Editor Note: This guest post was submitted by one of our oldest friends here at New Cool Thang, Jeffrey Gilliam.
For the past few months, I have been struggling with some issues which are very close and dear to my heart. Put bluntly, my faith has been called into question. I find myself overwhelmed with suspicion and doubt, unable to trust so many of the values and beliefs which have become almost second nature to me. I also bear a peculiar mix of pity and resentment for those who have led me astray. While I have concluded that many of the pursuits which I have dedicated myself to most passionately have largely been a waste of time, my feelings are not entirely negative. I do recognize that I will forever treasure the experiences and relationships I have cultivated within the fold from which I now wish to distance myself. More than anything, however, I now face the unknown future with an optimism unlike anything I’ve experienced before, an optimism born of knowing that I am making the right choice.
For those few bloggers who have been interacting with me for the better part of a decade now, this song should sound somewhat familiar to you. You see, this is not the first time that I have abandoned my faith. Roughly 6 years ago, I stunned my friends, family and (at the time) wife by announcing that I no longer believed in God and would no longer continue as a believing Mormon. Various considerations which I will lump together under the banner of “Liberal Science” had persuaded me that the religion of my upbringing was not true and, therefore, must be rejected.
Let me pause briefly to unpack what I mean by “Liberal Science”. Liberal Science is a set of rules which consists of, but is not exhausted by the following rules: If a claim is logically inconsistent with empirical data, it is false. If two claims are logically inconsistent with each other, at least one of them is false. If a claim is true, we ought to believe it. If a claim is false, we ought to reject it. Accordingly, Liberal Science holds that there is one and only one set of claims which are both consistent with each other and with the observed world, the set of all true claims which we ought to believe. My first apostasy consisted in my coming to believe that the central claims of Mormonism were not a part of this set. My second apostasy consists in my coming to reject the rules of Liberal Science, the very rules which defined my first apostasy.
At this point, my first paragraph will likely seem a bit of a melodramatic stretch at best, for it is not at all obvious that Liberal Science is a faith from which one can apostatize. I disagree. Liberal Science or Reason (which a capital “R”) is not something which stands in a contrasting relationship of any kind to faith. Rather, Liberal Science is a set of mental tools in which many people trust, or have faith while navigating the world around them, the same as every religion or tradition. Faith, then, is simply the trust which we place in the beliefs or rules which we live by.
Explicit faith claims within Liberal Science are really not that difficult to find once one knows what to look for. Consider the problem of induction wherein we are unable to justify our projecting past experience into the future without appealing to the very principle we are trying to justify. A similar problem arises when we ask how we can be absolutely sure whether a valid conclusion really and truly follows from its premises. Perhaps the easiest way to isolate many such faith claims is to search for the largely unacknowledged bridges between “is” and “ought”. We find no better example of such a bridge than in the rules of logic themselves: If A is true, B is true and C logically follows from A and B, why is it that we ought to believe C? Where did this “ought” come from? What reason do we have for believing this article of faith (for that is exactly what it is)?
The answer is that such articles of faith, along with the many others which we also accept, are really good things to believe in. People who believe such things tend to be overwhelmingly better adapted to the world in which they find themselves than those who do not. Such beliefs are extremely valuable in the sense of being nearly indispensable tools for living any life worth living. Put succinctly, you show me a man with no faith and I will show you a man not long for this world.
Now we come to the heart of my most recent apostasy. I do not believe that the rules of Liberal Science are the best tools for navigating every environment in which I find myself, nor do I believe that Liberal Science is justified in passing final and asymmetric judgment upon all the good beliefs by which I live. No doubt, the rules of Liberal Science have certainly proven their worth in contexts such as academia, but I firmly reject the idea that the rules and values which define a scholar’s work should also define the entire life of each person in every context. Put another way, I refuse to believe that each claim which is true (according to Liberal Science) is also good or that each claim which is false is also bad. Such beliefs seem like clear examples of mental tools which are maladapted to the complex world in which we live. Again, I cannot accept that the beliefs which I take to be most precious and valuable in my life are under any obligation whatsoever to be counted among that unique set of true statements, as defined by Liberal Science.
I wish to illustrate the short-comings of Liberal Science by discussing the conflict between it and the doctrine of personal revelation which is so central to the Mormon tradition. Mormons are frequently and strongly encouraged to pray for personal guidance in their day to day lives. Furthermore, they are also discouraged from imposing, or even sharing such personal revelations with others. The primary reason for this, I suggest, is that such experiences simply do not obey the rules of Liberal Science. One person’s revelations are frequently inconsistent (logically speaking) with those of another, and the Liberal Scientist finds this deeply unsettling.
The proper Mormon response to this problem is “So what?” Personal revelation is under no obligation to be true, as defined by Liberal Science, nor are Mormons under any obligation to follow such rules in all situations and at all costs. Liberal Science simply is not the only set of tools whereby the faithful Mormon navigates the world. In particular, they also have access to the tool of personal revelation, a tool which lets them know “what they need to know” at some particular point in each of their own individual lives, regardless of whether it is logically consistent with anything else.
In closing, I wish to share a Book of Mormon passage which has recently taken on a new meaning for me; a passage which I hope will bring a small measure of peace to the reader who finds him or herself conflicted at times between their faith in God and their faith in Liberal Science:
“When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not.”