The Paradox of the Faithful Unbeliever

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has millions of stalwart members with firm testimonies that God lives, that Jesus is the Savior, and that Joseph Smith restored the ancient gospel with its priesthood powers. There are other members of the church who disbelieve some, or all, of these things. Oddly enough, not all of these are “less active” members whose names remain on church records only because they haven’t bothered to have them removed: in fact, it’s possible that such a person was sitting in front of you last week in sacrament meeting.

Most Latter-day Saints understand a testimony of the gospel to be an essential part of church membership. Young people who have not yet gained a testimony are encouraged to remain active in the church and work toward that goal. But at some point, for some people, it begins to look as if that spiritual witness is never going to come. This can happen even to a person who is earnest and diligent in his efforts to be obedient, study the scriptures, and pray. Another, as she matures, may come to realize that what she had thought of as her own testimony was actually an unexamined acceptance of ideas taught to her by trusted adults. She may find that she does not actually believe some of the doctrines and stories she had always assumed to be correct. She may find, for instance, that to her adult understanding there is not sufficient evidence to support the idea that the Book of Mormon is a genuine historical record.

There are two main aspects to religious commitment, which I will call “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy.” “Orthodoxy,” from Greek roots meaning “true” and “opinion,” refers to believing that things are true. An orthodox Latter-day Saint, for instance, would believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates by the gift and power of God. The other aspect, “orthopraxy,” refers to correct behavior or “true practice.” An orthoprax Latter-day Saint would attend church meetings, obey the Word of Wisdom, and read the scriptures daily. There are members of the church who are much more orthoprax in their behavior than orthodox in their beliefs.

Within the church, these people are often called “cultural Mormons,” but I call them “faithful unbelievers.” Generally they have been raised in the church, and tend to live in communities with large concentrations of Latter-day Saints. Sometimes they are outspoken, but most of them are shy about speaking of the ways their views diverge from what is expected. They don’t want to be seen as people who are opposed to the church, because they aren’t. They value much of the work the church does: the service rendered, the correct principles taught. They appreciate the lessons and the love they have received in the course of long church membership. This loyalty to the church and its members is part of the “faithfulness” I am speaking of when I refer to these people as “faithful unbelievers.”

To call them “unbelievers” is correct, but also an oversimplification. In fact, they vary a great deal in what they believe or don’t believe. Some are sure there is a God, but others aren’t. Some are certain that Jesus of Nazareth is the Savior of Mankind, but others regard him simply as an astonishingly wise teacher. Some are even convinced that Joseph Smith restored lost truths from primitive Christianity, whereas others believe that he invented a lot of his ideas from his own cultural milieu. What they do not believe, the main thing that sets them apart from other members of the church, is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only way, the only religious organization that is directly led by God, with the only valid priesthood authority, and that anyone who wants to get into God’s kingdom will have to do it in the Mormon way. Faithful unbelievers often think that the LDS church is a pretty good church, as churches go, but that it has no particular advantage over other churches either in truthfulness, in practice, or in authority.

This being the case, how is it possible to claim that these people are “faithful”? This can only work, of course, if it is possible to make a distinction between faith – as a power that motivates people to do what they think is right – and belief – the mental acceptance of certain ideas and stories. The people I am speaking of have faith that there is such a thing as goodness, and that people ought to strive for it. They have faith that God, if there is a God, is fair and loving and approves of people who seek truth in the best way they know. They have faith that it is possible for people of differing beliefs to live together in harmony and cooperation. And they keep faith, in many cases, by adhering to the covenants they have made, even though their understanding of those covenants may have changed. For example, they may have no moral objections to anyone having an occasional glass of wine, yet they continue to abstain from alcohol, because they feel that is a part of a covenant they have made. They are also faithful in the performance of church callings and responsibilities, when they decide to accept them. They are often uncomfortable in teaching callings, but are willing to accept callings as secretaries, musicians, or ward activity directors.

Why would anyone want to remain a member of the church, particularly an active member, while rejecting some of the church’s teachings? Probably the most common, and the most compelling reason, is family solidarity. Some have parents who would be devastated if a child were to leave the church. When married to believing, committed wives or husbands, faithful unbelievers are faithful, also, to their marriage covenants. They are willing to attend church meetings and activities, even when they would rather be doing other things, to keep peace or please a spouse. They see the value of having children taught and nurtured by loving Primary and YM/YW leaders. They may have considered the possibility of switching to a different church – or no church at all – but in many cases they find that, believe it or not, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is where they belong – or even that it is where God wants them to be.

Even so, it isn’t easy for a marriage between a believing Latter-day Saint and an unbeliever, however faithful, to endure. Indeed, some unbelievers are so frightened by their failures of belief that they keep their doubts secret, even from their spouses. They are afraid that any move away from the church will put such a strain on their marriage that it will fail. People in this situation are probably the unhappiest – and the loneliest.

So why don’t these faithful unbelievers just get down on their knees, and pray until they get with the program? If the gospel is true, wouldn’t that be easier than tormenting themselves by dealing with a church they don’t believe in? That’s the advice they are often given, by concerned church leaders or family members. Sometimes this approach will do the trick, but for other people it simply doesn’t work. Reading the scriptures provides more questions, rather than answers. Prayer may bring insights that don’t fit into the expected pattern. Many of them would love to be able to believe, but find that they simply cannot. Others come to accept and even enjoy a different way of looking at the gospel.

The question arises: is it better for faithful unbelievers to continue in church activity, or is it better for them to remove themselves from the church? If they remain, they often feel obliged to bite their tongues when things are taught which they strongly disagree with. And many people would see their unorthodox ideas as a danger to those whose testimonies are more standard. At the same time, because they are not tied to the received interpretations of gospel ideas, they sometimes come up with insights that are refreshing and interesting, even to more conventional church members. In many ways, they are like investigators: indeed, they tend to see themselves as people who are searching for truth, both within the church and in a myriad of other places. If you can get them to give a lesson or a talk, you probably won’t feel like it’s something you’ve heard over and over since childhood – but you probably won’t hear anything that will frighten you or tear down your faith. Faithful unbelievers know a great deal about the pain of losing the sort of belief that is expected of church members. They are cautious about pushing their own less orthodox ideas on other people. In fact, you might hear them say things like “According to the Latter-day Saint understanding of this question…” rather than “What I believe is…” as they teach others.

It’s possible that you will never find out who most of the faithful unbelievers are among church members you know. Most of them are accomplished at camouflage. But if you should happen to unearth one, what is the best thing to do about him or her? A few suggestions follow:

  • If you are married to one of these critters, please try not to worry. He or she is probably a decent human being who loves you and wants to stay married to you. Try to emphasize the values that you share rather than the beliefs that divide you.
  • If you are a bishop or church leader, try giving these people space. Sometimes the usual formula of prayer, fasting, scripture study, obedience will work for them, but at other times they have things to learn which they will need to learn in other ways. Consider letting them attend the temple, even if they don’t give the “right” answers to all of your questions – particularly those about belief rather than behavior. If answer they your questions honestly and thoughtfully, they probably don’t contemplate any harm to the temple or to the church.
  • If you are a church member – family or friend – treat them as you would a promising investigator. Be friendly and accepting, even when they say things that might surprise you. Let them know that you welcome them into the fellowship of the church, odd ideas and all. Remember that even though they might not share all of your beliefs, they probably share most of your values and principles.
  • If you are yourself a “faithful unbeliever,” consider the possibility that you can come out of hiding. If you are able to speak about your own doubts and concerns, you may find that you are a light to others who are struggling with similar difficulties.