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On Really Smart People and the Gospel

Growing up in 1990s Orem the figure of Hugh Nibley held a sort of symbolic significance that was greater than the sum of his scholarly parts. The not-so-subtle subtext of the myriad anecdotes about his prodigious memory and learning is “see, if this really smart person believes it, then there must be some really good answers to whatever issues people have.” Often, Nibley was a sort of placeholder for people who didn’t have the time (or resources, especially in pre-Internet days for people who couldn’t drive to a good university library and use their card catalog) to investigate for themselves. 

Nowadays, I feel like we see the converse of this online. A common meme (in its proper sense) in some corners of the Internet is that people who know the True Story about Church history (or biblical studies, or what have you) have to ultimately lapse into some sort of symbolic belief in the Church if they don’t leave it altogether, because nobody who really knows their history could actually believe this stuff. (As a sidebar, I sense that some use Adam Millerism as a last-ditch attempt to preserve some of their Mormonism when they’ve lost faith in the concrete particulars. That’s not to say anything about Miller personally, I have no idea what he actually believes, just a comment on how some have used him.)

This narrative has a fairly strong hold on some, and is one reason, I suspect, that there is a certain segment of the Internet (and one influencer in particular) who seems obsessed with demonstrating against all evidence that Richard Bushman, for example, doesn’t actually believe in gold plates. We see some of this same sentiment when Richard Dawkins implied in The God Delusion that Gregor Mendel didn’t actually believe in God, and was just a monk to get research funds. However, unlike belief in God, the idea that no reasonable, smart person would believe in God or religion is easily falsifiable. The great mathematician Ramanujan, for example, who is in the running for smartest person ever, was a sincerely devoted true believer to his local hometown Hindu Goddess, and there are other examples of true believers with prodigious intellects (Leibniz, Godel, William Phillips, in our own world Henry Eyring, Harvey Fletcher, the list goes on). 

Some people try to invoke the “appeal to ridicule” to specific belief systems, where the point isn’t so much that they are simply irrational but that they are “silly.” In my experience, most arguments that rely on “silliness” instead of carefully and logically addressing a steel-manned version of their argument, are rather vacuous and ephemeral, and, to be hypocritical for a moment, are often used by some bro in his mother’s basement trying to sound smart.

What sounds silly is entirely culturally dependent. We see this in the discourse about Joseph Smith and the seerstones. The idea that he used two seerstones (Urim and Thummim) isn’t objectively any more silly than the idea that he used a third seerstone (or as my brother sarcastically pointed out, “he used a third magic rock! That’s a bridge too far! That’s 50% more magic rocks!”). As we Latter-day Saints are usually quick to point out, religious beliefs that seem silly in one context (e.g. totemic beliefs, “magic underwear! Har har!”) are very “normal” in other contexts. Overall, silliness isn’t a good guide for whether something is valid.  

Still, that is not to say that some ideas or belief systems aren’t irrational, but the idea that reasonable, smart people don’t sometimes believe in unreasonable things is an undergirding premise of the  “no reasonable person would believe that” framework that is simple false. A lot of smart people people silly things, that’s called bounded rationality. For example: 

I really don’t think that young earth creationism is a reasonable belief, and I’m sympathetic to the view that such believers are either undereducated or have cognitive biases (like we all have to some degree) that are influencing their ability to put the pieces together. That doesn’t mean that they’re stupid in general, and frankly at this rate I’d prefer to have the average evangelical young earth creationist as a daughter-in-law than the average New Atheist.

The existence of demonstrably sophisticated, intelligent, and knowledgeable people who actually do believe at most opens up a space for belief in its very early stages, but it doesn’t demonstrate its validity. There are small pieces of our belief space as Latter-day Saints that are critiqueable or at least analyzable using the tools of academia, but when you really get down to it there isn’t a lot of disagreement on the very technical particulars between a true believer and a critic who both received the same training–not a lot of Latter-day Saint professionals believe in the equivalent of the aether or Satan hiding dinosaur bones, despite some corners of the Internet trying to paint some believing scholars as such, and the disagreement mostly comes once you’ve stepped outside the agreed-upon methodologies and into the bigger picture. 

More to the point, there really isn’t anything in the General Conference gospel that is demonstrably untrue (as a sidebar, the existence of disagreements in a field about whether the other side is making any sense at all, such as continental philosophy, does not bode well for the validity of the field as a whole). By the time anybody has interpreted the myriad web of evidences for and against something as vast as the gospel that covers so many domains of human knowledge, combined with their own sentiment and experiences, they’ve run everything through so much individually calibrated software that is subject to cognitive biases and preferences that you can’t take somebody’s final end result as evidence of anything, even if they have more powerful hardware.  

The “you have to know for yourself” mantra in the Church is a cliche, but that’s because it’s so vital when we realize the problems of trusting in the arm of flesh, whether for intellectual or spiritual matters (although for some intellectual domains we kind of have to trust in the arm of expert flesh, since it’s not reasonable to expect an individual to have enough casual knowledge in a subject to know for themselves). For example, I’ll admit to having some prurient interest as to whether Thomas Hales, who’s in the running as the smartest person with a Latter-day Saint background, is a TBM, (and no, I’m not going to take a rando in the comments telling me he’s not as evidence of anything), but my personal belief in the veracity of the gospel does not hinge at all on whether he, or any other scholar, is or not, because he has his biases, I have mine, and at the end of the day we have to decide for ourselves based on the data and our own experience. Another person who is in the running for smartest person from a Mormon background, Kip Throne has stated “There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God, ranging from an abstract humanist God to a very concrete Catholic or Mormon God. There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God.” There’s clearly something more than just raw intellect involved in the decision to believe, and neither the presence of super smart believers, nor their absence, should have an effect on a mature testimony developed from one’s own study and experience with the divine. 

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