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.

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