“Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”–Oliver Cromwell, letter to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland (3 August 1650)
Five years ago, I wrote a book about evolution and human cognition. This was a stretch for me, as I am a three-time English major, so I did a lot of research. It was fascinating research, which taught me a lot of important things about knowledge, human nature, cognition, and storytelling. It also taught me the single most depressing thing that I know, which is this: human reason did not evolve to help us find the truth; it evolved to help us defend positions arrived at in largely unreasonable ways.
The reasons for this lie deep in the reptilian corners of our brains. Natural selection selects for what is useful, which may or may not be what is true. Decisiveness is useful. Appearing confident is useful. Defending one’s turf is useful. And winning fights is always useful. But knowing the truth about abstract universal propositions involving beauty, truth, and God? Not so much. It turns out that appearing to know the truth about these things is much more valuable, evolutionarily speaking, than actually being right.
Culture reinforces these evolutionary dynamics in different ways. Mormon culture, for example, places an enormous premium on appearing to know the truth, especially in religious matters. Few people ever stand up in testimony meeting to proclaim that they think the Church is true, or even that they hope or believe the Church is true. From the time we can talk, we announce from the pulpit that we know the Church is true. We know it from the bottom of our hearts, with every fiber of our beings, absolutely, certainly, completely, just like Moroni promised.
Even those present and former Mormons who do not accept the Church’s teachings or fact claims often bring a very Mormon sense of certainty into what are supposed to be their doubts and uncertainties. The rhetoric of absolute certainty seems to survive much longer in Latter-day Saints than any of the particular things that we claim to be certain about.
But here’s the deal: you are wrong about stuff. I am wrong about stuff. We are all wrong about stuff. This is just math. Given the number of things that all of us believe (or do not believe) to be facts, the number of things that we consider (or do not consider) valuable, and the number of policies that we think (or do not think) will work, there is no possible way that we are going to be right about everything. We understand this retroactively. We can all remember times that we were wrong in the past. But such is the nature of human cognition that we can barely even fathom what we might be wrong about today.
And this is why Cromwell’s challenge–“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken”–is so important to us (and yes, I do realize how ironic it is to quote Oliver Cromwell on the possibility of being wrong). Another word for this is “humility.” This is important because it actually is part of our religion, and because it makes us people that other people can stand to be around. But it is also important because, as a matter of near-mathematical certainty, we actually are wrong about some religious things–and probably quite a few.
Most of the (considerable) harm done in the world in the name of religion has been done by people who are absolutely certain that they are right and that somebody else is wrong. These we call fanatics. But much of the (also considerable) good that has been done through religion has been done by those who, acknowledging that they see through a glass darkly, do their best to enact the tenets of their faith as they understand it, while still being willing to consider–on a very deep level that they cannot separate from their core beliefs–that they just might be mistaken. These we call disciples.