Five Possible Wrong Turns

great-partnershipI’ve read several books and essays in the science versus religion genre, some by secular scientists or philosophers (such as Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria essay) and some by Christian scientists (such as Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution). I recently found a refreshing new perspective within the genre: The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (Schocken Books, 2011) by Jonathan Sacks, a prominent Jewish scholar and rabbi. It offers a more relaxed, more pragmatic treatment of the topic than other books I have read. A one-sentence summary: Science and religion are complementary: science is about explanation and religion is about meaning, but individuals and societies that push religion aside and fully secularize are almost guaranteed to gradually adopt some form of nihilism and lose their way.

But here’s what I’ll talk about: Chapter 13, “When Religion Goes Wrong.” Sacks is a religious moderate who affirms both science and liberal democracy, and objects to religious fundamentalism. This chapter is his short analysis of what can go wrong with religion when any or all of the following five features become central to a given religion or sect. The reader can decide which, if any, of these features are a danger to Mormonism (or any other particular tradition or denomination).

1. Hard Texts. Sacks defines hard texts as “passages which, if taken literally and applied directly, would lead to results at odds with that religion’s deepest moral standards.” He continues: “Such texts need interpretation. The classic form of fundamentalism is belief in the literal meaning of texts, specifically that we can move from text to application without interpretation. We cannot. Interpretation is as fundamental to any text-based religion as is the original act of revelation itself” (emphasis in original).

2. Dualism. Referring to the two big 20th-century documentary discoveries at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Nag Hammadi (Christian Gnostics), Sacks notes that both communities “saw reality in starkly dualistic terms. There was a sharp separation between good and evil, light and dark, the saved and the damned, the children of the light and the children of darkness, and little if any shading in between. The children of darkness, they believed, were currently in control. Humanity was in the grip of evil.” He continues with the insightful observation that “the greatest danger to monotheism is not polytheism or atheism, but dualism” (emphasis in original). Dualism “explains evil as the work of a mythic counterforce: the devil, the demiurge, Satan, the anti-Christ ….”

3. Messianic Politics. Sacks contrasts exodus politics, “the long, slow journey across the wilderness to redemption an act at a time, a day at a time,” with messianic politics, rooted in more troubled times, when believers “hope for and expect a sudden denouement, a miraculous transformation of history, ‘the world turned upside down.’ This is the logic of the apocalypse ….” For a Jewish commentator, the Jewish War of 66 CE and the Bar Kochba rebellion sixty years later are the defining episodes that condemn messianic politics, but the criticism obviously extends to our own era.

4. The Lure of Power. “Politics and religion do not mix. … Religion seeks salvation, politics seeks power. Religion aims at unity, politics lives with diversity. Religion refuses to compromise, politics depends on compromise.” Christians have come to accept this in the liberal democracies of the West, but Christianity did not willingly cede its temporal power in the early modern era — that came about only when the wars of religion showed how unwilling diverse religious believers were to live together peaceably. Mainstream Christianity has learned “how to survive without power,” but the temptation to further religious aims through the exercise of political power is always present.

5. Single Vision. Sacks extends the danger of a “one and only true answer” view to the new atheists as well as religious fundamentalists. He points out the positive example represented in the Hebrew Bible, which “is constantly setting before us more than one perspective.” That point may be lost on Mormons raised on a carefully correlated curriculum, but the upshot is there is a spectrum of belief and practice represented among the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments. Sacks seems to advocate a broader range of belief within a given tradition as well as more toleration of different beliefs in other traditions.

At times, particular LDS scholars or leaders offer positive critiques of LDS beliefs or perspective that argue against one or another of these five difficulties, what I called wrong turns in the title to this post. Obviously, some are more relevant than others. But Mormonism is at least as vulnerable (perhaps more vulnerable) to misinterpreting texts, adopting a dualistic theology, embracing messianic politics, being tempted by temporal power, and preaching exclusionary salvation as any other faith or denomination.

Remember, self-criticism is almost always a beneficial exercise.

20 comments for “Five Possible Wrong Turns

  1. Could you expand your point about dualism in a Mormon context? While clearly dualism, like any “-ism”, can be abused, I don’t see what’s wrong with it as you outline it.

    “the greatest danger to monotheism is not polytheism or atheism, but dualism” (emphasis in original). Dualism “explains evil as the work of a mythic counterforce: the devil, the demiurge, Satan, the anti-Christ ….”

    While I don’t think Mormons would say evil is solely a mythic counterforce, neither would they deny a counterforce. The usual reason the counterforce is opposed rhetorically, especially in more contemporary settings, is due to free will. People can of course freely choose to do evil or even do evil accidentally or justifying it for the perceived greater good. (Historically it was more opposed due to ontological commitments usually tied to monotheism, especially in more Platonic like conceptions — but this is less of an issue for Mormons)

    Anyway, to my eyes, while many of these can be abused, there seems to also be truth in things like a messianic or apocalyptic outlook. To my eyes the issue aren’t really the 5 points you outline but how they get overextended or treated fanatically. One can look at each of the 5 points and see their opposite as problems too for instance.

  2. Classic non-overlapping magisteria (ala Gould and, apparently Sacks) is certainly one way to go. I think the science surrounding this debate, however, leads one into discourses of practical vs. factual reality (see D.S. Wilson & 10:50 or see here). Selection has favoured things that increase fitness. This doesn’t always correlate with “objective” truth.

    Thus, some of the over-extensions Sacks mentions may actually produce the type of group dynamics required for adaptive group functioning: they may be necessary and productive. So perhaps part of the question is which of the problems associated with the 5 over-extensions are more than made up for by their outcomes?

    Doesn’t this keep us in the functional discussion of non-overlapping magisteria, albeit in a way that accommodates some colour? For instance, #5 – Single vision, may be problematic for many people as per outlined reasoning, but maybe its necessary for a decent number. If so, meaning and explanation are inexorably linked in group level analyses, and can only be delinked at the individual level (and even then only in non-average cases).

  3. Yes, without having read the book that’s what it sounds like Chris. There are some weird oppositions going on though. (Although this is common in the whole ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ approaches) For instance if we say explanation vs. meaning we are explicitly pushing the view that explanations aren’t meanings. That seems wrong. The usual way of dealing with that is to adopt a Feynman like kind of instrumentalism where scientists are supposed to “shut up and calculate” but the calculations never have meanings. The problem of course is while that’s popular with a certain segment of scientists, by and large most reject it.

    My own view is that there’s lots of overlap between science and religion and we then have to engage with the conflict. Fundamentalists often deal with this via a ‘god of the gaps’ type of logic. However the other side really is doing the same sort of thing. Only the gaps are the places excluded by science where religion is ‘fine.’

    The other issue is that even ignoring religion, many of Sack’s issues are commonly present in a secularized science. The idea of messianic coming is pretty common among techno-optimists. The ‘singularity’ is one example although there are plenty. And dystopian nightmares are the equivalent of the apocalyptic where GMO, nuclear power and much else spells the end of humanity via science. Even ‘literalism’ ends up being an issue in philosophy of science and how to deal with aspects of theories. Feynman’s type of intrumentalism which for a while was so popular is an example of anti-literalism. (Ignore those virtual particles – it doesn’t matter if they’re real)

    The point about evolution is true, although that seems to beset both sides. Science at least recognizes human fallibilism and tries in theory to work around it. Of course for our senses to work they must have some semblance to reality that is selected for. So I don’t think we can oppose selection and factual reality. Just that what selection cares about isn’t fully representing reality.

  4. self-criticism is almost always a beneficial exercise

    Agreed. But self-criticism is precisely the characteristic that our culture of General Authority adoration seeks to jettison for good. This trend has gained traction throughout the last half of the twentieth century and is continuing virtually unabated. Only two years ago, no fewer than two 70s in the same General Conference retrenched ETB’s Fourteen Fundamentals BYU devotional talk.

  5. For me the answer is truth- where do I find it and how I find it. I dont really see a needed difference between science and religion neither do I see a difference between politics and religious beliefs. They are all one in the same- part of what creates my belief of what is true. They must all work in concert together. My brother turned me on to this concept. He even went as far to say that everything we do, or “should” do, is our ministry in the Lords work. That includes my 8-5 job as well as my sunday service at church-they are one in the same. As applied, in searching for truth, all things are scientific, even the holy. Its only the myth of secularism that trys to destroy that truth.

  6. John F – Elder Costa visited my mission shortly after that conference. He said that the top question on everyone’s minds at the time was “how do we receive this massive influx of Latin American Catholics,” and that he and the other 70 had both coincidentally picked that talk to help explain Mormonism to them.

  7. Excellent post, Dave. Thanks.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I have a copy of “The Great Partnership” on my shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I will now. I can, however, recommend another of his books, “Not in God’s Name,” which addresses the topic of religious violence. It is one of the most balanced and objective assessments of this sensitive issue I have come across.

  8. Clark Goble, “intellectuals” or any other church member are just as much members of the Church as are Church leaders. This perspective that they’re not, that General Authorities are somehow “more” than every other Mormon, really astounds me.

  9. That’s not my point. Someone critiquing a movement with their own preconceptions really isn’t being reflective nor particularly self-critical. Being self-critical, as I understand it, means being critical of ones own ideas or practices. Now the brethren or perhaps those who agree with them reflecting on the ideas would fit the bill. (And I’m sure they do that) For people with a particular set of views of what the church ought be like to be self-critical would involve them considering and being critical of those already held ideas.

    Now you might say that merely because they’re Mormon any criticism they make of Mormonism is self-criticism. I’m not sure I can agree with that. For one it seems to “personify” the Mormon community in a way I’m not sure works. It’s also not that somehow GAs are somehow ‘more’ than other Mormons. Quite the contrary. It’s that they typically don’t hold the views they are criticizing. Someone criticizing a view they haven’t really held just can’t be called self-criticism as I see it.

  10. Rob (#6), that’s one of the reasons I find the science of religion work so interesting. There is a lot of very good academic research coming out in that field.

    Knowing how to situate natural tendencies and group-dynamic-behavioural-wells offers tremendous personal and group level insights. It does however, lead directly to factual vs practical reality questions. The good news is that it does so with fewer baggage around the times when religion (practical reality) is supra-positioned above science (factual reality).

    For instance, Stuart Kauffman’s take on this is that religion and intuition are generally more useful for forward prediction than hyper-rationalized science. Science is better in a Bayesian way (using past histories for pattern prediction). Religious like intuition is better at anticipating black swan events. Thus science excels in areas that are complicated while religious-like thinking comes into its own in areas of complexity.

  11. Chris, what book are you thinking of that makes the case that religion predicts black swan events better?

    I confess I’m a bit skeptical thinking of places of dispute like say nuclear war, global warming or the like. Admittedly in such places one has to distinguish between science and a certain political community technically separate from the science. It gets so blurry I’m not sure how one makes the divisions.

  12. Reinventing the Sacred. But he certainly doesn’t say religion is better at predicting the future, rather religious-like thought based on valueing intuition is better for forward prediction in foggy areas or in areas where complexity is strong. Black Swan events are one example of a class of emergence which is poorly predicted by pure rationalism. He argues that religious-like intuition is better for exploring these area.

    In this sense, religious-like insight, introspection, and ways of knowing may in fact be better at predicting nuclear war than hyper-rational macro-economic-like models.

    “It gets so blurry I’m not sure how one makes the divisions”

    Not sure what you mean here. Snowden’s Cynefin framework is a pretty good place to start.

  13. Obviously that type of thinking is strongly phenomenological. Of course such thinking meshes nicely with some ideas behind the spirit: spiritual confirmation occurs when hyper-sensitive intuitional heuristics align in a way that where resonance occurs. Thus intuition is more sensitive that rationality. Of course the number of false positives increases, but sometimes that isn’t a problem: after all, you might not be looking for THE answer, only a range of possibilities to explore or contemplate.

  14. Ah, OK I understand what you mean. By blurry I meant more religious-like thinking versus formally religious. That dividing line between the secular and religious always seemed difficult to pin down. So you have lots of formally secular movements that are quite religious-like. (New Atheism’s parallels to a certain strain of Evangelicalism being one obvious example) So I was more thinking of religion as more Atran like evolutionary developed cognitive processes rather than formal religion.

    This gets to Dave’s point about the book. Once you make that move away from only considering formal religion then you can see the same 5 principles at work more broadly. Instead of being formal problems they are more tensions where one can get out of balance. So for ‘literalism’ the question is much more the problem of analyzing interpretation in terms of history versus interpretation in a kind of socially given way. However the danger in going too far down the historic interpretation is you accrue all sorts of odd trappings and have the danger of abstracting or transforming the topic in question into something new. This happens in formal religion when Zeus gets abstracted and transformed into the Platonic One or the entire Universe for the Stoics. In contemporary thought you have something similar with Fowler’s stages of faith. Within a more secular mindset you see oddities with interpretation of quantum mechanics or the kinds of relativism one sees in Foucalt inspired college activists.

    So I agree with Dave’s point with the book. I just think it ends up being a tad more complicated. And of course the very move from formal religion historically situated or give to this more abstract kind of evolutionary religious cognition participates in just that sort of danger. (Am I transforming religion too far)

  15. That issue of transforming religion too far is key. There’s obviously no hard and fast formula. What’s interesting though, is at some point you lose the adaptive signalling (phenomenolgical resonance) necessary for it to seem or be fulfilling. In these cases, has the religion changed? The social dynamics of it? Or the signalling for where/what it might lead to?

    I obviously have no problems seeing religion as a set of intersecting tensions. Coming to terms with this, is I think, a key development in one’s maturity with any type of belief.

    But I don’t think I can agree with the statement that religion is exclusively about meaning. It is also about the dynamics necessary for group coherence, about priming phenomenological signals, about staged structural responses to heuristically keyed potentials, about ways to explore shadows, etc. Getting these ends out of the structure is neither linear nor formulaic. There is too much feeback and feedforward between group, individual, structures and their various signals. Often times the benefits associated herein can’t occur without some type of a-factuality or other seemingly counter-productive errors.

  16. Yes, saying religion is exclusively about meaning is attempting to limit it. The other problem is that of course meaning is a pretty broad term. I’d say science is largely about meanings too. I think what people want to say is that religion is about value but that’s pretty clearly not all it is about.

  17. From God’s perspective, all things are religious- from the biologic formation of life to the geology of the earth to the laws and principles of gravity, its all religious.

  18. Not trying to be trite here but I’d say religion is wholly and exclusively about religion. We can give or take meaning but religion, and here I’m talking more about the ideal of religion itself, is an axiom word. Oh, I’m not trying to be trite but I am trying to be mystical. We can think about what meaning means, what definition is, epistemological questions, from the foundation of Religion.

    Rob Osborn, did you ever read the article somewhere on the bloggernacle about the Jewish legend that Enoch was a shoemaker whose intense, religious focus on doing his very best at his profession was what cleansed him to walk with God? It was talking about there being no secular life in Zion. I’d find it for you but all I’m turning up are the search terms from the last time I tried to find it again.

  19. Does this commentary stumble at the first hurdle with its epistemological dualist position on science and religion, or have I missed the point?

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