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.