Why The Heck Is David Mormon?
By David Metcalfe
December 17, 2019
The Limits of The Intellect
I’ve come to think that, when discerning truth, intelligence is not everything. There are three main limiting factors that come to mind: intelligence is not always moral, intelligence can be distorted from reality, and intelligence does not have the ability to answer many important questions.
Ted Kaczynski, for instance, was a brilliant man, with an IQ around 170 and, at only 25 years old, was the youngest mathematics professor ever at the University of California, Berkeley. After 2 years of teaching at the university, he left and eventually moved to a small cabin in the forest in Montana to live by himself. There he studied sociology and philosophy, and decided that technology was corrupting humanity. He went about sending bombs to various academics and one to an airplane, killing 3 people and injuring 23, over the span of nearly 20 years. He wrote an anarcho-primitivist manifesto called “Industrial Society and Its Future”, sent it to major newspapers, and told them that if they did not publish it he would continue killing people. So, in 1995, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published it. Surprisingly, many academics read it and said the ideas were very intelligent and of high quality. Kaczynski was eventually caught and is currently serving the rest of his life in prison.
All that to say: Kaczynski was an intelligent guy. But had he achieved truth? Is it true that we should murder innocent people with bombs in order to further our agenda? Is it true that technology is destroying the world and the only way to make people happy is to destroy society and live like we did 10,000 years ago?
It’s pretty easy to see that Ted Kaczynski had significant moral failure and a distorted reality, despite his intelligence. Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pablo Escobar, the list goes on of men who were very intelligent, yet horrendously immoral and distorted in their views.
It is not enough to have a high IQ, or to be well read, or to think a lot. It is vital to have two additional things: 1) A good moral sense- empathy, compassion, kindness and 2) Wisdom- reasonableness, appreciating other perspectives, understanding people.
On the third thing- the limits of intelligence in answering important questions- I appreciate this quote in “Philosophy For Laymen” by Bertrand Russell. At this time, in 1946, Russell was 73 years old, and had spent basically his whole life studying philosophy. Just a year prior, he had completed his seminal work “The History of Western Philosophy” in which he went through, in great detail, the thoughts of every major philosopher throughout western history. This guy knew philosophy. In this essay, he writes:
“Leaving aside, for the moment, all questions that have to do with ethics or with values, there are a number of purely theoretical questions, of perennial and passionate interest, which science is unable to answer, at any rate at present. Do we survive death in any sense, and if so, do we survive for a time or for ever? Can mind dominate matter, or does matter completely dominate mind, or has each, perhaps, a certain limited independence? Has the universe a purpose? Or is it driven by blind necessity? Or is it a mere chaos and jumble, in which the natural laws that we think we find are only a fantasy generated by our own love of order? If there is a cosmic scheme, has life more importance in it than astronomy would lead us to suppose, or is our emphasis upon life mere parochialism and self-importance? I do not know the answer to these questions, and I do not believe that anybody else does, but I think human life would be impoverished if they were forgotten, or if definite answers were accepted without adequate evidence. To keep alive the interest in such questions, and to scrutinize suggested answers, is one of the functions of philosophy.”
There are many questions that even the most intelligent scientists and philosophers of all time have no real answer for. It is the practice of many intelligent people, as it was for Russell, to resign themselves to agnosticism, or the gospel of “I don’t know”. But agnosticism fails to satisfy a great deal of practical matters. All of the questions mentioned by Russell are ones that have very direct implications for our lives. For instance, if there is no purpose to the universe, how are we to live our lives? Would it actually matter if a nuclear holocaust annihilated all of mankind? What gives humans value? Was Ted Kaczynski actually wrong to bomb innocent people, or did he just violate a social construct?
Russell goes on to say, “For it is not enough to recognize that all our knowledge is, in a greater or less degree, uncertain and vague; it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.”
I do not expect to be able to intellectually answer all of the questions that even the most intelligent people in the world could not, and still cannot, answer. But I do think we can get to a certain amount of knowledge through intellect, a certain amount through our sense of morality, and a certain amount, perhaps, through our spirit.
Other Limits To The Construction of Religious Belief
I mentioned the first limitation- human intellect- but there are two other major limitations associated with that, more specifically:
1) The immense ignorance caused by the excessive number of potential beliefs.
There are, essentially, an infinite number of religions that exist in the world. Just within Christianity, there are Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc., and within the various sects, there are vast differences in views. For instance, many believe that free will does not exist; that God pre-ordained all things to happen exactly as they would from before the beginning of time, while others believe that God grants free will, and does not know all things that will happen in the future. Some believe that Jesus and God are the same being in different forms, while others believe Jesus and God are merely united in purpose, but are separate in being. Some believe that people of all religions go to heaven, while others believe that only people with the exact right theology go to heaven.
But then we find that among Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., there is just as much variance in belief. Even atheists represent a huge range of reasons for disbelieving. The sheer vastness poses significant problems for ascertaining truth.
Everyone is ignorant of the vast majority of religious views; even people who study religion their entire lives. The human brain cannot even deal with so many options. Giving each one the necessary time to honestly study it- attend services, form relationships, learn the doctrine, assess the arguments for and against, etc.- is impossible.
2) Being raised with a certain worldview, and existing in a certain culture.
It’s impossible to separate yourself completely from your culture and upbringing. Even atheists who reject religion are often doing so in opposition to their religious upbringing. How you were raised follows you your whole life. Most studies indicate that, in places with religious freedom, the correlation of belief to one’s parents beliefs is about 70%.
If you are raised in United States vs. Saudi Arabia vs. China, do you think that would affect the odds of what religion you end up with?
It is quite common for people to “study religion for themselves” and end up maintaining the views they were raised with as children, only now with more complex justifications. It’s not to say their justifications would be any better or worse had they changed religions, but there is a certain amount of comfort and ease in doing what is socially accepted among your close friends and family members, and in aligning yourself with your upbringing.
Moral Sense In Trying To Construct a Religious Belief
I don’t blame people who merely accept the beliefs they were raised in. I used to say, “oh, they are being so stupid!” but, you know, I’ve spent a great deal of time studying religion, and I do not know much, and my life is not that great. In many ways, I envy people who are brought up in good religions and who can easily accept and be confident in them. It is important for everyone, however, to think about their religious beliefs as honestly as they can, and make sure it satisfies both their intellect and sense of moral good.
For myself, I can see a great deal of intellect in Christianity and Islam. They were heavily influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers, especially that of Aristotle, and the works of men like St. Thomas Aquinas and Ibn Rushd are more complex than I even bother to really get into. But I do see a mean, even evil, aspect of those religions. Not necessarily the believers, but of the God who they believe in. In the case of Christianity, it’s a God who puts huge numbers of people in hell, who orders the mass killings of groups of people in the Old Testament, who justifies slavery, and so forth. In Islam, it’s a God who elevates men above women, who demands a political state, who enforces his laws with brutal, physical violence, and so forth. Many attempts have been made by humane, well-meaning theologians to either dismiss these harsher doctrines or explain them in a way that people can feel is morally justified. I have not been sufficiently convinced of the lessening of these harsher doctrines- in so far as what I can be intellectually and morally fulfilled by.
While I’ve studied many other religions, I can’t honestly say that I’ve studied them enough to even make a real criticism of them. For example, I remember one Christian friend saying he doesn’t believe in Hinduism because he doesn’t like the caste system. Months later, as I was reading about Gandhi, I saw that he was very against the way they treated the lower castes, and instead encouraged social equality. In fact, there are major movements in favour of social equality within the Hindu religion. This man’s criticism was a result of a lack of knowledge, and the need to justify his own religion above others (but keep in mind, any claim we make has a lack of evidence, because evidence is infinite).
Mormonism? That’s The One To Go With?
One thing I’ve learned is that “Mormonism” doesn’t really exist. It’s a term that people referred to believers as, but that’s never been the official name of the church, and “Mormons” has never been the official name of its members. It is supposed to be called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”.
The real name portrays the nature of the belief much more correctly. The religion was founded by Jesus Christ about 2000 years ago, and is based off of his teachings as recorded in the gospels and the Book of Mormon. The scriptures were written by men who supposedly received inspiration from God, all the way from Moses telling the story of Adam and Eve, to Solomon sharing his wisdom, to Nephi telling the story of the Hebrews in America, to Paul’s experiences and letters to the early church, to Joseph Smith sharing doctrine as it was revealed to him, and many more authors.
There are a lot of extraneous beliefs that get mixed in with the essentials, and that’s why I really do try to boil it down to: the existence of God as creator of the universe and humans in His image, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the restoration by Joseph Smith and continued through modern prophets. I will briefly explain how I’ve come to think of these doctrines intellectually and morally.
The existence of God: I’ve read plenty of arguments and heard many debates about the existence of God, and when I consider the arguments, I really am more swayed towards the idea that God does exist. I also love John Locke and the philosophies of the Founding Fathers, and I’ve come to think that this idea mentioned in the Declaration of Independence that “all humans are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” is a wonderful manifestation of what it means to be made in the image of God, and how that justifies acknowledging and treating others with value. If God does exist, and does define our purpose in life, there are a large number of moral implications.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: Paul writes to the church in Corinth that “if the dead are not raised, then eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. The concept he alludes to before and after is that the resurrection of Jesus, if true, would provide that opportunity to be raised to new life. The historical evidence for Jesus seems significant to me. Based on the basic historical evidences, it seems that it is more likely to me that Christ did rise from the dead than that he didn’t. There is an infinite amount of potential evidence for and against, and many grey areas, and many arguments I likely have not heard yet, but based on what I have heard, it makes sense to me.
The restoration by Joseph Smith: If someone can explain to me how a random, poorly educated farm kid wrote a 600 page book with extremely complex philosophy, correct Hebrew names and ancient geography, that builds on theological concepts from the Bible, and has massive amounts of original content, then I would be happy to hear it. I’ve heard various theories, like that he copied the Bible, or copied “The Views of the Hebrews” or that he had help, or whatever, but none of those theories make much sense to me- they sound ad hoc. The Book of Mormon seems to be, at the very least, a literary masterpiece from a savant, and at best, an authentic text from ancient Americans inspired by God.
I’m ok with a lot of the criticisms that come at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Did Joseph Smith lie about God ordering him to practice polygamy? I don’t know, maybe. Did Brigham Young say that God didn’t want black people to have the priesthood because he was just plain racist? I don’t know, honestly, I hope so. Do people do weird stuff in the temple? Yeah, I’ve done some stuff in the temple that most people would think of as “weird”- like baptizing people in the spirit world. The list goes on… but I think those are all interesting things to think about, and maybe the odd time, even to get an answer to.
In addition, I think the lifestyle the church promotes, especially in the modern day, seems to be one that is very favourable to moral good and human flourishing. Sexual expression within a loving marriage, raising children, serving others, being kind and charitable, being responsible with your finances, and many more ideas, all factor in as part of the social ethic. But there is also a much greater spiritual ethic, that love is not just a bunch of chemicals being released by your brain, or an ingrained, evolutionary response for the survival of the species, but actually exists transcendently, and is made manifest in the person of Jesus, fulfilled when he died for the sins of the world. The love we show to others is a further manifestation of that love- to family, friends, community, strangers, and even enemies.
What Does It Mean To Be Guided By The Holy Spirit?
Jesus said, in John 14:26:
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. “
Moroni gives a more specific application of that in Moroni 10:4:
“…if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Spirit is hard to explain. But a lot of people describe it as a strong, compelling, and uplifting feeling, kind of like when an artist feels inspired to paint something new, or a hockey player gets a chance for a breakaway. These feelings have the potential, if you’re willing, to guide you towards a greater sense of truth than intellect or moral sense ever could.
The Holy Spirit guides people towards belief in the atonement of Jesus Christ and the scriptures, and then towards covenants, or promises, between you and God. The fulfillment of these covenants strengthens your belief- as you get baptized, sealed, and so forth.
Intellect has done great things for humanity, and discovered many truths, but is very limited. A good moral sense is also vital to understanding how the intellect should be applied, and how we are to treat others. But these two things still leave one with many important questions that leave people unfulfilled, and hence, humans tend to look toward the supernatural.
Navigating the supernatural questions of life through religious or spiritual frameworks is very difficult- there are so many worldviews out there, and sub-views within each one. We simply can’t study them all sufficiently, and even if we could, our intellect is so limited. We also have a cultural bias, based on our upbringing and social community.
I would hope that no one would ever think that I have absolute truth on anything. I’m subject to all of these same limitations and biases, just as everyone else is. While one can simply resign themselves to “I don’t know”, I think there is value in trying to approximate and live out truth based on what you do know, however limited it may be.
As I’ve attempted to study religion and philosophy, I’ve come to think that intellect and moral sense should factor in as far as they can, and that, ultimately, the spirit is the only thing that can grant one sufficient faith to really believe and live out the transcendent qualities of God and His revelation to mankind. Many different people find many different religious and spiritual conceptions that work for them- intellectually, morally and spiritually. I would never want to coerce someone into believing the same as me.
Joseph Smith said, in the “Articles of Faith”, that:
“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
Possibly my favourite verse in the Book of Mormon is 1 Nephi 11:16-17, that says,
“And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
I do not know all things; not even close. But I hope that as I continue to think, feel and be inspired, that I’ll continue to discover beliefs that seem true and good. So, if you ever think to yourself, “why the heck is David Mormon?”, the answer is, “because it seems reasonable to his intellect, good to his moral sense, and fulfilling to his spirit.”