INTRODUCTION

Where We Now Stand

What Led To My Departure From The Church? (A Very Brief Summary)

Why Did I Decide To Be Public About My Departure From The Church?

What Change Am I Hoping To See In The Church?

WHERE WE NOW STAND

By mid 2015 I was still very much trying to find a way to make Mormonism work despite knowing that some fairly foundational aspects of it were not what I’d thought they were. But by that time I knew I had to ask to be released from my calling as Young Mens President because I couldn’t continue to teach some of the church’s official narratives as expected while retaining a sense of personal integrity. In fact, during some lessons toward the end (especially the “Restoration” month) I literally felt sick because I felt I was betraying and being dishonest with the young men simply by not giving them the full context of some of the things we were discussing. Things that they deserved to know if we truly respect their personal agency; things they should know now rather than learning them many years into a marriage/family that could end up suffering or being divided. I couldn’t not be genuine and authentic and forthcoming. But of course, despite the truth of these things, I couldn’t possibly discuss them openly with the youth without all sorts of negative consequences. Though I wasn’t ready to walk away from Mormonism, I had to get out of the calling. I met with the Bishop and through tears let him know I needed to be released for these reasons. His very first words in response were “Are there any sins you need to confess to me at this time?”

I won the lottery in the sense that my wife actually heard me out (bit by bit, as she was ready, and I tried to respect her needed time frames) and was essentially on the same journey I was at this point. At one point I was sure that would never happen and was absolutely petrified by fear. Many aren’t so lucky and have spouses who regret marrying them, or see them as a let down. Many who lose belief quietly suffer and fake it as best they can to avoid these consequences.  Anyway, we spent much of that year trying to figure out if there was still some place and some role for us in the church. Trying to find some way to be unorthodox Mormons. But as we progressed further in our faith transition, it became more and more clear that even if we did continue to want to stay, our form of unorthodoxy just could not be accommodated in the church without significant negative consequences for us and our kids. It was my wife’s call when we decided that a particular Sunday in the fall of 2015 would be our last day at church–though I had been ready and was very relieved as it was getting harder and harder for me to be there at the time. She cried all the way to church knowing it would be her last time there, and knowing she was leaving behind such a massive part of her life to that point.

Despite the many initial difficulties of having our whole worldview crumble before our eyes, and the devastating social consequences that must be faced when one loses belief in the LDS church, all along our journey we felt we were doing exactly what we should be doing. We were growing and our minds and hearts were expanding in ways that simply had not been possible for us before. Despite the inevitable and sometimes uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance that come when new information challenges your current beliefs, the feelings I’d been taught to interpret as “the spirit” were just as strong as ever during my journey. If there was a divine being, there was absolutely no question in my mind that I was doing exactly what it would want me to be doing; that it would give me a “high five” for fearlessly seeking truth instead of defending existing dogma, and for somehow managing against all odds to see the world outside the one I was in.

Most Christian churches hold significant stereotypes regarding non-believers. The LDS church is no exception as it conditions people to think that those who lose belief in the LDS church (or lose solid convictions regarding the existence of a divine being or an afterlife) cannot sustain their morality or their concern for the welfare of others, and cannot have “the fullest measure of peace and comfort” in this life. I don’t want to overstate things here because life can be difficult at times for all humans, whether religious (or Mormon) or not. But I can tell you that since leaving the church and since losing my solid convictions regarding a divine being and an afterlife, my personal contentment and general well-being has been substantially greater. On a regular basis I find myself feeling ridiculously grateful to have taken this journey and to be where I am now. Despite the initial challenges and fears, our family has seen loads of unexpected benefits that we’re intensely grateful for. And on a personal level, I’ve found myself more able to love others, more concerned for the world and its future, and more motivated to actually take action to seek and promote goodness and virtue in the world. I have shed a lot of anxieties and a lot of weight that I didn’t recognize I was carrying. I see the world through a whole new set of eyes.

As a believer I underestimated the power that a bit of uncertainty can provide. I am even more grateful than ever for each day I get to spend on this incredible spinning ball in the middle of space that can actually sustain life. I value all life more than ever as I consider all the processes over some 13 billion years that led to the tiny blip in time that intelligent life has lived on this earth. If I die tomorrow and there is nothing (I hope that’s not the case), I would still feel like I won the freaking lottery to have lived as a human being on this planet at this particular time for as long as I have. When I look at the big picture in this way, I can’t even handle how fortunate I am. Uncertainty about the next life has only made me want to take advantage of every day and every moment here all the more; made me want even more to ease suffering and leave this world a better place; made me want even more for my life to have lasting meaning and to have made a difference after I’m gone; made me want to be present and intentional in each day–and not just “trudge” through and continually delay happiness for some future date (or afterlife); made me focus my life and my time more on what truly matters–and not on a bunch of pharisaical checklists; made me want to be able to say on my deathbed that I tried to live a life authentic to myself, and not being ruled by fear or by the expectations of others; made me want more than ever to take action myself to try to change things rather than just waiting for a divine being to come make it all better. I have never been better or more compassionate. I have never felt more empowered. I have never been more alive.

If you want to know how our family has “filled the void” after leaving the LDS church, and what sort of practices our family now espouses, you can see my post HERE.

WHAT LED TO MY DEPARTURE FROM THE CHURCH? (A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY)

Note: Although this is only a very brief summary without a any detailed supporting documentation, if you are not in a place where you can safely challenge your faith (an understandable position for many people–as I believe timing is important), you may want to skip this section.

When it came to my faith I was never one to shy away from exploring some difficult issues and incorporating them into my faith (evolution, polygamy, complexities of scripture and how it came to be, etc). As BH Roberts once put it, I always felt we should try to maintain a “rational ground for faith.” I knew if I didn’t ask these questions, someone else would–perhaps my kids. I knew the church could never be “proven” true through anything but “the spirit,” but by taking issues head on (rather than hiding from or ignoring them) I hoped to help maintain an environment where belief could flourish, and I hoped to help people struggling with their faith. Perhaps because of some of my talents and interests I’d always felt “called” to be involved in apologetics for those reasons.

As J. Reuben Clark once noted, “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” As far as I was concerned, truth could defend itself–or at least maintain a reasonable level of plausibility. I honestly expected that if my beliefs were true (and I was certain that they were) then exploring these kinds of issues would only serve to increase my faith and the faith of others. I expected to find validation. And in many ways I was finding validation. It turns out that we humans tend to be very good at finding reasons to confirm our existing beliefs–whatever they may be!

There were some issues that I wouldn’t say were faith affirming by any means, but for me it was generally sufficient to chalk it up to human imperfection, and to simply acknowledge an imperfect church that was very slowly working out some problems, and which had an unfortunate habit of consistently claiming an absolute certainty as to the mind and will of God–when observable historical reality made very clear to me that much more humility and acknowledgement of the messiness and uncertainty of life was in order.

I think this approach probably would have worked for me indefinitely if not for one issue. My biases toward faith in the church were so incredibly powerful that I think that for me it was the only issue that could actually get me out of the mindset of constantly trying to prove it true, and into the mindset of sincerely and objectively looking at both sides of the issue to get at the truth.

This key initial issue for me was the prevalence of 19th century content and influences in the Book of Mormon–suggesting it was a 19th century work and not an ancient record. In a very ironic and unexpected way, the Book of Mormon was probably the only thing that could and did lead me to the truth. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it turns out my initial concerns were very much the same as those BH Roberts expressed nearly a century ago (see my post HERE to hear his thoughts), with Ethan Smith’s book “View of The Hebrews” being an initial eye opener. It wasn’t that I viewed it as something Joseph “plagiarized,” but it began to open my eyes to the fact that the Book of Mormon (even its overall self conception) is very much a product of its time and the ideas and goals that were currently prevalent (ideas which largely turned out to be false). Unfortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg, and we have many more puzzle pieces available to us today. I’ve begun documenting some of these issues HERE, but have not yet finished all the sections, and have not yet come close to portraying all that I’d like to portray.

My extreme biases toward faith had me fighting for any reasonable explanation for all the data, but this time the more I sincerely studied the issues the messier things became. What I had previously seen as “evidences” supporting my views became insignificant in comparison to this new data. Many different areas of study were all pointing powerfully to the same conclusion, and I ultimately could not deny that the Book of Mormon simply did not come about in the way that has been claimed, and is simply not based on a historical record. The “expansion” theories of “translation” that apologists are routinely falling back on at this point simply could not account for the depth of the problems. But my bias toward faith was so strong that I still didn’t give up. I desperately tried to be okay with the book being a modern form of Pseudepigrapha–that it was inspired of God even if not historical. Of course, when followed through this approach forces one to accept that Joseph was engaged in a significant degree of deception (though I allow for some degree of genuine delusion as well).

Anyway, for me it all started with the Book of Mormon. But even if any of those approaches to the Book of Mormon could have worked, by this time I was ready to sincerely evaluate the origins of Mormonism. I just desperately wanted truth–whatever it was. Unfortunately, what I was devastated to find in the insatiable study that followed was that the real historical narrative is a vastly different picture than what is presented by the church and accepted by the vast majority of church members.

One key issue was my finding that the real narrative (despite Joseph’s later explicit and dishonest denials) is one of a family heavily involved with the treasure digging, folk magic, and “second sight” (claiming to see things in a very real way even if only seen in the mind) cultures of the day that many were involved with, but which most others viewed as a scam. I “knew” about these things, but I didn’t really know about them. These cultures need a post all their own to really convey the significance of it all because there is so much more to it than I once believed, but one key point is that we’re talking about a culture in which claiming to see things that were very clearly not real was the norm (mystical treasure guardians and spirits, treasures located by a “seer” looking at a peep stone in a hat, treasures that move or sink into the earth if very specific occult instructions are not carefully followed, and so on). In later years Joseph obviously knew that these things would undermine his credibility–which is why there were some later efforts to quietly brush them under the rug.

Joseph was known as one of many community “seers,” and was heavily involved with many extensive treasure digs as such over at least a 3 year period. He was even brought to trial over it in 1826. More importantly, I was shocked to recognize that the early narratives surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon are tied to these cultures to a much greater extent than I had realized (treasure guardian themes, plates moving when instructions not followed, involvement of astrology, etc. One summary HERE), and were sort of cleaned up by Joseph over time. It is significant that all of the Book of Mormon witnesses had strong ties to this culture wherein it was common to claim to see things that clearly were not real, but were seen only in the “mind’s eye” (second sight). It was significant that we have four different accounts of Martin Harris admitting (despite still believing in their reality) that the witnesses saw the plates only with “spiritual eyes,” and not with physical eyes. For me, the most concrete evidence that there were no real gold plates comes from the text of the Book of Mormon itself–the 19th century content mentioned previously. But I was shocked to find that the real narratives surrounding the witnesses were not what I’d understood them to be (summary HERE).

There are too many major issues surrounding Joseph’s “first vision” to possibly acknowledge in one paragraph. First, I found that this was a time of “charismatic Christianity” to an even greater extent than I’d realized, and that claims to experiences such as Joseph’s “first vision” were actually extremely commonplace (see HERE. These are really worth a quick scan). There is also the issue of how different Joseph’s earliest 1st vision narrative was from the later official version. When sincerely explored in depth there really are numerous very significant contradictions and indications that the story grew and changed over time–with the official version that is used today coming about at a time when Joseph was losing control, and needed to bolster his authority again. Oddly enough, the “first vision” wasn’t even a talking point during the 1830’s, and the members knew little if anything about it. Bushman acknowledges that the evidence suggests that he didn’t even tell his family about it for many years (a bit problematic considering the official version claims he was persecuted by the community for sharing his story). There are too many interesting points and contradictions to note here, but here are just a few: In the earliest version (which Bushman acknowledges is probably the most accurate) Joseph already knows that all the churches are all wrong (odd given that the later account says this thought had never occurred to him), and is actually praying for a forgiveness of sins (odd given that the later account has him specifically praying to know what church to join). In this account which sounds much like countless others from that period, he says he saw the Lord in vision (no mention of two beings), and received a forgiveness of his sins.  There was no mention of building a church or being called as a prophet, or anything like that. Just a fairly typical early 19th century account of seeing the Lord in vision and being forgiven of sin. For a look at numerous other contradictions, there is more good info HERE.

There are issues just as interesting surrounding claims as to how the priesthood was restored–with evidence suggesting some of these things were retrofitted after the fact to create a consistent narrative (see HERE). There are the issues of Joseph claiming specific revelations from God (recording them as if God himself spoke the words in the first person), when the issues at hand can be shown to be based on early 19th century ideas that have turned out to be false (just one example being the very literal views of 10 tribes hiding as a cohesive and faithful group in the North Countries).

Apart from the Book of Mormon issues, the most important info for me was the type of stuff above that related directly to Mormon origins. But of course there are a lot of other extremely concerning issues that I had somehow previously justified. The issues of Joseph’s public lying about his polygamy both to the church and to the public for years–and the publishing of a section of the D&C in response to these accusations that actually prohibited polygamy (later removed of course). There is the very significant issue of Fanny Alger whom Joseph had some sort of relationship with (possible pregnancy?) unbeknownst to Emma, causing Fanny to be kicked out of the house and have to move out of town. Oliver referred to it as a “dirty, nasty, filthy scrape.” There is the fact that Joseph told women that angels threatened to kill him with a drawn sword if he didn’t practice polygamy (this one is massively concerning to me). There is the horrifying section of the D&C that threatens Emma with “destruction” if she doesn’t accept polygamy, and that actually revokes a previous agreement Joseph had made with her that she could have other “relations” if he could (of course God vetoes this arrangement). There is the fact that Joseph’s polygamy doesn’t even follow the rules outlined in section 132. There are the polyandry issues….oh the polyandry issues….

There is soooooooo much more we could explore, and it feels absurd to even try to sum everything up in such a short post. This is just a brief introduction to the types of issues I found significant. But again, for me, the most powerful and tangible evidence was the 19th century content in the Book of Mormon, and the many areas of study that all pointed me so powerfully to the conclusion that it is simply not historical. Only then was I even willing to objectively look at all those other issues. I had long known that the Bible was not what most believers assume it is, but it hadn’t ultimately mattered because my belief in the Book of Mormon had held everything together that otherwise would have been shaky. Once this barrier was broken, I found that my many years of study regarding the development of Judeo-Christian theology, biblical critical scholarship, as well as issues of science, all had me ready for countless puzzle pieces to fall into place that seemed like they should have done so long ago.

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5 thoughts on “INTRODUCTION

  1. Christian Moore November 2, 2015 / 4:38 am

    Russell this is your apostate cousin!!😀 Wow you have been on a intense journey!! You never need to
    Apologize for seeking truth! Papa was a scientist and valued truth and reason if he was alive today and had all his cognitive abilities I am absolutely sure he would be very concerned with the Churches Changing narrative and enocolation plan! Truth does not need to be spined! Papa would be DAM proud of you if he had access to info you have so keep your head high!! Christian

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  2. Bob W. December 22, 2015 / 5:15 am

    Ok, read everything. A lot of what you say reminds me of my religion classes in High School (Catholic High school, New American bible, non-denominational, Catholics, Jews, Presbyterians, Baptists, Atheists, Agnostics, and me the Mormon, all in one class. That was fun!). I feel I have asked myself a lot of these questions before, and have come to conclusions for some, and have decided to let time help the others unravel.
    I am curious to see what your thoughts on the New Testament and the Book of Mormon are. And, I guess more curious about the end game? When I studied the Old Testament a lot in High School I often came to the question, “Is any of it real?”. The New Testament was easier to believe, though there origins, according to the Catholic church” always seemed sketchy. Look forward to seeing what you think.
    My honest question to you is, whats the end game? The Plan? Like the Plan of Salvation? Or the goal? Like the Celestial Kingdom? If I believe in the LDS Church, and it is true, and I am faithful, then I become a God and have a world and a billion kids, etc etc. What are your thoughts on the end game? Thanks.

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    • Russell Ash December 23, 2015 / 5:39 am

      My end game is to be awesome. To be a good man. To live a great life. To have a great family and be good to them. To raise great kids. To make the world better. To lift others up and ease suffering. To learn and seek truth. To develop charity, temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. To be present and intentional in each day–and not continually delay happiness for some future date (or afterlife). To be able to say on my deathbed that I tried to live a life authentic to myself, and not being ruled by fear or by the expectations of others. All of that truly is my end game–not because it’s what is expected of me by any outside force, but because its what I want to do, and what I believe will bring a happy and fulfilling life both for me and others.

      If there is an afterlife, it will be an awesome added bonus to this already incredible spinning ball that we’ve had the already incredible good fortune of living on as human beings, and I hope that there is an afterlife. If there is a divine judgment based on my heart, my desires, my efforts to improve myself and live an honorable life, and the way I try to treat other people, I have no doubt that I’m headed the right direction (despite my many faults). Given all that I’ve learned, I no longer have any fear in me that I or my family will either face punishment or be denied blessings from a divine being because I am no longer part of the .061% of people currently on this earth who attend Mormon church at least once a month and dedicate huge portions of their lives to that institution (often to the detriment of more important things). If I’m being honest, if there is a God, I think he would give me a high five for fearlessly seeking truth rather than protecting dogma, and for managing to see a beautiful and inspiring new world outside the box I was in.

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      • Becky O'Brien December 29, 2015 / 7:01 pm

        Hi Russ. You don’t know me but I am a friend of the Woestman family for many years. Am I correct in understanding that you feel unsure of the existence of a God? Do you not believe we are spirit children of Heavenly Father. I read what you wrote above and expected more of an explanation of what issues lead you to this decision. Just trying to understand.

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      • Russell Ash December 30, 2015 / 1:19 am

        Hi Becky. I get that it’s a hard thing for most people to understand, but you’re correct. I’m just speaking for myself here, but I would no longer say that I know there is a God. I hope there is! I want to believe there is! But I’m not going to say I “know,” because I don’t.

        As I share my thoughts please know that I’m certainly not out to convince anyone that there isn’t a God. But if you do want to understand why I (and many others) have doubts, I’ll try to give a brief response.

        For me, the Book of Mormon was holding everything together that otherwise would have been concerning. Once I discovered that the Book of Mormon wasn’t what I thought it was, many other issues that didn’t matter as much before suddenly mattered a lot more:

        First, I accept that our universe likely began something like 13.7 billion years ago–resulting in at least 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, with a single galaxy such as ours likely having 10’s of billions of solar systems, one of which contains our earth. I believe our earth is something like 4.6 billion years old. We can see other planets in the universe in various stages of development that give us a picture of how our earth formed over millions of years through natural processes. Like every science teacher I had at BYU, I also accept the overwhelming evidence that evolution happened. Not just microevolution, but macroevolution—as in, humans evolved from simpler life forms.

        Now, does any of that prove there is no God? No, it doesn’t. In fact, LDS biologist Steven L. Peck wrote a book just this year trying to make room for belief in God while accepting that evolution happened. He understands that at this point the evidence is so strong that it really isn’t going to help to keep denying it. He recognizes that if we don’t incorporate truth into our faith, it may ultimately destroy our faith anyway as people end up feeling forced to choose between the two. Anyway, he believes a God who creates by natural processes and by evolution is even more impressive in some ways, and more theologically defensible. But it does require significant changes in paradigm. If we call God the creator in light of this knowledge, we then do so primarily in the sense that God would simply be like a “programmer” or “initiator” who perhaps creates the right circumstances to initiate or begin what is otherwise a naturally occurring process of creation that occurs over millions or billions of years and ultimately produces the desired outcome. But as I said, a lot of questions still arise. Is there a literal Adam and Eve? Are we truly created “in God’s image” if our bodies are a result of evolution? When in the process of evolution would hominids have been developed enough to be considered “spirit children of God?”

        These are challenging questions—and there are so many more of them—but my belief in the Book of Mormon had kept these questions at bay. When that fell apart, these things became challenging for me again. It was very uncomfortable at first. We humans like certainty, and we love having concrete answers to everything, but as time goes on I’ve come to realize that uncertainty and complexity are a part of life—sometimes a beautiful part of life. I’m recognizing that it’s healthy for us to acknowledge our limitations and uncertainties, and to struggle with these things. Many other religious traditions are far more comfortable with this than Mormons are. All I can do is hold to the things I know are true, and keep trying to figure out the rest as best I can. If there is a God, I truly believe he/she would be quite proud of where I’m headed, and of my desires.

        Apart from that answer, it sounds like maybe you only read my introduction so far. If you haven’t already, you can click on the “Blog” heading at the top of the page and get my more detailed thoughts on other issues I’ve had time to post about so far, but it is a work in progress. I know a key question many people have is the issue of “spiritual experiences”—and I’ll need to dedicate a whole post to that when I can in order to explain where I’m coming from on that issue. I’ll try to get to that as soon as I can.

        We hate the pain this is causing friends and family, and it really makes us hurt knowing it hurts you. But we have to do what we feel is best for our family. Nothing but best wishes for you. I’ll try to answer any further questions as best I can.

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