Mormon Humanism

March 29, 2009    By: Geoff J @ 11:03 pm   Category: Personal Revelation

Sterling McMurrin said in his classic little Mormon theology book that the the Mormon view of reality has a “humanistic quality unusual in theistic philosophy”. Humanism and Theism do indeed seem to be unusual companions — especially in recent centuries. But in the early days of the the humanism movement it was not so unusual to combine the two.

I few years ago Kristen and I took a trip to Italy and the highlight of the trip was a walking tour or Florence (Firenze). Part of the tour was spent pointing out the unattractive and entirely utilitarian buildings erected in the Middle Ages versus the gorgeous, aesthetically appealing buildings constructed during the Renaissance. Our guide mentioned that one of the reasons for the difference was the rise of a humanism among the Florentines. The basic idea she presented was that in the Middle Ages the pervasive idea in the culture was that this life was mostly something to be endured in hopes for a paradise in the next life. The rise of humanism in Florence shifted the popular philosophy about this life and people started believing that they could and should work hard to build a paradise out of their lives here and now. (If you’ve ever been to Florence you know that the world is a richer and more beautiful place because of this philosophical change among those 15th century people.)

The Renaissance humanism wiki says this:

Renaissance humanists believed that the liberal arts (art, music, grammar, rhetoric, oratory, history, poetry, using classical texts, and the studies of all of the above) should be practiced by all levels of “richness”. They also approved of self, human worth and individual dignity. They hold the belief that everything in life has a determinate nature, but man’s privilege is to be able to choose his own nature.

It is not hard to see the shades of the philosophies of the early Mormons in that quote. Here are a couple of related quotes from the Community entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

For Latter-day Saints, community is an essential and eternal part of life in this world and in the world to come. From the time the Church was established (1830), its teachings have placed emphasis on principles of unity, cooperation, mutual assistance, and beautification of one’s surroundings. The community of believers envisioned by the Prophet Joseph Smith continues today, based essentially on the principles he established.

Third, the duty of the Saints was to care for, and beautify, the earth (Nibley, pp. 3-29). The belief that the earth could be improved through the efforts of an industrious and dedicated community of Saints was of particular importance as the Church migrated to the arid Great Basin.

Another way that Mormonism and humanism overlap is in the value both place on human flourishing. In The Book of Mormon a central theme is that keeping God’s commandments leads to prospering in the land. Further, the BoM states that “men are that they might have joy”. While this can be interpreted in lots of ways one feasible way to read it is that the entire purpose of our earth life is for us to seek human flourishing for ourselves and fellow travelers here on earth.

I am also reminded of the tale of Abraham digging wells in his travels — wells he never would use himself but that he knew others after him could use. It seems to me there is some lesson for our purpose in life in that…

This subject was brought again to my mind by the last post Jacob put up. I was struck by the discussion of the interaction between Celestial persons and Terrestrial persons and Telestial persons. I wonder if we can’t choose which kingdom of glory we will reside in while we are here on earth. Can we live in a celestial “kingdom” right here and now? I suspect so. Maybe it just takes us living the celestial law now and associating with other people who are willing to do the same. Wouldn’t that allow us a certain level of oneness with God and with others even before we die?

And for those who aren’t yet willing or ready to live a celestial law maybe we dig proverbial wells for them anyway (including making the world a more beautiful and pleasant place).

Seems to me that is a good recipe for human flourishing. I can imagine myself and my family and friends flourishing and having revelatory interaction with God and loving serving all people the best we can… to me that sounds like a celestial life here and now.


  1. My Mormonism is very much favorable to humanism. This is most likely because I am heavily influenced by humanists like Kant and I see space for a Kantian Mormonism. However, I feel very lonely in this.

    I find your emphasis on human flourishing above to be very interesting. I think Mormons tend to take a very Aristotelian approach to virtue and the attainment of virtue. Yet, his idea of human flourishing is absent.

    Humanism is too often associated with atheism, but I think the enlightenment concept of humanism is much broader than that. The Gospel is very humanistic, particularly as it moves away from the Old Testament.

    Comment by Chris H. — March 30, 2009 @ 5:27 am

  2. Geoff, this post is just beautiful. Abraham’s wells, loving and serving others….

    I was thinking about this community aspect of salvation yesterday during Sunday School. We covered the lesson about gathering Israel. As I studied the material, I kept thinking about two paradoxical teachings: 1) that we can work out our own salvation with God—pray to him directly, confess to him directly, see and touch him directly—and 2) that there is this strong community-based salvation thing going on as well. “If ye are not one, ye are not mine,” “that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” And then the whole focus on gathering saints together to live in Zion as a community.

    Anyway, you’ve really helped me put some meat on the bones of what I was thinking about all weekend.

    Comment by BrianJ — March 30, 2009 @ 7:43 am

  3. Chris H — You bring up a good point by qualifying it as your Mormonism because Mormonism is a big tent philosophically and I think there are a lot of folks within that tent that do have a sort of “just let me suffer through (endure) this life (veil of tears) so I can finally get out of here and find happiness in paradise”. Plus there is a lot of “you’re either with us or against us” that goes on. Of course there is plenty in the scriptures that can support such philosophies if one leans that way. I just don’t find them compatible with my Mormonism (as currently philosophically constituted at least).

    BrianJ — Good point about the sometimes opposing philosophies that flourish within our big Mormon theological tent. One lines up nicely with our evangelical Christian friends and teaches a real exclusivity and has us waiting for Jesus to come back so we can blow this joint. The other lines up better with the humanists and has us trying to save the world temporally and turn it into a paradise here and now.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 30, 2009 @ 9:07 am

  4. Mormonism probably has more in common with transhumanism or posthumanism than with traditional humanism.

    Comment by Lincoln Cannon — March 30, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  5. Geoff,

    This is a nice follow-up to my post last week. At first I wasn’t sure if you were making the connection and was pleased to see your final few paragraphs. I think we even teach your proposal explicitly in such hymns as “Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth” even if not everyone takes that as literally as you are proposing it. I really do think the sentiment is the same.

    Personally, I think that this is why the family plays the central role in Mormon thought. The nuclear family seems to be endowed with an almost instinctive and special brand of love. It can certainly be destroyed, but we get a unique shot at making heaven on earth with our families. This is one reason I find both consecration and polygamy to be interesting in that they both extend behaviors usually reserved to a nuclear family to a larger group. We often fail to make our family function in a celestial way (at least at my house) but we monumentally fail when we try to extend it in the slightest ways. Before the children move out, family finances function very much like a united order. Try to pull that off with three families in conjunction instead of one and it is a total disaster. So yes, I like the direction you have gone with the idea of communal salvation.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 30, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  6. I think Mormonism has a lot to do with Renaissance Humanism (which is different from the secular humanism most are familiar with). People don’t realize that masonry comes directly out of that humanist movement. But there are many other aspects that I think Mormonism embraced.

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  7. amen. great post.
    and thanks for the point about Abraham’s wells.

    Comment by english — March 30, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

  8. Thank you for this — and BrianJ., for your comment especially.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 30, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  9. This is a wonderful reminder. Thanks.

    I think of the pioneers crossing the plains – taking the time to cut down trees and lay up supplies for those who would follow, even though they were struggling in many ways on their own journeys. When you look at that movement compared to nearly all other movements, there is a level of communal concern on the Mormon Trail that simply is missing everywhere else.

    Abraham’s wells, indeed.

    Comment by Ray — March 31, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  10. I think now humanism is very much related to secularism but the humanistic movement was actually a religious based movement. I have been learning about in my civilizations class about humanism and one of the reading “Orations on the Dignity of Man” by Mirandola makes it very clear that man’s potential comes from God and not from himself. Kind of ironic that humanism today is considered so atheistic when its roots are very much grounded in a belief in the divine.

    Comment by Parker — September 7, 2010 @ 7:45 am

  11. Long after the original post, the savor lingers on. Great original post.

    My experience in life was different to many. I became aware of God before I became aware of religion. On that basis what came to me as ready-made correct principles and revelations pertaining to my life didn’t need labeling, they just needed understanding.

    When the church missionaries found my sisters and parents and I when I was 14, I wasn’t all that interested in it until Heavenly Father answered my prayers in an unmistakeable way and told me that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Nothing else really mattered once I knew that – how he lived, what he did and why – it didn’t affect the truth I had received from God.

    I have found that much of the church’s teachings and may of the habits of Mormonism do fit an unique genre of Humanism. But labeling Mormonism as a variant of Humanism appears a bit like differentiating between tables salt, sea salt, Celtic salt, etc. At the root it is salt, the variations being in the eye (or on the palate) of the beholder.

    Most self-proclaimed LDS Humanists that I know, I have found, lack a direct relationship with God. They understand the doctrines as they see them, not as they were given.

    If Life Eternal is to know The Father and Jesus Christ, and to know them is to be like them, then it doesn’t advance our cause very much at all to take refuge in uninspired labellings such as Mormon Humanism.

    What we need is a view of the doctrines and lifestyle as provided by the Holy Ghost through the eyes of the Godhead. Once that is obtained, Humanism isn’t even worth talking about, except in attempts to accommodate the feelings of those who are still struggling to understand – maybe.

    Godism, not Humanism. Cosmic, not earthbound. Progressive, not limiting. Kolob, not the sun.

    As for Joseph Smith and his alleged early laziness – perhaps it took an expansive view adopted in an idle moment to prepare his mind for what he later learned. I see no problem with that. The fruit of Mormonism has been generally very good – hardly a bitter harvest.

    Humanism doesn’t begin to describe Mormonism, never could, never will.

    Comment by Mike — July 13, 2011 @ 4:35 am