Mormonism: A theology even a secularist could like?



As a teenager growing up in the 1970’s who was interested in all things science and technology related while also a Mormon with strong Mormon roots, I had to come to grips with what appeared to be some basic incompatibilities between scientific truth and religious truth.

What I discovered over time is that most of the incompatibility lay not with disagreements between fundamental tenets of Mormon theology and science, but lay with disagreements between the theologies of other Christian religions and science. Albeit there are elements of Mormonism that may be problematic for the scientist, these have to do more with culture, practice, and policy than with cosmology. Indeed, as I continued to pursue my education—eventually getting a PhD in Electrical Engineering and continuing for many more years as a tenured professor at a university—I found that the theistic cosmology first espoused by Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century, is uncannily becoming more compatible, not less, with advances in scientific knowledge.

I never was attracted to other religions, but I felt a need to be able to justify and explain how to be both religious and scientific. There is an exponential growth rate in the percentage of those not affiliated with any religion, apparently, because of either the attraction of secularism or the disaffection with traditional religions. ([]).

Over the years, I developed some insights on how to reconcile both my scientific and religious experiences. I hope that some of these insights might be helpful to secularists who might wonder about theism and also to both Mormons and the non-affiliated religious, who might be challenged by secularism.

Why should a secularist care?

Some of the most ardent atheists agree that “religious” inclinations are part of being human. These include: the desire to act altruistically; the compassion one feels for the less fortunate; the desire to love and be loved by others; the need to have enduring relationships; the willingness to sacrifice for those we love; the pain and loss felt when a child or spouse dies; the desire to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than just one’s self; the hope in continued existence beyond this mortality.

One can argue about the source of these “baked in” religious or moral inclinations, but it is hard to argue against their existence. The question, then, for any secularist is how to respond to these moral or religious “inclinations,” how to understand them, and how to give them meaning both in the context of one’s own life and intelligent life in general. Here lies the intersection where a secularist might choose to take a different path, one towards a form of theism that also embraces scientific truth. I call a secularist who is open to the idea of theism a proto-theist.

A framework for a scientific faith

What is often surprising, to those first learning about Mormonism, is how peculiar (in a good sense), fundamental Mormon beliefs are with respect to science when contrasted with other religions. There has never been a war (at worst a skirmish or two) between science and religion in Mormonism. The fundamental position is that truth is truth, all truth is of the same kind, no matter the source, so there should never be disagreement between scientific and religious truth. A good book that explores in more depth Mormon cosmology is Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology, 1992 by E. R. Paul.

Albeit colored by their nineteenth century origin, here are some notable quotes:

One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may.
Words of Joseph Smith
p. 229
The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. (D&C 93:36)
And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated. (D&C 130:19-20)
In knowledge there is power. God has more power than all other beings because he has greater knowledge.
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p. 288
There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (D&C 131: 7-8)
You ask them why, and they say, “Doesn’t the Bible say He created the world?” And they infer that it must be out of nothing. The word create … It means to organize; the same as a man would organize and use things to build a ship. Hence, we infer that God Himself had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter—which is element and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. (Joseph Smith, King Follet Discourse)
And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof. … And worlds without number have I created; …
Moses 1: 29
…which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.
Abr 3: 9
It is high time that all of God’s laws are recognized as natural. He made ‘heaven and earth, the the sea, and all that in them is’; and therefore the laws that govern these things must be recognized as pertaining to him. Natural laws are God’s laws. … No warfare exists between Mormonism and true science.
F.J. Pack Improvement Era January 1908.
Mormonism had produced more scientists per capita than virtually all religious movements in twentieth-century America. (paraphrased) (Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars, Science 185, 9 Aug 1974)

The nature of man and God

It is the peculiar Mormon view of the nature of God and man that may be the most attractive to a proto-theist. It is also the source of much animosity from fundamentalist Christian sects. The core belief is that God and man are the same type of beings. God is much more advanced, but mankind has to potential to advance as God did. The purpose of this life is to further mankind’s advancement. Some notable quotes follow:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
Moses 1:39
Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other. … Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
2 Ne 2: 16
What kind of a being was God in the beginning, before the world was? …
First, God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto one of yourselves — that is the great secret! …
if you were to see Him today, you would see Him in all the person, image, fashion, and very form of a man, like yourselves. …
The first principle of truth and of the Gospel is to know for a certainty the character of God, and that we may converse with Him the same as one man with another, and that He once was a man like one of us and that God Himself, the Father of us all, once dwelled on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did in the flesh and like us. …
Man existed in spirit; the mind of man — the intelligent part — is as immortal as, and is coequal with, God Himself. …
God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God Himself could not create Himself. …
sIntelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement and improvement. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him …
Joseph Smith
King Follet Discourse
As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be. (The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, ed. Clyde J. Williams, 1.)

The way forward

Some features of Mormon cosmology that these quotes illustrate are as follows:

  • There is no disagreement between religious truth and scientific truth, they are both the same kind of truth.
  • God operates using the laws of nature, within the universe, not outside of it.
  • Creation is organization.
  • God and humanity are of the same race.
  • The earth is not the only planet inhabited by God’s children.
  • God has progressed over time, based on knowledge and understanding of the laws of nature.
  • God’s purposeful relationship with humanity, is as parent to child, and is to foster the same sort of progression, that is, a system of Godhood.
  • Intelligence is eternal, pre-mortal and post-mortal.

There are some interesting implications of Mormon cosmology with respect to science, mortality, the future of the human race, and individual behavior. One difference between a theist and a proto-theist is that the theist recognizes, at least operationally, the plausibility of the existence of some form of God whereas the proto-theist has not rejected out of hand the possibility of some form of God. Is the Mormon concept of God more accessible, understandable, practical, believable, falsifiable, motivational, or inspirational, to the scientifically minded be they theists or proto-theists?