Science, Preaching, Religion, Freedom, etc.

For the past decade or so, I’ve been slowly working through a book on Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Sermon [Discourse].” The book, among other things, tracks the influence of the sermon’s ideas within church culture over time (and the reverse). While working on this project, one of the things that became important to the discussion was the interface between science and the church. That is a very long story that I couldn’t hope to dent much in the book itself but it brought a lot of questions to my mind, especially about modernism and church teachings (I will avoid the loaded term “doctrine” here). These are just some side thoughts I’ve had about the fringes of the book as it has more or less closed out its writing.

One of the trends in church discourse reflects a much larger one in broader, perhaps especially in, American society. Critics of the present state of things want to claim that traditional religious institutions (churches, religious colleges, etc.) deserve protection in part because they provide essential normative values for society. They argue that naturalism and liberal theologies/faiths open the way for the destruction of values by extending, among other things, the influence of science in culture. It is only traditional religions (read conservative movements) that can effectively challenge this degradation. People like Martin Luther King are often held up as proof that real social critiques  require deeply held religious beliefs whereas theological liberals were historically committed to  the idea that deep exclusively religious outlooks were the cause of social problems—because they often vigorously blocked progress within science and the influence of scientific outlooks on policy and social evils. Conservative religious outlooks (I won’t name names because it is hard to create accurate blanket assertions) see less rigid religious frames as the “cause” social problems by their opening the gates to modernism’s crushing deeply held traditional faith (biblical inerrancy, say, or other similar stuff like biblical sexual ethics as traditionally seen).  

It is in fact the case that this view of religion as the center stake in the tent of social change is not sufficient. The current bulge of political and religious critique of scientific outlook or theological liberalism seems at least partly to be about the bugbear of secularism (sometimes very crudely expressed as “secular” opposition to embedded racism, sexism, etc.). Secularism, however seen, doesn’t necessarily mean a dominance of science. Science works fine with consumerism, the creation of new legalisms, bureaucracy and such. But it also can move against secular culture in some forms. “Science” is complicated by itself and its practitioners (read stuff like scientism or creationism or well, other stretchings of the term). Historians can’t just write off these various branchings of science whether the motivation is purity or influence or whatever. Traditional religion as well as science has been deployed in the past to justify all kinds of secular practices. It is a hard matter to read the real relation between science and religion on the one hand, and social constructs and practice on the other. The quest to find the ideal society can’t be so simple as talking about “religious freedom” (usually a buzzword for squelching certain expressions or practices in semi-public institutions). The history angle here is just historization of terms, ideas, and data: pushing past old conflicts to understand their recurrence in a new age. In the end, there is some seriously hidden chaotism. Thanks for letting me think out loud, confused as it may read.  [1]


[1] I’d add one more thing that fits here somewhere. I think the willingness of liberal Protestantism to criticize itself opened the way for its own loss of influence. That’s pretty obvious I believe. And perhaps its something that haunts Latter-day Saint leadership. 


  1. Jesse Stricklan says:

    I really appreciate your careful thoughts here. It has been very odd to me, growing up and now, that science is seen as an opponent of religion — particularly in a religion like Mormonism, where questing for the truth is so emphasized, where Alma basically tells us to pursue the scientific method to determine what is true, with James E. Talmage in it… But such it is, and not for

    As for the collapse of the authority of liberal protestantism, I’m less sure that’s why it collapsed. I am thinking a lot about that lately, and I think the collapse happened because liberal protestantism recognized earlier that an anti-science worldview (like that of conservative religion) wasn’t going to work in a modern world. People aren’t going to be able to keep the cognitive dissonance up between a God designed for medieval cosmology and a world that obviously does not work that way. So I think the “success” of conservative protestantism in maintaining its influence in society came at a high cost and is a ticking time bomb. (I’ve been strongly influenced by Ilia Delio on this, but I think it’s right. See, e.g., analysis in The Unbearable Wholeness of Being.) Instead of avoiding criticizing itself, a religious movement should actually think hard about how to make its cosmology compatible with what modern science provides. Again, luckily for Mormonism, it has a pretty good position there — if we decide to take advantage of it.

    But most importantly of all, WHEN IS YOUR BOOK GOING TO BE DONE OH MY GOODNESS.

  2. “if we decided to take advantage of it.” Yes, but even so, potentially deadly. As far as the book’s finish date, I’m done but reviewers aren’t. I hope the process moves quickly, but carefully. Who knows, maybe Christmas presents?

  3. Often times at Alma chapter 32 is described as pursuing the scientific method. I believe a definite difference is that the evidence obtained through the process in Alma ch 32 is all individualized and subjective and just within the person. at core there is no empiric or demonstrable evidence for the revelation that 1 receives. But indeed many people attest that “the fruit has become Sweet to them. ” .
    To live in a pluralistic society where so many social conventions and structure are based on data that cannot be empirically demonstrated to another (religious faith) is fraught, but not without value. faith is apparently part of the process, if the evidence were overwhelming, we would have no choice and real development would not be possible, would not be human in relation to God. God works with us one on one, not through force or coercion, even through data.
    Alma 32 is beautiful, it is wonderful, but it is not science.
    Faith is powerful and difficult to change, because it inherently involves a teleological suspension of evidence or sometimes even the ethical (Abraham was about to do something terrible based on faith.” Thus it is to be handled with “fear and trembling.” and most safely with love and tolerance of others.
    Science is something different.

  4. Alma2’s worldview as suggested by his speeches to critics “everything shows that there is a God” appeals to observation but lacks reflection. The same is true of cosmological arguments like Lehi’s. It makes such texts more interesting but finally, less certain. JS maintains a seekers attitude that can be ummm, unsympathetic to social/cultural archetypes and willing to assert the anti-science miraculous and change his mind quite often.

  5. Dear Lona Gynt, I appreciate your careful reading of Alma 32 there. I think that most people don’t think that carefully about it and come down one way or another uncautiously; you, on the other hand, have not come down anywhere uncritically, and that’s maybe the point! And might I proclaim your statement that God does not work by coercion in any way from the rooftops?? That is largely the problem, I think, with both pre-modern religion and scientism — they’re ideologies always waiting for some irresistible power to take control, be it a Tyrant God or Tyrant Data. Both ideologies are, in my view, anti-scientific, because of a similar feature in science to what wvs so accurately captured in JSJr’s character: the willingness to change your mind.

    If you’re interested in following my train of thought, though, I think I could learn a bit from steel sharpening steel here. I do think that Alma 32 can be understood as a method at least analogous to the scientific method, once we make the very important observation (as you did) that the results of the experiment are not *externally* verifiable. (Sadly, I think the same thing can actually be said about any scientific experiment, but I’m willing to table the intersubjective nature of our perceptions of reality for the purposes of this conversation, unless that’s a valuable line of inquiry!) Alma, I think, is asserting that the results of faith are *repeatable*, and only therefore reliable, which is what reminds me of the scientific method most of all. (The structure of hypothesis, experiment, revision, and sharing aspects of his faith process also draw lovely although admittedly non-identical parallels.)

    I think one of the sad results of our modern age is that we have divided our sense of *reality* from our sense of *faith*. This is strange, when you consider it, because reality is things as they are, and were, and will be, and faith is quite literally the process of discovering what those things are, and were, and will be. When we think that our faith and our sense of cosmology are incompatible, we live fractured lives, seeing (for example) inevitable conflict between our sense of the ethical and our sense of the real. This is the wound of the modern mindset, I think. Most fundamentalists attempt to heal the wound by denying what we now know — denying the modern cosmology. That is childish and destructive and, by the way, directly counter to what Alma suggests in chapter 32. The other alternative, however, which JSJr was happy to do all the time, is to ditch the medieval cosmology that people have decided is “religion” and update it according to the results of our faith — our experiments with living in the world. Alma is asserting a faith that, if we do so, we will receive the imprint of a consistent, objective cosmology (God’s interactions with us) that can lead us, line upon line, toward greater communion with God. This communion with God, not a specific cosmology, is what Alma seems to be implying is actually religion.

    And in that sense, as I see it, there actually *is* no conflict between science and religion, in Alma’s conception, because the process of discovery is more or less the same in each. Science is faith, and the facts are the seed we nurture; we toss aside the hypotheses (seeds) that don’t work, and continue to nurture (pursue experiments in) the hypotheses that do work.

    Obviously, Alma doesn’t present the view of a modern scientist, but the method is close enough, I think, to merit a closer look at the nature of both science and religion. I don’t think *either* really merit a teleological suspension of evidence or ethics — Abraham and Isaac is a good discussion for a different day — and inasmuch as we think religion does, it’s because we have misunderstood who God is — and we must urgently revise our conceptions. Just like Alma taught us to. :)

    wvs, I agree that Alma is an incautious naturalist, and that similar arguments today aren’t terribly persuasive! It irritates me something terrible when people read that section and start making the argument as if it solves anything given *our* understanding of the world, because it’s obvious that Alma’s position is completely untenable without a strong discussion of what can, for example, be understood as “existing” before the Big Bang, or a thorough engagement with aspects of quantum theory that I am ill equipped to manage. But I agree that JSJr’s endless open-mindedness is an interesting aspect of this whole issue, something we can hopefully learn from, although hopefully not identically repeat. (There is a point at where “having an open mind” loses any value, e.g., when you begin to assert things that just ain’t so…) Thanks for your thoughts!!

  6. Jesse Stricklan says:

    Whoops, WordPress logged me in on an old profile. This was Jesse Stricklan. :)

  7. “Often times at Alma chapter 32 is described as pursuing the scientific method.”

    A TERRIBLE reading! It uses the word “experiment,” but that’s it’s only similarity with scientific method.

  8. Jesse Stricklan says:

    Kristine, haha, wow, OK. I respect what you write, so I’ll bite, because I expect I can learn something if you decide to engage! Here goes nothing…

    I understand the scientific method as containing the following steps: evaluating the available information (“give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart”); developing a hypothesis as to outstanding questions (believe that this might “be a true seed, or a good seed”); thoroughly testing the hypothesis (exercising faith by following the word); observing the results (“the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow”); revising the hypothesis (“if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away”); reporting the results and following up with further research (vv. 34-43).

    None of the results of this experiment are binding on anyone else (again, I’m going to bracket the intersubjective nature of our experience and therefore of the results of science, so for sake of argument let’s say this is a difference with traditional science) but the results are, according to Alma, repeatable, based on experiment, and consistent.

    Now, Alma might be *wrong* about how faith works, but the (untrained 19th-century farmboy) parallels between what Alma is suggesting as faith’s method of finding the truth and science’s method aren’t insignificant — at least, to me, they form different applications of a *general* method. But just because it works for me to think of it that way doesn’t mean it has to work for anyone else. I submit solely in the spirit of sharing, in case it helps anyone else. Please help me by correcting me if such effort seems you interesting!

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