Monday, March 12, 2018

Doubting Materialism

Materialism is the theory that matter is all that exists. From a materialist’s perspective, all aspects of mind and consciousness — including our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and intentions — are believed to result from nothing more than electrochemical impulses in our brains. A corollary of this perspective is that many aspects of our everyday human experience – including mental causation, free will, and our sense of self – are mere illusions, simple by-products of our neural and bodily machinery. The materialist viewpoint was articulated rather bluntly by Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), who said: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Or, as Marvin Minsky (one of the pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence) put it: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”

The materialist perspective contrasts rather sharply with the religious belief that human beings are children of God. While different religions may teach different things about exactly what it means to be a child of God, I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all, religions agree that humans are much more than computers made of meat.

So it’s not surprising that a religious person like myself would be skeptical of materialism. It is, however, surprising that someone like NYU philosophy professor Thomas Nagel would be skeptical of materialism. Nagel, you see, is a committed atheist. He has expressed this rather forcefully, saying: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” 



Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Compelling Portrait of Jesus, Aided by Scholarship


When their daughter returned from studying abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center, James and Judith McConkie found themselves wanting to learn more about the actual, historical Jesus — the man who lived in first-century Palestine. In response, they turned to something that is often overlooked by Mormons: biblical scholarship. And I don’t just mean books written by BYU professors; I mean works from respected non-LDS scholars like N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg, and even secular scholars like Bart Ehrman.

What value did the McConkies see in biblical scholarship? They wanted to understand the historical context of Jesus’s life. They were concerned that, without understanding the historical context, they would run the risk of devising “a self-validating Jesus who just happened to agree with our view of things.” They remind us that
during the Civil War, the Confederate States often justified slavery by quoting the New Testament and the Apostle Paul. Mormons used the same sources to justify priesthood restrictions. If Jesus and his disciples could be commandeered to support such practices, there is no limit to what his name might be used to justify. … 


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Genetics & Scripture



I was previously aware that there is genetic evidence indicating that humans descend from a population of several thousand individuals (probably about 10,000) rather than just two. In Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, Dennis Venema (a biology professor and a Christian) explains this evidence in greater detail. The basic idea is that humans are so genetically diverse in the present day that a large ancestral population is needed to transmit that diversity to us. Venema describes a few of the methods scientists have used that support this conclusion:


  • Allele diversity: With this method, scientists measure how many alleles (gene variants) are found in present-day humans. They then estimate the ancestral population size that would be needed to produce all those alleles given the human mutation rate and the mathematical probability of new mutations spreading in a population or being lost.
  • Linkage disequilibrium: This method takes advantage of the fact that there is a well-characterized relationship between (a) the distance between two genes on a chromosome, and (b) the likelihood that “crossing over” (a process of chromosome breakage and rejoining) will occur between those genes. If two genes are located close to each other on the same chromosome, the alleles present at both locations tend to be inherited together (i.e., a crossing over event is unlikely to occur between them). So with this method, scientists look at the allele combinations that are found in present-day humans, and then they estimate the ancestral population size that would be needed to produce those combinations given the crossing-over frequency.
  • Incomplete lineage sorting: This method exploits the fact that we expect the relatedness pattern of certain genes to sit at odds with what we expect on the basis of species relatedness. For example, although humans and chimpanzees are the closest living relatives of each other as species, we expect that some human genes will be closer matches to those of other great apes, such as gorillas. This allows scientists to infer what genetic variants were present in the common ancestral populations, which allows them to estimate population size.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Finding Common Ground With Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is about as staunch of an atheist as there is. He sees religion and faith as destructive, and he actively seeks to convert people to atheism. Dawkins has called the Book of Mormon “an obvious fake” and Joseph Smith a “charlatan.”  
Notwithstanding that, I believe it can be productive for Mormons to engage with scientifically minded people like Dawkins whenever we have the opportunity — not to convert, but simply to converse. Doing so might help us to recognize the unique aspects of our theology (and to think more seriously about their implications). And we might find that we have more in common than we thought.
Defining “God”
In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins defines the “God Hypothesis” as (emphasis added):
there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
This definition, however, arguably does not encompass the Mormon view of God, at least as I understand it. The key terms are “supernatural” and “everything.”

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Science & Faith: A Partnership?

In The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attempts to stake out a middle ground in the conflict between militant atheists who wish to eradicate religion and religious fundamentalists who see no need for science to inform their spiritual beliefs.


To Sacks, science and religion are to human life what the left and right hemispheres are to the brain. The “creative tension” between science and religion “keeps us … grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility.” The capacity to grasp both of these perspectives, scientific and religious, is essential to understanding the human condition.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Bravo, Grant Hardy

I was deeply impressed by Grant Hardy’s presentation at the recent FAIR conference. Hardy discussed four different types of conversations that Mormons might have about their faith (with academics, critics, faithful members, and wavering Mormons) and gave some advice and suggestions for each. In a nutshell, Hardy encouraged Mormons to err on the side of kindness and generosity, to acknowledge that we have much to learn from others, and to give more space for complexity, nuance, and alternative interpretations.


The entire presentation is terrific, but this quote in particular stood out to me:

When confronted with information that makes our beliefs seem unreasonable, … sometimes the best response may be to reexamine our own assumptions and expectations. I grew up thinking that evolution was false and that the Book of Mormon was a history of most of the inhabitants of ancient America. I no longer believe those things. Many criticisms can be summarized as “the basic claims of the Church are contrary to science, history, or ethics,” and as painful as it may be to hear that, such charges often have some validity and deserve careful consideration rather than an offhand dismissal or a snappy retort.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Mormon Scientist's Approach to Faith

BYU biology professor Steven Peck is quite unlike most Mormons I know. For example, Peck:
—believes that evolution is the best way to view the history of biological life on Earth;
—believes that some of the stories in the scriptures (like the universal flood) should not be taken literally; and
—does not believe that “environmentalist” is a pejorative term.


Peck’s most recent book, Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist, was released last fall as part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. The title might suggest that this is a book about evolution, but it’s actually a collection of essays on a wide range of interesting topics. Some of the essays will strengthen your faith, while others will challenge it in productive ways. Nearly all of them will leave you asking questions.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Gesture of Love from "The Friend"?

This month’s cover of The Friend (a children’s magazine published by the LDS church) shows two children eating a watermelon. It’s a terrific drawing, but, at least at first glance, not that different from what you might expect to see on the cover of a children’s magazine. However, upon closer inspection, I noticed two things that make me smile.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wisdom from "Spotlight"

In the movie Spotlight, (which is about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church), there’s an interesting conversation between reporter Michael Rezendes and Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who helped the Globe with their investigation:

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Near-Death Experiences

One of the foundational teachings of most religions, including my own, is that some part of us — usually called the “spirit” or “soul” — continues to live after physical death. Near-death experiences (NDEs) strengthen my faith that this is true.


I recognize that NDEs do not prove there is an afterlife. It is certainly possible that NDEs are caused by nothing more than physical changes in a stressed or dying brain. I have read about a number of proposed materialist explanations for NDEs, such as the release of endorphins or other opioids, lowered levels of oxygen, increased levels of carbon dioxide, imperfect anesthesia, etc. Personally, however, I don’t find these explanations particularly compelling.


The following are some of the most notable NDEs that I’ve read about (and for which the proposed materialist explanations seem inadequate):

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Isaiah and the Meaning of “Translation”

Here are a  few additional thoughts related to my previous post about Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

My testimony of the Book of Mormon does not depend on scholars being incorrect about the authorship of Isaiah. If it turns out that Isaiah 48-54 wasn’t actually on the gold plates and Joseph felt inspired to add that material to the text of the Book of Mormon, I’m fine with that.

This kind of an approach  may not sit well with some Mormons, because we tend to assume that Joseph had very little influence on the textual form that the Book of Mormon took. But is this assumption necessary?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

I am grateful for two recent blog posts (here and here) by LDS biblical scholar David Bokovoy about the issue of authorship of the book of Isaiah. In these blog posts, Dr. Bokovoy describes the evidence supporting the scholarly consensus that chapters 40–66 of the book of Isaiah were written after the Jewish exile into Babylon. This is of interest to Latter-day Saints because the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah 48–54. If the scholarly consensus is correct, the quoted material would not have been available to Lehi’s family when they left Jerusalem.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Many Footprints in the Sand

I had the privilege of baptizing my daughter Katelyn on Saturday. As I prepared for this event, I read Samuel Brown’s excellent book, First Principles and Ordinances, where I came across an insightful perspective on the famous poem “Footprints in the Sand”:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

God the Mother

A few years ago, the LDS church released a video titled “Earthly Father, Heavenly Father.” The video, which was released in honor of Father’s Day, compares a father’s feelings for his children to our Heavenly Father’s feelings about all of humankind. It’s a good video with a nice message.


I wish the church would release something similar in honor of Mother’s Day, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Although Mormonism envisions the existence of a Heavenly Mother — a recently released essay on the church’s website confirms this — little theology has been developed about Her, and there is virtually no role for Her in any of the church’s current teachings or practices.


On the one hand, I’m grateful that my religion includes a representation of the feminine in its conception of the divine. However, Mormonism’s current teachings about Heavenly Mother raise a number of difficult questions for me.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Blessed? Or Lucky?

In his new book, economist Robert Frank describes a frightening experience he had a few years ago. While playing tennis with a colleague, Frank collapsed due to what doctors typically refer to as “sudden cardiac death.” But Frank didn’t die, primarily because an extra ambulance just happened to be a few hundred yards away. In reflecting on this incident, Frank says:


If an extra ambulance hadn’t happened to be nearby, I would not have survived. Some friends have suggested that I was the beneficiary of divine intervention, and I have no quarrel with those who see things that way. But that’s never been a comfortable view for me. I believe I’m alive today because of pure dumb luck.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Divine Intervention

I struggle with how to think about divine intervention. While I certainly want to believe that God intervenes in the world and in my own life, there are many terrible things that God doesn’t intervene to stop (including many things not caused by humans, thereby making human free will an unsatisfying explanation).

In his new book, Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist (published by the Maxwell Institute), BYU biology professor Steven Peck shares some thought provoking ideas related to divine intervention.

By way of background, Peck acknowledges the reality of evolution, and he also believes there are “deep and unavoidable theological implications for incorporating into our theology the belief that natural selection structured the way life evolved on our planet.” Some of these implications are related to the brutality of natural selection: “It is hard to imagine that evolution by natural selection is a reasonable choice for creation if other methods were available,” he says. Peck suggests that perhaps “God … is subject to certain natural laws,” and natural selection may have been “a natural law necessary for the creation of a diverse and fully functioning universe.”

Peck then expands upon this idea in connection with God’s intervention in the world:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Women and the Book of Mormon

I recently read an essay by Carol Lynn Pearson in which she discusses some of her feelings about the way in which women are portrayed in the Book of Mormon:

“A few years ago, I read the [Book of Mormon] specifically to focus on what it says about women, circling in red every female reference. And as I did, it became more and more clear why I had always felt like an unwelcome visitor as I entered Nephite society, a stranger in a strange land indeed.”

I was initially surprised when I read this, because I have never thought of the Book of Mormon as portraying women negatively. But Pearson makes some excellent points.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rethinking Adam and Eve

For anyone who believes that working toward a reconciliation of evolution and Christianity is a worthwhile goal (as I do), I highly recommend Peter Enns’s The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (TEoA).

Enns is a biblical scholar and a committed Christian. He “believe[s] in the universal and humanly unalterable grip of both death and sin, and the work of the Savior, by the deep love and mercy of the Father, in delivering humanity from them.” At the same time, Enns is convinced “that evolution must be taken seriously.” With both of those considerations in mind, TEoA presents an alternative way to think about the story of Adam and Eve.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Choosing the Left

__________________

Many Mormons consider the word “liberal” to be a pejorative description. For example, when I decided to attend law school at the University of California, Berkeley, several of my family and friends made comments like, “But that’s the most liberal school in the country!” In other words, why on earth would a Mormon choose to go to such a liberal school?

However, BYU political science professor Richard Davis sees the term “liberal” quite differently. Rather than having negative connotations, Davis defines “liberal” the way that it is used in the scriptures, namely describing “personal characteristics of generosity, magnanimity, and charity.” Davis thinks that all Latter-day Saints should become “liberal souls” (a term taken from Proverbs 11:25), meaning someone who “follow[s] Jesus Christ in his love and acceptance of others, specifically in his care for the poor and the needy, his concern for the most vulnerable in society, and his compassion toward all.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A More Embracing Mormonism

Review of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, by Patrick Q. Mason

**********

I am surprised — and delighted — that Deseret Book and the Maxwell Institute co-published this book by Mormon scholar Patrick Mason. It acknowledges that there are “troubling episodes” in the LDS church’s past and “apparent contradictions and conundrums in the church’s history, doctrine, and positions on current issues.” It discusses several of these issues at length, including withholding priesthood and temple blessings from blacks, Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, and the Mountain Meadows massacre. And it doesn’t shy away from honest critique.

But Mason is no rabble-rouser; he’s “all in” with respect to Mormonism, describing himself as a “believer and a belonger.” He “find[s] redemption and sanctification in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and he “can’t imagine being more convinced that God has ordained The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to accomplish its divine mission.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Few Things I Hope We Can All Agree About

Recent events have caused me to prayerfully reflect on the challenges faced by gay Mormons. There is, of course, much that I do not know and do not understand. However, there are a few things that I believe strongly, and that I hope we can all agree about:

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Carrying Water on Both Shoulders

A thoughtful Latter-day Saint who grows up in his faith and takes it seriously may encounter difficulties as he immerses himself in secular education … When faith and reason meet in [a person’s] life…, something must give; some type of working relationship must be established. … [I]t seems to me that there are three logical models people develop to reconcile their religious faith and their secular studies. …

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Confronting Evolution

I read with great interest about the recent discovery of a new hominin species, which will be called Homo naledi. It is my understanding that this isn’t merely a discovery of more fossils of a species we already knew; rather, it is the discovery of a new piece of the ancestral family tree. There is apparently a Nova/National Geographic program about the discovery, which is available to view online here.
I have to admit that scientific discoveries like this — which are extremely difficult to explain unless you accept evolutionary theory — always make me feel a little uneasy, because I don’t believe that Mormons (or Christians generally) are anywhere close to coming to terms with the theological challenges that evolution presents.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

God and the Israelites' Conquest of Canaan

The shocking and barbaric violence that is attributed to God in scripture, particularly the Old Testament, has bothered me for a long time. I recently read what I consider to be an enlightened, helpful perspective on this issue.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Seeing, Hearing and Including Women at Church

Leaders of the LDS Church have repeatedly taught that women and men are equal, but not identical. For example, Elder Oaks recently said, “In the eyes of God, … women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.” Similarly, Elder Ballard recently said that “men and women have different but equally valued roles.”

Many LDS Church members accept the premise that God’s definition of “equality” means something other than “sameness.” However, does that mean that everything in the LDS Church today is exactly the way it should be with respect to the treatment of women? In other words, even if “equality” means something different to God than it means in modern secular culture, are current Church practices fully consistent with God’s definition of “equality”?

I can’t say that I have a firm conviction that they are. This is one of the reasons why I think Neylan McBaine’s recent book, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, is so important.

Friday, February 27, 2015

My First Taste of Biblical Scholarship (And Now I’m Hooked)

Up to this point in my life, I have not paid much attention to the work of biblical scholars. Perhaps I have been influenced by those within the LDS community who are highly suspicious of their work. Recently, however, I read Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy, by LDS scholar David Bokovoy. This outstanding book has piqued my interest in biblical scholarship and helped me see how biblical scholarship can contribute much to my understanding of the scriptures.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Faith, Uncertainty and Testimony

(This is a talk that I gave a couple of years ago in Sacrament Meeting.)
          I’ve been asked to speak today about increasing faith in Jesus Christ. I’m going to begin my remarks by reading a testimony that might hypothetically be shared in a church setting, such as a fast and testimony meeting.
Brothers and sisters, I cannot honestly say that I know God lives. I see much in the world that I cannot easily reconcile with the existence of a loving God. However, I do hope that such a God exists, and most of the time I believe that he does.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Seeing the Good in the World

(This is a talk that I gave in Sacrament Meeting this past Sunday.)
          I have been asked to speak today about “protecting the family” and “being in the world, but not of the world.” As I considered how best to address this topic, I thought of Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen. The story is set in Brooklyn, New York toward the end of World War II, and it centers around two Jewish boys: a Hasidic Jew named Danny Saunders and a Modern Orthodox Jew named Reuven Malter.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Life Is A School, Not Merely A Test (And What That Means About Repentance)

(This is a talk that I gave in sacrament meeting yesterday.)

I am going to begin my remarks by sharing two scriptures. The first scripture comes from the Book of Abraham, which describes a pre-mortal council in heaven in which the Lord says, “[W]e will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:24–25). According to this scripture, the purpose of this mortal life is to test us to see whether we will do everything that God commands us to do. 
The second scripture comes from the Doctrine and Covenants: “[I]t is not meet that [God] should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.” Instead of expecting God to “command in all things,” we are counseled to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:26–27).
This presents an interesting paradox. The passage in the Book of Abraham suggests that the purpose of life is to see if we will do everything that God tells us to do. But according to the passage in the Doctrine and Covenants, God wants us to do things without his having to tell us what to do.