Thursday, March 31, 2011

Carson's Guide to Keeping Your Testimony

Hello there! So you are still a believer in the LDS (Mormon) Church and you would like to know how you can avoid my fate and keep your beliefs intact? Well, if you stumbled onto this blog somehow then you're probably doing it wrong, but you may want to read on anyway, because this post is exactly what you need! I have intimate knowledge with the process of losing belief in the church and I made many mistakes in my attempt to salvage my faith. Since then I have learned a lot about the pitfalls leading to non-belief and how to avoid them. It's too late for me to take advantage of these tips, but you still have time! I can tell you what you need to do to hold on to that iron rod for all you're worth! I have compiled a list of dos and don'ts below that may not be immediately intuitive to you, but nevertheless are very important for keeping your testimony.

Do not read unbiased or brutally honest accounts of church history. Many people have fallen by the wayside into non-belief as a result of looking into church history. Any examination of church history should happen only through the lens of modern church publications. Not even all the books you'll find at Deseret Book are safe, but most of them are. I do not recommend reading Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman. I sincerely believe that book has caused more people to leave the church than any single book written by a non-believer, simply because Richard Bushman is an active, believing Mormon, and therefore the book is thought to be safe. You may be able to get through it with your testimony intact (as I know many have), but why risk it? Some things that are true are not very useful. If you want to feel a closer bond to Joseph Smith or some other church historical figure, there are plenty of books out there written by general authorities.

Stay away from the Bloggernacle and Internet Mormons. If you get bored with the Ensign, you might be tempted to search for faithful LDS blogs and articles that are intellectually stimulating yet still faith promoting. This is what happened to me. I wanted something more than the shallow fluffiness found in the Ensign and conference talks, and I wanted some stimulating conversation in a purely faithful (read: literal believing) context. Let me tell you right now that no such thing exists. If you want compelling, deeply-thought-out material, you have to give up some of your literal, orthodox beliefs. There are believing members out there writing plenty of blog posts, but the most interesting of them are the ones that pose the most questions, and those that pose the most questions attract the most liberal of believers: the Internet Mormons. They are wolves in sheep's clothing, whereas we non-believers are are just plain wolves. They believe differently than you do. They are more aware of church history and all the inconsistencies in widely believed Mormon doctrine. They lean a tad bit feminist, and they're slightly more empathetic with the gay movement. They make up their own minds about what is being said by the leaders of the church, and sometimes that means they have to diverge or re-contextualize what a leader has said. They have a more metaphorical understanding of the scriptures. You should be very careful about reading and engaging with Internet Mormons, because your testimony may not survive the step from being a solid conviction of the literal exclusive truth of the church's claims to being merely the love of a metaphor. The only other option is to go the apologist route, and that requires an obscene amount of mental acrobatics.

Use confirmation bias to shore up your beliefs. No, don't look up the term "confirmation bias", just do exactly what President Eyring says: count your blessings. Actively look for things that God has done for you in your life. Remember these things, and even write them down. Do not pay attention to the bad things that happen, or the things that don't make sense. Look at the flowers and the rainbows; ignore the eyeball-eating parasites and the starving children. Pray constantly for good things to happen, and whenever they occasionally do make sure to remember that God answered your prayers and thank him for it every day. Never forget how much you owe to God. Think of all the times in your life when you were financially stable and had enough food to eat; attribute that to God and make sure he gets his 10% cut. Think of all the times when you were injured or got sick but eventually became well again; attribute that to God and never forget it. Make sure you know how to point out all the little miracles that happen amidst any disaster. Keep a teleological perspective with you at all times. If something good happens to you, attribute it to God. If something bad happens to you, ask God for help and then when you get past it thank God for helping you. If you pray about something and it works out, attribute it to God. If it doesn't work out or you get no answer, attribute it to the wisdom of God in letting you figure it out for yourself or allowing you to go through hardship in order to grow.

Do not apply the the same critical thinking in church that you would apply at work or at school. When you step into the chapel or you transition from a normal conversation to talking about the gospel, make sure you also make the step into a ritualistic mindset as well. This should be like a switch in your brain. Don't analyze what is being said too much. Just participate in the ritual like everyone else. Learn the phrases and tone of voice to use, and the appropriate demeanor. Learn to appreciate the familiarity of it all and derive comfort from that. One of the problems I had was that I enjoy mental stimulation too much, so instead of zoning out for three hours, I decided that since I was there I might as well pay attention and give serious, critical thought to what was being said. Once I started paying close attention to what was being said in the meetings, it was all too easy to poke holes. People will get up and assert anything as long as it is said in the right format, and everyone will validate them. In truth, Sunday school is not a place to learn, but to promote the shared community narrative. If you try to critically examine topics in Sunday school with the purpose of getting to the truth of the matter, you will only become frustrated, and everyone else will be frustrated with you.

Forcefully reduce cognitive dissonance by continuously asserting the truth of your beliefs to others. If you outwardly declare the truth of your beliefs with no apparent external justification for doing so, a psychological process occurs in which you will internally justify your actions, thus reinforcing your own beliefs. Testimony meetings are a good way to artificially reinforce a set of beliefs in your mind with the help of the community.
As Mormons, we know well the monthly experience of sitting in fast and testimony and listening to speaker after speaker say basically the same thing in almost the same words. With no effort we can produce a list of the common phrases and topics. The repetition of them often gets boring and many wonder why we don’t vary our language and subjects. More than we realize, imbued in this tiresome treadmill of language and formality are vital processes which cement individuals and the congregation to the Church and its teachings. - David Knowlton, Sunstone Magazine

Internalize an us-versus-them mentality towards those who reject your beliefs. This is actually one of the easier ones to do. We humans do this so naturally, it takes some effort to not do this. Don't associate with people who outwardly disagree with you on items related to your beliefs. Block them from Facebook, ban their comments on your blog, and don't befriend them in real life. Especially gay people. Do not get too close to gay people. If you don't avoid them, you may be in danger of empathizing with them. The accusations that they are trying to destroy your religious freedom will fall flat. Remember that you are on a team. You are on God's side, and they are on the Devil's. Always keep in mind that you are constantly engaged in a spiritual battle against wicked people. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people is one of the best ways of all to keep your beliefs intact. If you like to browse the web, be very careful of blogs such as this one you are reading now. Make sure to thoroughly vet any blog you subscribe to or any community you join.

Don't read FAIR articles. Not unless you've accidentally stumbled upon some disconcerting information about the church and need help putting it on your proverbial shelf. FAIR articles exist in order to ease your mind about all the pesky issues that critics keep bringing up. They do a really good job of cataloging all of the various questions and issues that critics have, and the articles themselves are calculated to make you feel as if the critics have been refuted. In actuality, many articles are a series of independent nitpicks of small factual errors that critics have made, with a lot of effort put into carving out an infinitesimally small realm of possibility that the church's claims are true. Kind of like how I could argue a small possibility that we can fly using our minds, but we just haven't learned how. The fact is that if you read FAIR articles too carefully you might not come away quite as assured of their arguments, and if you read too many FAIR articles, they will raise more questions in your mind than you had in the first place. It is best to only use FAIR in case of emergencies, and when you do use it, just stay on the site long enough to be comforted by the fact that they have addressed every one of the problems you have in mind, and don't stay long enough to find out exactly how they're being addressed.

Always remember that someone smarter than you believes. Don't think about the actual numbers or statistics, just focus on a few solid, smart, intellectual people that you know or have seen who still fully believe in the church. There are plenty of them out there. If you went to BYU, then you can probably name a few professors you admire. Remember that they are smarter than you and that they still believe in the church. Comfort yourself with that thought. After all, what problems could you possibly have that they haven't already thought of or addressed in their own minds? Surely they would have a very wise and well-thought-out response to any doubts you might have. Remember that this stuff that the critics bring up isn't new; it's been out there for a long time. Surely if these few people you admire still believe even knowing about all these issues, then it must be true. Tell yourself that if you were to stop believing in the church, then that essentially means you think you're smarter than they are. You wouldn't dare.

Don't set out to prove your non-believing friend or family member wrong. This has backfired countless times. You may have a close friend who stopped believing, and they may point out to you some problem with church history, like the Book of Abraham. You start out with the tragically naive notion that if the church is true then the evidence will bear it out, and you decide you're going to prove your friend wrong and help them see the error of their ways. Do not do this. The church has given you perfectly good reasons why your friend has stopped believing. They have either been offended, they've left to sin, or they've been tricked by Satan. It shouldn't be too hard to pick one. If they've been tricked by Satan, then remember that the tactic here is not to try to un-trick them by actually looking into the same thing they looked into. That's how they got tricked in the first place! Rather, Satan must be fought with prayer and testimony. Maybe skip a meal or two while you're at it. If that doesn't help your friend, then write them off as a lost cause, and keep conversation with them to a minimum.

These are some of the most important things you can do to avoid losing your belief in the church. I guarantee you that if you follow them they will work, and if they don't I promise you an 11.11% increase in your yearly income. You can't lose!


  1. This is amazing! Really well written. :)

  2. Yawn.

    That's right Carson.

    Everyone who didn't arrive at your conclusions by doing the same thing you are doing must be either stupid or dishonest. And the only way one could possibly remain a faithful Mormon is by deliberate ignorance.

    Uh huh. Sure.

    Never mind that I violated just about every rule you wrote there, and I'm still here and active in the LDS Church. But I guess I'm probably just a sneaky "Internet Mormon" or even - gasp - an "apologist" (will horrors never end), or mentally and spiritually whoring myself out full time.

    It would really be nice if your position was able to stand on its own and didn't require you to constantly assert that you are mentally or morally superior to those who don't share your views.

  3. I am so glad I left. The mind games, the redefining words, the total Bull Crap... My life has never been more successful or happier! Seventy to eighty percent of the LDS Church does not attend anyhow!

    Don, In Vegas

    Don in Vegas

  4. @Seth

    So you were able to remain a true believer even after learning of all the same issues we exmos couldn’t rationalize away? Well, I for one would love to know how you did that. I honestly think knowing the answer to that could really help me since I have just started the process of telling my lifelong TBM mother that her only daughter no longer believes. Understanding the opposing side of where I currently stand could really help me to have perspective when discussing this with her, and help to keep things calm and respectful. If you have written your story down anywhere, I would love to read it… If not, would you be willing to jot some things down and send to me?

  5. Seth,

    I understand that you have been able to break these rules and yet still retain a certain kind of liberal testimony, and that's fine. I just don't think that many people are able to pull that off in the same way you have. I certainly wasn't able to. I tried to follow the path you have taken and look where I ended up! If the goal here is to keep your belief in the church, then I'm afraid I can't recommend the Seth R path to very many people. If you have some additional tips to add here, please share them! Maybe you can help the would-be reader navigate from a literal belief to a liberal belief without losing everything in the process. I just think that path is a little risky for recommendation.

  6. The truth cuts like a knife. Good one!

  7. Carson, that's a fair enough point.

    I wouldn't recommend my path to everyone in the Church either. Everyone has a hobby. Mine happens to be theological debate and LDS history. But certainly, most normal people don't have time or interest for that (having many other more worthy things occupying their time and energies). And I can respect that.


    If you want to email me you can certainly feel free to do so and I'd be happy to share some thoughts. I just want to be clear however that I'm not here boasting that I'm going to "save your testimony" or anything like that. One thing I've found on Internet debate is that people have to internalize their own answers. I can't just shove my views on people and magically expect them to change their minds. But I'd be happy to try and give some thoughts on whatever is on your mind.

    My email address is sdrogers24 at gmail dot com.

    You can set the parameters of whatever interaction you want to have, and I'll do my best to respect them.

  8. Just out of curiosity Carson, did you catch that four-part interview John Dehlin did with Dan Wotherspoon over at his Mormon Stories podcast?

    Dan's an extreme example - I'm not half as "liberal" as he is in his approach. But I found his perspective interesting anyway.

  9. "It would really be nice if your position was able to stand on its own and didn't require you to constantly assert that you are mentally or morally superior to those who don't share your views."

    The irony of this statement is staggering. F&T meeting anyone?

  10. Sean, I kind of anticipated that response already.

    I knew someone here was going to say "well they started it" or "the Mormons do this too" or something along those lines.

    But that really isn't a valid argument for behaving the same way, is it?

  11. I wish I'd written this. Very well done.

  12. I have listened to most of the Dan Wotherspoon podcasts. It is interesting that he is able to carve himself a niche within the church where he can have his non-literal views. Maybe that speaks to how much of a likable and talented guy he his that other church members don't reject him. It probably also speaks to how much he is able to keep his private take on it all to himself.

    One of the biggest questions I had was: unless you have a strong interest in religious studies and ritual, how is the church's narrative very compelling at all if it's not literally true? It seems as though the church's narrative only has the power that it does because people believe it to be literally true. That was the case for me. When people find out that it isn't literally true, only a handful of people, including religious studies buffs, stick around to enjoy it for its metaphorical charm.

  13. Well, like I said, I don't take the whole "it's just symbolic" thing as far as Dan does. But I would note that metaphor and symbol is very much capable of providing a powerful and motivating spiritual life.

    It's just that chapel Mormons aren't really accustomed to viewing things that way.

  14. In my opinion, this is a brilliant piece. Thank you for making me smile, Carson.

  15. I liked this piece as well. As an aside, I read the other day (bummer, can't remember where, as I've been all over the place--like a crazy person--for the past few days), that being optimistic, even when it means "denying" some realistic details, means a longer life. People who are able to put themselves in a bubble of optimism live longer. Interesting! That said, I don't disagree with your sentiments above.


    1. Hi there! Actually there is a ton of research showing the benefits of what is called "dispositional optimism"; there are lots of ways to define "optimism", and the precise kind of optimism to which you are referring is "dispositional", defined as a general expectancy of positive future events. (My dissertation was on entrepreneurs and their dispositional optimism). And I think it's important to note what you did, b/c there are INDEED a multitude of health and psychological benefits to being more optimistic. As a side point, some of the author's points (mostly the 3rd point on "confirmation bias"...although that point actually had A LOT of ideas in it beyond confirmation bias) are based on what I think is a faulty assumption: that things in life should/are supposed to/have a tendency to work out.

      If we instead assume that the "default" in life is that "things fall apart" or have a tendency toward chaos/darkness/destruction, then I think many of the arguments of the "why do bad things happen to (good) people" make much more sense. In addition, starting from this position, it DOES seem appropriate to then be grateful for when things DO work out--to count your blessings. I mean, life really is a marvelous, beautiful thing.

      That said, I agree that I think it is important to challenge our assumptions. In fact, one thing I don't think many LDS consider is just how conflated their cultural views which they have inherited ("wicked traditions of the fathers" in BoM parlance) are with the actual doctrine. I also think each person who can honestly reconsider how the culture (including the very real "Mormon" culture) must be separated from each of our own, individual search and quest for truth. We have to keep in mind, despite the piety of the Pilgrims, from whom many of our traditions come, those traditions were still rooted in centuries of Dark Ages/Great Apostasy teachings. It's important to strip that away or at the very least view things from another cultural/temporal angle.

      These are two specific keys which I have found helpful in my own quest: 1) reevaluate my assumptions (another example being: we assume that the earth or America was uninhabited...maybe that wasn't the case though), and 2) as much as possible strip away the cultural "terministic screens" (inherent biases we all have).

      All that said, I would have to agree that most LDS are not as intellectual or...fervent in the quest for truth as perhaps they might/should be. I don't think this is pleasing to God...after all, the glory of God is I agree with many of the author's overall sentiments though. I've just come to different conclusions, and am actually very grateful for blogs like this and others. But alas, perhaps I too am one of these "Internet Mormons"?

      At any rate, I teach Gospel Doctrine in a ward that regularly has GAs in attendance, and I haven't been reprimanded yet...or released! :-D

      And kudos to Seth and Carson on the intelligent dialogue in these comments!

  16. May I humbly suggest that the ages-old trick of sticking one's fingers in one's ears whilst simultaneously singing "tra la la I can't hear you" also works rather well? Alas, I finally took my fingers out of my ears and I'm no longer a believer.

  17. Seth said, "It's just that chapel Mormons aren't really accustomed to viewing things that way."

    Sounds a little mentally and morally superior to chapel Mormons if you ask me.

    Somehow chapel Mormons who take Joseph Smith and his successors at their word are less able to weather the truth...

    Dan, Seth, et al Don't believe any of it any more than I do. They just like it more.

  18. Right, and you - of course - are the sole arbiter of what Joseph Smith's word really was.

    People learn just enough to be bitter. Then they suddenly think they've achieved some sort of profound realization about the "truth" of life.

    They haven't achieved anything. Certainly not "truth."

    1. WORD.

      Our search for truth should be more a course or direction than some destination or achievement. Certainly there are those who find a stump of truth, piss on it to mark it theirs, then sit down and use it as an excuse to not discover the whole, lush forest.

      But for those who thirst for more, certainly there are milestones along the way which in some way mark our progression to a higher state of existence, and the "Restored Gospel" as we know it is the map on our journey through...well, I guess I'll continue with my mixed metaphor...through the forest.

      Re:Joseph Smith/prophets, I just think so many of us have such UNREAL expectations of what a "prophet" is...these guys are still unsophisticated, mortal, 3-dimensional beings. Yet somehow we have this expectation that prophets don't have passions, don't have problems, don't have etc. Most certainly they do.

      Now the church does tend to gloss over these, which I think seems to be more of a damage control strategy which actually hurts the more intelligent saints unfortunately, but how much hand-holding do people really want? Seriously. Grow a pair and go learn, and trust the Lord and the institution, albeit filled with a bunch of us bumbling, mortal humans.

      Btw, this is my first time ever posting on one of these sites. I guess I've had a lot of thoughts over the years. :-/

  19. Two more points:

    1) Confirmation bias part again - all doctrine, churchy, Mormon, LDs, etc. aside, Pres. Eyring's counsel is actually very well-founded. There is a large body of research suggesting (i.e., proving, in non-academic language) that being grateful LEADS to greater happiness. Yes, that is a cause-and-effect relationship. Anyone who wants to challenge me on it, go right ahead. I welcome it. So doctrine and such aside, it's actually been found to be a key ingredient to happiness in life. "By their fruits ye shall know them." It is good, sound counsel. Perhaps it is related to optimism; the link between HOW gratitude leads to greater happiness is as yet unclear.

  20. 2)Furthermore, getting back on that "optimism" point, which is that GumbyandPokey mentioned reading somewhere that being more optimistic has all kinds of health benefits: yes, there is indeed a positive relationship here. Yet, the "how" of this is actually quite interesting. Is it due to a "tra la la, don't listen to the apostate Internet Mormons and pretend everything is OK" kind of effect? (Using our current, shared Mormon context as an example). Certainly some of that is going on, but that isn't due to being more optimistic. I think that has more to do with fear and lack of faith than it does with optimism, being grateful, seeking for good and truth. In fact, I think many of us on this site are in many ways seeking for truth, and perhaps some others at church who do not share a similar thirst for it maybe turned many of us off. But that's throwing the baby out with the bath water. SEEK FOR TRUTH. SEEK FOR GOOD. It is there. And the OPTIMISTS and the GRATEFUL are likely those who will find it.

    See optimistic people are actually much more likely to pay attention to NEGATIVE information than pessimists. They actually APPROACH challenges (to faith, health, safety) actively instead of avoiding these; it is the pessimists who run away from challenges and pretend they do not exist. Optimistic people actually are much more likely to openly acknowledge challenges vs. pretend they are not there.

    This seems odd, yes? Doesn't the conventional wisdom say (and the author implies that those who are grateful and those going to church are being more optimistic) that optimists wear rose-colored glasses? They are pretending those bad things do not exist. Ask yourself that question. Now picture a group of church-goers after some international tragedy--maybe a tsunami. They are praying/hoping for the alleviation of suffering overseas, and are grateful for XYZ. Are they hypocrites? Are they fools wearing rose-colored glasses, hoping to "pray away" the inconvenient truth that life just got real shitty for A LOT of other people?

    Yeah, some of them are no doubt hoping that. Some of them are hypocrites, there to look good in front of other people, likely b/c they have a fragile ego and need that kind of social support to validate their existence. Some of these are even the people who post stupid logos on Facebook so that they can at least seem like they are good people to lots of fake, virtual friends.

  21. But actually, if we look at the data, these people at church are the people who are much more likely to be helping others out. These are the people who are x-times more likely to donate their time, money, etc. to ACTUALLY ALLEVIATING said suffering. {I'm not putting a citation here, b/c you can search something like "religious people prosocial behavior" or "religious people helping" or "volunteering" or some combination like that and get literally over a million hits in Google Scholar. But knowing this literature, interestingly it comes down to more or less these 4 points: 1)active participation in a voluntary organization--like a non-profit--is positively associated with increased helping or alleviating suffering of others; 2) this relationship is greater if said "voluntary organization" is a church or synagogue (Judeo-Christian...not necessarily true for other religions, although data is more limited for other religious groups, so the effect of non-Judeo/Christian groups is inconclusive); in other words, those actively involved in a religiously affiliated (e.g., church) are those who are MOST LIKELY to be helping alleviate the kind of suffering mentioned here (or to use D&C lingo, to be "anxiously engaged in a good cause"); 3)this has much less to do with "going to church" than in being an active participant in an organization (like a church). So, those who don't identify with any volunteer organization are the least likely to help others; those in a non-religious voluntary organization are next-most-likely to actually be helping others, and there is no significant difference between this group and the "going to church only" (but not identifying as actively participating) group; finally, the most likely to actually be helping others make the world less sucky are active church- and synagogue-participants. Finally, 4) there is a positive correlation between these volunteers and church-goers/-participants and higher optimism. The relationship is not necessarily cause-and-effect, and may actually go both ways, a kind of virtuous cycle.

  22. I had more, but it was too long and got deleted. Crap.

    Basically my point is that there is every reason to be positive, optimistic, grateful, and to seek for truth. Even spirituality aside, there is still EVERY REASON to do this, assuming you are not a nihilist and want to be happy (eudaemonic well-being, not hedonistic well-being, to be clear for the nerds).

    Adding spirituality back into the mix, there is now EVERY reason + 1 to do this. So...

    Finally, my last point was about the "don't apply critical thinking at church" point listed in the post. DUH!

    Keep in mind, the LDS church is a volunteer organization (for the most part, at least on the local level), and there WILL be times when even those leaders who are also volunteers are going to be not as smart and/or as knowledgeable about the scriptures/church history/temple things. So what?

    This gets back to assumptions--maybe I just always assumed this, and so when something...ahem, "less enlightened" was said, I still obeyed but TOOK IT in prayer to the Lord about how I really felt. Man, the Lord has a good sense of humor, I believe.

    So I cut people a lot of slack, especially within volunteer organizations such as the LDS church.

    I hope for a better world, and the Mormon/LDS church, which I totally believe is a Higher Being's (whom we call "Jesus Christ" in our contemporary Anglo tongue) sanctioned institution on Earth, is the single best way to create the kind of peaceful, prosperous world for which I hope.