My cousin has decided to leave the LDS Church. He cites a number of reasons for his departure in a lengthy online Google doc which you can read here, and many of them are, frankly, recycled anti-Mormon tropes that have been circling for years and are fairly easily debunked. (Case in point: if you still think Solomon Spaulding and Sidney Rigdon wrote the Book of Mormon and smuggled it to a teenage Joseph Smith, you probably think we faked the moon landing, too.)
Where his manifesto becomes pertinent is in the personal details – a time when he felt like the Spirit had let him down, and other intimate moments of doubt. I can’t refute or explain why his spiritual experiences were or were not what they ought to have been – that’s between him and God, and if God isn’t explaining it to his satisfaction, there’s not a lot I can do.
He also raises an age-old question that deserves further review, which I will quote below:
If I had been born in Saudi Arabia instead of Provo, Utah, I would have been raised a Muslim instead of a Mormon. Every night I would read the Quran instead of the Book of Mormon. I would follow the teachings of Mohammed instead of Joseph Smith. And I would believe it with the same exact same surety and conviction, using the Spirit and faith as my guide.
Ironically, this conclusion comes from a distinctly Latter-Day Saint mindset. That is to say, we encourage members to pray about specific doctrines – most notably the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon – and rely on their personal experiences with God to verify truthfulness. I have no idea if this is the pattern adopted in Islam, but it’s not consistent with much of the Christian world.
Catholics, for instance, are encouraged to rely on the rich tradition and history of their faith to provide the foundation of their faith. Until Vatican II in the 1960s, Bible reading was actively discouraged. The idea of seeking direct, personal revelation from God to confirm the veracity of the church’s authority would have been alien at best and heretical at worst. To this day, the laity of the Catholic church requires the intercession of the priesthood and an infallible papacy in order to access both God’s forgiveness and interpret His revelation.
Evangelical protestants are probably closer to the LDS interpretation of how spiritual things operate, but the personal revelation comes solely from a powerful “saved” experience with Christ. Beyond that, the Bible provides the infallible source of all ecclesiastical authority. Personal emotions, thoughts and feelings are unreliable; only the Bible can be trusted. (And that presupposes that the Bible is not only infallible; it is also self-evidently clear about all doctrines of salvation, which, given the confusion among thousands of Christian sects and denominations, is a fairly difficult pill to swallow.)
You will rarely, if ever, hear an evangelical Christian claim that their particular branch of Christendom is the only true faith. Indeed, most will acknowledge that their unique sect is far from perfect, and that truth can be found in many denominations. All that matters is Christ. The fact that so many people interpret Christ and His message differently isn’t really all that big a deal to most of them.
All that said, I am left to wonder how my life would be different has I been born a Catholic or a Jew or a Muslim. I can never know the answer to that question, but my cousin’s theory presupposes that I would likely have accepted the religious dogma handed to me, and that would have been that.
Well, maybe he’s right. And maybe he’s not.
These were question I felt very acutely as a teenager, when I was wrestling with my obligation to serve a mission for the Church. I knew it was something I ought to do, but, whether I realized it or not, I was desperately looking for a way out that wouldn’t go contrary to my conscience.
As it happened, I dated a Catholic girl prior to my mission. At the time, this girl went behind my back and sought out the missionaries, and she ended up joining the Church in a remarkable conversion that would have made a great article in the Ensign. I sat in on all her missionary lessons, and I had a positive experience that provided me with an intellectual justification for my faith. See? The Church works! It must be true! And I’ve found out for myself, so I’m not just doing this because my parents want me to.
For the first few months of my mission, I would cite this experience as my own personal, dramatic “conversion story.” I would maintain that I, too, was an unbeliever one moment, but a believer the next. It seemed powerful and compelling, but it never sat well with me. It wasn’t long before I realized that telling the story that way was to discount all of the spiritual experiences I had had as a youth. It was my way of saying to the Lord that the life He had given me wasn’t really enough, and that it required dramatic embellishment. When I accepted that I am who I am, and that my testimony had grown from a lifetime of experience and not from one single dramatic moment, I felt far more at peace and, I think, was a more effective missionary with a more powerful testimony.
So would I have stayed a Muslim if I were born as such? That’s the kind of unanswerable hypothetical that makes for interesting discussions, but it’s ultimately fruitless.
I am who I am. And because of who I am, I remain a Latter-Day Saint.