What is Humanistic Mormonism? An Interview with James E. Nickels Jr.

Since becoming a secular humanist, I have let go of Catholicism, the faith I was brought up in, but it wasn’t easy. For a time, I still attempted to be a part of the community and attended Mass (I love the music!), only to find the words were now empty and even made me angry. After walking out of a homily about the evils of divorce, I knew I no longer wanted to be associated with Catholicism, even in a cultural way.

Not all humanists feel this way, however, opting instead to be religious humanists (see Humanistic Judaism). A recent discovery led me to learn of a new group, The Society for Humanistic Mormonism, that, while not requiring members to believe in the supernatural, still retains a Mormon identity.

To some secular humanists who have left behind a former religious identity, this may be confusing. If you have a hard time wrapping your head around the concept of combining religion and humanism, I recommend reading this excellent primer on humanism that allows for both religious and secular humanists to feel comfortable with the idea of being “good without a god.”

To find out more about the Society for Humanistic Mormonism, Humanist Network News interviewed James E. Nickels, Jr., who serves as the Assistant President for the Society as well as First Counselor in the First Presidency and President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Part One of our interview (via email) is posted below, with some answers condensed for space. (Part Two will be published in the March 20 issue of Humanist Network News.)

HNN: Can you talk a little bit about the founding of the Society for Humanistic Mormonism?

Nickels: The origins of the Society for Humanistic Mormonism go back to 2010. It is the first official religious institution of its kind and is organized as a world religion separate from any other Mormon denomination. Seeing that there was no such religion or institution to meet the needs of humanistic Mormons, the Society was founded among a small group of Mormon atheists, agnostics, pandeists, humanists, etc., who couldn’t find a home in any of the other traditional or mainline denominations of Mormonism. Indeed as Mormon atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc., we felt excluded in participating fully in Mormon life and in our culture because of our lack of belief in the founding mythic and supernatural stories of Mormonism.

Since that time, the mission of the Society for Humanistic Mormonism tries to mobilize people to celebrate Mormon identity and culture consistent with a humanistic philosophy of life independent of a supernatural authority. As the central body for the Humanistic Mormon Movement in the world, the Society assists in organizing and supporting congregations and in providing a worldwide voice for its members.

The Society for Humanistic Mormonism is similar to and also inspired by other forms of religious humanism such as Unitarian Universalism (inasmuch as we accept all religious or non-religious identities/memberships) and the Society for Humanistic Judaism (which sees religion as something more than a belief in the supernatural but a tie to a person’s history, culture, and the future of a group of people as its core identity). So it is with the Society for Humanistic Mormonism as it is tied to a culture, a history, and a connection to the Mormon people. We also are very similar to the movement known as Ethical Culture, another form of religious humanism.

The Society for Humanistic Mormonism is particularly pleased that the American Humanist Association has come out with a new book, A Jefferson Bible for the Twenty-First Century, in which it includes the good and the bad bits of all the major religions from their scriptures, including for the very first time The Book of Mormon. Really, Humanistic Mormonism is all about taking a knife to the bad parts of Mormonism, like Thomas Jefferson did with the Bible and retaining the good bits. As Mormon rationalists and Mormon humanists, we are very much behind this project and will continue it in the Society.

HNN: How did you personally become a humanist Mormon?

Nickels: It came gradually for me over years of reading on the topics of history, philosophy, science, and religion. The thing that really hit home for me was humanism’s insistence on evidence. Indeed, one of the mottos that the Society for Humanistic Mormonism and the philosophy of Humanistic Mormonism takes up more generally is the statement by [philosopher] William Kingdon Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

What we believe or disbelieve has moral consequences and ramifications for human society at large and for [us] as individuals. Humanism is all about following the evidence and that’s what Humanistic Mormons are trying to do in their personal lives. Humanistic Mormonism, and more generally Humanism, is also about learning to have compassion for people.

HNN: Has there been a lot of interest in your group?

Nickels: The religion is pretty new. But yes, overtime the interest is increasing, as people find out about our existence. Whether Humanistic Mormonism grows or not will be dependent upon people getting involved and whether we can offer Mormon humanists a new religious home where they can feel comfortable. We hope to build a home for our kindred Mormon exiles built around reason and compassion. Our thought has always been stealing a line from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come.” This is our mission.

We hope to build meeting houses for Humanistic Mormons to meet in. Part of the good of Mormon culture was having a place that Mormons could meet together weekly and building a social community. Right now, Mormon exiles mostly meet on the Internet. We want to change that. We want physical buildings that Humanistic Mormons can meet in and raise their families in. We want a place where LGBT couples can marry in and where women hold positions of power in leadership.

There have been far too many gay and lesbian Mormons who have killed themselves in orthodox Mormonism for us to have to wait for a special ‘revelation’ from a ‘God’ that seems to look the other way every time a gay Mormon kills himself or herself. The Society for Humanistic Mormonism believes that “revelation” comes through reason and science. It is irrational and non-compassionate to exclude Mormon gays or lesbians and this can and does cause them psychological harm.

HNN: How does the Society feel about Proposition 8, which was funded in part by the LDS Church? The Church also filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8. How does a humanist Mormon reconcile this?

Nickels: The Society for Humanistic Mormonism strongly condemns The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its support of Prop 8 and denounces their actions on par with the racism that African Americans had to go through during the civil rights era. The LDS Church has a history of racism against both African Americans (who they prevented from receiving the priesthood authority up until 1978) and a history of sexism against women (who still cannot hold priesthood authority).

In the Society for Humanistic Mormonism, women, LGBT people, etc. have a right to what we call the Humanistic Mormon Priesthood. They are not excluded from serving in the highest leadership positions in the Society. In addition, LGBT people are granted full access to Humanistic Mormon wedding services, unlike in traditional Mormon services.

The Society for Humanistic Mormonism is more pro-family than the LDS Church claims to be and more compassionate. Would Jesus want us to discriminate against LGBT people based on their sexual orientation? Orthodox Mormons and those liberal Mormons that go along with the Church’s doctrine on this need to ask themselves: Would Jesus approve of discrimination? I am fairly certain that if Jesus Christ himself wanted membership in the LDS Church, he likely would be denied.

HNN: There seem to be many types of Mormons, including Liberal Mormons, Reform Mormons, etc. Perhaps the most confusing to me is the difference between ex-Mormon and Post-Mormon. Can you explain this?

Nickels: There are multiple denominations and several branches of Mormonism and even within each branch or denomination of Mormonism there are several competing views. In Humanistic Mormonism, for example, one Mormon might decide to leave the LDS Church (mainline branch of Mormonism) and become a Humanistic Mormon by joining the Society for Humanistic Mormonism. The LDS Church or other Mormons might unfairly label them “Ex-Mormons” because they no longer believe in their type of Mormonism. Indeed, Orthodox Mormons do not consider Fundamentalist Mormons to be real Mormons, and likewise the Fundamentalist Mormons do not consider the Orthodox Mormons to be real Mormons.  So who really is the ‘real Mormon’? How do we decide? And who gets to decide who gets to be included and excluded?

And of course Orthodox Mormons and Fundamentalist Mormons wouldn’t consider Humanistic Mormons to be the ‘real Mormons.’ Yet we claim that all these groups are Mormons, even if they have a different interpretation of what Mormonism is or means for them personally or institutionally. Some would prefer being called Post-Mormon or just simply Ex-Mormon and we accept them in the Society as well. The key is to let each person define for themselves what it means to be Mormon and that is up to the individual to decide and to search for their own understandings of what it means to be a Mormon.

Many people come away from Orthodox Mormonism with such a bad taste in their mouth that they no longer want to be called a Mormon, even a Humanistic Mormon, and would prefer a complete separation of their identity. In the Society, we are accepting of people like that. Yet we say rather than going into the wider world, sometimes alone, rejected at times by family members or friends, let us support you and help you. Not for the purpose of converting you to becoming Humanistic Mormons but rather giving you a support group. If in the end you like the idea of Humanistic Mormonism, help us as we try to build something from the ashes of Mormonism that is good and uplifting.

There are a few symbols of Humanistic Mormonism. For example, members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Society for Humanistic Mormonism are given a ring to wear of a Phoenix rising out of the ashes symbolizing Reason and Science coming out of a postmodern age of religious superstition and unreason. [It] is a symbol for the Society itself, the ashes symbolize orthodox Mormonism and the Phoenix symbolizes Humanistic Mormonism rising from the ashes spreading Enlightenment to all Mormons everywhere.

Part Two of this interview will be published in the March 20 issue of Humanist Network News.