Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, November 23, 2015

Faith and a critical mind

A friend sent me this message last week: 
So it's been a tough year for me as I try to reconcile my understanding of doctrine with what I learn about historical challenges within the church AND present day challenges casting doubt upon the church (including the most recent handbook changes).
My questions for you aren't really about specific issues with church leadership but rather how you manage thinking like a scientist AND maintaining a faithful perspective. . . how do you work in science, searching for truth objectively, AND maintain your faith when confronted with "anti-Mormon" information?
I've been asked versions of this question many times by fellow Mormons, people of other faiths, and people of no faith. Actually, just a few minutes ago a friend and colleague that I often discuss metaphysical matters with sent me an email with the following closing paragraph:
I just can't understand how an otherwise intelligent scientist like you can believe in such obviously fake and counterfactual stories in the face of reason and evidence pointing overwhelmingly to their fabrication by fraudster-psychopaths looking to dupe fools into giving them money, power, status and sex.
Both of these questions are about Mormonism specifically, but I think they would apply just as well to any religion or belief-system that goes beyond what we can know from the natural and philosophical sciences. I'll try to answer the questions generally (how can faith and critical thinking coexist) and specifically (why do I believe in Mormon doctrine faced with so much anti-mormon information).

First a little bit about me (because who doesn't love hearing about me). I love Mormon theology and consider myself fully Mormon. This is different than being an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, though I happen to be one of those as well (I was a translator just last week for Stake Conference in Nantes and totally butchered the callings and releases). I find Mormon theology transcendent and beautiful and I have had many spiritual experiences that I believe are encounters with God (see my post on coincidence for some specifics).

I love science and consider myself fully scientific. This is different than actually being a scientist, though I happen to be one of those as well. I am an ecosystem ecologist at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Rennes France. I love science because it solves problems and it reminds us to be curious, grateful, and careful. Science helped us figure out how to open our food barrel when we got dropped off in the Noatak without a wrench.

Lisle, Flinn, and Balser using science to open a bear-barrel containing 10-days of food. What they didn't know was that there was no coffee inside because they assigned a Mormon to do the shopping (talk about conflict between science and religion!).

When I was in high school my dad introduced me to the books of Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and historian of science. Gould's solution to the problem of science and religion was to grant each its own sphere of knowledge that he called nonoverlapping magisteria:
The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains—for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
These boundaries work great for some issues and some faith traditions, but Mormonism flagrantly transgresses these limits with its claims of a physical God presiding over a natural universe, angelic visitations, and miraculous translations of actual text written on gold and papyrus. These, and many other Mormon beliefs collapse the distance between Gould's realms of facts and values, making for interesting dinner conversation and inviting factual investigation of Mormon claims. Gould himself acknowledges that there can be conflict:
This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.
So then, how do I balance my training (and faith) in the scientific method with all of its replication, control, and formality with the messy and marvelous world of feelings and spirituality? The short answer is that I'm skeptical of everything and comfortable with uncertainty.

What strikes me about my friends' question is the assumption that real questioning, the kind where you might change your mind, is incompatible with maintaining faith—that to believe you sometimes have to disregard the evidence. I would not believe in Mormonism, God, or a spiritual world at all if I had to compromise or give up my critical thinking to do so. I do not "maintain" faith at the expense of questioning nor do I think that doing so leads to meaningful encounters with the divine. I try to use the same intellectual rigor and critical thinking to evaluate my spiritual conclusions as I do my scientific ones. I think we should regularly challenge our spiritual and scientific beliefs by asking:

  1. Am I making this up?
  2. Am I seeing what I want to see rather than what is there?
  3. What alternative explanations could account for what I think I experienced?
  4. What pressures or prejudices are influencing my interpretation?
  5. Is the strength of my conclusions proportional to the strength of the evidence or am I overstating my case?
  6. Am I making this up?

I believe that Mormon scripture uniquely encourages a critical and open-minded approach to faith, though I recognize that in practice, some Mormons are in family or community environments where they do not feel free to truly question. There are two passages in the Book of Mormon that come to mind on the interaction between believing and questioning: Alma 32 and Moroni 10. Alma says "awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith." He goes on to say that doctrines or teachings are like seeds and the best way to know if one is true is to give it an honest try and see what it grows into. Sure, you have to exercise enough trust or faith to start the experiment, but deep conviction or belief (what he calls knowledge) comes from careful observation and analysis of the experimental results. As written, these directions are very compatible with a scientific viewpoint, though in practice, if you have been told that only lazy or sinful people don't get the "right" answer, you certainly could come to the conclusion that belief is contradictory to reason. That brings me to the second passage, maybe the most famous in all Mormon scripture.

In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni invites all those who read the book to ask God if it is true. He promises that God will manifest the truth of the book to those who ask sincerely. Specifically, he says that "real intent" is prerequisite to receiving this divine response. Ask any Mormon missionary and they will tell you that having real intent means that you intend to act on the response should it come. If we believe that real intent is necessary for revelation, we should ask hard questions about our church's history and present and be willing to change our beliefs based on the answers we get. I believe that much of the cognitive dissonance and intolerance in the church is due to people feeling that they have to set aside their spiritual convictions on an issue (gay marriage, Heavenly Mother, polygamy, etc.) because they do not feel they are compatible with what they are supposed to believe. I think this practice is morally objectionable and detrimental to progress of the individual and group. We should only accept the church's teachings or policies inasmuch as we receive a personal witness that they are true after critically evaluating them.

Green Canyon in Logan where I first really felt God and the Itkillik River on the North Slope where I first really glimpsed science.

So if scripture gives us permission to ask, why do so many Mormons or members of other groups (including non-religious groups) hesitate before truly questioning their beliefs and assumptions? Part of this is probably just group dynamics, but part of the fear to dissent comes from statements like the following, given by Wilford Woodruff at General Conference in 1890:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty
Though this statement is often quoted during General Conference, I do not believe it is true or in accordance with ancient or modern scripture. Contrast President Woodruff's declaration of prophetic infallibility with the Lord's description of His relationship with the prophets and apostles in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
These two paradigms are universes apart. In the first, the prophets cannot make mistakes and are constantly controlled by God. In the second, they are weak and fallible, receiving guidance like the rest of us: from time to time and depending on their sincerity. If we subscribe to the first paradigm, accounts of mistakes in church history and experiences with current mismanagement threaten the basis of our testimony. However, if we accept that our leaders are, as the Lord says, the "weak things of the world," and that the doctrines and policies of the church are a work in progress, we can acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

I think that the historical context of President Woodruff's statement gives some insight into why the church has largely favored the narrative of prophetic perfection in post-polygamy Mormonism. President Woodruff gave the speech in question soon after announcing that the church would no longer practice plural marriage. He wanted to reassure church members that his decision to end polygamy was the will of the Lord and not a political concession. Some of the people that questioned the words of the prophet broke away from the body of the church and founded the fundamentalist groups that still practice polygamy today. The church was traumatized by that schism and perhaps has focused more on conformity and unity since then in an effort to avoid future splits. Ironically, I believe that this belief that prophets can't make mistakes and that the church should never apologize, weakens the body of the church and drives some people away.

Mormonism was founded on revolutionary and expansive principles including a virtual elimination of hell, a universal right to revelation, the sanctification of spiritual and carnal pleasure, and co-eternality with God. The restoration of the gospel started because a teenager was willing to ask with real intent if what he was being taught was true. I believe that we should skeptically investigate all propositions from all sources. I don't think the Lord ever wants us to check our critical thinking at the door and just accept what someone tells us, even if they are a prophet, seer, and revelator. This is a teaching of the restoration that some of us have forgotten (we learn in Section 129 that even if an angel shows up we have to check if they know the secret handshake before we can trust what they say!).

I believe in God because each time I ask if He exists I feel like I receive a response. I believe in Mormonism because when I read the scriptures in my secret places between trees and stone I feel the power of God in them and when I experiment on the words of church leaders I feel a renewed desire to do good. I am under no delusions that these beliefs are fully scientific but I find them in no way incompatible with my scientific training. They are reasoned, subjective interpretations of the evidence I have experienced in my life.

For a longer and more involved discussion of how thoughtful reason and faith can coexist and a treatment of specific issues in church history, check out John Dehlin's five-hour interview with Terryl Givens.


  1. I'd rather read these heartfelt and thoughtful musings than listen to five hours of Brother Givens, however good his thinking is. But maybe there is a family bias at work.

  2. This is really lovely Ben! Personal revelation and our ability to know for ourselves that God is there continues to strengthen my faith. I love that you can be both a scientist and a Mormon. I think they can go hand in hand. All the best xx

  3. Very well written. Thanks Ben.

  4. Ben, your eloquence is a gift. I am grateful for you sharing this. Just today, I had a conversation with a friend who has decided to walk away from the Church, based on a number of things he has read recently, and as I tried to explain my position with regard to this kind of information, I found it difficult. But you captured it very well. Thanks.

  5. Not sure if I will or not, but would you care if I shared this on facebook? If not, that's totally fine :)

  6. Love you benny, nicely laid out. I like your insight

  7. Love you benny, nicely laid out. I like your insight

  8. Me, too. When the Lord has spoken (usually the Holy Ghost) the thinking has been done, but when the prophet has spoken, that's when seeking further light and knowledge begins.

  9. Well put. I know people around me that have the close minded view of faith. If they read anything that does not fit their paradigm it is obviously from an evil source. They often care about who is saying it rather than what is being said, which stands in contradiction to Alma's seed test and Moroni's challenge. I believe that Mormonism seeks truth in all things. By cultivating your relationship with God you can know truth. But I feel like there is not much tolerance for spiritual adventure within the church these days.
    I wish we would of had more time to chat when we visited. We'll just have to come again :)