Testimony of Joseph C Smith
I was born on the evening of the twenty seventh of June, the anniversary date of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and possessing the same surname was named Joseph. Having been born after more than a decade of childlessness, my birth was considered to be an answer to prayer. The Old Testament parallels were not lost on my parents.
Not only have I possessed a deep and thorough knowledge of Mormon doctrine, I have studied other religions and have read widely in the history of early Christianity. I at one time possessed an extensive library of the apostolic fathers and used that knowledge as a missionary and in teaching the investigators class. I think that I rightly could be considered to have been a Mormon intellectual.
My passion for truth and reason was first motivated by the belief in the church of my childhood where authorities such as B. H. Roberts and James Talmage proclaimed that true religion and science could be reconciled, and we sang hymns containing lines such as "Then say what is truth? Tis the last and the first, for the limits of time it steps o'er.," and "Truth is reason; truth eternal tells me I've a mother there." As it turns out, the pursuit of truth is a two edged sword that can cut both ways. It has now served to sever the link between faith and reason.
"Ex-Mormons Scholars Testify" has been created in response to the site "Mormon Scholars Testify." I think that both websites could be better named by substituting the word "Intellectuals" for the word "Scholars." If the scholarship is not related specifically to questions at issue, it is irrelevant, and educated critical thinking is not limited to professional educators. Academics have no monopoly on truth, clarity of thought, or even common sense. As an ex-bishop, early post-Mormon, and professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia, I have been invited to post the story of the intellectual journey of my wife and myself that led to our request to have our names removed from the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In contemplating whether or not to break my silence and participate in this struggle for the minds of those now deeply troubled by the flood of information available on the Web relating to the Church and its history, I examined "Mormon Scholars Testify" and noted with interest the testimony of Thomas Rogers, a professor emeritus from the Brigham Young University. Since our paths had crossed in the past, an account of our story in contrast with his would explain why I think I can make a contribution to help those still struggling with many of the troubling issues haunting Mormon intellectuals.
My wife, Lois, and I met Tom and Merriam Rogers and became close friends in 1960 during the short time when both Tom and I were enrolled in graduate studies at Yale University. We both came from strong LDS families. My father was a patriarch and my mother was organist for many years in the Cardston temple. We both had served missions. We both were married in the temple to equally dedicated active Latter Day Saints. Lois was also a returned missionary. Shortly after our return to Vancouver I was ordained bishop of the Vancouver First Ward, and Tom went on eventually to become a Mission President and patriarch.
Tom, among his many accomplishments, is one of the Church's leading dramatists. I saw Tom once more, some time in the nineteen eighties when he visited Vancouver. At that time he gave me a copy of his collection of plays entitled God's Fools: Plays of Mitigated Conscience. The first two of the four plays reflect the tension between the pursuit of truth and obedience to authority, a dichotomy that Mormon intellectuals face today. What does one do when the search for truth and the dictates of conscience come in direct conflict with the prescriptions of the leaders of the Church? These two plays concern two Latter-Day Saints, living in different centuries, faced with a conflict between their conscience and express instructions from Church leaders. Both were excommunicated by the Church, both were executed by civil authority, and both were posthumously restated to Church membership.
The first play in the collection was entitled Hübener, and is a dramatization of the story of Helmuth Hübener (1925 - 1942), who, in conflict with the Church policy to submit to civil authority wrote and distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets in Germany. In the last, and only surviving letter written by the seventeen year old he wrote, "I know that God lives and He will be the final Just Judge in this matter...." The second play is entitled Fire in the Bones and portrays the struggle of conscience of John D. Lee when ordered by Church authorities to participate in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Fire in the Bones was based on Juanita Brooks superb 1950 history, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and her 1961 biography, John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat. When faced with the possibility of excommunication Juanita Brooks responded to her publishers, "I do not want to be excommunicated from my church for many reasons, but if that is the price that I must pay for intellectual honesty, I shall pay it --- I hope without bitterness."
Helmuth was a highly intelligent German Latter-day Saint teen-ager whose mother and grand parents were members of the Hamburg Branch of the Church. In 1935 the Nazis banned the Boy Scout movement and Helmuth was forced to replace scouting with the Hitler Youth. While most members of his branch were either apolitical or anti-Nazi, the branch president, Arthur Zander, was a fervent member of the party. Helmuth was deeply troubled when the branch president forbade Solomon Schwartzes, a Mormon Jew, from attending services. While clandestinely listening to the BBC shortwave Helmuth came to the full realization of the nature of Nazi aggression and the fact that Nazi propaganda as to the progress of the war was substantially a collection of lies.
As the clerk to the LDS District Presidency he had access to the mimeograph machine and wrote and duplicated highy effictive leaflets attacking Hitler and the Nazi accounts of the war, which, with the help of Rudolf Wobbe and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, two other Mormon teenagers whom he recruited, were distributed throughout the city. As they expanded their small resistance movement they were eventually denounced, and arrested. Hübner was the youngest opponent of the Third Reich to be executed. He was sentence to death for treason and beheaded by guillotine at the age of seventeen. Wobbe and Schnibbe were sentenced to prison and survived the war. Both eventually emigrated to Utah.
In postwar Germany these three young teenagers are considered heroes along with a handful of older college students known as the White Rose movement, several of whom also were guillotined. The story of these courageous youthful heroes stands out starkly in contrast to the German public as a whole and has inspired plays, novels, and the 1983 movie, The White Rose. The motion picture, Truth and Treason, is now in production based on Karl-Heinz Schnibbe's book, When Truth Was Treason, edited by Blaire Holmes and Alan Keele.
Roger's play, Hübener, was premiered in 1976 to wide acclaim and great box office success. One would think that the Church would have taken great pride in such young heroes, but not so. Tom told me during his visit to Vancouver that the Church authorities had requested him to desist from any further productions of the play or publications on the subject of Hübner. Tom agreed to the ban on the condition that he be allowed to include it in the collected publication of his plays, a condition to which the Church agreed. The excuse given for shutting the play down, that it might encourage members of the Church in communist Eastern Europe to follow their example, seems pathetic at best. With the fall of the iron curtain, the play has since been revived without protest as the original excuse given for the ban would no longer be applicable.
When truth constitutes treason is an issue for all secular and bureaucratic institutions maintained by ideology and hierarchical authority. When truth constitutes apostasy is an issue for all religions that are justified in terms of papal infallibility, sacred texts, or divine revelation. When truth threatens the foundation of any institution or bureaucracy the appeal is made to compliance with authority. The new generation of leaders of the Soviet Union chose truth and the system disintegrated. The old leaders of China chose authority over truth and thus maintain the continued existence of the Communist Party now administering a system of state controlled capitalism.
The Mormon Church would eventually collapse if the search for truth were allowed free reign because the mythic story is too close in time to the actual history to survive unscathed. The era of Evidence and Reconciliation within Mormonism is at an end. Since Darwin the myth that true science and true religion are never in conflict can no longer be maintained. By excommunicating dissidents who wish to explore the issues troubling Mormon intellectuals, the Church is doing what any bureaucratic institution and ruling elite must do to maintain the institution. Nevertheless while authority and conscience may be mitigated, authority should never be allowed to be the final arbiter of truth unless the authority is infallible on the evidence. No such authority can be found to exist.
The conflict between conscience and authority will always haunt religious institutions as is exemplified with the crisis facing the Catholic Church concerning the sexual-molestation by priests of children. Dichotomies between conscience and authority have haunted members of the LDS Church ever since Joseph Smith introduced the practice and doctrine of polygamy. Beginning in the late fifties a series of issues relating to racial inequality, feminism, sexual identity, and abortion have resulted in crises of conscience for many Latter-Day Saints, and the attempts of the Church to eliminate or suppress discussion concerning an ever increasing number of historical sensitive issues have forced members to choose between authority and the pursuit of truth. Tom and Merriam Rogers, probably with mitigated conscience, and possibly as one of what he describes as "God's Fools," chose authority, rising to the position of Patriarch and the first president of the new Russian Mission. Lois and I chose conscience and the pursuit of truth.
A few years ago a young close relative sent me her testimony in the form of a letter. She included a copy of an article written by a prominent LDS businessman entitled "Influences in my Life" from a locally compiled collection of experiences of faith. In this article he relates how he met and married a Mormon girl whose parents agreed to the marriage "because they were convinced that someday I would seek membership in that church." He went on to describe how he came to know many young missionaries, and added, "but I must honestly say that I was not too greatly impressed with these young men. Too few of them could actually carry on an intelligent discussion with respect to their beliefs. It was not sufficient for them to tell me in a convincing manner that they had a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and that they knew that what they taught was the doctrine of Christ here on this earth. My attitude was negative. I thought, 'prove it.'"
His account then goes on to describe what took place after he moved to Vancouver.
Then a young returned-missionary by the familiar name of Joseph Smith started to teach the investigators class, and I was invited to attend. Here was a young man who was preparing his lessons for 10 - 12 hours or more each week. Here is a man who forced me to study if I didn't want to appear foolish in some of our discussions. We studied A Marvelous Work and A Wonder by LeGrand Richards. With my wife's assistance he organized cottage meetings at our house... The sheer logic of Elder Richard's book and the way it was presented to me by the young missionary Joe Smith made me realize that here indeed was a way of life and a philosophy that I wanted. I found out that these young missionaries did know their religion, and that they had a message for anyone who didn't have a negative attitude.
The following is the text of the letter I wrote in return to the young relative who so fervently bore her testimony in her letter that accompanied the account of an experience of faith. It is the story of our crisis of conscience that can be contrasted with the testimony of Thomas Rogers on the website "Mormon Scholars Testify."
Your inclusion of the "Influences in my Life" by *** has brought back vividly to my memory the young elder Joseph Smith of whom *** had written. I am no longer that dedicated Latter-Day Saint. I am now a very different person. I am an academic and a teacher, and I am still good at what I do, only now I am a committed atheist, as is Lois, and are our three children, and my two brothers and their spouses and children to varying degrees. At times circumstances lead to people making radical changes in their lives at a specific point, and in one sense they remake themselves in that the transition is so profound that it is like one has led two lives, one coming to an end and the other starting.
The inclusion of "Influences in my Life" by *** came through to me like a challenge or a question, the question being, "What ever happened to that young Mormon returned missionary who had such a profound and positive effect on a respected and hardheaded business man, and possibly other people as well?" I have no wish to undermine or weaken in anyway your own faith. (Not that I think that I could as you have expressed in your letter a deep, sincere, and passionate testimony which is probably immune to arguments even if I wished to make them, which I don't). So I will not go into the questions and issues that had led us to request that our names be removed from the records of your church. Since I do wish to respond to the challenge presented by the inclusion of the piece by *** I think that possibly a biographical explanation would be more appropriate to help you understand what led to the changes in our lives. After all we are still family and care about one another.
First however let me say that I have no particular bitterness against the Mormon Church. Nor do I in anyway regret my Mormon upbringing. I have never gone out of my way to attack the Church or undermine the faith of members outside of the family. In fact one of my colleagues has been a member for many years and he is well aware of my background in his church, but I have never had a single discussion with him about the church. My feelings about the LDS church are no different than they are about any religion. My opposition is to religion in general. I know a substantial number of people who have left the Mormon Church, but not a single one of those I know, to my knowledge has joined any other church. For most of us ex-Mormons the choice has always been between Mormonism and atheism. So all I wish to do is to give you a short account of the events that led to Lois, myself, and our children leaving the Mormon Church.
Lois and I were living in New Haven Connecticut in 1961 where I was taking graduate studies in the Faculty of Law of Yale University. As you probably are well aware at that time people of African descent were not given full status in the Church in that the males could not hold the priesthood and neither male nor female could go through the temple. This "curse" was often explained as being the result of them not having been valiant in the pre-existence and when they were born they were born through the seed of Cain carrying the curse in the form of a dark skin.
When we were at Yale the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Martin Luther King was speaking and people of every faith were marching against the injustices that the Afro-American people were suffering. But where was my Church? It was part of the problem and not the solution. Racial prejudice is a terrible thing. To judge people as good or bad on the bases of the color of their skin is simply wrong. In the mid-sixties there was a Mormon Journal published by academics out of Stanford, called Dialogue. In it a person by the name of Armand Mauss wrote an article defending the Church's practice of treating people of African descent as a cursed people not entitled to the full benefits of membership. Back then I wrote the following letter, which was published along with a number of others responding to Mauss' article.
I am deeply touched by Armand Mauss' plea to our critics to "get off our backs." It is most unfair of them, merely because we claim to be the true church of Christ to expect us to "Go...into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature."
How prejudiced of them to expect us to recognize the universality of the gospel of Christ, a mere "peripheral problem" in any case, merely because we claim to be led by men who are living apostles and prophets in the same sense as he who said, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him."
How short-sighted of the NAACP not to have recognized that merely because we treat the Negro as a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God that it doesn't necessarily mean that we think that they are not as good as anyone else. Particularly so when one of our leaders, "has gone to some length," way back in 1965 to point out that the Church does not believe in denying civil rights to any person on ground of race or color.
How can they doubt the love of the members of the Church for the Negro in the light of the fact that two Mormons, Karl Keller and Governor Romney have participated in civil rights marches?
Armand Mauss has proven that we are no more racially prejudiced than the rest. Merely because we claim to be His church, "the salt of the earth," "the light of the world," doesn't mean that we are supposed to be better than anyone else.
Christ said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." Maybe if our critics knew about our good health and educational achievements, they would be more impressed and stop "persecuting us."
Some time in the seventies the Mormon Church began to attract large numbers of converts in Central and South America, particularly in Brazil, most of whom had some African ancestry. When faced with the choice of losing this large body of potential converts, and the fact that no university would play basketball against the Brigham Young University team on the grounds that the Mormon Church was racist, the Church then gave the privileges of full membership to people of African ancestry. I guess the curse of Cain was now lifted. Some Mormon apologists have argued that the historical second-class status in the Church of the African was not a part of Mormon doctrine but a cultural holdover from the slave period in Missouri. I do not accept that explanation. If the Mormon claim was true that the Church is guided by Prophets, Seers, and Revelators who are in contact with God, then somewhere long before the seventies God would have informed the Church leaders that racism is wrong and evil. The Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints gave members of African descent the priesthood in the eighteen eighties.
Furthermore I don't think that the explanation holds water in the light of certain passages in the Book of Mormon. First Nephi 12 and 13 describes the Lamanites, who are, according to Mormon doctrine, the American Indians, as "a dark and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations." Second Nephi, 5 and 21-23 records that God cursed the once white Lamanites (followers of Laman) with a dark skin. It reads, "wherefore, as they were white, and exceeding fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people."
In Second Nephi 30 and 6 we are told that when they repent and accept God they will become "a white and delightsome people." Jacob 3 and 5 speaks of the cursing which hath come upon their skins." The book of Alma 3 and 6 reads, "and the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse because of their transgressions..." The Book of Mormon clearly establishes a relationship between "white" and "delightsome," and "dark" and "loathsome." It would appear that a dark skin is one of Gods way of cursing people who displease Him.
We know from evolutionary science that the pigments in human skin will darken after millennia of exposure to sunlight. The further north one goes, the lighter is the skin pigmentation, and the closer one gets to the equator, the darker the skin pigmentation is because too much sunlight is harmful and not enough can cause a vitamin D deficiency. As between a choice that dark skin is a curse from God or is the result of an evolutionary process, I would choose the latter explanation. Joseph Smith however established Mormon doctrine before Darwin published The Origin of the Species. Mormon doctrine is locked into the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden story. It is inconsistent with evolutionary science, the validity of which is, in my mind, beyond question.
I have set out the above without any wish to weaken your faith. I have refrained from going into the details of a number of significant and very important reasons why we asked for our names to be removed from the records of your church, and what was at that time our church. They are not relevant to the story of what began the process and you probably are not interested in them in any case.
You were probably much too young to be effected by the racism prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and to murders of Civil Rights workers, lynchings, the segregated buses, schools, and drinking fountains, and the denial of votes to the Afro-American. You never heard the voice of Martin Luther King and of his dream of a society where people are not judged by the color of their skin and their origins of birth. This was our time, our age, and we were a part of it and we were touched by it and moved by it.
This is the story of the transition between the young Mormon elder, returned missionary and teacher of whom *** wrote, and the atheist, social theorist, scholar and professor that I am today. It is the story of two lives. I have gone into the details that I have because whether members of the Church or not we are all nevertheless family. This is offered as a way to help you understand. It is also important to us that you realize that we left the Church as a matter of a crisis of conscience after a profound and deep soul-searching struggle.
In his article in Dialogue Armand Mauss, who has also posted his testimony on the "Mormon Scholars Testify" Website, asked how can members of the Church protest the withholding of the priesthood from males of African descent but at the same time accept that the priesthood can be legitimately denied to women. Any argument against the first prohibition is equally applicable to the second. While the validity of this argument is obvious, it also serves to challenge the patriarchal underpinnings of Mormonism itself. The LDS Church is closer to Islam than any other Christian religion so far as their attitude towards females is concerned. The 132nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants introducing polygamy still stands unrepudiated.
When one compares the sexual life of Joseph Smith, one third of his thirty-three or so wives being under the age of twenty and one only fourteen years old, with the obsession that modern General Authorities seem to have with normal and healthy human sexuality; one cannot help but be struck by the inherent contradictions that haunt Mormonism. I have no particular hostility towards the General Authorities. I equally despise all old men, whether popes, rabbis, imams, priests, or apostles and prophets, whether wearing beards, hats, turbans, robes, or sacred underwear, who dictate the lives of women and children in the name of a special wisdom and authority from on high.
Although I have not written nor plan to write any books directly exposing or challenging Mormonism, leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has in many ways defined my academic career since my opposition to the racism and patriarchy that is explicit and implicit in Mormon theology has been a major driving force of my scholarship. I have published three books that in part deal with the history and philosophical underpinnings of equality before the law. The first is Legal Obligation, the second is Law and its Presuppositions, co-authored with the philosopher SC Coval, and the third is The Western Idea of Law, co-authored with David Weisstub. My last two books argue for the empowerment of women. They are The Neurotic Foundations of Social Order: The Psychoanalytic Roots of Patriarchy, and The Castration of Oedipus: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Will to Power, co-authored with Carla Ferstman, both published by New York University Press.
My second confrontation between authority and conscience arose from the responsibility imposed on Bishops to police the sexual life of teenagers. As a Bishop I informed my Stake President that I would not pry into the sex lives of young teenagers, other than asking one simple and basic question. I realized that truthful children were being harassed with guilt while liars would pass as righteous. My Stake President, of whom I had the greatest liking and respect, informed me that there was the way of the Church and my own way, but as long as I was the Bishop he would leave the matter to my conscience.
Some Mormon intellectuals take the position that whether or not the Church is true, Mormonism is a good way of life and serves many different human needs. The truth outweighs the error. Personally I think that religion, including Mormonism, may be all right in moderation but I wouldn't give it to children. Religion and patriarchy are almost synonymous. According to our children, the greatest gift that we have given them was to take them out of the Mormon Church and to transcend the need for religion. To a large extent Lois and I left the Church for the sake of our children. The Abrahamic religions are either retreating to authoritarian fundamentalism or going into decline as they attempt to adjust to evolutionary science. It was our wish to prepare our children for the future rather than trying to coerce them into a past of declining relevance. In particular we wanted our daughters to be empowered and not subject to male authority and the sexism of a religion that is closer to Islam rather than Christianity so far as their attitudes toward women are concerned.
Lois and I, as missionaries, had developed a broad understanding of other Christian religions and other faiths such that there could be no substitute for Mormonism. The choice was clear to us. In leaving the Church we were abandoning religion in any form whatsoever. If one puts any other religion or faith to the same standards of tests that the Mormon Church is rightly subjected to by post-Mormons, dissidents, excommunicates, or anti-Mormons, in terms of history versus myth, the validity of scriptures, or conformity with science, they will fair no better on the scales of truth. I think that one will find that to become post-Mormon is to become post-religious. For anyone who has been raised in and active in the Church it is difficult to see how that they could ever be satisfied with any other religion. Why should anyone who has transcended one mythic structure then embrace another? The choice for us was between remaining in the Church or embracing atheism.
To disagree with the General Authorities is to challenge the living Church.
To question the Church of today is to cast doubt on the historic Church. To
quarry the historical Church is to erode the divine calling of Joseph Smith.
To confront the authorized account of the life of Joseph Smith in terms of
the measure of history is to undermine the story of the first vision, and
that destroys the very basis of the Mormon belief in God. Since the
foundation of testimony is the existence of God, for Mormons to lose their
testimony is to lose God.
Thomas Rogers, Armand Mauss and myself are of a similar age, we all were raised in the Church by dedicated parents, all three of us have served missions and held positions of authority in the Church, we all were married in the temple, and all three of us have been scholars and successful academics. Why would three couples, alike in so many ways, choose such different paths? The academics who have posted on the "Mormon Scholars Testify" website do not respond to the major issues facing the Mormon intellectuals because there is no adequate scholarly response that can possibly resolve them in favor of the Church. After examining the many issues that confront the Mormon intellectual one well might wonder how and why many can still remain in the Church. After reading the testimonies of Armand Mauss and Thomas Rogers' on the "Mormon Scholars Testify" website the reason came clear to me.
When one challenges the authenticity of the Church then all of its teachings are brought into question, including even the existence of God. One must abandon an entire worldview; suffer the loss of one's community; alienate one's love ones; and if one is a professor at the Brigham Young University, as are the majority of those posting on the "Mormon Scholars Testify" website, sacrifice one's academic career and livelihood. The sense of loss and alienation can be overwhelming. This is why it is so difficult for the members of the Church who have faithfully served to renounce their faith. One must become twice born, so to speak. One must reconstruct an entire new worldview. The theme of their website seems quite clear. They bear their testimony to the truthfulness of the Mormon faith, not because of the fact that they are scholars and therefore intellectuals, but because they have successfully retained a testimony in spite of the fact that they are scholars and intellectuals.
Following authority has its rewards, but it also has a price and the price to be paid is the loss of truth. Truth also has a price but offers substantial benefits. It offers liberation and freedom of thought. Life is so precious because it is so finite. If we are living for the sake of a hereafter that doesn't exist we fail to fully experience the simple joys of being alive. We must be able to accept our mortality, embrace death as an inevitable part of life, to live life to its fullest. Think of the thousand of hours Mormons waste in useless meetings going over and over the same simplistic manuals and listening to the same repetitive theological pabulum. The important issue of whether one stays with the Church in spite of the many intellectual problems, or to leave it relates to the future of our children.
My purpose in agreeing to compose this posting is not to persuade anyone to leave the Mormon Church but to help those who have made the decision to adjust to the inevitable transformation that is entailed, and to help those who still have doubts about their doubts or who lack the courage of their lack of conviction. I have no wish to enter into discussions about specific issues as I find the relevant material is already available on this and other websites. What I propose to offer is a way to learn to live with the burden of truth, and to enjoy the intellectual freedom and the benefits of freedom of thought.
Asking the right questions is fundamental to finding the solution to a problem. Is Joseph Smith a true prophet of God? This question assumes that there is or has been such persons as true prophets of God? Is the Mormon church the true church of Christ? This question assumes that there is such a thing as a true church and all alternative churches are false. Such questions as these are problematic because they introduce unsubstantiated assumptions. The question "Does God exist?" is problematic because it is impossible to answer. In the final analysis any answer will be merely an expression of belief based on a set of well-known arguments.
The validity of Joseph Smith's account, the truth of the LDS Church, and even the existence of God are not the most important issues. The critical problem is whether life continues after death. Does our essential self that is constituted by the mind survive the death of the body? If it doesn't, then the questions surrounding the history of Mormonism are irrelevant. Even the existence or not of God is no longer an important issue. The debates between atheists and the defenders of religion are misconceived. The question at issue ought to be about whether or not the soul is immortal. Does it survive the death of the body? This is a very different kind of question than the one "Does God exist?" We have no direct objective or convincing empirical evidence of God. This is why religion must inevitably be based on faith and belief. The spiritual experiences which people attribute to the influence of the Divine are particular states of mind. The critical issue relates to the nature of mind.
If we do not survive death does it really matter whether an "ultimate reality" takes the form of the Nirvana of Buddhism, the God of Abraham, or whether the Big Bang, or the Big Bounce, or some form of String Theory will turn out in the end to be true? What does it really matter to one if the universe is the product of a divine creator or is simply there as blind nature if we do not survive death? While it would be very nice to understand the ultimate nature of the universe, existence, or an ultimate reality, if that were really possible, in the final analysis of what great personal significance would the answer be if we ourselves cease to exist at death? If there were no afterlife for our individual minds, what significance would it have for one's personal life if string theory was proven to be true, the history of the universe consisted of an endless cycle of expansions and contractions, or whether the universe was the creation of an ultimate mind? The important question is whether or not the soul is immortal.
Judging from the recent deluge of books for and against atheism or religion it would seem that, of the two pillars of religion, the existence of God is the primary question and the existence of the immortal soul is assumed to be an ancillary issue. Yet our reliance on religion is based on the fact that it offers a life after death. We do not need to question the existence of our own minds. While the nature of mind may still constitute much of a mystery, our own minds nevertheless can be experienced directly. Furthermore theory of mind is an important area of neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, semiotics, and philosophy. Even though it is in its infancy, the nature of mind is a matter of science, not just of belief.
As a missionary in the Manchester District of the British Mission I spoke weekly at the Manchester blitz site, a block of the business section leveled by German bombs during World War II. At the Manchester equivalent of London's Hyde Park Speaker's Corner, there was always an elderly gentleman, a member of the Secular Society who talked about Darwin and evolution. As I look back now after more than fifty years I realize just how right he was and how wrong we were. Time has more than vindicated Darwin and undermined the claims of Mormonism. When Lois and I left the Church we knew where we would have to start to construct a new worldview.
From the moment that evolution was revealed to the world in that famous joint presentation to the Linnean Society of London by Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin, evolutionary biology has been split as to whether natural selection can account for the origins of the unique features of the human mind. Wallace believed in the existence of the immortal soul while Darwin did not. The Wallace-Darwin debate over this issue continues to this day between theistic evolution and atheistic evolution. While Darwin may have been agnostic about the existence of God, he was an atheist so far as to the existence of an immortal soul. Most educated and thinking people would agree with the following basic propositions:
- Proposition One: Darwinian evolution may now be taken as fact and no longer mere theory.
- Proposition Two: Animals that have brains also possess minds.
The phenomena that we hold to constitute mind consists of qualia (sound, sight, taste, smell, sensations), emotions, affectual states, feelings, and forms of cognition. These, to varying degrees, are components of the minds of animals as well as humans. Even the distinction between conscious and unconscious states such as sleep is applicable to the mind of animals.
- Proposition Three: Animals do not possess souls that survive the death of the body.
This assumption is implicit in Darwinian evolution as well as the three Abrahamic religions.
- Proposition Four: There is an evolutionary continuity between the evolution of the animal and human brain.
This fact seems obvious given the graduation to be found in the encephalization quotient (the size of the brain in relationship to the size of the body) among apes, the early obligate biped hominin, and Homo sapiens.
- Proposition Five: If there is an evolutionary continuity between the evolution of the animal brain and the human brain then there will be an evolutionary continuity between the evolution of the animal mind and the human mind. The difference between the mind of animals and humans is a matter of complexity rather than substantive, in which case the idea of an immortal soul is a delusion.
For the past twenty years I have been working on a manuscript dealing with the evolution of the unique features of the human mind. In 1992 a partial skeleton and the remains of a 4.4 million year-old species of a female dominant biped hominin, designated as Ardipithecus Ramidus, were found in Ethiopia. It has been suggested that the reason for the seventeen-year time span between this amazing find and its introduction to the world in October of 2009 was that the scientists involved realized that their conclusions could produce a radical paradigm shift in the formulation of the evolutionary history of our species, and they wished to provide as complete a picture as possible to defend their position.
These published papers on what is now referred to as Ardi furnished me with the key to complete my book, From Ardi to Us: Sexual Dialectics and the Evolution of the Soul.
The book examines the question of whether the human soul, the "I" of being as in "I am" is a product of Darwinian selection or of divine intervention. It is available in electronic form at my professor emeritus website at Law.ubc.ca.
I hope to see the book in print in the not to distant future. In the meantime please feel free to read it on line or print it out. Hopefully it may offer an alternative perspective for those in a crisis of faith. If you find chapters two and three to be a bit technical in part, it is best just to keep reading, and possibly return later to the parts found difficult to follow.
Joseph C Smith is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia where he taught jurisprudence and law from 1961 to 2000. He is the author of six books in legal philosophy and postmodern critical social theory, and was the founder and director of the UBC Faculty of Law Artificial Intelligence Research (FLAIR) Project. He holds a BA from Brigham Young University, an LLB from the University of British Columbia, and an LLM from Yale University. He served a mission in Great Britain; was married in the temple to a returned missionary; and served as Bishop of the Vancouver First Ward.