Dear 100 Hour Board,
If evidence were to come to light that irrefutably, undeniably, 100% proved that Joseph Smith was a fraud, the Book of Mormon was manufactured, the church was not inspired (but not an ongoing conspiracy, recent leaders have been acting in good faith), what do you think would be the realistic reaction of church members and leaders? What would they most likely do? What would you do?
Not interested in the "this could never happen" answers, just curious about the alternative hypothetical universe.
My guess is that older people who are more entrenched in the Church would mostly stay, whereas younger people and people who already had questions would leave. There would be a lot of options after leaving--they might join another religion, they might become totally disenfranchised with religion as a whole, they might live a spiritual life without any organized religion from there on out, I don't know. Younger generations tend to be more anti-establishmentarian and have more problems with things like the Church's stance on gay marriage, so if they found out that this wasn't actually being passed down from God, the motivation to stay and try to figure things out would probably go way down and they'd be more likely to peace out.
But I definitely think that the Church's general leadership would almost unanimously stay, because they've already dedicated so much time and effort to the Church, and would probably feel like all the things they've done thus far in good faith are right and good and inspired (otherwise why would they have chosen to do them? Of course they think the decisions they're making are right), so why would they bail out now? We'd probably get a lot of General Conference talks, and maybe even an essay, on something along the lines of, "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and if He saw fit to start this church through a charlatan, at least it led us to the place where we could be inspired to do the things God actually wanted done." Maybe they would eventually shift to talking about the Church as one of many good options, instead of the Only True Church, because our priesthood claim would be on much shakier ground. If Joseph Smith never received the priesthood, then what authority is the Church operating under now?
I've thought a lot about what my personal response to this would be. On the one hand, yeah, if this is made up, what the heck am I doing here? On the other hand, I really like my ward right now, which is remarkably crazy-free, and whether this is The One True Church or not, I get a lot of personal edification from the people there and the comments they make about leading a good life and helping others. So I don't know. There really is a lot of good that the Church teaches and does, and I wouldn't want to give up that good, but it definitely has its fair share of things that don't sit well with me, and I would love to not feel guilty about that. I think with where I'm at right now, I would probably keep attending my ward, but I would be MUCH more free form about it all, and would worry much less about voicing unorthodox beliefs.
Working on the assumption that this really is irrefutable evidence, I have to say I'd leave. I would probably not join a new religion, because, like Alta points out, I'm among the group of people that already has plenty of issues with the organization part of organized religion... So I wouldn't seek out organization elsewhere. I would still believe in God, read the Bible, try to do my best to follow Jesus and be more Christlike... though I'm sure there are many things that would change about my beliefs. I don't think that I would be angry, because I can acknowledge the good things that the Church does do... but without any of the revealed truths from prophets, there's not really anything that you can't have with other religions... or just by trying to live a good life.
I do know for a fact that the more zealous members (therefore including leaders) would choose to stay and would deny any 'evidence' as true. Sometimes it's better to live like that because it's less painful than changing everything about your worldview. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because the Church - whether or not it is proved to be true - does help motivate people to do good things and work at being better. So that's alright.
I'm sure it would cause a lot of distress among families of varying involvement, much like siblings/daughters/sons/etc. leaving the Church already is difficult for many families. In other words, not much would change, except for that with actual undeniable proof, the more fringe members, those with more substantial doubts, etc. would leave instead of choosing to stay and continue working on understanding things.
Warning to everyone: I'm a bit bitter about life and the church right now, so I can't keep up my "even though I don't believe, everything about the church is great!" face. This is a fantastic question and I want to answer it honestly. If you take offense at my answer, I'm sorry, but I do think my position gives me a unique perspective to answer this question and some people might really be interested in this answer.
So you're basically describing my beliefs! Yay! I'll spare you all the details, but this is something I've come to believe and (sometimes) talk to friends and family members about. I do my utmost best to not share too much with them, because being ripped out of your worldview is extremely painful. So when I do tell an active friend or family member I've left the church (and that's hardly been anyone; most people don't know), I'm careful to say, "there's specific reasons and evidence as to why I left the church, but I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable so I won't share anything with you if you don't want to hear it."
Some people, such as my mom and brother, have actively asked me to not share details with them so I don't. Some, like my dad and some of my friends, want to discuss this further with me (to show me how Satan is deluding me). And the way they react is the exact same way most members would react by finding this information:
They would find a way to make it work with their beliefs or just ignore it and carry on.
Mental gymnastics are real. Cognitive dissonance is real. There would be a few who would leave, but I think the majority would just put their heads down and continue going to church. Not all would continue believing, but for fear of their family's judgment, or to not get kicked out of BYU, or to not lose their church employment, or keeping their marriage together (some leaders encourage members whose spouses stop believing to divorce them. To divorce them), they would keep attending church. Some would keep attending because, although the Church isn't true, they believe it has a good influence in their lives and helps them or their families make good choices. True believing members would absolutely stay members, while those on the fence would be more likely to leave.
Despite this, a lot of people would still believe. Just like some people today believe the earth is flat, or that the moon landing was a hoax, or that lizard people control the world leaders, there will still be people who believe the church is true. And honestly I think many of the leaders would fall into this camp. Why? Because they've given so much and sacrificed so much that to find the organization they essentially gave their lives for is untrue (especially considering the suicides they've caused by their LGBTQ policies or the pain and abuse caused by youth interviews)...their options are to reject the evidence and keep believing, or accept the evidence and realization that their actions caused people to take their own lives (which would cause a lot of mental and emotional pain, which our brain tries to avoid, hence making this a very unlikely option). Take what Elder Holland said during a devotional in 2016:
I am so furious with people who leave this church. I don’t know whether furious is a good apostolic word. But I am. What on earth kind of conviction is that? What kind of patty-cake, taffy-pulled experiences is that? As if, as if none of this ever mattered; as if nothing in our contemporary life mattered; as if this was all just supposed to be just exactly the way I want it? And answered every one of my questions – and pursue this and occupy that – and defy this and then maybe I’ll be a later-day Saint. Well, there’s too much Irish in me for that. This church means everything to me. Everything. I don’t care what happens; I don’t care what price has to be paid, as painful as that can be; and as much as I don’t want to invite the test as much as I don’t want to sound arrogant, or self-confident, or filled with any kind of pride other than the love of the Lord – this church means everything to me. And I’m not going to leave it. And I'm not going to let you leave it.
Would someone who delivered that impassioned speech be swayed by evidence? If the price to be paid is to ignore evidence - especially if that means continuing to believe that all those horrible things you did were in God's name were because of God's commands and not because of you - can anyone doubt these people will not pay that price?
There are so, so many examples of people faced with evidence who turn it down because of their feelings or beliefs. One of the saddest is domestic abuse. Why do so many women and men stay in abusive situations, even when it's become so clear and obvious that the situation is abusive and anyone watching from the outside is pleading for them to leave? Because of their love for their spouse. Because they've given so much for the relationship. Because they think it'll get better. Unfortunately it isn't, but while those on the outside are yelling evidence and statistics to show that the abuse is going to just get so much worse, these men and women hunker down in these abusive relationships and hold onto their beliefs about their spouse and their relationship.
There is another, but far less likely option. It is best told by Brandon Sanderson's short story told by Wit in one of the Way of Kings books. (Small aside: I spent five minutes looking for this story online before I remembered where it came from and realizing I probably wouldn't find it online.) It tells of an adventurer who found an island full of people who, though seemingly hospitable, thoughtlessly killed anyone who stumbled or made a mistake. Shocked, the adventurer asked why they did such a horrible thing, and they replied that it was not their fault, but done under the direction of their leader, who lived in a tower. The adventurer set out to talk to this leader and, upon breaking into the leader's room, found that the leader had been dead for many years. As the adventurer sailed away, he saw the island being set to flame as the people revolted, horrified of the actions they had taken themselves and of the many murders they had committed.
This is the alternative. Understanding the judgments we cast on others, child abuse ignored and protected, suicides caused by our LGBTQ policies, women suffering under the thought of eternal polygamy, money taken from the poor, family members shunned for leaving the faith, and realizing that these actions were not directed by a god but rather by our own judgmental and prejudiced views...can you understand why those islanders stood horrified at the actions they had taken themselves?
I've already faced a bit of that. I'm horrified at the views I had towards LGBTQ individuals in high school, especially looking back and remembering that I argued that it was wrong and immoral to be gay with my friend who a year later came out as gay. I'm horrified by the judgments I cast on girls and women who wore shorts I thought were too short and dresses that didn't properly cover their shoulders. When on my mission I told my companion that the less-active member we were teaching, who was struggling with issues that I face now, was only less-active because he was lazy or sinning, because those were the only reasons anyone would ever leave the church. The pain and regret I face, and that we will all face individually and collectively, will be enormous.
What would I do? Be there for my family members and friends who do leave the church. It's hard. It takes a long time to recover. Having someone there who has been through that and can just hold you while you cry is so important. I would make myself available to those who need help.
Overall though, I think the church would continue on as it currently does. We might get an extra church essay out of it, membership would fall, and there would be more policies enacted to make the church more palatable (maybe more temple changes, or shorten church to 1 hour, or give women the priesthood, or revoke more anti-LGBTQ policies). We might even slowly change the language of "one true church" to "just a really great church", just as we're changing "translation" to mean "revelation" when it comes to the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon. But besides that, it would really stay the same.
-guppy of doom
For context, I am not active in the Church at the moment. I don't have any strong feelings about it in either direction, however I do believe in a lot of its teachings about deity. For example, I believe that God is our loving Father, that one way to be a good person is to emulate Christ, and that the vast majority of people will be rewarded in heaven.
When considering this question, I realized that the Book of Mormon being fraudulent wouldn't bother me as much as perhaps it ought to. In my view, while the Book of Mormon is an interesting history of those seeking to follow God, it doesn't introduce modern doctrine the way the Doctrine and Covenants does. So finding out that the supposed prophets behind it were fraudulent would shake my faith and force me to redefine my beliefs about deity. I don't think I would lose my belief in God, but I would have a lot more trust issues.
Since I'm not active anyway, not much would change in my day-to-day life. But I would probably never volunteer that I had once been a Mormon, and would politely ask my friends and family not to ask me about it.
Dear Crazy Pills,
I don't usually respond to controversial/religious questions like this since I tend to shy away from them. But I have a friend who made this Facebook post that adequately represents how I feel and how I'd respond. This is especially because you mentioned that the leaders are acting in good faith in this hypothetical scenario.
"Recently I responded to someone’s post where they mocked sacred temple rituals that I engage in weekly. They responded back to me that they knew exactly what they were doing and felt the religion should be mocked and said I was fooled by a false prophet. Subsequently I have had these thoughts.
So, what if I have been fooled? What if I do belong to a totally stupid, erroneous church?
Then my ‘false’ church has taught me to give to the poor, give up 2 meals each month so the poor can eat instead, discover my family history and care about my ancestors. It’s taught me to really forgive and show constant kindness, to love my enemies and actively try to serve and bless them. It’s taught me to stay away from pornography, crude language, drugs and alcohol, and other addictive and expensive substances. It’s taught me to value myself as a child of God and others as well, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and keep hope alive. This ‘false’ church has taught me to read not just the Book of Mormon regularly but also the Bible and really study it and apply the teachings of Christ to my life. It’s encouraged me to love my husband and children, get as much education as I can possibly get, to stay out of debt, and seek to be self-reliant. It has taught me to honor my body and not cast my pearls before swine, that my nature is divine, and that my worth is immense. This ‘false’ church has encouraged me to say I’m sorry when I’m wrong, to never cheat or steal, to be a kind neighbor, and to seek out the lonely, sick, lost, afraid, and mourning around me. It’s taught me to pray regularly, live in gratitude, develop my talents, and find things out for myself. Most importantly, it’s taught me to come unto Christ and seriously follow him in all that I do and say. If this is a hoax, a false church, I want to be a part of it!"
What the church teaches makes me happy. My degree in Family History-Genealogy makes me happy and I wouldn't regret majoring in it. I'd be okay with being a part of this false church until God re-establishes Christ's Church again. Since I don't think I could find any other church that would make me just as happy. Would I search for the re-established Church? Yes, but I'd stick with this one until I found it.
Dear Jacobim Mugatu,
I would hope that many church members would leave the church and search for what is true. Specifically, I would imagine that much of the leadership of the church would leave and in pursuit of the truth. In your case, I don't know what exactly would have to happen, but it would probably point to what is true. For me, and I would imagine that for many others, I try to tie my belief in Christ with being His disciple and follower. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the church that I feel is truly His, I would change the church I attend in a heartbeat if I knew without a doubt that it was wrong. I think that much of the church leadership would do the same because of their commitment to Christ. After that, I would imagine that much of the church would follow, and they might tend to go the same way or just branch out. Either way, I feel like I would keep many of my lifestyle (especially health) choices, at least for a few months. This lifestyle is something that I find a lot of joy and peace in, and it helps me be a better person. I would search until I found another belief that gives me the same amount of hope that this one does for me. I would expect that many would do the same.
I am not afraid of losing my testimony of the Church. But I am afraid of losing my relationship with God.
If the Church were proven false, I would spend the rest of my life, and everything I know how to give, doggedly pursuing a knowledge of and relationship with deity. Join a monastery. Wander in the desert for 40 days and nights. Take up a quest to look under every rock on the planet. Literally, whatever it takes to make even one contact with my alleged creator.
As I see it, in all my understanding of evolution and man's distinction from other animals, the question of God's existence is the most important question we will ever face. I'm a Big Picture kind of mind, and I was born that way. I don't think I could ever settle in, keep my head down, merely hunt and gather until I die. That's not to say there isn't beauty and meaning in a world without God. There just aren't any answers. Human beings ask Why. They just do. In that way, I believe the question of God's existence is not only important to man's understanding of himself. I also believe the question is inevitable.
If the question of God's existence is as important as I think, then another important question--one worth dedicating a life to--is what would God have me do? He created me. He is sentient, which means He must have a reason. I am likely to be happy and helpful by fulfilling whatever function He created me to do. So throughout my pursuit of God, I would also be trying to find out what to do.
So I would keep searching, and I think many others would do the same.
This desperate searching is not that different from what I'm doing now. My understanding of Him is still pretty pedestrian, but I'm giving everything I've got to try and know Him through whatever means He guides me to, which so far has not been looking under rocks (for gold plates or otherwise).