Posts tagged religionhumanitiesscience
Posts tagged religionhumanitiesscience
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty chapter III, "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being," paragraph 9 reads:
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. As much compression as is necessary to prevent the stronger specimens of human nature from encroaching on the rights of others, cannot be dispensed with; but for this there is ample compensation even in the point of view of human development. The means of development which the individual loses by being prevented from gratifying his inclinations to the injury of others, are chiefly obtained at the expense of the development of other people. And even to himself there is a full equivalent in the better development of the social part of his nature, rendered possible by the restraint put upon the selfish part. To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint. If acquiesced in, it dulls and blunts the whole nature. To give any fair play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.
(Above, I modernized the spelling of “developes” to “develops.”)
There are pleasures in producing as well as in consuming. This is true for many things—indeed, this blog’s existence depends on it. David Byrne illustrates this fact beautifully for art and music in his book How Music Works (pages 267, 291 and 296):
The act of making music, clothes, art, or even food has a very different, and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming these things. And yet for a very long time, the attitude of the state toward teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity among the general population. It can often seem that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves—they’d prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation.
In Salavador, Brazil, musician Carlinhos Brown established several music and culture centers in formerly dangerous neighborhoods. In Candeal, where Brown was born, local kids were encouraged to join drum groups, sing, and compose songs and stage performances in homemade costumes.
The kids, energized by these activities, began to turn away from dealing drugs. Being malandros was no longer their only life option—being musicians and playing together in a group looked like more fun and was more satisfying. Little by little, the crime rate dropped in those neighborhoods; the hope returned. And some great music was made, too.
A similar thing took place in the Vigario Geral favela located near the airport in Rio. It had been the scene of a massacre in which a police helicopter opened fire and killed scores of kids during a drug raid. Life in that favela was about as dead end as you could get. A cultural center eventually opened under the direction of Jose Junior and, possibly inspired by Brown’s example, they began to encourage the local kids to stage musical events, some of which dramatized the tragedy that they were still recovering from. The group AfroReggae emerged out of this effort, and, as with the Brown projects in Salvador, life in the favela improved. The dealers left; their young recruits were all making music. That, to me, is the power of music—of making music. Music can permanently change people’s lives in ways that go far beyond being emotionally or intellectually moved by a specific composition…. Music is indeed a moral force, but mostly when it is a part of the warp and woof of an entire community.
Roger Graef, who has written about the effectiveness of arts programs in UK prisons, believes that violence, like art, is actually a form of expression. Prisons, he says, are therefore ideal arenas for art creation and expression. Art can serve as an outlet for the violent feelings of inmates in a way that does not harm others, and that actually enhances their lives. Making art, Graef writes, “can break the cycle of violence and fear.”
He claims that the remedy for violence is an agency that will defeat feelings of impotence. Historically, religion has successfully done this, and the rise of fundamentalism might be viewed as a reaction to increasing feelings of alienation and inconsequentiality around the world. Making music might act as an antidote to those feelings too, as those cultural and music centers in the Brazilian favelas attest. In those Uk prisons, the quality of the work is beside the point, as it was in Brazil. And, unlike religions, no one has ever gone to war over music.
However, grant-giving organizations often take the opposite view. Most arts grants focus on the work, rather than on the process that the work comes out of. The product seems to be more important than the effect its production process has. Sadly, Graef learned that it is hard for many of the inmates he worked with to continue making art outside of prison. They find the professional art world elitist and its “posh buildings” intimidating. Without a support system, and with their work being judged by criteria that are foreign to them, they lose the outlet for frustration that they had discovered.
Sometimes the task I face on a particular day scares me—whether because of its difficulty, or because of its importance. I felt that way as I walked from my hotel to the Fed to talk about electronic money a few weeks ago. I devised this prayer, which helped me feel more confident:
May I be strong and steadfast,
calm and collected,
as I set out to serve
the God or Gods who may be.
The theology behind this prayer, and two other examples of agnostic prayers, can be found here:
In situations where strength is needed day after day for many days in a row, I would change one word:
May I be strong and steadfast,
calm and collected,
as I strive to serve
the God or Gods who may be.
Better yet would be putting together your own agnostic prayer—something that works for you.
I have called what I have above a prayer, but like a mantra, or "The Litany Against Fear," it helped to say it to myself more than once.
Note: I saved this post for Thanksgiving weekend. I also had a Thanksgiving column on Quartz this year: “Gratitude is more than simple sentiment: it is the motivation that can save the world.”
Last year I did have a post inspired by Thanksgiving, published on the Sunday after Thanksgiving: "An Agnostic Grace."
John Knox, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation and founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland
"Puritanism" is often used figuratively to mean the suspicion of one’s own preferences and the preferences of others. John Stuart Mill this attitude in On Liberty, calling it “the Calvinistic theory.” The connection is that the Puritans had strong Calvinistic leanings. Here is what John Stuart Mill has to say about “the Calvinistic theory” in On Liberty chapter III, "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being," paragraphs 6-8, :
…Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?
It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary conditions of the case, the same for all.
In some such insidious form there is at present a strong tendency to this narrow theory of life, and to the pinched and hidebound type of human character which it patronizes. Many persons, no doubt, sincerely think that human beings thus cramped and dwarfed, are as their Maker designed them to be; just as many have thought that trees are a much finer thing when clipped into pollards, or cut out into figures of animals, than as nature made them. But if it be any part of religion to believe that man was made by a good Being, it is more consistent with that faith to believe, that this Being gave all human faculties that they might be cultivated and unfolded, not rooted out and consumed, and that he takes delight in every nearer approach made by his creatures to the ideal conception embodied in them, every increase in any of their capabilities of comprehension, of action, or of enjoyment. There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic; a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. “Pagan self-assertion” is one of the elements of human worth, as well as “Christian self-denial.” There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.
I am glad that mainstream economics takes as its policy mission getting people more of what they desire, without too much questioning of those desires. This widespread attitude among economists may owe a great deal to John Stuart Mill, who wrote the leading economics textbook of the mid-19th century.
TED Weekends, which is associated with Huffington Post, asked me to write an essay on my reaction to Angela Duckworth’s wonderful talk about grit as the secret to success. Here is a link to my essay on TED Weekends:
Below is the full text of my essay. It pushes further the themes in the Quartz column I wrote with Noah Smith: "Power of Myth: There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t."
Grit, more than anything else, is what makes people succeed. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, who has devoted her career to studying grit, defines grit this way:
Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.
But where does grit come from? First, it comes from understanding and believing that grit is what makes people succeed:
— understanding that persistence and hard work are necessary for lasting success, and
— believing that few obstacles can ultimately stop those who keep trying with all of their hearts, and all of their wits.
But that is not enough. Grit also comes from having a vision, a dream, a picture in the mind’s eye, of something you want so badly, you are willing to work as hard and as long as it takes to achieve that dream. Coaches know how powerful dreams — dreams of making the team, of scoring a goal, of winning the game, or of winning a championship — can be for kids. Dreams of knowing the secrets of complex numbers, graduating from college, rising in a career, making a marriage work, achieving transcendence, changing the world, need to be powerful like that to have a decent chance of success.
Grit is so powerful that once the secret is out, a key concern is to steer kids toward visions that are not mutually contradictory. Not everyone can win the championship. Someone has to come in second place. But almost everyone can learn the secrets of complex numbers, graduate from college, rise in a career, make a marriage work, achieve transcendence, and change the world for the better.
What can adults do to help kids understand and believe that grit is what makes people succeed, and to help them find a vision that is powerful enough to motivate long, hard work? Noah Smith and I tried to do our bit with our column "Power of Myth: There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t." We were amazed at the reception we got. Our culture may be turning the corner, ready to reject the vicious myth that out of any random sampling of kids, many are genetically doomed to failure at math, failure at everything in school, failure in their careers, or even failure at life. The amazing reception of Angela Duckworth’s TEDTalk is another good sign. But articles and TEDTalks won’t do the trick, because not everyone watches TEDTalks, and — as things are now — many people read only what they absolutely have to. So getting the word out that grit, not genes, is the secret to success, will take the work of the millions who do read and who do watch TEDTalks, to tell, one by one, the hundreds of millions in this country and in other countries with similar cultures about the importance of grit.
What can adults do to help kids get a vision that is powerful enough to motivate long, hard work? Many are already doing heroic work in that arena. But other would-be physicians among us must first heal ourselves. How many of us have a defeatist attitude when we think of the problems our nation and the world face? How many of us lack a vision of what we want to achieve that will motivate us to long, hard work, stretching over many years?
Visions don’t have to be perfect. It is enough if they are powerful motivators, and good rather than bad. And it is good to share our visions with one another. Here are some of the things that dance before my mind’s eye and motivate me: 1, 2. I hope everyone who reads this will think about how to express her or his own vision — a vision that motivates hard work to better one’s own life and to better the world. That is the example we need to set for the kids.
Lately, since I started reading and thinking about the power of hard, deliberate effort, I have been catching myself; when I hear myself thinking “I am bad at X” I try to recast the thought as “I haven’t yet worked hard at getting good at X.” Some of the skills I haven’t yet worked at honing, I probably never will; there are only so many hours in the day. But with others, I have started trying a little harder, once I stopped giving myself the easy excuse of “I am bad at X.” There is no need to exaggerate the idea that almost everyone (and that with little doubt includes you) can get dramatically better at almost anything. But if we firmly believe that we can improve at those tasks to which we devote ourselves, surprising and wonderful things will happen.
Among the many wonderful visions we can pursue with the faith that working hard — with all of our hearts and all of our wits — will bear fruit, let’s devote ourselves to getting kids to understand that grit is the key to success. Let’s help them find visions that will motivate them to put in the incredibly hard effort necessary to do the amazing things that they are capable of, and help them tap the amazing potential they have as human beings.
Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@hufﬁngtonpost.com to learn about future weekend’s ideas to contribute as a writer.
How does God know he’s God?
I’m serious. Think about this for a moment. God - as described in the Bible - is the most powerful being in the Universe. But how does He know that there isn’t an even more powerful being - call it “SuperGod” - who has chosen to stay completely hidden up until now? Since the hypothetical SuperGod is, hypothetically, even more powerful than God, there’s no way for God to know that SuperGod does not in fact exist.
This is true whether or not there is a SuperGod or not! Even if there is no SuperGod - even if God really is the most powerful being in the Universe - God will never know for sure that this is the case. And of course if there were a SuperGod, then He also couldn’t be certain that there wasn’t a SuperDuperGod out there somewhere!
Conclusion: The most powerful being in the Universe, whoever that happens to be, will never be certain of His (or Her) status as such.
Now before you reach for the keyboard to write a quick reply (“Of course God knows He’s God, God knows everything, DUH!”), realize that I’m not trying to catch theists with a clever “gotcha” or make a logical argument against religion. Instead, I’m trying to illustrate an important point about the nature of the God of the Bible. God’s most defining and important attribute isn’t that He’s the most powerful and wise being in the Universe; in fact, it doesn’t really matter if He is or not. The most important thing about God is that he chooses to take responsibility for the world.
Think about it. God chooses to create life and humanity, set down laws, punish evil and reward good, send people to various afterlives, and dictate the fate of nations. He doesn’t waste time wondering if there is a SuperGod somewhere out there. He doesn’t need to know for certain that He’s the most powerful being in the Universe; all He knows is that He’s the most powerful being in the neighborhood.
Kind of like you and me.
Some people claim to receive direct communication from God. Others claim to witness miracles. But most of us go through life without seeing direct evidence of the God of the Bible. Instead, we go through life wondering if we’re the most powerful beings in the Universe. And we have to decide whether to take responsibility for those less powerful than us - animals, children, the weak and the poor.
There’s a strong instinct to abdicate that responsibility - to look at things like global warming, poverty, environmental destruction, human misery in all its forms and say “God will take care of that.” For some people it’s not God, but “the free market”, or “evolution”, or “history”. But even if you believe in those things, you don’t really know that they’ll make everything right, any more than God knows whether a hidden SuperGod is guiding all of His actions.
The truth is, whether you like it or not, it’s all on you. The responsibility for those weaker than yourself is not on God’s or the free market’s or history’s or evolution’s head, it’s on your head. So think hard about what you’re going to do with all your power.
I was born in 1960. In Madison, Wisconsin, where a grew up (until age 13), individuality was celebrated, and the motto “Question authority” was burned into my soul. Not so in the Victorian England John Stuart Mill writes of in his 1859 masterpiece On Liberty. In chapter III, "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being," paragraph 6, he writes:
There has been a time when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess, and the social principle had a hard struggle with it. The difficulty then was, to induce men of strong bodies or minds to pay obedience to any rules which required them to control their impulses. To overcome this difficulty, law and discipline, like the Popes struggling against the Emperors, asserted a power over the whole man, claiming to control all his life in order to control his character—which society had not found any other sufficient means of binding. But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences. Things are vastly changed, since the passions of those who were strong by station or by personal endowment were in a state of habitual rebellion against laws and ordinances, and required to be rigorously chained up to enable the persons within their reach to enjoy any particle of security. In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.
I wonder if John Stuart Mill would class 2013 America as
… a time when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess, and the social principle had a hard struggle with it.”
Or would he say today, as he did in 1859, that
… society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.
source (via googling “graph of Mormon membership”)
This post is a revised version of a sermon I gave to the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton, on May 20, 2012. They had asked me to try to give some insight into Mitt Romney and Mormonism. I thought it would be appropriate to post this near the first anniversary of the 2012 US Presidential election in which Mitt played one of the two starring roles.
Here is the abstract for the sermon:
Even from the viewpoint of a thoroughgoing atheist or agnostic, Mormonism is a remarkable religion that has many lessons for those who wish to strengthen godless or agnostic religion. Its survival and growth and the generally high level of commitment of its members are due not only to strengths in its sociological structure and a theology that was fully modern and scientific at the time of its early 19th-century founding, but also to its ability to guide its members towards a distinctive type of mystical spiritual experience.
Today, by popular demand, I am going to tell you about Mormonism. My main qualification for telling you about Mormonism is that I was a staunch, active, observant, believing Mormon until I neared my 40th birthday, though I became more and more unorthodox toward the end of that time. Thus, I was a participant observer of Mormonism for a long time. Given that personal history, in the course of this sermon, I am sure I will slip into talking about Mormonism using the first person plural “we,” “us” and “our” and into referring to the Mormon Church as simply “The Church.”
Let me also mention several points of interest. My grandfather, Spencer Woolley Kimball was the 12th President and Prophet of the Mormon Church. He was a much-loved president and prophet, who extended the Mormon priesthood to blacks and was also president when the efforts of the Mormon Church provided the critical margin to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. One of my great-great grandfathers was Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young’s top counselor in Utah. Another one of my great-great grandfathers (whom I am named after) was Miles Park Romney, whose great grandson Mitt Romney is now almost certain to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Assuming he does, both Intrade and the Iowa Political Stock Market put his chances of becoming President of the United States at 40%.
In relation to Mitt Romney and Mormonism, let me say three things: one about the source of his ambition, one about why so many Mormons are Republicans and one about what we can learn about Mitt Romney from his service as a lay church leader. As a possible source of Mitt’s ambition to be president, let me say that Mormon men, and to a much lesser extent, Mormon women, are brought up to believe that they can change the world. When I was only about 8 years old, my mother arranged for me to sing in church a solo that had the refrain “I might be envied by a king, for I am a Mormon boy.” As teenagers, we were told that we were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood.” Instead of hiding our lights under a bushel, we were exhorted to be an example to the world, and to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by preaching “the Gospel”—which meant the Mormon gospel—in all the world. This was heady stuff. And then there was an unofficial, but intriguing prophecy that the Mormon elders would save the Constitution of the United States at a time when it was hanging by a thread.
In addition to being taught these things directly, there was another lesson in how much honor was given to Mormons who succeeded in the outside world, whether as a scientist like my great uncle Henry Eyring, as a golfer like Johnny Miller, or as entertainers, like Donny and Marie Osmond. I now view all of that as a sign of the status anxiety of a despised minority. Because of its history of polygamy and other weirdnesses, polls put American’s view of Mormonism about on the same footing as their view of Islam. So we were subtly urged to try to succeed in a big way to make Mormonism look better. So it would mean a lot to many Mormons to have Mitt Romney become president. And it would mean a lot to Mitt himself.
With lessons on Mormon Church history and their interest in genealogy in order to be able to baptize long-dead relatives, Mormons are aware of the history of persecution of Mormonism. In the 1830’s the Governor of Missouri issued an “Extermination Order” banishing Mormons from the state. In 1844, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was murdered by a mob. In 1857, the U.S. government sent an army to Utah to fight the Mormons. In 1890, the U.S. Government forced the Mormon Church to renounce polygamy by threatening to seize all of its property, including the Mormon temples. And to this day, Mormons deal in a mostly good-natured way with a lot of condescension and some overt hostility toward their religion.
Of course, it doesn’t always make friends to be claiming to have the “One True Church,” “The Only True and Living Church on the Face of the Earth.” The Mormon Church is not in communion with any other church. It does not recognize the baptism or any other rite of another church except for marriage according to the laws of the land, and even there does not recognize gay marriage as religiously valid.
Now let me tell you the story of why so many Mormons are Republicans. In the late 19th century, most Mormons were progressives in sympathy with the Democratic party. In the wake of narrowly averting having the Federal Government seize all the Mormon Church’s assets in 1890, having Utah be a territory made Mormons especially vulnerable to the Federal Government. So Church leaders were very eager to have Utah become a state, which would provide some protection. In 1896, Mormon Church leaders made a deal with the Republican party that if the Republican party would support statehood, then the church leaders would throw the church behind the Republican party. This is how they did it. Those church leaders who politically happened to be sincere Republicans were told to go out and speak their minds, while those church leaders who happened to be sincere Democrats were muzzled and told not to talk about politics at all. One Democratic-leaning apostle, Moses Thatcher, was dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for refusing to be muzzled according to this plan. Because Mormon Republicanism grew out of the sincere beliefs and theological connections that the Republican half of the church leadership felt during that time when the Democratic half of the church leadership was silenced by church policy as part of the deal to get statehood, Mormon Republicanism has a theologically organic quality to it that wouldn’t have been there if the church had just told everyone directly that they were supposed to vote Republican. Progressive views might be theologically even more natural, but to most modern Mormons, they don’t seem that way, given the course that history has taken.
What does Mitt’s church service tell us about his beliefs? Wikipedia gives a good account of Mitt’s Church service. Using the metaphor of the Church as a tent with tent stakes, the Mormon Church calls a group of about ten congregations a “stake”—what the Catholic Church would call a diocese. Mitt served for eight years as the head of the Boston Stake—an unpaid 30-hour a week job in the Mormon Church on top of his job at Bain Capital. I spent seven years in the Boston Stake during college and graduate school, and can tell you that it is one of the most liberal stakes in the Mormon Church. In Wikipedia’s words, “Romney tried to balance the conservative dogma insisted upon by the church leadership in Utah with the desire of some Massachusetts members to have a more flexible application of doctrine.” As a result, for example, women had a somewhat greater role in the Boston Stake than in other areas in the Mormon Church. (My older brother served as the bishop over a congregation of older singles not long after Mitt stepped down as the Stake President of the Boston Stake. In accordance with that local Boston Stake culture, he was allowed to deal more flexibly with issues involving gays than would have been possible in most stakes in the Mormon Church.) Like ministers in other churches, as Stake President, Mitt spent a lot of time counseling people going through troubles of various kinds, including trying to solve problems among poor Southeast Asian converts. All of this was reflected in the relatively moderate political positions Mitt took in his campaign for Ted Kennedy’s senate seat and in his time as Governor of Massachusetts. Those who knew Mitt in the Church were not surprised by his positions then.
How then was Mitt psychologically able to turn around his positions so much in order to have a better chance in the race for the Republican presidential nomination? Remember that in his role as a Stake President, he needed to follow the directives of higher church leaders, and according to a common version of Mormon doctrine, even try to get himself to believe that what they were directing was for the best. (My father’s first cousin Henry B. Eyring, who is now the First Counselor to the President of the Mormon Church argued this view forcefully in a conversation I had with him a few days before he gave this sermon broadcast to Mormons around the world.) So the traditions of the Mormon hierarchy would have given Mitt practice in doing mental handstands to turn around his beliefs when necessary.
Enough of politics. I need a moral to the story. But before I draw a moral, let me give you three lists: things I carry with me from my Mormon background, things I miss that were there in Mormonism, and reasons why Mormonism is as successful as it is.
Things I Carry With Me. One thing I carry with me from my Mormon background is the emphasis on family and avoiding the excesses of workaholism. Mormon Prophet David O. McKay said it in a somewhat harsh way: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
Second, I feel bad about idleness. When I was young, a Mormon hymn had this line, which was later expunged because of its harshness: “Only he who does something, is worthy to live; the world has no use for the drone.”
Third, I still don’t drink alcohol, never used tobacco, and even avoid the routine use of caffeinated coffee and other caffeinated beverages.
Things I Miss. One thing I miss about Mormonism is personally preaching and teaching religion. That is one reason I am here today. Nowadays, I may be one of the few proselyting Unitarian-Universalists.
Second, I miss the tight-knit Mormon congregations where everyone knows everyone else.
Third, I miss the sense of mission and grandeur of purpose in Mormonism. I am trying to replace that in my life. Mormonism instilled in me an ambition to change the world for the better that for a long time lacked direction due to my rejection of Mormonism.
source (via googling “graph of Mormon membership”)
What Makes Mormonism as Successful as It Is? In the year 1830, there were quite a few Unitarians and Universalists but only six Mormons. Now there are officially 15 million Mormons in the world, about 5 million of whom regularly show up at church, while there are less than one million Unitarian-Universalists, maybe closer to half a million. The Sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a wonderful book called The Rise of Christianity that explains how the Early Christian church could grow so fast during the first few centuries A.D. by using Mormonism as a model of how fast growth can happen. Especially at the beginning, when a church starts out small, the key to growth is missionary effort. The Mormon Church has about 50,000 full-time proselyting missionaries in the field at any one time, who do a lot to generate more than a quarter of a million convert baptisms per year, where being baptized implies joining the Mormon church. These 50,000 missionaries serve unpaid. Often their families pay for their living expenses instead of the Mormon Church even providing subsistence.
source (via googling “graph of Mormon membership”)
How does the Mormon Church motivate this level of effort? To begin with, there is the expectation that all “worthy” young men go on two-year missions at the age of 18 or soon thereafter. (It used to be 19.) Note the gender-bias. Many young women go on missions, but they are not required to. Given the full weight of church doctrine behind every young man going on a mission, many young men are motivated by subjective spiritual experiences that convince them that “The Church is true.” This is called “getting a testimony.” Social pressure on the young man and social pressure on the parents to encourage the young man provide additional motivation. But there is yet another motivation. The young women are urged to have as their aspiration marrying a returned missionary. And indeed, to the extent that almost every worthy young man goes on a mission, not going on a mission becomes a sign of unworthiness in a variety of ways that genuinely would make someone less desirable as marriage material. For example, given the rules, premarital sexual activity or use of alcohol can prevent or delay a young Mormon man from going on a mission.
While on a mission, missionaries are urged to work even harder to “get a testimony”—subjective spiritual experiences that will convince them the Mormon Church is true. In addition, they are motivated to work hard by a system of promotions in rank no doubt devised by one of the many middle-aged businessmen who take three years off from a regular job to serve as a “Mission President”—the head of a group of 150 or so young missionaries in a particular region. Mormon missionaries always travel in twos, so they can keep each other from getting into trouble—and in other countries to make sure that one of them has been there long enough to be able to speak the language reasonably well. A missionary starts out as a junior companion. It is a big day when a missionary finally makes it to being a senior companion. Later on, the missionary can hope to be promoted to District leader over three to seven other missionaries, to a Zone leader over, say, nineteen, and maybe even to being an assistant to the Mission President. It is hard to communicate how much we as missionaries cared about those promotions. And of course, there could be demotions in the form of being exiled to a remote district where it was especially hard to make converts.
The Mission Presidents, who, as I mentioned, often have business experience, also devise many other motivational strategies akin to those in the world of sales. The goal and the measure of success is a relatively uncompromising goal: convert baptisms, with the convert understanding as fully as possible what a big commitment it is to join the Mormon Church.
After a mission, the Mormon man is supposed to get married relatively soon and the couple is supposed to start having kids soon after getting married. Contraception is OK, but having lots of kids is seen as a good thing. Elderly Mormons brag about the number of grandchildren and great grandchildren they have. So the Mormon Church grows faster by encouraging having a lot of kids as well as by encouraging young men to go on proselyting missions.
I left one key element out a minute ago. Mormons are supposed to get married in a Mormon temple “for time and all eternity” rather than getting married outside a temple “until death do us part.” Mormon temples are a central part of Mormonism’s strength. The secret ceremonies in Mormon temples have a certain grand sweep from reminders of the creation of the world to the ultimate destiny of those participating in those ceremonies. In the temple, Mormons make solemn promises, such as the promise to be willing to devote all of their time and resources to the Mormon Church if called upon and the promise to never have sex except within the bonds of marriage. Returning to the temple often to participate in ceremonies for dead relatives and other people already dead reminds Mormons of these promises they have made.
Mormon temples reinforce what I view as key theological strengths of Mormonism. First is the principle of Eternal Progression. The fifth President of the Mormon Church, Lorenzo Snow, expressed the doctrine most memorably:
As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.
This is an absolutely central doctrine in Mormonism. I think the idea of perpetually improving and advancing—with no clear limits on what is possible—is a wonderful doctrine.
A second powerful doctrine is the doctrine that men and women are not created by God, but always existed in some form. The reason it is important is that it means that—although God will seem all-powerful in practical terms—God is not technically all powerful, and therefore it is more understandable why there is evil in the world when God is good. (This is an argument made by Sterling McMurrin in his classic The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion.)
Finally, Mormon theology draws strength from the fact that it is fully consistent with science as known at the time of its founder Joseph Smith’s death in 1844—including a surprisingly strong element of talking about other inhabited planets beyond the Earth. (This sympathy of Mormonism for the idea of other inhabited planets has made Utah a Mecca for science fiction writers.) I believe that, had he lived, Joseph Smith would have responded to Darwin’s discoveries by incorporating evolution into Mormon doctrine in a central way. But Joseph Smith’s successors, such as Brigham Young, were not as theologically creative. So Mormonism has some of the same tensions with evolution that many Christian churches display. The consistency of Mormon doctrine with at least early 19th Century science does a lot to help keep many highly educated Mormons in the Church. Another factor that helps keep many highly- educated Mormons from drifting away is the sheer intellectual interest of a complex doctrine, history and set of holy books. I found Mormon doctrine, history and scripture fascinating for many years.
Though I didn’t like the hierarchical aspects of Mormonism, the way the central leadership is structured is a sociological strength of the Mormon Church. Promising local leaders who have done a good job in unpaid leadership roles are promoted to central church leadership. Of those who become one of 15 apostles (12 in the “Quorum of the 12” and 3 in the “First Presidency”), the longest serving becomes President of the Church. Church leadership based on seniority—with some collective leadership elements—gives stability and continuity, and the wisdom of age, while the principle of continuing revelation permits any change to be made without loss of institutional legitimacy. Thus, the Mormon Church is able to be more flexible than the Catholic Church, which—as I understand it—must change by a process of interpretation rather than by any entirely new revelation.
Mormonism inculcates respect for authority. The church leaders repay that respect by trying to make Church members’ lives better within the limits of the perspective they have. Mormon church leaders are generally well-behaved in their personal conduct. In running the church, the only time I have seen high Church leaders behave in ways I consider morally objectionable (and this is much more emotional for me than that phrase conveys) has been when they were defending their collective authority and the stories underlying their legitimacy—and the legitimacy of the institution they have charge of.
The final strength of Mormonism that I want to highlight is its reliance on a lay ministry in relatively small congregations. Every Mormon who attends church is given a “calling” or an unpaid church job that involves him or her in helping to run the congregation. One of the biggest issues in the Mormon Church on the ground, on a week-to-week basis, is that the nature of the callings is not equal between men and women. But everyone is given some calling. And men who have leadership callings are made bishops and stake presidents on top of the regular jobs by which they make a living. Being involved in this way does a lot to generate commitment and loyalty. (This mechanism for deepening loyalty is especially important among well-educated Mormons.)
My younger brother’s father-in-law Eugene England was a well-known liberal Mormon writer who felt that the fact that Mormons are assigned to a Mormon congregation based on geography rather than choosing which Mormon congregation to go to does a lot to help make sure that Mormons rub shoulders with Mormons in different social classes. (Here is a link to the essay where he makes that case.) Certainly, for the men who take turns being a bishop in charge of a congregation for a few years, counseling people who are suffering or in trouble is an eye-opener. And in a smaller way each Mormon adult who shows up at Church is assigned with a partner to look after several Mormon families with monthly visits.
Lessons for Unitarian-Universalism and Other Agnostic Religions. It is time to draw the moral or lesson of the story, as I see it. The first lesson I draw is that proselyting works. I believe we should make more efforts to share Unitarian-Universalism. We have something good here, and we should give people a chance to look it over. Let’s spread the word that there is in the world a living, breathing, agnostic religion with full freedom of thought and belief. Most people don’t know that. They think that all religions require a specific belief in the supernatural.
The second lesson is that a religion can be strengthened by involving all its members directly in the work of the religion in one way or another. Especially at the local level, it can work well to blur the line between what the paid minister does and what the members of the congregation do.
The third lesson, drawn from the way that Mormon missionaries are motivated, is to always remember the power of nonfinancial motivations for people. Up to a point, what we honor people for doing, and dishonor them for not doing, gets done. (This is a theme of my posts "Scott Adams’s Finest Hour: How to Tax the Rich," and "Copyright.") Of course, there is a tradeoff between accepting people for who they are and disapproving of things that really are bad behavior. And we need to make sure we are disapproving of genuinely bad behavior rather than just going with our prejudices.
The fourth lesson is the importance of a sense of purpose and the belief that we can make the world a better place. (See my post "So You Want to Save the World.")
The final lesson is the importance of having powerful theologies of human advancement. What is a theology? A theology is a story of how the world works, focusing on the very most important questions, plus a vivid picture of a big objective, such as heaven, a loving community, or justice. (See my post "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.")
In some of the Landmark Education personal growth courses I once took, we were asked to speak what they called a “possibility”—an attractive vision of where we wanted things to go. Mine was “the possibility of all people being joined together in discovery and wonder.” Others in the course painted other wonderful pictures of possibilities with a short phrase. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregations are a place where, in addition to taking care of our own souls, we get together to talk about our individual visions of something good for humanity and to organize subgroups to work toward these various goals. (See my post "UU Visions.")
In choosing our goals and visions for humanity, we sometimes take our clue from politics, but given the state of politics, I hope that we do not always take our clue from existing political ideals. There is a limit to what tactical politics can achieve. Sometimes we need to imagine something totally new, beyond preexisting political categories, as I believe the framers of the U.S. constitution did in 1787, and as the Suffragettes at Seneca Falls did in 1848, pushing for women to have the right to vote.
I believe that religion, and especially free-thinking religion, should play a part in bring forward new visions for the advancement of our Republic and for the advancement of Humanity.
Note: If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy some of these in addition to the posts flagged above:
John Stuart Mill makes an eloquent argument for freedom of desire in On Liberty, chapter III, "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being," paragraph 5:
To a certain extent it is admitted, that our understanding should be our own: but there is not the same willingness to admit that our desires and impulses should be our own likewise; or that to possess impulses of our own, and of any strength, is anything but a peril and a snare. Yet desires and impulses are as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints: and strong impulses are only perilous when not properly balanced; when one set of aims and inclinations is developed into strength, while others, which ought to co-exist with them, remain weak and inactive. It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak. There is no natural connexion between strong impulses and a weak conscience. The natural connexion is the other way. To say that one person’s desires and feelings are stronger and more various than those of another, is merely to say that he has more of the raw material of human nature, and is therefore capable, perhaps of more evil, but certainly of more good. Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature, than of an indolent and impassive one. Those who have most natural feeling, are always those whose cultivated feelings may be made the strongest. The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control. It is through the cultivation of these, that society both does its duty and protects its interests: not by rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them. A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character. If, in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character. Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself, must maintain that society has no need of strong natures—is not the better for containing many persons who have much character—and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.
Unfortunately, John Stuart Mill undercuts his argument for freedom of desire by implicitly attacking the desire for indolence and passivity. In modern American culture as well, two of the desires we are the most ready to denigrate is the desire to watch TV (which in recent years has been the medium for some of our greatest works of art) and for sleep—which can be one of the most beautiful forms of indolence and passivity. (I found it entertaining to see the varied google search results for the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”)
I often fail in my resolutions. But I value happiness enough that ever since my psychologist colleague Norbert Schwarz impressed upon me the high marginal product sleep has in producing happiness, I have made an effort to get more sleep. I have not regretted those efforts. And my wife Gail and I just finished a “Prison Break” marathon.