Resisting Skepticism: “Believe All Things”

By: Nate
March 26, 2014

believe-sunflowerWhat does the statement “We believe all things” mean in the Articles of Faith?  To me it means that Mormons are fundamentally a trusting, believing people, not overly given to skepticism.  Joseph Smith said, “No man was condemned for believing too much, but he is condemned for unbelief.”  Believing all things isn’t just about accepting religious truth claims.  It is also about accepting all truth including scientific and expert witness in the broader culture.   Brigham Young believed that the truths of science and the inventions of the secular world were actual revelations from God, that we should embrace as such:

If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine…We all live by the principle of revelation.  Who reveals?  Everybody around us; we learn of each other.  I have something which you have not, and you have something which I have not; I reveal that which I have to you, and you reveal what you have to me.  Are the heavens opened?  Yes, to some at times, yet upon the principle of natural philosophy.

We Believe All Things, Even When they Contradict Each Other

Unlike other fundamentalist believers, we are not antagonistic towards science and secular wisdom, but freely embrace new knowledge, even if it sometimes requires a reevaluation of other beliefs.  Utahns have always been proud of their dinosaurs, even if their existence might have compromised some of their Biblical viewpoints.  Ultimately, we believe all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, but we also understand that our perspectives are limited. Science and religion will always have some conflicts.  Religion is about faith in things not seen.  If religion was demonstrably true, it wouldn’t require faith.  Brigham Young claimed that we shouldn’t be too dogmatic either about our own scriptural revelations, nor the revelations of science.  In all these things, we see through a glass darkly:

I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in it’s fulness.  The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections.  He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.

Having the Humility to Embrace Scientific Consensus and Secular Authorities

jesus_and_the_dinosaurs

I believe it is in the spirit of Mormonism to embrace the scientific and secular consensus and authorities of our day.  For example, 99% of all scientists accept the Theory of Evolution and Global Warming.  When someone disbelieves these theories, they adopt a suspicious and conspiratorial outlook on scientific consensus.  I believe this is an arrogant attitude.  Who are we, with our limited perspective, to doubt the education and integrity of thousands of people much smarter than we are?  This is an unfortunate characteristic of much of modern American political behavior.  We have a populace who distrust “experts,” who distrust the capable and educated leaders we vote into office, constantly “throwing the bums out.”  We often assume the worst of people, particularly people who have authority or expertice.  This is not in the spirit of Mormonism.

Of course many people hold conspiratorial views about scientific consensus because they think theories like evolution or global warming contradict their religious or political beliefs.  But evolution does not pose a contradiction to our beliefs.  Rather, the theory of evolution enhances LDS doctrine, by providing further insight into the way in which God created man from the dust of the earth, and the nature of our flesh, the “natural man” and its relation to animal instinct.

But what if the consensus is wrong?  True, scientific consensus does sometimes turn out to be wrong.  But even if it is wrong, I believe God would often have us embrace consensus.  For example, if I were living at the time of Galileo, and he tried to explain to me that the earth moved around the sun, I would say he was crazy.  Who am I to be so bold as to defy the consensus of 99% of the learned men of that day?  If however, I was also a learned scientist, and Galileo was able to convince me, perhaps I would follow him.  But in the absence of learning, I would be humble and trusting before overwhelming consensus.  I am not a revolutionary.  I am not a rebel.  Yes, some are born for this great calling, but for the majority of people, it is foolishness to defy the 99% and go after the 1%, simply because we hold consensus in contempt and are fundamentally distrustful and sceptical.

Having the Humility to Take Joseph Smith at His Word

Screen-Shot-2013-08-07-at-10.28.35-PM-153402_238x238One might ask, “if you follow 99% of scientists by believing in evolution, why don’t you follow 99% of scientists and reject Joseph Smith and his preposterous story?”  Well I agree that the story is preposterous.  I accept what scientists say about horses and steel in Ancient America, and about the remote probabilities of Joseph Smith’s fantastic experience.  But at the same time, my honest study of the story leads me to conclude that Joseph Smith was a man of integrity, a conclusion other impartial secular experts have also reached.  When a man of integrity says he found golden plates, or saw an angel, who am I to doubt his testimony?  Who am I to doubt the testimony of the many other witnesses who also saw these plates and saw angels, even if they contradict other scientific beliefs I hold?  With regards to Joseph Smith, I believe all things.  I accept the integrity of the Smithsonian Institution’s position that the Book of Mormon is not a work from Ancient America.  And I also accept the integrity of Joseph Smith and the witnesses who handled real golden plates and saw real angels.   It is a contradiction, but there is no need to resolve it in my mind.

However, many people cannot deal with this contradiction.  Thus they force themselves to view Joseph Smith as a charlatan, even though there is no evidence that was in his character, and there is no motivation for such behavior.  Or they force themselves to view the scientific and historical consensus as biased, unfair, and perhaps under the influence of Satan.  I believe both of these approaches cast premature and unfair judgement upon either Joseph Smith or the Smithsonian Institute.   In my opinion, contradictions do not give us the right to reject the honest testimony of Joseph Smith, nor the honest research of science.  Rather, we should recognize that life is full of contradictions, and embracing contradiction is a sign of humility and trustfulness.

“God Told Me The Book of Mormon Was Not True”

On my mission, one of my investigators told me she had prayed and God told her the Book of Mormon was not true.  At the time, I was saddened that she had been deceived.  But now I wonder.  Maybe God actually told her not to follow us.  God says in the Bible, “I will stop their ears and shut their eyes that they be not converted.”    Ultimately, who am I to judge her revelation?  I was not there.  In the absence of knowledge, I will give her the benefit of the doubt.

My sister-in-law went to the temple and prayed to know if this was “the only true church” to which God responded “of course not.”  My parents were shocked and saddened.  But my response was: if we expect her to accept our testimony, should we not accept hers?  Is it possible that God could contradict Himself?  The scriptures are full of contradictions and paradoxes.  Yes, maybe she was deceived.  But maybe she wasn’t.  I believe it is wrong to categorically reject a testimony simply because it contradicts our own.

Adopting Healthy Skepticism

BeliefMatrix

There is a place for skepticism.  Skepticism is the foundation of the scientific method and has contributed to much of the progress we have made in the world.  It is good to question things, think outside the box, innovate, etc.  But there is a difference between saying “This might not be true” and saying “I don’t believe that!”  It’s a question of attitude.  Cynical skepticism is flippant and dismissive.  It makes categorical assumptions based on prejudices and deeply held beliefs.  But healthy skepticism is respectful.  It accepts that something might be true, or it might not.  It “doubts doubts,” AND “doubts faith.”   As Mormons, because we are to “believe all things” we should err on the side of belief, and be slower to be skeptical.  We give people and ideas the benefit of the doubt.  But belief is not a sure knowledge, and I think it is sometimes beneficial to take things with a grain of salt, to ask questions, and to remember that things may not always be as they appear.  This is still within the spirit of “believe all things.”

Believe-JB-AlbumQuestions:

  • What does “believe all things” mean to you?
  • Should we seek to resolve contradictions within our beliefs, or embrace them?
  • Is embracing consensus a sign of humility, or simply being a blind sheep?
  • Is skepticism a virtue or a weakness?

9 Responses to Resisting Skepticism: “Believe All Things”

  1. Hedgehog on March 26, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    Since childhood I have found the ‘believe all things, hope all things’ to be very odd. But I do tend to read it rather literally. Everything can’t be true. And I certainly don’t hope for horrible things.

    Interesting post. I don’t mind apparent contradiction when knowledge is so clearly limited, but it does tend to mean I maintain a slight sketicism, and embrace few things wholly and completely. I wouldn’t say I believe all things, but I don’t disbelieve either.

    I do tend to favour the mavericks though, so tend to prefer the Galileos and Semelweisses after the fact at least. I do think they’re needed, and that there is some benefit to having some who will push at boundaries and question the status quo. But I also think embracers of consensus provide stability which is also much-needed.

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  2. LiteralHipster on March 26, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    Beautiful. Thank you for that interpretation of a perplexing phrase. I’m not sure where I stand with all of this. This is difficult stuff.

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  3. Douglas on March 26, 2014 at 4:29 PM

    My observation on heresay “revelation” is that people tend to believe what they ALREADY want to believe. That’s why something like asking if the LDS Church is the “True” Church, when already in the House of the Lord, seems out of place. To even believe that you need His house and yet doubt that it’s His organization that built and maintains it is self-contradictory and conflicting. The Apostle James waxed eloquently in his epistle about double-mindedness.

    “Believe ALL things” would have probably been better to be clarified “believe all TRUTH”. Not all truth is known or discernable to the many. For example, only in about the last twenty years has the existence of exoplanets been scientifically demonstrated. But they were there long before we put up the Hubble Telescope and devised other means to detect them. Now almost a thousand of them have been catalogued, including a few that are potential candidates for life as we understand it. (near Earth-sized in the respective star’s “habitable zone”). Amazing enough, the habital zone of 40 Eridani A is somewhat closer in than Sol’s, so if “Vulcan” actually exists, it’s not unlike it’s depiction in Star Trek, even though we don’t know about Vulcanian moons; and Mr. Spock, for all his infuriatingly detailed discourses, forgot to mention that his home world is in a triple star system.

    However, I would never advise to submit your critical thinking to the unsubstantiated testimony of others. Your intellect is itself a gift from the Lord. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (I Thessaloninans 5:21). The Apostle Paul would not have penned this counsel had (1) he not experience same and (2) he had confidence that the Lord could and would answer his honesty inquiry.

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  4. BJohnson on March 26, 2014 at 4:52 PM

    Very thought-provoking. Thank you. As someone who works in financial regulation, I often find myself explaining to people the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Being a thoughtful skeptic who demands reliable, third-party evidence for investment claims goes a long way to protecting the skeptic from fraud.

    Being a snarky cynic, however, offers little protection. Why? Because the cynic believes the world is rigged–that the conspiratorial fix is in before the game even begins. Such cynics can be readily fooled by persons who propose to put the cynic on the side of the people doing the rigging. A clever member of the cynic’s particular affinity group will have a good chance of pulling it off.

    I agree with the OP’s call to default to ascribing good-faith to the motives of others. That said, I remain skeptical (but not cynical) about certain marriages between scientific theories and political consensuses. The question of whether Pluto is a planet elicited lively though brief discussions among scientists and laymen alike. But the ultimate consensus that emerged from the debate exerted little tangible effect on society.

    Not so with other high profile theories such as AGW. As the Bloggernacle’s own Nathaniel Givens once said (perhaps a bit more starkly than I would have), “Authentic science is self-correcting and unbiased, but humans and their institutions are not. The global warming debate spells the death of science, because no matter how correct the science or noble the intentions, the deployment of scientific credibility in the pursuit of political ends is a corruption from which the scientific establishment is unlikely to ever recover. One cannot divide loyalties between science and mammon any more than between God and mammon.”

    That said, do i outright disbelieve the AGW consensus? No. But its nature as a useful political leverage point to shift society toward certain governmental models will continue to earn it a hightened degree of skepticism from me.

    Ouch! I realize that a debate regarding AGW is likely off-topic for this post and I apologize for the partial threadjack. Just wanted to illustrate a spot where belief and skepticism can interact vigorously.

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  5. Howard on March 26, 2014 at 5:04 PM

    Science marches forward in an orderly fashion displacing a lot of literal religious belief as it goes. Yes occasionally science is wrong, as in not totally right…yet, as in quantum physics attempting to explain the rounding error of Newtonian physics and thereby opening the door to potentially even more knowledge. Occasionally wrong as in oops, that theory doesn’t seem to work! But the next, or the next, or the next one does! Religion on the other hand has a less stellar track record in modern times, beginning with a lot of literal claims only to have them quashed one by one.

    Who reasonably expects the trends to reverse? Isn’t it time our faith made room for science in the pews?

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  6. Jared on March 27, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    Nate-

    A thoughtful post. Thanks

    You asked the question: What does “believe all things” mean to you? I’ll list a few thoughts.

    1. A rational mind needs to have evidence to have faith (belief). This is true for all things (science and religion).

    2. All men have been given the light of Christ (D&C 84:46). Basic evidence of things of the Spirit.

    3. Those who hearken to the Spirit can increase in the things of the Spirit and be eligible for the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 31:13)

    The gospel of Jesus Christ really is simple. The problem comes when we plateau (a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress). We plateau when we are comfortable and find no compelling need to seek more than what we already have.

    It takes a crisis to move a plateaued soul out of their comfort zone. Even then, many will curse God instead of turning to Him. The Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches this concept (Helaman 12 is one example).

    Note: I especially like the Belief Matrix. I’ll continue to study it.

    I wish there were more comments on this kind of post. But that’s the way it is. I think it is an indicator of some kind.

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  7. Kristine A on March 27, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    I loved this post. How I would apply it in my life . . . before I lived in absolute certainty about what truth was. We have been given it and I was certain this was the truth.

    But like Jared mentioned, I had a crisis and saw truth less as what is — and more in what may be possible. What we have been given is the reality of our existence . . . but the capital “t” Truth is what God knows. It is imperative for me to apply belief in truths into “current truth” and “truth to be revealed.” I believe all things by not being certain that what we have now is the whole piece of the pie, and not assuming I know what the answer is.

    I love the belief matrix. To borrow a Seinfeld reference (who borrowed it from superman), bizarro Kristine would probably be an agnostic, because if I were to be an unbeliever, that’s where I would end up for sure. I’m always so moderate, even in my politics.
    http://seinfeld.wikia.com/wiki/The_Bizarro_Jerry

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  8. Nate on March 27, 2014 at 6:18 PM

    Thanks for the insightful comments everyone.

    Douglas and Jared, I think you are both suggesting that “believe all things” should be understood as “believe things that are true” and that we use the Spirit or the Light of Christ to judge. This reminded me that actually the scriptures do have quite a few admonitions to “be not decieved,” to “try the spirits,” and to “prove all things,” to be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves.”

    The question I ask myself is: does “believe all things” mean more than simply saying “we accept all truth” in a kind of abstract way? Does the Lord want us to be generally believing of all things, even when they are not totally proven? I’m reminded of Joseph Smith Sr. who invested all his money in a ginsing scam. Then Joseph Smith was involved with treasure seeking in his youth, and it even captivated him as late as 1836, when he went to Salem to try to use his seer stone to get treasure. However, God says something interesting in D&C regarding the treasure hunt: “I am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies.” So God doesn’t seem to care that Joseph Smith, his prophet, is gullible enough to be rooting around for buried treasure, and going on long journeys with his men to try and find it.

    This also reminds me that there is a lot of “get-rich-quick” schemes that gullible Mormons fall into, like this Zeekler pyramid scheme that imploded awhile ago. Would God also say, “I am not displeased with you…notwithstanding your follies.”? I think so. God is patient with us in our understandings, even if they are working within pyramid schemes on the verge of collapse, or apostate religions, or other precarious places. If our heart is good, that is what is most important.

    BJohnson, you explain it very well by differentiating between skepticism and cynicism.

    Kristine A, I wish I could take credit for the belief matrix, but I stole it from here:

    http://nailtothedoor.com/the-belief-matrix-a-functional-description-of-evidence-and-theismatheism/

    And I agree that it is quite thought provoking.

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  9. Nate on March 27, 2014 at 6:55 PM

    One more thought I wanted to add:

    Belief, even in things that are not “true,” sometimes can do remarkable things. For example, Joseph Smith translated most of the Book of Mormon using a seer stone, which was just a worthless rock he found in a ditch. But Joseph’s “belief” in the stone transformed it into a portal through which he communed with God.

    It’s a placebo effect. Placebo really is another name for the power of belief. So God may not always care what we place our belief in, because belief itself can have a transformative, powerful effect, turning rocks into seer stones, turning consecrated olive oil into healing balm, etc. As long as its not belief in something destructive, like a pyramid scheme, belief can turn something that is not true, or not important, into something that is true and important. And it is that transforming power that God is interested in, not always the dull facts of what is actually true or false.

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