Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cultural Divergences and Learning from Others

Christopher and others made some more excellent comments to my last post.

Christopher suggests:
I agree that Mormonism's doctrine embraces and promotes scientific and technological discovery. But we struggle with this culturally, and I think there is some cross-over in the sense that the cultural struggle is too often mistaken within Mormonism for doctrine. In other words, many Mormons mistakenly think that Mormonism's doctrine cannot be reconciled with science and technology. . .
Finally, I agree that there is a risk that some transhumanist ideas, accepted without question, may erode some core Mormon principles. However, as Paul says, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." The same may be said of nearly anything. 
Here, Christopher makes two excellent points:  1) Mormon culture and doctrine don't always match  2) We can learn much from other teachings, but should study them out carefully and "prove all things."

It seems we agree there are differences between transhumanism and Mormonism.  That's basically all I'm trying to point out in this blog.  I can also agree there are also points of overlap between the two.

Now, to discuss Christopher's other issues:

1) Culture not matching doctrine

Yes, in the Mormon Church we have a plenty of challenges with cultural divergences from doctrine, or perhaps too strict or limiting interpretations of doctrine.

However, in terms of cultural practices that don't match doctrine, embracing science and technology seem to be pretty low on the list.  A large portion of our Quorum of the Twelve hold PhDs, a significant portion are professional scientists, as are numerous members of the Seventy.  The Church directly funds at least tens of millions of dollars a year in scientific research at Brigham Young University, including physics, genetics, cancer, engineering, computer science, all the social sciences, and BYU requires a course on evolutionary biology for many science majors and teaches evolution as part of the required Biology general education class.  

The Church directly owns and operates hundreds of Internet URLs, and officially and proactively encourages members and wards to use the Internet, phones, and computers for numerous purposes: distributing general conference, ward websites and directories, family history, blogs, missionary work, managing finances, etc.  The Church was one of the first organizations to use radio and TV, and TV was invented by a Mormon--Philo T. Farnsworth.  Brigham Young sent workers from the Salt Lake Temple to help build the railroad, which was completed in Ogden, Utah.

The Mormon Scholars Testify site now has 276 testimonies of Mormon academics, and the Church's Brigham Young University is 7th in the nation for the number of alumni who earned PhDs in the past 5 years.

Where's the cultural problem here?

In my personal experience among Mormons, I see a very open cultural embracing of technology and scientific development.  Perhaps my Mormon world is more surrounded by tech or science professionals than yours.  I don't recall in recent memory meeting a Mormon who shunned technological development or scientific research.

I have encountered a variety of thoughts about the merging of creation and evolution, but it seems to me Mormons are much more open to scientific insight on this issue than are other highly religious Christians.

In my experience, there many other higher-priority areas in which our culture tends to separate from our doctrine.  Sometime it might would be interesting to make a list and contrast our experiences.  Most of these areas, though, it seems to me that our Church leaders at the highest levels are regularly trying counteract this culture with our actual doctrine.

In most cultural problem areas I can think of, we'd probably be just as well off studying scriptures and the guidance and personal examples of Church leaders as we would promoting our own ideas.  Science and technology is definitely one of those areas in which the Church and its' leaders are excellent examples, as I've shared above.

2)  Learning from others

On the issue of learning from others, I question the value of creating a new group for all of these  issues in which culture is not aligned with doctrine as well as it should be.  For example, I believe we can learn much about Biblical study, grace, enthusiastic and joyful worship, and missionary work from evangelical Christians.  Should we start an "Mormons Embracing Evangelical Christianity" group?

I feel we can learn much about meditation and spirituality from Buddhism, we can gain an improved understanding of modesty, obedience, and respect for family life from Islam, we can learn respect for ancestors, eternal progression, and positive sensuality from Taoism.  I have read and love the Hindu Baghavad-Gita for its' inspiration about life principles.

We already seem to openly embrace C.S. Lewis and his insights--which I love, but one of my favorites for philosophical insights and understanding of life in general is Mark Twain.  Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are full of both wit and wisdom.

Does that mean the best solution is to create new joint groups to discuss and celebrate these additional learning opportunities?  The Mormon Taoist Society?  The Mormon Islamic Association?  The Mormon Huck Finn Fan Club?

Once you start merging the word, "Mormon" with another group's name or message, whether intentionally or not, you give the impression that there is full overlap between the ideas of the two groups.

As a result, the areas in which you differ need to be clearly and openly delineated, or you just create more confusion.  Still, in spite of your best efforts to communicate the differences, the mere joint name makes communicating those differences very difficult.

Hence this blog.  I'm trying to highlight the differences I see.


  1. A name like "The Mormon Islamic Association" seems absurd because we consider it silly to consider oneself both Mormon and Muslim at the same time. If there were a group of Muslims who also considered themselves Mormons, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to identify with a "Mormon Islamic Association."

    Many groups have formed to discuss and promote specific interests within the context of Mormonism: societies for Mormon lawyers, Mormon engineers, Mormon doctors, Mormon artists, Mormon musicians, Mormon philosophers, Mormon historians, etc., etc. Most Members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association do not feel that Mormonism "differs" from Transhumanism. We do, however, see a need to help others recognize that science and transhumanist ideas can indeed be reconciled with Mormonism. More than that: we think Mormonism and transhumanist ideas go hand in hand.

    You might be surprised by the number of Mormons who have difficulty coming to terms with certain scientific discoveries. In 2007, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that among various U.S. religious groups surveyed, Mormons were second only to Jehovah's Witnesses in answering no when asked whether evolution is "the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth": only 24% of Mormons answered affirmatively, compared with 45% of Muslims, 51% of "mainline protestants," and 58% of Catholics. I suspect a similarly high percentage of Mormons also disbelieve in anthropogenic global warming.

  2. I agree that many transhumanist ideas go "hand in hand" with Mormonism. I also see some transhumanist ideas that do not merge very well.

    Apparently so does Christopher Bradford. In his comments to my last post he proposes using Mormonism to add some faith to "the mostly secular and atheist Transhumanist community."

    I'm suggesting that the doctrinal and philosophical differences between transhumanism and Mormonism are different and greater than those between say, Mormons and doctors, or engineers, artists, etc. Those professional groups do not address doctrinal issues like the nature of God, the origin and future of life, and the process of resurrection and exaltation.

    My concern is that in the merging of transhumanism and Mormonism, the influence is likely to go both ways: some of the secular and athiest tendencies of transhumanism might also reduce the faith of Mormons.

    The Pew 2007 Pew Forum study does give some interesting results. It would be interesting to dig deeper into what Mormons believe about evolution--and you'll note I mentioned this as a possible exception in my post above. We do heavily emphasize the creation in all of our scripture and in the temple. I'm think perhaps this question is not detailed enough to capture the nuances of Mormons' beliefs on this--even among Mormons who agree with the principles of evolution.

    For example, although I believe God used natural, evolutionary processes to create the earth and I openly embrace scientific research on the age of the earth and these natural processes, but I also believe it was a divinely guided "creation," not a result of random chance. I'm not sure I would answer that question with a clear "yes."

    I also read through all the questions and responses of the Pew study and found it quite interesting. Another interesting result is the question: "Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God, to be taken literally, word for word?" Mormons were by far the most likely to answer the Bible is the Word of God, but not to be taken literally, word for word. Mormons: 50% no. Evangelicals: 25% no, Catholics: 35% no.

    This answer apparently rejecting a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible somewhat counteracts the answer that appears to reject evolution.

    I don't know about global warming. It would be interesting to see how Mormons compare to other religions on other issues related to science and technology. Use of e-mail? Internet? Support for medical research?

  3. While the transhumanist *community* may be mostly secular and atheist, the *ideas* behind transhumanism are necessarily neither secular nor atheist.

    There is also a danger that exposure to the secularism and atheism of much of the scientific community could reduce the faith of Mormons as well. On the other hand, science and transhumanism can, from a certain perspective, lead to increased faith in Mormonism's highest ideals.

  4. By the way, I don't know of any Mormons who have left Mormonism because of the MTA, but I do know of several Mormons who have NOT left Mormonism because of the MTA. Just last week a couple of individuals joined the MTA and told us that the ideas the organization has articulated were largely the reason they decided not to give up on their church membership.

  5. Yes, for me, scientific knowledge has actually increased my faith, as in "all things denote there is a God." (Alma 30:44).

    Interesting about people staying in the church due to the MTA. I'd be interested in stories like this and the reasoning behind why they stayed.

    Transhumanist ideas seem quite often to extend beyond scientific proof and into predictions about the future, the distant and as yet unmeasured universe, and the distant past that have not been and cannot be measured scientifically. Those elements seem to belong more in the realm of philosophy or religion.