“Mormon Scholars Testify”

Recently, a website was created to facilitate Testimony sharing for LDS scholars and scientists:

Mormon Scholars Testify

The Church has its own website where Prophets and Apostles have published countless testimonies, each of them fervent and heartfelt.  So why would a separate website be needed for the LDS intelligentsia?

It would seem that sometimes “scholarly” issues appear to attack the Church, presenting a situation where a Church member might feel like they have to choose one or the other.  A website like that can be helpful in showing that it’s possible to pursue academic or scientific knowledge while maintaining a testimony of the Gospel (and the Church).

Of course, a broader view shows us many situations where very smart people believe very false things (for example, almost every false religion could probably create a similar site with notable scholars sharing their testimonies in a similar fashion).

So this would raise the question, is it possible for a very smart person to have a testimony of something that is very false?

If the answer is “Yes”, then one theory on the matter has been put forth by Michael Shermer.  He suggests that it is possible for very smart people to believe false things because frequently the smart people formed certain convictions before they were “smart” (i.e. as young children, or before they had studied certain issues or fields of knowledge), and then they use their “smarts” to defend their false belief instead of analyzing it and questioning it.  As he puts it:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.

Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that do not.

All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it through both talent and training. Some beliefs really are more logical, rational, and supported by the evidence than others, of course, but it is not my purpose here to judge the validity of beliefs; rather, I am interested in the question of how we came to them in the first place, and how we hold on to them in the face of either no evidence or contradictory evidence.

If that is true, than we would expect “smart” people to be found in every religion and belief system, even the false ones.  So, a website such as the one under discussion might show that it is possible for scholars and scientists to maintain belief in LDS Doctrines (which I suspect is the point, although I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise), but it wouldn’t speak to the overall truthfulness of those Doctrines.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to “Mormon Scholars Testify”

  1. Yes, I think Michael Shermer is right. I also think the LDS church creates some very strong-willed scholars. Over and over again, LDS are told that the Church is the one and only true church.

    It’s simply human nature to feel a need to defend one’s beliefs. I have observed that few take an honest look at what they believe and truly analyze it. Combine this with the LDS’s view on the “one and only”, and you get some serious spin.

  2. Sophocles

    I think this phenomenon Shermer describes is perhaps most evident in Sorenson’s testimony:

    “In my case “a testimony” was not something I had to acquire at a given moment as a response to “doubts.” As far as I can recall, there was never a time from my earliest years growing up in Smithfield, a village in northern Utah, that I did not have an assurance that the gospel was from God and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the result of his intervention in the life of Joseph Smith, Jr., and his associates. The entirety of the story of the restoration and the message of its teachings seemed to me eminently sensible.”

    You see, it was obviously true to him even as a child!

    Something similar that I’ve noticed perusing these scholar testimonies is that they rarely admit to having any sincere doubts. This is a mainstay of more typical, “Chapel Mormon” testimonies: “Oh sure, there was a time that I doubted it all. I mean, it is a pretty far-fetched story on the surface, anyone can see that. But then I really prayed and asked God and he told me it was true…”

    The typical scholar testimony is completely lacking in this regard. They never doubted. The truthfulness of the gospel was always evident to their superior minds. It makes me wonder if this is by design. The apologist’s raison d’etre is to create the illusion that studying beyond correlated material actually strengthens testimonies rather than weakens them. Perhaps admitting to any doubts at all would undermine all they’ve worked towards.

    Or perhaps it’s just as Shermer describes. Rather than use their intellect to really examine and question the church’s truth claims, they’ve always managed to come up with creative ways to assure themselves that they were right all along.

  3. That’s exactly right. Look at Blake Ostler’s testimony on that site. He had experiences as a teenager that have framed his entire adult life, and he goes through all the rationalizations he has to make to preserve his teenage worldview. Your citing of Shermer is spot on.

  4. Dave

    And what did Shermer believe, or what experiences did he have, before he “got smart” and therefore qualified to evaluate the “weird” beliefs of smart people who evidently are not smart enough, in his opinion, to realize that they are molded in part by their childhood religious experiences?

    Shermer’s argument fails because it naively exempts itself from its own withering embrace. He also was once a child who had formative experiences. I can, following his argument, just conclude that his early experiences inclined him to religious disbelief, and so why should I pay attention to what he has say, just as he will conclude the same about me.

    The point is that his argument allows neither of us to get the upper hand, to seize the intellectual high ground.

    What I think is naive is the posture of condescension assumed by Shermer (and those who agree with him) in pronouncing judgment on those who choose to practice religious belief. As if he somehow knows better, has somehow graduated to a higher plane of understanding.

    This, IMO, is not just naivete but some sort of self-congratulatory self-deception. Doesn’t he see that his own argument is self-defeating?

    .

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