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Mormonism and Pragmatism

william jamesIn my experience (and I reiterate that this is just my anecdotal experience), most Mormons have a sort of crude Pragmatist theory of truth.

As a psychology student who studies religion, I have a huge soft spot in my heart for William James.  In fact, my first son’s middle name is James for that very reason.  James and some other American philosophers developed a philosophical theory of truth that the average person probably wouldn’t understand (I barely do), but the naive version is this:  we can judge whether a belief is true by whether it “works.”

I put “works” in quotation marks because the biggest criticism of Pragmatism is that the criteria for “working” is not very well-defined.  But I think a lot of people, and Americans, still kind of hold the naive version of Pragmatism as true (we’ll just call it Naive Pragmatism, or NP).  And I think this is especially true for Mormons.

I was reminded of this by a post at Agellius’s Blog about comparing the Mormon and Catholic teachings on marriage.  Agellius had an online discussion with a Mormon who claims that traditional Christianity’s teaching on marriage are weak and Mormonism is preferable, and the evidence for this claim is that Mormon marriage seem to be statistically better, more faithful, etc.

Now I’m not going to poke at this claim much (certainly it’s debatable whether Mormon marriages are really objectively better or worse than Catholic marriages, or any other kind of marriages).  But what interests me – and what I think Agellius didn’t address directly – is that Mormons do tend to argue for the truthfulness of their claims by the results of those doctrines.  “By their fruits ye shall know them,” they will say.  Or they might also say the converse: “Some things that are true are not very useful,” implying that even things that are true might not have any real utility.

So on that view, we can’t know if Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon from ancient gold plates, but look at the wonderful change it’s wrought in people – therefore, maybe Joseph Smith did translate them.

If we really want to compare the Mormon and Catholic views of marriage, let’s just look at the divorce rate for each.  Whoever has the lower divorce rate must have the best teachings on marriage.

We can’t know whether we can really progress to become like God, but look at how inspiring that doctrine is to millions of Mormons – so maybe there is something to that doctrine.

We can’t know if God really told Joseph and Brigham to practice plural marriage, but look at how much the Church grew and flourished in the desert, and the families really did seem to enjoy the practice – therefore, it’s possible the practice was ordained by God.


Now you are probably already thinking of some possible problems with this sort of argument.  First, subjective things like “inspiration” and “wonderful” and “flourishing” are all pretty hard to define without ambiguity.  I don’t know what kind of “flourishometer” you could develop to detect the presence of flourishing in a community.  Furthermore, one man’s flourishing is another man’s regression (is a small farming village that doesn’t grow “flourishing?”  what about a city with lots of crime that grows?  Etc.).  So the actual results that we’re supposed to be measuring are tricky to define and quantify.

Second, NP doesn’t really give us any objective reason why we should desire and pursue inspiration, flourishing, low divorce rates, etc.  It sort of begs the question for the teaching in the first place.  This is something Agellius did get at in his blog post.  So for instance, if the goal is to “raise up seed” for a few good men in a community (to the exclusion of the other men), then I suppose plural marriage “works” to do just that.  But why choose that as a goal in the first place?  NP doesn’t really help us choose goals.

Finally, probably the strongest objection to NP is that there are some things that are just obviously, objectively true, even though they are facts that just tend to make everyone miserable or displeased.  Furthermore, it tends people toward consequentialism – if a lie ends up helping people, then it’s okay to lie?  If a doctrine is not objectively true, but it inspires people, then it is true?  It doesn’t matter if we believe that Heavenly Father is a radioactive carrot who lives on the Moon, as long as that belief somehow causes us to change for the better?

Now I’m not saying these are strong objections to actual Pragmatism of Pierce, Dewey, James, etc. who took a little more care to waterproof their theory (though there are still major – and probably fatal objections to Philosophical Pragmatism), but they are objections to Naive Pragmatism, which I think is at work when some Mormons try to argue based on fruits.


2 thoughts on “Mormonism and Pragmatism

  1. It’s always nice to be linked to, thanks!

    The post which was the impetus for my post was on Bruce Charlton’s blog, here: http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-traditional-christian-concept-of.html

    It did occur to me that in this post (and in others), Bruce was arguing pragmatically. His argument seems to be: Western civilization is in dire need of more procreation; Mormon teaching results in more procreation than the traditional Christian teaching on marriage; therefore Mormon teaching is preferable and other Christian churches ought to consider adopting it.

    I note that Bruce doesn’t conclude “therefore Mormon teaching is true”. He does in fact say in one of his comments, that “I don’t think it is coherent to argue that (for example) Mormon theology is true (or truly Christian) and Thomistic Roman Catholicism is false; or the opposite.” Thus he seems to be focused only on what “works”.

    I didn’t bother addressing this point in my post, because my concern was to argue that the content of the Mormon teaching on marriage, specifically that marriage is eternal, doesn’t necessarily lead to more, longer-lasting or more fruitful marriages (in order to show the converse, that the traditional Christian teaching doesn’t lead to less of these things). I think that if Mormon marriages do have better “outcomes” overall, there are other explanations for the fact. (How much better Mormon marriage outcomes actually are, as you suggest, is perhaps not so easily answered. See, e.g., http://agellius.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/comparing-mormon-and-catholic-divorce-rates/) Besides, I would argue that there was a time not so long ago when Catholic and Protestant marriages had better “outcomes” than modern Mormon marriages, without belief in eternal marriage.

    As far as your main point, I agree that it’s problematic to try to argue for the truth of a religion based on apparent temporal fruits. The purpose of the Gospel, after all, is to save souls. Who can say whether a religion that is more temporally prosperous, has larger and apparently happier families, higher education levels, etc., also has a higher proportion of members attaining to eternal salvation? The qualities that lead to one might not necessarily apply to the other.

    It also occurs to me that the LDS Church has attained the success that it has, within the framework of an already existing culture which was largely shaped by the traditional Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church. How would it have fared had the Catholic Church not already prepared the groundwork at the time of its founding; in other words if it had been founded within a culture that was not already predominantly Christian? It seems to me that the LDS Church owes its success to what the Catholic Church and its offshoots had already achieved, in transforming a pagan culture into a Christian one wherein the LDSC could thrive.

    I would like to point out that in saying these things I am not attacking the Mormon religion, but rather defending the Catholic. It was Bruce Charlton who got the ball rolling by accusing traditional Christians of denigrating marriage, and in the process denigrated the traditional Christian concept of marriage himself. I’m just responding to the accusation.

  2. Pingback: More about Mormon theological epistemology | Saints and Saints

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