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Michael R. Ash
Friday, March 08 2013

Evidence, Education, and the Loss of Faith

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“Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops,” Richard Dawkins.[i]

For atheists like Dawkins, religion is for the weak-minded who believe in fairy tales—not only in the absence of evidence, but in spite of evidence. Likewise, most anti-LDS pundits (even sectarian LDS-critics who themselves accept God, Jesus, and the Bible) claim that Latter-day Saints believe in a fictional Book of Mormon which is not only unsupported by evidence, but makes claims that are contrary to known historical and scientific evidences.

As I launch this new column for Meridian Magazine I’d like to explain the direction I hope to take.

Despite the fact that Christianity is the largest religion in Europe and has been practiced in Europe since the first century,[ii] studies show that atheism is showing rapid signs of growth—especially in Western Europe.[iii]

While the atheistic movement is not yet as strong in the United Sates, polls indicate that one out of five Americans failed to indicate a religious identity.[iv] There are also a growing number of vocal atheists in the media, the news, and even groups on college campuses,[v] and several books which denounce religion have held strong spots on the bestsellers lists.

Not surprisingly, with the increase in atheistic popularity in many developed countries, we’ve also seen an increase in anti-LDS activity and prevalence. Much of this anti-religion and anti-Mormon material has sprung from the growth of the Internet. This combination has caused more than one Latter-day Saint testimony to stumble.

At a recent Utah State University question and answer session with Elder Marlin K. Jensen, for instance, Elder Jensen said that “…maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now; largely over these issues. …we are suffering a loss...”[vi] While critics exaggerated the extent of LDS membership losses,[vii] it is undeniable that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is experiencing member losses because of hostile Internet sites.

In this column I plan to address testimony damage, the cause of testimony damage, how we can prevent such damage, and how we can actually strengthen our testimonies because of modern scholarship and evidence.

Atheism and anti-Mormonism are not the only religious-related categories that have seen growth in the past few decades. LDS scholarship, based on the wider scholarship of academia (including disciplines such as history, archaeology, anthropology, Egyptology, molecular biology, and various other areas of science), have increased our understanding and appreciation for what Joseph Smith brought forth through revelation. This increased understanding brings new evidences for what Latter-day Saints believe.

Some members may think that faith is enough, that our intellects need not, or should not factor into a testimony. For some members, faith might be all that’s needed, but for other members, intellectual support for belief is not only helpful but necessary.

When Oliver Cowdery made his failed attempt at translating the plates the Lord told him: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8).

Moroni (Moroni 10:3) and other prophets (2 Nephi 32:1) have counseled us to ponder things in our hearts—which sounds like an emotional rather than intellectual approach. Most people in ancient times, however, generally didn’t understand that the brain was the source for thoughts and reasoning. They typically believed that the heart was home for both the soul as well as the origination of thoughts.

While the Egyptians experimented with brain surgery, for instance, they nevertheless believed that the heart—not the brain—was the source for thoughts. To “ponder things in our hearts” means to include our brains in our spiritual quest.

As Latter-day Saints who believe that the glory of God is intelligence (D&C 93:36), we are told to seek wisdom from the best books (D&C 88:118) and learn more than just what we hear in Sunday School. We are encouraged to learn about astronomy, geology, history, current and foreign events, and much more (D&C 88: 79).

“Each of us,” said President Boyd K. Packer, “must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits but requires it.”[viii]

In 2007, the Church published a statement about Mormon doctrine which read in part: "The Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.”[ix]

Latter-day Saints (like most other people who believe in a spiritual realm) believe that some evidence—such as a spiritual witness—can only come through faith, but they also maintain that faith and reason are not typically in conflict and that evidence-based reason can support faith.

Studies even suggest that for Latter-day Saints, increased education strengthens testimony and that higher education contributes to the religiosity for Mormons. It is my hope that rational thinking will play an active role in magnifying our testimonies.

“Evidence” for belief, and evidence supporting defenses against anti-LDS claims, are, contrary to some atheists, a prominent part of much LDS scholarship. Some of the web resources which offer this intellectual support include:

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS): (www.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/). While the direction of the Maxwell Institute is currently finding a modified course, the Institute offers vast amounts of information, articles, and books, on various LDS-scholarly topics.

The Interpreter (www.MormonInterpreter.com): This new online and print-on-demand journal was created by several of the original members of FARMS. In a short amount of time, they have produced an impressive amount of material.

And, of course, there is FAIR—the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (www.fairlds.org)—an international organization of LDS volunteers who have produced a massive repository of responses to LDS-critical claims. FAIR hosts an annual Conference (the 2013 event is schedule for the August 1-2), as well as podcasts, videos, DVDs, and the most comprehensive wiki that engages challenging LDS issues.

Lastly, FAIR has produced my book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt. This book was initially published in 2008, and just this week a 2nd edition—revised and enlarged by nearly 20%-- has come from the press (http://bookstore.fairlds.org/product.php?id_product=10).

The cure for shaky testimonies—as will be shown in the months to come—is often not to study less, but to study more.


[i]  Richard Dawkins, “Is Science a Religion,” The Humanist (January/February 1997), 26-27.

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Europe

[iii] Nigel Barber, “The Human Beast: Why We Do What We Do,” Psychology Today (18 May 2010) .

[iv] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “American Religious Identity Survey [Aris 2008],” (Trinity College, March 2009)

[v] Laurie Goodstein, “More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops,” The New York Times (16 April 2009)

[vi] "


  1. I look forward to being enlightened- thank you!
  2. Congratulations on Brother Ash joining the contributors to this site. His brilliant and rational approaches and inspired explanations will bless and strengthen your readers. He is a faithful resource who is not known widely enough. I anxiously anticipate his articles.
  3. This should be good! As Mormons are we not dedicated to truth and light (D&C 93:28) and welcome truth from wherever it comes? The trick is to ferret out the truth in science, for example, and reject the merely speculative and unproven items that flood the lines. There are "wars' in almost all subjects; we have to be found on the side of truth as obviously our God is the source for that.
  4. Nice to see your articles again Michael. I have always enjoyed reading them. Thanks for sharing your insights.
  5. Interesting and important topic. I look forward to more thoughts from you. I hope you don't mind me saying that the journalism writing style of one and two sentence paragraphs does not quite fit scholarly writing style. Since you are not writing for a newspaper with small columns, I would go with larger paragraphs.
  6. I first read your book a couple of years ago after my then husband disclosed his loss of faith. Your book is such an essential read for members of the LDS faith. I've loaned it so many times, I've lost track of it. I look forward both to purchasing the new edition and to reading your column.
  7. I also look forward to further articles. I enjoyed your 80 Evidences book very much and I hope to see a sequel.
  8. Let me suggest something as you approach this topic. Most people (including many religious people) don't realize or articulate how spiritual knowledge is obtained as opposed to physical knowledge. Naturally, we're familiar with the scientific method and the like for physical knowledge, but we need to be clearly teaching that spiritual knowledge comes from a different process taught in every volume of scripture in every religion I've come across: to take a leap of faith. Faith is like a seed - if planted it will grow. Seek and ye shall find. Etc, etc. If we are clear about the process, it enables those who struggle to understand why it is OK to be both rational and spiritual. www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com
  9. Let it not be confused that loss of faith in the LDS church automatically leads one to lose faith, not the loss of spirituality, morals, or happiness. As one who is transitioning away from the LDS church, I feel that I am just unable to believe in the LDS church anymore. It has lost me. Every appeal to rational appears to be a recursive argument. It has throughly lost the battle for me, and I am left to pick up the pieces of my shattered spirituality and rebuild. I feel that, this time, I am rebuilding on more solid ground. I am not inspired by the LDS church and the basis on which the faith is built, even though I will concede that it may work wonderfully for others. Because I have transitioned away, I have not dove into atheism. I am spiritual, not religious. A happy ground where I am finding meaning in morality, in following the basic teachings of Jesus. I keep my mind open, in that the answer to what would change my mind is evidence.
  10. It has always been hard for me to understand the need of others for physical evidence where the Church is concerned. I received such an overwhelming spiritual experience 32 years ago in answer to my query about the Book of Mormon that I'm sure I don't even get credit for faith anymore. I guess I needed that what with all the terrible heart-wrenching trials I later had to go through in my life. I know hands down I would have left the Church if I had not had such a tremendous, powerful witness. I wish I could give everyone the same gift I received, but it was for me and me alone :(
  11. Great article Mike. I look forward to more in the future. Another good source for LDS study is the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum which -like FAIR- also holds an annual conference in SLC, usually in October. www.BMAF.org
  12. I am a convert to the LDS church. I was desperately seeking truth when the missionaries knocked on my door and told me of Joseph Smith's first vision. It hit me with uncommon force. I knew that I had found what I had hungered and thirsted for all my life. 33 years later, I am still an active member,. I find the Church standards hard sometimes, but I know that standing on higher ground is a process, something that may get easier in the next life. Nonetheless, when I listen to detractors denigrate the Church, I want to shout from the rooftops, "I KNOW that Jesus Christ is the head of the LDS church and is truly the Savior. " I'm not a saint, but I expect that through the Atonement, I can attain all that the Lord promises. I don't need proof because I'm smart enough to know that I'm not that smart.
  13. Timely. When I was active with the youth, we found that those who questioned honestly and thoughtfully tended to develop the deepest testimonies. I'm looking forward to this series. Thank you for your scholarship and faith.
  14. The book "Shaken faith Syndrome" should be required reading for all members especially leadership. As a bishop, we have lost members to the "internet". The internet can make lies look truthful and the truth look like lies. "Shaken faith" addresses all the issues including the questioning of the First Vision as Joseph Smith told it, Lamanite DNA etc. All are "hot" topics now. Most people who leave were not "all in" in the first place. They were looking for an excuse to leave and they did. There testimony was built upon stony ground and it was burned up by the 'internet fire". The Fire of testimony cannot be shaken, by any event. It is based on faith and works.
  15. Elder Eyring gave a talk a few years ago to insitutute teachers- he said basically you treat those who are questioning or doubters as searchers.
  16. Another idea: http://www.fairblog.org/2009/07/13/forays-amongst-the-disaffected-2/
  17. And the real talk: http://www.ldsces.org/inst_manuals/ChargReligEd32686000/Articles/ChargReligEd32686000_10.pdf
  18. Regarding the source of thoughts and feelings in the heart or in the brain. Recent research shows that the ancients may not have been far wrong when they ascribed feelings to the heart. Google "brain in the heart" for some interesting information
  19. Good luck, Tim H., in your rebuilding project.
  20. I welcome your input into how to keep my faith strong, for I seek to ask "help thy my unbelief, inmany things as I continue my spiritual education, so I am giving you a, thanks for your input in advance. .
  21. I am one of the people who was once a very active member of the church, had sincere questions and doubts about different doctrines and historical issues, searched for answers to resolve my doubts from reputable independent historical sources, and came out the other end of my search no longer convinced that the church - and Joseph Smith - was what they claimed to be. LDS apologists were an important part of that transition out of the faith because, in my experience, their arguments were logically flawed and very unconvincing when compared with the large amount of evidence to the contrary. Michael - it will be interesting to see if you bring anything new to the table with your series. I welcome a rational approach to faith, as you suggest, but find the approach rather daunting for someone trying to defend LDS history and doctrine. You really have your work cut out for you. In my experience, apologetics is only convincing to the person already motivated to find faith-promoting answers; people who are willing to overlook inconsistencies and major holes in the arguments. However, for people who just want answers (faith-promoting or not), who can spot logical fallacies when employed, I think the apologist tactics are going to fall short. Lastly, If the church is true, does it even need self-appointed defenders? Won't it stand with or without the apologists work to defend it? If not, then why aren't these "logical" defenses coming from the prophets and apostles who are probably in a better position to answer tough questions?
  22. One problem is that the "outsideers" do not accept the evidence we receive from events that are answers to prayers and the feelings of answers from the Holy Ghost. They must be taught how answers from the Holy Ghost feel. Another problem with science is that many have an agenda and lie about their experimental results. When I explained this to my grandson who said he knew the scientific method did not work, I really enjoyed seeing "the light come on."
  23. I really look forward to this series. Reading the comments above, it's also fascinating that some who say they have left the Church have chimed in. I have to ask myself, "Why are these people reading an article in Meridian Magazine? Are they really as convinced that the Church is not true as they think they are?" No other human being can get into the mind of Joseph Smith. Only he knows for sure the extent to which the stories about him are true. In the end, each of us must decide the answers to such questions for ourselves, because every historical source--whether "independent" or not--has its biases. For those of us who believe in God, He is the only possible source to whom we can appeal for an ultimate answer. And for those who believe, the evidences of the truth of the gospel don't depend solely on what happened in the early 1800's. There have been, and continue to be, marvelous evidences for God's hand in this work for those to choose to see them.
  24. Excellent Article, Michael Ash! I respect those who believe differently. I also respect all other religions...That's why we are here...to learn to make choices in our lives. There are many good people out there...and we all belong to a very loving Heavenly Father who loves us no matter what. Does the LDS church need defending? No, it doesn't. I think the members are just trying to help the world better understand the LDS Church. And in a way...it helps the members learn too.
  25. I enjoyed reading everyone's comments and am pleased that the discourse here seems to be cordial and respectful. I'd like to share my viewpoint on one of the final question raised by William L (read his post above). William L asks '... if the church is true, does it even need self-appointed defenders? Won't it stand with or without the apologists work to defend it?' My view is that the Church as a whole doesn't need apologists, but many of the individuals who make up the Church do. A core LDS doctrine is that the work of the Lord will succeed no matter what. As members of the Church, however, our choices can make it easier or more difficult for those around us to choose the right at this particular moment. The work of the Lord won't be saved by rational arguments because it doesn't need saving. But many individual members who are currently wavering in their testimonies can be bolstered by the work of apologists and scholars. Also, this is not directly relevant to William L's comments, but, as pointed out in the article, the purpose of this rational study is not only to defend testimony. The pursuit of all truth is, as I understand it, a divine command. In conclusion: no, the Church doesn't need self-appointed defenders, and yes, it will stand with or without the work of apologists, but the apologists' work may still benefit many people, and I feel that their efforts are worthwhile.
  26. Please do not make the paragraphs any longer as suggested in one comment.. Those of us with older eyes have more trouble following the long lines, especially with the glare of the pc, or lighted monitor.
  27. Wouldn't the scripture below be an argument for the validity of the apologist approach? The scripture, to me, implies that receiving a testimony is easier for some people than others (why? I don't understand!) To me, it says that those who have a testimony and those who do not should be communicating--and that we all come out better for it. We are in this together: I would like to emphasize the "that all may be profited thereby" and the "believe on their words" phrases. D&C 46:11-14 "For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. "To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. "To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. "To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful." I know this doesn't speak of a testimony of the LDS church, but I believe it also applies.
  28. I am glad someone is doing this VERY necessary subject as a column. I have watched many friends leave the church, and have heard every reason why they went against the church when they were actually searching for more testimony, trying to be a better Christian, and the internet led them to things they could not accept. Now that "The Joseph Smith Papers" are published, they think they have even more fuel against the church, but they have not convinced me. I just hope to keep other doubters in the church.
  29. @Thelma: Apparently the software for logging the comments eliminates paragraphs. You'll notice there aren't paragraphs in any of the comments. When I wrote mine I included several paragraph breaks, but when it was published they were all gone.
  30. I agree completely with William L. My story is just about like his. I note some comments about people who say many members are "just looking for an excuse to leave the church." Well, I was a convert and was an active member for over 40 years. Except for temple missionaries, my wife and I attended the temple more than any other members in our last ward, and the temple was a four and a half hour trip. I once lived on an island where we would take a lengthy ferry trip and then drive 60 miles to the temple, often having to spend a night in the back of a canopied pickup. I served as an EQ President, stake missionary several times, and was called to be a Seventy. We even adopted our only child through the church, so I would say that I was not eager to "get out". Over the years, I began having more questions, but home teachers and leaders would tell me, "Don't have questions, brother, just have faith. After you die all the answers will be given to you." Even after I stopped attending, well-meaning "once friends" did not come up to me to help me find answers to my questions. I wrote down some 60 questions that had bothered me in 40 years and told many "friends" that I had such, but absolutely no one came forth to help me in my "faith crisis". Why, I wondered? Earlier in my questioning, our bishop asked all ward members to read the BoM, so my wife and I did as we were admonished, and as President Hinkley had advised several years previous. But this time, rather than using old institute manuals and other apologetic materials for my references, I decided to use only the Spirit. I read each line very carefully. I continued on into the D & C and by then I had many, many unanswered questions. I had read many of Denver Snuffer books and enjoyed then, so when "Passing The Heavenly Gift" came out, I purchased it and began reading. Here I found answers to many of my questions, but as I read I wondered if more reading in sources which he used would help me even more. They did, but each time I would find answers I didn't want to find. I prayed about what I found and I felt that I was reading the truth. Earlier in my questioning, the internet was not available, and since I couldn't afford to purchase all of the Journal of Discourses or had access to the Joseph Smith Papers Project, I would just put my questions "on a shelf". With the internet, I could read all those materials I couldn't before. Also I was able to locate an 1830 copy of the BoM and an 1835 copy of the D & C which had many startling differences. And, the two above books came from a museum that was dedicated by President McKay. I stayed away from anti-Mormon literature. If members would like to know why questioners drop out of the church, they need to view the power point presentation found on Mormon Stories. This will tell them the 5 myths believed to be the reasons why people drop out. This presentation was made from a poll of some 3000 people who dropped out. It gives the main reasons why this happens. This should stop some of the speculation, but since this was not put out by FAIR, many members will shy away from it. This is one of the reasons, I dropped out---I felt I could read anything I wanted, as long as it was on the approved list, and as my wife just noted, "that list changed dramatically from what it was 40 years ago."

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