Years ago when the winter Olympics were in Salt Lake City a news reporter went around to public places in Utah and interviewed as many Mormons as he could to try and get an idea of what Mormons “really believe.” I distinctly recall how surprised I was when everyone he interviewed, despite all being Mormon, described beliefs that were very different from my own and even different from each other. My mom, sister and I stood around the TV frustrated. How could these people get it so wrong? Didn’t any of them pay attention in church?
This was a lesson I wouldn’t internalize until years later. Like many ex-Mormons, I’m guilty as charged when it comes to digging up amusing, factually wrong or plain absurd things that Mormon leaders have said or comment on absurd or destructive teachings. Even so, just because the church teaches something doesn’t mean all Mormons believe a certain way. A really poignant example is the godmakers cartoon, which I should point out is not and never was “banned.” The cartoon suffers from two problems. First, it’s old, and reflects teachings of the church from the 1960s and 70s. It was released in 1982, and of course the exact date that any given teaching was abandoned is rather fuzzy since the leaders don’t exactly go to the pulpit and say “we no longer believe this.” They just stop talking about it.
The second problem with that cartoon is that while the church did legitimately teach everything they mention, even Mormons that are old enough to remember being taught the abandoned beliefs and might remember hearing the crazy stuff (God and Mary having literal sex or Jesus being polygamist just to name a few, the video has a lot of them) remember that everyone has their own brand of the religion. I’ve found that many rational people just filter that kind of stuff out and don’t remember it. Some even get uncomfortable if you bring it up or find some excuse to dismiss it.
When dealing with fiction it’s possible to reconcile anything as long as you can be flexible enough to add or remove arbitrary details. A classic example was in Star Wars when Han boasted that his ship could complete the Kessel run in twelve parsecs. But a parsec doesn’t measure speed, it’s a unit of distance equal to approximately 3.2 lightyears. (if you’re curious, it’s the distance a star must be from earth for the parallax to be one second of right ascension in the sky, hence the name. Parallax Second, or parsec) I’m uncertain who actually reconciled the error, but the story now goes that the Kessel Run is an obstacle course that runs you close to a black hole. Because Hans ship was so fast he could fly really close and shave off a good portion of his distance. Of course none of these extra details about the black hole were mentioned or even thought of in the source material, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the reconciliation sounds plausible then it works.
When you can understand how they reconcile errors like this in fiction then you will understand not just how apologetics works but the reason why every member has their own brand of the religion. Your beliefs are shaped by which parts of the teachings you internalized, which you ignored, which you had to reconcile and finally how you reconciled them.
Now that I don’t have to reconcile everything as truth, I often see things come out of the mouths of the church leadership in its raw unfiltered form. Because we can view the teachings this way there seems to be a general agreement among most ex-Mormons about what the church teaches, and we often criticize this version of Mormonism. The trouble is, when a believing Mormon sees our criticism, what we’re attacking usually won’t resemble that individual’s beliefs, and this can lead to the assumption that we don’t know what we’re talking about. I know this because I assumed the same about all the Mormons in that news report years ago that believed differently than I did. This is why “Anti-Mormon” literature had little effect on me.
For public forums that cater to ex-Mormons I don’t really have a solution for this, but in a private one-on-one conversation I’ve found that the best thing to do is find out what the person you’re debating actually believes then go from there. The less assumptions you make the more effective you’ll be. It’s often surprising how unique each individual’s version is.