Overview of How the Church Handles Doubts
As I’ve been working on what has turned out to be a fairly comprehensive overview project on the history and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’ve tried to create the topics in a natural order that began with Joseph Smith’s time as a treasure digger and ends with just a few topics on the church after Joseph Smith. The reason for that was simple – if Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God, then the modern day church is not from God.
I believe that you can prove that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text, and I think in the 30+ overviews I’ve done so far that you can prove that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God. I realize this is a strong conclusion, but after 30+ overviews I hope I’ve made clear that whether it’s the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, polygamy, or how foundational events were changed and retrofitted such as the First Vision and priesthood restoration, the truth claims do not hold up to the evidence.
These overviews have been written at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, and it just so happens that the current prophet at the time of this overview, Russell M. Nelson, just gave a talk that really hit some points I wanted to address as we begin to wrap up these overviews.
In this overview I want to cover the ways that the church attacks those with doubts in order to keep you too afraid to research the very claims that you are supposed to dedicate your life to the church over. Some of the points I’ll make below will tie back to our last overview on spiritual witnesses and testimonies, and I hope you’ll check that out if you haven’t already.
How the Church Handles Doubts
Doubts in the church are nothing new – we have stories of members leaving the church since the beginning when they realize it doesn’t add up whether it’s the Book of Mormon or the actions of Joseph Smith that eventually shook their belief. The biggest difference in recent years is that the church no longer controls the information we have access to, and outlets such as the CES Letter, Mormon Stories, and social media have brought the information to members in very easy to consume formats.
Ever since the internet has made access to the information about church history readily available, the church has been faced with increasing doubt among members, leading church historian Marlin Jensen to declare that “Maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a period of - I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having now.” (Special Report: Mormonism besieged by the modern age)
The internet has made it easy to find this information, but more importantly it’s now easy to find the information with clear sourcing that lets the reader know it’s not the “anti-Mormon lies” they were raised and conditioned to believe, but actual evidence that comes in large part from the church’s own historical records.
As I mentioned in my overview on spiritual witnesses, I was explicitly told by family members before going to the temple for the first time that people would try to give me “anti-Mormon” materials, but that I should not engage with them because they were lies that have been answered since the church was founded.
The problem is that now if you are open to the possibility that the church is not true, you can go home and Google those claims and see for yourself if they’re “anti-Mormon lies” or actual problems now acknowledged by the church’s ‘gospel topics essays.’ In almost every case, it is the latter as the church can no longer deny basic issues such as Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon with a rock in a hat, the Book of Abraham translation being completely incorrect, or Joseph Smith being married to over 30 women behind his first wife Emma’s back.
This has caused the church to move in multiple directions in order to stem the bleeding that is coming from a younger generation that is encountering this information. On one hand, you have the new, softer apologists such as Terry Givens, Patrick Mason, and Jim Bennett who will tell you that not everything adds up and mistakes were made by prophets including Joseph Smith, but that the church is still as true as when you had your spiritual witness long ago.
On the other hand, you have the church leadership which has doubled down in recent years on the church’s historical truths and gone on the attack against those with doubts. Since I began this website in late 2018, I have written about a number of high level events where church leaders attack not just those who speak up about the problems with the church’s truth claims, but those who have doubts about the claims themselves.
I want to highlight a few of those talks before I get to Russell M. Nelson’s talk at the 2021 General Conference, because it will help to illustrate how the church is approaching doubts in the church, and why Nelson’s talk was so disingenuous, incorrect, and harmful.
The Renlunds' 2019 Youth Devotional on Doubts
As I mentioned in the overview on spiritual witnesses, the Renlunds gave a youth devotional in January 2019 where they took very direct aim at doubters when speaking to the (very impressionable) youth that they know will likely encounter some of the information I have covered in these 30+ overviews.
The talk was called “Navigating Doubts and Faith” and was given to the youth with very childlike illustrations, showing how a young boy was saved by a boat but quickly because a spoiled brat the moment he started to notice dings in the boat. Their message, of course, was that we are to ‘stay in the boat,’ but this kid began to have doubts and insisted he be let off to go on his own.
In this section, the Renlunds stated the following:
"Do dents and peeling paint on the church change its ability to provide the authorized saving and exalting ordinances to help us become like our heavenly father?"
The problem, of course, is that these problems are not merely cosmetic issues and they know this. Over the last 30+ overviews, we have shown how Joseph Smith used his treasure digging methods to both claim gold plates and translate the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, I went through topics showing how scholars can date the Book of Mormon and why biblical scholarship tells us the story could not possibly have happened even before we get to the issues with DNA.
In other words, the problem isn’t that the church has “dents and peeling paint,” but that it simply isn’t what it claimed to be. While the church today redefines what ‘translation’ and ‘skin’ mean, we have revelations from God that tell us exactly what the curse of dark skin was, and that is not a small cosmetic problem.
After the Renlunds put the blame on this child for having doubts, they really twist the knife on those who might follow this kid’s example to study the church in order to poison the well for the youth and inoculate them against outside materials:
"Sadly, Steven had chosen to be a perpetual doubter. For him, doubting pleased him more than knowing and he was digging up in doubt what he had planted in faith. As time went on as one concern was resolved another one was found. No matter how much anyone tried to respond and answer these questions he found another topic on which he was anxious. He focused on the dents in the boat instead of on the capability of the boat to lead him to the blessings of the atonement of Jesus Christ. What Steve was doing was a form of church history whack-a-mole. You know the children's game where a mole pops up from a board and as soon as you hit it another one pops up in its place. (Pause for laughter)"
This section is designed to let these impressionable youth viewers know that people with doubts are not only ungrateful, unruly children, but that these kinds of doubts are simply unacceptable in the church. Mocking those who go down the rabbit hole of church history and discover how many problems there are is effective at keeping those who have yet to research the church from doing so, because children do not want to disappoint their parents, which will happen if they do not follow the leaders of the church.
The reason there is "church history whack-a-mole" is because once you see one problematic area of church history, it leads you to another. I have referred to this before as being like the ending of The Sixth Sense - once you see it, everything makes sense. Once you realize the Book of Abraham source material completely contradicts what Joseph Smith said it was, the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon make sense. Once you realize that Joseph Smith changed revelations as his theology changed, the problems with the priesthood restoration, First Vision, and polygamy make sense.
Here we’re going to start seeing a lot of the themes that Russell M. Nelson touched upon in his General Conference talk, where the Renlunds make sure these impressionable kids know that doubts are like a virus that leads to “evil:”
“Doubt unless changed into inquiry from a reliable, trustworthy source has no value or worth. A stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the appropriate effort to pay the price of divine discovery inevitably reaches unbelief and darkness. His doubts grow like poison our mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, indolence for labor and becomes a lazy scholar. Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end in and of itself. That doubts which feeds and grows upon itself and breeds more doubt is evil. Elder Whitsoe's words are still true: Stagnant doubt does not lead to knowing the reality of the savior Jesus Christ and His atonement. It doesn't lead to knowing we have a kind loving Heavenly Father that instituted the great plan of salvation... we can come to know the truthfulness of this latter day work, but it requires we choose faith, not doubt and that we go to reliable, trustworthy sources for our answers.”
This is absolutely ridiculous, painting those who research the church as “blind like the mole” that will turn into a “lazy scholar” which leads to doubts which are “evil.” The Renlunds know full well what they are doing here, and the intent is to keep the very youth they are talking to afraid to look at any sources that are not deemed, as they explicitly say, “reliable, trustworthy sources.”
An apologist will immediately say that the Renlunds are not trying to tell kids not to look at outside sources, but they are absolutely doing so. This is a trick that the church has used increasingly due to the internet making the information so easily accessible – they poison the well on any sources that are not approved by the church as being untrustworthy.
If their quote above isn’t clear, later in their talk they get more specific by stating that “You will miss spiritually important events if you choose persistent doubt fueled by answers from faithless and unfaithful sources." They are not being subtle here – the only acceptable sources are those that promote faith in the church.
Finally the Renlunds focus their attacks on those on the outside who have researched the church, which is something that we will see Russell M. Nelson do in his talk that will be covered in a bit:
"So, would you seek financial advice from someone who is broke and in debt? Would you ask for medical advice from a charlatan snake-oil salesman? Who would you take some advice from on how to perform your forehand in tennis? A weekend hack of Roger Federer? So why would you entrust your eternal welfare to those who are spiritually bankrupt because they have ripped up in doubt what they once planted in faith."
We need to get moving here, but these lines are so absolutely disingenuous and ridiculous. Let me re-frame these questions back on the church:
“So, would you seek advice on giving 10% of your income from a church that hoards over $130 billion in an investment fund while not donating a single dollar of that investment fund to help those in need? Would you ask for marital advice from a church that championed polygamy until the government forced them to stop? Who would you take advice on where dark skin comes from: a church that wrote the Book of Mormon which completely misses why people have dark skin, or scientists who actually study why that happens?”
My questions are intentionally silly, but that’s the point - these questions from the church are not designed to promote truth, but to poison the well. The church is trying to infantilize members to the point where they don’t feel like they can possibly live without the church’s direction, which is what every high demand religion does and it is harmful. More importantly, this is directly telling every kid who is listening that their parent, sibling, or friend who leaves the church is not to be trusted, which is not only alarming but it is harmful to families.
This talk is bad on the surface, but it’s even worse when you take a step back and realize it is designed to indoctrinate the youth of the church to not apply critical thinking to the church’s truth claims, and to be fearful of anyone who attempts to provide evidence based approaches to evaluating their truth claims.
Elder Corbridge and Appeals to Authority
In the same month as the Renlunds' devotional to the youth, Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge gave a devotional to the students at BYU which was covered by the “Church News” as “What to do with your questions, according to 1 General Authority who's an expert on anti-Church materials.”
This talk also focused on keeping members from looking into the church’s truth claims, but Corbridge also use appeals to authority as a way to redirect these questions about church history.
Corbridge makes sure to tell these college students that “there may not be anything out there (of that nature) I haven’t read” as a way to assure these members that there is nothing to fear in church history, because he did the work so they wouldn’t have to. By saying that “reading this material always left him with a sense of gloom,” Corbridge sent a strong signal to these college students, who are at BYU to learn about the world, that they shouldn’t study these issues or they will experience this same gloom.
This is also what would be described as ‘cognitive dissonance,’ which is the uncomfortable and painful feelings we get when we encounter information that goes against our core beliefs. If you read these overviews as a member, you are not going to feel great – you might feel angry, nauseous, or uncomfortable, because our minds are trying to protect us from information that will alter core beliefs.
From here Corbridge then equates information that contradicts the church’s truth claims with deception, which is a theme we will continue to see. From the “Church News:”
“Now is a day where deception is everywhere, and the spectrum of deception is broad. It ranges from attacks on the Restoration, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, to those who claim to believe in the Restoration but are disillusioned with doctrine that conflicts with shifting attitudes of the day.”
Elder Corbridge explained there are primary and secondary questions when it comes to the Church. The primary questions must be answered first, as they are the most important. They include:
-Is there a God who is our Father?
-Is Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Savior of the world?
-Was Joseph Smith a prophet?
-Is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the kingdom of God on the earth?
In contrast, the secondary questions are unending. They include questions about Church history, polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, women and the priesthood, how the Book of Mormon was translated, DNA and the Book of Mormon, gay marriage, different accounts of the First Vision and so on.
“If you answer the primary questions, the secondary questions get answered too or they pale in significance and you can deal with things you understand and things you don’t understand, things you agree with and things you don’t agree with without jumping ship altogether,” Elder Corbridge said."
In other words, Elder Corbridge is stating here that if you believe that there is a God who is our father and that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, then you should believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that this is the one true church.
The problem that I’ve pointed out throughout these overviews is that the Bible does not need the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in any way, but the Book of Mormon completely crumbles as an ancient, historical text without a Bible that is literal history.
Furthermore, those first two questions are accepted by over two billion people around the world and have no bearing on the last two questions. This is what the Renlunds' devotional did as well -- the church loves to make belief in God only possible through the Mormon church. You can leave Mormonism and still believe in God as billions of other people do, but church leaders constantly make it an all or nothing proposition because it puts more fear into members who might doubt the truth claims of this church that you will lose everything is you leave.
This premise is even more problematic because Corbridge is making the claim that if you believe the four primary questions that all of those specific church issues just fall away as problems. This is simply not true unless you use the circular argument the church utilizes: It must be true because Joseph Smith was a prophet, and Joseph Smith was a prophet because it's true. Finding answers to the secondary questions is what gives us the ability to answer the primary questions with sincerity and not just because we have a hope or feeling that we want it to be true.
If I show you a car and ask you to buy it, you're going to want to look under the hood, take it for a test drive, and have it inspected by an independent mechanic to verify it holds up to the claims I made as the seller. If I then tell you that it looks great from the exterior, and that you shouldn't worry about everything that actually makes the car run, you would tell me I'm hiding something and walk away. The same is true here -- the church is telling you through these devotionals to the younger generations in the church that not only should you not look under the hood, but that doing so is a character flaw on your part.
What greater admission can you get from this church that their truth claims do not hold up than multiple leaders telling the youth of the church not to research it? They know that they do not have answers to these issues that can withstand scrutiny, so they want to make sure that you do not open the hood and take a look inside.
The secondary questions are what give you the primary answers. If the secondary questions tell you that the church’s truth claims are not true, how can we possibly still believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet? The church always tells us we know from the Holy Ghost, but as I covered in the overview on spiritual witnesses, billions of people ask with a sincere heart and are told by God that other churches are the true one - even people in cults and polygamous splinter groups. You can view that video here, which was an eye opening video for me during my research into the church's truth claims. (You can jump directly to the young woman who just received confirmation to be a polygamous wife by clicking here)
Again, imagine any other religious leader, church, or organization telling you to ignore the details and instead only focus on the questions that they want you to think about. This is not what an organization that has confidence in its history and truth claims does, and it’s why the church had two high profile devotionals in a single month telling the youth not to research the specific problems with the church.
Before we move on, I want to highlight just one more part of Corbridge’s devotional:
“There are some members of the Church who don’t know the answers to the primary questions, and they spend their time and attention slogging through the secondary questions.
“They mistakenly try to learn the truth by process of elimination, by attempting to eliminate every doubt,” Elder Corbridge said.
One cannot prove the Church is true by disproving every claim made against it. Ultimately, there must be affirmative proof. With the things of God, that affirmative proof comes by revelation through the Spirit of the Holy Ghost.”
This is a strawman argument that the church uses to shut down the conversation. We don’t need to eliminate every doubt, but when the evidence is telling us that the church's truth claims are demonstrably false, we can safely know that the “primary questions” cannot be true either.
For example, Joseph Smith declared that the Lamanites are the ancestors of the Native Americans, but DNA tells us that Native Americans came from Asia – not Jerusalem. If that is the case, the Book of Mormon is not what Joseph Smith claimed it to be. That means that the primary question of “Is Joseph Smith a prophet” cannot be yes based on the fact that he got such a massive detail wrong in both the Book of Mormon and his revelations from God.
I get why the church wants members to stop focusing on the details, because as they say the devil is in the details, but the bottom line is that this is how we research every aspect of our lives whether it’s what job to take, what town to move to, or which dog harness gets the best reviews on Amazon. The church controls so much of our lives and yet we give it the least amount of critical thinking as anything we do in a given day. Most members will spend more time reading local pizza reviews before choosing a place to order from than reading about Joseph Smith’s implementation of polygamy, and that is because we are conditioned to just accept it uncritically, which is the literal definition of indoctrination.
President Dallin H. Oaks: Research Is Not The Answer
I won't spend much time on this, but a month after the two devotionals above, Dallin H. Oaks was speaking in Chicago when he was asked about a mixed faith couple and how the believing member should address their now non-believing spouse:
“I suggest that research is not the answer,” he [Oaks] said. “But the best answer to any question that threatens faith is to work to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “Conversion to the Lord precedes conversion to the Church. And conversion to the Lord comes through prayer and study and service, furthered by loving patience on the part of spouse and other concerned family members.” (President Oaks Counsels Young Couples Defending the Gospel “on the Frontline”)
Here Oaks is explicitly telling a member with a spouse that lost belief in the church due to researching the church's truth claims that “research is not the answer,” but what is the answer is to not look at the evidence and instead turn back into the church and not think critically about the issues.
This is obviously terrible advice and is designed to stop the doubts of the non-believing spouse from spreading in the family, but again is what you would expect from an organization that is looking out for its own interests before yours. If you told a friend that you have doubts about the church you've devoted your life to and one of the leaders of the church told you that "I suggest research is not the answer," I think that friend would start to think you're either in a very unhealthy church or a cult.
I realize that the apologetic spin is that Oaks is trying to find a healthier way for this mixed faith couple, but the reality is that he is privileging the church over their marriage. This isn't about strengthening their mixed faith marriage - it is about keeping the believing spouse from being exposed to the same information that the spouse who left encountered, because he knows that research will ultimately lead many members out of the church.
The reason I won't spend much time on this is because it speaks for itself - President Oaks (in line to be prophet) is telling these young couples that even when your spouse comes to you with research that the church is not true, you should not research it with them but instead continue to accept the church's materials uncritically. This is what you will see from high demand religions such as Scientology or Jehovah's Witnesses, along with the many cults that attempt to shut down outside information even when it comes from family.
And the sad reality is that it works, because we are raised and conditioned to obey the leaders of this church in all things, which is why we are taught in the church that “obedience is the first law of heaven.” (Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual) This obedience is then used by the church to make us afraid of information that contradicts their teachings, which unfortunately harms families every day as more and more members encounter the problems with the church's truth claims.
Elder Christensen: Doubts Are Dangerous
In September 2019, there was another youth face-to-face, this time with Elders Christensen and Soares, answering pre-selected questions from the youth. In one exchange, Elder Christensen said the following:
"The doubt about things you know already, when I'm giving counsel to a friend who has questions and doubts, I'm trying to make sure to turn him back to his foundation. It was a missionary whose return - I'm planning to return him back to his mission regarding the purpose of teaching others. And obviously I asked this person to read the Book of Mormon and ask to God in order to obtain the feelings about the truth. Doubts are dangerous. The questions is the way that we receive revelation. It's the same thing about us: Every time we're in the process of learning, when we read the scriptures, I have a lot of questions. But I don't have doubts because I know the things that I know." [emphasis added]
I want to just quickly note that the theme in these talks continues implying or, in this case, outright declaring that doubts are dangerous to members. The only entity that doubts are dangerous to is the one that is holding those doubts over your head and benefiting from your loyalty, which is the church.
What they’re telling you again here is that you should not have doubts, but instead you should look back at how you used to feel before you encountered the information about the church that tells you it’s not true. This is incredibly manipulative, and just as I covered in the last overview on spiritual witnesses, the church know how to use our own emotions against us because we allow them to define what those emotions represent to us.
The dirty little secret about doubts is that they aren't dangerous or bad at all: They are necessary for us to know what is true, right, and worth following. Think of all of the progress we have made over the centuries in science, technology, and humanity - those all came because people had doubts that led us to explore new options that kept us moving closer and closer to truth and progress.
We were given the capacity to think critically about the concepts and ideas that surround us, and the idea that having doubts about what we’ve been raised to believe is dangerous is simply wrong. If we believe that God is loving and put us on this earth with brains to think, why should we then shut off that ability only when it comes to the truth claims that the church imposes on us?
And the only way you can truly answer those doubts is to tackle the doubts head on by researching the issue with an open mind. We wrote about this as well in a blog post called It's Ok To Let Go, noting that the only way to find these answers is to (briefly) let go of "knowing what you know" just long enough to verify that it can hold up to the evidence when you leave the predetermined conclusion we've all been taught at the door.
As a rule of thumb, whenever anyone tells you that having doubts about the truth claims of a religion or organization is dangerous, you should run away and never look back. Doubts are not dangerous – they are our minds telling us that something isn’t right, and the only way to resolve those doubts is to research them by being open to evidence and scholarship from experts in those fields who are not beholden to the organization that is trying to make you fearful about having doubts.
The Rasbands “Face-to-Face” on Leaving the Church:
In September 2020, the Rasbands hosted another face-to-face for the youth of the church, and were presented with a question (that they knew was coming) about potentially resigning from the church:
“Our next question comes from somebody who seems to be struggling to gain that witness. Harry from California, asked. I have serious problems with the truth claims of the church, and I'm considering removing my name's from the records of the church. Can you give me a reason why I should stay?”
Sister Rasband then answered with the following:
“I think this might be a good time to help answer this question if we were to show a video recorded earlier of Dominic who has recently joined the church.”
They then showed a video about a member named Domini who was considering committing suicide until he was saved by a truck that stopped in the road that saw him wandering around and gave him a ride home.
At no part in the video did Dominic have doubts about the church’s claims – his only struggle was about whether or not he wanted to continue to live. The church uses very emotional music during the video to manipulate the emotions of the viewers during the video, eliciting the “elevation emotion” that is also known as a burning in the bosom or that warm feeling that the church tells us is God confirming truth to us.
This is part of the church's "HeartSell" program that is sold to other organizations, businesses, etc through the church owned company Bonneville Communications. According to their own statement:
"Our unique strength is the ability to touch the hearts and minds of our audiences, evoking first feeling, then thought and, finally, action. We call this uniquely powerful brand of creative "HeartSell"® - strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response."
To be clear, this is a church owned company telling the world explicitly that they know how to use media to evoke feelings that will lead to actions. That is intentionally manipulating the viewer's (in this case the youth) emotions with music, lighting, and text to create the elevation emotion that the church then tells you is God confirming the truth of the church to you. This is why spiritual witnesses are not a reliable method to discern truth - emotions can be manipulated easily in order to create the very feeling that the church tells you is from God.
The direct implication was that leaving the church is spiritual suicide, and while I am incredibly sensitive to Dominic’s story, I cannot understand why the church thought that a video about suicide was an appropriate response to a question about leaving the church unless they wanted you to make that connection.
After they spoke to Dominic, who just happened to be at the face-to-face event, Elder Rasband then relates the following:
“Already, you have begun an eternal family that is to continue for generation after generation after generation. For Sister Rasband and I, that's six generations now. That new great grandchild we talked about earlier is the ninth generation in our family. For some of you, it's one generation, but nonetheless, the sealing power of God found in the House of the Lord binds families together. So you also need to think about what your decision [to leave the church] means and impacts future generations.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve now heard or talked to a member who leaves the church be told by their family to ‘think about the covenants you made in the temple’ as well as ‘think about how your decision is going to impact and hurt our eternal family.’ There's no better example of where this teaching comes from that Prophet Russell M. Nelson's "Sad Heaven" talk at the April 2019 General Conference:
"Some erroneously believe that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ provides a promise that all people will be with their loved ones after death... the Savior Himself has made it abundantly clear that while His Resurrection assures that every person who ever lived will indeed be resurrected and live forever, much more is required if we want to have the high privilege of exaltation. Salvation is an individual matter, but exaltation is a family matter."
The Rasbands’ answer was particularly bad because not only did it try to equate leaving the church with suicide, but it then uses the pressure of your family to keep you in a church that you know is not true. This is like a cliché mob movie having a line that says “You’ve got a great eternal family going for generations over here. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it!”
As I’ve tried to illustrate in these examples, the church has been waging an assault on doubt over the last few years because they know members are no longer willing to accept truth claims that can be proven false by the very evidence we would trust if it was about anything else that we did not already have a strong emotional attachment to.
Russell M. Nelson’s 2021 Talk on Doubts
Again, I apologize for those who wanted to get directly into Nelson’s talk about doubts, but I really think the background gives an indication that this is not some ‘one off’ talk by Nelson, but a coordinated attack on those with doubts in the church over a long period of time.
On April 4, 2021, Prophet Russell M. Nelson gave a talk in the AM session of General Conference that took direct aim not just on having doubts, but on associating with those who are willing to speak up about the problems with the church’s truth claims.
In this talk, Russell M. Nelson outlines how to increase our faith in God, and more importantly the church, but in doing so again paints those with doubts in the worst possible light. I want to just highlight a few of the comments in the talk to show how connected they are to the previous talks I mentioned and the message it sends to members from the person we are told is the one living prophet of God on earth.
As Nelson tells members that now is the time to increase faith, he takes a shot not just at those who have left the church, but those who are wavering by calling them “lazy learners.” From the talk:
“And yet the answer to each of your challenges is to increase your faith. Yeah, that takes work. Lazy learners and lax disciples will always struggle to muster even a particle of faith.”
This line has caused a lot of anger among those who have left the church, because they believe that Russell M. Nelson is directly telling their loved ones that they were too lazy to nurture the faith required to remain active. This is also an idea that the church has always pushed because it makes those who are active view those who leave as just wanting to sin, being unruly children, or just too lazy to do the necessary work to stay in the church.
The problem is that is simply untrue, and it’s a really dishonest approach for a self-proclaimed prophet to take. Since I started down the rabbit hole of church history, I have spent hundreds of hours on this website writing about the things I have learned about the church’s history, Joseph Smith, and how biblical scholarship impacts the Book of Mormon.
It’s hard to quantify the amount of time I have spent reading material, listening to podcasts, and then discussing these issues over the last three years, but the idea that any of that is “lazy” is nonsensical and offensive. In that time I have read apologetic responses, the church essays, and spoken to experts in some of these fields that many (most?) members don’t even know are a problem for the truth claims of the church.
This line is also building on the attack that the Renlunds told the youth about those who have doubts that I mentioned earlier. From the Renlunds' devotional:
“At last, blind like the mole in his burrow he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, indolence for labor and becomes a lazy scholar. Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end in and of itself. That doubts which feeds and grows upon itself and breeds more doubt is evil.”
Here Nelson is making clear early on that those who do not have faith in this church are too lazy to put the work in, which is exactly what you expect from high demand religions that need a complete buy-in from members in spite of the evidence against it.
The truth is that it takes a lot more work to look into the church’s history than it does to just continue ignoring the problems. I spent over a decade being too afraid to look at the church’s history because I knew the problems that could arise with my family, and it was much easier just to let it be.
In fact, I would have saved myself a lot of time had I just kept on ignoring the problems. There is nothing lazy about being willing to dive into something you believed in to see if it holds up to the evidence, and it takes a lot more time and emotional energy to shift your personal paradigm than it does to stay put. There’s a reason that we talk about cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect, because changing paradigms not only requires a lot of research and critical thinking, but also forces you to break through the internal barriers that our minds create to try and keep us from having to assess our core beliefs.
Nelson then lists off five suggestions to develop faith and trust in the church, including the following remark:
“Only your unbelief will keep God from blessing you with miracles to move the mountains in your life.”
This is directly putting the blame on the member if they do not feel the blessings from the church or a testimony of it, which is a trick that every high demand religion works. If you lose faith in the church, it’s only because *you* weren’t faithful enough. If a revelation fails to protect the church as happened under Joseph Smith, it's because the members were not righteous enough. Nelson knows that this kind of teaching will put fear into many members who will turn into the church even stronger, and these talks are very carefully worded to have the most impact.
The part of Nelson’s talk that generated the most discussion is his very deliberate attack on those with doubts:
"If you have doubts about God, the father and his beloved son, or the validity of the restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith's divine calling as a prophet, choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord and to other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters."
These are the tactics that high-demand religions and cults use to keep members from associating with anyone outside who will speak out against the truth claims of the leaders. As I mentioned above, if any other religious organization, church, or organization answered your doubts in this manner would you stick around for another minute?
Imagine for a second that your friend is in Scientology and they came to you and told you that they had doubts, but when they spoke to their leader, he said the following:
“If you have doubts about Scientology, choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions directly to our leader, David Miscavige, and read our faithful, approved sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of L. Ron Hubbard or our history. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters.”
Would you response by saying “Yes, that sounds reasonable” or would you reply to your friend with “It sounds like you’re in a cult?”
Again, I know how loaded the word “cult” is and I am not trying to say the Mormon church is a cult. What I am saying is that this line of thinking and teaching is absolutely cult-like, and the moment you look at it from a perspective that is not through the church you believe in, it becomes clear really quickly.
Here’s another way to look at it. Suppose you just bought a car and it’s having a lot of issues, and when you looked online for answers to fix it, you found out that the dealership not only misrepresented the history of the car, but you discovered they have defrauded others in the past as well with questionable sales. Now you go to the dealership and they tell you the following:
“If you think this car is not as good as when you bought it, choose to believe and stay faithful that it will get you where you need to go. Take your questions directly to our service center and read our faithful, approved reviews from happy customers. Read these reviews with the desire to believe what we’re telling you rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in our sales tactics. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other upset customers.”
I would imagine if they responded this way you would be calling a lawyer, because clearly this line of thinking is designed to completely shut off your critical thinking with explicit directions to stop talking about the problems with anyone else for fear that the feelings could spread.
It might seem like a silly comparison, but that’s actually the point. When we look at this kind of teaching through any other lens beyond the church, it is so clear that this is a dangerous mindset to unsuspecting members, and it is being done with the sole intention of keeping members from researching further and, as so many are already doing, walking away.
While I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, I want to give one more example because I feel like it’s important to really underscore how untenable and harmful these teachings are. Let’s pretend you were suspecting that your spouse was being unfaithful to you. As you start noticing clues that your marriage isn’t quite what you thought it was, you begin to ask your spouse questions about what they’ve been up to and they respond this way:
“If you have doubts about my fidelity, choose to believe that I have been faithful and stay faithful yourself. Take your questions directly to me and only read online from sites that make you feel good about our marriage. When you think my story doesn’t add up, think about it with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can catch me in a lie. Think about the feelings you had when we got married and ignore the discomfort about our relationship you have today. And whatever you do, stop increasing your doubts by talking about them with your friends or family.”
I realize how goofy this is, but again that’s the point in looking at Nelson's teaching this way. This line of thinking only comes from an entity that doesn’t want you to actually go out there and verify their claims – they have no reason to shut down your critical thinking if they actually believed what they were telling you.
When I went down the rabbit hole of church history I was reading everything I could find and listening to podcasts nonstop trying to sort out the complete shock I had after first discovering the CES Letter and then FAIR Mormon’s response to it. I remember just being mentally exhausted trying to sort out in my head everything I was learning, and then comparing the critical arguments with the apologetic ones in a Microsoft Word file, trying to figure out what was speculation, what was known, and what the most logical conclusions are based on looking at both sides.
At some point during this constant back and forth between sources I came to the realization that if the church truly believed their truth claims, they would be yelling from the pulpit for every member to go out and research their claims from whatever sources they could find, because they know that they are backed up by the evidence.
If you go to a car dealership, you always take the car for a test drive. You open all of the compartments, you look under the hood, and you hop online to read all of the reviews to see what other customers have encountered, what the safety ratings are, and make the best decision you can with the most information you can find. You don’t take a car dealer’s word for it – you verify their claims in multiple ways before you commit to buying that car.
With the church, however, they want you to only read information they provide for you, and often times attack those who dare to go outside of the correlated materials. When you have doubts, they call you “lazy learners,” a “charlatan snake-oil salesman,” or “spiritually bankrupt.”
The reality is that is takes more strength, courage, and honesty to evaluate new information and come to a different decision than it does to maintain the status quo. There is nothing “spiritually bankrupt” about studying the Book of Mormon’s truth claims and realizing that it simply is not a literal, historical text because the evidence is irrefutable that it simply cannot be.
We are told that we are led by fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet none of them can provide answers to these problems. The church released essays on why the Book of Abraham papyri has nothing to do with Abraham, why DNA says that we have no idea who the Lamanites could be, or why God allowed such racist ideas into the scriptures of Mormonism, yet at no point did these prophets, seers, and revelators provide guidance or revelation from God to help answer or explain the problems.
People don’t leave the church because they have doubts – they leave the church because those doubts lead them to evidence that he church is not true. I did not leave the church because I had doubts - I led the church because those doubts led me to discover that it's not true. The church is well aware of this because they run surveys constantly with the members and have all of the membership and activity data to tell them exactly what is going on. Their talks and “policy adjustments” are direct responses to the data they are receiving, and you can see in these recent talks that doubts have become an uncontrollable problem for the church.
Later in Nelson’s talk he states the following:
“A non believer might say that faith is for the weak, but this assertion overlooks the power of faith.”
This is not what those who leave the church say, and I’ve tried to point this out in other writings on this site. The definition of faith from Book of Mormon is applicable to how I’ve always understood it. From Alma:
"If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true." Alma 32:21
That definition matches the one I heard a lot growing up, which is that faith is the belief of things that cannot be seen. Not only was I taught this as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I was also taught this while growing up in Protestantism.
The problem with Mormonism, however, is that faith is not the ‘assurance of the existence of things in spite of what we have seen.’ Put another way, faith is about believing in things we cannot see, but not about believing them in spite of what we can see, read, and understand.
Using Nelson’s teaching above, faith can be used to justify any religion, belief, or idea imaginable. The reality is that being open to objective facts and evidence is not reconcilable as having blind faith, and the moment that you use faith to ignore the evidence that we can see, you are no longer practicing faith, but instead allowing confirmation bias to privilege what you want to be true.
If you want to believe in ideas that have been disproven by science, history, and the church’s own documents, you have every right to do so. Just as people believe the earth is flat, you can believe that the Native Americans came from Jerusalem despite the overwhelming evidence in both DNA studies and migration patterns that is clear they originated from Asia.
But do not pretend for one second that those beliefs are rooted in an honest desire to discern truth, because they are not. Do not pretend that telling members they should only look at materials produced by the church or approved by church leaders that they are promoting anything other than an echo chamber designed to keep members from realizing that the outside world can show you exactly why the church is not true.
And do not tell me that raising kids to believe that they should look at those who leave the church with distrust and fear is any better than what so many cults have done throughout history, because this is the same tactic of indoctrination and ‘us vs. them’ thinking that they all employ.
A church that has confidence in its truth claims would not need to work this hard to keep members from openly evaluating them, and that’s really the most telling thing of all. This talk is not just disingenuous, but if any other religious leader gave it, you would see how controlling and dangerous it actually is.
Nelson is intentionally telling members not to associate with those who discuss the ideas that lead to doubts openly, and those teachings will cause problems with families who have a spouse, sibling, or child who leaves because they were willing to step out of the correlated material, and it breaks my heart because I am one of the many people in this position.
When Nelson gave his “sad heaven” speech two years ago, there were many members who received phone calls from parents in tears, texts from siblings, and passionate emails from friends begging them to come back to the church so they would not be an empty chair in the Celestial Kingdom.
These messages from Russell Nelson carry so much weight and influence with the believing members of the church, and that’s why they can also be so dangerous. Teaching these members not to talk about issues with the church is going to lead many to distrust those around them who have publicly expressed them previously, and it’s a horribly divisive tactic with the sole purpose of keeping members in the church.
Nelson then pivots to invoking the “bandwagon effect,” which is to say that you should know the church is true because others before you have given so much to be a part of it:
“If they had doubted him, would Joseph and Hyrum Smith have suffered Martyr's deaths, defending the restoration of the Lord's Church unless they had a sure witness that it was true? Would nearly 2000 saints have died along the Pioneer Trail if they did not have faith that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been restored? Truly, faith is the power that enables the unlikely to accomplish the impossible. Do not minimize the faith you already have. It takes faith to join the church and remain faithful. It takes faith to follow prophets rather than pundits and popular opinion.”
Again I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but other religions have had many more people die in wars over their beliefs, which does not make what they believed any more or less real than the truth claims of Mormonism. Look at it from another perspective: Would 909 people had died at Jonestown if they did not have faith that the Peoples Temple was not the one true church?
This is simply a way to tell members to ignore their doubts because others have given so much more, which is just not a valid reason given that people have died for pretty much every religion throughout history. It's an appeal to the bandwagon, which is funny because in the next sentence Nelson will then attack those who follow "popular opinion."
The church also loves to hammer the “popular opinion” idea as well, which is another way that they appeal to an ‘us vs them’ mentality towards society. That being said, the church has made some big changes due to “popular opinion” that are massive changes such as:
-Removing the priesthood ban on members with African lineage
-Removing the penalties in the temple ceremony where members used Masonic penalties that pantomimed killing themselves if they revealed the temple ceremony
-Removing sexist language in the temple ceremony that was rooted in polygamy where the wife gave herself to her husband, but the husband gave himself to God
-Removing the November 2015 LGBT revelation from God just 3.5 years later because members were not willing to accept such a discriminatory policy. Nelson claimed both the implementation and removal were both revelations, which is a problem we will cover in our revelation overviews.
-Allowing parents to be with their children when they have interviews with the Bishop, where sexually explicit questions are asked to young children
I realize I am more emotional in this response than I am to most of the overview topics, but I think it’s with good reason. These teachings in the year 2021 are dishonest and divisive, and Russell M. Nelson knows exactly the message he’s trying to convey here.
Nelson then gives a story about his visit to Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Tahiti. In these visits, it was raining a lot and they prayed and fasted for the rain to stop before Nelson’s big events, and in Samoa and Fiji the rain stopped just in time for Nelson’s big talk, but in Tahiti it kept on raining despite their fasting and praying. Nelson says the following:
“Faith sufficient to stop the rain and faith to persevere when the rain did not stop.”
This is the ultimate move by a church that wants to have it both ways. Nelson might as well have said “heads I win, tails you lose” because he is literally saying that faith and fasting stopped the rain in Samoa and Fiji while also saying that faith wasn’t enough to stop it in Tahiti, but also that the faith to persevere through his speech was just as good as the faith that didn't stop the rain? My head is spinning, but this is how apologetics work in the church – even when things fail, find a way to turn it into a faith promoting story.
A year ago, leading up to the April 2020 General Conference, Russell Nelson called for a second worldwide fast to stop the spread of COVID in the world. Clearly those days of fast did not do anything to stop COVID, but this line above is a way to ignore that the two worldwide fasts petitioning God from the one prophet on earth completely failed. It’s another way that the power of the church has been watered down to the point where even failures are framed as miraculous.
The last line I want to comment on from Nelson’s speech is near the end, and I find this one again to be very similar to other high demand religions and cults throughout history:
“If everything and everyone else in the world and whom you trust should fail, Jesus Christ and his church will never fail you.”
Here Nelson is stating without any subtlety that even if your friends and family fail you by leaving the church, the church itself will never fail you. This is the ultimate paradigm to create for members where the moment you tie your identity to the church, you will privilege it above all else.
This has also been quite untrue for many members who run into problems with the church's history and the leaders refuse to discuss them, sometimes even disciplining them for discussing them openly. Recently we have also seen plenty of stories where children are the victims of abuse from men in the church and the church fails them by having their lawyers protect the church's interest before the members. There are countless stories of those who run into hard times, and depending on the local leaders are not given enough financial support to get by after years of paying tithing. Nelson is putting a blanket statement here that the church will never fail you, but many people would beg to differ.
It also sets up the equation that ties Jesus Christ to Mormonism, which is a false equation. If Mormonism was never created by Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ’s life and story would still influence billions of people. The leaders of the church know this, but as I mentioned above by conflating the two it cements the feeling that if you leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have to leave belief in Jesus along with it.
Just as with the overview on spiritual witnesses, this is a very emotionally charged overview because it forces us to look at our own lived experience when addressing the talks given by church leaders about doubts and how to resolve them.
For me I find these talks offensive because they are directly telling members that doubts are bad, come from bad intentions, and are “evil.” The truth is that doubts can ultimately make our beliefs stronger, because once you openly dive into something you believe in, if it can withstand scrutiny then you will have a stronger testimony going forward.
On the other hand, if your doubts lead you to evidence that makes clear that your belief is not true, it will make you stronger as a person because you were able to overcome our own internal biases to progress as a human being, being willing to accept new information that changed a core belief. Changing paradigms is scary and painful, but it also leads to positive growth as a person that is rewarding in the end.
As I’ve said repeatedly in these overviews, the most important thing you can do when evaluating all of the information I’ve put together is this: Assess the information the same way that you would any other religious leader, church, or organization. I know I’m repeating it a lot, but it’s so important that we evaluate this information in a way that does not privilege our previous beliefs in the church over the evidence we’re now learning.
I realize that the apologetic response is that we cannot possibly know everything, so we must have faith in the spiritual witness of the church we’ve previously had. The problem is that this advice is created to benefit the entity that seeks to keep you from leaving and is just not an intellectually honest position.
There will always be room for faith, and even as someone who is no longer active in the church I have faith in many things, but faith is not about believing in ideas even after evidence proves them incorrect. If there is evidence that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text, continuing to believe that it is under the premise of faith is simply changing the definition of faith altogether.
The talk from Russell M. Nelson includes terrible advice for members, and it is rooted in insecurities that he doesn’t know how to fix the problems with the church. Nelson is aware that people are leaving in large numbers, but he knows that there are no good answers to the historical and doctrinal problems that the younger generations are encountering every day.
Telling members that they should only associate with like minded people who will reinforce their beliefs is such a harmful thing that we already experience every day on social media where small groups form and create an echo chamber of bad ideas. As I saw another wise observer note, history is full of examples of otherwise good people who did terrible things because they pushed away their doubts and accepted false beliefs uncritically.
No member should be afraid of having doubts. We were given the ability to think critically for a reason, and those doubts did not arise because you were looking for a reason to sin, but because you began to notice that things just did not add up.
Don’t be afraid of your doubts, but embrace them. Lean on those who have been down this rabbit hole before you, because no one understands what you are experiencing more than someone who has already been through it, and no one wants to help you on your journey more than someone who has experienced that paradigm shift from learning the church is not true.
My one final message to Russell M. Nelson and the leaders of the church is this: It’s really easy for you to get up in front of devoted followers and tell them that people like me are lazy, dangerous, or wrong, but the reality is that you’re terrified to talk to the members of this church that have legitimate questions in a publicly visible setting.
I wish the leaders had the courage to get up in front of an audience and talk about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the Book of Abraham, or the Book of Mormon with someone like me, because as prophets, seers, and revelators of God they should be able to either answer these questions or confound me just as Joseph Smith promised would happen.
But they’ll never do that because they are terrified of what would happen when members realize they have no answers. They know what’s happened in past interviews when leaders are tripped up by basic questions, and so they send out apologists to release videos trying to tear down critics personally like FAIR Mormon’s now removed “This Is The Show” videos.
The bottom line is that they know that doubts often give members the jolt needed to actually research the church’s history and truth claims, and they know that doubts lead to disbelief not because the members are “lazy” or “unruly children,” but because the church’s truth claims simply are not sustainable against the evidence.
I have now written 32 different overviews on this site along with another 60+ pages, much of which includes the response of the church and apologists to these difficult issues. There is nothing lazy about these overviews, and I hope they are helpful to those of you who are willing to “rehearse your doubts” with someone else who has gone through it.
One final tip I will repeat for those of you who are just starting this journey into researching the truth claims of Mormonism. Please reach out to some of the online communities full of people who have been through this faith journey, because they will be able to help you to make sense of what you’re going through and also willing to help you navigate this new paradigm with your family and community. Their advice and experience has been invaluable to me and I think leaning on those who have been through it is always going to be helpful.
If you do decide that you no longer feel the church is true, do not think for a single second that the problem is with you. There’s nothing weak or wrong about changing your mind when presented with evidence that contradicts your earlier beliefs, and anyone who tells you otherwise does not have your best interest in mind, but their own.
Check us out on Twitter or Facebook as well for future posts and updates, and thank you again for reading!
Next Overview Topic: Overview of Revelation, Part 1: Backdating Prophecy