If there is a despicable character on the face of the earth, it is an apostate from this Church. He is a traitor who has deceived his best friends, betrayed his trust, and forfeited every principle of honor that God placed within him. - Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:58
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Questions on matters of religion may be the most important that anyone can ask in their lives. These questions touch on every aspect of our existence. Is there a God? What can this being do? What specific attributes does this being have? Did this God cause my existence? Most important, and hardest to answer, is, "What does God expect of me?"
I used to think I had the answers to all those questions. I was raised as a devout Mormon, and over the years I came to believe that the LDS Church was God's own truth, that the prophet and president of the LDS Church spoke as the authoritative representative of God, and that the Book of Mormon was another testament of Christ, dealing with an ancient race who once inhabited the Americas.
I was wrong.
When I joined the military, I did what every good Mormon kid was supposed to. I worked extra hard, accepted duties without complaining, became a friend to everyone, and scoped the barracks for prostelytes like some sort of serial killer. This activity always got me into interesting discussions with people of different faiths, and they often asked very difficult questions.
Since the LDS Church was, of course, completely true, I knew for a fact that answers to these difficult questions would be easy to obtain. When that failed, I changed tactics and started steering the conversations to questions my opponent couldn't answer. It was frustrating, to say the least, and I chided myself for not being a better student in Seminary.
After completing Basic Training, I got a week off to head home. I was scheduled to get my patriarchial blessing . I'd heard a lot of stories in my seminary class about amazing patriarchial blessings (though not this amazing). So I was expecting something earth shattering, which would bring profound insight into my life. Instead, I got my brother's blessing.
No, really. My brother got his patriarchial blessing from the same geezer, and whole sections of it were word for word the same (though not all of the sections were in the same order). The biggest difference I could find between them was that, while my brother would live to see the second coming, I was only promised that I would see many of the prophecies leading up to the resurrection fulfilled. According to the Church, this had already happened. I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
I was eventually given my very first book of anti-Mormon literature by a fellow barracks rat. I immediately homed in on two painfully weak arguments, which I flogged to death with much glee. Confident that the rest of the book would be so chock full of the same sort of mistakes, and would immediately discredit itself, I borrowed it for my four hour fireguard shift.
Those had to be the most difficult four hours of my life. Joseph Smith wrote different, contradictory first vision accounts?  No archaeology to back up the Book of Mormon's claims?  Changes, not just in spelling and grammar, but in the meaning of passages in the Book of Mormon?  It was all too much for me. Why had I spent four years of studying in LDS Seminary? If in those years, the issues were never addressed, did that mean that the answers weren't there? Or did it mean that my teachers wanted to shelter me from the "complexities" of LDS doctrine? I didn't know, I was afraid to find out, and I was sick to my stomach.
Further "evidence" that the LDS faith was false came from a rather interesting source. One of my protestant friends in the barracks got sick of arguing over points of scripture, and decided on a much faster, more empirical method of sorting truth from error. Trial by combat. We would arm-wrestle over it. Now, he outweighed me by a good eighty pounds, and had biceps that no amount of illegal steroids would allow me match. But, he reassured me, size differences didn't matter. If God found my cause just, he would allow me to overcome.
Obviously, I was crazy for thinking that this somewhat farcical test would settle anything. But I was in a bit of a double-bind. If I accepted, I was basically asking for a sign, which every major religion calls a no-no. But were I to refuse, I would be showing a lack of faith in my beliefs and my God. After all, with the Lord, all things are possible. Between these two competing philosophies, I finally decided to participate, but not to take it seriously. Just goes to show how weak my faith really was, I guess.
We entered the day room, squared off across the table, and assumed the position. Four or five of the guys in the barracks were interested in the outcome of the contest, and surrounded us. "All right," my friend said, "on the count of three. One. . . Two. . . THREE!"
I put all my strength into it. "C'mon, at least try," he warned me. "You're fighting for your God." I redoubled my efforts, but I couldn't budge his hand. Finally, with a look of resignation, he began pushing my hand towards the table.
"O' Lord," he called out as he held my hand an inch above the surface, "I thank thee for the strength which thou hast given me, that I may be an instrument in thy hands, and show Private Anderson the falseness of his beliefs." He slammed my hand into the table, then ran from the room triumphantly shouting, "I killed Anderson's god! I killed Anderson's god!" I was close on his heels, demanding a rematch. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.
Finally, I left the constraining confines of Fort Sam Houston for the more serene life of On-Job Training at Fort Carson, Colorado. PT (physical training) was done during work hours, inspections and duties were minimal, and for most of my stay, I had a room to myself. I also had plenty of free time for the first time in over a year, and there was a library within five minutes walking distance. I vowed to make myself an expert on all things religious.
What impressed me the most about my study was that there were threads of similarity that wove through every major religion. For example, every religion has an injunction against asking for signs. They all have stories which are meant to demonstrate that the will of their gods is almost impossible to fathom. Most importantly, all are based on spiritual experiences which are, except in the most general sense, mutually contradictory.
I've been asked what I would do if an angel of the Lord came down and proclaimed to me that the LDS Church was entirely true. Would I reject that experience? I probably would. I certainly couldn't expect anyone else to be bound by it, any more than I can be obligated to believe the spiritual experiences of Joseph Smith, or Mohammed, or Mary Baker Eddy. To claim that my own hypothetical experience had some objective validity, I would have to ignore many claims by many honest and devout people whose experiences differed from my own. The alternatives are twofold: I can reject all experiences outright, or decide that all are tapping into the same mystical source. I didn't like the second option, because when all is said and done, you end up with a rather nebulous concept of the divine, and there doesn't appear to be an objective way to scrutinize it or gain insights into it. After all, from this viewpoint, most of the details worked out by different religious traditions stem from some sort of misinterpretation of divine will.
So I reject religious experiences altogether. This isn't the same as calling those who claim to have had such experiences frauds. Quite the contrary, I accept the fact that religious experiences, whatever their source, can deeply affect people, for better and for worse. To accept any one experience as valid is to reject large portions of anything which disagrees in any particular with that experience, and in order to accept the generalities of every experience, you have to reject all their specifics. From my vantage, it is possible to recognize the power of these experiences, while recognizing that their source is entirely internal.
So, my current belief could best be described as "militant agnosticism." I don't know if there is a God, and quite frankly you don't either. If there is, there is no external evidence to demonstrate that such a God is aware of or interested in our existence. It took me a while to become comfortable with the ramifications of this concept. By my nature, I prefer having someone tell me what to do with my life, and it was hard to accept that nobody, myself included, could honestly know what was best for me. But the opportunity to try and find out is the most valuable thing a person can have, and the one thing that makes life worthwhile.
1 - For those not familiar with LDS culture, a patriarchial blessing is
like a set of instructions, revealed by God through some wheezing codger, that tells a young
man or woman how to conduct the rest of their lives. There's also a part of the blessing where
you discover your lineage, which isn't really a big deal since just about everyone is proclaimed
to be descended from the tribe of Ephraim anyways.
by Bryce Anderson