It was April 12, 2017. My friend Kirk shared with me a book he has been reading titled ‘Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind’ on Audible by Yuval Harari. Kirk had mentioned interesting statistics on mortality rates of children/infants in the royal bloodlines in the 15th and 16th centuries. I thought it sounded interesting. My mindset as I began was an expectation of finding novel facts without much substance, but I found the book to be very interesting, exciting, and refreshing. I begin to listen and consume. After one day I had surpassed 7 hours of listening. I could not get enough. His writing style really spoke to me with its simplicity and frankness.
The author, Harari, attempts to provide a reason as to why the species sapien from the genus homo (homo sapien means wise man) prevailed over the 14 other species (definitive numbers vary, however it’s safe to say there are more than 10 distinct species that come from the genus homo). The sapien’s ability to think critically about abstract matters, gossip with it’s newly formed language, and cooperate in large numbers are main reason they (we) not only survived but thrived. As population density began to increase and societies became more complex there was a need for a collective belief system in order to cooperate effectively. This necessitated the use of myths and fictions.
I distinctly remember where I was during a walk I went on while listening to the book on my headphones. I was rounding the corner of the cul-de-sac near my home. The corner that faces the junior high. The grass was still in pre-spring yellow and the sky was cloudy overhead. That moment changed the course of my life.
This large-scale cooperation that sapiens were pioneering sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago can be described through an example from the book. Peugeot is a European car manufacturer founded in 1810. It began as a bicycle builder in the city of Sochaux France. Peugeot was officially a company when a lawyer drafted papers and submitted them to the French government to be recognized as a company. Today they employ close to 200,000 people and recently posted $14 billion in revenue in 2017. If Peugeot stopped producing cars would they still be a company? If they fired all their employees, would they still be a company? If they had no money, were not manufacturing cars, and didn’t have any employees, would they still be a company? Yes. Yes, because we hold the idea that the government still recognizes it as an entity because it was filed by the agreed upon lawyer with the agreed upon paperwork back in 1810. It is a myth, collectively believed in, that maintains order.
This idea of shared fiction is what led the sapiens out of the isolated hunter gatherer groups and into larger villages and beyond. The introduction of fiction propelled them. We are able to take imagined things, that is, things that are made up in our minds, things without physical substance, and motivate large groups of people to believe in that imagined reality.
Think about the US dollar. Money is imagination, governments are imagination, companies are imagination, America is imagination, religion is imagination. They exist because large groups of people believe collectively, and in this unique way they are real. Why? Because my neighbor believes in it, and I believe because my neighbor believes that I believe. These aren’t just imaginations, these have very real life consequences. Simply think of the consequences that followed from the belief in the ideal of the constitution of the United States. These imaginations led large numbers of strangers to, “cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” (Harari, 27)
I ask myself, “Is religion made up?” I begin this inner dialogue with myself. Certainly many of earth’s religions are made up. On one end of the religious spectrum there are many cults started by eccentric leaders that were able to build a following of devout followers that gave time, money, and important relationships to their respective cult leader. Moving to more mainstream religions, Islam was started by a professed prophet that was trying to make sense of the world, had visions, wrote scripture, and had the luck of starting hundreds of years ago giving it space to grow uninterrupted by reason, science, or other religions. It also had the benefit of being blessed by the state which allowed it to spread by conquer. Judaism and Christianity (with the exception of Mormonism, or so I told myself) each had pieces of a shared myth or fiction and benefited from conquer, oppression, and lack of science. Mormonism is quick to point out that truth (spiritual truth) is found in all religions throughout the world, Mormonism just has the fullness of all truth. Then I ask myself, “Is my religion imagination?”
Over the course of the next couple weeks I start to really spend time thinking about this idea. I begin to point my focus inward to my deeply held beliefs. I then direct my thoughts to the leaders of the church. The top leaders of the church, the apostles and general authorities, had to have a rock solid belief, a belief cusping on objective truth (in my estimation). If this is not true it would be an insane deception on the part of so many people. Joseph Smith, and many of people around him, would have to be in on the deception. That can’t be, can it? Those thoughts really had me losing it. It didn’t make sense that the deception would run that deep. Orthodox Mormons would have to fully believe in it all, even the seemingly ‘prophets seers and revelators’ would not have any doubts. They would be 100% sure of their calling. They wouldn’t let doubt seep in as that would be sign of lack of faith and stumbling into Satan’s temptations. What about the angelic visitations, the visions, the speaking in tongues, the miraculous healings, the Book of Mormon, the Witnesses, the heritage of so many generations? The possibility that the Mormon church was not the professed only true church was now fixated in my mind.
The book Sapiens goes deep into evolutionary biology and brings history to near modernity. Religion is then put on the altar of history. When did Adam and Eve appear? Did Jesus die for all the genus homo? What if there were multiple species of humans at the time of Jesus? Would he have died for them too? Or would he die for just the sapiens and not the neanderthals? What happens when we colonize Mars? Will Jesus save those people too? I try to reconcile my cognitive dissonance.
At what point did God say, “alrighty… everything before this point doesn’t matter until right NOW, poof, Adam and Eve you’re here. All the death before doesn’t matter. Now my spirit children can get bodies, let the Plan of Salvation begin!” How does the church reconcile evolutionary biology with Adam and Eve and Jesus dying for all mankind when there is clearly tens of thousands of years of human evolution to account for? Also, church doctrine is clear that there was no death before the Garden of Eden. That the Garden of Eden was in Missouri not northern Africa where scientist have proven the earliest sapiens came from. How do we reconcile enormous scientific evidence with conflicting religious doctrine? Cognitive dissonance seems to be the winner in this confusion.
Mormon cognitive dissonance is usually described as a shelf that is filled with unanswered questions that will have to wait until the afterlife to get clarity. I like to think of it as a box. Once the lid to that box is opened, once the idea that the church of your childhood may not be true, once the subtle thought that your entire world-view could be imagined, it is almost impossible to close without significant inquiry.
Wishing to investigate the church’s stance on evolution I went to a trusted source, lds.org. I knew at some level there would not be a great answer, but I wanted to at least read something like, “The church does not have an official stance on evolutionary biology. We believe that a loving heavenly father created a plan for his children to return to his presence that included a beginning of his earthly children Adam and Eve.” That is not what I found. As I dug deeper into what prophets and apostles of the church had commented in reference to evolutionary biology I was profoundly disturbed.
There were things as soft as:
“I remember when I was a college student there were great discussions on the question of organic evolution. I took classes in geology and biology and heard the whole story of Darwinism as it was then taught. I wondered about it. I thought much about it. But I did not let it throw me, for I read what the scriptures said about our origins and our relationship to God. Since then I have become acquainted with what to me is a far more important and wonderful kind of evolution. It is the evolution of men and women as the sons and daughters of God, and of our marvelous potential for growth as children of our Creator.” —President Gordon B. Hinckley, “God Hath Not Given Us the Spirit of Fear,” Ensign, Oct. 1984
But others were so very opposed to the idea like this one:
I will state frankly and positively that I am opposed to the present biological theories and the doctrine that man has been of the earth for millions of years. I am opposed to the present teachings in relation to the age of the earth which declare that the earth is millions of years old. Naturally, since I believe in modern revelation, I cannot accept these so-called scientific teachings, for I believe them to be in conflict with the simple and direct word of the Lord that has come to us by divine revelation.
I regret that modern education in this country and largely in other countries, is dominated today by men holding these views. Having said this, permit me to say that I am not going to engage in a controversy over these so-called scientific views. I think it must be admitted, after all is said, that they are only theories. It is my purpose merely to call your attention to some of the revelations from the Lord and ask you to carefully consider them, to give me your explanation and show me how you can harmonize them with your evolutionary theories. I will quote a few passages that have been accepted as doctrine by the body of the Church.
Moses 3:7 And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also…
Doctrine & Covenants 77:6 Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.
2nd Nephi 2: 22-23 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
According to this [2 Ne 2:22-23]–and it must have been approved by the Lord or it would not be in the Book of Mormon–there was no death of any living creature before the fall of Adam! Adam’s mission was to bring to pass the fall and it came upon the earth and living things throughout all nature. Anything contrary to this doctrine is diametrically opposed to the doctrines revealed to the Church! If there was any creature increasing by propagation before the fall, then throw away the Book of Mormon, deny your faith, the Book of Abraham and the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants! -President Joseph Fielding Smith Answers to Gospel Questions 5:7.
As I read quote after quote from past church leaders there grew a pattern. The theory of evolution is just that, a theory and any ‘so-called’ scientist is categorically wrong. Science was further discredited with lines like these:
added doctrines (in reference to the sealed part of the Book of Mormon that is yet to be revealed) will completely destroy the whole theory of organic evolution as it is now almost universally taught in the halls of academia. (Bruce R. McConkie “The Bible: A Sealed Book” CES Symposium publication, c. 1981.
Do not take a scientific principle, so-called, and try to make the gospel conform to it. Take the gospel for what it is, and, insofar as you can, make other things conform to it, and if they do not conform to it, forget them. Forget them; do not worry. They will vanish away eventually. (Bruce R. McConkie, “Foolishness of Teaching,” BYU, 1981).
Time has only proven the reconciliation of Mormon theology with current scientific knowledge of evolution to be a menace. A prophet of god says that if there were any species that existed (died) before Adam and Eve then “throw away your faith.” The Doctrine and Covenants explicitly describes the earth as being 7,000 temporal years old. The only way out of this predicament is for the church to create a subset of Mormon Science or allow faithful theories to percolate. It would be like having Muslim Calculus or Jewish Physics. Or they could say, “we were wrong, sometimes we get it wrong.” But, from my experience, they do not do those things.
I have noticed in recent years Mormon theology crawling toward mainstream evangelical Christianity in an attempt to minimize any doctrines that could potentially be problematic. However, on some of these major doctrines they cannot stand to budge without denouncing the teachings of past prophets. Prophets that are the mouthpiece of the Lord. The prophet Wilford Woodruff taught “the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.” (General Conference address 1890)
At this point, I was not really beginning to struggle with the idea that the church may be a fraud. I had faced lots and lots of opposition both in discussions with people of various religions (for 2 years in the belt buckle of the Bible belt, Dallas Texas, as a missionary) and in my countless hours studying the history of the church. This time, for whatever reason, it just didn’t add up. At this point there was the convenient conditioned response waiting to be uttered. However, I was no longer satisfied with:
- Just have faith
- God’s ways are not man’s ways
- We will know in the end
- Some things are not pertinent to our salvation, focus on Jesus
- Even prophets can make mistakes, they are just men
- The reason it’s confusing is because Satan is tricking you
- You have not prayed enough, or are not righteous enough, haven’t gone to the temple enough to receive a spiritual witness that would satisfy your inquiry
- What about your heritage?
- Jim, the accountant down the street believes, I respect him, so it must be true
- You are not reading the Book of Mormon closely enough
- If you could just sit down with an apostle all these questions would be resolved
These are the surface rebuttals to challenges of faith. Most of these responses have been said to me. The mindset of those that respond in this manner above remind me of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and its description of the word crimestop. A word used by the controlling party to exercise dominion over its people’s minds:
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical (cause harm) to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity… orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body.
It was May 2017, and the story of the imagined myth of Peugeot unlocked a piece of my consciousness. There were many more locks that needed keys.