We like to think in terms of “Ages.” In the sixties, it was the Age of Aquarius. Query Google with “age of …” and the big winner is “Age of Empires,” the computer game. The 18th century is called The Enlightenment (so well known, the “age of” was just dropped). Here’s my candidate to describe our current condition: The Age of Too Much Belief. It’s like people have more belief than they need for everyday needs, so it spills over into believing anything and everything. That vaccines are a government plot. That green tea is bad for your health. That Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Is there anything people won’t believe?
In earlier times, Americans were more aware of the possibility of being snookered and weren’t so easily bamboozled. (Just the number of casual words we have to describe being deceived is instructive.) Remember the American who said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”? That also carries an implicit warning: Don’t be a sucker. There’s the popular saying, “If you believe X, I have a bridge to sell you.” These days, there are a lot of Xs that people do in fact believe. It’s amazing there are any bridges left in our country.
Here is the paragraph that started me on this line of thinking, the perils of living in an Age of Too Much Belief. It’s from Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance (W. W. Norton & Co., 2016, new edition), page 371. The author was lamenting the poor luck of Sextus Empiricus, the greatest skeptic of the ancient world, to live at the dawn of the third century, which was another age of too much belief:
He [Sextus Empiricus] cannot have been a happy man. By the beginning of the third century AD, around the time when he was writing his defence of Pyrrhonist scepticism, the philosophical scene had turned into a sceptic’s nightmare. It was an age of believers, not of doubters, and people managed to believe a great deal. While Sextus and a handful of others tried to play off the doctrines of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics against one another, most thinkers preferred to try to combine them and then swallow the lot. Christianity, pagan mysticism, ghost-raising magic, Pythagorean numerological ramblings and assorted flavors of Eastern religion also turned up to join the feast.
Our general beliefs are devolving into the same mixed up mishmash of ideas that were seen in the third century and later. I’m not going to delve into the question of why so many Americans suddenly believe almost anything they read or hear on Fox News. Is it social media? That could be the problem, or just a symptom of a deeper problem. The focus, of course, is on why so many Mormons suddenly believe almost anything they hear. Is there something about being Mormon the predisposes one to believe unreasonable or untenable claims? (Sadly, that’s almost a rhetorical question.)
Mormons are asked to believe a lot of things on authority (the confident statement of this or that leader, past or present) and on faith (a claim lacking evidence persuasive enough to constitute reliable knowledge). You’ve heard “read, ponder, and pray” as the Mormon formula for building faith, except in recent years the “read” part and even the “ponder” part have received less emphasis. A spiritual experience, whether in prayer or in a meeting or hearing a hymn, whatever, checks the box and becomes a rhetorical anchor to your faith, generally expressed as knowledge. A spiritual experience, an emotional experience, a deeply moving experience, a hallucination, a dream — there is little or no discussion about the various mental states that might accompany such experiences or how to distinguish them. Of course they are mental states — what else could they be? In the strange syntax of Mormonism, “I believe” is understood as “I doubt,” whereas “I know” is what is uttered when one testifies of a belief. The bottom line is that despite talking about it all the time, faith and belief are acutely underanalyzed within Mormonism.
So maybe the recommended all-purpose truth algorithm that Mormons are taught and generally internalize is part of the explanation for why Mormons are even more belief-happy (they’ll believe anything) than the average belief-happy American. The solution? I doubt LDS leaders are going to modify or drop their useful formula for fomenting LDS belief. But at the very least, they should start singling out beliefs that should no longer be believed. This is generally only done when the questionable belief becomes a source of bad PR. So when Randy Bott, BYU professor, repeated racist LDS beliefs to a Washington Post reporter and it was subsequently published, suddenly the Church fell all over itself to state those things should no longer be believed. We need more of this, hopefully just because it’s the right thing to do, not just because it causes bad PR.
What we need are specific suggestions for things Mormon should not believe or should no longer believe. It’s like spring cleaning for the Mormon belief closet. I’ll start with a belief to discard: “If you pay your tithing, you’ll have *more* money, not less, at the end of the month.” It’s easy to see how this satisfies the Mormon truth algorithm: (1) It is stated by an authority figure (like every GA that talks about tithing); and (2) it makes listeners feel good because they want to believe it. Who doesn’t want more money at the end of the month? I would replace it with an accurate but still somewhat edifying statement that a leader could use, something like this: “Paying tithing is a financial sacrifice you should accept for the good of the Church and the Kingdom of God. We hope and we are confident that, in return, God will bless you in some general but unspecified way, but don’t expect a winning lottery ticket or a mystery deposit into your checking account. That’s not how sacrifice works. Keep in mind that in some cases of financial distress, the Church through its local leadership may provide short-term assistance to a struggling tithepayer to pay the bills for a month or two and put food on the table.”
In the comments, maybe you object to my claim that there is too much Mormon belief and that Mormons just believe too many things. If so, share a belief or two Mormons should be more willing to accept. If you agree with me, help out by offering your suggestion for a belief Mormons should no longer believe. Let’s clean out the closet. Let’s cut off some dead or decaying branches, that the Belief Tree might grow taller in coming years.