Are we headed for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Humanistic Mormonisms?


The masthead of Rabbi Jeffrey Falick’s Blog
Does this represent the future of Mormonism?


This brand new and quite interesting blog entry – an interview by Blair Hodges of Adam Miller — is an illustration, I believe, of the direction that the Maxwell Institute has now chosen to take.  Adam Miller is a very bright fellow, and has much to offer.  Whatever else one may say of it, though, it seems quite distinct from the old Nibleyesque days of FARMS.  This isn’t the kind of thing that Jack Welch and John Sorenson used to publish.


I’m especially struck by one passage in the interview:  “On the whole, . . . I think there’s room in Mormonism for atheistic determinists. They’re as welcome in our pews as anyone else. They’re certainly welcome to sit with me.”


Now, on one level, this is perfectly unremarkable.  We don’t typically seek to drive anybody from our meetings, and I can only imagine — because I’ve never personally seen — an instance in which, say, somebody was being so violent and disruptive that he had to be ejected or the police summoned.  And, despite frequent claims to the contrary in certain circles — by people who, in virtually every case if not in all cases, don’t actually know me — I myself have never sought to exclude anybody from our worship services, and I’m willing to tolerate a wide range of views.  I have friends of all manner of ideological persuasions.  They would certainly be welcome to sit in the pews with me, too.


That said, though, I remain curious.  What, exactly, is intended by the phrase that “there’s room in Mormonism for atheistic determinists”?  If it simply means — as it very likely does — that they can participate in our services and sing in our choirs, that’s fine.  (I doubt that very many atheistic determinists care about doing so, but that’s another matter altogether.)  Does it, however, mean that “atheistic determinism” is an equally valuable and adequate way of being Mormon?  Would it mean that to a substantial number of other Mormons of Adam Miller’s approximate generation and intellectual level (whether or not it means that to him, specifically)?  If so, that seems to me somewhat problematic, and potentially very dangerous.


I realize that sharp lines of demarcation are very difficult to draw, and I’m not zealously panting for the opportunity to exclude anybody in particular, but aren’t there beliefs and actions that would put somebody definitively beyond the pale?  Patterns of thought and action so distinct from historic Mormonism that the person so believing and/or so acting could be said to have pretty clearly left the fold?  Or are we to be, on this view, completely accepting and welcoming of all stances?  There are both theistic and atheistic versions of Buddhism, for example, and many Jews are agnostic or atheist.  Are we headed toward a situation where theistic and atheistic Mormonisms will be widely seen — at least in intellectual Mormon circles — as equally legitimate expressions of our tradition?  I note with sadness that secularized Jews are intermarrying with non-Jews at such rates that some fear for the sheer survival of Jews as a people, and I suspect that a fashionably secularized Mormonism would — does — have pretty much the same effect.


I’ve already encountered critics, most of them long since disaffected from the Church, who demand to know by what right the Brethren claim to be able to determine what is legitimate Mormonism and what isn’t — a demand that seems, in my view, to demonstrate in and of itself that the critic has already left at least one fundamental Latter-day Saint belief behind.  My question, though, is whether such views are going to make their way into our mainstream active membership.  That’s why I pose the question publicly.  To the limited extent that I know him, I like Adam Miller.  And I’m totally in agreement with the idea that the three “atheist determinist” sons of Professor Miller’s questioner ought to be entirely welcome in church.  But I’m not seeking just to know his view, or precisely what he meant by his comment.  I’m more interested in the broader feeling among younger intellectually-oriented Mormons and among Mormon studies people.  I’ll admit, I’m more than a little concerned.  And I note that the FARMS or Maxwell Institute of yesteryear would have tried, however inadequately, to help the questioner with suggestions, arguments, and reading materials that might assist his sons in returning to faith if they so desired.  The concerned father sought a good argument for free will.  Time will tell whether the Maxwell Institute remains a good place to make such requests.



  • Kristine Haglund

    Really? You want to draw sweeping conclusions about an entire generation of scholars based on a _single sentence_ from a clearly smart and equally clearly idiosyncratic thinker?

    • DanielPeterson

      I don’t think I drew any real conclusions at all, let alone from Adam Miller’s single sentence. But his sentence reminded me of a question that’s been on my mind.

  • Louis Midgley

    The problem is that Jake, a friend of mine, has boys who have become atheistic determinists, and he would very much appreciate some help from one who claims to be a philosopher, theologian and a Latter-day Saint on ways he can counter their ideology.. What he was told by Adam Miller is at an atheist determinist is welcome to sit next to him in Church services. But it is likely that Latter-day Saints who choose to adopt an an atheist determinist ideology also thereby choose not to worship God at all,

  • Adam Miller

    Thanks, Dan, for the thoughtful response. I’ve always appreciated your willingness to reach out to me with your “Mormon Scholars Testify” series and with your support of Salt Press. It means a lot to me. I’m not totally confident about Kristine’s assessment of me as smart (though I appreciate the thought), but I think she’s hit the idiosyncratic part on the head.

    I think you’re right that I mostly had something ordinary and pastoral in mind with the comment. Though I think you’re also right that my comment raises some hard questions for us with respect to what it means to be a Mormon. I’m glad that it’s up to the church’s leaders to decide these things. I trust them to do it. In the meanwhile, I’ll just keep trying to make room in the pew for anyone wiling to come.

    • DanielPeterson

      Adam: I was delighted at your willingness to contribute to “Mormon Scholars Testify” and was more than happy to support Salt Press. I sincerely hope that it will continue to be productive in its new home within the Maxwell Institute.

      I expected that you were speaking pastorally, and, in that regard, I completely agree with you. I agree, too, that, juridically and ecclesiastically speaking, it’s the province (and uniquely so) of Church leaders — from bishops on up — to determine the limits of acceptable belief and behavior. On the other hand, I think the question of the boundaries of Mormonism well within the realm of lay discussion. (There aren’t many questions that I think BEYOND that realm.)

    • Darren

      “I think you’re right that I mostly had something ordinary and pastoral in mind with the comment.”

      That’s good to know. I’ve no idea how “atheistic Mormonism” could even begin to be reconciled with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s mission to prepare the world for the Second Coming. Nor do I see “atheist determinist” aiding in the comparably equal mission of the Book of Mormon:

      “We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost. (See Moroni 10:3–5.)

      Those who gain this divine witness from the Holy Spirit will also come to know by the same power that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, that Joseph Smith is His revelator and prophet in these last days, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth, preparatory to the Second Coming of the Messiah.”

      Nor do I see “atheistic determination” as complimentary to Book of Mormon’s authority to declare Jesus Christ’s divine role in humanity: “And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations”.

      To note: anyone who can’t make it to church with Adam Miller, are more than welcome to come to church with Darren.

      • Lucy Mcgee

        The vast majority humans on earth will never in their lives read the Book of Mormon. LDS Church members occupy 0.2% of the population.

        As a person who is not religious, I find it curious that people find any solace in “these last days” prognostications. I’ve read comments by those who find the planet today, such an evil place, that they await this “coming” with great anticipation. Wow.

        Anyone who reads history, must certainly realize that past societies have been plagued with violence and human destruction far beyond what we experience today. For a primer, read 1491 by Charles C. Mann, who describes the hollowing out of our continent’s amazing societies once Columbus encountered the first “Indians”. Or, for a further reaching world drama, read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Such works offer a history which must be considered, methinks.

        • brotheroflogan

          The Mormon church started with only 6 members. We are optimistic. Besides, this is why we do baptisms for the dead. This is Christ’s great work and He will accomplish it in His own due time, despite our being few in number.

          • Lucy Mcgee

            Churches, or for that matter, organizations, start with only a few members.

            William Miller and his first few congregants, were most excited as Mr. Miller predicted the “end of days” on Oct. 22nd, 1844. His church grew and was estimated to contain at least 50,000 followers. Pretty good for the time. The great disappointment followed and his flock eventually disbanded, but left a modern legacy with the Adventists.

            As you must realize, Joseph Smith was not the only one preaching the “end of days”. And so some wait.

            And by the way, the LDS Church cannot hope to baptize even a small portion of the humans who have perished. Think of the tens of millions who died on our own continent of smallpox and other diseases. Their names, their works, their lives will never, ever be known to any of us. Your statement simply doesn’t work for me. Sorry.

          • brotheroflogan

            That’s fine. I don’t expect you to have my faith. But I do have my faith and it tells me that the Savior will come eventually and we’ll have a thousand years to do the work with help from God. I do share your concern with individuals expecting Jesus to come tomorrow and that long term planning is unnecessary.

          • Darren

            My understanding is that during Christ’s millenial reign the work for the dead will be completed. With the earth filled with only those who live to glorify Jesus Christ, “man’s” (if you whish to call them that at that point) progress will grown exponentially. I cannot imagine any other result.

        • DanielPeterson

          Rodney Stark, a very prominent non-LDS sociologist of religion, has repeatedly compared Mormon growth rates with the growth rate of early Christianity. If he’s right, our small numbers now no more preclude us from growing very large in the future than the small numbers of Christians in Christianity’s first centuries kept Christianity from having a major impact on world history. It’s the miracle of compound interest.

          • Loyd Ericson

            Rodney Starks calculations must be read within the context of global population growth, which would leave Mormonism still a relatively very small population and nothing to compare Christianity’s growth to.

            In fact, compared to global population growth, the LDS Church is actually shrinking.

          • DanielPeterson

            That isn’t, of course, Rodney Stark’s own evaluation of the data. He HAS expressly used Mormonism for comparisons with ancient Christianity, both in articles on Mormonism itself and in a Princeton University Press book on the rise of Christianity in antiquity.

            Now, he may well be wrong. Some have argued that he is. But that’s his argument.

        • Darren

          Indeed the world will get uglier and uglier before Christ’s return.
          Just for clarification, I posted emphasis on Christ’s return to earth only to make a point that The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is extremely theologically Christ-centered. Thus I fail to see how inviting “atheistic determination” as compatible so far as LDS doctrines go. Beyond that, of course all are welcome to worship with us.

  • JohnH2

    I have been called an atheistic determinists before, it totally makes sense in the context of the online discussion in which it came up.

    It is possible to view the apparent randomness of quantum process under a setting of the particles having free will, though that isn’t the normal view. There have been papers that have argued that if humans have free will then in some sense subatomic particles (and therefore everything) have free will, which is completely consistent with D&C 93:30. However, as at least one of those papers point out, a timeless, or an orthogonal view of time renders the localized free will to be indistinguishable from determinism. As noted by the ability to highly accurately model human action by way of statistical models (as insurance companies do all the time) the appearance of stochastic processes does not say anything about the mindfulness of the internal actors within the process or even the mindfulness of the process itself.

    As for atheism; In many ways Mormonism is atheistic from the point of view of what most other theistic faiths hold as to the nature of the Supreme Being. However, we very much believe in an active God and that obedience to laws upon which blessing are predicated will bring those blessings regardless of the religion of those that are obeying the law. This means that it is entirely possible to actively discover scientific studies which back up our beliefs and therefore provide evidence of God. Also, there are multiple prophecies which are currently being fulfilled whose prophecy and fulfilment were not done in secret but are verifiable by all parties that are interested. We as LDS are both denied the ability to have God in the gaps but also blessed because we don’t have to resort to God in the gaps or denial of scientific theories. I suppose if one is given the option of God in the gaps then there is no need to seek the face of God from within the truth that is already at hand.

  • Zee DM

    ” If it simply means — as it very likely does — that they can participate
    in our services and sing in our choirs, that’s fine. (I doubt that
    very many atheistic determinists care about doing so, but that’s another
    matter altogether.) ”

    I have a friend who is an atheistic determinist who attends the LDS church every week with his wife. Others may also like to do so for similar family or social reasons.

    I don’t think many that he attends church with know that he is not a believing member, but I think he’s starting to be more open. I don’t think that he should be sent away from our meeting. I do, however, have fears that he will succeed at drawing some (many?) away from LDS belief. As such, I would have no problem with those who know his position letting others in the ward know.

    • Darren

      Neat!!! I hope and pray things work out with your friend.

  • LancePeters

    Oh Dan, you land walrus you … your irrelevance is palpable,

    • brotheroflogan

      Lance, I invite you to come to Christ and lay aside your hatred. You will feel happier not needing to assault other people. You can make a positive contribution to the world and will feel pride and joy in your service to others.

    • Darren

      “your irrelevance is palpable”

      If so, he’s not nearly as irrelevant as your comment.

    • DanielPeterson

      Kore Kosmou (aka Lance Peters, Kore Kosemou, etc., etc.) returns, only — for the first time in several days — without an obscenity!

  • Ed Ludeman

    Ahh, the classic question of whether “you” actually exist. I like this:

    • Darren

      That was really good!!!

  • brotheroflogan

    A lot of these thoughts have been on my mind lately too, especially when I see the writings of Jana Reiss and other like-minded people. I feel like they want to take Mormonism and re-create it in the image of what is popular in the world today. A lot of young Mormons seem to be accepting the philosophy of the world uncritically while they look at the doctrine of Christ with a skeptical eye.

  • RG

    And I note that the FARMS or Maxwell Institute of yesteryear would have tried, however inadequately, to help the questioner with suggestions, arguments, and reading materials that might assist his sons in returning to faith if they so desired. The concerned father sought a good argument for free will. Time will tell whether the Maxwell Institute remains a good place to make such requests.

    How is it the case that when Adam (who doesn’t seem to be explicitly affiliated with MI) responds with a pastoral answer to one of roughly ten questions on a blog Q&A, it comes to mean that the Maxwell Institute (as a whole) is unwilling to provide suggestions for readings that advocate free will?

    • DanielPeterson

      I have no idea. Does it mean that?

      • RG

        You tell me. Perhaps you could clarify what you mean. Given the first quote I take, and this one:

        This brand new and quite interesting blog entry – an interview by Blair Hodges of Adam Miller — is an illustration, I believe, of the direction that the Maxwell Institute has now chosen to take. … Whatever else one may say of it, though, it seems quite distinct from the old Nibleyesque days of FARMS.

        I have a hard time reading this other than: The MI of yesteryear would have tried to help, but the MI of today did not try to help.
        Care to clarify?

        • DanielPeterson

          That’s far and away not the only possible aspect in which the Maxwell Institute of today might differ from the Maxwell Institute of the past — though it’s certainly one way in which it might differ.

          For example, the Maxwell Institute hasn’t, in the past, done a whole heck of a lot with continental philosophy, but it did a very great deal with Semitic philology and ancient history. Will the Maxwell Institute, on its “new course,” manifest the same interests and emphases? Time will tell.

          If there’s no difference between today’s Maxwell Institute and the Maxwell Institute of the past, it’s rather difficult to see what the Institute leadership’s announcement of a “new course” was intended to signify.

  • RaymondSwenson

    If everything we think and say and do is determined, then I am being unavoidably compelled to believe and claim I have free will. I cannot assent to the proposition that I lack free will if I truly lack such free will. In any case, standard rules of Anglo-American law say that if I am under compulsion, my agreement is not legally binding on me. Essentially, if I have no free will, any conversation about free will versus determinism is meaningless. On the other hand, if I have free will, then I can claim power over my life, and expect to influence others in their exercise of free will. Belief in absolute determinism absolves us of responsibility and invites us to be sociopaths. Belief in free will empowers us to improve the lives of our families and neighbors.

    • Lucy Mcgee

      Statistics are not in your favor. There are millions of people living just lives without the need of religion to guide them and are not invited to become sociopaths. Where do you think their moral obligations come from?

      One can ponder and wax poetic about free will vs determinism which is a great mental exercise, but the data show that those first world nations with a large percentage of non religious, live happy and meaningful lives and rank highest within the Human Development Index (inequality adjusted) .

      Sociopaths exist within every belief system.

      • Anyotheruser

        That’s essentially irrelevant, since the comment was about determinism vs free will.

        In fact very talk of ‘moral obligations’ and people choosing to live their lives according to any belief system must pretty much accept free will or be incoherent.

      • Thad Gillespie

        Lucy, do you believe in free will?
        You seem to equate belief in free will with religion. Is that right?

        • Lucy Mcgee

          I believe that people create the world they want to live in. I also believe that we humans are affected by our environment to a large degree.

          Imagine any young child growing up and exposed to a particular belief system. How much is free will and how much is environment? Does this child not inhabit the teachings of parents or guardians? Would you, for example, be the same person you are today, had you grown up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota? Probably not.

          • Thad Gillespie

            So you are saying people have free will, but they are influenced by their environment far more than they believe they are. Is that right?

  • RaymondSwenson

    It is not clear to me why an atheist should be a determinist. After all, in the classic formulation of Calvinist Protestantism, only God has free will, and his will overrides our own. But if there is no God, what force is determining the course of events in your life? Modern physics does not assert that matter is just billiard balls.Rather, there is nothing determinated about even the location of an electron. Quantum tunneling is based on the indeterminate nature of such particles, and is essential to our electronic devices. It might be rational to claim that events at the level where we experience them are unavoudably random and even chaotic, but then there would seem to be no way to distinguish real choice from a random event in our neurochemistry. The fundamental elements of choice cannot be observed. Whichever side we pick in the observable world, we do it on hope and faith.

  • publius01

    This is an interesting question.

    I am trying to imagine a scenario in which an atheistic determinist also would choose to apply to himself the label of Mormon. I confess that I can’t think of any–and I am certainly not aware of any in real life. But given, considering the title of this post, that this may be an extreme example, the question is still legitimate.

    Let us imagine a person who openly questions the leadership of the church and many of the church’s historical teachings (perhaps the historicity, if not the divinity, of the Book of Mormon, for example) but who has been baptized, attends church meetings regularly, holds a calling and fulfills her responsibilities and still identifies herself as Mormon. How should this person be treated?

    I don’t think anyone is advocating casting this person out of Mormon meetings. But where the rubber meets the road, I think, is this : what if we are effectively casting them out by embracing an exclusionary theology? What if our talks and lessons all convey the message that this person is, in fact, not really Mormon? What if she is a constant topic of conversation in ward counsel–and consequently the ward grape vine? What if, in fact, we constantly convey the message that they are not real Mormons because they do not conform to orthodox expectations? Do we believe that this person has disqualified herself from exaltation unless she conforms to such expectations?

    Are we doing right communicating these things? Should we be concerned about these sub-textual messages we may be sending? Is it even possible to maintain the community without some sense of orthodoxy? And where is the line between a healthy insistence on shared belief and Pharisaical extremism?

    It is a very interesting question, indeed.

    • Thad Gillespie

      “And where is the line between a healthy insistence on shared belief and Pharisaical extremism?”

      Temple recommend interview questions. Seems to be the standard the brethren have in mind.

      In the hypothetical case you bring forward, a latter-day saint who does not sustain Pres. Monson as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator would not be cast out of meetings, but would not be considered worthy to enter a temple. It would also limit the types of callings she could be considered for.

  • Doug Ealy

    I think the question is important. For someone who doesn’t have the intellectual or scholarly qualities to be paid for research and discovery, I rely on the research and discoveries of others to help me keep in touch. In my situation, it is important to understand the philosophy of a content provider or the organization sponsoring the content. Otherwise, I risk unknowingly adopting a distorted view of things. This is not unlike news consumers. Most of us don’t have time to verify every assertion made in a new story. A prudent content consumer must be aware of an author’s philosophy to accurately evaluate any assertion. Sometimes the only way to determine these things is to ask….

  • SocietyforHumanisticMormonism
    • DanielPeterson

      Did anybody deny that you exist?