Not guilty vs innocent
Since the organization of the Church in 1830, some form of the question “Is the Church true?” has been prevalent among proponents and detractors alike. While much can be said to directly answer the question, much can also be said about nature of the question itself. This post demonstrates why believing the Church is “not true,” or not believing the Church is “true,” does not necessarily mean believing the Church is “false” or worthy of abandoning faith.
Imagine the following fictional conversation between two critics of the Church we shall call Simon and Peter:
Simon: I’ve just been speaking with a friend who asked me to provide a good argument that the LDS Church is false.
Peter: Oh right, how did you get on?
Simon: I couldn’t do it. Everything I raised was contended with good counter evidence, many that I hadn’t heard before.
Peter: OK, so what now?
Simon: Well there isn’t one reason to think it’s false so I guess it’s true. I’m going to start attending each week.
Now this doesn’t usually happen and it’s obvious that something is wrong. Just because Simon couldn’t demonstrate the LDS Church was false, it doesn’t necessarily mean he should believe that the Church is true. We would rightfully expect Simon to be troubled by his experience but not to start attending Sunday services.
But look what happens when we flip this on its head, now imagine two believing members of the Church in a similar conversation:
Simon: I’ve just been speaking with a friend who asked me to provide a good argument that the LDS Church is true.
Peter: Oh right, how did you get on?
Simon: I couldn’t do it. Everything I raised, was contended with good counter evidence, many that I hadn’t heard before.
Peter: OK, so what now?
Simon: Well there isn’t one reason to think it’s true so I guess it’s false. I’m going to stop attending each week.
Again, something is wrong but we do see this in our own experience. Sadly this is an argument from ignorance, which is a logical fallacy and occurs when something is believed to be false simply because it has not been shown to be true (or vice versa).
So let’s explore a little more why this is a problem.
In everyday language we use the words “not true” and “false” interchangeably, but they are actually distinct. Usually the distinction doesn’t get us into trouble, but in this situation it may prove highly problematic. Imagine risking eternal salvation based on an error in logic!
The key point to remember is that something that is “not true,” is not necessarily “false.” This would constitute a false dichotomy, meaning that only two options are presented but in reality there are more than two options available. The condition “not true” is a negation of “true,” but also encompasses other conditions in addition to “false.”
To put it another way:
- Something “true” is clearly “not false”, but something that is “not true” is not necessarily “false” – for example it may be unknown or nonsensical
- Something “false” is clearly “not true”, but something that is “not false” is not necessarily “true” – for example again, it may be unknown or nonsensical
This principle is demonstrated in a courtroom, where a case is presented to the judge and the jury for them to evaluate whether the person accused is “guilty” or “not guilty.” This is done by setting a threshold for guilt, such as “beyond reasonable doubt.” In the context of a courtroom, it is important to note:
- The judge and jury are not deciding between “guilty” and “innocent.” They are looking to see if there is enough evidence to consider them “guilty,” or else consider them “not guilty.”
- If the person is found to be “not guilty” they are not found to be “innocent,” they were already presumed innocent as a matter of principle before the hearing. It would require another case to evaluate the evidence as to whether the person is actually “innocent” or “not innocent.”
- A person could theoretically be found “not guilty” and then found “not innocent!”
Usually faithful members of the Church when called upon to give reasons or an argument that the Church is true, in addition to a spiritual witness, might include things such as:
- The visions of Joseph Smith
- The hundreds of statements by the Book of Mormon witnesses
- The complexity and beauty of the Book of Mormon
However after reading material that challenges these reasons, members may feel they are left without any compelling reason or argument and potentially doubt their own experience of the Spirit. Even if they previously had many reasons for belief, if each one fails then a problem arises. As atheist-turned-deist Anthony Flew once said:
“If one leaky bucket will not hold water there is no reason to think that ten can” (1)
So what should be remembered if you no longer feel you have a compelling or sufficient reason to believe that the Church is true?
The first thing to remember is that your threshold for truth is naturally subjective. Regarding levels of confidence, John Welch has observed:
How much evidence do we need in order to draw a certain conclusion? Answering this question is another choice that combines and bridges faith and evidence.
…a survey conducted in the Eastern District of New York among ten federal judges determined that the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” ranged from 76 percent to 95 percent certainty (although most were on the high end of this range). “Clear and convincing evidence” covered from 60 percent to 75 percent. Obviously, a degree of subjectivity is again involved in deciding what level of certitude should be required or has been achieved in a given case.
…In a religious setting, no arbiter prescribes or defines the level of evidence that will sustain a healthy faith. All individuals must set for themselves the levels of proof that they will require… Few people realize how much rides on their personal choice in these matters and that their answer necessarily originates in the domain of faith. (2)
The second thing to remember is that two people can fully agree on the evidence but come to different conclusions based on their assumptions and expectations of what a true Church would look like. From a Church historian’s perspective, Davis Bitton has said:
What’s potentially damaging or challenging to faith depends entirely, I think, on one’s expectations, and not necessarily history. Any kind of experience can be shattering to faith if the expectation is such that one is not prepared for the experience.
…One moves into the land of history, so to speak, and finds shattering incongruities which can be devastating to faith. But the problem is with the expectation, not with the history (3).
The third and most important thing to remember is that irrespective of your level of confidence and your expectations, no longer believing the Church is true is not the same as believing the Church is false (remember the courtroom analogy of “not guilty” and “innocent”). Flip the question around and see if you believe that the Church is false. To say that the Church is false, is a positive statement that carries a rather heavy burden of proof.
If you believe the Church is false, then this would most likely include the Book of Mormon too. You would need to believe there is a good explanation for:
With the above in mind, it would be difficult to honestly conclude the Book of Mormon is false. Dan Peterson at the FairMormon conference in 2016 said that:
…the alternative explanations just don’t work and they get more and more complex and it’s just too much for me, and so I’ve said sometimes that I simply don’t have the faith to disbelieve Joseph Smith’s story. I just can’t get there. I can’t do it. And I’ve tried. I’ve really tried… (4).
Again, from Church historian Davis Bitton:
Let’s get one thing clear. There is nothing in church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the church is false. There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the Latter-day Saint historians who know the most about our church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the church. More precisely, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who know as much about this subject as any anti-Mormon or anyone who writes on the subject from an outside perspective. In fact, with few exceptions, they know much, much more. They have not been blown away. They have not gnashed their teeth and abandoned their faith. To repeat, they have found nothing that forces the extreme conclusion our enemies like to promote (5).
This consideration could very likely put the person in a limbo period, and in terms of the courtroom analogy, somewhere between “not guilty” and “not innocent.”
As shown above, no longer believing the Church is true, is not concluding the Church is false or necessarily worthy of abandoning faith. In the same way a critic would still need a positive reason to believe the Church is true, a member should still need a positive reason to believe the Church is false.
In many cases, potential reasons for believing the Church is false are based on our own expectations of God or the Church, such as “A true Church would not allow (or be permitted to allow) XYZ to happen, but XYZ did happen.” When we examine our assumptions and expectations, we may see that some are quite questionable. Even our opinion of sufficient conditions for the Church being false may be questionable.
In summary, if there are things you have come across which challenge your testimony, it is likely that there are still things to come across which would strengthen your testimony, such as over 200 KnoWhys from Book of Mormon Central or 80 evidences supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith from Michael R. Ash.
Ultimately faith is a choice and we can choose to be faithful, or choose not to be faithful, to the light that we have been given, remembering the promise that:
…he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. (D&C 50:24)
I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church
Recommended reading – Positive evidence for Mormonism