even to their spouses or other family members) because they fear that they would be looked down upon by others. With nowhere to turn, they often turn back to the Internet and sometimes right into the arms of those critics who are eager to feed the struggling member more unsettling information.
Most of us have heard the expression: “Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for Saints.” Every single one of us struggles with imperfection, sins, and testimony. Unfortunately too many members seem to think that a weakened testimony or emerging doubts is indicative of increase sin or a desire to sin. My friend Paul McNabb—a Stake Presidency Counselor who has advised bishops with struggling members— once noted:
“…doubt is a natural part of our mortal sojourn. It is not sin, nor does it always (or even mostly) stem from sin. Faith is not belief without doubt, but rather faith is obedience to imperfectly-understood-but-true principles in the presence of doubt. In general, I would counsel leaders to not assume that doubt stems from transgression and to not assume that doubt is in some way the ‘fault’ of the individual experiencing it. I think leaders can best serve those going through a crisis of faith by being understanding, sympathetic, and compassionate.”[i]
It’s important that we understand that questioning the things we do, believe, or accept is normal and part of the process that leads from youth to maturity, as well as from maturity to wisdom. There would be no growth without questioning. Questions lead to answers, resolutions, solidifying convictions, and even to discarding false assumptions. Many doctrines and teachings were revealed as the result of questions petitioned to God.
Questioning traditions, folklore, and scripture resulted in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom, an increased understanding of the Spirit World as recorded in D&C 138, and the expansion of the priesthood to all worthy males as recorded in the D&C Official Declaration—2. Personal application of prophetic and scriptural directives come as we question the meaning and relevance of the Word of God in our own lives, and academic questions have led to greater understanding of early LDS history, biblical history, as well as the world in which ancient prophets lived.
Unavoidably, questions have also led to loss of testimony and a rejection of a belief in modern prophets, scriptures, or even in God. The affect questions and doubts have upon our personal spiritual convictions varies greatly depending on the individual. For some, doubt may appear suddenly, emerge periodically, or it might plague believers all of their lives. While about 95% of Americans believe in God, for example, nearly half—including those who consider themselves to be religiously devout—seriously question their faith from time to time.[ii]
For some, doubts and questions may simply be part of one’s seeking nature. In our evolving world of ever-increasing information some may not feel content with any answer and may always be searching for the next best academic evaluation. For many, however, questions can surface because of what seems to be reliable information that contradicts long-held beliefs. The doubt and questions that arise from such discoveries often create emotional, spiritual, and intellectual heartburn and pain. Troubling discoveries can cause sleeplessness, depression, tears, and even physical maladies. Typically this pain is generated when assumptions and expectations are turned on their heads.
It’s human nature to make assumptions. Assumptions are those things which we take for granted—things we don’t critically examine. We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover, but that initial response is an unavoidable characteristic of human nature. We make evaluations and judgments on what we see or perceive even though those perceptions may not be accurate.
Our assumptions typically offer a base-line or starting point for many of the things we believe. We can’t know all the answers to everything so we make assumptions based on information we do have and fill in the blanks with inferences based on our assumptions. In other words, we infer, or come to conclusions about things around us, based on our assumptions.
We couldn’t function in any society without assumptions and inferences because we can’t possibly examine everything around us all of the time. This leads to the unavoidable fact that we will often make false assumptions and inferences—fed by our own personal world views or by misinformation, a lack of information, or the inability to comprehend or internalize additional information. All humans – Even prophets—can, have, and will make false assumptions.
Non-LDS psychologist Dr. Daniel Kahneman has argued that we think in two distinct (yet metaphorical) systems. System 1 is our intuitive thought process and the process to which we typically turn first. “…the intuitive System 1 is more influential than your experience tells you, and it is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make.” System 1 “continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.”[iii]
System 2’s process is much more laborious and requires focus and concentration. “System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer….”[iv] “The defining feature of System 2,” writes Kahneman, “…is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary.”
As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only System 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.[v]
System 1 is not a bad system. It is what guides us through our everyday lives. Our intuitions are typically formed from experience with similar situations and System 1 can quickly and accurately help us maneuver through obstacles and routines that are not too difficult. System 2 kicks in when System 1 is overwhelmed and needs extra muscle. And while System 1 is linked with our emotions, studies indicate that we need our emotions in our decision-making endeavors. Studies show that that “people who do not display the appropriate emotions before they decide, sometimes because of brain damage, also have an impaired ability to make good decisions.”[vi]
Latter-day Saints, like all people, create their own stumbling blocks by automatically and uncritically accepting the unexamined assumptions that frequently flow from System 1. All of us embrace concepts, beliefs, or positions that we unquestioningly accept primarily because we have never thought of questioning the belief, position, or concept—System 1 is the easier path. Unfortunately, we occasionally confuse beliefs on peripheral teachings—such as rumors, traditions, or personal opinions—with LDS doctrines.
Critics may unconsciously or consciously take advantage of the natural inclination that most people—most of the time—will rely on the quick and easy answers supplied by System 1. A critic, for example, might create a list of problems with the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, or the character of Joseph Smith. At first glance, such a list can appear impressive and detrimental to LDS truth claims. Critics give the impression that the issues are simple (perhaps black and white) and therefore the conclusion they propose (that the Church is false) is obvious to any unbiased observer (which, of course, is a faulty assumption because there are no unbiased observers).
The problem is that, more often than not, the issues are not simple—they are frequently complex, especially when we have to compare or understand the issues in context of time, circumstance, or even culture. A lot more ink is required to respond to an accusation then to make an accusation. Generally, we tend to avoid turning to System 2 to analyze the complexities of the issues and the rebuttals. System 2, as Kahneman notes, is lazy. We may intuitively (and incorrectly) accept the conclusion of System 1 (the easy list of anti-Mormon arguments) and reject the more difficult System 2 (the rebuttals) simply because the accusations are preferred because of their ease of acceptance. Once the conclusion is accepted (that the anti-Mormon’s simple list is the correct one) the arguments supporting the conclusion are accepted as well. As Kahneman notes, “…when people believe a conclusion is true, they are also very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound.”[vii]
Assumptions often feed expectations. Most of our assumptions in life lead to low expectations and we aren’t really bothered if we discover that some of our assumptions are false. We may assume, for instance, that the Great Wall of China is the only-made made object visible from the moon. If we find out, however, that the Great Wall becomes invisible to the naked eye long before reaching the moon, our world would not likely crash down around us.
False assumptions within important relationships, however, can be destructive because we have greater expectations. Such relationships would include those with your spouse, parents, children, government, employer, Church, or God. All of us have certain expectations when we are involved in a relationship. The more invested we are in the relationship the greater the expectations and therefore the greater pain when our assumptions collide with a new image that contradicts those assumptions.
It would not matter, for example, if we discovered that we were incorrect about Joseph Smith’s clothing styles, hair color, or pitch of voice. It would likely matter, however, if we discovered information implying that Joseph was a fraud or delusional or that the Book of Mormon was merely fiction.
We should tread lightly if we assume that our understanding of the Gospel will not change, that the history of the Restoration is always neat and tidy, that all prophets always behaved as we hope prophets would behave, that all those who recorded scripture remembered everything accurately, or that scripture accurately reflects scientific and historical truths.
As members of Christ’s Church, as members of our individual stakes, wards, quorums, or Relief Societies, we should not assume that we know the hearts, the spirituality, or righteousness of others or why they might struggle with a testimony.
Our assumptions may not only contribute to the diminution of another member’s testimony—by making them feel unworthy for questioning—but our unexamined assumptions about the Church, history, science, or Gospel topics could potentially impair our own testimony when we discover that some of our assumptions are weak or erroneous. False assumptions could cause us to become testimony-struggling-members who are on the receiving end of the judgmental assumptions of other members.
*This article also appeared in Meridian Magazine.
[ii] George Bishop, “The Americans’ Belief in God,” Public Opinion Quarterly 63 (1999): 421–434, cited in Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, “Does God Matter?: A Social Science Critique”Harvard Divinity Bulletin, n.1 and 2; available online (accessed 2 December 2012).