What is Humanistic Mormonism? (Part 2)

Last week, HNN published part one of an interview with James E. Nickels, Assistant President for the Society of Humanistic Mormonism, as well as First Counselor in the First Presidency and President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Society allows members to retain a Mormon identity, while not requiring a belief in the supernatural. Read it here. Part two of the interview is below.

HNN: What has the reaction been to your group, both by religious Mormons and by secular humanists?

Nickels: From the Orthodox Mormon point of view, we are not true Mormons; we are apostates, evildoers, especially so because we are humanists and do not believe in the supernatural. Even many so-called liberal Mormons are unwilling to accept Humanistic Mormons as being authentically Mormon. Fundamentalist Mormons being on the other extreme of Humanistic Mormonism really have disagreements with us.

What the Society for Humanistic Mormonism is trying to get other Mormons to understand is that we are just as authentically Mormon in our own way as much as they are. We also accept them as part of the Mormon family; we hope that in time they will learn to accept us too.

This goes for the larger humanist family as well. We seek acceptance from the wider humanist community as part of our humanist family. Some secular humanists are having trouble getting their heads around a humanist Mormon religion (or any humanist religion for that matter) and have said that any forms of religion, even humanist forms of religion, are bad and all religion should be eliminated from the earth. This view might be termed the secular fundamentalist view of religion and it’s doubtful we are ever going to convince them that what we are doing is good for society or that we are working towards the same enlightened world.

On the other hand, what I call middle-of-the-road or moderate humanists seem to be okay with what we are doing and support us. So yes, we get attacked on all sides from different groups for different reasons. We hope in the end we can all live in peace and let reason guide our interactions.

HNN: Do you think it’s difficult for a Mormon to come out as questioning or as a nonbeliever? Or even as a humanist who has rejected some of the Church’s dogma?

Nickels: In the LDS Church, it is very hard for Mormon humanists who are atheists, agnostics, etc., to come out of the closet, as it were. They face the same problem that LGBT people face: rejection and social isolation. Sometimes family members will reject you, you will lose friends, and some have even been disowned. It can be a lonely and sad world for the Mormon who embraces humanism.

There are at present many Mormons who find themselves in the LDS Church who are living double lives. They know what their leaders are telling them are lies and a censored history of Mormonism. Yet because of social pressure or family pressure or not knowing where to go they stay. They stay because frankly they feel like they have no better options. They look around and say, “Well the world is scary out there. At least in the ‘Mormon Matrix,’ as it were, I can be safe here.”

In the process of making that choice they experience cognitive dissonance. Some decide to become postmodernists and reject much of the truth claims of science as a way of dealing with their cognitive dissonance. Others decide to just stop thinking altogether and focus on their emotions and deny there is such a thing as evidence or reason. Again, we think these are all bad options.

What the Society for Humanistic Mormonism proposes instead is that they join with us, be true to what they learned, and like the allegory of Plato’s Cave, return to the cave to help the prisoners there. And let’s face it: if you are being lied to your whole life by an institution that keeps information from you, you are a prisoner in the same sense as the prisoners in Plato’s cave. 

HNN: What do you want humanists at large to know about your group?

Nickels: First that we exist; that we are friendly towards you and the cause of humanism; that we are all working towards the same world; that we can be allies and work together for a better and more enlightened world built around reason, compassion, and humanist values. We would also ask them to think of the added value that Humanistic Mormons and Humanistic Mormonism could bring to the table of humanism as a whole. For all its faults and problems, Mormonism as a culture has much good in it. We want to build off the good and remove the bad bits.

HNN: What are the good aspects of Mormonism, and what would the Society like to retain?

Nickels: The things we wish to keep include the policy on not smoking. There is much scientific evidence to suggest that smoking is harmful to health. Inasmuch as Humanistic Mormons are committed to following reason and science in all aspects of their personal lives, we include the prohibition on smoking.

Humanistic Mormons follow the guidelines set up by the Harvard School of Public Health on alcohol which give recommendations on whether one should drink alcohol. Harvard recommends moderation if drinking alcohol, but also advises that alcohol is not for everyone. It depends on one’s genes, family background, and a host of other issues, etc. Humanistic Mormons are given the advice to rationally weigh the health costs and benefits of personal alcohol usage and then based on their bodies, the latest science, and the healthcare advice of professional medical doctors choose for themselves whether alcohol should be consumed in moderation or not at all. We also allow Humanistic Mormons to drink tea or coffee if they choose.

Humanistic Mormons also believe in keeping Family Home Evening going. This is a time that Humanistic Mormon families or couples can send time together, share a humanist thought, go out on a family outing, or for the couple to go on a date. This enhances and increases the bonds between family members and couples.

Humanistic Mormons are also counseled to do their home and visiting teaching. This is a time where Humanistic Mormons can visit other Humanistic Mormons in their community to check up on them and see if there is anything they can do to help them. This is the very essence of humanist values and ethics.

In addition, the Society for Humanistic Mormonism will have a Welfare System for poor and struggling Humanistic Mormons and those people outside our faith to help with basic items that people may need such as food, rent, finding a job, and help with receiving an education. We also want to have workshops that help people stop smoking, learn good eating and exercise habits, and hold meditation services.

The Society for Humanistic Mormonism will also continue to practice the work of missionary service to all countries of the world. These missions will not only be for the purpose of sharing Humanistic Mormonism and humanism to the world, but also be in the form of service missions and improving the local conditions of the areas that Humanistic Mormon missionaries serve in. Humanistic Mormonism is for the entire world and we want to include everyone in the human family that is interested in it. We believe it is the duty of humanists everywhere to share their message with their friends and family members, and this is what Humanistic Mormons will do.

We also ask for volitionary tithing or donations. The Society, of course, couldn’t function like any institution without money. No Humanistic Mormon meeting houses, or temples, or any of the other projects we want to create will occur without donations. So we ask people of their own free will to give to us if they want to support this religion. All institutions, whether secular or religious need funds to survive or grow. We are no exception to that rule.

For far too long, politics has been dominated by the voice of theists and the exclusion of non-theists. The Society for Humanistic Mormonism means to be a force to change the political and religious balance. We also ask that if you cannot support us with money that you will support us in our grass roots efforts to establish Humanistic Mormon Wards or by helping us as we write lesson manuals for children, young adults, and adults for Sunday School. We need all Mormons to help us in this project as we continue to reform Mormonism into an enlightened religious humanist institution. Whether we ultimately succeed or fail will be dependent on people’s interest in the Society and whether anyone wants to help or donate to our cause. Either way, we will continue in our mission because we believe this is the right course of action for Mormons at this time.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Communications AssistantSarah Anne Hughes is the communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.