Stranger in a strange Mormon neverland

I spent a few days in Utah for the MTA 2012 conference organized by the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), and my good local friends took me around for a crash course in Utah life and Mormon ways, and the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church, aka Mormon Church) and its enigmatic founder, with a culture shock and many interesting conversations about the ins and outs of Mormon culture.

I took this picture from the Delta Galactic spacecraft a few minutes before landing at the Ammonia Lake City spaceport on the planet New Utah. OK, make that the Delta flight to the Salt Lake City airport, Utah, but it really felt like visiting another planet.

Until a few years ago I thought that LDS was the name of a drug spelled by somebody under its influence, and I had only a very vague Hollywood image of hard-working Mormons men in stiff black suits and smiling Mormon ladies in long 19th centuries dresses.

This impression was sort of confirmed by a tour of the Brigham Young University (BYU) on the first day. BYU students dress more conservatively than in other universities that I have seen. Girls wear leggings like everywhere else, but they are advised to wear also a dress.

The students and staff on the BYU campus seem very determined, interested in their studies, and happy with themselves and their place in the world. But while I was saying this to one of my guides we saw a crying girl. I guess perfection is not of this world, but the overall BYU impression is different from other campuses because everything seems clearer and cleaner than elsewhere. The word that came to my mind is simplicity: BYU is a clean, happy and productive environment, but it seems to lack some chaotic subversiveness. The students who spray graffiti and do drugs are often the smartest, and I think a healthy society must find ways to harness their creative energy for its own improvement.

Everyone is very nice and very friendly, with nice houses and big cars for big families (8 kids are not that unusual, and some people have even more). Mormons in Utah are a happy folk, and they have statistics at hand to show that they are healthier, live longer, work harder and make more money than in the rest of the U.S. The Mormon society works, and my friends are persuaded that this is due to the influence of the LDS Church.

The Church is everywhere, and everything belongs to the Church formally (e.g. the BYU) or de-facto (e.g. the State government). For a European like me, raised in a secular society by a family even more secular than others, this is a culture shock. For these people, the Church matters. They take it seriously. They believe in the LDS doctrine. I asked my friend Lincoln Cannon of the Mormon Transhumanist Association to give a 2-3 minutes video explanation of Mormonism and Mormon Transhumanism to my wife, who could not come to Utah with me.  Watch it below:

I share with Lincoln a great admiration for William James, who would certainly say that the fact that the Mormon society works is the best and the only needed “proof” of the validity of Mormon beliefs. As Lincoln says in the video, Mormon theology is an extension of Christian theology with some very interesting twists and a home-grown, uniquely American mythology, and is pragmatically open to new tweaks and additions. Mormonism has also some aspects of a “practical religion,” and the Mormon God doesn’t seem willing to help you too much if you don’t help yourself.

As Lincoln says, Mormons are interested in science and consider technology as one of the principal means to help ourselves, following the plan of God. For me, the most interesting part of the Mormon doctrine is the concept that God was once a limited being like us, and we can become like God ourselves (theosis, or exaltation). It follows (at least, so it seems to me) that in the universe there may be many God-like beings with different degrees of Godhood, attained through science and technology as Richard Dawkins believes. This is what makes Mormonism the most transhumanist religion, and theosis is one of the doctrinal bases of Mormon Transhumanism. Much more in a follow-up article on the MTA conference.

Of course, not everyone in the LDS Church agrees that we can become Gods with the help of science and technology, but my MTA friends are still considered as good Mormons by a Church that shows a surprising tolerance of unusual theological positions and creative doctrinal tweaks.

Not so for lifestyle and practical behavior. You can believe that we live in a synthetic reality engineered by super intelligent God-like aliens or Flying Spaghetti Monsters from another dimension,  if you wish, but Thou Shalt Not Drink Coffee. The Word of Wisdom, the very strict Mormon health code, prohibits coffee, alcohol, tobacco and some other nice things.

Thou Shalt Not...
Thou Shalt Not…

It is not all theoretical like in the Catholic Church (drink as much as you like, then go to the Church, confess, repent, and be forgiven), but on the contrary the Word of Wisdom is strictly enforced, with unpleasant practical consequences for those who don’t comply: drink a cup of coffee, and they can exclude you from the inner Church or Temple (yes, really). If the Church is the center of your spiritual and social life, like it is for most Mormons in Utah, the social pressure to comply can be very strong. I don’t drink much alcohol, but my brain just doesn’t work without coffee and cigarettes, so I think I would have a very hard time as a Mormon. On the other hand, they say that they are healthier than others because they follow the Word of Wisdom, and that advising forcing others to quit unhealthy habits is not such a bad thing.

Most Mormons are Republicans, with a theo-libertarian bent (did I just invent a word?) but the Republican Party is not officially endorsed by the Church (though some believe so) and there are also Democrats. As you probably suspect, the Church, and the State of Utah, are not very gay-friendly. But I had the honor to meet young Mormon gay activists who are beginning to challenge the norm. Most MTA members are liberal on LGBT issues — Brad Carmack gave a MTA 2012 conference presentation on ““Mormonism Beyond the Gender Binary” and published a Salt Lake City Tribune article on “Time for same-sex LDS marriages.”

Perhaps things are slowly changing, but the strange Mormon neverland is still a very strict and authoritarian society. I said to my friends that I love 95% of what I have seen in Utah, but I very much dislike the other 5%. The sobering thought is that perhaps you cannot have the good side of the coin without the other side.

The Prophet Joseph Smith
The Prophet Joseph Smith

The man who created all this:

The Prophet Joseph was killed by a mob in Illinois a few years before his followers moved West. I asked many people which book about him I should read first, and everyone gave me the same answer. Following my friends’ recommendations, I am reading Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, a fascinating history book, very well written and researched, about a great man and his times. I have said that the Mormon neverland looks “too simple,” but Joseph was a complex man, full of contradictions, and larger than life. I think his contemporary followers should take, once again, inspiration from him.

As a teen, Joseph met an angel who led him to find The Book of Mormon, which he translated (with some help from above) and published in 1830. Of course, not everybody believes this story. Did Joseph have a revelation from above? Or was it the wild imagination of a genius farm boy unhappy with the mediocrity of the world around him?

But perhaps there is not much of a difference. Perhaps, when we contemplate the numinous, we are more in tune with the universe, and we are allowed to take something back. Perhaps Joseph was just more in tune with the universe than the rest of us.

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  • Without you being a Utah Mormon, in your short visit, I think you have been able to capture the basic essence of Mormonism and the Utah version of it … very well! I am a Utah Mormon and I think you are very generous with your 95/5 assessment. I say that, however, from a position that I just don’t know of any organization, society, or even person who really meets up to that standard. Me (myself) I feel like I am relatively more caring and compassionate and productive than a lot of people I see in the world, but in no means see myself as having attained that full 95% good, and see no need to hold myself above anybody. I strive for it, but 95% good would entail an A+ on the grading scale. I don’t quite see the Mormon Church at 95% good either, but I am more comfortable here as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, than I was, say, with the religion of my parents, which was Catholic. For me converting to Mormonism over 21 years ago was largely due to the idea of a “living” gospel that continues to grow. The LDS Church has all its quirks, but in the end, personal spiritual progression and actually the freedom that goes along with obeying God’s simple 10 rules for our time (10 Commandments delivered from Moses)works very well in finding “joy” in my life. We have a Mormon saying that “evil” (or “wickedness”) “never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Bringing up a large family (5 kids) and not drinking alcohol, or smoking cigarettes, or doing drugs (still don’t get the coffee thing, but obey it anyway) brings me great joy. And I don’t feel like I am hurting anyone, but perhaps helping the world be just a little better, or just a little brighter — in my own way — with the a little help from the Great Programmer in the Sky we happen to call Jesus Christ.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Thanks Jamie, I think “helping the world be just a little better, or just a little brighter — in our own way — with a little help from the Great Programmer in the Sky,” is a very good way to live.

    So you converted to Mormonism from Catholicism at 21? Please say more. Why? And in which sense do you consider Mormonism as “a ‘living’ gospel that continues to grow?” It is nice to think that perhaps we in the MTA and the spiritual transhumanist community are contributing tot he gospel, in our little individual ways as you say.

  • I converted 21 years ago. I was 31. I converted because I was having problems with all organized religion — especially the blind and destructive adherence to the mystical dogmata in conflict with science. Mormonism, among other things, is a Christian faith which recognizes personal revelation and the personal way that Christianity can affect our lives. On a more deep and philosophical level, I suppose that I realized, even if there is an existential universal reality, there is no way to prove it is universal for everybody, and it could not matter less anyway — because on a personal level, my observations of reality are very different from yours (by definition). Now the scientific community (like a religion) sometimes also clings to its dogmata. So, in that respect I am very much a compatibalist trying to find where God fits into religion and science. Mormonism is place where I am allowed to fit in quite well – and more importantly, that my eternal perspective in this — being a Mormon has benefited my life, my marriage, my family, and my happiness considerably. Although I think religion is primarily based in folklore, these folklores are not entirely uselesss.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Thanks for the explanation Jamie. All these reasons make a lot of sense to me. First and foremost, “being a Mormon has benefited my life, my marriage, my family, and my happiness considerably,” which is what really matters.

    Re “Mormonism, among other things, is a Christian faith which recognizes personal revelation and the personal way that Christianity can affect our lives,” I see that many MTA members seek personal revelation (as opposed to “official” revelation), but I did not have the impression that this attitude is encouraged by the Church.

    • Personal revelation is one of the core teachings of the Church. “Only by the Holy Ghost” can you ever come to the truth of God’s plan for you. Here are just a few examples of the hundreds of uniquely LDS scritures that tell us we should only accept certain truths about God through personal revelation.

      From Joseph Smith History: “While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture.”

      From Book of Mormon: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

      From Doctrine and Covenants: “Blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.”

      From Doctrine and Covenants: “Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth.”