The tragedy of 9/11 had a big impact on my views about the relationship between faith and reason. As I watched the video footage of the jumbo jets flying into the World Trade Center towers over and over again, it dawned on me that I was witnessing the destructive power of faith unchecked by reason. Consider for a moment the faith proposition that motivated the 9/11 hijackers: “If you slit a few throats to hijack a plane and then fly that plane into a skyscraper, killing yourself and all your comrades along with thousands of civilian men, women, and children, then God will reward you in Heaven with 72 virgins who will provide you more sensual delights than you could ever have hoped to enjoy during mortality.” Viewing the fruits of the hijackers’ faith — the twisted steel and endless ash, the homemade “Missing” flyers plastered everywhere, the sobbing relatives of the victims — I couldn’t help wishing the hijackers would have run that faith proposition through the wringer of reason before deciding to act upon it.
Faith needs reason because faith unchecked by reason can be just as deadly as reason unchecked by faith proved to be in the gulags of Soviet Russia, the Cultural Revolutions of Maoist China, and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia. (Would Stalin, Mao, and Pot have ordered the killings of millions if they had had faith in an afterlife and final judgment?)
We Mormons are certainly not immune to the potential dangers of unquestioning faith.
Brigham Young once said he feared that members of the Church would “settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation . . . .” (Journal of Discourses, 9:150 [quoted by James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 8].) When unconditional confidence in our church leaders is so often hailed as a virtue, one wonders what Brigham had in mind exactly when he warned church members against “trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in [our] salvation”. I wonder, what are “the purposes of God in [our] salvation” that are potentially thwarted by “reckless confidence” in church leaders?
In a similar vein, Brigham taught that we Mormons still have work to do in identifying and rooting out erroneous beliefs held among us. He explained that we receive revelation “line upon line” only to the degree that we have first thrown off “our false traditions and foolish notions”.  For me, hearing an LDS Prophet acknowledge that even we Mormons have “false traditions and foolish notions” suggests we have an ongoing obligation to critically evaluate our longstanding doctrines, policies, and practices to determine whether any of them are, in fact, false and foolish.
Of course, the greatest obstacle to identifying our “false traditions and foolish notions” is our own unwillingness to critically examine ourselves. There is no doubt that critical evaluation of our doctrines, policies, and practices is a delicate art in LDS circles, and there are plenty of examples of how not to criticize the Church. However, if done properly, critical evaluation can help us identify the false traditions and foolish notions among us so that we may lay them off, and thereby open our hearts and minds to new revelation from God (the Church’s re-evaluation and abandonment of the pre-1978 priesthood ban being an excellent example). In other words, when done properly, critical evaluation does not tear down the Church, it builds up the Church.
But despite our having successfully cast aside certain false traditions and foolish notions in the past, and despite the scriptural warnings against being lulled into an “all is well in Zion” mentality, there persists a strong resistance to the idea that other false traditions and foolish notions may still exist among us. As a result, when reasoned inquiry suggests that a longstanding doctrine, policy, or practice may be a false tradition or foolish notion that we ought to cast aside, such suggestions are often met with a host of misquotations, misinterpretations, and misapplications of scripture and doctrine that collectively promote the idea that true faith requires us to continue to adhere to the officially established status quo, even if it seems to be erroneous in our reasoned judgment. (Might that be the “reckless confidence” Brigham Young warned us against?) And the problem with that approach is that it can potentially lead people to embrace all manner of falsehood and evil, and in the cleverest manner of all: by convincing people that true faith requires them to ignore their reasoned judgment.
To illustrate my point, I’ve presented a fictional conversation below between an FLDS leader and an FLDS teenage girl. In the discussion below, an FLDS teenage girl is having reasonable doubts about FLDS doctrines, policies, and practices. At every step of the way, her FLDS leader gives her familiar responses designed to reinforce the idea that God is testing her faith by seeing whether she will unconditionally obey her church leaders regardless of her reasonable objections. As you read the conversation below, ask yourself this one question: Should this FLDS teenage girl abandon her reasonable doubts about FLDS doctrines, policies, and practices and exercise unconditional faith in her church leaders? Or should she listen to her inner voice of reason and common sense, and reject the faith propositions that her parents and leaders are attempting to foist upon her?
FLDS LEADER: Susan, I hear rumors your faith in President Jeffs and the Brethren is weakening. What’s going on?
FLDS GIRL: Well, brother Jeppson, I have to be honest, I have been having serious doubts about whether everything President Jeffs and the Brethren are doing is right, and whether everything they’re telling us is true. I feel so confused, and the more I think about what they’re doing and what they’re teaching us, the less sense it all makes to me.
FLDS LEADER: Young lady, God will never give you doubt or confusion. Satan is the author of doubt and confusion. God gives you faith. You need to have faith, nothing wavering. Doubt not.
FLDS GIRL: I’ve heard that before, but I just can’t help having all these questions about whether the things our church leaders are doing are really God’s will.
FLDS LEADER: Be careful, young lady, you shouldn’t be questioning if what our church leaders do and say is right. Follow the Prophet, President Jeffs. Don’t go astray. And be very careful, because questioning the Brethren is the road to personal Apostasy.
FLDS GIRL: What does personal Apostasy mean?
FLDS LEADER: It means rejecting your church leaders, which cuts you off from the one true church and God.
FLDS GIRL: So when you say that questioning our leaders can lead to personal Apostasy, you’re saying that questioning our leaders can lead to disagreeing with our leaders and rejecting them?
FLDS LEADER: That’s right.
FLDS GIRL: But why should we fear disagreeing with our leaders and rejecting them if they are wrong?
FLDS LEADER: Susan, how could you possibly think the Brethren are wrong?
FLDS GIRL: Well, for one, it just seems that so much of what our FLDS leaders do and teach couldn’t possibly be inspired by God.
FLDS LEADER: Well, God’s ways are higher than man’s ways. It doesn’t make sense to you because even God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.
FLDS GIRL: I know its not wise to reject God’s ways, but how do I know that what FLDS leaders are saying and doing is God’s way?
FLDS LEADER: Susan, surely you’ve heard that scripture enough times. “Whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.” There you have it. If our leaders say it, it’s the same as God saying it. If President Jeffs says it, then you can rest assured it is God’s way.
FLDS GIRL: I’m not so sure that’s the correct interpretation of that scripture. I read that scripture as saying if God says something to his servant, and his servant says it to us, then that indirect communication through a servant is the same as God saying it directly to us. In other words, if A says something to B, and B says it to C, then it’s the same as A saying it to C. But that’s quite a different proposition than the idea that everything B says to C must have come from A. That’s just bad logic.
FLDS LEADER: Bad logic? It seems to me you’re using the philosophies of men. And frankly, I don’t know where you get off thinking you have authority to interpret scripture for yourself. FLDS leaders alone have the authority to interpret scripture. And because we are God’s modern-day Prophets, what we say is new scripture, even if it seems to contradict existing scripture.
FLDS GIRL: I’m sorry, but I just can’t buy into that.
FLDS LEADER: You can’t buy into it? Young lady, you need to be humble. Be obedient. Be teachable. Be submissive. Don’t be so prideful and arrogant as to think that you are better able to discern the truth than your leaders who have decades of experience with matters of the Spirit.
FLDS GIRL: I’m sorry, but it just seems ridiculous to me that God would place in the hands of a select few men the ability to discern the truth, and then expect the rest of us to follow them no matter what.
FLDS LEADER: You’ve misunderstood me. I never said that FLDS leaders alone have the ability to discern the truth. You have the ability to know for yourself that FLDS leaders are God’s chosen prophets, seers, and revelators. First you must desire to believe, then you need to pray and ask God in faith, nothing doubting, if what the Brethren tell you is not true, and God will tell you that it is true.
FLDS GIRL: Well, I’ve done that, several times, but I don’t sense God confirming to me so many of the things the FLDS leaders and teaching and doing.
FLDS LEADER: Well, the Holy Spirit can only communicate with you if you have clean hands and a pure heart. Susan, is there any sin or other misdeed in your life that could be preventing you from feeling the whispers of the Holy Spirit?
FLDS GIRL: Sins and misdeeds? I’m sure I have plenty. The Bible teaches us that we have all sinned, and that not one doeth good. The Book of Mormon teaches us that we can’t count all the ways we can offend God. So I’m sure I have many sins.
FLDS LEADER: Well then, now we’re making progress. You need to repent of your sins, and when you’ve fully repented and abandoned all your sinful ways, you’ll be able to feel the Holy Spirit confirming the truthfulness of FLDS teachings. And if you do that and still can’t feel the Holy Spirit confirming the truthfulness of FLDS teachings, then you need to keep repenting until you can.
FLDS GIRL: Maybe I should have been more clear. Although I am sure I have sins, I can assure you that I am not guilty of any serious sins or transgressions. Like Joseph Smith, I can honestly say that “while I frequently fall into many foolish errors and display the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, lead me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins.”
FLDS LEADER: Well then, if you are certain your heart is sufficiently pure to receive revelation, then all you need to do is give the Lord more time to give you a testimony. Be patient and exercise faith by doing whatever your leaders tell you to do. And by so doing, over time, maybe even after years or even decades, you will receive a testimony that what they are telling you is true. But don’t abandon the faith of your fathers. Endure to the end.
FLDS GIRL: I’m sorry, but I just can’t spend my whole life obeying orders and believing things that don’t make sense to me, hoping that one day, years or decades down the road, I might finally get a witness of their truthfulness. What if decades go by and that spiritual witness never comes? By the time I realize it was all wrong all along, it will be too late; most of my life will have already gone by.
FLDS LEADER: But you don’t have to worry about that, Susan, because if the Prophet tells you to do something and it’s wrong, and you obey it, then the Lord will only reward you for your faith and will never punish you for it. But don’t worry, because the Lord will never allow President Jeffs to lead us astray in the first place.
FLDS GIRL: I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me that God will reward me for doing something erroneous because I chose to disregard my reason and follow the commandments of men who claimed to be divinely inspired but weren’t. And I understand President Jeffs thinks the Lord will never let him lead us astray, but what if President Jeffs is leading us astray by telling us that he will never lead us astray?
FLDS LEADER: Listen, young lady, you know what the Proverb says: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not to thine own understanding.” Trusting in the Lord means trusting in his chosen prophets instead of relying on your own understanding.
FLDS GIRL: Well, maybe trusting in the Lord means trusting in his prophets, but how do I know the FLDS leaders are God’s chosen prophets in the first place?
FLDS LEADER: I already told you: repent and be clean, desire to believe, then pray in faith, nothing doubting, and if the answer doesn’t come, just keep obeying and doing what they tell you, and in doing everything they tell you to do, eventually you’ll know for yourself that what they say is true.
FLDS GIRL: And what if I’ve done that and I feel the Holy Spirit has told me something that contradicts what the Brethren have said?
FLDS LEADER: That won’t ever happen, because everything the Brethren say comes from the Holy Spirit. Remember: they will never lead us astray.
FLDS GIRL: I hate to say it, but it seems we’re just going around in circles here.
FLDS LEADER: You know, that’s a really contentious thing to say, and I’m getting really concerned by the contentious tone of your remarks. Stop contending with me and the Brethren. Contention is of the Devil.
FLDS GIRL: So let me get this straight: when our Church rejects all the other religions and churches and their leaders and their beliefs, that’s not contention. And when the Brethren tell members they’re wrong and that they need to get in line, that’s not contention either. But when members disagree with the Brethren, that’s contention?
FLDS LEADER: Young lady, I’m sad to say it, but it’s quite apparent to me that you just don’t have a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
FLDS GIRL: With all due respect, I don’t think it has anything to do with that. It’s just that so much of what our FLDS leaders are doing and saying these days seems to just defy plain common sense; it seems so illogical.
FLDS LEADER: But don’t you see, Susan, that’s the whole nature of faith — believing or doing something even if it contradicts your sense of reason! Do you think it made sense to Noah to build an ark when it wasn’t raining? Do you think it made sense to Abraham to have to kill his own son? But Noah and Abraham defied their “common sense”, their “reason”, their “logic”, and they did exactly what the Lord told them to do even though it seemed not to make any sense at the time.
FLDS GIRL: Look, I completely understand why we would need to follow a direct commandment from God like Noah and Abraham received, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. But isn’t that a very different proposition than the idea that we need to unconditionally follow a man, President Jeffs, even if what he says doesn’t make sense to us? Isn’t that really just asking us to put blind faith in a man?
FLDS LEADER: No, Susan, that’s not asking you to put faith in a man because God is at the head of this FLDS Church. I so testify to you. Unconditionally obeying President Jeffs is not putting your faith in man; it’s putting your faith in God!
FLDS GIRL: Well, I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make sense to me either. It seems like asking me to unconditionally obey President Jeffs and the Brethren is asking me to put my faith in man.
FLDS LEADER: Susan, I feel impressed to warn you that the eternal fate of your soul is at stake here, so let me get down to the bottom line. Susan, this whole life is really just a test to see if we will do everything the Lord requires of us, yes, even if it contradicts our “logic” and “reason”. And you need to understand that President Jeffs and the Brethren are the only ones on Earth who have the authority to tell us what the Lord requires. So by obeying them, you are demonstrating the faith that God requires of us. And in fact, the more illogical the Brethren’s actions or teachings seem to you, the more faith you are demonstrating to God when you obey them!
FLDS GIRL: So it seems you’re telling me to ignore my sense of reason.
FLDS LEADER: Well, Susan, that’s precisely what true faith requires!
FLDS GIRL: But why would God give us reason and then require us to forsake it?
FLDS LEADER: Well, I guess that’s a question we’re just going to have to wait until the next life to understand.
To be clear, the point of the fictional dialogue above is to illustrate how scripture and doctrine can be misinterpreted and misapplied to preach a false version of faith that can be probably found amongst most religions, churches, and denominations — an unquestioning faith; a faith that requires us to ignore reason; a faith that demands unconditional obedience to leaders because of their claimed divine authority. And the problem with that unreasoned faith is that it can lead people to embrace all manner of falsehood and evil by convincing devout believers in any church that the status quo established by their leaders must not be questioned, must not be challenged, must always be right, and must always be followed, no matter how unreasonable it may be.
NOTES: The full quote is as follows: “[God] would be glad to send angels to communicate further to this people, but there is no room to receive it, consequently, He cannot come and dwell with you. There is a further reason: we are not capacitated to throw off in one day all our traditions, and our prepossessed feelings and notions, but have to do it little by little. It is a gradual process, advancing from one step to another; and as we layoff our false traditions and foolish notions, we receive more and more light, and thus we grow in grace; and if we continue so to grow we shall be prepared eventually to receive the Son of Man, and that is what we are after.” (Journal of Discourses 2:309-318).