Science & Religion #4: Religious Search For Truth

By: Mike S
November 9, 2010

It’s a familiar story.  In a nutshell, he was pondering God and had a miraculous experience.  His background included Jewish and Christian teachings, but there was a “fullness” that wasn’t there.  An angel appeared to him and he brought forth additional scripture; even though he was “unlearned” man.  His message resonated with others and they formed a small group of faithful followers.  As his followers grew in number, the neighbors persecuted them and they were forced to move to another city.  He was a merchant and led a militia.  He took multiple wives, some younger and some older.  He was faithful until the end of his life and in his last words, he addressed God.  Since his death, his name has been spoken of for good and evil throughout the earth.  Millions of people revere him as a prophet.  Millions of people have accepted his message and have wonderful conversion stories.  Perhaps you taught this story on a mission or in a class.  Perhaps not.  In this case, the man is Muhammad.  But it could be Joseph Smith.

In the religious search for truth, there are prophets like Joseph Smith or Moses or Mohammed or Siddhārtha Gautama or Ron Hubbard or many others.  These are people who approached the divine and brought something back.  In relating their experience with the divine, these people have touched those around them and helped thousands and millions also reach towards the divine.  Their search for truth starts movements on a macro-level.

But for the rest of us, our religious search for truth is more personal and on a micro-level.  We all define our relationship with Deity, even if that is saying that there is no Deity or that we just don’t know.  Most people define their relationship with God in the framework of one or another denomination, generally the one into which they were born.  However, an increasing number of people are saying they are “spiritual but not religious” and defining their beliefs outside any specific denomination.

So, how do we find religious truth?  In our search for the divine, where do we turn?  And importantly, how do we determine which religious truths to incorporate into a scientific setting?  To do this, there are generally 3 main sources of “religious truth”: ancient writings (or scriptures), current leaders (or prophets), and personal experience, along with advantages/disadvantages of each.

1) Scripture/writings: The main advantage is that they provide a link to the founding doctrine of a faith or denomination.  Jewish people find the words of God in the writings of Moses and the Prophets.  Muslims find the words of Allah in the Qu’ran.  Buddhists read the Dhammapada.  Hindus find truth in the Bhagavad Gita.  Mormons accept Joseph Smith’s revelations in the Book of Mormon and D&C.  Many different denominations accept the Holy Bible, with or without the Apocrypha.  These canonized scriptures form the foundation in the search for religious truth.

There are problems, however.  These writings were often given in a different time and context (2 Nephi 25).  They have potentially had issues with translation and transmission as I talked about in my very first post.  And then there is the big problem of interpretation and using scriptures as proof texts as discussed by Stephen Marsh.

Take a simple example: Ezekiel 37:16-19 talks about a stick of Joseph and a stick of Judah.  In an LDS context, we use this to teach that the Book of Mormon was prophesied in the Bible, and that they have now come together in one.  However, these verses are interpreted much differently by other people.  Many people, including the Jewish people, refer to the verses immediately after these, where Ezekiel himself interprets what he meant, referring to the northern Kingdom of Judah and the southern Kingdom of Israel being reunited.  Some people talk about Bob Marley being from the Tribe of Joseph and Haile Selassie being from the Tribe of Judah with reference to this scripture.  Some people suggest the Anglo-Saxons represent the Tribe of Joseph and will combine with the Jews from the Tribe of Judah to fight off the forces of Edom (Germany) and Ishmael (Muslims).  So even with scriptures, people are inclined to see what they want to see.

2) Current leaders/prophets: Because of transmission/translation/interpretation issues, most denominations have more modern leaders.  They continue the connection with the divine, helping interpret traditions in modern times.  Catholics have the Pope in this role.  Many Buddhists accept the Dalai Lama.  We have Prophets from Joseph Smith down through Thomas S Monson.  Similar people serve in similar roles in various denominations.  These people help their followers understand the canonized scriptures.  In many cases, there is also the potential for new revelation.

There can be problems with this as well.  While these people are great spiritual leaders, they are also still men (generally, but increasingly women) with their own opinions, backgrounds, and understanding.  They sometimes say things that are wrong.  Someone’s reliance on their teachings depends at least somewhat on that person’s opinion as to the leader.  Tom Cruise is likely going to place more weight in the teachings of Ron Hubbard than he is Joseph Smith.  Most readers of this site would likely be the opposite.

3) Personal Experience: At the end of the day, this is what is most important.  In the LDS Church, we call this a “testimony”. Someone may know quite a bit about the LDS Church, but unless they personally feel that it is “right” for them, they aren’t going to join.  There are beautiful conversion experiences in our missionary program, yet there are also also the same experiences in the Catholic faith, the Hindu religion, among Muslims, etc.  Billions of people have received some sort of confirmation that the path they are following is “right”.

How do we determine which path is “right”?  Joseph Smith asked God.  We might also ask God, but also listen to our parents, our friends, others.  Buddha was quite explicit in how we should search for religious truth:  He taught: “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” This can actually be quite hard.  When you truly internalize a truth, it is harder to ignore following it than is someone just tells you externally what should be.

So how do we “find” religious truth?  It is all very subjective and may be different from person to person.  It involves the Holy Ghost confirming truth when we are exposed to it.  Many people feel this when they read the Book of Mormon, and it forms the foundation of a testimony.  Others feel the same feelings when they read truth in the Qu’ran, or the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita.

So, when we compare scientific truths to religious truths, we need a way to define WHICH religious truths.   A few guidelines I’m going to use, since this can be very difficult:  1) Universality, 2) Consistency, 3) Rank System for LDS teachings

1) Universality: A truth that is universal among all systems is more likely to be an eternal principle than one that is unique.  The majority of faiths believe in something Divine.  Many call the Divine God, or perhaps Allah, or perhaps Krishna.  Buddhists may believe in our inner Buddha-nature.  So it is very likely that there is something “bigger” than our day-to-day lives.  Similarly, honesty, avoiding killing, integrity, etc. are all likely fundamental truths.  A belief in Christ is fundamental to many Christian faiths, but even Muslims accept Christ as a prophet and Jews talk about a Messiah.

Some things are not very universal, so are likely NOT eternal truths.  The rules about Israelites gathering manna don’t really apply anywhere else.  Teaching that 75 million years ago Xenu brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft is also not a universally taught concept.

2) Consistency: An eternal truth ideally shouldn’t change, but always be the same.  A belief in God has been the same within any given religion for its entire existence.  Killing was prohibited thousands of years ago in most major denominations.  It is still prohibited.  These are likely eternal principles.

Other things aren’t very consistent, so are likely NOT eternal truths (much like the answers to Einstein’s test, which also changed).  The approach of the LDS Church towards wine, for example.  Christ drank wine and instituted the sacrament with wine, both in His mortal life as well as among the Nephites and in our modern day.  Early Church leaders drank wine, including in the temple.  This has been changed to the point where it is prohibited, even to the point of changing the sacrament ordinances and prayers to reflect this.

3) Rank System for LDS Teachings: Many things have been taught.  As quoted in post #1 in this series, Joseph Fielding Smith taught that man would NEVER get to the moon; Brigham Young talked about what the inhabitants of the moon would look like when we sent missionaries to them.  At the same time, they also taught important eternal religious truths.  We recently had reiterated in General Conference (twice) that prophets can talk about any subject they want and they what they say supersedes anything previously said on that subject (kind of like hawkgrrrl).  So, how do we determine when they were speaking as men and when they were speaking as Prophets?

For this, I turn to one of my favorite writers, Neal A Maxwell.  I can’t remember the source, but from what I recall, he claimed there are 4 levels for LDS Church doctine:

1) Official Declaration/Canonized scripture

2) First Presidency statements, officially released as a “special” statement

3) Prophetic statements with support of First Presidency

4) Prophetic statements alone

An example of “Level 1” truth might be a doctrine in the Book of Mormon that children under 8 cannot sin.  This is clear and in canonized scripture.  A “Level 2” statement might be the “Proclamation on the Family” which is officially released as a special statement under the auspices of the First Presidency (although with the change to BKP recent conference talk, it is not clear if this is a “revelation” or what that means).  A “Level 3” teaching might be a letter written to the Church on First Presidency letterhead, clarifying a topic or a question.  And a “Level 4” teaching might be something that a prophet said alone.

So, as we go forward in looking at Science and Religion, and as we talk about religious truths, we need to consider our religious texts, the leaders we quote, and also our own feelings on the topics.  An isolated statement may or may not mean much in this context, but may provide some insight.  Things that carry more weight would be things that are universal and unchanging.  When we consider LDS teachings (as this is a Mormon website), I would also consider the “Level” of doctrine, weighing a L1 statement from the Bible that “God created man” higher than a L4 statement that “man will never set foot on the moon”

Hopefully, this will let us at least give some structure to our conversations as we go forward.


  • Is there a “universal” religious truth, or are things more relative?
  • Necessary ordinances aside (as they can be taken care of post-mortem as needed), is there a single denomination that would be best for everyone in mortality, or might different people be best served in different denominations?
  • Does the universality and consistency of religious teachings have any bearing on their likelihood that they are “ultimate” truths?
  • How do you choose between all of the “truths” out there: Stick to your own faith, avoiding exposure to other teachings, and taking confirmations of truth as a sign you are on the right path?  Or do you look at everything else out there, too, in a quest to find the “ultimate” truth, but at the risk of perhaps going beyond the “faith of your fathers”?
  • Are the 4 levels of LDS truth a useful way of approaching LDS leaders’ statements?

(NOTE: This is #3 in a multi-part series which starts here. The next 2 posts talk about the historical approach to science and religion, as well as a proposed way to consider this going forward.  We then get into the fun, and likely controversial, topics.

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33 Responses to Science & Religion #4: Religious Search For Truth

  1. Thomas on November 9, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    “Perhaps you taught this story on a mission or in a class. Perhaps not. In this case, the man is Muhammad. But it could be Joseph Smith.”

    Well played, Sir.

    Something interesting I noted the other day — the similarities between parts of the 18th-century American evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards’ account of his conversion process, and Joseph Smith’s.

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  2. Douglas Hunter on November 9, 2010 at 8:23 PM

    Where in this post do you define your term “religious truth?” And why would we want to incorporate such a “truth” into a scientific setting?

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  3. Mike S on November 9, 2010 at 8:44 PM

    Unfortunately, I can’t define “religious truth”.

    If I were to claim a “scientific truth”, I could describe it and you should be able to repeat it and get the same result as me, time after time. If you couldn’t, then it wouldn’t be a “scientific truth”.

    In the religious world, this is difficult (if not impossible) as religion is far too personal. We all bring our own backgrounds, personalities, quirks, karma, experiences, etc. to our attempt to touch the divine, and the experience is necessarily colored by our perceptions. As was discussed in the comments on a previous post, something as supposedly as straightforward as Moroni’s promise is problematic. If everyone could ALWAYS read the BofM, pray about it, and be guaranteed to get an answer, then it would certainly change the face of missionary work. But that doesn’t happen – even with many life-long Church members.

    The purpose of this post is therefore to try to set a framework for the “likelihood” of various religious claims to be true as we go through the series.

    For example, when we touch upon evolution, there are claims made in canonized scripture, vs isolated claims made by various church leaders. Similarly with language and the Tower of Babel or the Flood or the Big Band, etc. Some religious “claims” of “truth” will be stronger than others.

    So, this is just an attempt to try to impose a tiny bit of rationality on the many, many claims made over the years on just about every subject. It is necessarily imperfect and subjective, but it’s the best I could do.

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  4. Mike S on November 9, 2010 at 9:02 PM


    As far as “why would we want to incorporate such a “truth” into a scientific setting”, I have asked the same question of myself many times. For many people, it doesn’t make sense, or isn’t possible.

    The best response I could come up with is post #2 in this series:

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  5. Jared on November 9, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    Mike S wrote:

    “So how do we “find” religious truth? It is all very subjective and may be different from person to person. It involves the Holy Ghost confirming truth when we are exposed to it. Many people feel this when they read the Book of Mormon, and it forms the foundation of a testimony. Others feel the same feelings when they read truth in the Qu’ran, or the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita.”

    My dad used to say, “water seeks its own level”. This saying succinctly restates and answers what is a conundrum for some LDS: how can persons acquire a “testimony” of other religions than the one God caused to be restored through the prophet Joseph Smith?

    LDS doctrine answers this question based on the following doctrinal concepts:

    1. All mankind receive the “light of Christ”. D&C 84:46

    2. Some of God’s children because of pre-mortal diligence are influenced by the Holy Ghost (Acts 10:44).

    3. A few of God’s children (Alma 13), who make and keep covenants in this life, are given the gift of the Holy Ghost (D&C 39:6).

    “There is no truth more plainly taught in the Gospel than that our condition in the next world will depend upon the kind of lives we live here…Is it not just as reasonable to suppose that the conditions in which we now live have been determined by the kind of lives we lived in the pre-existent world of spirits?” Harold B. Lee

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  6. Mike S on November 9, 2010 at 9:38 PM


    I think there is something to this concept. We believe that we had different states in the premortal existence. I appreciate your quotes pointing out our views. There is the question of what to make when Christ pointed out that a maimed man did NOT have that as a result of his previous life, but overall I agree with the concept.

    But the idea is not unique to the LDS faith. Buddhists think that our station in life is determined by what we did previously as well. Someone who accumulated karma by oppressing the poor in a previous life may come back as someone oppressed. And they, too, feel that someone who has reached a high level of spirituality in a previous existence is blessed by being born into a “good” Buddhist family where they are immediately exposed to the correct teachings.

    Similarly in the Hindu faith – the caste system is a more formal representation of what you mentioned. The goal of a Hindu is to accept their state with grace and to the best of their ability.

    Again, following the point of the post, I therefore think there is something to our state reflecting something previous to this life. It is a somewhat universal theme so in the context of this post, I think it is more likely to be “true”.

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  7. Badger on November 10, 2010 at 12:48 AM

    All religions address the concept of truth one way or another. But the LDS (or general Christian) understanding of truth does not easily carry over into other world religions. This is implicit at several points in the post, but I wanted to comment on it explicitly.

    In Christianity, belief has a unique importance: “…whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life,” one of many such examples. Creeds and other formal statements of belief play a very prominent role.

    In LDS culture, and I think it’s fair to say religion too, truth tends to be conceived of as a body of, well, “facts” is probably not quite the right word, but it’s close. God has a body of flesh and bones, that Lehi’s journey was a literal historical event, and so on. There is some diversity of belief, but disagreements tend to be over specifics (e.g., age of the Earth) rather than rejection of the entire approach (e.g., God is unknowable). This outlook is not uniquely LDS. I think it may be uniquely Christian to some extent.

    For example, I think it’s fair to say that one of the main points of Zen Buddhism is that the entire idea of truth as a body of fact-like knowledge is deeply misguided. Perhaps the most famous Zen question is “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?” Anyone who expects Buddhism to provide a yes or no answer is missing the point by so much that it’s hard even to know where to begin with them.

    Belief is the defining quality of a Christian. In Judaism conversion is possible, but being Jewish is usually determined by birth rather than belief. Does belief in Allah and his prophet Mohammed, make you a Muslim if you never say prayers or observe Ramadan? I’m not sure, but I don’t think the situation is entirely comparable to a believing Christian with poor church attendance.

    Can someone be an atheist Christian? Well, it sounds difficult. Muslim? Also unlikely. Jew? Certainly, although not a religious Jew. Buddhist? Entirely possible. I wouldn’t quarrel with Mike S’s reference to Buddha Nature as divine in a broad sense, but it is not a god. Confucian? I only know what I read in the Analects, but on that possibly inadequate basis Confucianism seems inherently atheistic.

    I guess my point is that the differences between major religions are much deeper than that they “teach different things about God”, but appreciating the differences makes what they have in common seem even more remarkable, and perhaps also mysterious.

    Short version: Mike S correctly identifies traits that religions have in common, but someone who is picturing Hindus praying to know whether the Bhagavad Gita is true has taken things too far.

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  8. Mike S on November 10, 2010 at 7:43 AM

    Badger: Thanks for the comments. I agree that this is a hard concept to define. Religious beliefs are much less objective than scientific beliefs.

    I also agree with your statement in that I don’t know that Hindus “pray” about the Bhagavad Gita. At the same time, perhaps that is because “prayer” is a loaded term. If by prayer we mean actually praying to God, then this would generally collapse down to the Christian and Jewish religions (and perhaps Islam if we consider God and Allah to be the same).

    However, if we consider “prayer” to be a more general term implying “connection with the divine”, then I think all of the examples you gave actually do have more in common. While Zen Buddhists don’t actually pray to God, there are many similarities. One is expected to follow the Dharma, or a list of suggested practices (somewhat like “commandments” but different). One is expected to quiet oneself and not think about the world (somewhat like prayer and meditation we talk about). We might read and ponder scritpures; in Zen they ponder koans as you mentioned. And ultimately, the goal is to have a connection with the Divine – or something “bigger” than us – that connects us with the universe and everything. We call this God. A born again might consider this experience “being saved”. In Buddhism, the same experience occurs.

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  9. Thomas on November 10, 2010 at 1:28 PM


    Let’s quote some more from that Harold B. Lee passage you quoted:

    “The privilege of obtaining a mortal body on this earth is seemingly so priceless that those in the spirit world, even though unfaithful or not valiant, were undoubtedly permitted to take mortal bodies, although under penalty of racial or physical or nationalistic limitations.

    In other words, the Negroes were cursed for being less valiant in the pre-existence. Since Elder Holland has refuted this teaching, and since he as a living prophet takes precedence over the dead President Lee, that address should not be taken as true.

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  10. Jared on November 10, 2010 at 2:21 PM


    A few random points and then a link to a post I wrote.

    President Lee didn’t mention negroes, specifically.

    A reading of the Bible and the Book of Mormon makes it clear that God has chosen, and cursed peoples in the 2nd estate.

    All the gentiles have a blessing, as well as a curse hanging over our heads. 2 Nephi 1:11

    If you’re interested in the subject of blessed and cursed peoples I suggest reading 1 Nephi 17:23-43.

    I think it is wonderful that the time has come that Blacks can have the priesthood. I wrote a piece titled, The Priesthood Ban for Dummies. This will give you my perspective. The link follows:

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  11. Douglas Hunter on November 10, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    #3/4- It sounds like you are talking about histiography and or epistemology because it would seem you are attempting to capture how something such as the Tower of Babel narrative might relate to actual historic events.

    I submit that it might be better to drop the idea of “religious truth” (sorry but its pretty sloppy) and look at the meaning and purpose of religious experience and texts in relation to ethics and theology. I don’t think the notion of truth is helpful when talking about Moroni’s promise or the Tower narrative. Granted, the tower narrative in the context of modernity has been assumed to be the record of an actual event, yet as we all should know, the early readers / hearers of such a narrative would not make the same kinds of assumtions about its histiographic rigor that orthodox (sic) contemporary readers do. I would claim that the kind of “truth” that the tower narrative attempts to capture is theological in nature and has no real relation to facts or “scientific truth” yet it still has profound meaning.

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  12. Thomas on November 10, 2010 at 2:54 PM

    “President Lee didn’t mention negroes, specifically.”

    Given the cultural, personal, and circumstantial context, a fair reading between the lines, I think.

    “A reading of the Bible and the Book of Mormon makes it clear that God has chosen, and cursed peoples in the 2nd estate.”

    It’s an improvement on Calvinism, I suppose, to give people “you’ve been penalized because of what you did in a premortal existence you have no memory of” instead of “you’ve been penalized because God was feeling grouchy when he created you for damnation,” but hard to square with “God is no respecter of persons.”

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  13. hawkgrrrl on November 10, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    Great thoughts, Mike S. A couple reactions I had as I read your OP (concentrating on the first part – how we perceive religious “truth”):

    - LDS typically view all religions as having a part of the truth, but LDS as having access to all truth PLUS ordinances, authority, and a batphone to the big guy. IOW, the distinction is that other religions are doing the best they can, but they don’t have (real) ordinances, (real) authority, or (real) revelation. So if they claim to have those things, that’s adorable and all, but we patronizingly dismiss those claims.

    - On universality, we tend to think there are many universal truths (by which I think we really mean values), but in reality, the nuances do change the overall picture of what is “good” or “successful” within that religious context. An “ideal” Mormon is not the same as an “ideal” Buddhist or Hindi or Muslim. And an “ideal” Mormon probably has more in common with an “ideal” Protestant or Christian due to our national values in the US and the majority of our converts in US and abroad.

    - Personal experience is, IMO, the most valuable of the 3 listed above, and yet, it’s also colored by what we are taught to expect through our culture. We filter our experiences through those expectations, and we don’t see what we don’t know we don’t see. So personal experience, which we think is all us individually and therefore more reliable, is also subject to cultural conditioning in a very basic way.

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  14. jmb275 on November 10, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    Another great thought provoking post Mike S. I have a number of thoughts as I’ve read it. Unfortunately, after writing a comment 3 times now, and not being able to really say what I’m thinking, I’m gonna wait for the next one. I think there are some problems with our use of the word “truth” in this way, and I think there are some issues with loose rules you’ve defined. But I also can’t come up with anything better, so I think you’re as close as we can get.

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  15. Mike S on November 10, 2010 at 10:30 PM

    #11 Douglas:

    Critique accepted. I absolutely agree with you that “Religious Truth” is a very sloppy term. I used it for several reasons:

    1) It seemed as good as anything else. Whether we call it “Absolute” or “Cosmic Truth” or whatever, it is a slippery thing to grasp, much less label.

    2) I like symmetry in writing. Since the post is about Science & Religion, I liked the symmetry in talking about “Scientific Truth” and “Religious Truth”. Just as in “To boldly go where no man has gone before…”, sometimes “correctness” may be trumped by phrasing.

    But, it is sloppy.

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  16. FireTag on November 10, 2010 at 10:36 PM

    Douglas Hunter:

    You have emphasized in your own blogging the point you make here about “look at the meaning and purpose of religious experience and texts in relation to ethics and theology.” I think it is important to study scripture from that point of view, but I would not advocate dropping their study from other points of view AS WELL.

    The more parts of the elephant we blind men get our hands on, the better we’ll understand it.

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  17. Mike S on November 10, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    As people have talked about, pointed out, etc., “religious truth” is hard to define, and in fact, I don’t actually have a definition. I’ve struggled with this for years.

    Scriptures can be interpreted many ways, and the interpretation says as much about the person reading them as it does about the person who wrote them.

    Leaders say many things. Many of them are truths, but other things are errors in retrospect. As BRM said when asked about the blacks and priesthood issue commented on above, “I was wrong”. But he was also right about many things. Without the benefit of hindsight, how do we know which things current leaders say are correct and which are wrong?

    So we are left with a personal basis for finding religious “truth”. As hawkgrrl pointed out, this is necessarily clouded as well by our experiences, culture, environment, seed-consciousness, background, etc.

    So, how do we define a “religious truth”? Is there an absolute religious truth common to all people? If so, what is it and how do we find it? If it is contained entirely in the LDS Church, why don’t ALL people encountering missionaries find such a resonance that conversion is easy?

    Or do we each have a unique “religious truth” which is that set of beliefs, etc. that are best for us on our path back to God? Could it be true that some people will have a more complete path back to God down a Catholic path or a Muslim path than down an LDS path?

    I don’t know.

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  18. Mike S on November 10, 2010 at 10:55 PM


    The “rules” are necessarily loose because ofr the “slipperiness” I’ve described above. Unlike the search for scientific truth, I’ve never encountered a faith or a method that works to confirm a specific religious belief for ALL people.

    For the sake of THIS SERIES OF POSTS, the “rules” are really just going to be a short-hand way of talking about religious statements as we discuss science and religion. There are no absolutes, but they do provide a rough guide as to how definitive different statements might be.

    When we are attempting to reconcile some particular scientific finding with religious comments on that subject, there will be different sources we will quote. An L1 quote (ie. canonized scripture) will be harder to discount completely than an L4 quote (something some church leader may have said). As per Jared’s quotes above, a quote from Acts (L1) is fairly accepted, but people quibble more about a statement given in a talk by Harold B Lee (L4).

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  19. Badger on November 11, 2010 at 12:49 AM

    Mike S, thanks for your reply to my comment. At the end you said

    A born again might consider this experience “being saved”. In Buddhism, the same experience occurs.

    The experiences may be comparable, but the differences are substantial enough that I would have avoided the word “same”. I don’t mean to quibble with an inconsequential word choice, but I wonder what you think of a couple points that I don’t often have a chance to talk over.

    Both religions deal with human limitations, and the impossibility of forming an ideal and then just simply living according to it. Christianity–especially Paul–formulates this in terms of guilt before the law, with God as the lawgiver. Christian salvation involves wiping away condemnation by accepting Christ’s atonement, and reconciliation with God. Buddhism emphasizes suffering rather than guilt, unskillfulness rather than sin, and the mind rather than God.

    A Buddhist might criticize Christianity by pointing out that being born again can, and often does, result in greater attachment to creedal and sometimes political beliefs, and give many convincing examples of how harmful this can be. Christianity has essentially nothing to say about Mind, gives no new insight into the way suffering subtly permeates human life, but offers instead the shallow consolation that suffering too obvious for the unskillful mind to overlook will be offset by a greater reward in the hereafter.

    A Christian criticism of Buddhism might note its elimination of guilt and even the very idea of sin by a process better described as abandonment than repentance, and the usurpation of the proper place of God and Heaven by the comparatively vacuous concepts of detachment and Nirvana. Where Christian zeal yields good works and engagement, Buddhist detachment too easily leads to mere indolence and acquiescence in injustice. It also some incorporates ideas of Hindu origin, like karma, that lend themselves to the same outcome.

    These criticisms are caricatures in the form I’ve outlined, but even in this crude form I think both of them have some validity.

    The value of what each religion offers may vary for different personality types. For instance, a tendency to experience “negative” mental states like anger, anxiety, and depression appears to be a partly innate aspect of personality (often unflatteringly called “neuroticism”). It is not hard to find people who have experienced Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, in terms of guilt, anxiety, and inadequacy. In contrast, Zen-style meditation techniques, minus the metaphysical baggage of their original religious context, are unapologetically recommended in Western psychology and medicine for stress reduction and anxiety disorders. A “neurotic” person might find more value in Buddhism than Christianity, while the opposite personality type would find it giving far too much emphasis to what is, for that personality, a non-issue. Of course, most people’s choice of religion is highly influenced by factors like family background, but I can’t help feeling that Christianity and Buddhism arose in response to needs experienced differently by different people.

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  20. Mike S on November 11, 2010 at 8:00 AM


    I appreciate your comments and see much value in them, but I still think the experiences are similar enough that I would use the word “same”, perhaps qualifying it with “almost the same” or “essentially the same”.

    To explain, I start with a question: Can we, as mortals, know God?

    We can talk about attributes of God, we can talk about how God perhaps became God, we can talk about the goodness of God and the omniscience of God, etc. But can we truly know God?

    Scriptures suggest that perhaps we can’t. We are told that our ways are not God’s ways; that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. We are told that mortal eyes cannot see God. Some Christians believe that God is three-in-one. Other Christians, using the same scriptures, believe that God is separate. Muslims talk about Allah’s 99 attributes, but the essence of Allah is so supreme that it is beyond comprehension. Hindus also suggest that all the Gods in their pantheon are actually just representations of the same God. So, can our mortal minds fully and truly comprehend God?

    Since it seems to be beyond us, how do we interact with and consider religion. It basically comes down to 2 things: feelings and results of actions.

    For feelings, our goal is to feel the inner peace that comes from touching the divine. In the LDS Church, we often call this the Holy Ghost. We allow for it in others by saying the Holy Ghost can temporarily be with someone, or that it is the Spirit of Christ. Regardless of the terminology, it is the feeling of connecting with something more. We read the Book of Mormon to feel this. We leave the world behind and enter temples to feel this. We might feel it in a particularly moving talk or piece of music. But it really comes down to a feeling of a connection with something divine or universal.

    We also consider actions. There are certain things that our religion suggests will make us have a better life. We shouldn’t steal. We should practice charity. As we do various actions and see the positive results in our lives, that confirms that they were good actions.

    So, in reality, our LDS experience comes down to feelings of connection with the divine and prescribed actions. We believe God is behind all this, and talk about God, but are actually limited in our comprehension of God because of mortality.

    In Buddhism, Buddha didn’t necessarily say there was NOT a God, he just suggested that the question, since unknowable, is irrelevant. But he still focused on the same two things that other religions do, including own own. He focused on the feeling of the connection with divine that comes through meditation, and he focused on actions that bring forth positive results in life.

    This is perhaps why there are so many religions, and why it is so difficult to convert someone from one to another. For a Mormon, they have felt good feelings when they have read the Book of Mormon, and they have seen the impact of certain moral codes in their lives. They call it good and consider that the foundation of an LDS testimony. They’re not really interested in looking at anything else.

    But the same thing happens in other faiths, including Buddhism. I have felt peaceful feelings when reading the Book of Mormon or in the temple. But I have felt the exact same feelings when I have meditated. I have felt the same feelings when I have read the Qu’ran. Expecting a contented Buddhist to read the BofM, fully and with real intent, makes as much sense as asking a contented Mormon to fully and with real intent practice Buddhist meditation. Paul suggested that we should “Prove all things, hold fast that what is true”, but people, in general, don’t really do that. They stick to the faith of their fathers and it is difficult to change.

    So, in quoting your last sentence, “I can’t help feeling that Christianity and Buddhism arose in response to needs experienced differently by different people.”, perhaps this is true. Perhaps we all have different quirks and personalities. Perhaps some people have a better path back to God in the LDS faith. But perhaps others have a better path back in the Muslim faith, or even in Buddhism.

    Because all we ultimately rely on are feelings and results of actions.

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  21. hawkgrrrl on November 11, 2010 at 9:51 AM

    I tend to agree with Badger. The best course, IMO, is to mix the provocative in with the comfortable. The best religion for any individual is not what validates, IMO, but what unsettles.

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  22. jmb275 on November 11, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    As people have talked about, pointed out, etc., “religious truth” is hard to define, and in fact, I don’t actually have a definition. I’ve struggled with this for years.

    I think the biggest problem is our interpretation, or view of religious truths. To illustrate, let me explain:

    A scientific truth is considered true because it has not been falsified after many many tests (at least I would consider it “true”). But note the context of its truth – the physical world. Scientific truth describes a phenomenon, can be used to predict that phenomenon, and is reliable (often even mathematical).

    I think the problem with religious truth comes when we try to interpret religious truths in the same way. When JFS spouts nonsense about the moon, he has seriously confused scientific truth, with religious truth. He has mistakenly misinterpreted the spiritual context with the physical context.

    To me, religious truth should be confined to the spiritual. Perhaps that encompasses some morality as well, but I think when we let religious truths get out of the context of spirituality, we are misinterpreting them. I think this flies in the face of most modern Mormons and modern religious individuals, but I also think that more often than not, the religious truths that are interpreted outside the context of spirituality, end up being wrong.

    My approach to the science/religion dilemma is that I don’t view it as a dilemma at all. I view science and religion as tools in a toolbox. Each of them is good at a certain thing. But when we try to use a hammer to screw in a screw we end up with problems.

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  23. Thomas on November 11, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    “To me, religious truth should be confined to the spiritual. Perhaps that encompasses some morality as well, but I think when we let religious truths get out of the context of spirituality, we are misinterpreting them.”


    Richard Dawkins and other public atheists have argued that the late Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of religion and science having “non-overlapping magisteria” (exclusive spheres of authority, with religion operating in the metaphysical sphere where science is definitionally incapable of operating) by pointing out that a large number of religious traditions include in their articles of faith, propositions of fact that are at least technically capable of being evaluated by reason and science.

    For example, did the earth ever flood deeper than mountaintops are high? We can measure this by science, and the best evidence of science is that the answer is no. Was Mary, as the Catholics teach as one of their few “infallible” teachings, taken bodily into heaven, or did her body decay into the earth? This is harder to test, but at least theoretically, it’s conceivable that this doctrine could be disproven by the discovery of remains accompanied by some kind of evidence that indicated that they were more likely than not Mary’s.

    But are these peripheral things truly “religious” teachings? Or are they ordinary matters that happened to accompany religious teachings?

    The LDS Church is as exposed as any Abrahamic religion to challenges from science, in that one of its key doctrines is Priesthood and a unique, inspired teaching authority — and its claims to possess an exclusive Priesthood and teaching authority rest, in part, on a Restoration story, many of whose components are at least technically measurable by ordinary rational means: Did a sizeable Hebrew-influenced population and civilization ever exist in pre-Columbian America?

    But does the ultimate question facing a person involved with the Church — “is being a member what God wants me to do?” — really rest on the scientifically-measurable aspects of the Church’s history?

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  24. hawkgrrrl on November 11, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    “When JFS spouts nonsense about the moon, he has seriously confused scientific truth, with religious truth.” In that case, I think JFS confused his uninformed opinions with reality.

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  25. Badger on November 11, 2010 at 11:02 PM

    Thanks again, Mike, for your latest reply to me, which must have taken quite a bit of time to write.

    I was going to say there’s no point concerning ourselves with which of us is using exactly the right words for the similarity we both agree exists. But then, along came comment #21. Hawkgrrrl agrees with me! And the Hawk will never lead the bloggernacle astray. So there. Thanks, Hawk!

    Seriously, after reading your last reply I think we do actually see things differently on “sameness”, and it’s not just about word choice. However, I brought it up not to change your mind but to hear what thoughts it provoked for you, and your replies have been very satisfying.

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  26. Mike S on November 12, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    I also agree that science matters should be answered in the realm of science. However, in reality, there is overlap. When a leader teaches that the Earth HAD to be covered because that was the earth’s baptism, yet that conflicts with science, there is a problem. When a leader teaches that a glass of wine is bad for you (as opposed to a test of obedience) when science might suggest the opposite, there is a problem. So there are areas where these necessarily conflict. That’s what we are going to discuss in this series.

    I actually like Dawkins / Gould / etc. I may not agree with everything they say, but they do make you think and justify your own thoughts on various subjects. I also like Harris’s latest book on a scientific basis for morality. We’ll be using it later on.

    Post #5 in the series (next Tuesday) will talk about how and why people “confuse” religious issues and scientific issues and opinions and facts and everything else, like JFS and many others through the ages.

    I do think we see things differently, which is fine with me. My own views evolve and are sharpened by discussing things with others, so thank you. Yet I still argue that despite anyone’s denomination, their religious experience is the same: a method of touching the divine and a set of guidelines to like a “better” life. These two things provide a framework for tackling life’s (and death’s) hard questions. And different religions best satisfy different personalities. If that wasn’t true, we would all have trended to the exact same religion over time.

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  27. Thomas on November 12, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    “I actually like Dawkins / Gould / etc.”

    Interesting, because Dawkins doesn’t like Gould at all.

    “However, in reality, there is overlap. When a leader teaches that the Earth HAD to be covered because that was the earth’s baptism, yet that conflicts with science, there is a problem.”

    To my way of thinking, there is only a problem because a religious leader is leaving his assigned stewardship and poaching on science’s territory. And although I think there’s a Fourteen Fundamental that says he’s supposedly allowed to do that, I see an extensive record of religious figures getting their heads handed to them when they venture out on that particular limb.

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  28. Mike S on November 12, 2010 at 11:57 AM


    I know they don’t like each other. At the same time, I find that just about everyone has points with with I agree. I may not agree with their ultimate conclusions, or I may think they misrepresented results, etc., but I appreciate what Dawkins / Gould / etc are talking about and like the challenge they (and many, many others) provide to my own preconceived notions.

    Ah, the 14 Fundamentals; I like hawkgrrrl’s better. I agree with you – just because someone claims someone CAN talk about any subject doesn’t mean they SHOULD talk about it. The whole issue of religious leaders going out on limbs is going to be the central point of post #5 next week.

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  29. Douglas Hunter on November 13, 2010 at 9:02 PM

    #16 Firetag- My perspective is informend at least in part by awareness of the problem being outlined in the comments here, this being that folks don’t really want to define what religious truth is. So how much can something that remains undefined tell us about the elepahant we are groping at?

    In general I agree with you, more perspectives is better but if something must remain undefined then I am not so sure. I also like moving away away from the catagory of “truth” because it is so problematic and is often not the best description for what we are talking about but we end up using the idea anyway because of the authority that seems to come when we say we “know” a “truth”. I do think that meaning is the far better catagory because its a way of stepping around some of these issues allowing one to talk about profound sipritual topics and experiences without needing to claim authority in doing so.

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  30. FireTag on November 13, 2010 at 10:56 PM


    I do not disagree with what you say as much as I feel unqualified to solve the problem you identify. As a physicist, I’m conditioned to see “truth” as the limit of what remains after everything else has been falsified and only discuss meaning conditional to speculation about what that limiting situation might be.

    I recognize the limited nature of that perspective, but wish to deepen it rather than broaden it; my own ideas are sufficiently weird for one lifetime. So I appreciate the bits and pieces I can pick up from reading people like you.

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  31. Douglas Hunter on November 14, 2010 at 4:12 PM

    Firetag “As a physicist, I’m conditioned to see “truth” as the limit of what remains after everything else has been falsified and only discuss meaning conditional to speculation about what that limiting situation might be.”

    Ah, right, you have mentioned this before. So let me ask you. how do you process things like the EQ lesson today on the gift of the holy ghost. The lesson states that the HG testifies of all truth but does so through feelings. This is one of the more mystical components of Mormon throught in that some big truths can only be known via a subjective experience of the divine. I think we can all see the trouble with talking about Truth (yes with a big T) in this way. but since your view of truth is so shaped by a particular notion of rigor does this kind of talk make any sense? How do you work through it?

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  32. FireTag on November 14, 2010 at 4:51 PM


    Not in a church that has EQ, but I’ve been asked the question in general before, so I’ll take an oversimplified stab at it.

    My cognitive senses tell me that it’s going to be hard to falsify evolution — so hard, in fact, that I’m willing to think that evolution might turn out to be one of the Big Universal Principles of how life is and has always been organized in the physical realm. So, I’m also willing to speculate that evolution operates in the spiritual realm as well.

    Rule 1 of evolution is survival traits survive. If light exists, it can be exploited for survival, so sooner or later something will evolve to sense it and it will stick. Over eons of time it will get more precise and useful. And the organs developed to sense light won’r necessarily be anything like the organs that sense heat — also evolutionarily useful.

    I think humans are at the “unreliable photoreceptor” stage of spiritual sensors development. We’ve building them out of the emotional gifts we’ve been given, first of all, because they’ve been around millions of years longer than our cognitive tools. As a species descended from other species, we’ve only begun to get anywhere with the latter for a few 10′s of thousands of years.

    With that view, of course, I end up with a view of spiritual life in eternity that is very unorthodox in either Mormon or Christian belief. (In fact, I actually believe the spiritual realm is actually an alternative description of physical reality, not a separate reality at all.) But reinterpreting ideas is a lot easier for me than denying the admittedly subjective experiences I have had, or the math and science I’ve been taught.

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  33. Mike S on November 14, 2010 at 8:09 PM


    I do like your comment about evolution being a “Big Universal Principle”. It actually represents LDS theology quite well. God has a lot of children. They all have different traits. The “successful” ones make it back to the Celestial kingdom where they can have offspring. The unsuccessful ones can’t pass on their “genes”, in the generic sense as opposed to DNA sense.

    As far as the comment on Truth – I do ahve a problem with the subjectiveness of religious truth. We are taught that feelings are the ultimate teacher of Truth, that we only get an objective confirmation AFTER we accept the subjective confirmation (ie. faith precedes the miracle). But feelings are “squishy”. I feel good when I read the BofM. But I also feel good when I read the Qu’ran or Bhagavad Gita. I feel peace watching birds at my bird feeder, or walking in the mountains – just like I feel peace in the temple. I have felt closer to God in cathedrals in Europe than in LDS meetinghouses. How do I sort out what any of this means with regards to ultimate “Truth”? It’s beyond me.

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