Getting Nuclear with Doubt: Lessons from a Sixth-Grade Nerd

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher taught a science section on the nature of the atom. In our classroom we had a physical model with some wooden balls glued together to represent the protons and neutrons of the atomic nucleus, and some other balls on a metal wire tracks representing electrons and their orbits. I think most of us realized that real atoms weren’t made of wood, but beyond that we had no idea just how technically inaccurate and even misleading almost everything about this physical model was. The horrifically wrong relative dimensions, the portrayal of components as solid particles, the nice fixed orbits instead of fuzzy orbitals, and other aspects were already thoroughly “wrong” based on what was known in that day, and things have only gotten more complex since then. Taking the gross oversimplification of the Bohr Model of the atom, we learned about the building blocks of the material world: a neat kit of protons, neutrons, and electrons in their precisely fixed orbits gave us the foundation for everything.

My confidence in this young new teacher was not high (this is the same teacher who gave me a shocking 0%, an F, on a math test involving monetary sums even though all my calculations were correct, for I had not put a needless dollar sign in front of every answer), so I wondered if he was teaching us correctly. I went home that night and dug out an old encyclopedia that we had picked up at a garage sale a few years before. It was thoroughly out of date already, yet it had enough information on the atom to make me realize that what our teacher was passing off as science was just a tiny piece of the picture. I learned that there were more particles and entities to consider than just the three we had learned about. I didn’t understand what I read, but I learned about particles (actually classes of particles) called baryons and leptons. I think the article may have mentioned neutrinos and mesons as well. Mercifully, the encyclopedia was too old to mention the existence of quarks, gluons, and the intricacies of quantum chromodynamics, or what happened the next day in class could have been an even bigger headache for everyone.

In a few moments of superficial study, I had learned for myself that the world of physics and the nature of matter were much more complicated that what our teacher had said. Well! I rubbed my hangs together with glee as I pondered an embarrassing question or two I would ask the next day as he wrapped up the science unit and asked, “Are there any questions?”

At that age, I struggled with the dual affliction of being both a nerd and a smart aleck. Students, if you are suffering from this as well, please get therapy before it’s too late. As I would gradually learn, this combination usually does not win much respect from teachers or from the cute girls I sometimes tried to impress. There are better ways, so I’ve heard.

The next day the magic moment came: “Are there any questions?” Hah, he has played right into my trap! My hand sprung up. “Yes, uh, I’m wondering if you could tell us about some of the other subatomic particles that are important parts of matter. You know, particles like baryons and leptons.”

“Uh, what?”

“Yes,” I said knowingly, perhaps even a bit triumphantly, “it turns out that there are quite a few other particles besides just electrons, protons, and neutrons, so maybe we should learn about those, too.”

“Well, Jeff, maybe you’d like to tell us a few things about them.” Hmm, he didn’t crumble as quickly as I hoped. 

“Sure. Baryons are heavy subatomic particles, and leptons are light subatomic particles, and their are neutrinos and muons and many other things. So I just think we should include these, too.”

“Uh, right. Let me look into that and get back to you later. But today, it’s time to move on to our next subject….”

Smelled like a cover-up. Totally evasive. I had exposed the weak underbelly of 6th-grade science education.

My silly and rather ignorant question may have been perceived as hostile and annoying, and that would be accurate. However, deep down there was a sincere desire to understand, not just to criticize and show off. I wanted to know more and not have my questions blown off. He never got back to me on my questions–I would have respected him much more if he had even tried.

I was put off by the grossly oversimplified model that was being presented, but in my ignorance failed to appreciate why it was useful for both teaching and even actual scientific calculations. It was far from complete, but useful. Teaching it was not the result of dishonesty or a cover-up, though I feel it would have been much better had the teacher added a disclaimer like this:

In reality, for those of you who care, the atom is much more complex than our little model shows and things like electrons and protons aren’t really nice round particles at all, though they sometimes act like particles, and other times don’t. The details are way beyond what we can cover in this class, but if you want to know more, I can suggest some books to read. 

I loved science and would go on to study it more over the years. Later I would learn about quantum chemistry and the bewildering more advanced models we have for the nature of electrons and other components of matter. I would take a graduate-level class on quantum chemistry that still makes my head spin when I think about it, though I somehow managed to get a decent grade. In later readings I would learn of string theory, multiple dimensions, dark energy and dark matter, and a host of other bewilderments that make me feel that today I know much less about the nature of matter and the universe than I did in sixth grade.

The universe is a complex place, and so is the Gospel and Church history. History can be profoundly complicated as we struggle with conflicting accounts and inadequate documentation, not to mention our lack of psychic skills understanding the real motives for apparent actions. As for matters of doctrine and the things of God, we have models to describe concepts like the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement, the nature of sin, godliness, spirits, the spirit world, and Eternal Life, but we know so very little and can easily import numerous incorrect assumptions into our models and into what we teach and into the questions we formulate as we struggle to understand. Once we detect that some things are more complex than we realized, we may mistakenly interpret the gaps as the fruits of deception, when they may be the result of sloppiness, mistaken assumptions, or a good faith effort to simplify in order to teach basic principles. Or other times just painful mortal blunders.

In reflecting upon my sixth-grade experience, I see an analogy to the Gospel and the issue of dealing with doubts and tough questions about our faith. My antagonistic stance before the teacher sometimes resembles those who throw out seemingly hostile questions, the kind we sometimes view as “anti-Mormon.” Yes, there may be hostile intent with a loaded question or criticism that might embarrass or weaken faith. At the same time, many who ask these questions still have, to some degree, especially initially, a sincere desire to know and not just belittle. Some are learning and are simply troubled when they find out that Church history or other elements related to our faith are much more complicated than the simple models they learned in Sunday School or seminary. When these questions come, we would be wise to take them seriously and not belittle or ignore the person who might actually be asking with a touch of sincerity, or even deep and obvious sincerity. We may not have the answers, but we can help. We can help that person know that we care, that there may be answers, and there may be people who have those answers, and try to actually get back to them with something more useful than just saying “pray about it” (though that is, of course, an essential component in dealing with doubts and in building our testimonies and our relationship with God).

There are legitimate questions and legitimate doubts that we may face. How can it be any other way given how little we know and how much there is yet to be learned and revealed? How can we not face troubling questions as we expend out knowledge to break past oversimplified models and touch upon the bewilderments of a “quantum faith” with its spiritual quarks and all their strangeness, charm, and unseeable color? For some of these questions, we can only wait and hope for more to be revealed or learned. But for many questions, there are great answers and people who can help us face them. We must let those who doubt know that we care and will get back to them. We can help them turn to resources like those at The Mormon Interpreter, the Maxwell Institute, FAIRMormon,, and other resources, along with the writings of many authors who tackle tough issues related to our faith, sometimes even with brilliance.

People with tough questions may discover, as I have discovered, that many of the weaknesses in our faith have, with time, become strengths. For example, many once challenging attacks on the Book of Mormon have not just been blunted by further research and discovery, but have become pillars of strength for the case of Book of Mormon plausibility.

I could mention things like the many recent discoveries related to the journey of Nephi’s group through the Arabian Peninsula, including archaeological finds from Lehi’s day supporting the case for a rare place name mentioned by Nephi being exactly where and when it was supposed to be. I could mention the many discoveries pointing to the plausibility of ancient writing on metal plates, or the use of cement in the ancient Americas, or intriguing little details like the once laughable use of Alma as a man’s name in the Book of Mormon–when everyone knows it’s a modern woman’s name–now confirmed as an ancient Jewish male name from records unearthed long after Joseph Smith’s day. The Book of Mormon today is truer than ever, with a growing array of evidences to help overcome objections and give room for faith and the Spirit. In many areas where the Book of Mormon once had big question marks, we now have answers, and sometimes very impressive answers, turning weakness into strength. The Book of Mormon doesn’t just withstand study and scrutiny, it invites it, it urges us to study, ponder, and dig into to the text. Take it seriously. Don’t blow it off as an annoyance now worthy of a response.

When we are willing to apply both faith and patience, the quest for more knowledge and the challenge of dealing with doubts can lead to journeys that uncover many treasures that steadily strengthen our testimony. That testimony isn’t just fuzzy emotions. It involves the mind and serious intellectual processes. One of the things I love about the Gospel is that we are invited to think, to ponder, to study, and to reason, and even to apply a form of the scientific method in gaining knowledge about the details of the Gospel. That is the point of Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, a chapter addressed to those with a high level of doubt because they were just on the verge of believing. Alma challenged them to experiment with the word and to put principles of the Gospel to the test, scientifically, and observe the fruits of the experiment as people apply and live those principles. He speaks of true principles causing not just spiritual feelings, but intellectual enlightenment as the mind expands. In the Doctrine & Covenants, we are also reminded that revelation involves both hearth and mind (D&C 8:2,3). Our minds should expand and grow in knowledge as we pursue the things go the Spirit.

While I have more questions than ever about the nature of the universe and about the nature of God and the Gospel, there are some core things that we can grasp and know to be real. Just as we can know that there is a nucleus inside the atom with real properties, whatever it may be and however it is held together, we can also identify and know some core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I am confused by the complexity of matter and space, I can marvel and rejoice at the intricacy of the design of the cosmos and its very fabric that gives us such remarkable physical properties to enable the majesty of stars and galaxies, of planets and our ecosystem, and the glory of things like the carbon atom that enables the machinery of life. The more I learn about matter and physics, the more I marvel that a solution was even possible to enable this wondrous existence of ours and the glory of the heavens. The more I learn about the Gospel, in spite of all my questions, the more I can appreciate the reality of God and Jesus Christ, and their love for us. And the more I can appreciate the power of the Book of Mormon, even with its puzzles and warts, as a witness of Jesus Christ and an authentic ancient document that can bring us closer to God–if we’ll let it, if we’ll press forward with patience and faith, and if we’ll never stop learning and seeking to understand more. May we press forward with patience, and add to our own patience a little patience for those who annoy us with their seemingly ignorant questions, who triumphantly toss out information that might be meant to embarrass, yet who may have a willingness to grow and learn if only we can get back to them with helpful answers to what may have at least started as a sincere question. Some critics are just out to attack no matter what, but some doubters really need the benefit of a doubt in order to move on toward more intelligent faith.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

32 thoughts on “Getting Nuclear with Doubt: Lessons from a Sixth-Grade Nerd

  1. Wow! You must be younger than I thought. I would have assumed that they would still be teaching the Dalton Model when you were in 6th grade. 😉

  2. Fantastic article. I was mostly blessed with teachers that humored and encouraged me in school despite my regularly challenging them. Point taken to apply the same patience in a gospel setting.

  3. Very good points. A major problem that I encounter with people who are hostile against the church and doctrine is that there are difficulties in trying to find out exactly what is doctrine.

    Members have been told by various SLC leaders throughout the years that everything the Prophet says is doctrine, yet other leaders say not everything a Prophet says is doctrine. And we are told that what past Prophets of the church have said does not matter anymore. What? So the Prophets in the Bible do not matter either, huh? So how are members really to know? It is difficult to explain issues when there is no official doctrine, but yet it might be official doctrine, or it might not. I have been accused of being deceitful, called a liar, an idiot, brainwashed, dishonest, etc.

    We have to be honest in admitting that through the years SLC leaders have contradicted other leaders. And we know that not all the leaders have been truthful. The SLC leaders have put members in a tough, winless position with their contradictions and not making very clear what is official doctrine. And is policy official doctrine? The SLC leaders have back pedaled on some issues. So what is a member to do? Then the SLC leaders wonder why so many members are having problems with their belief.

    Always Wondering

  4. Anon, maybe you didn't catch some of Jeff's unspoken parallels. The understanding of the nature of atomic and sub-atomic level matter did not spring forth fully formed overnight. It developed over time. And it continues to develop. Teachers, engineers, and scientists don't seem to have a problem with new and deeper and "more correct" levels of undertanding on the nature of matter. Science knows more now that it used to. People accept that. People also accept that more complete pictures or understanding of the nature of matter will continue to be discovered.

    Same in religion. We know more now than we used to. We have better understanding.

    So what is a member to do, you ask?

    Follow the LIVING prophet. If the church is true, the president of the church is the prophet, and God won't condemn anyone for following the living prophet.

    I think you're being very disingenuous with your accusations that leaders don't make clear what official doctrine is. If you don't understand it at this point, you either have not been paying attention, or you're deliberately trying to create confusion.

    Have you taken spedific questions about what is doctrine and what is not doctrine to your bishop or stake president? Why are you asking about official doctrine on blogs? Go to and or talk to your local leaders.

  5. Bookslinger,

    I think the frustration with many lies in the idea that "living prophets" sometimes taught things that weren't correct before, so putting complete trust in living prophets or a church website that is subject to change any time–as far as finding pure doctrine goes–isn't necessarily how one can determine such things. Bishops and stake presidents can be even more fallible and may have a slanted or antiquated view on specific doctrines, as I've learned from experience.
    With that, I think there is something to be said for learning from these men, especially if one is wondering as much as Anonymous is.

    I think a person who is honest in their search for doctrine should remember three things: first, that real doctrine is revealed, recognized as revelation, and retaught.
    Second, that scriptures are the key source of our doctrine (though they can be interpreted in different ways).
    Third, that the real important doctrines of the church are very simple and unmistakable, and that we sometimes get hung up on "doctrine" instead of living "the gospel." If we can live the gospel, and spend spare time on discerning and understanding doctrines that are just appendages, then we won't be so worried, and our understanding will be increased with time. As a side note, I love learning and pondering on all of our doctrines, though I consider much of it to be appendages to our fundamental belief in Christ and His message.

    I very much agree with Jeff's analogy and your analysis of it. I wonder about the complaints I've seen about changing our viewpoints in light of better understanding. I don't see how that doesn't make sense to people.

  6. "testimony…involves the mind and serious intellectual processes" hmmm…

    Jot down how many LDS theological issues fall into one or more of the following catagory; 1-There is no official stance. 2-The Church has removed, changed or disavowed such teaching. 3-Put it on the shelf 4-That was just the prophet's opinion 5-There's confusion, misinterpretation, unreliable sources about what the prophet really meant when he said that.

    How many times are you asked to put something on the shelf and not think about it?

  7. I think that complaints about "no official stance" on numerous topics are usually not from active members of the Church. In my experience, the people who are most likely to complain about this are those who are busy attacking the LDS religion and are annoyed that we don't feel committed to stand by random stray opinions expressed by leaders or that we don't abandon our faith when it can be shown that two different leaders had different opinions on some theological issue. "Contradictions! Change! Shifting views! Errors in the past!" But to some of us in the faith, we have a different response: "Progress!"

    There is much we don't know, and even more that earlier generations didn't know. Even when revelation is given, learning how to apply it and how to understand its metes and bounds requires time and occasional updating of assumptions, even with prophets in our midst. This kind of growth and revision of understanding is natural in all fields of learning. Mormons are pressed to defend discarded paradigms not for the sake of truth and knowledge, but for the convenience of those seeking to condemn.

    We have plenty of official doctrine on the things that really matter. For those areas most likely to be subject to human error such as the things that are fuzzy, speculative, or complex, I'm happy to leave consensus and/or official doctrine, if it ever comes, to future discoveries and revelations. Sorry about that. I know it takes a lot of the fun out of attacking the Church. There are plenty of less frustrating hobbies I might suggest instead.

  8. Jeff, I'm only commenting on your statement of "serious intellectual processes"
    How can this be when "legitimate questions and legitimate doubts" are put on the shelf? If anyone asks, their "attacking the Church"?

    You said "The Book of Mormon doesn't just withstand study and scrutiny, it invites it"

    How is this possible? There are no ancient documents. The entire book based on one man's supposed translation. Is he trustworthy? Was he a lunatic? Yet if we delve into this man's character we're "anti-Mormon"

    How is this a "serious intellectual process"? Your mind is already made up so any evidence that contradicts your belief is not even considered

  9. "I think that complaints about "no official stance" on numerous topics are usually not from active members of the Church"

    I'd think again. More and more members are now discovering troubling questions about the Church and are seeking answers. It's no coincidence has recently released article about polygamy, blacks and priesthood, and becoming a god.

  10. But I think what he's saying is that active members of the church are not complaining about the shifting viewpoints in light of better information, or about providing that information like with the articles. The questions themselves may be troubling, especially if the person had not heard of them before or they grew up hearing and believing something only to see it challenged in a logical way. But I do not see many Latter-Day Saints troubled over not having to be beholden to assumptions and old information. It is actually more liberating and more intellectually honest. Usually the people that do complain about it are critics of the church, because much, much criticism stems from assumptions, opinions, and old information that can easily be discarded.

  11. Pierce and Jeff,
    It's because the Mormon culture does not invite or accept doubt or real discussion of deep strange doctrines. I'm an active member, and I'm very troubled by what's going on. The very principle of doctrine is being undermined by the church and their PR department, but that's not something I'd feel comfortable bringing up in Sunday school. It'd derail the conversation and mark me as a doubter.
    The church is currently in turmoil, plain and simple. You won't see it on Sunday, but you will see it in the hearts of members as fewer and fewer return to an atmosphere of confusion.

  12. Pierce, how do you equate with the Church basically saying "Brigham Young was a product of his time and had bigoted views, which determined the course of the Church for over 100 years" as "better information." One man, the prophet no less, steered the Church in the wrong direction and actually hurt the spiritual health of thousands of "second class" members of the Church. Knowing this doesn't make me feel better about anything: the doctrine, the leadership or the current path the Church is on!

  13. I group "better information" in with opinion and assumption, so your example might fit in better with those categories more.
    But to your point. I think the "better information" is that the evidence seems to suggest that no revelation was given to institute this ban, and that the policy came from man rather than from God. While many find it troubling that a priesthood ban existed in the church, the reason why it existed in the first place is the next logical question. Over the years, several theories developed in trying to explain the ban, and it mostly looked bad for God and didn't address things like the ordination of Elijah Able by Joseph Smith as well as mixed race. I am glad that I am not beholden to those viewpoints because of the better information I have received about what really constitutes doctrine.
    These types of issues have always existed, but the information age and the internet has really brought more obscure doctrines, policies, and history into the open, and the church is starting to really address it and even utilize it. Individual members have been tackling it for years and will continue to do so. You (and I and others) stumble across these things when we do and have to research and ponder and reconcile what we find to be troubling. Church is simply a place to teach "the Gospel" and fellowship and serve each other. If you are interested in understanding appendages to the Gospel message, or deep strange doctrines, then you will be on a journey that requires time, research, study, prayer, sharing ideas, and even revelation to comprehend.

  14. As an aside, to believe that one man (Brigham Young) steered the Church in the wrong direction with his bigoted views is to accept a very narrow-minded interpretation of history. He didn't steer things in the wrong direction, all of America had been in the wrong direction. The Church is made up of individuals and most of them did not view blacks as equals until after the civil rights era– well over a century later. I believe the Lord steered the Church out of the wrong direction when the people in it were willing to be led (as evidenced by the 1978 revelation and circumstances surrounding it).
    This may not make you feel better about things like doctrine and church leadership. It's understandable. We have a choice to base our testimony in reality and include doubts, or on incorrect ideas and warm fuzzies. There is going to be discomfort with the former. It's like choosing the red pill or the blue pill, if you will excuse the pop-culture reference.

    You may be surprised how much room for doubt there is in the church now more than ever. If you haven't read Terryl Givens or Michael Ash, I would strongly suggest you do. They are great members who have reconciled doubt with faith.

  15. I have an experience to share that might be relevant to the current conversation. Right now I am part of a group that is developing a new class on physics at the university where I work. This class is an introductory physics class that is geared towards the chemical and biological sciences rather than engineering. Because of the nontraditional focus of the class we have a lot of discussions about what needs to be included in the course and what parts of physics, that would normally be in an introductory physics course, we can either mention only in passing or leave out entirely.

    Just a few days ago we had an hour long discussion about a single phrase which may or may not appear in a single lab that we are writing for the class. Also during that conversation a professor related to the group a debate he heard at a recent conference where two rather prominent physics educators (both of whom have written textbooks) debated for over an hour as to whether or not a pendulum has potential energy.

    These may seem like nitpicking debates to have but they determine how we will present the material in the class. So if we leave out a single phrase from a lab or if we tell student that pendulums have potential energy are we lying to the students? Are we intentionally preventing them from fully understanding physics? If the students take another class on physics and it is presented to them in a different way, will that mean that the new information is correct and what was taught to them previously incorrect?

    In the development of the class we are trying to teach a very specific group of students a very broad topic that is being presented to them in a way that is relevant to the vast majority of them (but not all). Does this mean we are fundamentally changing the laws of physics just for this class? That obviously would be a ridiculous assumption to make.

    Just because the physics is being presented in a particular way to suit a particular need does not change the fundamental reality.

    Getting back to Jeff’s example of the Bohr model of the atom, even though we will teach students in school that the Bohr model is no longer accepted as the “correct” model of the atom it may surprise people to know that in physics courses (even advanced physics courses) we still teach and use the Bohr model. Even some cutting edge research is done using calculations while assuming the Bohr model. Why? Because for all practical purposes it gives the correct answer. So that brings up the question, is the model wrong if it gives the correct answer?

    Is it wrong if it works?

    I think there is a direct analogy here to our understanding of the gospel. As we grow and learn in the gospel we are given the simple answers first. But as our understanding grows we begin to learn which things are fundamental and which things are there merely as a teaching tool to help us along the way. Some things are geared towards a specific group of people in a particular time and place so the way the fundamentals are presented may be different, but that does not change what is true.

    What this means is that occasionally there are things that may seem very important and relevant to us now but were not given much thought several years ago, even by church leaders. So there may be things that are of outsized importance now but we should not make the mistake of assuming that previous church leaders gave as much thought to the same issues, and if we were to look at everything they wrote and said we would see that they were focused on much more pressing matters.

    Sorry for the long comment Jeff. Feel free to tell me to go get my own blog (wait I already have one…).

  16. Here's my take (and I"m not the anon who posted and is accusing the church of all this doctrinal drift, etc):

    The church hasn't really addressed a LOT of doctrinal weird stuff. We haven't had a major revelation on reconciling evolution with the Fall of Adam, for example.

    Why not? I submit that it's because the members in general are struggling with the basics as it is. Why did the Jews have the Law of Moses instead of the Sermon on the Mount? The Jews weren't ready. The Jaredites didn't get the contents of the Brother of Jared's visions because they weren't ready–just as we aren't. It's dead certain that Moroni, who had read that vision, knew more than what we have now.

    Maybe the church is going through a period of apostasy. That's long been predicted–the winnowing of the wheat from the chaff. The Book of Mormon church repeatedly had massive falling aways–it's no surprise if we have one occasionally.

    General Conference seems always to focus on the basics. We aren't doing the basics–the 2nd Nephi 31 level of the gospel. Why would we get more stuff like Section 76? We certainly don't have all doctrine; indeed we are told some of the knowledge we will get after the millennium starts–like the final vision of how the World was created, the true story of multiple Gods, etc. Until then: well, as fast as the world is plunging into wickedness, and how hard members have to fight to retain a basic level of righteousness; I'm not surprised the church is using the Bohr's model instead of quantum level.

  17. "I believe the Lord steered the Church out of the wrong direction when the people in it were willing to be led…."

    I don't believe that at all.

    I believe the Church was steered in the right direction by a group of very principled and very brave Americans whose activities we call the Civil Rights movement. A few (too few) of these brave Americans were themselves in the Church.

    It wasn't the Lord who was getting arrested, beaten, and murdered in the cause of racial justice. It was people—people who deserve full credit for their courage.

  18. "I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."
    -Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Who are we to say that God did not have a hand in bringing about a change in attitude on both the part of blacks and whites?

    My point doesn't discount the Civil Rights movement. It is that the people had to change themselves. My own personal fancy is that God played a role in orchestrating these changes behind the scenes, and possibly ordained Civil Rights leaders to be born when they could lead people out of darkness, similar to what prophets do. This affected people in the church, and the finishing touch, and only real evidence of what I am saying, is that the priesthood ban was lifted by revelation.

    It's just a matter of opinion, and yours may be that God had nothing to do with it. I just think otherwise.

  19. I knew it! You are just one of those despicable virulent anti-Bhorist. And why is that now, because your patient teacher taught you a valuable lesson about using the $ ?!?

    So, why so much hostility towards the Strangites, Branch Davidians, etc?

  20. The point, "If the church is true, follow the prophet" is a common mantra, but is it helpful? If the church is true to what? To the teachings/revelations given through Joseph Smith? To the principles of the gospel? The most marvelous wonder is that we can approach God himself to ask as did Nephi, even when he was already told about the tree of life. So much better than FARMS (who gave them revelatory status?), or endlessly discussing it with each other (not entirely useless), but why miss out on a great opportunity to have a meaningful discussion with God?

  21. So once we "approach God himself to ask as did Nephi" and have this "meaningful discussion" how do we know what His answer is? Is it a feeling? Is there an audible voice?

    This is the danger of seeking additional revelation. The Branch Davidians did it, The Jehovah Witnesses did it. Joseph Smith did it. The apostle Paul warned us of such things

  22. Two comments:

    1) I think that the physics education/gospel teaching is a false analogy. The steps of teaching someone physics are buttressed by the scientific method, which assumes that knowledge will change, and that insists on continually testing every theory. Everything in a science education should be repeatable in reality. The gospel is not so. It is a set of unknowable ideas, and the ultimate aim is to induce faith — a step into the unknown (and largely unknowable). The only reliable test is to ask someone to pray for their own testimony.

    2) All of this discussion – science ed and gospel ed – have been completely altered by the Internet. It is no longer possible to constrain the knowledge of your student to the pathway you want them to go. Any student sufficiently motivated can learn about muons and leptons and 14-year-old polygamous brides of Joseph Smith and BoM anachronisms and the very definitive ("I'm speaking as a prophet") doctrinal statements about race by Joseph Fielding Smith, etc. That genie is way out of the bottle.

    Point of both being that the framework of "milk before meat" is flawed in today's world. That, and until we're going to come up with a way to make repeatable experiments for gospel assertions, trying to analogize between science and gospel knowledge is going to always do both realms a disservice.

  23. Comment part 1


    Basically what you are pointing out here is a question about epistemology. That is, this is a question about what we know, how we know it, and whether or not some things can be known. Essentially what you are stating is that we have an epistemological dualism, which means that there are some things that are true which can be known, and these things you say are known through science, and there are other things that are true which cannot be known, and you make the assumption that the things pertaining to the gospel fall into this category. I think that is an assumption that is unsupported by either scripture or experience.

    The problem is that no matter what, whether we learn things through the scientific method or by the Spirit we cannot escape the fact that we must learn these things. That is we cannot escape the fact that ultimately all that we know must be known by that part of us that is self aware. Whether we call it the mind, the soul, the spirit, the “cogito” or any other term we wish to apply that cannot alter the reality of the fact that all that we know is known by that part of us that is self aware.

    So if something is known, whether it be by reasoning it out, knowing it empirically (by our senses) or by intuition or any other avenue of learning then ultimately they must all be known by that self aware entity that constitutes our identity.

    You correctly state that our knowledge of science will change, but with that assumption comes the necessary realization that the change only happens as we learn more, not because reality itself changes. I think the statement that through the scientific method we are “continually testing every theory” implies a level of scepticism in science that only exists in theory and never exists in actuality. Yes every theory is tested and needs to be verified, very few people actually put forth the effort to make those verifications. Thus most scientists only verify the basics and then rely on others to do the verification for everyone else. The only reason why this works is because we have arrived at a common method and language to express verification. Everything can be repeated by others but very few actually do.

    You say that everything in science must be repeatable but then make the unfounded assertion that everything in the gospel to be unrepeatable. You make this assertion despite the fact that we are commanded in the scriptures to study and to know for ourselves, to gain a witness of these things. We also have ample evidence that people from all over the world can apply the gospel message and receive the same results of peace in this life and access to the Holy Ghost. If this is so then everything that we learn, or can learn in the gospel must be repeatable. If it were not so then it would be nonsensical to ask all of us to do the same thing.

    To say that the gospel is a set of unknowable ideas is to assume that the only things that can be known have to be reducible to mathematical equations that fit within the realm of a materialist view of the world. The problem with this is that there are many things that we know that cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation. We know that we know them and they cannot be denied.

    If we say that there are things about the gospel that we do not understand that does not automatically make them unknowable, any more than the fact that things exist about the universe that we do not understand automatically makes them ontologically unknowable.

  24. Comment part 2

    Allow me to explain why I made the analogy and why the analogy works. To do this I will use another analogy. To anyone who has studied in a single field long enough you know that there are patterns to things that are seemingly unrelated to each other. For example, in the development of the physics class that I mentioned in a previous comment we spent some time discussing how much we wanted to include in the class about springs. The reason for this is because the math that is used to explain springs is very similar to the math that is used to explain electronic capacitors and resistors. This may seem like an odd connection but it works.

    This means that there are concepts that cut across different areas of physics, and by extension there are concepts that cut across different areas of science. Having spent thousands of hours studying and teaching science and having spent thousands of hours studying and teaching the gospel I have realized that the ways we know and increase our understanding of the gospel are the same way that we go about learning and increasing our understanding of science.

    This is because for everything we know, be it scientific knowledge or religious knowledge, it must be known by that part of our selves that is self aware. Thus in how we learn and increase in our knowledge of science or religion there can be no difference because in the end they must be known in the same way and by the same person.

    Now on to your second point. You make the assumption that the dissemination of knowledge through the internet will only result in members of the church having their faith shaken by the introduction of the “uncomfortable” parts of our history. But this, like many of your other assumptions, is unfounded. The dissemination of historic facts will not have just a detrimental effect on the faith of members of the church. I know this because I am living proof of this. For every person whose faith is shaken by learning more about the church there is one more whose faith is sustained and expanded by it. My faith would not have been possible were it not for the access to knowledge that you assume will only work to dissolve our faith. If the genie is out of the bottle then it is neither an evil genie nor a good genie since on the one hand it strengthens some people’s faith while on the other hand it weakens other’s faith.

    When it comes to “milk before meat” that is a maxim that holds no matter what field you are in. Recently I had the opportunity to mentor a high school student who wanted an opportunity to do research in astrophysics. While the student was very sharp and was well above average he was still inexperienced. There was a vast swath of knowledge that he did not have. Even though I put him on a project that involved some cutting edge research (only two other people in the world had managed to do it before) his ability to extend his knowledge and understanding was severely limited by his inexperience. So even though he had access to all the latest and greatest knowledge and some of the most powerful computing resources in the world his ability to know the deeper things of science were limited by the fact that he had not learned enough “milk” and thus the “meat” was lost on him. Just because it is available does not mean any depth of knowledge is achieved.

    We have repeatable experiments in the gospel. If it were not so we would have no church. Far from the analogy between science and the gospel being a disservice it allows us to think how all knowledge and truth can be circumscribed into one great whole. And that eternal life is to know the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

  25. "For every person whose faith is shaken by learning more about the church there is one more whose faith is sustained and expanded by it"

    Wishful thinking. The Church is obviously feeling the impact of the ever increasing member discovery of troubling LDS history/theology, evidenced by the increased number of articles attempting to address such concerns on official websites.

  26. Anonymous,

    It's not wishful thinking if it's true.

    It's easy to count the number of people who have left the church because they were confronted with history but it's not easy to count the number of members who have stayed because they were confronted with the same history. Just because it isn't easy to see them and count them doesn't mean they aren't there.

  27. Science doesn't claim to be anything other than a human endeavor, which implies that mistakes and corrections will be made from time to time, and that truth is known only by approximation. Jeff, are you saying that Mormonism is like science? A human endeavor? Then you're on the same page as the critics. I'm sure that you would say that it's some sort of hybrid between human and divine. The question is, how much of it is human, and how much is divine? The 'critics' that you refer to in the abstract, many of whom were once committed latter day saints who cared deeply about the gospel, claim that the church is more human than you do. The real hybrid here is apologetics. By claiming that some of Mormonism is human, it's a cross between what the critics claim and what is actually taught in the pews. Yes, the average Mormon will readily acknowledge that his leaders are human beings and not infallible, but he will not acknowledge anything specific that was said from the pulpit that was only human opinion, and the leaders of the church are content to let the average member think that whatever is said from the pulpit must be doctrinal. My wife recently got herself dismissed from being a Relief Society teacher because she said that not everything said by general authorities is doctrine that we must believe. She didn't give specifics, but the RS presidency thought this was too controversial. There is a wide chasm between the gospel according to the apologists and the gospel according to the average members and the correlation committee, and just to the other side of the apologetic gospel is the gospel according to the critics. I don't complain that the church has no official stance on x, y, or z. I complain that the average members think that they do and that the 'church' is content to let them think so. If you don't believe me, see what happens in gospel doctrine class if you say that it's OK for Mormons to believe in evolution or that the Noachic flood wasn't global. I've done the experiment. You might think that positions on these matters are unimportant in terms of our spiritual development. I agree. Evidently, most believers don't. They're the ones who think that assent to morally neutral propositions for which there is no evidence is requisite to a testimony.

  28. Artie, as a Mormon, the idea of prophets speaking by opinion and not for doctrine ought to be almost a non-issue for us. After all, the Doctrine and Covenants specifically states that Paul spoke of himself, according to his wisdom, and not according to doctrine. Doctrine and Covenants 74:5 "Wherefore, for this cause the apostle wrote unto the church, giving unto them a commandment, not of the Lord, but of himself, that a believer should not be aunited to an bunbeliever; except the claw of Moses should be done away among them," We in this Church believe in fallible leaders. Anyone who has struggled to give a Priesthood blessing knows exactly what a prophet must struggle with. I have, at times, been guided it what to say or promise such that it is clear that I have spoken the words of the Lord. Other times, I have failed in that same attempt. But the Lord is never in doubt, His Church is never in doubt, and the Priesthood power is never in doubt — just our ability to live up to the mantle of our callings.

  29. It should be clear from my post that I already think that the average member endorses the idea that church leaders are not infallible. The problem arises when we get into specifics. Which statements by a GA may we disregard as his own opinion? Does it depend on venue? Most of the members of my ward think that if something appears in the Ensign, it's scripture. That's what they said when I asked them, "What do we consider scripture?" They also think that everything conveyed through church media has the imprimatur of the prophet.

    The main point of my post, however, was about the divide between apologetics, members' beliefs, and church curriculum. For an excellent illustration of this divide, check out R. Gary's recent post on his No Death Before the Fall blog, where he takes FAIR to task for suggesting that the idea of death before the fall is compatible with Mormon doctrine. Apologists like to limit their apologetic liabilities by having a narrow definition of church doctrine. Fine with me, but that narrow definition is not common knowledge among the members, and, unlike Paul, our leaders tend not to flag whether their statements are their own opinions.

  30. I believe the Church was steered in the right direction by a group of very principled and very brave Americans whose activities we call the Civil Rights movement. A few (too few) of these brave Americans were themselves in the Church.

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