Questions From The Mormon Fringe – How Mormon Leaders Receive Revelation And Agnosticism

The following is a lightly edited copy of part of an exchange I am having with a sincerely questioning Mormon. Since the questions are basic, I thought others here might find this useful. I would be interested to hear how others would answer this kind of question.

Best regards,


Bob, am I to believe that you are now an agnostic? Also, is it true that you were a Bishop for 5 years? If so, I have a question for you. Did you honestly feel any distinct guidance when people were in front of you facing a Bishop’s Court? To discern between excommunication, disfellowship, or simply counseling?

Hello again XX.

I am agnostic as to most things related to religion, except what we can test using science. I will cut and paste below a summary I recently sent to some scientific friends with much more experience in this area than I have in which I asked for their advice as to the approach I am developing. I have since heard back from them that they see things more or less as I do.

While I was Bishop I did not preside over any bishop’s courts. I had several cases where I could have convened them, but choose not to. My policy was live and let live unless I felt forced to act. So I have to answer your question on the basis of things like not convening those courts, extending significant callings, etc.

I followed the procedure outlined in D&C 9, which speaks of concentrating and reasoning with feelings of warmth to follow if the decision is right and feelings of darkness if not. This, from my point of view, is the same process I use at work. I keep thinking, collecting data, etc. until the decision feels right. The only difference is that as Bishop I used formal prayer more during the process. At work, however, I used prayer a lot in making the important decisions I made. So, in my case at least, there was little difference in the major decisions I made at work and at church as a Mormon leader. In each case, common sense (in the end) was the primary determinant. And common sense is little more than the cumulative total of our conditioning coming to bear on the decision before us.

While I was a Mormon leader I believed that God was inspiring my decisions in that regard just as he did my personal decisions. Since God’s voice in my important personal decisions had been so faint all I had to work with were vague impressions, I was not surprised to find the same was the case with my church responsibilities. I spoke with my SP and other bishops about this, and was told that their experience was the same as mine. And statements that Hinckley has made recently to the press indicate that the highest counsels of Mormondom are run on the same basis.

The emotional high points of being the Bishop came from the same font as the high points during the rest of my life’s experience as well. That is, when I counselled with people who were under stress because of marital problems, perceived sin, etc. and helped them to find relief, this was gratifying for them and hence also for me. To have people come to me week after week with their most important problems and thank me profusely for helping them, was of course both an ego boost and produced of satisfying emotional experience. The same was true as I participated in intimate family moments like weddings, funerals, baptisms, missionary farewells and welcome homes, etc. The emotional charge I received as a result of this felt like God’s approval of my work; at those moments while feeling mildly euphoric I thought I was feelings his presence and hearing his voice. However, I now see that the same dynamics are involved in any human group whether it be politics, the law firm at which I work, a social club, internet discussion group, etc.. When we share other’s lives at an intimate level, it is deeply satisfying.

Mormonism brilliantly takes control of many of life’s high points, thus giving the impression that the powerful and usually positive feelings we tend to have in conjunction with those experiences are related to (or even due to) God, and Mormonism. In addition to the kind of thing I have noted above, this extends to fathers’ blessings, blessings of health, rites of passage such as being ordained to the priesthood or passing through the Young Women’s program, and even the conditioned tendency to pray during both times of deepest sorrow and joy. That is, each time life dips us in its renewing chaotic brew that both accompanies and produces change, Mormonism teaches us to genuflect to its version of God, thus associating the most powerful emotional forces we know directly with God and his presumed Mormon agents. Many other religions have used the same process. It is arguably the single most effective social conditioning and control agent mankind has ever invented.

Part of the downside of acting as bishop was that it deepened my confusion about the kind of feelings that may be due to a God of some kind, and what is just the result of how humans are built and interact with each other in groups. This lengthened the time it took for me to “think my way out” of Mormonism. In addition, while acting as bishop I was drained of time as well as physical and emotional energy that was badly needed in my home by my wife whose health was failing as she cared for our young and growing family pretty much by herself.

Now that I have a broader understanding of religious history and social psychology, I see all around me people who interpret life’s powerful emotional events as God’s voice, or presence, or will, etc. This is one of the oldest stories known to man.

And so I believe that agnosticism with regard to most of this is the way to go. However, I think it is safe to conclude that most people who think they hear God telling them anything in particular are mistaken. And even people like Gordon Hinckley, when put on the spot, admit that they are not hearing anything particular from God. Their decision making process, as far as I can tell, is just like that I have outlined above. They are acting on the assumption that the amazing revelations Joseph Smith claims to have received are what he said they are, and are merely attempting to be consistent with that while maintaining the authority over their followers. And the biggest issue in that regard, of course, is Smith’s credibility. The closer his life is examined, the less credible he is.

Best regards,


Michael and Phil:

Let me again edge into your conversation, more to ask for enlightenment than to contribute. But to become enlightened, one must first disclose his ignorance, so I will start with that.

I am still trying to get the basic concepts straight in my head, and am encouraged to see my friend Michael beavering away at a similar task.

My system, which is still a work in progress, for approaching issues like the one Michael raised [how much can science teach us about the big meaning questions; how do we draw the line between physics v. metaphysics] is as follows:

– I start with epistemology – the study of how we justify our beliefs.

– I move from there to ontology – the study of the broadest range of categories of existence; The study of the nature of being, reality, and substance.

– Then I get to physics (or science). The epistemic principles with which I am comfortable direct me to physics as the most reliable means to begin to work out my ontology. A definition of physics I like for this purpose is: Physics (from the Greek, ??????? (phusikos), “natural”, and ????? (phusis), “nature”) is the science of Nature in the broadest sense. Physicists study the behaviour and properties of matter in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from the sub-nuclear particles from which all ordinary matter is made (particle physics) to the behaviour of the material Universe as a whole (cosmology). Hence, physics underlies all other sciences. Physics is what we use to determine whether particular entities exist, what their nature is, and hence how they interact with other entities.

– So, were does metaphysics fit in? Metaphysics (“beyond” physics) is what frames physics. That is, when you define physics, you define metaphysics by exclusion. Thus, it is a vast area that includes epistemology, ontology, mythology, cosmology, semiotics, etc. I am accustomed to using the term metaphysics to refer to “speculative thought about matters outside the perceivable physical world”, which is another common definition. To avoid confusion, I do not use the term metaphysics much. When I mean that something is not scientific, I say that since people are more likely to understand me. When scientific language is used to describe something that might be metaphysical, I prefer to speak in terms of how that can be justified within a particular epistemic framework. I find that most misunderstandings can be cleared up most quickly by first nailing down differences in view regarding epistemology.

– In an interesting way, physics (or, better put, the entire scientific enterprise) have strongly influenced both epistemology and ontology as they are now widely accepted. In this sense, I agree with Michael that science affects metaphysics, but as noted below, think that to say science “generates” metaphysics is not quite right. Rather, as the scope of science changes, it changes the boundary of metaphysics by definition. This includes relegating to the garbage heap ideas that were once widely considered to be metaphysically valid and that have been falsified by science. This also tends to make metaphysics on the fringes of science look more interesting for some purposes, like defining one’s ontology.

The epistemic and ontological theorists whom I find most helpful are those who use science’s reliability as their acid test. So, I end up finally on the road toward constructing my worldview or ontology with an epistemic system that is strongly influenced by science, and hence an epistemic hierarchy that uses Bayesian probability theory as does science to assess evidence and justify both ontological belief and action. This means that as I deal with different aspects of the scientific enterprise, I try (as do most scientists with whom I have debated issues of this kind) to distinguish between that which is more measurable and hence reliable, and that which is less. Physics (as the narrowly defined branch of science) offers both poles – certain principles that are nailed down with a great degree of precision like Newton’s laws, to some aspects of theoretical physics that are not supported by a shred of empirical data while being taken very seriously. String theory would be an example of this. However, in general physicists have looked down their noses at biologists, for example, because of how much less predictable (and hence scientific in a sense) biology is than physics. And the social sciences in general deal with phenomena that are much more difficult to measure and hence reliable than most of what biology works with, resulting in more peering down noses as the hard scientists in general regard the social scientists and their work.

The important point for me is that as we move from phenomena that are more accurately measured and understood to those that are less, our ability to use science within the epistemic system to justify belief diminishes. So, at what point does the knowledge provided by science become less able to justify belief and behaviour than other forms of knowledge?

– Mythology in its commonly understood sense is the study of myths. However, the most important mythology for me is human history as I believe it to be. This is the human story, starting for many people before recorded history or even before life on this planet, that tells us at the most fundamental level who and what we are by giving us a part in a vast epic. As such, this kind of mythology is part of ontology – it tells us basic things about who we are; why history is patterned as we perceive it to be; what the cosmos is; what or who controls the cosmos; etc.

We all start somewhere in a human group with a mythology that is called history, science, story, etc. and is believed to describe past and present reality. Hence, the primary form of knowledge that competes epistemically with science in our current society is personal mythologies that are derived in some way from group mythology.

People like Einstein and Feynman suggest that to the extent our inherited ontological and epistemic beliefs are not falsified to some reasonable degree of probability by science, we do not have a good reason to abandon them. This recognizes the utility of cohesive human groups to both individuals and society. Of course, there is lots of debate around when inherited beliefs have been sufficiently falsified to be abandoned. A strong apologetic tradition going back as far as I can trace it says that certain inherited beliefs (such as religious beliefs) are so important that virtual certainty of falsehood is required to justify change. Remembering that these are non-scientific beliefs that are not falisifiable by definition helps us to see this standard for what is – a social defence mechanism designed to prevent change in belief and hence the group. When we see something like this, we should ask “who benefits” and then determine who is promoting this view. They are generally the same people.

– I have trouble teasing meaning apart from its related ontology. Semiotics is the study of how meaning is constructed, and what I mostly see there is epistemology and ontology. Meaning is based on perceived reality. So, how do we decide what is “real”? That is, what is the real nature of a human being? Are we designed by God in some way, or not? Does God exist, or not? And if so, what is His/Her/Its nature? These are ontological questions, answered on the basis of epistemic principles and meaning flows from that without more.

Again, I think it is helpful to recognize that we don’t start in a vacuum without meaning and then construct it. It is a given; a basic premise that is an intrinsic part of our inherited ontology. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If there was even an example of co-evolution, it must surely be mythic meaning and ontological belief within a given culture. The question is, will we change what we inherited? Such changes are usually driven by nascent ontological belief that is inconsistent with mythic meaning, not the other way around.

– Given what I have just said, I don’t agree that science “generates” metaphysics. That, in my view, is a contradiction in terms. What you are saying, I think, is that our non-scientific ontological views are affected by science. I agree with that. Sometimes it is a matter of science having falsified so many claims of a particular type (faith healings, for example), that other similar claims are not accepted without a high standard of proof being met. Or science has provided explanations that are far more parsimonious than what religion offers for some phenomena, such as that many types of visions can be medically explained; epileptic seizures do not necessarily mean demonic possession; etc.

A lot of what science uses to question ontological beliefs is on the fringe of measurable phenomena and hence the fringe of science – social science. This should make us sceptical of its probative value, and to think carefully about Einstein’s and Feynman’s advice before we stand on that pedestal to insist that others, within social groups the dynamics of which we do not understand, change their beliefs and so incur personal costs that may not be justifiable in their circumstances. Those same believers, when assessing the likely costs assoicated with a change in belief, would do well to remember that our cling-to-the-group instinct was developed in our evolutionary past when clinging to the group was necessary for survival. Therefore, in our current context we tend to dramatically overestimate such costs.

And sometimes we find ourselves way outside science and yet hear even respected scientists (as Michael Ruse has pointed out in “Mystery of Mysteries – Is Evolution a Social Construct?”) positing non-scientific ontologies in their popular works and having many members of the much less scientific public swallow them whole because they are dressed in scientific garb and presented by respected scientists. This justifiably angers other scientists.

– To conclude, lets run one of the topics from Star Island this summer through my little system.

I can use scientific analytical tools to assess the accuracy of a statement like “Buddhist monks report losing their sense of self while meditating; their measurable brain states at the same time are consistent with that reporting; and these brain states are consistent with other well known brain states that accompany lovemaking and other phenomena known to cause a powerfully attractive emotional and hence physical state.” Those statements are falsifiable on the basis of data collected, measured, etc. and are hence within science’s reach.

However, I can’t use science to assess the statements, “Therefore, there is a state of “absolute unitary being” that is more real than the base-line waking reality we generally experience. And therefore, I believe that God [pick your favourite flavour] does exist and what the Monks experienced was a taste of the dimension in which he lives and where we will go after death and … [go on from there to deal with questions of life’s purpose and meaning as you wish]” I realize that this is not what Newberg said in his book (“Why God Won’t Go Away”) or at Star. I am repeating what I have heard others state as their personal beliefs on the basis of his research.

The second and third statements posit an ontology that cannot be tested scientifically, but is argued to be consistent with Newberg’s findings and hence justifiable from an epistemic point of view that has science’s approval even though it is not scientific.

As I start to assess this statement, I will first want to talk about epistemology in general. What will be our standard for accepting that something is real? Is it enough, in general, to show that something is not falsified by science? Were that the case, any number of bizarre beliefs would be justifiable including those of Muslim suicide bombers who feel enormous peace and in some cases orgiastic epiphanies as they prepare for their missions of the kind the great mystics write about.

I would then pull out some social science, acknowledge that any conclusions drawn from it are far from bullet proof, and look for patterns in what people from different cultures believe in basic ontological terms. I may be able to show that any experience that makes a person feel a bit like he or she just had a sexual climax will likely be perceived to be highly attractive, and anything perceived to cause the experience will likely be considered both valuable and powerful. I can likely use Newberg’s research to show a link between some mystic and religious experience and powerfully attractive, motivating emotional states. I may be able to show correlations between various kinds of environmental conditions and ontological beliefs (environments of scarcity produce demanding, punishing gods and hard to reach heavens; etc.). I may be able to show correlations between ontological beliefs in general and other aspects of human psychology or neurology. I may be able to show correlations between theories as to how orwhy the ontological beliefs in human groups develop and other psychological theories such as evolutionary psychology. I may be able to show correlations between both group and individual attributes and their ontological beliefs, and suggest that by choosing an ontology we to some extent choose our group and individual natures. Etc.

In the end, I don’t think I will have trouble justifying within my epistemic system the following:

– I am not justified in a belief merely because it has not been falsified by science.

– Strongly held ontological beliefs that are not justified by science are correlated with many factors that seem inconsistent with a concurrent correlation to reality. That is, things like belief in particular kinds of gods or human purposes are much more reflective of social reality and other objective circumstances of the individual and her group than anything else.

– This pattern suggests that any particular non-scientific ontological belief is unlikely to accurately describe reality, and human nature appears to be such that this suggestion will be almost universally resisted by people who hold particular ontological beliefs, no matter how bizarre they may seem to non-believers.

That is it for today. I would welcome any education you, Phil or others may wish to offer.



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