Adventures in online Mormonism. Or, my search for Truth.
This is a trip down memory lane, with some conclusions about the nature of truth.
I recently decided to archive and forget my old Mormon-related web sites. AmberAle asked me for some dates regarding when they were created. This led to a stream of rambling reminiscences. So it seemed like a good idea to post them here, in case anyone else is interested. Nobody is forcing you to read! 🙂
Most of my sites were easily forgettable “anti” sites, but WhyProphets was a little more substantial, and I created it while I still believed. (The link is to an archive of the last version that was all my own work, before David redesigned the site.) It was never a “big” site like Shields or Kerry Shirts’ site, though at its biggest to took over 1,400 pages to print. But it was unique in style and content and attracted a pleasing though modest number of visitors. It’s gone and largely forgotten now, though it is archived on Zarahemla City Limits and elsewhere. So it may be an idea to sketch out its rise and fall while I can still remember some of it.
It all began (off line of course) in 1984 when I began collecting Book of Mormon evidences. I heard so much weak evidence (anecdotes that sounded irrelevent or unlikely) that I wanted to collect just the very best proofs, the items that made me go “wow!” I made notes whenever I read something really interesting, and by 1995 I had a 500 page book called “Proof” that I sent to Deseret Book. It listed items by number – I think there were 380 or something, with tons of footnotes. The footnotes were references to sources that no academic would take seriously (newspaper articles, Nibley, Ensigns, etc.), but they were better than no footnotes at all. It was very amateurish and I don’t even think I got a reply from Deseret. So I revised it to be smaller and easier to read, and eventually put the revised version on line as a download.
Some time around 1994 I heard the most intriguing piece of evidence, that William Smith’s Bible Dictionary (circa 1800) said the last priesthood holder died in AD 570, and adding the famous “1260 year” prophecies the dictionary noted that great things should happen in 1830. The “570 + 1260” prophecies became my main focus until I left the church.
My first day job was in 1992, involving computers, and I kept reading about how the Internet would change the world. I ignored this as empty hype, but in 1996 discovered the Net for myself and found the rumors were true. By 1997 I was online every day and had a Geocities site at Athens/Olympus/570 or something, and soon grabbed the free URL 570.cjb.net. I don’t remember what I called the site, but it may have been something about Book of Mormon Proof, or the year 570, or 101 Bible proofs. At one point the site was built around 101 Bible prophecies of the Book of Mormon, but its heart and soul was always the 570+1260 prophecies. As time went on I added pages on other topics that interested me, mainly about science and prophecy. Within a year I changed the name to “More About Mormons,” modelled after the “All About Mormons” site that was popular at the time. I think that site mainly copied articles from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and has since been taken down for that reason. I liked “All About Mormons” but wanted something that delved into more interesting stuff.
I should also note at this time that I never considered my site to be apologetics, though I eventually accepted the label for convenience. I was never interested in apologetics: it seemed to be an admission of failure. In the words of my missionary trainer, “great truth is to be discovered, not defended!” I figured that if the church was any good, then we needed to uncover the good stuff and shout it from the rooftops. Obviously, if God himself revealed truths that nobody expects, some of these would certainly offend our limited brains. In fact, if the church had nothing offensive then that blandness would be evidence that the church was man made. (Come to think of it, in hindsight this observation may be relevant to Hinckley’s attempts to mainstream the church, but I digress). So I never saw the point in defending the bad stuff. Why should anyone care? If the church can end world poverty (my personal obsession since childhood) and fulfil Bible prophecy and allow personal revelation, the bad stuff would not matter. And if the church could not do those things, the bad stuff wouldn’t matter anyway.
Having said that I had no interest in apologetics, toward the end (2000-2001) I did add a couple of apologetics pages, but that was only because the evidence against the church was becoming overwhelming, and my next step was to give up the site completely.
Before going back to the chronology, I want to mention a couple of other pages on the site that I’m quite proud of. One was an attempt to show that jaguars are referenced in the Book of Mormon. At that time (circa 1996) a member of our branch in England was interested in Carl Jung, and he showed me a photocopied page from an Arabic dictionary, with words that began with the sound “shibl.” He wasn’t saying anything about the Book of Mormon, but just showing that all the definitions fitted perfectly into Jung’s ideas. I can’t even remember what the ideas were now, but he made a very good case. But what really interested me was that Shibl was Arabic for jaguar cub, Shiblon and Shiblum were names in the Book of Mormon, and jaguars were the one motif that was everywhere in Central America but strangely missing from the Nephite record. And Carl Jung’s ideas linked Book of Mormon teachings with ancient Mayan teachings (to my Nibley-trained mind anyway). So I wrote a paper and sent it to FARMS. And heard nothing. Of course I do not speak Arabic, and Daniel C. Peterson does, so I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything, but it seemed to me that the Shibl material was stronger than a lot of the coincidences published by FARMS. Many months later I emailed FARMS and asked if they received that paper. “Yes, we received it” was all I heard. Astute readers will realize by now that the real reason I left the church was that I was offended that they did not publish my stuff. 😉
Another page that I want to mention was my theory abut Noah’s flood being a tsunami. It mattered to me that prophecy and science should be on the same page. We had THE TRUTH, the real life truth, right? We were not like these other blind faith and dead prophets churches, We had prophets who made real prophecies and stood for something. Or so I thought. Anyway, back to Noah. The prophets had made clear that the Bible chronology was at least roughly correct, and that Noah lived on the east coast of America but the ark settled in the Middle East. Pretty astounding claims, so why was nobody looking into this? The evidence was overwhelming that there as NO global flood circa 2300 BC, yet the evidence was also overwhelming that the prophets said there was. It bugged me that this kind of problem did not seem to bother most members of the church. My tsunami theory was scientific in the sense that it was testable. It should be possible to uncover evidence that supports or refutes a major Atlantic tsunami that inundated the east coast of north America circa 2350 BC. Such things are rare, so ought to show up in mud layers or something. Here was a chance to test the prophets, and if the results came out positive then here is an example of prophets making a contribution to science. Ad if the results came out negative, then we should finally accept that prophets can be dead wrong on matters of faith, and adjust our ideas accordingly. But it bothered me that nobody else seemed to care about either the apparent contradictions with science, or the marvellous opportunity to prove we are right. Itâ€™s like deep down we donâ€™t really believe the prophets. As if we are scared to look.
Oh it’s all coming back to me now. I could go on and on. And apparently I already have. 🙂
Another issue that bothered me was “no death before Adam” claim. The popular idea that hominids had no spirits before Adam was just stupid, since they were evidently raising families, worshipping, making music and building cities before Adam was ever on the scene. So I suggested an alternative explanation based the bicameral mind theory that was then popular. Anyway, you get the general idea. I believed that science and Mormonism were in harmony. I even had a page with pro-science quotes. A major turning point was in 2000 or 2001 when Bob McCue (philo) emailed me. He was still a member of the church back then, and he asked me if I was being entirely honest with those quotes. He was right. For every pro-science quote I found, I had to ignore ten anti-science quotes. The church today is NOT pro-science, and it was dishonest to suggest otherwise.
In early 2000 (or maybe late 1999) I was approached by a church member who generously offered to host the site and pay for a proper domain. I can’t remember his name now, but he was very kind. And abrupt. Whenever I emailed, his replies seldom contained more than two words, or three if he was feeling chatty. His main site was on war games or guns or something, so combined with the “can do” attitude and brevity I always imagined him as a stereotypical American army major. Which struck me as interesting since at the time, especially after 9/11, I was also writing some very pinko liberal stuff on GlobalIssues.org But I have nothing but gratitude for his generosity. These days, web space and domains are cheap and easy for anyone to put up, but back then it seemed like a big deal. So anyway, we needed a domain name that was short and snappy. “Why Prophets” seemed to me to sum up the nature and purpose of the site, digging into reasons why prophets were necessary and desirable. Soon after (or about the same time), David Wills offered to help with the site. He didn’t add much content, but put in a huge amount of work in modernizing the look and adding a message board. (The original More About Mormons was coded in Notepad on a 386, with original graphics made in Animator, hence the common 320×200 image size. Even in 1999 this was ancient technology. But it sure loaded fast!)
David also suggested that I publish the site in book form. I wasn’t keen on that, mainly because the ideas were all so tentative, second hand at best, and didn’t prove anything. But one part, the 570-1260 prophecies part, involved a great deal of original research, so to cut a log story short “the Bible Says 1830” was published in 2000. And it was so awful that I quickly rushed out a revised version. The second edition (April 2001 I think) was much better, and I am still very proud of it as a piece of work. I have read a lot of books on prophecy, and (speaking objectively!) I tried to make mine all the things the others were not: full of original work, and using plain and clear dated prophecies straight from the Bible. No secret codes, lunar years, symbolism or other wishy washy nonsense.
The book helped in my apostasy in three big ways. First, it allowed me to sum up all the very best evidence I knew. I could then stand back and look at it and decide if it was enough to convince me. It wasn’t. Second, it illustrated the difference between evidence and proof. The book was packed with evidence, but it was not proof. And third, and most damning, it showed that anyone can prove anything if they try hard enough. Let me expand on that last point.
The first version of the book was based on the 570-1830 prophecies. I examined all seven of the major dated prophecies in the Bible, and compared them with historical events. But it lacked punch. It didn’t grab the reader. I realized that for the second edition I needed something simpler and more direct. So I followed some hunches and leads, and came up with a far more spectacular claim: the Bible that Jesus used stated in black and white that the most important date in history would be exactly six thousand years after Adam, and if you ad up the dates in the Bible that takes you to 1830! All the pieces of the puzzle were presented simply and plainly and backed up (I think) convincingly: the importance of the Book of Enoch to the New Testament, the dates of the kings of Judah, and at the other end of the 6000 years, the role of the year 1830 in the Industrial Revolution. I am very proud of that work . I think it could have had a great deal of mileage. The church is sorely lacking in good Bible prophecies, and if I were still a believer the I think the AD 1830 theory could have gone a long way. At at least as far as John Pratt’s theories anyway. At least my claim made some kind of sense and did not rely on secret codes, weird symbolism and crossed fingers.
So I had stumbled across a great discovery! But what did it really mean? It really meant, gentle reader, that I had worked extremely hard over many years and had tried a thousand different approaches until I found one that worked. I knew in my heart that I could have chosen any date at random and done the same thing. Not with the same prophecies in the same way perhaps, but given enough determination and enough research, any date could appear to be “proven”. I kept coming back to a rude and unfriendly poster who left a message on WhyProphets. He said “You don’t understand what proof means.” I hated that guy. I hated him beause he just dropped in, insulted me and left. But mostly I hated him because he told the truth. All my effort and work, just like the feelings of those who “feel” something is right, they don’t amount to a hill of beans. Proof involves cold hard logic. It is very difficult to obtain in any field. Even science does not deal in proof, except to disprove things. Usually the very best we can do is deal in probabilities. But my religious faith was not even based on that! It was based simply on possibilities, not probabilities. I had no right to use the word Church and True in the same sentence. I had hunted and hunted for evidence and all I had found was a few coincidences, a ton of wishful thinking, and more than a little dishonesty.
Of course, post-Modern Mormons will accept that faith is simply a choice. It “works for them.” It makes them feel good. But for me this approach is immoral. People are starving in this world. There is injustice and torture and famine and war and many serious issues we must face. It is not enough to merely THINK we are doing our best. We must KNOW we are doing our best. We need truth. Mormonism cannot offer truth so if you wish to be moral then you must move on and look elsewhere.
I won’t bore you with the story of how I lost my faith. I’ve posted it in plenty of different places. To finish the story of the web sites, it took about two weeks to change from defending the church on ZLMB to writing a parody of George Orwell’s 1984 on NOM. I think the 1984 thing was the first apostate thing I wrote of any substance, back in early 2002. That seemed to go down well, so I wrote a few more satirical things, then the A to Zelph of Apostasy was my first serious attempt at an apostate web site, followed soon after by “Choose the Right” (first version) both in either 2003 or 2004 I think. Then all the rest. The most recent site was the Top Forty Gordon B. Hinckley Lies (mid 2006?) and since then I pretty much lost interest, for reasons I’ve gone over elsewhere.
AmberAle noted that these sites follow a kind of pattern. I think he is right (he usually is):
Stage 1: Excited interest: For me, this was everything up to about 1997, when everything was still new and I did not feel qualified to pretend to know anything. This stage is characterized by usually poor quality but enthusiastic work. E.g. my “Book of Mormon proof” manuscript.
Stage 2: Checking facts: up to 1999, when I tried to separate proof from wishful thinking. More effort on being complete, checking sources, etc. The web site takes root.
Stage 3: Trying to persuade myself: up to 2000. The WhyProphets site began to look less amateurish, much more content was added. I felt driven to prove something.
Stage 4: Losing interest: 2001. It was a burden. Deep down inside I knew it was all a waste. but could not admit it yet.
Stage 5: The shelf comes crashing down: 2002. (Refering to the analogy of placing your doubts on a shelf for later. Eventually the shelf contains more than the rest of the building, then you know something has to give.) My earliest posts on NOM are among the harshest. They’re mostly not archived, but I think they were among the best, since Mormonism was still fresh for me. The 1984 parody is a good example of this period.
Stage 6: Naive optimism: 2003-2004 sites like “Choose The Right” – I thought that if only I made a postivie and uplifting case, then TBMs would listen and agree. Innocent fool that I was.
Stage 7: Just cataloging the facts: 2005-2006 sites like the Gordon B Hinckley pages, or the “face the facts” page. Just listing the damning evidence. I realized that nobody will be deconverted by this, but it just has to be said!
Stage 8: Moving on. 2007. So long and thanks for all the fish. I come to the DAMU now for the company, not to complain.
And that is that. Those were my adventures in online Mormonism, from beginning to end.
Thanks for listening.
(Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there?)
Thanks for sharing your story, Chris. It is a fascinating read. Too bad that the 1984 spoof is lost.
I am wondering if Top Forty Gordon B. Hinckley Lies isn’t a little harsh. He is just spinning and that’s what CEOs do.
Wow, great story and great journey!!!
It’s amazing how many exit stories these days involve having been an online defender of the faith. It makes me want to break into my usual refrain of “Back in my day, we didn’t have this magical ‘Internet’ for debating Mormonism…” You guys are like the whipper-snappers of apostasy. 😉
The 1984 spoof isn’t lost, but the other early posts are. It’s just that my old exMo web sites were very hard to navigate. It’s all on ZCL and exmormon.org.uk, but cunningly hidden. I would be surprised if one in a thousand people find all the pages I’ve hidden there. 🙂
Regarding the “Hinckley lies” page in my defense I don’t think I used the word “lies” on the pages themselves. I tried (and failed) to be subtle. And I agree that he is spinning, and no doubt believes what he says. But those forty examples are pretty black and white examples of falsehood coming from his lips.
That question often comes up in exMo debates: if someone believes a lie, are they really lying? I tend to think yes, if the person (a) has every reason to know the truth, but (b) willfully ignores the truth.
Actually, we have it on ZCL. Check it out. It’s really great:
“1984,” by Chris Tolworthy