I think the basic difference between those I love who are members of the Church and me is how we approach celestial knowledge. For example, the Church encourages missionaries to commit investigators to baptism after their first hearing of the story of Joseph Smith as given in Preach My Gospel. In other words, the Church encourages one to accept that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and, therefore, anything that he did as God's will. I, on the other hand, hear the claim that Joseph Smith was a prophet and I look at everything he did and taught in order to evaluate that claim. I know the Church's side of things, but what is the whole story?
Many members of the Church would say that I am over-intellectualizing spiritual matters or that I am not taking the necessary leap of faith. I have always found these arguments troubling for two reasons:
1. If Joseph Smith, Jr. truly was a prophet of God, shouldn't earnest investigation of his life and teachings work to confirm that?
2. Elevating anyone to the status of unquestioning faith can be only dangerous, for that is how all dictators and tyrants have been born. Some of the worst crimes committed by humanity were due to a failure to question leaders.
Therefore, the route a seeker of truth must take is to proceed with caution; evaluate the claim as objectively as possible, and then make judgment when adequate investigation has happened.
Again, members of the Church would argue that what matters most is the source of their spiritual witness that Joseph Smith is a prophet: the feeling they experienced when they prayed to know if it was true (e.g., D&C 6). Such a procedure troubles me in a few ways:
1. To make such a huge commitment (i.e., life-long and life-changing) based only on the information provided by the Church in such a short time is anything but objective. Allow me to use an extreme example; if a couple dressed very nicely, knocked on your door, and asked for a few minutes of your time to speak about a remarkable man, you might let them in. They ask, "Have you ever heard of Adolf Hitler?" For argument's sake, let's say you hadn't. They tell you of a bright, ambitious artist, who had a passion for politics and wanted to change the world. He improved his entire country's economy, made it a superpower, established one of the world's best automobile manufacturers, and also started the world's largest anti-smoking campaign in history. If they were to then ask if you would commit yourself to his cause, you would probably feel pretty good about it based on the information you were given.
Now I want to make perfectly clear that I am not suggesting Joseph Smith, Jr. is comparable to Adolf Hitler in any way other than that the context in which a man is presented can have a huge impact on how one views him. One difference with Joseph Smith is how well the Church has edited his doctrine and history. Look anywhere on the sites of the Church or in any of the manuals and try to find out information about polygamy beyond admission that it took place. To obtain objective information one must look for it, for the Church will not provide it.
2. There has been quite a bit of research demonstrating that once a person makes a decision, he or she thereafter justifies that decision to reassure his or herself that it was the right one (e.g., Steele, 1988). In other words, we all believe that we are reasonable people, so we wouldn't decide that Joseph Smith was a prophet unless that were true, right?
I do not wish to demean emotional or spiritual experiences. All I wish to suggest is that these probably aren't enough to establish that something is true. The absolute truth will be confirmed by several types of evidence: physical, cognitive, as well as emotional. If I felt great about the idea of the Earth being flat, it still would not outweigh actually seeing photographs of the spherical Earth from space. On the other hand, if I felt great about the Earth being spherical, I would feel only better by seeing the photos from space. For something to be true, it continues to be confirmed, and is supported by angle after angle.
Thus, if Joseph Smith was a prophet, I would expect not only to feel good about that, but to see confirming evidence. For example, I would expect to see that he actually did make some accurate translations of the artifacts he professed to have translated. Unfortunately, there is no such evidence (Larson, 1992; Palmer, 2002). I would expect to eventually learn why he was justified in his practice of polygamy, get reasonable explanations about God's alleged decree that persons with African heritage could not access the priesthood for over a century (source), and so on. But when there simply are no explanations that make sense, I am left to conclude that Joseph Smith was not what he claimed.
Quinn, D. M. (1983). J. Reuben Clark: The church years. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press.
Larson, C. M. (1992). ...By his own hand upon papyrus: A new look at the Joseph Smith papyri. Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research.
Palmer, G. H. (2002). An insider's view of Mormon origins. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books.
Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 21, 261-302.