Richard Bushman, Transhumanism, and the State of the LDS Church

I recently attended the afternoon session of the Mormon Transhumanist Association annual meeting.  The concluding speaker was historian Richard L. Bushman.  Before I comment on his presentation, just a side note.  Its become increasing difficult for me to hear, I’m slowly going deaf and currently do not wear a hearing aid.  At the conference, I was sitting in the back (sort of) and didn’t always catch everything that the speakers and commenters were saying.

First, I must commend Bushman for his willingness to engage with Mormon Transhumanist Association.  The audience at the MTA meeting was largely young, highly educated males.  For someone of Bushman’s stature to interact with this group is very important for the future of the Church.

I greatly enjoyed Bushman’s presentation.  And the comments below don’t relate to his ideas, which I strongly agree with, as much as they do his understanding of the state of contemporary Mormonism.

After a clever observation, Bushman started his presentation with a comment that implied that many of the conflicting issues within the LDS Church membership between science and religion have been resolved:

No one that I know of worries about the age of the earth, a question that troubled religious people 150 years ago.  A few Latter-day Saints are still concerned about organic evolution, but not many.  Seventy-five years ago it was a major conflict but no more.

Public opinion polls  indicate that 50 percent of Mormons would rather believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis than with evolutionists.  Sixty years ago, Deseret Book published Joseph Fielding Smith’s bizarre anti-evolution polemic, Man, His Origin and Destiny.  And only recently did the LDS Church halt publication of Mormon Doctrine

It would be my observation that members of the Church seem to be bifurcating between Biblical literalists (who want to deny many aspects of science) and those who are more scientifically oriented (with Bushman being in the latter category).  And I don’t view this bifurcation as a positive development.  With many of the more educated Mormons leaving the Church, either officially or unofficially.  Additionally, to say that God created the earth and its inhabitants by an evolutionary process opens up a whole spectrum of issues that remain unresolved in Mormonism, including the nature of God Himself.

Bushman went on to praise the work of James Talmage, B.H. Roberts, and John Widtsoe.  These Apostles were willing to look at and take a stab at resolving difficult science and religion issues.  Unfortunately, Talmage and Roberts died in the 1930s and Widtsoe in the 1950s, and they haven’t had any real successors.  With Widtsoe’s death, Joseph Fielding Smith was left free to steer the Church toward biblical literalism and away from the teachings in Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse. 

In the Q&A session after the presentation, I asked Bushman about the lack of successors to Widtsoe in Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Bushman seemed to avoid the question by stating that the leadership has had other (more important?) issues to deal with.  In a subsequent email, he stated: 

[T]he question of who should do the Church’s intellectual work is worthy of contemplation.  Do we need a Roberts among the General Authorities or can we delegate the philosophizing to Terryl Givens and Jim Faulconer?

At the conference, Bushman also suggested that organizations like MTA are the worthy successors of Roberts, Talmage, and Widtoe.

For me, it is important to have someone who is science oriented among the General Authorities because he/she could serve as an inside advisor (or even educating force) to the other GAs.  A science-oriented Apostle could discourage his peers from poking fun at the “Big Bang,” evolution, and other contemporary theories.

Bushman ended his presentation with the following:

I commend the transhumanists in this organization [MTA] for asking where will science and engineering lead us in another 200 years.  How do we extrapolate from the past 200 years into the centuries ahead?  In my opinion, we are right to believe that scientists are grasping the innermost secrets of matter and that engineers are on a divine errand in helping us to live better on this earth and perhaps on other planets or moons.  Pratt and Roberts would commend this enterprise.  Their Mormonism gives these inquiries its full backing.  To these endorsements I add my own.

To the names of Pratt and Roberts, I would add Widtsoe.

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10 Responses to Richard Bushman, Transhumanism, and the State of the LDS Church

  1. Allen says:

    Thanks, Roger, for your observations and thoughts about this.

  2. Ed Goble says:

    Awesome. I love it

  3. I perceive the disconnect is not that there are no science-oriented Apostles, since there are (below), it is that none received their education in the scientific discoveries and advancements of the past half century, which are many. Given exponential scientific progress, 50 years is a long time, and they don’t spend their time staying current with science. Elder Lance B. Wickman noted in a 2007 Pew Forum interview that the Apostles just don’t spend much time thinking about scientific issues such as evolution: “I don’t know of anybody in the ranks of the First Presidency and the Twelve [Apostles] who has ever spent much time worrying about this matter of evolution.”

    * Elder Russel M. Nelson – Cardiothoracic Surgeon, PhD (1954)
    * Elder Richard G. Scott – Nuclear Engineer, Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (1950), with a doctorate equivalent in Nuclear Engineering (mid 1950s)
    * President Dieter F. Uchtdorf – studied Mechanical Engineering for a time (1958)
    * President Henry B. Eyring – Bachelor of Science degree in Physics (1955)

    • rogerdhansen says:

      True there are scientists (or those with a scientific background) among the 15. But, for some reason, they choose not to use it in their present positions. Roberts, Talmage, and Widtsoe did.

      It is important to deal with issues of science (evolution included) and religion because I feel that conservative Mormons are driving younger well-educated members away from the Church, either officially or unofficially.

      Somebody needs to state very affirmatively that evolution and other “theories” shouldn’t be a problem for Mormons. We need to back off OT literalism.

      President Eyring’s father was a world-famous physicist. Senior had a rough time with some of the strange beliefs of JFS. The son needs to pick up the mantel and explain that Mormonism is well equiped to handle the rapid progress of the 21st century.

      • Henry Eyring was actually a chemist, and for twenty years served as a member of the general board of the Sunday School. A great book in which he discussed some of these issues is Reflections of a Scientist (1983). He also wrote The Faith of a Scientist (1967) and Science and your Faith in God (1958). His views may also be found in the biography Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring (2008), written by his grandson Henry J. Eyring.

    • Allen says:

      The disciplines listed in Bryce’s reply are primarily engineering orientated not science orientated, and there is nothing in engineering that would cause a person to take a non-literal approach to the scriptures (I have two masters in engineering, electrical and computer software). Scientists tend to have open minds about things, because they recognize there is still much to learn. Engineers tend to have less open minds about things, because they are applying known principles to their designs; the principles are accepted as true because they work and are not questioned. So, we’re back to the original proposition that there are no true scientists presently in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.

      • I disagree, in part. Medicine, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, and physics are all sciences, but of different types of science. Medicine, mechanical & nuclear engineering are part of what are called applied sciences. Physics, on the other hand, is part of the physical sciences, also called natural science or basic science. The natural sciences like physics seek to expand our understanding of nature and the universe. While mechanical/nuclear engineering apply natural sciences such as physics toward practical endeavors. All the applied sciences are founded in basic sciences. Both basic sciences and applied sciences are critical to our understanding, survival, and improvement of our lives. We couldn’t do without both of these types of sciences.

        Many scientists often necessarily deal in both types, of basic science and applied science. For example, Elder Scott, while getting his degree in Mechanical Engineering, he worked extensively in the basic sciences of physics, chemistry and earth sciences in order to develop the nuclear reactor of the first nuclear-powered submarine of the U.S. Navy, and later the first commercial land-based nuclear power plant. A strong understanding of these basic sciences was necessary in order to apply them to create nuclear power in these environments. No, he probably didn’t pioneer any new fundamental understanding of basic science, but he did put together his understanding of basic sciences in new and creative ways to generate nuclear power, which certainly requires having an open mind.

        So, while all four of the Apostles noted have backgrounds in science, three of them are more weighted towards the applied sciences (which requires a strong understanding of the basic sciences, and applying it in original ways), and President Eyring has a background in one of the basic sciences, physics.

        Again, I don’t think it is that they are not science-oriented, as much as they are perhaps not current in the scientific advancements of the past half century, which are many. But should they be? As Richard Bushman noted, perhaps it is not in their domain.

  4. rogerdhansen says:

    Because the Church places great emphasis on the words and teachings of the 15, I think it is important that issues related to science and religion be addressed by them. The Apostles certainly have access to individuals who can advise them on issues related to science.

    If the Church is going to remain relevant during these times of rapidly increasing change (progress), it is important that younger members not be needlessly alienated for the institutional church.

  5. Susan says:

    It all comes down to demographics. As Roger has emphasized, unless the Church comes to the party and recognizes what is important for its upcoming younger members, they are in trouble. This is a brighter generation. Answers are a mouseclick away.

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