Postmodern Defense of Mormonism

Apologetics Philosophy

First of all, let me say that I know very little about postmodernism or postmodern theory. One could argue that not many people know a great deal about post modernism or postmodern theory, since it by definition rejects absolutes. It says that there is no right or wrong, only grey. And some postmodern theorists go into linguistics and how linguistics shape our thinking. I’m grossly simplifying this. I highly recommend any readers who want to know more about this study on their own. It’s a study of how we know what we know.

Some links:
Bob Mccue’s essay on intelligence, mormonism and some postmodern theory.

Wikipedia’s entry on postmodernism

It’s a conundrum. Because if we take a postmodernist look at some historical events, one can no longer prove that something happened or that it was “right” or justifable. Events don’t necessarily happen independently, and we can no longer even agree that an event was good, right or necessary. Postmodernism partially rejects this idea that everything in history was leading up to this moment – that we are the culmination of all the generations before us.

For example, one view of the American westward movement “Manifest Destiny” would be that it was a good thing – Americans/European immigrants had god-given justification to expand to the Pacific Ocean. A postmodernist view of that would be to point out that there were people who already lived in those areas of the country, who had their own societies and religions. The American pioneers were not necessarily better than those inhabitants, and in fact that colonization actually harmed those existing communities. I think the postmodern view would also not necessarily completely condemn those pioneers either – as they were just reacting to their own environment and industrial concerns. (Basically back to that whole notion that there is no right or wrong). And also the notion that societal “spin” is ever present and how things are framed or defined makes the argument.

Exmoron wrote a little about postmodernism in the comments of his last post about DNA.

Which leads me back to trying to comprehend an LDS apologist defense of LDS beliefs through postmodernism.

Can someone explain to me just how one can defend mormonism with postmodern theory? Is it that we don’t necessarily know that JS married other women or other men’s wives? Or that we don’t have the right to judge and say that was wrong? Or that it’s okay to edit out the history because it’s not really useful to our overall narrative and understanding of mormonism?

Again – the very nature of postmodernism rejects adhering to a belief system or religion. Mormonism is a belief system. Mormonism suggests that there is a right way to live, determined by God. It’s like speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth to say – there is no right or wrong (you can’t prove that Joseph Smith married other women because all knowledge is relative) and then say mormonism is true.

21 thoughts on “Postmodern Defense of Mormonism

  1. “Can someone explain to me just how one can defend mormonism [sic] with postmodern theory?”

    Postmodernism is a dialectical method of questioning. It can be used for or against Mormonism. You could use it to argue that the reason that TBM allow others to have religious authority over themselves is because it’s easier than taking individual moral responsibility for our actions against those who don’t mesh well with Mormon theology (e.g. homosexuals).

    It can be used against those calling for change. For instance, you could argue that the angst that liberal Mormons feel over the treatment of those of African descent prior to 1978 in the church is a manifestation of white American guilt and that the individuals who complain about it, do little, if anything to rectify the situation beyond criticizing the leadership of the Mormon Church. How many ex-Mormons would be willing to go and apologize to their African American neighbors for having belonged to an organization that had invidiously discriminated against members of their race?

    Postmodernism doesn’t reject belief systems. It allows for the nonsensical because it accepts the parts of the human experience that science fails to transcend.

  2. My mention of “postmodernism” in my previous post was in reference to this statement by dpc, “I always thought that its interesting that people attack or defend religions. Every religion is a tautology. For believers and non-believers, there is no set of facts under which the religion could be found false (or in the non-believer’s view, true). The only thing that gets people to change seems to be religious or spiritual experiences.”

    While I recognize that dpc was quoting someone, what came across to me was the idea that there is no “authority” out there that serves as the basis for reality. As I understand it, that is the argument of postmodernism – there is no authoritative source of information. Everything is, in a sense, biased and relative. So, postmodernism could argue that the scientific pursuit is actually just the expression of one particular form of methodology that is no better at arriving at truth than any other methodology. Inherent in science is the “belief” that empiricism (which is, in a nutshell – measurement/observation and replication) is some how a better way of arriving at knowledge than is, say, intuition or inspiration or revelation. Additionally, empiricism is biased – it favors certain groups of people while it disadvantages other groups (e.g., non-empiricists). A postmodernist would claim that all of the other methods of arriving at knowledge are just as valid and just as biased.

    How, then, can an apologist use this idea, to defend his/her religion? Well, if there is no “authority” out there, just biased approaches, then no one can claim to authoritatively argue against his religion. In this fashion, the apologist can dismiss the critic with a wave of the hand by saying, “Well, you’re just biased.” or “You have an ax to grind.” or “That’s just sour grapes.” Alternatively, an apologist could claim that science cannot disprove that he “felt” something, and “feeling” that something is true is just as authoritative as “measuring” it using the methods of science. Ergo, feeling is an authoritative way of arriving at “knowledge” and therefore is just as reputable as the scientific method – leading to the conclusion that religion is perfectly valid because the source of “knowledge” for religion is just as good as the source of “knowledge” for science.

    As I see it, it’s basically a way for apologists to change the rules so they favor them. If an apologist can say, “Well, science can’t address the issues I’m dealing with because they are not amenable to scientific analysis,” that gives the apologist a significant advantage in the debate.

    This is my take on it and my experience in discussing these issues with apologists.

    Here’s a good illustration of one of the possible conclusions of this type of thinking when applied to theology:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_Christianity#Non-dogmatic_theology_.28also_known_as_Weak_theology.29

  3. thanks for your comments dpc and exmoron.

    First of all, I’m not trying to attack or defend any religion or method of belief. I’m trying to understand the argument.

    It seems to me that postmodernism is much more than just a method of questioning. Yes, it goes into “how do we know what we know”. Just as exmoron said, it doesn’t favor science or theology – one over the other.

    But I submit that postmodernism doesn’t see itself as an authority on anything.

    With that said, I heard time and again growing up mormon (and can hear from missionaries if I were to call them today) that mormonism is the answer to everything. Following mormonism brings happiness. It is the right way and path.

    Now, from a postmodern perspective, that’s someone’s individual opinion based on their own biased evidence. And if one person wants to follow or believe in a system, that’s their right. You can sit in an LDS meeting house each week and believe whatever you want to believe – particularily if you keep it to yourself.

    What strikes me as incongruous is the evangelical nature of mormonism. With one breath, some mormons may say – this history/doctrine doesn’t exist because everything is relative. You can’t prove anything. History is by nature contradictory.

    Yet with the next breath, mormons send and support missionaries. The sole purpose of these missionaries is to “bring the world his truth”. You can’t say – truth is in the eye of the beholder and science can’t explain everything – and in the next breath say – but we have the truth.

    Mormonism is a very authoritarian religion. The leadership decides what is true and useful. Truth is not relative to each individual member. Sure, each might have their own spiritual experiences – but that’s not what the missionaries are promoting. They request that each investigator read Moroni 10:4 and pray about whether or not these things are true.

    Since dpc brings up the example of SWK’s revelation in 1978, I think that might be a good example of this incongruity. With the defense, since everything is relative, a person could theoretically continue to be mormon and not believe that revelation was divinely inspired.

    But within the LDS organization, there are excommunicatable beliefs. If a member believes in one of these (polygamy, Adam God) and preaches it, they can be excommunicated. But why excommunicate anyone – since nothing is true and everything is relative. Why does it matter if one member has a different belief or method of reasoning than another member? And what does being a member mean anyway – and where did we come up with those terms?

    I really can’t imagine that the leadership wants all the faithful LDS to start questioning the nature of language, the bias of all accounts (including former and current prophets) and the validity of other mormon sects.

    And for the record, I know that there are many mormons and former mormons who will regularily discuss the racist beliefs of LDS Inc prior to 1978 and who may apologize to anyone who will listen that they did belong to that organization and might not have known about those beliefs. The same people might apologize to women or LGBT groups of people for the discrimination that they faced. I’m sickened when I read some of what Brigham Young said in the Journal of Discourses. When I was mormon, I hadn’t read those discourses and didn’t realize he had said that. I’ve repeatedly apologized in the past and also mentioned that I’m not necessarily comfortable with a great deal of these beliefs.

    If current mormons/LDS choose to defend their beliefs to themselves using postmodern theory, that’s their decision. I would just argue that the very nature of mormon hierarchy and structure is opposed to that. And that the nature of attempting to convert another person to a belief system is anathema to postmodernism.

  4. Just be sure you aren’t confusing those who use postmodern arguments with those who vehemently argue for an objective truth (which Mormonism to them represents).

    While I imagine it is possible that some Mormons are opportunistic in their use of, and rejection of postmodern arguments, I think in most cases they are two separate groups of people within the Church.

    For instance, those using postmodernist arguments may not be as big on the orthodox “Mormonism-is-absolute-truth” stance as their fellow members. Likewise, many orthodox Mormons would never think to use postmodern arguments for anything, including defense of Mormonism. Make sure you’re not lumping people together without reason. That’s all I’m saying.

  5. I think I’m going to have to agree with Seth, mostly – only a small number of Mormons even recognize that there is a postmodernist argument to be made. Don’t get me wrong, aerin, I think your point is a great one – there is something very incongruous about individuals who claim there is no authority but then turn around and claim to have authority. But I don’t think I said in my comment that postmodern arguments make sense. On the contrary, using postmodernism to, in essence, defend a variation of modernism (which is what you are decrying) makes absolutely no sense. But I think Seth is right – it is mostly apologists who use the argument, and that is because they recognize they don’t have a lot of evidence to support their claims. So, they must level the playing field by saying, “The evidence I do have (e.g., feelings, beliefs) are just as valid as the evidence against me.”

    Personally, I don’t find postmodern arguments compelling. Like I said in my comments on the other thread, it is a fun thought experiment. But Hellmut was right – postmodernism is fun until you bump into a table. Then reality presents itself. There is a reality out there. Pretending it is relative doesn’t make it so. Postmodern arguments are usually fun, but not very useful.

  6. I disagree. When someone rejects Mormonism because of some ‘rational’ argument or argues that science trumps religion or that science is the only sure route to knowledge (all of which are metaphysical arguments, not scientific ones), then I think that they set themselves up for a post-modern critique because they are living in a world of faith equal to that of Mormonism. If faith is bad when it comes to Mormonism, why shouldn’t it be bad for atheism as well? An axe is equally lethal to the lumberjack as it is to the tree.

    One of the best commentators on the metaphysics of the new atheists is Mary Midgley (who I believe is an agnostic). I recommend “Evolution as a Religion” and “Wickedness”. Her “Science as Salvation” is also good.

  7. p.s. If you’re claiming that atheism is based on “faith”, I’d kind of like to know what definition of faith you’re using. Here are some possible choices:

    * Things which are hoped for, not seen, but which are true (or whatever the exact quote is). I don’t think you would agree atheism fits that one — I’m not too convinced of it myself.

    * Something one believes based on spiritual witness from a divine source. Atheism definitely doesn’t fit that one.

    * Biased, wishful thinking. I don’t think atheism fits that one, at least not always. But I don’t claim that I can assess my own bias 100%, only that I make an make a sincere effort to compensate for my own bias, and that scientific standards of evidence make the most sense to me and appear to yield to most trustworthy results.

    * something else…?

  8. Atheism’s primary disadvantage is that it is in the position of trying to prove a negative: “there is no God.”

    Since there is really no possible way to do that, it really boils down to atheists making faith assertions in the end.

    Agnosticism I can respect (and I imagine that many atheists are, in reality, agnostic and not atheistic), but atheism seems ultimately nonsensical to me. How on earth do you prove there is no God? I’d say the answer is: you don’t.

  9. Seth R. — I’m still wondering what the definition of faith is when you’re talking about “faith assertions.” Also, I have never claimed to prove that God doesn’t exist. All I claim is that — looking at the evidence — God’s non-existence seems far more likely than His existence.

  10. I still don’t think that you can derive any normatives from pure science without involving ideas that are external to the naked facts. Let’s take one example – let’s say a society, via scientific inquiry, discovers that ADD is genetic.

    Now what?

    Do we lock the ADD kids away in sanitoriums? Do we revere them as manifestations of the divine holy spirit and treat them as minor deities? Do we give them cake and ice cream?

    Well, the scientist will have no answer to any of this. The gay-gene issue is the same problem. So it’s genetic. Congratulations. Now what? Do we genetically “cure” the gay gene? Do we isolate all homosexuals in concentration camps and eliminate them, in hopes of eradicating this gene? Do we welcome them into society? Do we allow them to get married?

    Science has absolutely nothing to say about any of these questions. It’s morally neutral. It doesn’t care whether it’s working for Hitler, or the Dali Lama. You simply cannot ever get moral normatives from scientific facts without adding something extra to the mix.

  11. I guess I would define ‘faith’ as you don’t have the whole picture, but to make the narrative a whole, you fill the gaps with things that, cognitively, make you feel most comfortable with your narrative.

    In the same way that over-confident TBMs with their “We have all the truth” swagger about them really annoy me, I get annoyed by atheists who have the same attitude (think Richard Dawkins). Being an atheist does not mean that you have shed prejudice and ignorance and that you know more than others. , just the same as being a Mormon doesn’t mean that you know more than others. This is not an “everything-is-relative, there is no truth” nihilist attitude (although I sympathize with that viewpoint as I believe the name of my blog shows that 🙂 ), but a realization that as humans, we don’t have all the truth. And once you realize how little you know or can be sure of, it’s very humbling.

    Based on how little I know, until I receive some ironclad evidence that God does not exist (based on more than logic and word games) or that Joseph Smith was not a prophet (based on more than some of his actions), when I possess a scintilla of evidence that shows me that God may exist and that Joseph Smith may have been a prophet, why go through all the hassle of leaving a religion, having your named removed and all the angst and alienation that goes along with it? This is especially true because I don’t doubt that I will be equally as clueless outside of the church as I am inside of it. I realize that people will accuse me of falling prey to the ‘better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”-type mentality. It’s much more complicated than that…*sigh*

  12. Chanson, that previous was not addressed to your remarks, BTW.

    To respond, I don’t think the evidence is stronger one way or the other. Now, if you want to talk about whether to believe the Bible, well… of course it’s more unlikely than likely based on science. But that’s a separate issue from challenging God. Neither does it work to attack the way in which people believe in God (a la Hitchens and Dawkins). That simply discredits a system of belief in God, or human practices or even organized religion in general. But the idea of a moving force behind the universe remains untouched. He is always waiting beyond the last theorem.

  13. Seth R — Fine, scientific style reasoning doesn’t always directly apply to many questions of strategy, ethics, and policy.

    I’m serious, though, that I’d like to know what definition of faith you were using when you said atheists were making “faith assertions.” I’m not trying to bait you, I would just like to know what you mean by that.

  14. oh, sorry, I didn’t see that dpc responded to the “definition of faith” question: OK, “I would define ‘faith’ as you don’t have the whole picture, but to make the narrative a whole, you fill the gaps with things that, cognitively, make you feel most comfortable with your narrative” seems like a reasonable definition in this context.

    Re: “In the same way that over-confident TBMs with their “We have all the truth” swagger about them really annoy me, I get annoyed by atheists who have the same attitude (think Richard Dawkins). Being an atheist does not mean that you have shed prejudice and ignorance and that you know more than others. , just the same as being a Mormon doesn’t mean that you know more than others.”

    I don’t think any atheist here has claimed to have a monopoly on truth.

    In an earlier thread you appeared to be claiming that atheism is irrational and that people never arrive at atheism by being convinced by evidence. This is contrary to my experience, and it is the only point I’ve been trying to address. I think it is normal to respond to such an accusation. Note that I am not trying to say that I think theists are foolish or stupid for reaching the conclusions they have reached, nor am I interested in deconverting people. Please see my last comment on that earlier related thread.

    I almost wish I had not gotten involved in this debate, however, because it appears to be interfering with what — to me — is the point of MSP: to foster constructive civil discussion on subjects of common interest for all cultural Mormons.

  15. chanson:

    I agree…the whole theism/atheism debate is really difficult to talk about without misunderstandings and stepping on each other toes.

  16. dpc — Good, I hope we can agree to disagree on this point, and not let it stand in the way of productive discussion of other topics. (On a related note, please see If there’s no solution, there’s no problem.)

    To be honest, the more I look at this debate, the more I get the impression that what you’d really like is for Dawkins to admit that he overstated his case. Well maybe he did. I don’t know, I didn’t read his book. I do know that it is a subject of heated debate within the atheist community (I saw a very interesting recent article about this point here).

    Anyway, I can’t pronounce on Dawkins either way, because — as I said — I have not read his book. Just please keep in mind that atheists aren’t some sort of monolitic block who all think alike.

  17. I don’t think that it makes sense to say that God is waiting behind the last theorem. Anything like God would be such a complex creature that it cannot be the beginning of the creation.

    Your statement is, of course, correct that one cannot prove a negative but then we also cannot know that Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster are not God.

    By the way, Dawkins does not say that there is no God. He says that the chance of God is miniscule. Believers find him arrogant because he insists that advocates justify their claims in terms of reason.

    The arrogance accusation actually amounts to an admission of weakness. It is an expression of frustration when people are unable to keep up with Dawkins.

  18. well.

    I didn’t mean to generalize about mormons – and obviously there are many different people who consider themselves mormon who have radically different beliefs.
    Likewise with atheists.

  19. First of all, I don’t think that postmodernism rejects the scientific method. I think it just changes the conversation. I think the theories call into question the nature of consensus (whether or not it’s valid, whether or not consensus addresses new ideas/theories, etc.) Kuhn specifically talks about Newtonian physics vs. Einsteinian physics – he was the person to coin the phrase “paradigm shift”. In defense of science and the scientific method, obviously the new theories eventually are heard and taught. So change is not inevitable, while theories are being debated it could be unstable.

    In that sense, it seems to me that most former mormon/post mormon writers can be more postmodern than those who argue for one absolute truth. Most seem willing (to me) to examine new data and ways of thinking. They might be placing those theories or suggestions under scrutiny. Even Lyotard acknowledges that within some systems, it’s necessary to make assumptions – just in order to function. I think we can all agree that there are things that can’t be explained.

    And however a person decides to examine (or not examine) their own belief system – it’s not my place to judge. I can see both arguments – whether or not I agree with either side. Whether or not metal existed in the pre-columbian americas, or if it was just something else that was called “metal”. One person can take that evidence and make their own conclusions. Another person can seek additional information – and be comfortable with that explanation. I agree with chanson, the questions of life are hard.

    In my experience, those LDS who argue for absolute truth are much less fluid. Some are unwilling to even examine the terms they use, unwilling to examine a new point of view that is not supported by the LDS leadership. Fawn Brodie’s _No Man Knows My History_, for example, has been villified and is regularly denounced as anti-mormon. I’ve read it. I can’t fathom why it would be considered anti-mormon. The only thing I can think of is that it suggests that Joseph Smith had other wives, which the SLC LDS church doesn’t deny. Or _An Insider’s View of mormon origins_ by Grant Palmer. Here is a scholar who suggests a new point of view (that the book of mormon might not be divinely inspired). But he is censured by the LDS leadership.

    So that’s what doesn’t make sense to me. My limited understanding of postmodernism is not that it negates science or scientific method. But that it attempts to reconcile different points of view. It’s not saying that we should simply return to a time when humanity watched the eclipses to determine the will of God (not that anyone was suggesting that).

    Had to dust off my _from modernism to postmodernism_ anthology for some of this. Sadly, google books only has the first fourteen pages of Lyotard’s _The Postmodern Condition_ on preview – without his thoughts on science and consensus.

  20. A couple thoughts…

    dpc said, “When someone rejects Mormonism because of some ‘rational’ argument or argues that science trumps religion or that science is the only sure route to knowledge (all of which are metaphysical arguments, not scientific ones), then I think that they set themselves up for a post-modern critique because they are living in a world of faith equal to that of Mormonism. If faith is bad when it comes to Mormonism, why shouldn’t it be bad for atheism as well? An axe is equally lethal to the lumberjack as it is to the tree.” chanson was right to call you on your definition of faith. I’d like to know how atheists rely on faith? (you may be able to make an argument here, but it’s a weak and tangential argument that won’t support your claim)

    dpc also said, “I guess I would define ‘faith’ as you don’t have the whole picture, but to make the narrative a whole, you fill the gaps with things that, cognitively, make you feel most comfortable with your narrative.” This is called “god of the gaps” in atheist rhetoric – the idea that god continues to fill in the gaps that science has not reached. That’s a fine definition of faith, but it does not make faith necessary for life.

    dpc said, “Based on how little I know, until I receive some ironclad evidence that God does not exist (based on more than logic and word games) or that Joseph Smith was not a prophet (based on more than some of his actions), when I possess a scintilla of evidence that shows me that God may exist and that Joseph Smith may have been a prophet, why go through all the hassle of leaving a religion, having your named removed and all the angst and alienation that goes along with it?” I interpret this as saying, “I’m going to remain a Mormon until someone proves a negative.” If that is what it will take, you’ll always be a Mormon. No sense really debating with you then; you don’t accept rational arguments, just irrational ones. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to offend or imply that you are irrational. But your assertion is completely irrational. You are saying that the only evidence you will accept is evidence that will never arrive. That doesn’t seem to be intellectually honest to me. I would go back to being a Mormon in a heart beat if: (1) God came down to the earth and told me and thousands of independent observers that Mormonism was true. I’m willing to consider evidence; you don’t seem to be willing to do so.

    seth said, “Atheism’s primary disadvantage is that it is in the position of trying to prove a negative: “there is no God.”” This is a strawman. Most atheists make no claim against the existence of god. A-theism means “without belief in god” not the “denial of the existence of a god.” That said, atheists can take multiple positions within this realm. There is a distinction made between hard and soft atheism. Strong atheists claim certain gods do not exist. Weak atheists lack a belief in certain gods.

    I’m guessing you are, in fact, a strong atheist in regard to some gods – e.g., Zeus, Apollo, Thor, etc. You are absolutely convinced those gods don’t exist. So am I. But you are also probably a weak atheist toward millions of gods – e.g., the many incarnations of the Hindu god(s). You don’t straight out deny that they exist, but you don’t believe in them in large part because you have never considered them as possible deities that warrant your belief. It is in this sense that all children are born atheists – they are born without belief in god/s/esses.

    An atheist who understands what he/she believes/disbelieves will readily admit that there could be a god or some form of higher power out there. It absolutely is possible. Every notable atheist I know (including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) admits that there could be a god. But because they are first and foremost skeptics who do not believe until they have evidence to believe, they choose not to believe in any gods. That is atheism (technically a combination of strong and weak; strong denial of the absurd gods, weak approach to the possibility of a god). Universal strong atheism is impossible to defend logically because you cannot prove a negative (at least, not easily).

    Claiming atheists have the burden of proof in this regard is also a logical fallacy as you are shifting the burden of proof from those making the extraordinary claim to those who are skeptical of the extraordinary claim. Atheists don’t have to prove that god does not exist. It’s the theists who have to prove their supernatural entity exists as they are the ones making the extraordinary claim.

    Seth, science may be morally neutral (I don’t necessarily buy that), but religion is not required for morality. Claiming that science does not address morality is tangential to any argument about morality. The question is: Can one be moral without being religious? The obvious answer is a resounding: Yes!

    Seth, you claim that god is always going to be the “uncaused cause.” You do realize that this argument is fallacious?
    Assertion 1): Everything requires a cause (this is an assumption, and not a valid one at that).
    Assertion 2): God is the first cause. Assertion 3): God has no cause.

    If 1 is true, 3 cannot be true. If 3 is true, 1 cannot be. The logic does not work.

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