A few months ago I blogged about Brandon Flowers’ interview with Richard Dawkins. In the interview, Dawkins launched a vicious and unprovoked attack on Brandon’s LDS faith. I’ve often thought of how I possibly could have responded to Dawkins. I respect him as a scientist, as he is an important pioneer of neo-darwinism, and I accept the theory of evolution. It bothers me that someone so intelligent would lump Mormonism in with all other religions, mocking the Book of Mormon’s absurdities in the same way he would mock the Bible’s absurdities. Mormonism is very different from other religions, and I think we deserve our own special critique from someone as smart as Dawkins, one that takes into account Joseph Smith’s unique views on the nature of reality, views which are at odds with the rest of the religious world.
My scientist brother-in-law once said “Joseph Smith was an atheist.” This is an absurd statement of course, but it is true from a certain perspective. Joseph Smith’s Mormonism shares many of the same philosophical views as atheism, views which differ significantly from traditional Christianity. These views include empiricism, rationalism, criticism, materialism, and realism. While Dawkins would certainly take issue with Joseph Smith’s views on science and philosophy, I think he should recognise that Mormonism is a worldview that cannot be as easily dismissed as traditional religious views which focus solely on supernatural belief.
Empiricism is the theory that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience. It is the foundation of the scientific method: experimental observation and physical measurement. Joseph Smith’s religious experience was empirical: “I had SEEN a vision, I knew it and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” At the end of his life, Joseph Smith confessed: “If I had not experienced it myself, I would not have believed.”
This is a radical departure from Christ’s admonition: “blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.” Belief in the face of doubt is a central Christian preoccupation. Yet in Mormonism we scarcely hear the word “belief.” Instead we hear people say “I know,” a claim based on individual empirical spiritual experience.
Richard Dawkins should appreciate the LDS commitment to empiricism. Joseph Smith didn’t ask his followers to follow blindly. He gave them formulae to receive their own spiritual witnesses, just as scientists do in their proofs. Dawkins would argue that “spiritual witnesses” are psychological delusions. If we are deluded, fine. But at least give us credit for approaching and interpreting our delusions with empirical integrity.
Joseph Smith approached religious faith in the same way that a scientist would approach an experiment. Spiritual experiences came as the result of following a set of formulas or laws. Moroni’s promise is a formula: 1. read, 2. believe, 3. pray, 4. receive spiritual evidence. Alma’s “seed of faith” presents a similar formula: 1. desire to believe, 2. nurture the seed, 3. watch it grow. Oliver Cowdery had a similar formula for translation: 1. study it out in your mind, 2. ask if it be right, 3. feel a burning in the bosom, or 4. feel a stupor of thought. Ultimately, Joseph Smith believed that all blessings, including spiritual experiences, were contingent“upon obedience to the laws upon which they were predicated.”
Mormonism deemphasises the arbitrary and supernatural element of “grace.” Grace is simply the fruit of following a particular formula of obedience, not the superstitious grace of Christians who believe themselves to be saved if they accept Jesus as their Saviour. Mormons and atheists share a philosophy of individual autonomy, immune from arbitrary grace, with success in life given to those who know and follow the laws of nature the best. Both the atheist and the Mormon seek to discover these laws and obey them. The only difference between atheists and Mormons is that Mormons discover divine laws through a spiritual experiment “upon the word,” while the atheists discover natural laws through scientific experiments and observation.
The LDS Tradition of Conjecture and Criticism
A tradition of conjecture and criticism arose during the Enlightenment which challenged the secular and religious authorities of the day. This tradition gave rise to the scientific method which has completely transformed the world in which we live. Early Mormons shared their era’s ideals of conjecture and criticism and they applied these ideals to theology. I’ve blogged about the early LDS phenomenon of “debate clubs” where members met to speculate and argue about various points of doctrine. Joseph Smith famously said that Mormonism has no creed and even allowed members to challenge him on some of his theological views (although he became much more authoritarian after the Missouri debacle.)
Joseph’s revelations were not just dogmatic exercises in religious faith. He recognised that his “translations” could sometimes be wrong and he wasn’t shy about modifying previous revelations. He once wrote: “If you will listen to the first promptings, you will get it right nine times out of ten.” These are not the words of a Biblical-style prophet, but an Enlightenment era spiritual experimenter who was anxious to share the tools of the trade with all of his followers. (For better or worse, this culture of conjecture and critique has been largely abandoned by the mainstream church, in favour of correlation, which is not open to criticism. But I think the spirit lives on in LDS council meetings, where members sometimes engage in spirited debate regarding policy and procedure in their local ministries.)
When Joseph Smith claimed “all spirit is matter,” he divorced himself from nearly all the religious and philosophical views of the day. In traditional Christianity, spirit is intangible, immaterial, and mysterious. The existence of this Spirit allows religion to account for the mysteries of the universe without having to understand or explain them. Nothing infuriates atheists more than having to argue with someone who insists that the mysteries of the universe are evidences of an unknowable God. They retort: “But if God created the universe, then who created God?!” For atheists, the appeal to mystery amounts to a renunciation of progress and learning, an insistence on eternal ignorance, for if “God did it” there is no reason to question how or why it was done.
But Joseph Smith claims that God is tangible, measurable, and knowable. There is no “magic” in Joseph Smith’s universe. There is a man behind the curtain and that curtain can be pulled away and one can witness exactly how every mystery is accomplished. Indeed the whole purpose in life is to try and pull away that curtain (or pass through the veil in the LDS view). In Joseph Smith’s universe, one can only pull away the curtain by following a certain formula: “obedience to a law upon which it is predicated.” Atheists are also trying to pull away the curtain, and Joseph Smith would say that they only fail because they are not following the correct formula. But the goal of atheism and Mormonism is the same: the pursuit of universal truths in a knowable, material universe.
Like Newton and Einstein, Joseph Smith was searching for a “theory of everything.” He believed in an ordered universe where “all truth could be circumscribed into one great whole.” In science, this pursuit is called “scientific realism.” Currently, one possible “theory of everything” speculates that every particle in the universe has a tiny little string inside of it. This string is wrapped around 26 different dimensions of spacetime. These dimensions, and the way in which the string wraps around them, give the particle its special properties.
This is all well and good, but there will never be a “theory of everything” unless it can account for the very real spiritual evidences that Mormons come across in their pursuit of truth. It is not enough to dismiss spiritual experiences as mere “psychological delusion.” Little by little, science is getting closer to seriously investigating spiritual phenomenon. The budding science of “emergence” investigates the mysterious interplay of neurons in the brain which somehow add up to create consciousness. What is guiding this process? Scientists don’t know. But they are working hard on the problem.
Mormons know the answer: each brain has a spirit inside of it. However we should not be content with that answer. Like Joseph Smith, we should ask ourselves: what is that spirit made of? How can it be measured? How does it work? In these questions, we share the same goal as atheistic scientists even if we don’t share the same approach. We are seeking “to become like God” and eventually to become creators ourselves. Atheists are seeking to understand consciousness so that it can be artificially created. Same goal, different approach.
In my mind, these similarities and common goals should give us more respect for one another. In many ways, atheism is closer to Mormonism than traditional Christianity is. It is time to put away our irrational prejudices and build on our common ground.
- Do you agree that atheism is closer to Mormonism than traditional Christianity is?
- Do you identify with Joseph Smith’s brand of empirically-based, formulaic spirituality, or more with the traditional, grace-based model?
- Do you see the universe as knowable and measurable, or mysterious and immeasurable?
- How would you respond to Richard Dawkins’ dismissive and ignorant attack on Mormonism?