A Defense of the Mormon Mind

HumanmindHere are some thoughts I composed in response to an online debate. In an effort to be non-contentious (and to spare strangers the burden of reading a novel), I’m posting them on my blog instead.

I find it funny how points of minutia are turned into all-or-nothing arguments. How often, at church, do the exact age of the earth or the origins of race come into discussion as topics pertinent to salvation? In light of the arguments for the need of science to adapt and refine, why criticize religion for doing the same? Religion was never meant to be in the business of answering “how”, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many Mormons who view nineteenth-century speculations that rightfully belong to the realm of science as final. BYU has a fantastic evolutionary biology program, because Mormons aren’t afraid of discovering truth, whether or not it appears at first glance to be scripturally-supported. Of course there are exceptions to this rule as we’re all only human. But Joseph Smith defined the word Mormon as literally meaning “More good.” If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report (including any and all scientific data that sheds greater light about the origins and destiny of our planet), we seek it out. Whatever you think of Joseph Smith, nearly every section in the Doctrine and Covenants came as a result of asking a question and seeking an answer.

Much has been said of cognitive dissonance. But every time you point a finger, four point back at yourself. What about the cognitive dissonance that would come from abandoning a moral framework, a purpose to life, a family bond, a tie to our ancestors, a world-wide force for good, a personal accountability to God, and a quest for eternal progression and perfection … solely on behalf of the appearance of intellectual incongruities? There is no scientific principle or historical fact that I can’t learn and internalize as well within the church as without it. From my experience, this so-called Mormon thought-policing doesn’t exist. Yes, church isn’t an appropriate place to discuss contraversial history or the latest in string theory any more than lobbying for Rand Paul is appropriate at a Democratic rally. But those who really understand the Gospel know that the acquisition of knowledge and truth is entirely up to the individual. Are we going to search for information that fits within our world view and be skeptical of information that doesn’t? Of course. Everyone does this, because anything less would be unscientific. We have to stick with what we know, not what we don’t. People stay in the church because of an abundance of evidence that the fruits of the church are good.

Furthermore, it’s ironic how these appeals to the finality of science are, in themselves, nothing short of religious. Can science tell me how to live a fulfilling life, how to raise a family, or how to build a strong society? It’s possible that the answer to all of these questions could someday be yes, but in the mean time, are we going to live out our lives as lab rats? In his documentary “The God Delusion”, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins makes the argument that children are wired to receive instruction from their parents, because children can’t afford to learn through scientific observation. E.g. a child cannot test whether or not it’s a good idea to crawl off a cliff. To use this same logic, what if Dr. Freud concludes that sleeping around is perfectly natural and acceptable, and a few years later, everyone’s dying of STD’s? Do we not all need a roadmap that transcends the latest worldly opinions? Science is a terrible epistamology for determing moral frameworks. To state otherwise is nothing short of a religious opinion.

Genetic research has not disproven the Book of Mormon. There is overwhelming evidence that Joseph Smith possessed gold plates, just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. It’s not science that contradicts these points, it’s religion, a religion that believes that such fantastic claims could not possibly be true. While this is a perfectly understandable belief, my point is that pure religion is not un-scientific anymore than what’s often deemed as science is non-religious. It is a matter of faith to say that we know that all life evolved from a single cell on earth. This appears to be plausible, but there are so many unknowns. How do we account for the anomalies of the Cambrian Explosion, for evolutionary advantages that appear out of order, for the apparent introduction of a new species every million years or so, and then the sudden cessation of such upon the arrival of humans? Perhaps a better question is how do we explain how these facts seem to mysteriously align with Genesis 1?

When you look for contradictions, you’ll find them. When you look at the bigger picture, there is so much harmony. Photons that mysteriously behave in consequence of human will … evidence of paralellel universes that could be interacting with our own … the question of what it was that could have incited the big bang … a mind-blowing number of expolanets that could harbor life … the nearly-perfect calibration of Earth … the fact that only 5% of the known universe is even observable … It’s not just that the universe is wide-open for the existence of transcendent beings or that no one can disprove their existence. Those aren’t good arguments for faith. It’s that either way you look at the universe, you’ll see what you want to see. Science presents us with little more than an open book with which to define our purpose and destinies. We can’t escape religion. We can only choose what to put our faith in.

Rather than branding everyone who hasn’t abandoned their faith for your faith as brain-washed simpletons, tell us what we could actually gain — not lose — from leaving the church. I’d love to know. Statistically, being Mormon makes me pretty well off as far as health, income, education, and happiness. Mormons report among the highest of answered prayers. Mormons, in contrast to much of the religious world, present an anomoly where higher education does not result in decreased faith. Mormons live longer. They’re among the most charitable. They’ve introduced a huge number of invdentions and scientific advances. There’s something good going on here, and I have yet to learn of anything better.

8 thoughts on “A Defense of the Mormon Mind

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They were very well-crafted, and they caused me to do much contemplation. Here are a few thoughts I had after reading your post:

    Science is careful to avoid teaching things it cannot support with evidence. Religion teaches many things for which evidence is not yet available. I think this difference is what enables Mormonism to provide the good things you identified that science cannot yet offer.

    Unfortunately, there are many religions out there, and each of them fills that void with something different. At most, only one of them could possibly be doing it correctly. All others must build upon a foundation that must eventually be shaken when the truth comes out. When that happens, the structure within many lives will collapse. So, what keeps all those good truth-seeking people from converting to Mormonism?

    Unfortunately, the many truths that Mormonism offers can only be revealed line upon line. Thus, those people cannot see the full grandeur of Mormonism until they finally take the leap of faith to investigate it thoroughly. Taking that tremendous leap is exceedingly difficult. It requires questioning the foundation of all they know to be true, jeopardizing relationships with loved ones, and risking making a life-changing mistake. No wonder they only search for information that fits within their existing world view! And, how sad that they will never know just how much more is offered within Mormonism!

    Now, knowing that you have something that is greater than what others have, should you not also be careful to consider that someone else may yet have something greater than what you have? And, knowing how difficult it is to share what you have, I think we ought to be quite accommodating with their poor attempts to share whatever truth they think they have. What if, hypothetically speaking, science really did tell you how to live a fulfilling life? What if its goodness ran deeper than you can now imagine, but it was not possible for anyone to show it to you in its fullness until after you took that great leap of faith? What if the only thing others could do was to bear flimsy testimony, and hope that you might respond to that flitting feeling that they have real truth. Would you pass that test?

    What if it was *the* test? What if God set you up to find this pattern? What if this was the fulfillment of that longing feeling that has struggled to survive in your heart your entire life? What if you were expected to take that leap, even though such expectation flew in the face of all that was reasonable, even all that was scientific? What if conquering this trial would make you a god? What if this was the only path to transcending a frustrating life where the conflict between good and evil was forever unclear? What if the well-being of your posterity depended on you making this difficult choice, and your failure to take that leap would pass the terrible burden on to them?

    I see that you are exactly right, we cannot escape religion, even in science, even in my hypothetical universe, except by becoming dogmatic. If we say “All is well in Zion” or “I have got a Bible” or “I have got a religion”, then our quest for truth is complete.

    1. Marlo Brando said:

      “Now, knowing that you have something that is greater than what others have, should you not also be careful to consider that someone else may yet have something greater than what you have?”

      It requires real humility to sincerely “consider that someone else may yet have something greater than what you have”. Maybe you do have something great- but that doesn’t mean that no one else has anything greater. It also does not mean that you can’t be mistaken about anything. If you think this way, you’ll close your mind to learning any new truth. This goes for believers and non-believers alike.

      He then states,

      “I think we ought to be quite accommodating with their poor attempts to share whatever truth they think they have.”

      I take issue with this statement because Brando implies that others only “think” they have any truth. It’s very condescending. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that they may indeed have more truth that we lack.

      In interest of full disclosure, I am not a believer in Joseph Smith, but I do believe that there is a lot of good in Mormonism. There is a lot elsewhere, too. I think we all need to be open to learning the good from all sources.

      Here’s a quote from Joseph Smith that I do like:

      “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may.”
      -Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:499

      If that’s what it means to be Mormon, Mormons must be very open minded indeed.

      Thanks for allowing me to be part of your discussion!

  2. I’ll happily join you as a faithful intellectual. The combination tends to sound out of place to some, but I find it works well for me.

    A solid understanding of the definition and purpose of faith tends to align lots of things in my ongoing effort to increase both faith and knowledge.

  3. Hi, Steven,
    I appreciate this post, and I think you make some valuable points. All believers are not simpletons, and I know many very intelligent people who have well thought out reasons for believing what they do. This is true of just about any faith. However, I’d like to point out something I disagree with.
    You said:

    “Are we going to search for information that fits within our world view and be skeptical of information that doesn’t? Of course. Everyone does this, because anything less would be unscientific.”

    I agree with the first part of this statement. This is called confirmation bias, and we all do it. It’s just how human minds work. One goal of the scientific process is to overcome confirmation bias. It is not scientific to “search for information that fits within our worldview and be skeptical of information that doesn’t”. That’s a key part of pseudoscience.
    The scientific process requires openness to being wrong. When we have a hypothesis, we should actively seek to falsify it. We actively look for evidence that would prove us wrong. If it can be falsified, we can conclude that the hypothesis was incorrect or in need of adjustment. In addition, other scientists, who may not share our biases, will attempt to falsify our results. This process is designed to help us to overcome our natural biases.

    In short, searching for evidence that validates your ideas and discounting evidence that doesn’t is not scientific.

    1. This is true. I agree. Perhaps I was meaning more that it would be unscientific to reject what we know on behalf of something we don’t know.

  4. I stumbled across your blog a while ago and I like to check back every now and then to see the journey you’ve taken spiritually. You have many issues when coming across those who have found other sources of truth and all of these defenses and reflections indicate you are having a struggle yourself but the ultimate outcome is always entrenching yourself further in this faith. I don’t think there’s any way you can default on bigger pictures and bigger truths being scientifically sound in the context of the LDS doctrine, and if you open your mind to other perspectives a bit more you might come to find that the only thing worth discussing is your testament to the truths as that is the only thing that could keep you in it.

    Mormonism should require no defending, if it was truth it would be self evident in every way. But what is truth, any way? If I told you the truth enough times, you might start to believe me. There are many different truths and the LDS faith is a fraction of a percentage of the truthful claims that are purported in this world.

    Faith is a term who serves those that want or believe consciousness to require purpose, an abstracted desire of the unfulfilled mind that veils and convolutes how the universe simply exists.

    Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

    Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false. Let no one fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief. The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing; For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
    Those that would silence doubt are full of fear; their houses are built on shifting sands. But those who fear not doubt, and know its use; are founded on rock. They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure. Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the attendant of truth.

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