religion-identityIn today’s world identity is something we value. In the west self-determination of individual identity is often seen as particularly important. And that identity has many facets. This year the BBC annual Reith lectures are given by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, with the overall title Mistaken Identities. The first of those lectures, broadcast last week, looked at the topic of religious identity or creed. You can listen to the broadcast here, and read the full transcript here. In his lecture Appiah highlighted a few things that I felt would be interesting to examine in a Mormon context.

Excerpt 1

“There’s a reason why we refer to religious identities with words like “faith,” “confession,” or, indeed, “credo,” from the Latin word for “I believe.” It’s that we’ve been taught to think of religion principally as a matter of beliefs.

“Now I want to argue that this simple idea is deeply misleading, in ways that can make understanding between religions seem both harder and easier than it really is. I want to persuade you that religion is not, in the first instance, a matter of belief.

“Every religion has three dimensions: there’s what you do — call that practice. There’s who you do it with — call that community, or fellowship. And, yes, there’s a body of beliefs. The trouble is that we tend to emphasize the details of belief over the shared practices and the communities that buttress religious life.” (Appiah, BBC Reith Lectures, 1 Creed, 2016)

Appiah suggests that there three things that make up religious identity: belief (or faith), practice, and community, and that belief should be the least of these. It is the practices that bind the community. It’s when too much emphasis is placed on belief, and on members of a community to believe a certain way, that problems arise; when accusations are flung that particular groups are not proper Christians, or proper Muslims for example.  He raises the problems of fundamentalism. It can sometimes feel as though Mormonism has a strong fundamentalist streak. What makes a proper Mormon, for example? But we also have the concept of continuing revelation.

Excerpt 2

“If we distort the nature of religious identity by a fixation on faith, this fallacy is entwined with another: that I’ll call scriptural determinism. Often, we’re told that our religious beliefs repose in our sacred texts — so that to be a believer is to believe what’s in the scriptures. As if one could decant from them, like wine from a pitcher, the unchanging nature of a religion and its adherents.

“To evaluate claims like these, it helps to recall what scriptures are actually like. So let me take, more or less at random, a passage near the beginning of Isaiah. See if you can understand it.

“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” (Isaiah 1:3.) Much of scripture is written in language like this that is poetical, metaphorical, or simply obscure. Much consists of narratives, some, like the parables told by Jesus, overtly fictional. Scripture, in short, requires interpretation.” (Appiah, BBC Reith Lectures, 1 Creed, 2016)

It isn’t only interpretation scriptural canon we have to grapple with, but also interpretation of statements made by leaders throughout the history of a religion. For us, as much as for those who follow Islam, Judaism or any other faith. All of those things have their contexts.

Excerpt 3

“The priests and the scholars often want to insist that doctrine, which they are, after all, the masters of, drives practice. So it’s easy to ignore the reverse process, the way doctrine is often driven by practice — by forms of worship, familiar feelings, traditions of social regulation. Practice changes, of course, over time, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly. And changed practice can lead to changed belief. Scriptural passages can get new interpretations. And if they can’t adapt, they’re often abandoned. … if scriptures were not subject to interpretation — and thus to re-interpretation — they wouldn’t continue to guide people over long centuries. When it comes to their survival, their openness is not a bug but a feature. A burden, perhaps, but also a blessing. … these traditions do not speak with a single voice. To have mastery of the scriptures is to know which passages to read into and which to read past.” (Appiah, BBC Reith Lectures, 1 Creed, 2016)

Appiah gives examples of scriptural passages that religions now interpret differently, ignore, or consider irrelevant in our current context; in other words, change. Mormonism has certainly changed: the abandonment of polygamy by the LDS church or 1978 priesthood and temple ban changes being the most obvious.

Appiah also suggests that the things we decide are important say more about us than they do about our scripture. We choose to read into and interpret scripture in ways that support our views and to ignore or read past scripture elsewhere that might otherwise have been used to support a different view. Scripture does not give one story. This is, I think, where liberals and conservative Mormons clash. Differing priorities lead us to read into and past different things. That and perhaps a distaste for what support of the opposing view might say about us. One man’s apostasy is another’s continuing revelation perhaps!

I’d recommend either listening to, or reading the lecture in full.

  • How do you see the balance of belief, practice and community in Mormonism?
  • Do you agree with Appiah that belief is overemphasised today?
  • What you you choose to emphasise, if anything?
  • How do you see the interactions of fundamentalism and continuing revelation in Mormonism?
  • Do you agree with Appiah that scripture is open to interpretation and that this is a feature not a bug?
  • How important is your religious identity to you?
  • Can it accommodate change?


The further three lectures on the topic of Mistaken Identity take the headings Country, Colour and Culture.