Throughout 2016 I wrote several articles in defense of the Restored Gospel. They attracted quite a bit of attention from both the LDS and ex-Mormon communities. I received more hate mail than you could imagine, while also getting to hear from sincere brothers and sisters in both camps.
But nothing I have written can hold a candle to what I am about to share.
This time, I’m not really going to defend the Restoration, so much as I intend to expose what anti-Mormonism is and what its objectives really are.
Sometimes we just need a good dose of clear hard truth, to see why the doubts that sometimes seem so monumental are more illusion than anything else.
I know that we are used to reading a lot of fluffy and light-hearted articles, but I’m asking you to buckle your seat-belt and read this post carefully. There’s an important “aha” moment in point #4 that you won’t experience unless you’ve carefully read everything that comes before it.
So, let’s get to it:
1. There’s Only One Credible Alternative to the Restored Gospel
Most members have probably never considered what they would do if they lost their testimonies of the Restoration. Would they still be Christians? Would they convert to Presbyterianism or Catholicism? You might expect so, but in reality ex-Mormons generally can’t find a believable Christian alternative to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is simply impossible to leave the Restored Gospel for another version of Christianity without realizing that you have lost so many of its essential elements. What happened to prophets, revelation, temples, priesthood authority, the plan of salvation, the doctrine of Eternal Man, etc.? And how could the God of the Bible suddenly decide that everyone should be free to interpret scripture as they wish, creating a church for every opinion?
Perhaps even more important, however, is that basically every reason to doubt Mormonism is a good reason to doubt Christianity. Not enough archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon? Feel like some of the archaeological evidence might contradict the Book of Mormon? The same is true of the Bible.
Don’t like polygamy or that two of Joseph’s plural wives were 20 years his junior? You’ll see the same trend for the prophets of old.
Joseph Smith offends Western sensibility? Not nearly as badly as prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. A quick gander at the Old Testament shows that Joseph Smith has a relatively immaculate record (based on Western standards) compared to many of the prophets who came before him.
And so we find that arguments against Joseph Smith are really arguments against all the prophets—the messengers from whom we learn of Christ and of whom Christ testified. Which is why everyone I know who has left the Church has become some version of an Atheist. And it is why a large poll of ex-Mormons found that only 1 in 10 ex-Mormons convert to another Christian religion.
You see, at first they decide that Joseph Smith couldn’t have possibly been called by Christ. Then they find that they can no longer believe that Christ is really the Son of God.
So, for LDS members (particularly RMs and life-long members), Christianity itself hinges upon the question, “Was Joseph Smith really a prophet?”
Anti-Mormonism isn’t just about getting people to lose faith in our Church, it’s about getting people to lose faith in God, in Christ, in revelation, in religion. Once you’ve tasted the sweetest and most perfect form of Christianity, where else will you go when you leave? If you really understand the teachings of the Restored Gospel, deciding that Mormonism is false means accepting some form of Atheism (including Agnosticism, Humanism, and Non-religious spiritualism).
2. Crises of Faith in LDS Communities Are Really Just a Symptom of a Larger Problem
*Note: When I refer to Atheism in the rest of this article I also refer to its cousins—Agnosticism, Naturalism, Humanism, etc. To understand why I include these groups under the banner of “Atheism,” click here.
There are many critics who love highlighting the Latter-day Saints who choose to leave the Church. They say that the rest of us are in denial, that we belong to some kind of crazy and fraudulent cult and have our heads too deep in the sand to see how many people are drawing that very conclusion.
They want us to look at our friends and family members who are leaving the Church and feel alerted to the idea that there is something wrong with the Mormon Church.
But if you look at the extensive survey data PEW has collected on religion in the U.S.—what you see is that like never before, people (especially Millennials) are abandoning the religion they grew up in.
While Mormons are much more likely than other Christians to become Atheists when they leave their childhood faith, the number of Christians who are becoming unaffiliated with religion is growing dramatically.
The most concerning trend is among Millennials:
Across the board (in LDS and other Christian Churches), approximately 1 in 3 Millennials are leaving the faith they were raised in for something else. For Mormon Millennials, that something else is generally a form of Atheism, and for other Millennials it is largely a mix of Atheism and Non-Denominationalism (what you might call a gateway to Atheism).
So, to be clear, it’s not that we have discovered new information about Joseph Smith that has suddenly changed a lot of people’s minds about the Restoration. The criticisms you hear today are the same criticisms that have been peddled for decades and longer.
No, crises of faith aren’t a Mormon problem. They’re a Humankind problem, a civilizational problem. Faith itself is weakening in Western society.
Perhaps we have learned so much through science that we feel silly relying on beliefs that we can’t confirm scientifically. Perhaps with all the temptations that abound, it’s just easier not having to worry about a God who will hold us accountable for our choices. Perhaps it is something else.
But what I do know is that before He died, Christ told a parable about relying on God versus relying on man. Luke writes that the purpose of this parable is to remind us to “pray always and not faint.” And after telling the parable, Christ asks, perhaps with sadness in his voice: “When the Son of Man cometh, will he find faith on the Earth?”
Maybe we’re starting to witness what Christ was concerned about when he posed that question.
So, why might the Adversary lay the foundation for plunging Western society into Atheism? The reason goes deeper than you may have ever expected.
Now that we understand the central role that Atheism is playing in the crises of faith for both Mormons and other Christians, it’s time to understand the profound implications.
3. Post-Modern Atheism Is Paving the Way for a New and Destructive Moral Order
To be clear, people who become Atheists don’t suddenly become moral monsters. Their moral views shift, but they probably have more in common with the moral beliefs of their religious friends than they have in contrast.
However, one of the problems with the rise of Atheism is that it comes with delayed consequences. Like the frog in the pot of water who doesn’t jump out because the heat only gradually rises, most Atheists are unaware of where their belief system will lead society.
The reason for this is simply that most Atheists have had a religious upbringing and live in an environment that has been deeply influenced by Christianity. It is one thing to reject revealed religion, and another to abandon mindsets, attitudes, and values which you don’t even realize have been socialized into you since birth. Thus, many Atheists don’t realize that while they have rejected God, everything about the way they see the world is still deeply influenced by religion.
For now, many Atheists can look around and say “we are freed from the foolish traditions of our fathers” and feel content that nothing drastic has changed in the process. But in the long-run, much will change in a society driven by Atheism.
Fortunately, following the logic of Atheism to its natural conclusions is far from an impossible task.
For 150 years, pioneering Atheist thinkers and philosophers have been describing the moral order that naturally emerges from post-modern Atheism. Among post-modern thinkers—both Atheists and Theists—there isn’t a lot of disagreement about the general direction that Atheism will take us.
So, this is what we know:
For thousands of years, morality has been based on beliefs about human purpose, the immortality of the soul, and other transcendent truths—all beliefs that are religious in nature, as they cannot be scientifically evaluated. However, post-modern Atheism rejects all of these notions, in the long-term, for the same reason that it rejects religion—they cannot be studied or confirmed by scientific inquiry.
Instead, Atheism replaces the foundations of morality with what can be seen, heard, touched, or otherwise measured. Since this eliminates notions of God and the interplay between good and evil, we can stop looking outward to ask, “what do God’s laws or the Universe’s laws require of us?” And instead, we can begin looking inward and ask more fully than ever before, “wait, what do I want?”
Rather than morality being driven by belief in standards of right and wrong, good and evil, and other such dualisms, morality will eventually be driven solely by human desires, cravings, and impulses—as these are actually palpable. Simply put, society will be governed completely by what individuals think they want and need—as opposed to a sense of duty and obligation to some higher truth about good and evil or directives from Heaven.
To understand what all this means, we must identify the principal need that drives human sociality. The answer, according to the great thinkers of the ages is this: respect. More than anything else, people crave respect. They may want sex, but sex from someone who thinks nothing of you is unsatisfying. They may desire love, but to be loved by someone who doesn’t see you as an equal is demeaning. They may crave empathy, but without respect, there is no real empathy.
The reason that status, wealth, and power all matter so much to so many people is because they gain you the respect of others.
This desire for respect is the same reason that studies have shown that people would rather take a low salary if it is higher than most of their peers rather than accept a high salary that is lower than their peers. They would rather struggle financially than be the low man on the social totem pole. They value respect over even money.
And why did Cain commit the first murder? Because Cain couldn’t stand that God “had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering [God] had not respect.”
This powerful desire for respect is held in check by a belief in God, but it is unleashed once the last vestiges of religious influence are eliminated from society.
To understand what I mean by this, consider the recent campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage loudly proclaimed that “love wins.” But this was never about love. Same-sex couples already had the right to love whomever they wanted. They could have been content with anti-discrimination laws or civil unions, but it wasn’t enough. No, what they really wanted was for their union to be just as respected as anyone else’s. Marriage was an honor afforded only to heterosexual couples and same-sex couples were going to feel slighted until that changed.
You see, when people begin rejecting moral codes (because they are based on transcendent truths), they shift from feeling ashamed about falling short of moral standards and become angry that anyone would condemn their actions in the first place. They begin to feel indignant that any person or institution in society would dare to say that one choice, one lifestyle, or one belief has greater moral merit than another.
The consequence is that society begins to gravitate around radical equality. That is, people will fight and fight until society cannot and will not recognize that any choice is better than another, that any lifestyle, belief, or action has more moral merit than another.
(Of course, equality is an important social value, but Christian equality looks very different from Atheistic equality for reasons listed here.)
Post-modern Atheist philosophers, following the logic of Atheism, say that all differences, such as gender and family hierarchy must be eliminated in the process. They claim that once the forces of radical equality are unleashed upon the old system of traditional morality and institutions, our world will be transformed into something that even they cannot fully conceive.
What is clear, is that every time society allows one choice, one lifestyle, one belief to be honored above another, someone must feel dishonored. And nothing creates more anger and unrest than to be dishonored, to be respected less than your peers. And so, an Atheist society will continue to struggle and struggle under the banner of equality until the world cannot tell a moral difference between two choices.
4. The Book of Mormon Powerfully Responds to This Mindset
Do you remember when Lehi says “There must needs be an opposition in all things”? Latter-day Saints often associate that sermon with the purpose of trials and hardship. But there is far more to it than that.
In a recent conference talk, Elder Oaks affirmed that Lehi wasn’t just talking about opposition in the sense of difficulty, but more particularly about opposition in the sense of differences, or opposites.
With that understanding, watch how Lehi’s words respond to the goal of post-modern Atheism:
“And to bring about [God’s] eternal purposes in the end of man…it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life…Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. [But] man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.”
Lehi explains that for agency to work, man must not only have freedom, but choices. The goal of Atheism, however, is to destroy the moral distinction between choices. Or, in other words, the goal of Atheism is to destroy the agency of man. At least, to the extent possible.
Ultimately, this is what anti-Mormonism intends to accomplish.
“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having…neither happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
“Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes…”
5. An Important and Final Conclusion
If you have struggled with doubt, or you know someone who has…so too, have apostles and prophets before they became such. Doubt is not faced by the weak alone.
I have personally experienced overwhelming doubt. In my darkest moments, when I felt like I was losing touch with reality—no longer knowing what was real and what was true—the only thing that enabled me to hold on a little longer, was what I just finished sharing in this article.
In my moments of desperation, this is what I imagine:
I see myself looking out into a dark and stormy world where two paths lie before me. I feel confused as to which I should take. I have no way of really knowing which path I would want to take, for I cannot be sure where either leads. As confusion settles in, I look to see where the path on the left seems to lead. As I look out into the distance, there appears to be a dark and horrific abyss. And it seems as if this path will lead me there.
But as I turn to the right, I look to see where the other path leads. There appears to be nothing in the distance. But suddenly, I see what looks like a flicker of light. It seems as though it might be just a small flame from a single candle stick. It’s hard to know if it’s just my imagination, but something tells me that it is real, and this fills me with hope.
Ultimately, I must decide to take one path or the other. Either way, the decision is really a question of faith: which path do I believe will lead me to where I want to go, which path will bring the happiness I seek? I am left to choose between the path that seems to lead to an immense abyss or the path that seems to lead to that flicker of light.
And as I have chosen to move closer to that flickering light, despite the confusion and doubt that sometimes assails, I invariably catch a better glimpse of the light, and I see that it is no candlelight, but a blazing star of gigantic proportions. Through the haze and darkness, it was just sometimes hard to see.
I add my testimony to millions of others that Christ lives. I have had too many experiences with both the flickering light and the blazing star to believe otherwise. I believe humankind has a purpose. I believe that there is a right and a wrong, and I believe that there is a God and an eternal law. And because of these things, I am a Latter-day Saint. For the alternative, is the Atheism that would guide our civilization into the abyss if ever we give it the chance.
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By Dustin Phelps