A fairly recent study by sociologists Timothy O’Brien and Shiri Noy looks at the relation between science, religion, and politics with interesting–and perhaps counter-intuitive–results.
“We were looking at the assumption that science and religion are conflicting sources of knowledge,” O’Brien said. “There is this assumption in the popular imagination that if you’re scientifically oriented you can’t be religious, and if you’re religious you can’t be scientifically oriented. What was found was that it is true to some extent. We found three big groups of Americans based on their attitudes about science, their knowledge about science, and their attitudes about religion.”
The author broke the survey data into three categories:
Moderns: “those most familiar with and favorable toward science.”
Traditionals: “the most religiously devout and the least familiar with science.”
Post-seculars: “whose worldviews blend elements of both science and religion.”
“As you might expect,” O’Brien continues, “moderns tend to hold more liberal or progressive opinions and traditionalists tend to be more conservative or orthodox.” The post-seculars, however, were different from both groups. You can see how they compare to moderns and traditionals below:
Human Life: Post-seculars are “less supportive than moderns of making contraceptives accessible to teenagers. Postseculars and traditionals are also less likely than moderns to agree that it is acceptable for individuals to end their own lives and that patients with incurable diseases have a right to die…[P]ostseculars’ restrictive beliefs about abortion and other issues in this domain are evidence that appreciation and understanding of science do not necessarily lead to liberal social attitudes” (pg. 7).
Gender and Sexuality: “Results indicate that compared with each other group, moderns hold more progressive views of gender roles, sexuality, pornography, and sex education. There are no significant differences in postseculars’ and traditionals’ attitudes in this area, indicating that as with attitudes about human life, familiarity with science does not ensure liberal sociopolitical beliefs” (pg. 10).
Race and Civil Liberties: “Given their liberal views on gender and sexuality, it is perhaps surprising that moderns are less supportive than traditionals of affirmative action. Postseculars are even less supportive than moderns of affirmative action. Yet this pattern aligns with moderns’ and postseculars’ greater likelihood of agreeing that African Americans can overcome prejudice without favors. In addition, traditionals and postseculars are more likely than moderns to explain Black-White differences in terms of innate qualities, whereas moderns are more likely than traditionals to attribute race disparities to educational opportunities and discrimination…Moderns are more likely than traditionals to agree that atheists, communists, gays and lesbians, militarists, and racists should be able to place books in public libraries and to speak publically. Postseculars are also more supportive than traditionals of these civil liberties these groups” (pg. 10).
Government and Social Assistance: While “postseculars are more religious than traditionals, they are less supportive than traditionals of government efforts to reduce inequality” (pg. 10).
Criminal Justice: “Interestingly, although moderns are less likely than traditionals to approve of the police’s use of force in some situations, moderns are more likely than traditionals to approve of police force under other circumstances. Furthermore, compared with traditionals, moderns report that courts should deal with criminals more harshly. Postseculars’ opinions in this domain generally resemble moderns with one exception: despite moderns’ relatively tough-on-crime attitudes, they are more likely than each other group to support the decriminalization of marijuana” (pg. 10).
Children, Families, and School: “Postseculars share moderns’ emphasis on independent thinking but emphasize obedience more and social acceptance less than moderns. Furthermore, traditionals are more likely than moderns to view spanking as an acceptable form of punishment for children. Finally, consistent with the prominence of faith in the traditional and postsecular worldviews, these groups are each more likely than moderns to approve of prayer in public schools” (pg. 10).
Personal Well-being and Interpersonal Trust: “Postseculars…report more positive interpersonal attitudes compared with traditionals” (pg. 11).
In most, but not all, domains, moderns’ beliefs are relatively liberal or inclusive, whereas traditionals’ are more conservative or exclusive. However, the postsecular perspective defies this binary. Individuals in this category, who are familiar with and appreciative of science and also deeply religious, are marked by sociopolitical attitudes that cannot be consistently labeled conservative or liberal (pg. 11).
My skepticism of media narratives has reached (possibly) an all-time high, so lately I’ve been trying all the more to read about a given topic from multiple sources, including those I disagree with, just to have an idea of what all sides are saying. There have been plenty of cases where I’ve found information that paints a different picture than current conventional wisdom does. But I have to say, so far, the topic of the alt-right isn’t one of those cases.
I realized pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the alt-right were the angry statuses from Facebook friends and headlines from (mostly left-wing) media that I skimmed. Even right-wing sourceshave spokenagainst them, so I’ve really only heard one narrative about this group: they’re racists, white nationalists, and probably Nazis.
But I know there are people out there who don’t agree. Steve Bannon, former chief editor of Breitbart and Trump’s incoming chief strategist, has specifically rejected the idea that he’s a white nationalist, but simultaneously explains Breitbart is the platform for the alt-right. These two ideas aren’t technically incompatible–for example, he could be against white nationalism but pro-free speech. Still it seems incongruous that someone who says he rejects white nationalism would be proud of hosting a platform for white nationalists, so to my mind these two statements implied that Bannon does not think the alt-right are white nationalists.
The Intellectuals – people who pride themselves on thinking only rationally, which in this case means stripping away “self-censorship, concern for one’s social standing, concern for other people’s feelings, and any other inhibitors to rational thought.”
Natural Conservatives – people primarily concerned with preserving their homogeneity, stability, and hierarchy, specifically with preserving their own tribe and culture (western European culture).
The Meme Team – trolls. People who take great joy in being as offensive as possible, getting media to write articles about their offensiveness, and laughing about it.
The 1488RS – Nazis. “14” for the 14 words “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children” and 88 because the 8th letter of the alphabet is “H” so it’s “HH” which is “Heil Hitler.” Yes, I’m serious.
I expect these four categories crossover, but that’s how the authors compartmentalized the movement.
While this article gave me a much more detailed picture of what “alt-right” is supposed to mean, I can’t say it did much to undermine the narrative that the alt-right is comprised of racists and Nazis. I’m sure not literally everyone who associates with the alt-right is a racist, but that’s a pretty low standard. Anyway, brief thoughts on three of the four groups:
The Intellectuals: I’ve spoken with plenty of people who make no distinction between honest/blunt/direct and rude/cruel/offensive. That’s what the description of The Intellectuals sounded like to me. I understand the argument that we shouldn’t be so concerned with offending people that we become unclear or even dishonest. We shouldn’t sacrifice truth in the name of deference. I agree with that. But I firmly believe it is possible and preferable to express our views both honestly and kindly. It’s hard to be patient with people who try to excuse cruelty in the name of truth telling.
The Meme Team: Society should ignore The Meme Team entirely. Don’t feed the trolls. …But I know we won’t ignore them. It seems like trolls always get fed.
The 1488RS: They sound awful. So awful, in fact, that the rest of the alt-right (according to this article) also wishes they would go away, and feels they give the alt-right a bad name (not wrong there). In a sense I feel about the 1488RS the same way I feel about The Meme Team. The former aren’t trolls in that they are apparently sincere, but either way I worry that giving them attention gives them strength. As of right now there are very few Nazis in the country, and I’d like it to stay that way.
To some extent I feel that way about the whole alt-right movement: I’m worried that we (the rest of society) are growing and sustaining them by giving them such disproportionate attention. When Hillary Clinton decided to do a speech condemning how Trump has been embraced by the alt-right, they were thrilled. The WSJ quotes Richard Spencer, alt-right founder, saying,
“When your movement is going to be mentioned by name by the presidential candidate leading in the polls, you can safely say that we’ve made it. Our fundamental obstacle was people having no idea who we are.”
The Natural Conservatives: I saved this group for last because it’s the only one I found interesting. A lot of the description sounded exactly like white nationalism to me, but I was struck by this passage:
The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved. A Mosque next to an English street full of houses bearing the flag of St. George, according to alt-righters, is neither an English street nor a Muslim street — separation is necessary for distinctiveness.
Some alt-righters make a more subtle argument. They say that when different groups are brought together, the common culture starts to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Instead of mosques or English houses, you get atheism and stucco.
Ironically, it’s a position that has much in common with leftist opposition to so-called “cultural appropriation,” a similarity openly acknowledged by the alt-right.
This passage caught my eye because I wondered if there really is a parallel here between the left’s condemnation of cultural appropriation and the alt-right’s desire to keep western European culture separate from other cultures.
First of all, to be fair, I have a lot of left-wing friends who have turned a skeptical eye toward the concept of cultural appropriation, wondering if it goes too far. For example, they generally do frown upon white people dressing as nonwhite caricatures for Halloween, but they aren’t convinced it’s wrong to do yoga as a form of exercise. They reject mocking and taking credit for aspects of other people’s cultures, but they embrace enjoying and appreciating those same aspects. I don’t think that’s inconsistent.
At the same time, there are voices on the left that take a much broader approach to cultural appropriation, such that the concept includes actions such as eating Mexican food without being interested in Mexican people as a whole, wearing cornrows or dreadlocks, or buying into Disney’s version of Pocahontas. This understanding of cultural appropriation doesn’t require purposefully mocking or taking credit for aspects of other peoples’ cultures; it includes any time the dominant culture (usually white people) can enjoy aspects of other cultures without having to understand, acknowledge, or navigate the more complicated realities those peoples have lived with or currently live with.
It seems to me that even this broadly applied definition of cultural appropriation is distinct from the cultural preservation the alt-right’s Natural Conservatives are talking about. The left is concerned about embracing aspects of other peoples’ cultures without realizing how that embrace can affect those people. This isn’t about trying to ban yoga–it’s about yoga becoming so ubiquitous people don’t even realize where it originally came from. In contrast, the Natural Conservatives are concerned with their culture being condemned and erased. As the article puts it:
[The regressive left] is currently intent on tearing down statues of Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria in the UK, and erasing the name of Woodrow Wilson from Princeton in the U.S. These attempts to scrub western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues.
Here the examples are about specific icons, but there are other factors that play into this fear of cultural erasure. For example, both the alt-right and the right generally are concerned about the rise of secularism and the anti-religion (especially anti-Christian) sentiments that accompany it. Steve Bannon talks about that a lot in this extensive 2014 interview, Glenn Beck does too in this 2012 piece, and here is The Federalist talking about the issue this year, 2016. Related but perhaps more specific examples include the now taboo views that marriage is between a man and a woman, that there are only two genders, and that those genders are different in meaningful and predictable ways.
To be clear: I’m a pro-gay marriage secularist, so, even though I am a conservative, I personally don’t share the feeling that my culture is under attack in these specific ways, because I don’t share those particular views. But I can empathize with how those who have held those views their entire lives would feel that way, especially with how relatively rapidly some of these changes have happened and how aggressively (conservative) dissenters are berated. Charles Camosey, a #NeverTrump conservative, expressed the sentiment well:
However, much as I empathize with the desire by many to preserve cultural conservatism, and much as I reject the equivocation of any such desire as inherently racist, I do think the description of Natural Conservatives sounds bigoted, and I find it alarming. For example:
While eschewing bigotry on a personal level, the movement is frightened by the prospect of demographic displacement represented by immigration.
If I’m understanding right, this argument against immigration is not about national security or economics–it’s about culture, and not wanting immigrant culture to mix with western European (or American conservative white) culture. Is that not the definition of white nationalism?
The really interesting members of the alt-right though, and the most numerous, are the natural conservatives. They are perhaps psychologically inclined to be unsettled by threats to western culture from mass immigration and maybe by non-straight relationships. Yet, unlike the 1488ers, the presence of such doesn’t send them into fits of rage. They want to build their homogeneous communities, sure — but they don’t want to commit any pogroms along the way. Indeed, they would prefer non-violent solutions.
I would hope nonviolence would be more than a mere preference. I did not find that passage at all comforting, especially since the authors later suggest that if the Natural Conservatives can’t find a compromise with the left, they will turn to the 1488RS for “solutions.”
Moreover, this Breitbart article is easily the gentlest description I’ve seen of the alt-right. The piece came under fire for underplaying the nastiness of the movement, drawing criticism from not only anti-racists but also neo-Nazis who likewise felt they were being whitewashed. It says a lot that a piece that favorable is still unnerving.
For those who haven’t read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Wormwood is the demon the letters are addressed to. It’s Wormwood’s job to weaken faith and encourage sin in the human he’s assigned to, and the letters are from his uncle, a demon named Screwtape, who gives Wormwood advice on how to do this.
Yesterday while meandering through Spotify, I came across the song “Dear Wormwood” by the Oh Hellos. From what I can tell, the song is about a demon who weakened the singer’s faith since childhood and how the (now adult) singer is recognizing and trying to overcome the demon’s influence.
I’m a secularist, and by that I mean I don’t practice a religion and don’t have faith in anything supernatural. But I’m a reluctant secularist, and by that I mean I had good experiences with the religion of my childhood, I miss it and wish it were true, but I don’t actually believe it is. From that context, the song kind of hits a nerve.
You can listen to it here:
Here are the lyrics, though I recommend listening to it first or concurrently rather than reading them on their own:
When I was a child, I didn’t hear a single word you said
The things I was afraid of, they were all confined beneath my bed
But the years have been long, and you have taught me well to hide away
The things that I believed in, you’ve taught me to call them all escapes
I know who you are now
There before the threshold, I saw a brighter world beyond myself
And in my hour of weakness, you were there to see my courage fail
For the years have been long, and you have taught me well to sit and wait
Planning without acting, steadily becoming what I hate
I know who you are now
I have always known you, you have always been there in my mind
But now I understand you, and I will not be part of your designs
I know who I am now
And all that you’ve made of me
I know who you are now
And I name you my enemy
I know who I am now
I know who I want to be
I want to be more than this devil inside of me
Years back, Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor published his 800+-page tome A Secular Age. I actually checked it out from the library once, got about 15 pages into it, and didn’t pick it up again until I had to return it. I realized that it was something I’d have to spend a lot of time not only reading, but chewing on. Given that I was still a newly-married undergrad, I decided to revisit it at another time.
I still haven’t tackled Taylor’s book, but I did recently complete James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith’s book acts as a summarized walkthrough of Taylor’s, illuminating and at times taking issue with the some of ideas presented. By reading Smith’s book first, I feel prepared to take on the entirety of Taylor. In short, Smith and Taylor argue that the Western world has become a disenchanted one in which belief in God is just one option of belief among many:
A society is secular insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). At issue here is a shift in “the conditions of belief.” As Taylor notes, the shift to secularity “in this sense” indicates “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”…It is in this sense that we live in a “secular age” even if religious participation might be visible and fervent.
Shifts towards secularization led us to see ourselves as free agents closed off to external meaning, influences, and forces. Social ties and hierarchies were no longer seen as being grounded in higher, sacred orders. Reality was no longer a cosmos full meaning and purpose, but merely a universe full of chaos and chance. The secularity of the modern age is inescapable even for the most ardent believer. But this isn’t a subtraction story (i.e., the loss of superstition) as much as it is a change in sensibilities; a change in the water we swim in so to speak.
I’m certainly not doing the book justice in my brief summary, so I’ll just say this: anyone interested in making sense of our secular age, but hesitant to read 800 pages on the subject, should check out Smith’s book. You can see him lecturing at BYU’s Wheatley Institution below.
Life Matters Journal has a new piece by an atheist who attended Reason Rally 2016. It includes her reflections on attending an event where it is assumed everyone is pro-choice because, well, logic, science, and reason. Her main takeaways are that many people don’t know the science, those that do know the science are willing to discriminate, and there is a religious nature to pro-choice adherents. It’s an interesting piece that you can read here. She writes,
For some reason though many of the same people who claim to trust only hard scientific evidence are willing to deny these basic biological truths in order to continue supporting the violence of abortion.
There is no reason for the secular community to be as pro-choice as they are; in fact as lovers of logic and reason it would only make sense for more atheists to be pro-life. I fear that the reason the pro-choice side is so successful with nonreligious people is partially that pro-lifers have marketed ourselves as a fundamentally religious/Christian movement.
I’ve written about pro-life atheists before. I think, in general, the pro-life movement hasn’t found a way to balance the fact that many pro-lifers are religious, but a lot of the hearts and minds they need to change are not. Thankfully atheist and agnostic voices have been getting stronger in the community, like at Secular Pro-Life. I say thankfully because, even though I am Mormon, I’ve always been more swayed by, or felt more comfortable sharing, logical and scientific arguments. In policy decisions I think those arguments can reach more people. Any movement that has science and ethics on its side should not be afraid to use those benefits.
I was at the zoo recently with my wife, my sister-in-law, her husband, and their baby. As we looked at the bonobos and observed their eerily human behavior, I made the comment that I needed to read primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Morality, de Waal argues, is bottom-up. Behaviors we label as “moral”–such as empathy or fairness–are grounded in our evolutionary development. Morality arises from the emotions and social rules that can be found in other primates. The book made Nathaniel’s best of 2015 list. And I happen to agree with one of his criticisms:
Merely because you can show how a thing arises through evolution doesn’t get you out of this problem. You could explain how humans came to have the ability to reason objectively, but that wouldn’t mean that logic and math were suddenly subjective. It would just prove that somehow evolution managed to get us in touch with non-contingent, objective reason. Same idea here: you can explain how humans came to behave morally or even to understand and think about morality, but it’s a colossal mistake to think that, in so doing, you have proved that morality is “constructed” or in any way subjective any more than reason or logic are. (For fun: let someone try to reason you out of the position that reason is objective. See how that works? It’s a non-starter.)
Even if the philosophy is lacking, the science is fascinating. You can see a Big Think interview with de Waal below.
Kelsey Hazzard, president of Secular Pro-Life, an organization that promotes a pro-life stance based on science, has a excellent piece at Opposing Views about the religious tone of many abortion advocates. Hazzard discusses how this “magical thinking” was the basis of the Roe v. Wade decision and is a current pro-choicers are happy to ride, even if they are stereotypically the kind of people who would promote science first, as long as the result is more pro-choicers and more abortions.
Indeed, magical thinking is embedded in Roe v. Wade itself. The majority opinion discusses a variety of views concerning when human life begins… The notion that science is just one possible approach among many is a hallmark of magical thinking. The consensus of modern embryologists, and the beliefs of a civilization that thrived a millennium before the invention of the sonogram, are not equally valid. That the Supreme Court of the United States pretended that they were, and that such a farce remains good law more than forty years later, is an embarrassment to our legal system.
Since 9/11, it has been conventional wisdom among many on the left, and especially among the New Atheists, that religious conviction is bad, bad news. The logic is pretty straightforward: it takes a very high degree of religious conviction to kill yourself in the name of God. You have to really, really believe. Meanwhile, folks who don’t believe are unlikely to do anything extreme. So we’d all be a lot safer and more comfortable if religious folks would just sort of calm down.
The conventional response from religious folks is that, well: yeah, sometimes great faith makes people do acts of great evil. But it also makes people do acts of great heroism, right? Mother Theresa, right? This is a qualified defense at best. It says, in effect, that there really is a link between religious faith and extreme actions. It doesn’t actually show that these great acts of evil an good balance out, and there really isn’t any good reason to suspect that they should. What’s the exchange rate between an extremist terrorist with a nuclear weapon and an extremist nun with a desire to help poor people in Calcutta?
But maybe the central premise needs to be reconsidered. Maybe it’s not great faith that leads terrorists into extremism. Thus, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in an article for the New Statesman:
It effectively may appear that the split between the permissive First World and the fundamentalist reaction to it runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming” seems perfectly to render our present predicament: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is an excellent description of the current split between anemic liberals and impassioned fundamentalists. “The best” are no longer able fully to engage, while “the worst” engage in racist, religious, sexist fanaticism.
However, do the terrorist fundamentalists really fit this description? What they obviously lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the US: the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation.
This is an important new way at looking at the intersection between faith and social stability. (Hat tip to Miles Kimball, who cited the article in his own blog post.)
Yes, yes. I’m well aware that seeking to sound clever with oxymoronic titles is tiresome, but–as John Gray argues in What Scares the New Atheists–religion and atheism are not actually contradictory. Not necessarily, in any case. The argument, which is worth reading in full, begins with the simple observation that atheism has historically reflected the morality of the times, just as religion often does, and Gray begins with a particularly embarrassing list of examples of atheists who provided the “scientific” basis of racism prior to World War II.
Now, this isn’t a case of someone just blaming the Nazi’s on atheism, which would be silly, and now is as good a time as any to point out that Gray is himself an atheist. His point isn’t that morality is impossible for an atheist or that atheism tends irreversibly towards moral oblivion and solipsism. Instead, his first point was simply that “none of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science.” Got it? No necessary connection between liberal morality and atheism.
What’s more, Gray argues that liberal morality is itself a kind of derivative of traditional Jewish and Christian religious beliefs:
The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism. The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth.
He also points out that while it’s not very difficult to come up with universal values (e.g. based on self-interest, reciprocity, and so forth), “Universal values don’t add up to a universal morality.” This is one of the most astute observations in the piece. As Gray points out, once you have a bunch of universal values, you still have to deal with the fact that “such values are very often conflicting, and different societies resolve these conflicts in divergent ways.”
Gray also dispatches with the idea that religion is some kind of unique source of evil in the human experience. While conceding that various religions are flawed in various ways, he writes that
The fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.
So, what’s the point? Gray’s central thesis is that the New Atheism is basically a fearful reaction to the awareness that the secularization hypothesis isn’t going to fly. The world is not abandoning religion and, in fact, there’s no good reason to believe that it ever will. Gray cites Stuart Hampshire:
It is not only possible, but, on present evidence, probable that most conceptions of the good, and most ways of life, which are typical of commercial, liberal, industrialised societies will often seem altogether hateful to substantial minorities within these societies and even more hateful to most of the populations within traditional societies … As a liberal by philosophical conviction, I think I ought to expect to be hated, and to be found superficial and contemptible, by a large part of mankind.
Well, the New Atheists don’t want to face that. They don’t like the idea that their cherished liberal views (which, mind you, are not actually in any way logically linked to atheism) are not going to be universally accepted. And so they embrace a radical, doctrinaire form of atheism that involves an awful lot of pseudo-religious mechanisms: from evangelizing to witnessing to conversion narratives. In the end, Gray writes that “What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt, and the prevailing version of atheism is well suited to give it to them.”
The final irony is that fear is driving the New Atheists to become in every way the mirror image of the doctrinaire, blind-faith religions they claim to despise.
I am religiously multilingual. I grew up in a devout Mormon family, I learned all the Mormon songs, heard all the Mormon stories, and read all the Mormon scriptures. I identified as a Mormon, and I still do. When I was in elementary school my best friends were all Mormon. But during that traumatic shake-up that happens to kids as they transfer from elementary school to middle school I missed my footing and fell out of favor with the other Mormon kids. For about the next decade, I didn’t have a single close Mormon friend I saw on regular basis, and the Mormons I did get along with most were those on the margins. Throughout the formative years of middle school, high school, and college the people I trusted, depended on, and interacted with outside of regular church meetings were almost exclusively with non-Mormons. And during regular church meetings? I was very lonely.
The upside of the loneliness was that I learned a religious version of code-switching. I’ve always had a keen interest in religion and politics and all the controversial topics you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company, and I spent all my time talking about those issues with non-Mormons. So I picked up some of the vocabulary, paradigms, values, and cultural touchstones of the Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, agnostics, and atheists around me.
One of the biggest impacts of religious multilingualism is that it changes how you view your own faith. The first realization is the most basic: you start to see how many of the unspoken assumptions about what you think and how you behave are not universal, but are particular to your own religious and cultural background. You start to realize just how much variety there is to the way different people view the world.
Along the way, you may also catch glimpses of your own religion reflected back to you in the eyes of others. This is a strange experience. It’s like vertigo or an out-of-body experience to see what is most familiar and close to your identity appear suddenly strange and distant. It’s a kind of radical dissociation, like what happens when you repeat an ordinary word until meaning and sound of the word separate. Try it, if you’re curious. The word “tub” is fun to use. Just start repeating it to yourself, out loud, at normal speed. Give it a couple of minutes at most, and suddenly you’ll feel like you’re making sounds instead of words.
Every now and then when I’m sitting in Elder’s Quorum and we’re saying a prayer I can’t help but look around at all the other guys in the room and think: “This is weird.” We’ve all got regular jobs with regular people and we know how to get along just fine in the regular world. But every Sunday we keep coming back to this brutally ugly meetinghouse, sitting in these weird pseudo-rooms made by moving giant curtains to subdivide a carpeted basketball court attached to a chapel, and we pray in front of each other like it’s the most mundane thing in the world. It is, by the experience of most of the American people, not a normal way to behave. For the non-religious the whole project is bizarre, and even for religious Americans the particular habits of Mormons—like our lack of formality or professional leadership—are definitively abnormal.
None of this is to say that I love my weird religion less. On the contrary, there are some things I appreciate about Mormonism that I wouldn’t have noticed without the experience of being religiously multilingual. High on that list is the fact that, as a general rule, Mormons proselyte with a positive message. That might seem obvious, but a Mormon living in the Bible Belt will soon be disabused of that notion. I’ve been told that I’m going to Hell simply for being Mormon on more than one occasion, and when I tried to join a Bible group on campus (because Institute seemed far away and, frankly, non-Mormons often know the Bible much better than we do), the leader staged what I can only describe as an intervention to try and rescue me from “Joe” Smith’s nefarious clutches. So, as it turns out, there are actually other ways to go about it. Of course individual Mormons fall short from time to time, but as a people we have nothing like the countercult movement, and I’m proud of that.
Being religiously multilingual has helped me be a better Mormon in other ways as well. As I’ve learned more about other faith traditions, I’ve grown to view them with respect and admiration. Treating other religions this way is an intrinsic aspect of the Mormon view on truth. Joseph Smith said that “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may,” and his successor Brigham Young reinforced that sentiment as well: “I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” Mormon scholar Terryl Givens described Joseph Smith’s belief in his calling as “an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration,” but also wrote that Smith was “insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations.”
This puts a very different light on the Mormon teaching that our church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true Church, but to me that means something fairly narrow and limited. It means we’re the one authorized, formal institution. But it doesn’t mean we’re perfect, doesn’t mean we’re better, doesn’t mean we know it all, and doesn’t even mean we know the most. Mormons have no monopoly on truth. That is plainly evident from our leaders and in our scriptures. For example, Doctrine and Covenants section 49:8—a revelation given to Joseph Smith—talks about “holy men ye know not of,” cementing in scripture the principle that God is quite busy interacting with a lot of people other than Mormons to accomplish His purposes.Apostle Orson F. Whitney said the same thing in 1928 when he said that: “God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people.”
I’ve become a huge fan of Krister Stendahl’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding and in particular rule number three: “Leave room for holy envy.” This isn’t a rule that I think Mormons have always fully grasped, but—as the quotes in the previous two paragraphs illustrate—it has always been a part of who we try to be.
I’d like to think that I’ve also been able to use my multilingual perspective in ways that have been constructive for other folks as well. Many years ago when Facebook groups had discussion boards, I was part of a particularly large group where the longest running-thread was titled “Protestants vs. Catholics” (or something similar). I often enjoyed participating in that discussion as the third leg of a tripod: Christian, but neither Protestant nor Catholic. No one ever really wins a debate of that nature, of course, but I think that changing the dynamic from simplistic one-on-one to a more fluid and stable three-way conversation sometimes improved the tenor and expanded the breadth of the discussion.
These, then, are the three primary benefits of religious multilingualism: an increased capacity for introspection, an increased capacity to learn from others, and an opportunity to engage more effectively in ecumenical discussions. Each of them, I believe, can be applied at the macro level to Mormonism as a whole just as I have seen them work in my own life.
One of the big surprises for the world travelers who came to Salt Lake during the 2002 Winter Olympics was that there were all of these conventional-looking white men and women who, at the drop of a hat, could hold forth in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, German, Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and dozens of other languages.”Mormons Project Image As Diverse as Olympics,” wrote the New York Times. This is a natural consequence of the Church’s ambitious missionary program. There are about 50 languages taught at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo and the Church also runs MTCs in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
It’s obvious when you think about it: lots of Mormons serve missions, and so lots of Mormons speak foreign languages. Mormons don’t just learn the language when they live in foreign countries. They learn and come to love the culture. Talk to any Mormon missionary—even those who served stateside and didn’t learn a new language—and they will almost invariably be able to tell you about the best local cousine and speak with adopted pride about local traditions and history from wherever they served, be it Alabama or Albania.
All of this international exposure and cultural multilingualism means that Mormons—and especially American Mormons—have an opportunity and an obligation to try and separate our cultural heritage from the essence of Mormonism. If instead of a young American farmer named Joseph Smith, God had restored His church to a young Indian or a young Japanese farmer, what would the institution look like today? What part of what Mormon missionaries export is essential Mormonism and what part is Wassatch Front culture? These are murky and sensitive questions, but important ones.
The process of attempting to distill religion from culture is uncomfortable and can never yield truly definitive results, but it is important in understanding ourselves and reaching out and engage with a global audience. In years to come, it may very well be that one of the most important consequences of our global missionary effort is not what we teach to others but what, by seeing our faith refracted back in different languages and cultures, we learn about our own religion.
Of course it’s not just our own religion we should learn about, but the religions, traditions, and cultural insights of the people of the world. This is a matter of scriptural injunction for Mormons: “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” I also find it very interesting that the topic of faith crises is so prominent in our discussion these days, and is linked in our scripture to the command to learn: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” We may come to learn that when it comes to faith crisis in our secular age, the best way out is through. The solution is not insularity, but greater exposure and the inoculation that comes with the habit of being exposed to many, many new ideas and developing the skill of synthesizing what we learn that is new into our traditions and beliefs.
Now that I’ve covered briefly how Mormons can use our cultural multilingualism to achieve greater introspection and learn from others, let’s consider the third benefit of multilingualism, engaging beneficially in ecumenical discussions.
The relationship between Mormonism and the broader Christian community has always been fraught. Mainstream Christian denominations have reacted to Mormonism’s stark claims to being the only truth Church by refusing to recognize Mormon baptisms. Mormons are occasionally miffed about that without realizing that Mormons don’t recognize anyone else’s baptisms either! The biggest sticking point in this relationship, of course, is that many other Christians denominations assert that Mormonism is not Christian at all.
Mormons, who unambiguously view themselves as Christians, are torn by conflicting desires to enter a broader ecumenical community and to maintain their distinctiveness. Mormon scholar Armand Mauss writes about this as the tension between assimilation and differentiation in, for example, The Angel and the Beehive . Early Mormons like the Pratt brothers emphasized Mormon distinctiveness, but more recently President Hinckley (who led the Church until 2008) oversaw a period of engagement that downplayed the more revolutionary teachings of Joseph Smith and emphasized common Christian doctrines.
Although clearly important, this emphasis on the relationship between Mormons and mainstream Christianity has distracted attention from a different set of bridges that Mormons could be building. In an age in which it often seems as though traditional religious voices are declining in prominence and importance, Mormonism may be uniquely positioned to enter into dialogue with rising secular voices, shifting the emphasis from intra-Christian discussions to inter-faith discussions where “secularism” is considered a faith group in its own right. That’s a controversial classification, of course, but other than that nomenclature there isn’t really that much to debate: secularism is clearly more than the mere absence of religion. In our society, secularism entails a suite of philosophical commitments (such as to materialism/physicalism and analytic reductionism) and cultural attitudes that function in ways that are broadly equivalent to a religion, and it is a religion with which Mormonism is uniquely positioned to interact with.
Mormonism has long held, for example, that there is no conflict between science and religion. Brigham Young taught that “Our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular,” and he even viewed that as a distinctive element of Mormonism that set it aside from other Christian denominations. Mormons have also long taught a kind of metaphysical monism that, while not necessarily identical to physicalism, is certainly more akin to it than to traditional Cartesian dualism. “All spirit is matter,” reads a canonized revelation to Joseph Smith.
Mormons also reject the conventional Christian idea that God created the world ex nihilo, which means “from nothing.” Instead of God creating by conjuring something out of nothing, Mormons believe that the world was created by organizing materials that were already present. More importantly, Mormon scripture contains hints that some kernel of the human soul itself is fundamentally uncreated: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”
The precise philosophical implications of these beliefs are unclear, especially since Mormonism has no official theology and no authoritative theologians. But some general trends are clear. The first is that, in a sense, Mormons reject supernaturalism. Instead, we embrace a variant of Clarke’s Third Law: Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from miracles. How far Mormons run with this notion is a matter for individual deliberation, but the extreme position that posits God as a kind of super-evolved person is not inconceivable. And that is a definition of God that even Richard Dawkins could learn to live with.
And, even without precisely working out the theology, the Mormon perspective does have relevance to important topics like the Problem of Evil. How does one reconcile why bad things happen to good people? The most prominent response involves citing free will, but if you believe that God created human beings out of nothing then that explanation doesn’t work very well. Sure, we’re free to act out according to our sinful natures, but if God made us then He made our natures. Why didn’t He make them better? Discarding the doctrine of creation ex nihilo doesn’t solve the Problem of Evil in one fell swoop, but it does have a significant and meaningful impact on the conversation.
It is, however, not an ecumenical conversation. The Problem of Evil is an example of a theological problem that is of interest to anyone who believes in a creator God and also serves as a linchpin in many atheist arguments. And so, rather than jumping into the Protestant vs. Catholic debate as I did many years ago, I have to wonder if Mormonism might be able to fill a similar role in the more general religious vs. secular discussion going on in our world. It would be a stretch to say that Mormonism has a foot in each domain, but it is at least in the unique position of being able to survey both landscapes from where it stands.
This may seem like an absurd position, so I want to spend just a little time on it. Lots of faiths can adapt to secularism by simply downplaying supernatural claims and reducing everything to symbolism. Mormonism is as capable as any other denomination of taking that route. There is nothing unique to Mormonism in that strategy. There’s also nothing interesting or useful in that strategy. Assimilating religion into a secular worldview does nothing good for either religion or secularism, and history shows that religions which go down that road gradually fade and die.
Instead, what Mormonism offers is the prospect of maintaining the vitality of historical religious propositions in a secular environment. To be clear: I’m talking about Mormons who believe a man named Jesus Christ walked the Earth 2,000 years ago, performed various miracles, died, and was resurrected. The Mormon difference isn’t to deny that miracles can happen, it’s to imagine that miracles do not violate the laws of physics but operate at a higher level. This is weird, yes, but quantum mechanics is weird. Again: the best way out of the religion vs. science conflict is through.
It is also worth noting that the idea of synthesizing religious and secular views is not a new one for Mormons. One of the greatest examples comes from Orson Scott Card’s greatest work The Speaker for the Dead. The book recounts how, after exterminating humanity’s rivals in the events of Ender’s Game, Ender created a new, secular religion. The religion is secular in the sense of not making any supernatural claims or even discussing God, and it is clearly modeled on the cultural place Mormonism actually occupies in American society. Mormonism is at once scoffed at by traditional religions for being irreligious in its conceptions of deity and by secular society for being overly religious in its belief in angels in the age of railways. Similarly, in Card’s writing, the religion of the Speakers is viewed with mistrust both by the futuristic Catholic Church and the dominant secular society. It’s an uncomfortable and strange place that Mormonism occupies, but also a potentially fruitful one.
Perhaps the biggest thing holding Mormonism back from this kind of bridge-building between religious and secular society is our own reticence. One of the reasons Mormonism seems weird is that in trying to emphasize our commonality with other Christian denominations we sometimes refuse to speak up clearly and plainly about beliefs that would emphasize our distinctiveness. And, since we suddenly go silent exactly where people are most interested in what we believe, it’s no surprise that the vacuum gets filled with tangential, obscure, or false versions of what we believe. Being more willing to speak explicitly about uniquely Mormon beliefs is an important part of being seen as less weird or, at least, being seen as weird for the right reasons.
Mormonism, both because of our unusual doctrine and our far-flung missions, is truly multilingual. We can and should use this trait to better understand ourselves, better learn from our neighbors, and more productively engage in the great religious discussions of our day, which is happening not within the overtly religious community, but between secular and religious philosophies.