On Really Smart People and the Gospel

Growing up in 1990s Orem the figure of Hugh Nibley held a sort of symbolic significance that was greater than the sum of his scholarly parts. The not-so-subtle subtext of the myriad anecdotes about his prodigious memory and learning is “see, if this really smart person believes it, then there must be some really good answers to whatever issues people have.” Often, Nibley was a sort of placeholder for people who didn’t have the time (or resources, especially in pre-Internet days for people who couldn’t drive to a good university library and use their card catalog) to investigate for themselves. 

Nowadays, I feel like we see the converse of this online. A common meme (in its proper sense) in some corners of the Internet is that people who know the True Story about Church history (or biblical studies, or what have you) have to ultimately lapse into some sort of symbolic belief in the Church if they don’t leave it altogether, because nobody who really knows their history could actually believe this stuff. (As a sidebar, I sense that some use Adam Millerism as a last-ditch attempt to preserve some of their Mormonism when they’ve lost faith in the concrete particulars. That’s not to say anything about Miller personally, I have no idea what he actually believes, just a comment on how some have used him.)

This narrative has a fairly strong hold on some, and is one reason, I suspect, that there is a certain segment of the Internet (and one influencer in particular) who seems obsessed with demonstrating against all evidence that Richard Bushman, for example, doesn’t actually believe in gold plates. We see some of this same sentiment when Richard Dawkins implied in The God Delusion that Gregor Mendel didn’t actually believe in God, and was just a monk to get research funds. However, unlike belief in God, the idea that no reasonable, smart person would believe in God or religion is easily falsifiable. The great mathematician Ramanujan, for example, who is in the running for smartest person ever, was a sincerely devoted true believer to his local hometown Hindu Goddess, and there are other examples of true believers with prodigious intellects (Leibniz, Godel, William Phillips, in our own world Henry Eyring, Harvey Fletcher, the list goes on). 

Some people try to invoke the “appeal to ridicule” to specific belief systems, where the point isn’t so much that they are simply irrational but that they are “silly.” In my experience, most arguments that rely on “silliness” instead of carefully and logically addressing a steel-manned version of their argument, are rather vacuous and ephemeral, and, to be hypocritical for a moment, are often used by some bro in his mother’s basement trying to sound smart.

What sounds silly is entirely culturally dependent. We see this in the discourse about Joseph Smith and the seerstones. The idea that he used two seerstones (Urim and Thummim) isn’t objectively any more silly than the idea that he used a third seerstone (or as my brother sarcastically pointed out, “he used a third magic rock! That’s a bridge too far! That’s 50% more magic rocks!”). As we Latter-day Saints are usually quick to point out, religious beliefs that seem silly in one context (e.g. totemic beliefs, “magic underwear! Har har!”) are very “normal” in other contexts. Overall, silliness isn’t a good guide for whether something is valid.  

Still, that is not to say that some ideas or belief systems aren’t irrational, but the idea that reasonable, smart people don’t sometimes believe in unreasonable things is an undergirding premise of the  “no reasonable person would believe that” framework that is simple false. A lot of smart people people silly things, that’s called bounded rationality. For example: 

I really don’t think that young earth creationism is a reasonable belief, and I’m sympathetic to the view that such believers are either undereducated or have cognitive biases (like we all have to some degree) that are influencing their ability to put the pieces together. That doesn’t mean that they’re stupid in general, and frankly at this rate I’d prefer to have the average evangelical young earth creationist as a daughter-in-law than the average New Atheist.

The existence of demonstrably sophisticated, intelligent, and knowledgeable people who actually do believe at most opens up a space for belief in its very early stages, but it doesn’t demonstrate its validity. There are small pieces of our belief space as Latter-day Saints that are critiqueable or at least analyzable using the tools of academia, but when you really get down to it there isn’t a lot of disagreement on the very technical particulars between a true believer and a critic who both received the same training–not a lot of Latter-day Saint professionals believe in the equivalent of the aether or Satan hiding dinosaur bones, despite some corners of the Internet trying to paint some believing scholars as such, and the disagreement mostly comes once you’ve stepped outside the agreed-upon methodologies and into the bigger picture. 

More to the point, there really isn’t anything in the General Conference gospel that is demonstrably untrue (as a sidebar, the existence of disagreements in a field about whether the other side is making any sense at all, such as continental philosophy, does not bode well for the validity of the field as a whole). By the time anybody has interpreted the myriad web of evidences for and against something as vast as the gospel that covers so many domains of human knowledge, combined with their own sentiment and experiences, they’ve run everything through so much individually calibrated software that is subject to cognitive biases and preferences that you can’t take somebody’s final end result as evidence of anything, even if they have more powerful hardware.  

The “you have to know for yourself” mantra in the Church is a cliche, but that’s because it’s so vital when we realize the problems of trusting in the arm of flesh, whether for intellectual or spiritual matters (although for some intellectual domains we kind of have to trust in the arm of expert flesh, since it’s not reasonable to expect an individual to have enough casual knowledge in a subject to know for themselves). For example, I’ll admit to having some prurient interest as to whether Thomas Hales, who’s in the running as the smartest person with a Latter-day Saint background, is a TBM, (and no, I’m not going to take a rando in the comments telling me he’s not as evidence of anything), but my personal belief in the veracity of the gospel does not hinge at all on whether he, or any other scholar, is or not, because he has his biases, I have mine, and at the end of the day we have to decide for ourselves based on the data and our own experience. Another person who is in the running for smartest person from a Mormon background, Kip Throne has stated “There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God, ranging from an abstract humanist God to a very concrete Catholic or Mormon God. There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God.” There’s clearly something more than just raw intellect involved in the decision to believe, and neither the presence of super smart believers, nor their absence, should have an effect on a mature testimony developed from one’s own study and experience with the divine. 

29 comments for “On Really Smart People and the Gospel

  1. I think the scriptures need to be updated to say that it is harder for a scholar/intellectuals to get to heaven than a rich person. My opinion/belief in the church can change with the next book I read or podcast I watch. Nothing can take away the Pentecostal baptism of fire that was seared into my soul. I dont need church history or current changes to fit in a nice perfect intellectual way. I will take it warts and all. It seems those who are “smart” in the church tend to have a harder time as it all has to fit intellectually to some of the smarties. The spiritual/intellectuals have an easier time getting peace since they allow the spirit or divine to make up for what they cant prove/know. I agree with you Stephen, our own data and experiences are 100% the best way. I also think that by default, intellectuals dont have spiritual experiences because they really dont want one, they want it all to make sense in the head not the heart.

  2. @REC911, I disagree. I do not think that the scriptures need to be updated. Intelligence is the Glory of God after all. I don’t know if I count as an intellectual, but I might. I can promise you that want more spiritual experiences.
    And I do feel that it really helps that there are so many educated and intelligent members of the church.

  3. At on point you emphasize that it would be best to use someone’s steel man argument and go from there as opposed to their weakest argument.

    Which surprised me that you would allow yourself to add something like that in your article where you ridicule those who question the validity of the seer stone by saying this “he used a third magic rock! That’s a bridge too far! That’s 50% more magic rocks!”.

    If you truly believe that is a steel man argument of why the seer stone is problematic, I would encourage you to dig in deeper. No pun intended.

    All the best.

  4. There may be no incompatibility with science and religion as long as you have a nuanced, and non fundamentalist interpretation of doctrine. I was a devout and believing member for 45 years, but even then to reconcile my faith with my research in evolutionary biology I never believed in the creation or the fall as described in Mormon doctrine and the historicity of scripture often didn’t fit with science and actual history.

    For a long time that was OK. But there were things that were things in the conference gospel that I came to believe were untrue and even that didn’t matter as long as the church aligned with my values and was good for me and my family.

    You can believe in the church and its doctrine as a smart person, I did. Until I couldn’t any more. Maybe that will happen to you too. Maybe it won’t, but if we want smart people to stay in the church for heavens sake let people have nuanced beliefs without criticizing that they may be progressive or conservative. Everyone is a cafeteria Mormon to one degree or another.

  5. @ Quinn: I was specifically vectoring that towards the “silly” argument about the seerstones (for example, the idea that the Church was hiding the use of the seerstone in the hat in gospel art because it’s “weird”, when the urim and thummim is just as weird to an outside observer). I’m not implying that that was a steel manned argument against the issue of, for example, whether Smith’s scrying was sincere or intentionally fraudulent, which is a separate issue and doesn’t rely on the “weird” factor.

    @ Brian: I get it, if I didn’t feel like the gospel was providing spiritual nutrition and was a drag rather than an uplift, nothing would force me to stay intellectually, and, to paraphrase Brigham Young, I’ll never say that I’ll never leave. I’m glad that it’s rare to see Church leaders picking fights with the scientific method anymore (saying this as the great-grandson of a University of Chicago zoology PhD who left the Church over evolution back when the space for evolution believers in the Church was smaller).

  6. If we are keeping score, there are more smart people in the world that have chosen not to be members of our faith tradition that smart people choosing to be members of our faith tradition. FWIW. None of this has ever impacted my choice to interact with the church so I suppose I find it curious that it has an impact on other people’s belief systems.

    Pretty hard to build Zion when commenters other people for being smart.

  7. @brian g- To me, allowing nuanced members to feel welcome is going to be a must in the near future or the pews are going to be half empty in every ward.

    @jader3rd – I appreciate your view and my “scriptures updated” comment is me trying to be clever. I think the scholars of the church/world have a false view of what “intelligence” is/means. Worldly intelligence vs what you will learn/know within 10 minutes after death is mind bending. And it will all be actual truth! I believe 90% of what we think we have learned academically as factual will get a “holy crap” realization shortly after death. I am not implying we stop learning/truth seeking whilst we are here, I am implying that we put less stock in our worldly learnedness. But hey, full disclosure, I barley made it out of high school and have never been, nor will I ever be, mistaken as a scholar. :)

    In my experience, scholars have a harder time with the spiritual because by nature they seek knowledge academically over warm fuzzies or revelation. Not all of course. This is not meant to be a dig, just opinion based on observing people and seeing it happen over and over. Brian G is a great example of this. It appears his scholarly knowledge beat out traditional church beliefs or doctrines. Unfortunately our church culture makes Brian feel that he does not “fit” the TBM mold we all think we have to fit in. Heck, try being a church history scholar and hold onto the traditional way of belief in the faith! Cant be done. You will 100% for sure see the church different than you did. IMO. I would love more Brian G’s in my ward that can share openly and to learn from his experience and perspective. Hopefully someday soon!

  8. Your sidebar about “Adam Millerism” is disheartening. I didn’t know that there was a stigma associated with Miller’s works; I didn’t even know that “Millerism” was a thing! I’m not sure what we have to gain by stigmatizing Miller (or people who “use Millerism”) other than further division in the Church.

    Also, I’m honestly confused about your meaning. If you don’t even know what Miller believes, how can you possibly make any judgments about “Millerism”?

    I didn’t know until today that this was something to be self-conscious about, but I’m in the middle of Adam Miller’s Original Grace, and I’m impressed with it. It has deepened and broadened my understanding of the gospel.

  9. Hi Genevive,

    Miller has enough of a particular following that I feel comfortable using “Adam Millerism,” (I’m also fine talking about “McConkiytes”, or “Nibley-ites” as an empirical reality, since we do know those groups exist, except in this case we need the “Adam” to distinguish between the 19th century Millerites). My observation was more sociological than theological, and wasn’t even directed towards Adam Millerites in general. If you find something in his works that’s inspiring, then that’s great, that wasn’t meant as a hit on his work, just an observation about how some people (not even necessarily the ones that are his biggest fans) have used his work.

  10. Stephen, can you point me to where this Followers of Adam Miller group is congregating? I would like to join.

  11. REC911: “Heck, try being a church history scholar and hold onto the traditional way of belief in the faith! Cant be done. You will 100% for sure see the church different than you did. IMO.”

    I think of it as comprehending the difference between looking at the stars with the naked eye and looking at them — or even beyond them — through the Hubble telescope. The first view is limited compared to the second–but still wondrous. The second view is even more wondrous by orders of magnitude.

    That said, I suppose there might be times when, like the Men in Black, we wish we could look up and just see the stars–without the deeper view and all that that entails. It can be burdensome to know too much sometimes. But I’d rather know everything — warts and all — than know less and miss out on the wonder that comes from comprehending the big picture.

    And church history is truly wondrous (IMO) if we approach it with as much empathy as we can honestly muster.

  12. REV 911: “Nothing can take away the Pentecostal baptism of fire that was seared into my soul. I dont need church history or current changes to fit in a nice perfect intellectual way.”

    What do you make of other people’s revelatory experiences that are contrary to yours?

    Second, what sorts of inquiries are subject to answer through spiritual revelation in your experience? Is it limited to spiritual stuff only?

    Finally, people seem hesitant to write about specifics around spiritual experiences. Are you willing to share your experience?

  13. At one point in the MTC I told the Lord I would be a Young Earth Creationist if he wanted me to be one–in fact I’d take on the whole Bruce R. McConkie/Joseph Fielding Smith worldview. Obviously I can’t speak for Raymond Damadian, but if I had it wouldn’t have been because I was undereducated or so cognitively biased that I didn’t know all the evidence points the opposite direction. Rather it was because I’d finally decided that following the Lord was more important to me than science–Amaleki’s counsel to offer your whole soul had been haunting me. The response I got was that the Lord very much appreciated my willingness but I didn’t need to do that. Fortunately that was in the waning days of the evolution wars (Elder McConkie had died a few years earlier) and I don’t think many of our youth feel like they need to choose between them today.

    Unfortunately, you can see the legacy of the evolution wars in both the contempt many “intellectuals” (however defined) feel for people of faith, and the resentment many people of faith feel towards intellectuals. That has to be one of Satan’s bigger recent victories. I note that it rested upon two successes shortly after Darwin published On the Origin of Species: some prominent atheists declared that evolution disproved the Bible, and some prominent clergymen believed them (and thus declare war on evolution). He tried the same thing with Newton’s Principia but only succeeded with the first part, so no such war took place at that point.

    This is particularly unfortunate in the Church, because we’re basically commanded to be intellectuals (maybe not by the world’s definition). Jared3rd cited that we believe the glory of God is intelligence, and we are to become like him. @REC911, take another look at D&C 88:78-79 and note all the things we’re commanded to study right now: astronomy, geology, history, anthropology/sociology, geography, military science, political science…seems to me pretty much all knowledge. The knowledge available now is definitely not perfect, but apparently the Lord thinks it’s valuable enough that we should spend time learning it. That doesn’t mean we all need to be in grad school–though I note that the School of the Prophets basically acted as a community college–but it does mean we should be curious and open to learning everything we can. And no, I don’t believe we’re going to get all this handed to us in ten minutes after death. We got our “first lessons” in the world of spirits before birth and I’m sure we’ll have many more lessons in that same world after death.

    Many successful intellectuals struggle with pride, as is true of successful people in just about all fields of human endeavor, from CEOs to high school athletes. Pride manifests in different ways in different kinds of people. For intellectuals its more likely to come out in public statements rather than (or in addition to) private behavior, so it gets more attention. But I’m not convinced there’s anything uniquely wrong with intellectuals.

  14. @StephenC: “..but my personal belief in the veracity of the gospel does not hinge at all on whether he, or any other scholar, is [TBM] or not, because he has his biases, I have mine, and at the end of the day we have to decide for ourselves based on the data and our own experience.”

    So your belief in the gospel in independent of scholars’ beliefs, since everyone has biases. Am I correct in assuming that you don’t apply this same reasoning to other questions, e.g. the age of the earth, the efficacy of vaccines, etc.?

  15. Yes, as I state, “although for some intellectual domains we kind of have to trust in the arm of expert flesh, since it’s not reasonable to expect an individual to have enough casual knowledge in a subject to know for themselves.”

    I also wrote: “There are small pieces of our belief space as Latter-day Saints that are critiqueable or at least analyzable using the tools of academia, but when you really get down to it there isn’t a lot of disagreement on the very technical particulars between a true believer and a critic who both received the same training–not a lot of Latter-day Saint professionals believe in the equivalent of the aether or Satan hiding dinosaur bones, despite some corners of the Internet trying to paint some believing scholars as such, and the disagreement mostly comes once you’ve stepped outside the agreed-upon methodologies and into the bigger picture.”

  16. @Jesse – I am not sure what you are asking on the “contrary”. I know of others who have had my Pentecostal experience and most of the ones I have read about had them the same way I did. I didn’t know these things existed until I had mine. Once I started studying church history I came across multiple stories that mirrored my experience.

    Revelation for me, and I would assume all since I am not special in any way, is not limited to anything. My first experience with it was church related but I have asked and received answers to everyday needs that I had to figure out but could not. Does not happen every time but has happened enough over the years to know that it is real and works. When I get revelation, I get the least amount of info to solve my issue or answer my question. This happens almost all the time. Only one time did I need/get longer instructions. Typically its just one or two words. They come the same way every time and almost always immediately. They feel the same all the time. I have had these for over 40 years now.

    I will share with you whatever you want to know.

  17. @RLD – I am aware of the scripture and love the fact that its not just religious subjects the high priest at that time were asked to study. Yes you, along with almost all members, could make a case that the Lord was meaning us too but verse 1 says otherwise.

    My 10 minutes comment was not the time it takes to get all knowledge. That will take who knows how long on the other side. But it will come to you as fast as you ask, pure knowledge/truth to the mind. Like a conversation. IMO. To those who qualify.

    Yes I agree, pride is obviously everywhere. I am sure there are humble, meek, childlike scholars out there…somewhere. :) Pres Eyring’s dad could be one if he was like Pres Eyring. Talk about humble !

  18. @StephenC, thanks for the quick response. I should have read your post more carefully before asking the question.

  19. Something that has stood out to me this year – compared to other years studying the Old Testament – was the times when the prophet was someone called outside of the then church hierarchy and went and told the Priests the warnings from the Lord. I was surprised to even see that in Malachia this week. It’s not as cut and dry with Malachia if he was the head priest reprimanding his subordinates or not, but the possibility is there that he wasn’t. Yet still was called upon by the Lord and given revelations.
    Why I find such a thing interesting after reading this post was, I pondered over how we even have this record? Because I could easily see a prophet show up at the temple and tell the Priests the reprimanding revelation they received from God, and then that would be it. Because it requires the scribes – who are the intellectuals of the day – to not only record the teachings of the prophet, but to preserve them as scriptures. The High Priest probably didn’t consider it scripture, but a generation later did. I suspect that it took the intellectuals to preserve the word of God for us.

  20. REC911: Thanks for taking the time to respond. Maybe I misunderstood your initial comment. I understood (misunderstood?) you to be saying that your spiritual witness is a surrogate for reasoning through the sorts of topics church intellectuals handle. Because of your spiritual witness, you said “[you] dont need church history or current changes to fit in a nice perfect intellectual way. I will take it warts and all.”

    As I’ve grappled with my own beliefs and been part of discussions like this one, the trump card is sometimes, “the spirit has told me that x is true.” So I was just trying to understand you make of the fact that other people have spiritual witnesses in support propositions that are contrary to what the spirit has told us Mormons. What if God told someone to follow Denver Snuffer or L. Ron Hubbard instead of President Nelson? I’ve even heard stories of guys in singles wards approaching surprised women with news that the spirit had made it clear that they should be married. So the inexactness of revelation would seem to justify the existence of scholars and reason. At a minimum, logic/reason/scholarship would seem to have a role in filtering out ideas, propositions, and philosophies that aren’t worthy of applying the spirit to. We don’t pray over the truthfulness of Scientology because the warts are too obvious and too numerous. Is that right?

    My other question was about how granular or precise the spirit can be in terms of resolving tough issues. But what think I hear you saying is that you don’t worry, for example, whether there were horses in the new world or whether portions of Isaiah that are in the BOM may not have been in existence when Lehi left Jerusalem because the spirit has already weighed in on the larger issues (i.e. the Book of Mormon is divine).

    Thanks for being willing to share on this.

  21. Jesse: “At a minimum, logic/reason/scholarship would seem to have a role in filtering out ideas, propositions, and philosophies that aren’t worthy of applying the spirit to.”

    I like what Elder Oaks says (in so many words) in his essay “Reason and Revelation.” In his opinion we ought to allow reason to have what he calls the “first word.” And then allow revelation to have the “last word” if need be. The reason I say, “if need be,” is because when we allow reason to have its say then its quite possible that no more will need to be said on the subject. Elder Oaks suggests (as you do) that reason can filter out faulty assumptions and spurious revelation without the need of having to receive specific instructions from the spirit on a given matter.

    That said, if we are open to allowing revelation to have the final word–then there may be times when it will contradict our best efforts to sorts things out intellectually. We should be willing to go with it in spite of its counterintuitive nature at times. And so if one receives a witness that the Book of Mormon is true she should allow that revelation to trump whatever scientific facts may seem to work against it in her mind.

    That (and that) said, I don’t think that reason has to cease to be useful on a given subject if one has receive revelation on the matter. For example, I believe the scriptural account of the creation. Even so, the scientific facts that we have on the ground with regard to the earth’s natural history serve to inform my understanding of the Lord’s creative enterprises.

    My 2 cents.

  22. @jesse – My intellectual side says that God, of all people, knows that even though there is a “true gospel” He knows not everyone will want to be a part of it, in fact, very few. If Snuffer is the best way for someone to know God and be Christlike then I can see God influencing the person that way. Any org that brings people to a knowledge of Jesus, IMO, is good. Mormons, as you know, dont own revelation, or spiritual experiences or only communicate with God. There are many in the church today that are not happy or finding joy. To me they are not living the church in a way that is healthy to them, where they are at spiritually/intellectually etc. We all dont have to be on the same milepost of the path, or rung on the ladder. I dont have a problem with a guy telling a girl “the spirit told me” (not something I would ever do) as I believe that that could happen but the girl (I HOPE) will use her agency/spirituality to say no thank you. That young man could also be a noob when it comes to revelation and got it wrong, or the girl for that matter. It took a while for me to figure out what revelation was. There were hits and misses for me.

    When I got my Pentecostal experience it was God telling me personally that I was in the right church. He didn’t tell me that Jesse or anyone else was. I know others not of our faith have wonderful spiritual experiences too and I believe that God knows that is the best place for them at that time.

    The odd thing for me and my experience was I was not asking/seeking/praying for it or questioning the church or my testimony. It was completely out of the blue and something I didn’t know even happened to people. Baptism by fire is a good way to describe the experience. In the presence of Jesus is also how it felt. Flood of pure knowledge too. Best thing ever.

    So I love to chat/think about the horses, BoA, King James in the BoM and countless other warts/head scratchers but at this point I dont even care if the BoM is true let alone the stuff in it. No temple, scripture, prophet, ordinance, is going to get me closer to God than my experience. God wants me in this church, warts and all, and it is where I will stay until He tells me different. Revelation trumps everything else for me. If God told Jesse to be a Baptist, I would be all for it. Hope this explains where I am coming from.

  23. The church parades it’s “smart people” to the members as a type of validation or proof. Even “The Friend” captures biographies of our accomplished GAs…our pioneering heart surgeon-prophet, the scholars, university presidents, lawyers, etc. poor Joseph (our humble plow boy) and Elder Ballard are perhaps better examples of faith and spiritual clarity, but at the MYC and in the mission field- professional/worldly success is part of he Mormon prosperity gospel. Pray, pay, obey, and you too will be an upper-middle class administrator.

    We cling so much to this, that I doubt we could ever accept a humble mediocre tradesman in our upper ranks. Everyone has to be a superstar. The problem is, 97% of us are just average joes.

  24. I’ve always found smart people/intellectuals to have the most humble of testimonies. Their testimonies are ongoing projects, products of hard-fought battles. They recognize that their testimonies are fragile and need nourishment and continual refinement. They acknowledge that those testimonies may at times fail them, and are cautious in avoiding over-interpreting experiences or guidance. Those who eschew scholarship and introspection, in my experience, are quite prideful in their testimonies. They approach the gospel with blithe certainty. They are so “sure” of those testimonies that they feel no pull to inspect, or to develop, or to refine. I am uplifted to hear the witness of one who is working to believe. I am put off by the witness of one who simply declares without acknowledging nuance.

  25. Turtle, that’s a pretty broad generalization, but I think you are right. I have many friends (mainly very right-wing politically) who have a very narrow view of life and are very much stuck in an anti-evolution, climate change denying, very strictly anti-abortion mode. They won’t read anything not written by a GA, not even something from BYU. They’d being crying like babies if they knew that BYU teaches evolution as science. And if they ever get in an argument, they just fall back on the “I know it’s true” line.

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