There are many stories that could easily vie for the title of Scariest Story in the Bible, but I’d like to make a case for the story of the Tower of Babel. In this story, the people on earth desire to build a tower tall enough to go straight into heaven. They band together in teamwork and industry, engineering in unprecedented and creative ways. The tower climbs higher and higher. What happens next is found in Genesis 11: 5-9:
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their alanguage, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the acity.
A Petty God. As a child, this story always bothered me for several reasons. First of all, I saw no way that this enterprise would succeed anyway. Even when we successfully landed on the moon, we didn’t bump into God on the way. So it wasn’t like it was going to work. The story puts God in the position of a cruel boy with an ant farm, deliberately and capriciously thwarting man’s puny illusory progress. Further, it was easy to see that confounding the languages would create all the wars and human divisions that followed as people misunderstood one another and formed tribes to protect their own linguistic groups. Why would God deliberately want to play games like a grandiose contest of Survivor, forcing alliances and divisions? It didn’t cast God in a very benevolent light, making him seem jealous of his own creations’ achievements, like a petty dictator.
An Unknowable God. Many churches use this story to keep their flock’s upstart pretensions in line. It’s blasphemy to imagine oneself as being the same type of creature as God. Their view of divinity is not that we are literal sons and daughters of heavenly parents, but that God is completely separate and different from us–always has been, always will be. Clearly that’s not our view as Latter-day Saints. We believe in a glorified man as God, right down to his fingernails and eardrums.
Anti-Modernism. As I reflect on this story as an adult, I see it as a misguided diatribe against progress, one likely made by anti-modernist scribes rather than a petty but superior divine being. The story pits God against man’s growth, causing divisions among people, and desiring to keep men from achievement and also from attaining his presence. It is a fable about the perils of modernity, one that makes innovation an enemy to God. This is a position held firmly by terrorists, extremists and fundamentalists in our own current day. It is hinted at by a few crotchety old folks and FoxNews pundits who think the world is somehow going to hell in a hand basket. Basically the kind of folks that wrote the Bible. I have a hard time believing modernism is antithesis to God’s will if God wants us to learn to become like Him. Progress is progress. Knowledge is power. This makes the Tower of Babel equivalent to the story of Prometheus, punished eternally for giving fire to man.
Are Mormons Anti-Modernists?
Growing up in the church, particularly living in a strongly Amish area of the country, I would have said Mormons embraced the future, including progressive things like science, education and technology. The Amish by contrast wanted to live a simple lifestyle, one bereft of technological and scientific progress, an increasingly isolated way of life. The skills for Amish life did not require education beyond the 8th grade. Certainly, compared to the Amish, we were practically cutting edge in our embrace of science, technology and change.
The older I get, the more I hear church members freely expressing opinions that are right-wing anti-progress dogma. Just last Sunday a teacher asked for a show of hands of anyone who did not see the world slipping into an oblivion of moral peril at an alarming rate. I was too shocked by the question to respond, although I couldn’t imagine that we were all ferreting away our gold bars under our mattresses as he seemed to think we should be. It seemed to me to be a truly bizarre comment, distinctly anti-modern.
“Anti-modern movements represent a wide range of critiques, including appeals to tradition, religion, spirituality, environmentalism, aesthetics, pacifism, Marxism or agrarian virtues. They may reject technologies, or their use, social organizations, such as corporations, or some combination of the above.”
“Antimodernism is a philosophical orientation that is somewhat difficult to define, but in essence constitutes a rejection of modernist ideals and behaviours in favour of what is perceived as a purer historical or even prehistorical way of life and consciousness of mind. As such, antimodernism is neither a single, definable movement nor a unified set of beliefs, but a vaguely-defined gist of thought.” 
When we idealize the 1950s or the Victorian era, we are being anti-modernist, reaching back into a fictitious nostalgic past that was not nearly as rosy as we remember or imagine. Mortality rates were higher, people had fewer rights, and conveniences we take for granted hadn’t even been thought up yet. I was once in a Sunday School lesson in which the teacher opined for the days when schoolteachers were allowed to use corporal punishment on the students. And people didn’t sputter in disbelief. Several nodded in assent!
Likewise, those who love the idea of a United Order sometimes pine for an agrarian self-sufficient community, like a hippie commune but with Mormonism as the base. This is another form of anti-modernism.
As we all know, many Islamic clerics who are extremists also use anti-modern rhetoric to fight against the modernism they see that would give women rights to divorce philandering and abusive husbands or would allow people the freedom to leave their religion without being stoned to death. They view any modernism as moral decay, a slippery slope into the western value system they oppose. Anti-modernists are clearly not in the best company.
Why Is Anyone Anti-Modern?
Typically those who oppose change are those who believe they have the most to lose, those most invested in the status quo: the elite (including the clerical elite), the elderly, the wealthy. All humans are prone to oppose change they dislike or fear. That fear is associated with loss of status.
I recently finished reading The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. He points out that neither political party (in the US anyway) is immune to this tendency to stall in the face of progress:
“ . . . it is a book about the benefits of change. I find that my disagreement is mostly with reactionaries of all political colors: blue ones who dislike cultural change, red ones who dislike economic change and green ones who dislike technological change.”
Ridley talks about the irrepressible nature of human progress. What differentiates man from chimpanzees is collaboration:
“At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.”
In the fable of the Tower of Babel, this is the moment of human evolution when people began to come together to share ideas; because they can communicate, they can innovate and share a vision as a group. But sharing ideas is insufficient as Ridley explains:
“If culture consisted simply of learning habits from others, it would soon stagnate. For culture to turn cumulative, ideas need to meet and mate. The ‘cross-fertilization of ideas’ is a cliché, but one with unintentional fecundity.”
In the ancient world, many people only became wealthy by taking someone else’s wealth. This model was based on scarcity:
“ . . . one way to raise your standard of living would be to lower somebody else’s: buy a slave. That was indeed how people got rich for thousands of years.”
There are two enemies to progress as outlined by economist Ridley: small communities and self-sufficiency. Yet, these are the hallmarks of the united order and our push for provident living and the very byproducts of the confounding of languages in the Tower of Babel story:
“This is the diagnostic feature of modern life, the very definition of a high standard of living: diverse consumption, simplified production. Make one thing, use lots. The self-sufficient gardener, or his self-sufficient peasant or hunter-gatherer predecessor (who is, I shall argue, partly a myth in any case), is in contrast defined by his multiple production and simple consumption. He makes not just one thing, but many—his food, his shelter, his clothing, his entertainment. Because he only consumes what he produces, he cannot consume very much.”
“The bigger the connected population, the more skilled the teacher, and the bigger the probability of a productive mistake. Conversely, the smaller the connected population, the greater the steady deterioration of the skill as it was passed on.”
He likewise cautions against . . . caution:
“The precautionary principle—better safe than sorry—condemns itself: in a sorry world there is no safety to be found in standing still.”
Change, primarily as sparked by the exchange of ideas that leads to innovation, is the surest way to sustainable wealth for all, raising the standard of living and the human condition.
When Progress is Lost
There are times in history when innovation has actually been forgotten. It’s like the myth of Atlantis. Having served a mission in the Canary Islands, I am aware of the history of the Guanche people, seafarers from Northern Africa who settled in the Canaries and became goat herders spread out through the seven islands. In the process, they became isolated into small mountainous communities, and despite being able to see the other islands from where they were, they “forgot” how to build boats and sail. They became isolated and land-locked. When the Spaniards showed up in the 1600s, the Guanche were easily conquered.
Describing a similar culture, Ridley said:
“They fell steadily and gradually back into a simpler toolkit and lifestyle, purely because they lacked the numbers [of people] to sustain their existing technology.”
Along similar lines, I have done a mental experiment of what the world would be like [say, in the wake of a zombie apocalypse or deadly virus] if the population were suddenly reduced to only a handful of people. In my mental experiment, there’s a lot of looting of shopping malls initially, but then the food begins to spoil and I realize I don’t know how to fix the refrigeration systems or grow various types of fresh food, etc. The fact that those things are currently available to me today is only a byproduct of specialization and a large, fully interdependent society. If the millenium is going to be like my apocalyptic fantasy, no thanks!
As an expat living in Singapore, we were frequently inconvenienced by a lack of the self-servicing options that abound in the US. If we wanted to buy groceries, we had to wait in line. We couldn’t pump our own gas and pay at the pump because someone pumped it for us, but then we had to go inside to pay. When a culture is based on raising the standard of living for all, as the US is, we conspire to create more options and self-service solutions. In a culture like Singapore that depends on an underclass of servants, the overall standard of living is not quite as high and egalitarian. When American friends became aware that we had a live-in domestic helper there, they sometimes expressed jealousy. However, it was I who was jealous of the conveniences they took for granted.
“The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella). You can buy a fresh, frozen, tinned, smoked or pre-prepared meal made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, prawns, scallops, eggs, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage, aubergine, kumquats, celeriac, okra, seven kinds of lettuce, cooked in olive, walnut, sunflower or peanut oil, and flavoured with cilantro, turmeric, basil or rosemary . . . You may have no chefs, but you can decide on a whim to choose between scores of nearby bistros, or Italian, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian restaurants, in each of which a team of skilled chefs is waiting to serve your family at less than an hour’s notice. This of this: never before this generation has the average person been able to afford to have somebody else prepare his meals.
“You employ no tailor, but you can browse the internet and instantly order from an almost infinite range of excellent, affordable clothes of cotton, silk, linen, wool and nylon made up for you in factories all over Asia. . . . You have no runner to send messages, but even now a repairman is climbing a mobile-phone mast somewhere in the world to make sure it is working properly just in case you need to call that cell. You have no private apothecary, but your local pharmacy supplies you with the handiwork of many thousands of chemists, engineers and logistics experts.”
Costco is the American’s domestic helper. Amazon is our Thai tailor. Now that I’m back in the US, I’m struck by how easy it is to do the laundry (which was done for me in Singapore down to the pressed socks and underwear), and how quickly I can get the shopping done, and all in one place! In Singapore I had to shop in a store that was roughly the size of two side-by-side 7-11s. Often, we’d find (after stopping at seven stores) that every single store in the country was out of a special item we wanted such as vanilla frosting.
One argument people make to fight against ecological change or technology is that it comes with unforeseen consequences or saps unrenewable resources. Often the rally cry is “If things continue as they are going . . . ” As Ridley points out, things don’t continue as they are going. They change through the ongoing exchange of ideas, through innovation and information sharing. We will solve the problems we face today through additional progress. Since we know from experience that this is true in the technological realm, it seems obvious that it would be true in the sociological realm as well.
For those who believe society’s morals are in free fall, remember that doomsayers always cherry pick the negative to make their case. As Socrates said: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in places of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
- Is the church anti-modern or is it just a few cranks with a microphone?
- Is the world in a state of moral decay or are we deluded about the rosiness of the past?
- Is the story of the Tower of Babel disturbing? Do you interpret it differently? If so, how?
- Do you see progress as a threat to morality? Do you yearn to live off the land by the sweat of your brow?