26 August 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part I)

Diving into any religion reveals some eye-opening beliefs and history. Angels, demons, virgin births, visions, healings and the like accompany other components of faith traditions like love, commitment, honesty and ritual.

The supernatural is as much a part of Mormonism as it is of most other religions conceived before science had a broader influence in society. In principle, one can have a practical Mormonism without the supernatural – a religion of family, Christian values, and patriotism – but the Church wouldn’t even exist today without the supernatural. The fluid communion between Joseph Smith’s mind and a foreign universe of gods and angels is the genesis of everything else that has emerged in Mormonism during the last two centuries.

The biblical tradition is rich in miracles and the supernatural. On top of these, Mormonism has added other miraculous events. Miracles from the Book of Mormon and early Church history include ocean crossings by ancient prophets traveling to the Americas, epic battles, angelic visitations, and golden plates translated by divine inspiration. In fact the Book of Mormon, not to be outdone by the long established preeminence of the Bible in the improbable, has perhaps even more miraculous events than its companion scripture. For instance, whereas Christ’s birth in the Old World was met by a new star appearing the sky, in the Americas it was also announced by a night of continuous illumination even though the sun set that evening before his birth (3 Nephi 1:15-21).

I grew up loosely as a Catholic with little pressure from my family or community to dive deeply into Biblical literalism. I knew about miracles but felt little compulsion to give them too much deference. When I thought about it, of all the Biblical miracles I was probably most accepting of those tied to Jesus because I was always impressed by his character and divinity. As a kid I was inclined towards science, biology and paleontology especially. That interest later matured into degrees in science. A short time before college, however, I learned about Mormonism and joined the Church. It was my first encounter with an intense theology that doubled as a way of life. I liked the focus on truth and certainty in the LDS Church and the impressive fruits I observed in my friends. It was not too long, however, before I encountered the miracles and literalism of Mormonism. Right from the start, in fact, investigators learn about Joseph Smith’s miraculous vision of God and Jesus as a 14 year old boy because this event is central to Mormon belief in the need for a restoration of Christian authority. Being impressed with the Mormon promise of access to truth and a community of well-intentioned and accomplished individuals, I was inclined to give the Church the benefit of the doubt regarding miracles and literalism as I became a new convert.

If I could have sculpted Mormonism at this time, I think that I would have probably regarded at least some of the miraculous in Mormonism figuratively – almost surely so with creationism and the Garden of Eden. But it was not my church. With more experience, I learned that the Mormon supernatural was literal, not just symbolic. Adam and Eve were real individuals who lived on a paradisiacal earth 6000 years ago; God really did send a flood that covered the whole earth in the days of Noah; and Joseph Smith actually did see a resurrected Jesus Christ with a tangible body in a forest in New York State in 1820. Joseph and his successors wrote of these Biblical, Book of Mormon, and more modern miracles with the same certainty as they would tell you of the sun rising each morning from the east. To be sure, these supernatural events often also held deeper symbolic importance in Mormon theology, but fundamentally they were and are also regarded as literally true historical events.

As a maturing Church member, to deal with this uncomfortable literalism, I needed a strategy. I would have a hard time being a devout Mormon if I dismissed each of these miracles as figurative events, so my mind seemed to have developed two mechanisms. The first was to spend less time thinking about scriptural events that seemed unlikely to me. Instead, in my religious commitment, I wanted to focus on the comfortable doctrines: love, self-improvement, and the intellectual components of LDS theology. As I read scripture, I found that I wanted to interpret passages in such a way as to make them more consistent with more rational beliefs. I often read them more with the mindset of an academic.

The second strategy involved some intellectual acquiescence on my part. To illustrate, I would meet a miracle with the following kinds of thoughts: ‘That seems improbable, but it certainly could have occurred. With God anything is possible.’ Considering each miracle in isolation, this strategy worked reasonably well since I thought it would be virtually impossible to disprove specific events that transpired such a long time ago. They may not have seemed rational and they may not occur today, but I could make some mental space for their possibility. I could also maintain more belief if I did not look too much to outside sources for alternate interpretations of miraculous phenomena. Though it could work for one passage of scripture at a time, taken in sum however, this strategy of miracle excuses eventually became unsustainable. A few too many improbabilities accumulated can look much more like outright impossibility. The intellectual compromises I entertained to accept literalism promoted a fractured view of reality and caused me to spend too much time straining at details while the broader landscape was ignored.

My trouble with literalism came to a head once on my mission, about two years after I joined the Church. Growing up with a strong interest in biology and fossils, belief in biological evolution was natural for me. I could not have foreseen how much trouble evolution was going to cause me in my attempts to be a faithful Mormon. I had had faith crises before during my first year in the Church, but such intellectual-spiritual clashes become intense on an LDS mission. Your job as a missionary for most waking hours of each week is to continually proclaim, with no uncertainly, your witness of the Church’s divine origins and to do all you can to convert new members and help current members retain their faith. There is very little room for doubt.

I am unsure exactly what triggered the evolution crisis, but I vaguely recall it being something I read in a Church periodical. Perhaps it was some flippant dismissal of evolution that appears in Church discourse from time to time (1). At some point I took my evolution trouble to my mission president. The mission president was a retired dentist, a grandfatherly man who had both a compassionate demeanor and a surprising streak of fire and brimstone zeal. I don’t know what I expected to hear from him about the Church’s position on evolution – maybe a confirmation of what I had heard during a talk by a Church authority in the Missionary Training Center at the very start of my mission – that indeed the Church had no official position. After all, my new-found church supposedly embraced all truth regardless of its origins. Why would it oppose a theory for which so much evidence existed?

My hopes were dashed with the mission president. In our conversation I learned that he was a full fledged creationist – of the variety that believes not only in the fallacy of evolution, but in an earth aged in thousands, not billions, of years. He even mentioned the old non-sense that the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred because of Noah’s flood. He directed me to a book in his office downstairs written by a former Church leader, Joseph Fielding Smith. Smith, son of the 6th president of the Church and grand-nephew of Joseph Smith, would later also become president of the Church briefly in the early 1970s. In the 1950s, as a member of the Church’s high-ranking Council of the Twelve, he wrote a scathing denunciation of biological evolution in “Man, His Origin and Destiny”. This book had no sympathies for belief in a 4.6 billion year chronology of earth history or any intimation that modern humans descended from earlier hominids. As his son-in-law Elder Bruce R. McConkie, another prominent Mormon leader, would also believe, before the days of Adam and Eve there was not even death for any living organism (2). I read some of Elder Smith’s book and was deeply disheartened. Was this the official position of the Church? Was this the “appropriate” framework in which I had to interpret biology? (3)

In connection with this spiritual crisis, I had two divergent experiences. The first occurred in a church building adjacent to the Mission Home where I lived at the time. One Monday evening I was caught up in this internal debate about evolution that had been swirling around in my mind. Not having the resources or lengthy Church experience to better research the position of the Church, I seemed to have been stuck reconciling poignant anti-evolutionary views, my natural instinct to believe in evolution, and the overarching Mormon imperative to be obedient to the teachings of Church leaders. In the conflict on this one night in the church building, I made a painful decision that I would accept belief in a young earth even though it seemed repugnant and humiliating. It was a sacrifice I would have to make to be in favor with God. Perhaps in this one moment – one that would not last very long at all – I had fully acquiesced to orthodox Mormonism.

The second experience was in the mission home some time later, on the same floor where Smith’s dreaded book was kept. It was the redemption from my own intellectual fall. Alone in prayer, I felt that God accepted my belief in evolution. There was a warm feeling and a restoration of calm. I cannot recall many more details than that, but the result seemed to be that I felt accepted as an exception to what at least some other Mormons believed. Though anti-evolution remarks made in Church classes or found in more formal Church publications would bother me for years after my mission, from this point, I felt more secure in my own belief on this issue.

Evolution was a warning to me of the strength of Mormon gravity on the intellect. It was a huge issue for me during my early days in the Church, but one I was able to better resolve with time. In spite of this small victory, I perhaps became complacent about the other abundant improbabilities that I would encounter with orthodox Mormonism. In my brief intellectual acquiescence to creationism, I was following a pattern that I would also unfortunately do with my sexuality: I deferred to faith and authority more than conscience or evidence.
Evolutionary tree of life according to the influential and controversial biologist, E. Haeckel. 1866. Generelle morphologie der organismen.


1. See, for example, a BYU address given by Elder Russel M. Nelson in 1987: “…some without scriptural understanding….have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been an organic evolution from one form to another. Many of these have concluded that the universe began as a ‘big bang’ that eventually resulted in the creation of our planet and life upon it. To me, such theories are unbelievable. Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary? It is unthinkable!”. Elder Nelson repeated his analogy as recently as April 2012: “Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’”.

2. Elder McConkie’s popular book, “Mormon Doctrine” can be found in many Mormon households. It contains both anti-evolutionary and anti-gay teachings. I believe that Elder McConkie also played a role in crafting the current version of the Bible Dictionary in the LDS scriptures. That dictionary also makes reference to lack of any death before Adam’s fall.

3. Pronouncements about evolution by Church authorities do vary, though most leaders have viewed evolution unfavorably. Many such statements have been compiled into a book, “Mormonism and Evolution” by W.E. Evenson and D.E. Jeffrey, 2005, Greg Kofford Books. I was unaware of the detailed history of the debate over evolution in the church as a young member and missionary in the 1990s.


  1. Very interesting experiences. It's interesting for me to see the difference between experiences like yours and mine having grown up in the Church. For example, I never had a problem with evolution and mentally actively engaged in the "debate" and thinking of creative ways it could be intersected with figurative meaning in the Eden narrative, etc.

    I guess I'm lucky that way. Especially for someone like you for whom science is such a large part of life, I imagine it would be very frustrating to feel compelled to adopt "orthodox" Mormonism. What benefits were you getting at the time that made up for that intellectual cost?

  2. Really, really interesting stuff, thanks for sharing. I, like Trev, never have had a hard time accepting evolution as a real scientific possibility; we see the effects of its precursor, adaptation, in mere generations, so why wouldn't it be possible for a common ancestor to evolve into two distinct species over thousands or millions of years?

    I also benefitted from growing up in the years when the Church's stance on scientific theory was firmly stated, "We have no stance." In fact, in all of the science classes I've taken at the two church schools I've been to have firmly embraced evolution as a scientifically sound theory. They have taught that the universe is old, that the earth is old, that we as humans are a relatively young species in the framework of the earth's history, and so on. Professors have postulated on how this might fit in with gospel doctrine, but they are just that, postulations. Even in the 1970s, my dad's biology teachers mused that God may have made the earth out of old materials, materials that had germinated in other worlds for billions of years before being taken from their incubators and put on this earth. Who are we to say they're wrong?

    All I can say is that I'm glad I wasn't confronted with this cognitive dissonance like you were.

  3. Thanks Trev and GMP for the comments. I think that I had such congitive dissonance over evolution at the time because of two main things: (1) I was a very new member of the Church (13 months when I left for my mission) and did not have the depth of experience necessary to understand that members' views on evolution varied, and (2) I've always been a pretty obedient person when I have trusted authority, so reading strong anti-evolutionary views from Church leadership really made me worry about my own beliefs. I did hear a general authority state that the Church had no position on evolution while I was in the MTC (1990s - I'm not that old...hehehe...), but I guess I questioned that because of the anti-evolutionary viewpoint I encountered after the MTC.

  4. Interesting. That would be hard as a new member. I think, relative to your experience, my growing up in Mormonism prepared me to face Mormonism later, as it were, without worrying _so much_ about going against authority (though that part comes with gay issues... ugh). It always drove and continues to drive me crazy when general authorities make smug anti-science comments in an official capacity. From what I understand, there used to be a lot more freewheeling discussion within the Church; I don't know where that went--the Bloggernacle, I guess, ha ha.

  5. And sorry if it sounds like I'm intimating that you "weren't strong enough" for having that cognitive dissonance or some nonsense like that. I'm not at all. One's experience in this area depends entirely on family, location, who you are friends with, etc. etc. Lots of people in the Church including long-time members face (or ignore, *sigh*) heavy cognitive dissonance over things like evolution, as you know.

  6. I first attended BYU in 1979-1980. My biology 101 professor, probably on the verge of retirement spent several periods trying to present evidence for evolution. Students stormed out in protest, threatened him loudly, and I was confused. Having spent my first 17 years as a devout young earth creationist and a Mormon,I had prided myself on testimony, and for speaking up to refute my high school teachers on the subject of evolution. Now I had to consider the possibity, and sought facts to destroy evolution once and for all.

    Where did the dinosaurs come from, other worlds that were reorganized to form this one? I asked my freshman year bishop, a man known to many, "Dinosaur Jim" Jensen. He was honest with me. The dinosaurs "did live here" and so did protohumanoids: "I don't know if early humans were God's children like Adam and Eve." The 4.5 million year old earth didn't bother me, and all life except humans could have evolved as Darwin hypothesized--all without shaking my testimony.

    I was doing some experiments with a microscope and a piece of dry ice, watching consendation freeze, melt, freeze, melt, and so on many years later. Watching tiny droplets turn to crystals form and crack, absorb each other, refreeze, and grow, the possibility that organic chemicals could organize themselves under these conditions was obvious to me. There is no need for "God" to create life other than providing the quantum energy needed to put together fundamental particles, if that.