Here is part two of my series on "Shaken Faith Syndrome," the book by Michael Ash. I was asked to read by my parents, but I must admit that I am having a hard time continuing to read this book. It is just so inane on so many levels. Let me dive into why that is.
He presents a lot of narrative, but is very light on justification. He seems to just want you to accept what he says as an expert testimony. In the end, it turns this into a compelling book for someone with one or two small questions, not someone well studied in all of the problems. Someone who is just looking for a quick-fix justification to solve their problems, not someone who is deeply intellectually disturbed by what they have read about mormonism and is going out of their way to identify where the answers lay in an objective manner.
He gets off to a great start. One order of ad hominem attack mixed with a side of unsupported argumentation. All of chapter 2 is a rant against ex-mormons. Which is interesting in and of itself. What place does a rant like that have in a book about keeping the faith?
Anyway, back to his attack.
Ash starts with accusing ex-mormons of obsession and going through "dissonance management." He goes through a long and drawn out explanation showing how formulaic ex-mormon exit stories are. His study (and his analysis) seem to ignore the plethora of confounding variables that exist (like one obvious one, how about they are all the same because of the one common denominator: the teachings of the LDS church). He makes the mistake of assuming that because he has found a formula (I will not go into whether or not it actually is true), that must mean that they are all unfounded. Which is a ridiculous notion right out of the gate.
One thing is obvious. Ash does not understand the ex-mormon community. In fact, few LDS faithful do. I would assert that they do not WANT to understand them (I have seen this in my own family by my sister completely rejecting me for perceived offenses, thinking I sent anti-mormon links, when I sent her a link to an apologetic website). I believe that this stems from a fear of their being right or having found some "silver bullet" that will ruin all testimonies. They don't want to hear it. If Ash and his colleagues want to be taken seriously anywhere but with strict LDS adherents, they need to spend the time to understand the dissenters, instead of trying to trivialize and vilifying them. If they were to spend this time in understanding, their works would gain a great deal of veracity and force.
One side note, he seems to be setting himself up as an expert on human psychology, but he is making amateurish mistakes, it is kind of embarrassing to watch.
Even looking past the pompous overestimation of the quality of his own work at FAIR (see middle paragraph on page 23), the fact that he likes to throw around titles of "LDS researchers" (without specifying their field of study, which is important when identifying the validity of their research/claims) while disparaging "anti-mormons" for doing the same, the overly pompous and arrogant tone (phrases like "Attempts to correct their misunderstanding of science are often met with evasiveness and hostility" page 24 come to mind), and his myopic view of open-mindedness (to be open-minded is to agree with Mormonism, anything else is closed-minded), his rhetoric simply falls flat. He simply seems to be out to dehumanize ex-mormons. If you can discredit them as people, then all of the sudden it becomes easier to get LDS faithful to discredit their truth-claims. This is a simple trick that many mass manipulators like to use (see anyone trying to sell you a product, a political idea, or a religious philosophy).
The other part of chapter 2 seems to be a drawn out justification of his job at FAIR, does that mean he feels insecure about it?
That aside, he has this consistent need to reiterate that ex-mormons leave because of their "overly fundamentalist views." He asserts that we need to be more loose about our mormonism (my words, not his). The big problem is that mormonism loses all effectiveness and purpose once you remove what he calls "fundamentalist" views. This is his downfall. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting all of Mormon revelation, prophets, and scripture, all within a few short paragraphs. Better than any anti-mormon could have done in a whole book.
He explains (after the manner of mansplaining) that prophets are really just men. We can't expect them to be perfect (false dichotomy), but that they are just like the rest of us. There is a quorum of prophets in order to decide unanimously on policy, if they all agree, then that means the holy spirit has spoken. He asserts that what the prophets say is not doctrine, doctrine only comes from the scriptures (OT, NT, BoM, D&C), anything other than that was said by men, and is perfect, they can just as easily be wrong. He makes a drawn out point of showing that prophets are influenced by their local circumstances, culture, environment, etc. That we should expect cultural biases (such as those against blacks and women) to be natural for men of their times, and not disturbing. Therefore what they say doesn't have to come from God, it can just as easily be their own invention. This throws out prophets as a reliable mechanism for learning.
The only mechanism we are given to determine this is the people. The church (in democratic method, I guess?) determines what is doctrine, the holy spirit confirming to each and every one of us whether something said is doctrinal or not. This leaves the individual as the highest authority, not the leadership (so why would we need prophets, scriptures, church, etc. when the spirit is the only thing that can teach truth?), but this also ignores the fact that people will receive differing inspiration from the spirit on what is doctrine. This throws out the spirit as a reliable mechanism for learning.
Once we realize, thanks to Ash's own reasoning, that we cannot rely on prophets (we can only rely on them to not lead us from God, he makes it clear on that regard, but he fails to demonstrate any guarantee that prophets will actively leads us TOWARD God), it only follows logically that the scriptures can't be trusted. They were written by prophets, who are fallible men who aren't special in the "speaking for God" department. Thus, the scriptures all suffer from the same unreliability and fallibility as the prophets themselves do. This throws out the scriptures as a reliable mechanism for learning.
With all three of those gone, Michael Ash has single-handedly, and within the course of a few paragraphs, thrown out all of Mormon epistemology. I.e. there is no way to learn or know anything within the context of mormonism. With that, mormonism is completely thrown out the window. With that, this book is now trash, and I can move on with my life.
Not so fast. It is obvious that he is wrong, and that we need to hold prophets to some standard, they need to be better than normal men in some way. The scriptures need to be directed by God's hand, as do prophetic utterances, as does the spirit. In short, there needs to be specific, objective measures in determining what is and isn't doctrinal.
I would love to have someone present what that is, but Michael Ash would dismiss that notion as "fundamentalist," but I just went through why that is problematic reasoning. Even if my argument about the spirit not being reliable is wrong, that means that the spirit is the only reliable means of learning, and that we can just figure out ways to learn from ourselves and the spirit, on our own. Why waste time at church learning about pioneer history, canning, home teaching, and missionary work?
Ignoring the whole problem with prophets that Ash has created (because, if we don't, this whole exercise is futile anyway), we can move on to some of his specific claims.
He says that prophets aren't infallible, nor should we expect them to be. I honestly have only seen very few people who assert that prophets are infallible, we know this, his statements to the contrary are an obvious strawman argument.
In reality, the expectation is that prophets have some above average spirituality and righteousness, would be ahead of the times (he talks to God after all), and be truthful and consistent when it comes to doctrine. These things have all been shown to be false about modern prophets, in fact, many have been among some of the worst men around. Joseph Smith with his Warren Jeffs style polygamy. Brigham Young with that and a large dose of church sanctioned murder on top of that. Gordon B. Hinkley with blatant lies about doctrine on camera and later confessed to church members (see the whole incident surrounding "I don't know that we teach that"). We don't expect infallibility, but we do expect "God's chosen prophet" to be better than the average member, most of the average members don't struggle with lying about doctrine on camera, sleeping with their friend's wives (or 14 year old daughters), or murdering those that disagree with them.
Sidenote: I especially like the phrase "While the Word of God may contain errors..." - page 41. Every Christian would go apoplectic if they were to hear that. If God's word isn't perfect, what's the point of having an "all powerful, all knowing, perfect being" tell us anything? How can we know he is doing the telling? Silly thing to say, on Ash's part.
Sidenote: They seem to rely on their readership's ignorance. Ash consistently mentions that "anti-mormons take quotes out of context." But he never provides any examples, and I have rarely seen this done. In reality, I believe that this preys on people's lack of time to go back and read original sources. Many that read this will think to themselves "I haven't looked back at any of the original sources, maybe it would make sense in context?" I don't see how taking things like murdering apostates and adulterers, castrating young men to marry their fiances, or marrying 14 year old girls (the justification for this is that that was common marrying age, I have seen stats that would argue that the average marrying age was early twenties back then) can be put into a context that makes them okay. But maybe I have a "faulty" moral compass, who knows, maybe one of Ash's prophets that can't prophesy can tell me.
Finally, this brings me to chapter 4 (which is short, so bear with me), which is on doctrine versus tradition. He tries to make a distinction between that which is taught to be doctrine, and that which is believed to be doctrine. In my mind, this is a faulty premise. Doctrine and prophets' speaking has a causal relationship with tradition. Granted, some traditions are created by people who start doing things on their own, but the majority of what is done as tradition is the fault of the prophets themselves. Therefore, when we are determining the likelihood that prophets are authentic, it makes sense to examine the culture that their speakings and teachings have created, in addition to studying the ephemeral doctrines (that change as convenient or popular). In this light, prophets don't really appear quite as authentic. I guess you could call this a more hermeneutic approach to the doctrine versus tradition discussion, but I think it more accurately represents what is going on.
As a final note, I want to cover Ash's example of prophets believing in the earth being flat. Ash pulls this ridiculous notion out of thin air that "past prophets believed the earth was flat, but we don't hold that as doctrine." First off, we have zero proof of this. Second, even if prophets did believe it, it is irrelevant to the conversation. No prophet talks about a flat earth, nor did they ever teach it as doctrine. It is silly on Ash's part to assume that we believe that all beliefs of prophets are doctrinal. What we hold prophets to is what they utter AS DOCTRINE. When prophets talk about the need to murder people by spilling their blood for them to repent, or that God and Adam are the same person, and they teach this as doctrine, then we have begun to find evidence against their being authentic prophets of God. Not when we have something silly like "prophets believed in a flat earth." Nice try, Ash, but you need proof of that, and then you need to demonstrate why it is relevant. You have done neither.
Thanks for reading. I will keep working my way through this mess of words that likes to parade as a book, and will keep posting about my "misadventures."