An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Moral Certainty

A friend sent me this quotation from H.L. Mencken after she heard Boyd K. Packer’s recent conference address:

Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on, “I am not too sure.”

Mencken’s wisdom made me realize that what I find objectionable about conference addresses (aside from the repetition) is the speakers’ certitude that they are speaking for God. I know this certitude, in a world of rapid change, is comforting to many people. It just doesn’t work for me.

Human beings often have experiences for which no rational explanation exists. Some people experience a power outside themselves providing, without conscious thought, the right words or actions. Other people have felt a premonition to move away from a place before an accident occurs.

 When our daughter, Aroo, was 18-months-old, she developed a severe case of viral croup. We took her to the hospital where she was treated. We returned, kept her in a steam tent, and administered medication. That night, her breathing became labored again. Our home teacher gave her a priesthood blessing and her breathing returned to normal almost instantly. Coincidence or divine intervention? We have no way of proving either.

 I have no quarrel with people who believe what cannot be proven.  I do have a problem with people who insist their beliefs are true and that everyone else should believe the same way.

Jihadists and Christian Crusaders are poster children for the worst kind of religious certitude, but some contemporary atheists are also becoming examples of strident intolerance. I read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene several years ago and was impressed by Dawkins’ brilliant mind and lucid explanations of complex science. I enjoyed the clever analogy against the argument that the existence of God cannot be disproven which Dawkins gave in a radio interview. He described a giant teapot revolving around the sun. It’s too small to be seen by any kind of telescope, so we can neither prove nor disprove that it exists.

Possibly because of his concern for the push to teach creationism and intelligent design in public school science classes, Dawkins has become quite harsh in his criticism of religion—calling faith “the great cop-out.” I agree with Dawkins that religious beliefs cannot be proven and should not be forced onto others, but it seems to me that he has crossed the line and become guilty of the certitude and intolerance of which he accuses the religious.

The Old Testament is full of prophets who roar with moral certainty. I prefer the New Testament and Jesus’s example of humility—as well as Mencken’s motto, “I am not too sure.”

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