The Ex-Mormon's Skeptical Heritage

by Richard Packham
This article is adapted from a workshop I gave at the annual gathering of Exmormons on February 27, 1999. It is therefore addressed to those who have left or are in the process of leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Most of us here have one thing in common: we left - or are leaving - the Mormon church.

In doing that, I suspect that we have something else in common: we each experienced a moment, that one particular moment, when we realized that we were going to leave, that we had to leave, that there was no longer any real choice. If you are at all like me, you remember that moment vividly, just as one remembers exactly what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas (or, for people of my generation, when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed).

And I suspect that we have one more thing in common, which is what I would like to discuss with you today: we had that terrible feeling that we were all alone. That nobody else had ever felt this way. That we were starting down a path where there were no footsteps to follow, no guidelines, no signposts. How terrifying, for people like us, who had been so well trained to follow the leader, to step only where told to step, to hold to the rod, to fear at the risk of our eternal souls that one misstep might lose us our exaltation.

The trigger, the catalyst, the straw that broke the camel's back, was undoubtedly different for each of us. But there was one. You remember: there were so many things that did not seem right, but we were so used to accepting, to obeying, to not questioning, that we were able to go on accepting, obeying, not questioning. But there was, finally, that one thing, the one thing that pushed us too far, demanded too much.

There is a side point I want to make here. It's the answer to a question that is often asked of us, usually by non-Mormons with a loved one who is about to be baptized, or new ex-Mormons whose loved ones are still caught in the church, and who are desperate to be given the key to the prison of Mormonism, to release the loved one: What can I tell him, what can I show to her, that will convince them that Mormonism is false?

And the answer, of course, is that there is no one thing, no one fact, no single outrageous doctrine or embarrassing historical event, that will cause everyone who knows about that one fact to leave the church. It is different for each person. One person may easily be able to accept polygamy, blood atonement, secret finances, and the unfulfilled prophecies of Joseph Smith. But when the bishop calls a child molester to teach Primary, that's the straw. Another may be able to accept all that, but cannot accept the fact that the church lies about its past. Another may be able to accept the lying as necessary, but finds polygamy too much.

For each person, it will be something else, something different. And what is the lesson in that, for those who are trying to get a loved one out of Mormonism? As I see it, the prison door has a special lock for each prisoner. We are armed with an entire keyring of keys. One of those keys will fit the lock and release the prisoner. We must patiently try each key until we find a fit. The key is there, somewhere, and we must not give up, but try each one.

Are we exmormons so unusual? The Mormons say that we are. They taunt us (from their jail-cell windows) and boast that there are ten million of them. (They seem to be unaware that there are twenty times as many atheists in the world, and a hundred times as many people who are completely non-religious, according to the World Almanac.) Do I have the audacity to suggest that those ten million Mormons are all deceived? That I am smarter than they? That this great church, which has grown so phenomenally over the last 170 years, is a fraud?

By leaving it, I label myself as a doubter, a skeptic, an infidel, a traitor, a rebel, a heretic, an apostate, a covenant-breaker, and thus a servant and follower of evil.

Those are powerful labels, and we were all trained to cringe at the mere utterance of them. And now, think back: when those words were applied to you, especially by people whom you trusted, believed, loved and respected, did you hesitate? Did you, even for a moment, think, What on earth am I doing? What if they're right? Have I gone mad? Have I just sacrificed eternal happiness by my stupidity, just as they say? Am I wrong to doubt, to question, to be critical?

Today I would like to help us become aware of our very rich and proud heritage: the heritage of the skeptic, the doubter, the heretic.

I am now going to describe to you some people who also had similar feelings to those you may have had when you decided to leave Mormonism. These are all people who started out accepting the "conventional wisdom" as promulgated by the "authorities," but who were then labeled, as we are labeled by the Mormon church, as apostates, heretics, rebels, enemies, traitors, and servants of evil.

Perhaps what made you leave Mormonism was that questions are not allowed. If so, then you share the heritage of Socrates.

Socrates was essentially a pious man, a good citizen and former soldier who made a meager living teaching. He had no doctrine. He simply taught his pupils to ask questions. He did not claim to have the answers to the questions, but he maintained that only by questioning, by reasoning, could one hope to find the truth and discover error. This idea got him in trouble with the authorities, who accused him of atheism, and of corrupting the youth. For teaching people to question, he was excecuted at Athens in 399 BC. His methods of teaching and reasoning form the basis of modern philosophy and education.

If you objected to the lack of spirituality in Mormonism, then you are an heir of Jesus of Nazareth, who was very devoted to his religious heritage, but he saw that it was not the observance of each little prohibition, each ritual requirement of religion, that was important, but rather our inner attitude, our love for our fellow human beings. Since this idea tended to downplay the importance of religious ordinances on which the authorities depended for their control, he was accused of blasphemy, and was executed about 30 AD at Jerusalem.

Did you object to the personal constraints of the church, preventing you from developing your individuality? Then you share something with the Buddha. Although outwardly very successful and a member of an important family, he realized that the conventional wisdom and his worldly position was not satisfying his spiritual needs. He realized that he had to seek his own path, even though it might mean giving up his comfortable position and even his family, which he did, reluctantly. He spent many years in contemplation and study, but finally felt that he had achieved his goal. He began to share with others what he had discovered, and died peacefully twenty-five hundred years ago. His followers number today over three hundred million.

In another way, you have similarities with Sigmund Freud: When he lived, conventional wisdom viewed human sexuality as something not to be discussed, as something sinful and degrading, something to be controlled and suppressed. He began to teach that sexuality was an essential part of our humanity, and that its suppression was unhealthy. He was vilified by almost all religionists for his views. Today he is recognized as the founder of our modern treatment of mental illness. He succeeded in teaching us how really to "drive out the evil spirits."

Was the key for you the doctrinal contradictions, the scriptural errors? Your spriritual ancestor is perhaps John Wycliffe. A devout man, he was extremely critical of the religious authorities. He believed that it was wrong that those authorities kept people from reading for themselves - those authorities maintained that the religious documents in the wrong hands might be misused and destroy the common man's faith. He believed in making those writings available to everyone. His own writings were banned by the authorities. He is considered by many to be a fore-runner of the Protestant Reformation. He died in 1384.

Were you offended by the wealth amassed by the church? Then you share that feeling of outrage with Martin Luther. A devout man, who had dedicated his life to his religion, he took issue with the immense wealth which his church was acquiring from its poor members. He publicly challenged these financial practices and their other corrupt practices, which resulted ultimately in his excommunication. He is one of the major figures of the Protestant Reformation. He died in 1546 in Germany.

Did you feel that the stance of the church on scientific matters was incorrect? Then you are like Galileo. Through his own examination of the natural world, he realized that the conventional wisdom as handed down through religious channels was factually incorrect. His scientific studies were rejected by the religious authorities for the sole reason that they challenged traditional doctrine. He was coerced into publicly recanting his scientific work, which is today acknowledged as correct.

Was it the church's distortion of its own history that made you leave? You have several intellectual predecessors:

Thomas Paine examined the accepted religious wisdom and the holy writings on which it was based, and step by step showed its contradictions and absurdities. As a result, his efforts on behalf of political independence in the American and French revolutions were overshadowed by accusations of "atheism" (although he did believe in God), and he died an outcast of society because of his book The Age of Reason, in which he examined the Bible critically.

David Friedrich Strauss wrote Das Leben Jesu ("The Life of Jesus") in 1835. This biography shook accepted beliefs, explaining Jesus' life as a mere mortal.

Albert Schweitzer was a devout man who devoted himself to caring for the sick and poor, an acknowledged genius in many fields, he tried in his early work to find the historical truth about the origins of his religion, and in so doing cast doubt on many accepted religious legends. His book In Search of the Historical Jesus was a landmark book.

Did you realize that the church was not guided by God, that its leaders were mere men pretending to be divinely called? Then many are your forebears. Luther and Wycliffe have already been mentioned.

Those of us who were born and raised in the Mormon church are well aware of the rich heritage of our Mormon ancestors, who suffered persecution, crossed the plains and endured privations for their faith. It is a great heritage, one of which we can rightly be proud, even though we no longer share their religious beliefs.

But we also have another Mormon heritage, one which we did not learn about in Sunday school or in seminary - at least, we did not learn about it accurately. It is the heritage of the Mormon apostates, those of whom Mormon "official" history takes note only to curse and vilify them. And yet, they are also a heritage of which we can be proud. Did you ever wonder who those people were, who, beginning in the Kirtland days, denounced Joseph Smith and left? Why did they leave?

David Whitmer was a devout man who had been given visions and revelations, who had even been promised that he would eventually succeed to leadership, he began to realize that Joseph Smith, whom he had followed faithfully, was not in fact divinely guided, that he was in fact deceiving his followers. For expressing these doubts he was vilified and excommunicated, with threats to his life.

William Law was a member of the First Presidency of the church, a man who had made many sacrifices for his faith, but he began to realize that Joseph Smith was corrupt, teaching falsehoods, initiating false practices, and lying to protect himself. He begged Smith to correct these wrongs, but was himself vilified. He finally made public the wrongs he saw, which ultimately, indirectly, caused Smith's downfall and death. He was one of the publishers of the Nauvoo Expositor.

The Tanners are part of this heritage. This husband/wife pair simply began to read writings from the history of the church and realized that the history had been carefully concealed and edited. They began to make these writings easily available, and were ostracized and vilified by the church, which preferred to keep its uncomplimentary history hidden. Mrs. Tanner is a descendant of Brigham Young.

There are many others who defied their traditional Mormon heritage to follow the path of conscience: Frank Cannon, son of George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency. He represented Utah in the U. S. Congress. Kimball Young, grandson of Brigham Young, became a noted sociologist and authored Isn't One Wife Enough?, a study of Mormon polygamy. Fawn M. Brodie, niece of David O. McKay, and author of the still definitive biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. Steve Benson, grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, and political cartoonist for the Arizona Republic. Samuel Taylor, grandson of John Taylor, and author of numerous historical works on Mormonism, including Nightfall at Nauvoo.

These people are only a few, chosen at random, from among those skeptics, doubters, critics, who have brought light to the world through their honesty.

I do not necessarily agree personally with everything that each of these skeptics believed or taught, but I agree wholeheartedly with their attitude and their courage in challenging the accepted wisdom of the majority and of the established authorities.

If you study the intellectual history of our human race, the history of science, of philosophy, of religion, one fact becomes glaringly obvious: our intellectual heritage has been built by the doubters, the critics, the questioners, the rebels. No advancement in our long journey out of primitive darkness was ever made by someone who accepted without question the conventional wisdom of his time.

To whom, then, does the future belong? To those who blindly "follow the brethren"? No. You apostates are the people who are marching proudly in the forefront of humanity's progress, and you should not let anyone make you feel ashamed that you have added your name to the most illustrious and glorious list of human beings: the doubters and the skeptics.

Books for Further Reading

Herbert Muller, The Uses Of The Past, Oxford, New York, 1952
Homer W. Smith, Man and His Gods, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1952
John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, Houghton Mifflin, New York, rev. ed. 1940
Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896, abridged ed Macmillan, New York, 1965
Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1953

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©  1999 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


"Tradition has always been the great enemy of the founders of great traditions... diversity and non-conformity are the very soul of [our] heritage" - Herbert J. Muller, The Uses of the Past

"The opposite of courage is not cowardice, but conformity" - Robert Anthony

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