Skepticism and Belief

Studying the humanities helps develop the quality of skepticism, and skepticism can lead to stronger faith in the gospel.

I am a skeptic by nature. My given name is Thomas after all. Which means that doubt is my instinctive reaction to a story that the Lord helped someone find their lost keys. (Of course, my inclination to doubt doesn’t stop me from praying for my lost keys. Consistency can be a hobgoblin.) For the most part, skepticism has served me well. As the dramatist Wilson Mizner observed, “[D]oubt is what gets you an education.”1 The study of the humanities is especially helpful in developing this useful quality of skepticism. Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister of Great Britain, was fond of quoting one of his tutors in the humanities: “Nothing you learn here at Oxford will be of the slightest possible use to you later, save only this: that if you work hard and diligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.”2 The most important period of my formal education came as a humanities major at BYU, where I was first taught to use the tools of skeptical analysis that are at the heart of the university experience as it has been formed over the last millenium. And that experience has changed the world for the better. As President Henry B. Eyring pointed out, “Universities . . . are probably . . . as good a way we know of to find truth.”3 Disciple-scholars are skeptics. I remember hearing Jacob Neusner, the prodigious scholar of Judaica, speak these words in an address at BYU: “Skepticism and critical thinking are friends, not enemies of religion. . . . Man is made in God’s image. And that part of man which is like God is…the mind….[W]hen we use our minds, we not only serve God, we also act like God. . . . [I]n seeking reason and order, we serve God.”4
I am a believing Latter-day Saint because of my skepticism, not despite it. Skepticism requires that I take into account the totality of the human experience, including spiritual realities. Terryl Givens uses an example from astrophysics to make this point. From the most rigorous calculations, we know that there is overwhelming evidence that we cannot detect 90% of the physical universe. Dark matter and dark energy are neither perceptible nor observable by any scientific instrument or human faculty. Yet unless we posit their existence, the equations we use to make sense of what we can observe don’t work. Similarly, although we can’t detect spiritual realities directly, the life I experience doesn’t make sense without acknowledging that another plane of existence is there, like dark matter and dark energy, threaded through the fibers of space and time.5
The Book of Mormon is my portal to the spiritual reality of which the material world is just a part. And my belief in its worth is grounded in the studied application of skepticism. The scholarship on the Book of Mormon over the last several decades is remarkable and points largely in one direction: the book is an ancient record cobbled together by multiple authors, none of whom lived in the nineteenth century. There are argu- ments to the contrary, I know, but I cannot come up with a more plausible explanation for its origin than Joseph Smith’s claim—shocking at first to us skeptics—that an angel gave him a record written by ancients upon golden plates that he translated through miraculous means. The book is simply too complex, too sophis- ticated, too profound and bears too many markings of the ancient world for me to believe that it could have been the product of the fertile imagination of anyone living in the 19th century, especially a barely literate farm boy. No skeptic should dismiss this view without having first read Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon6, Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon7, Royal Skousen’s work with the original dictated manuscript of the Book of Mormon8, Kent Brown’s description of the Near Eastern setting for its opening scenes9, and the outpouring of publications from Jack Welch10, to pick out just five of the many talented scholars who have applied critical skills to the study of the Book of Mormon.
Because I find there is a compelling argument that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, my rational, reason- and order- seeking mind must acknowledge that there is a spiritual world beyond the material world that I can see, touch, and measure. When I give myself over to the reality of that spiritual world, something wonderful happens. I feel the Savior’s love, His presence, and His influence. I am better able to see His hand at work in my own life and the lives of others. And I recommit myself to making the Church a place that more clearly reflects a Christ-like love for humankind than we have yet achieved. Thomas B. Griffith, a BYU humanities graduate, is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. He has served as BYU general counsel and as legal counsel to the US Senate.
1. Wilson Mizner Quotes., BrainyMedia Inc, 2018., accessed October 30, 2018. 2. Quoted in Larry H. Peer, “Beethoven’s Kiss: On the Odd Reasons for Brigham Young’s Excellent University,” BYU Devotional Address, Dec. 2, 2003,] 3. Sharon Haddock, “LDS Leader Speaks on Learning, Religion,” Deseret News, Feb. 28, 2009. 4. Jacob Neusner, The Glory of God Is Intelligence: Four Lectures on the Role of the Intellect in Judaism (Brigham Young University, 1978), 1–4. 5. Personal correspondence with the author. 6. Oxford University Press (2003). 7. Oxford University Press (2010). 8. See, e.g., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press, 2009). 9. From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Religious Studies Center, 1998). 10. See, e.g., “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10 (1969): 69-84; Chiasmus in Antiquity (1981); King Benjamin’s Speech (1998); The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount (1990); The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (2011).