Sometimes I like to joke that university professors make for questionable spiritual advisors (even if there are a few exceptions). Perhaps this deserved reputation results from the fact that professors generally raise more questions than answers. I hope my “professorial testimony” in this forum raises the right kinds of questions, even if it provides very few firm answers.
There is a stereotype about Mormons that I wish to dispel. The stereotype often propagated by outsiders is that Mormons are naïve, ignorant, and feeble-minded. Instead, we Mormons are thinkers, even critical thinkers. To be a good Mormon does not mean that one sets her or his brain aside.
In fact, intellectual freedom is built into the Book of Mormon. Found therein is chapter 30 of the book of Alma, which describes a great debate between the prophet Alma and the antichrist Korihor on the very existence of God. The chapter twice emphasizes (verses 7 and 11), that “there was no law against a man’s belief.” In other words, in Alma’s culture there was freedom of religion, and one could be an atheist like Korihor without legal consequence. Similarly, modern Mormons reject coercion of belief. Society must uphold the freedom to believe in God or not. Our eleventh Article of Faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men [and women] the same privilege… .”
Thinking Mormons stand for principle. We are against racism. There are NO inferior races, only equal ones. We are against sexism. There is no inferior sex, because women and men are inherently equal in the eyes of God. We believe in improving the earth. We believe in democracy and freedom of speech. Based upon such principles, I am proudly a Mormon.
My religion promotes the intellect; as such it allows me to be a scientist—any form of scientist. In this context, I am a Mormon scientist with a firm commitment to the study of the physical operations of the brain and to the study of Darwinian evolution. My scientific testimony is that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old and that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. But my bigger point is that Mormons are free to embrace these scientific facts or not.
Science is a description of the world as we find it in existence, and it is a public endeavor. The hypotheses, the methods, the data, and the conclusions are open to inspection and critique. Strong conclusions endure over time, and weak ones eventually die. Scientific findings are subject to revision, but after extensive testing any stable findings are no longer considered tentative.
Religion is a description of the world as we hope to find it. It is driven by faith, prayer, meditation, scripture, and inspiration. It too can involve experimental tests (Alma 32:27), but religious conclusions are individually driven, not normally subject to public scrutiny.
It is the job of science to show how natural processes can give a plausible account for events. The concern of science is natural mechanism. By contrast, the concern of religion is final cause—God. If the hand of God involves natural mechanism, then science indeed is a kind of religious experience—a true revealer of secrets in the laboratory or in the rocks. Scientists always seek natural mechanisms over miraculous ones. I do think theologians sometimes overplay the role of God as the proximate (immediate) explanation of both ordinary and perhaps extraordinary events.
I am skeptical by nature, a skill that has served me well in science, but maybe not always so well in religion. My religious beliefs have come the hard way—experimenting upon the word. Alma 32: 27 reads, “if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, … ye can give place for a portion of my words.” Please note that Alma seems to be saying that religious understanding occurs by turning on the brain (becoming awake) and doing experiments until one can accept a PORTION of God’s words. No one is asking, least of all Alma, for people to be enlightened completely and all at once. Knowledge, whether religious or scientific, takes place gradually. I appreciate that the Book of Mormon has the following passage found in Mosiah 4:27: “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” No one in this Church has pushed me farther than I have had strength.
Beyond my interests in science, I have spent many years studying, teaching and writing on the “Mormon trail” of the nineteenth century. We modern Mormons have a lot of misconceptions about how our pioneer ancestors crossed the American plains.
We typically think of the pioneers loading up into prairie schooners (covered wagons) and riding them like cars. Our pioneer ancestors were smarter than that, because they had no desire to be jostled around like scrambled eggs. True, the wagon required a driver, but everyone else walked!! The wagons traveled at two miles per hour. Human beings can walk much faster than that speed.
While our traveling pioneer ancestors were plenty smart, they could have benefited greatly from modern medical science. For example, their nutritional and sanitary practices were quite unacceptable by modern standards.
A main dietary staple of pioneers on the Mormon trail was “hardtack,” a real hard biscuit that would crunch when chewed. It was easily preserved (far better than regular bread), and it traveled well. The pioneer diet had little variation. Occasionally pioneers ate dried or salt-soaked bacon, rice, beans, or corn meal. A piece of dried fruit would be a rare treat. Of course, the pioneers would hunt game when possible. The biggest gap in their diet was green vegetables. Scurvy was a real risk for pioneer travelers. Finally, but not least, they often drank water from wooden barrels. The water sat and stagnated, often growing the bacteria responsible for the deadly disease of cholera. The pioneers did not know that they should boil their water before drinking it.
Why have I gone through this exercise on nutrition? My basic argument is that Mormons, like all people, benefit from expanded knowledge, even expanded scholarship. I cannot be glued to past ways of thinking about nature or to those horrible “hardtack” biscuits. Knowledge grows. To be healthy I need to eat a varied diet, including salads. Also, I can avoid cholera-contaminated water, because I understand the bacterial bases of disease. I do appreciate my Mormon trail pioneer ancestors, but I have no plans to walk in their nineteenth-century pathways.
Latter-day Saints believe in continuing modern-day revelation (see Article of Faith #9). The terminology as used in the previous sentence is just a fancy religious way of saying that Mormons believe in progress.
The payroll of progress often deducts from the value of past practices. Thus, I am willing to jump on the wagon of progress, as long as that wagon is NOT a prairie schooner. Although I have much to learn from history, I am NOT beholden to relive it. In that context, I much prefer the writings of modern religious leaders at LDS.org over those found in the nineteenth-century Journal of Discourses. Similarly, I strongly prefer recent issues of Scientific American dated the past ten years to those issues dated any earlier.
Taking a modern approach is something I have long resolved.
Dr. Steven F. Faux received his B.A. degree in psychology from the University of California, Riverside, and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Brigham Young University. Post-doctoral studies were conducted at Harvard Medical School for five years. His current areas of focus include cognitive neuroscience and human evolution. Appointed in 1990, Dr. Faux is a faculty member of the Department of Psychology at Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). He served as Chair of the department (for seven years) and also as Director of the Honors Program (for three years). He was awarded “Teacher of the Year” for the College of Arts and Sciences (1995), was named as the Levitt Teacher of the Year (2005), the highest teaching award given by Drake University, and has further been honored as a Stalnaker lecturer in recognition of his academic accomplishments. For a number of years, too, Dr. Faux taught an Honors Program course entitled “On the Mormon Trail.”
Posted February 2010