An Open Letter to Students: On Having Faith and Thinking for Yourself


A person’s knowledge, says the author, is not like a picture of reality: instead, it is like a map, and maps come in different types—and they never show everything.

My dear friends,

Has it ever troubled you that many intelligent and highly educated people don’t share your religious beliefs? Why do men who have spent their lives in learning often regard faith as a compromise of intellectual integrity because—or so they claim—it is not backed up by objective evidence? Why don’t worldly knowledge and reason lead men to faith?

If you’ve discussed this problem with fellow believers, you may have received a frustrating response: “It gets you into trouble to think so much”; or, “What you need to do is exercise more faith.”

Opposing pressures from these two kinds of people may have made it seem that only two choices were open to you: either become an “intellectual” and abandon religion or else turn off your brain. Faced with this dilemma, you may have become despondent and longed, perhaps even wept, for a solution. I’m writing this letter to suggest that there is another alternative besides unthinking belief and faithless reason and that it’s a genuine and satisfying solution to the problem.

A Misconception of Knowledge

There only seems to be opposition between secular knowledge and faith when, as is usually the case, they are misunderstood. When the misunderstanding is cleared up—and I hope it will be in this letter—the appearance of antagonism between them vanishes.

According to the common misconception, human knowledge is a collection of facts that fit themselves together into the one true picture of reality. It is thought that this picture, though still incomplete in places, is generally accurate; additional facts, which it is the business of the natural and social sciences to discover, simply add more detail.

For most people, this erroneous view of knowledge goes hand in hand with an erroneous conception of faith. Because they think of science as objectively testing its theories against evidence and because they suppose that knowledge and faith are somehow opposites, they regard faith as an attitude of clinging to theological beliefs in spite of any evidence which might be found: an attitude of closing one’s eyes to and stubbornly refusing to be swayed by the facts. They believe scientific knowledge to be unbiased and proven because obtained in the cold light of inquiry, and faith to be subjective and wishful because acquired in a search not for evidence but for the warm security of believing in divine beings and eternal rewards.

The temptation to think of faith in this faulty way will disappear when the foregoing idea of knowledge is seen to be in error. I’ll try to indicate how it is in error and to sketch conceptions of knowledge and faith that are both tenable and compatible with each other. (Keep in mind that it is a misconception of science and knowledge that I am challenging, not science and knowledge themselves. Indeed, as you will see at the end of this letter, I believe our faculties for thinking and learning about our world are God-given, and, when properly used, productive of much knowledge and much good.)

Maps

Up-to-date developments in the philosophy of science and the theory of knowledge are overwhelming against the foregoing erroneous conception of human knowledge. In order to express the general trend of these developments, which are highly technical, I shall use an analogy.

A person’s knowledge is not like a picture of reality; instead, it is like a map. Think about maps for a moment. Many different kinds of maps can accurately represent any given area. There are maps that show elevation; others, highways; still others, geological formations. Plant growth, population distribution, and political boundaries can be represented on maps. No map can show everything about the area it represents. Indeed, in order to be intelligible, a map must drastically simplify things; it must leave out all but what it means to represent. Maps are selective, then. Any one map represents or symbolizes only a fraction of the sector of reality to which it applies.

When a cartographer makes a map, how does he know what to represent on the map and what to ignore? The answer is found in the fact that he wants to accomplish a certain purpose with his map: he includes in it everything that will promote this purpose and excludes everything that’s irrelevant. For example, he may want to make a map that enables motorists to travel most efficiently across the country. On this map he symbolizes the freeways and toll roads and elevations, but he makes no indication of fishing holes or lilac trees or shops that sell imported cheese. What he selects for inclusion on a particular map depends on what he desires to accomplish with that map.

Similar statements can be made about any person’s system of knowledge or network of ideas. It is like a map in that it is selective; that is, only certain things are represented on it while others are left out. And it is like a map in that it represents those things that are most conducive to the person’s desires and goals.

Some of the goals that shape a person’s individual “map” or outlook are those typical of his family and society; as he grows up under the influence of parents, teachers, and peers, learning their language and customs, he tends to adopt their ways of seeing the world as his own. But in addition to this social factor, his individual desires and goals also play an important part in the development of his “map” of reality. So powerful is this individual factor that two people having different desires and attitudes can grow up in the same environment and yet have strikingly different “maps,” and a person whose desires are different from those of his countrymen can end up (as did Abraham, Moses, and Joseph Smith) repudiating much of their way of seeing the world and can be thought by them to have peculiar ideas indeed.

“Maps” Influence the Way We See the World

Eskimos (an Eskimo told me) are able to discriminate nine kinds of snow. Koreans make sense of spoken sounds that are meaningless to me. Meteorologists can see a storm coming when certain kinds of clouds are on the horizon, but most people can see only the clouds. What Eskimos, Koreans, and meteorologists thus clearly perceive is in an important sense invisible to others. The trouble with the others is that, though they have perfectly good eyesight and hearing, their “maps” of reality—their networks of ideas—are deficient.

Think about hiking in the mountains with a map indicating that a certain creek, a clump of leafless trees, and a triangular lake are crucial spots along your homeward route. The map enables you to see the creek, the trees, and the lake as landmarks. Without it, they would have no more significance for your journey home than any other parts of the landscape; they would be visible as a creek, a tree, and a lake, but they would be invisible as landmarks. A person sees things only in the way that his “map,” or network of ideas, represents them.

This is as true in matters of faith as anywhere else. Much that is invisible to those lacking the gospel “map” of reality is clearly perceived by men of faith. An associate of mine recently wrote:

“In the 89th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants … the Lord speaks of … ‘great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures’ [see D&C 89] … As I pondered the meanings … of the phrase ‘even hidden treasures’ it suddenly became apparent to me that I had received many treasures of knowledge that had been completely hidden from me during the time when my life style kept me away from the Church … [L]ike any seeker after hidden treasure one [desiring these spiritual treasures] must follow correctly the maps which point out the way. Faith that the maps are correct can only be established by the verification of the landmarks described on the maps. Those who do not possess the maps will certainly find no significance in the landmarks as they encounter them; but to those who have the gospel map, the landmarks are the fulfillment of the promise [of treasures of knowledge].”

Without the gospel “map” a man can encounter things of great spiritual significance but be unable to recognize them as such; to him they are merely temporal. In one sense he sees them, but insofar as they are spiritual, they are invisible to him.

Alma and Korihor

Consider, as cases in point, Alma and the antichrist Korihor.

Korihor labored under the misconception that without divine help man can acquire full and “objective” knowledge of things; and, indeed, he professed to have such knowledge. Since he believed, he said, only in what he could perceive with his senses, he thought faith a figment of human fancy and denounced talk of prophecy and sin and Christ as either lunacy or lie. There is no evidence, he insisted, of God’s existence.

In Korihor’s eyes everything in the world had a merely temporal significance, and it is precisely for this reason that he could recognize no landmarks or evidences of spiritual things. Whereas Alma, with his very different sort of “map,” could discern sin and righteousness in men’s acts, Korihor said he saw evidence of neither. For Alma a certain burning in one’s bosom was an experience of the Lord’s Spirit; Korihor, had he felt it, might have thought it some inexplicable surge of happiness or perhaps a sudden case of heartburn. Anything spiritual would inevitably be interpreted as merely temporal by Korihor, who therefore said he never saw evidence of God’s existence. Alma, by contrast, saw such evidence on every hand, testifying, “… all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it … do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:44.)

Actually, my portrait of Korihor is simplistic. Because he had known something of the gospel and rejected it, spiritual evidence was not wholly inaccessible to him; the fact is not that he never noticed it, but that he always rationalized it away. (Someone wholly unacquainted with the gospel would have no occasion to rationalize such evidence away because he could not have taken notice of it in the first place.) This Korihor admitted during a moment of personal crisis. He had explained away all evidence that might discredit his atheistic “map” because he loved the selfish and carnal gratifications, which his “map” allowed him to justify, more than he loved the truth. In other words, he held onto his “map” because it helped him accomplish his purposes. He confessed: “And I have taught [these things] because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I have taught them … insomuch that I verily believed that they were true.” (Alma 30:53.) Korihor could never have tried to justify his immoral conduct towards people as he did had he admitted their divine parentage.

Alma gloried in evidence that Korihor rationalized away. Because his heart was pure, he was receptive to the Lord’s efforts to shape his outlook on the world; for he had no need, as Korihor did, to rationalize away experiences that could provide evidence for his faith. The difference between Alma and Korihor was not a matter of objectivity and evidence, but of character.

Faith and Evidence

Now Alma, in bearing his witness, was not making the mistake of claiming that the existence of God can be proven. In the sense of the word proof that prevails in the scholarly world and that I am using in this letter, it can’t be proven. Proof in this sense must be indisputable, so that every rational man (no matter what his “map”) is compelled to agree. Proof in religious matters, were it possible, would therefore have to be based solely on merely temporal evidence. A person limiting himself to such evidence—a person with an atheistic or agnostic “map”—would be powerless to discriminate facts that have a bearing on the question of God’s existence from those that don’t. He would be like the person who, without a proper map, loses his way in the presence of many landmarks simply because he cannot recognize them as landmarks.

That principles of faith can’t be proven does not mean that they can’t be solidly based on evidence. In science, too, proof is impossible, and for reasons similar to those that make it impossible in religion; but scientific theories can be well-confirmed by evidence. Such theories and “maps” of faith lead one to expect certain things to happen, and the more they do happen, the more one can justifiably put confidence in those theories and “maps.” This is an exciting subject, raising important questions concerning bias and falsifiability in theory confirmation; but it’s too complicated a subject to explore here. The main point is simply that just because the nonbeliever can’t find evidence for God’s existence, it does not follow that others, with more suitable “maps,” can’t find it either. Joseph Smith once revised Psalms 14:1 to read: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no man that hath seen God. Because he showeth himself not unto us, therefore there is no God.” [See Ps. 14:1]

Faith, like science, is based on evidence. It is no more subjective and ignorant of evidence than secular knowledge is objective and unbiased about evidence. Having abandoned the idea that knowledge is like an objective picture, that it is in all respects to be contrasted with faith, we can see that faith and knowledge are similar in important ways. Instead of looking away from the facts of the real world, faith is one way, among many others, of looking at the world.

Thus faith need be no less intellectual and well-founded than a scientist’s belief about the temporal world, provided the faithful person is pure in heart, is honest and unrationalizing about the evidence he receives, and throws his energies into blessing others’ lives. When he does this, he constantly encounters and recognizes spiritual landmarks—“hidden treasures of knowledge”—that allow him with complete intellectual integrity to bear witness of the accuracy of the gospel “map” that he has personally verified. As the scripture says, “faith cometh not by signs”—again, you can’t build faith on merely temporal evidence—“but signs follow those that believe.” (D&C 63:9.) (Indeed, as I understand it, faithfulness in heeding spiritual landmarks can ultimately lead one to his spiritual destination in which he may be privileged to behold spiritual things directly.)

Faith Can’t Be Disproven by Nonbelievers

Each man tends to find in his experience evidence for what he has always believed. We saw why this is so in discussing the way “maps” influence the way we see the world. Because they do, a person tends to see just the kinds of things he already represents on his “map”—the kinds of things he has seen before. He thereby becomes more and more convinced that his “map” is a good one; for, relying on it as he must, he interprets the world in its terms and in so doing, systematically filters out evidence for opposing points of view.

It is for this reason that what you believe theologically can never be disproven by a nonbeliever. To gather the facts that he would use against you, he must examine reality in terms of his own “map”; he has no choice. But in doing this, he filters out in advance any evidence that might support you and discredit him. The spiritual significance of temporal things escapes him. Therefore, his gathering of evidence is hopelessly prejudiced where spiritual things are concerned. In slightly technical language, we would say that in order to gather the evidence, he must assume as true the very “map” he wants to prove true and thereby assume as false the “map” he wants to prove false; this means that his argument is circular, that it “begs the question,” that, in short, it is logically worthless. The nonbeliever can’t put faith to the test and so is not in a position to discredit it. For the very same reason that merely temporal evidence can’t serve to prove the existence of spiritual things, it can’t be used to disprove it either.

Someone may object: “The defense you are giving of religious belief is going to backfire. According to you, the believer Alma says the atheist Korihor is wrong, and Korihor says Alma is wrong. There is no way to decide who is right. Each one simply believes what he wants.”

When you see how this objection is based on a misunderstanding, you will have the knowledge versus faith problem solved. The objector would be right if Alma and Korihor were in fact accusing each other of being wrong. But it is not that simple. Korihor says that there is a temporal reality but that there is no spiritual reality. Alma says that there are both temporal and spiritual realities. So Korihor is denying the existence of something Alma believes in, but Alma isn’t denying the existence of anything Korihor believes in. Whereas Korihor’s position can be disproven by any spiritual experiences that Alma has, Alma’s position can’t be shown wrong by any temporal experiences that Korihor has. It follows that there is no way for Korihor to back up his claim that Alma is mistaken; but Alma can back up his claim that Korihor is mistaken simply by confirming the accuracy of his own “map!”

Alma’s “map” includes more than Korihor’s. This means that just because Korihor’s “map” of the temporal world helps him accomplish his purposes of deceiving others and aggrandizing himself, it does not follow that everything in the universe is represented on that map. Just because a map indicating highway routes, gas stations, restaurants, and motels guides one successfully across the country, it does not follow that there are no fishing holes, imported cheese stores, or lilac trees. And just because scientists can use their “maps” or theories to build bridges, land on the moon, transplant hearts, and predict economic growth, it does not follow that nothing exists besides what is mentioned in those theories. This point should be written in ten-foot red letters. For all too often it is fallaciously supposed that just because a map seems to be accurate for a particular purpose, it is therefore a complete picture. Nothing, in my judgment, could be more philosophically naive. (If you’ve ever thought that Mormons have a narrower outlook on life than most people, you have reason to believe otherwise now.)

Some Conclusions Pertaining to Your Life

1. If “intellectuals,” experts on certain secular subjects, reject your religious position, they have no good reasons for doing so. Hence, the fact that they are often nonbelievers should not cause you to doubt. For their purposes, their “maps” seem to have worked tolerably well. But, as we’ve seen, those “maps” are not pictures; there are “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in [the] philosophy” of nonbelievers, including things that only the faithful can discern.

2. It is good to learn all you can from academically trained nonbelievers in their respective professional areas, where your purposes and theirs coincide. But where your desires and purposes differ from theirs—where, for example, you are seeking eternal life and they are not—their “maps” will not help you. It would be unintelligent in the extreme to choose turpentine for a transfusion after loss of blood just because it helped another man paint his house. And it would be unintelligent in the extreme to use an academician’s “map” of society or of nature in your quest for eternal life just because it served him well in some secular project.

3. You can integrate a secular “map” into a gospel one, but not the other way around. This is because the latter represents more than the former. Many university students abandon faith because they think they’ve discovered intellectual problems in the gospel when, in fact, they have uncritically supposed that the viewpoints of their professors are “maps” of all of reality. What they in fact show by their discovery of such problems is the inadequacy of worldly “maps.”

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that accepting the world’s way of looking at reality is the problem of all so-called intellectuals who profess to find serious intellectual difficulties with the gospel. The power of the secular “map” of reality is so insidious that the Lord, referring to it as the creeds and precepts and traditions of men, calls it “the very chains and shackles and fetters of hell.” (D&C 123:7–8.) Those who accept it and see life in terms of it cannot perceive spiritual things: “… a light shall break forth among them that sit in darkness, and it shall be the fulness of my gospel;

“But they receive it not; for they perceive not the light, and they turn their hearts from me because of the precepts of men.” (D&C 45:28–29. Italics added.)

4. Intellectually speaking, you are in a powerful position. Yet, strangely enough, you can’t convince the non-believer of this by reasoning with him. For he will interpret whatever you say in terms of his present “map” so that what he hears will be different from what you mean.

How, then, can you make an impact on others with your faith? Recall that a person’s “map” is shaped (1) by social factors—his training and education in which the values and goals of his family and society are passed on to him—and (2) by individual factors—his own desires and goals. Many of the people on your campus have in growing up acquired a “map” of reality that is not well suited to their own goals in life. For example, a person may have learned that men are essentially animals, made up of physical bodies and nothing more, so that they act for selfish purposes; yet this same person may long for a society in which men treat one another selflessly. His “map” of reality will not help him bring about his dreams. He will feel a vague dissatisfaction about life, as if something important were missing.

In my opinion you can reach such a person by capitalizing on the discrepancy between his desires and his inherited “map.” For although he may think your religious ideas are peculiar in our supposedly enlightened age (remember, he has inherited a “map” in terms of which such things as revelation and ordinances appear foolish), he cannot help but see, if he is honest, that you have achieved what he wants in life. You and your Latter-day Saint friends are, as a result of your purity, filled with love for each other and for nonmembers; to him your group is a kind of inviting Camelot that exhibits what he longs to have. You with your gospel “map,” your faith, are achieving his goals; while he, with his supposedly sophisticated view of life, is not. If he really wants what your lives embody, he will be persuaded to learn about your faith, try the gospel “map” on for size, and abandon his worldly way of looking at things. Reasoning won’t budge him, but what you are, if you are what you ought to be, will call into question all he’s been taught to believe about religion.

5. Finally, although the knowledge versus faith problem has dissolved, a new problem has arisen in its place. We have seen that if a man wants to acquire the gospel “map” of reality he must (1) undergo appropriate training and (2) purify the desires that have led him in the past to overlook the gospel. (See Alma 12:10–11.) Only by these means can he gradually come to see reality more and more in the way the Lord sees it. Thus, the new problem that has arisen is that of changing and developing ourselves so that we can comprehend the things of God. (Strangely, the solution to so-called intellectual difficulties with the gospel is not intellectual at all, but spiritual. Indeed, I would say that there are no intractable intellectual problems with the gospel; there are only “intellectuals” with problems with the gospel.)

I commend to you, as a solution to the new problem, two courses of action: (1) an earnest striving for a “mighty change of heart” according to the instructions to be found in the scriptures and the words of modern prophets; and (2) intense study of these inspired texts. Why these writings rather than others? Because they contain the core of the Lord’s “map” of reality insofar as it can be adapted to our understanding. You should read, make notes on, and reread the scriptures and the conference reports, pleading with the Lord that your heart will be softened and that these writings will, line upon line, grow comprehensible to you.

If you do this, you will find that instead of running into dead ends of irreconcilability between knowledge and faith, your thinking will uncover more and more rich and thrilling connections between gospel truths and knowledge about our temporal world. Because your heart has become purified, you’ll be able to use your mind to your heart’s content. You’ll realize, in short, that there is nothing to fear from the use of one’s mind, but only from the use of a mind that is subservient to impure desires. For it is like any other faculty you have—benighted and even destructive unless sanctified by the power of God; but if so sanctified, glorious.

With a prayer that you may find excitement and peace in your studies.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Harston