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Why follow the prophet?

Who are the real "free thinkers"?

See also: is the Church a big bad brainwasher?


Some people are teenagers at heart.

Teenagers like to rebel. They get tired of parents and teachers telling them what to think. They want freedom! They want to think for themselves! They experiment with anything that looks exciting or new. Anyone who does not share their rebellion is obviously slow, stupid, or stuck in the past.

Thankfully, teenagers tend to grow up. They eventually learn some more, and see the wisdom in becoming like their parents. The anarchists get jobs. The hippies buy houses. The revolutionary joins a traditional political party. Then they have kids, and the cycle starts again.

But some people stay as intellectual teenagers. It makes them feel excited and important. They pity anyone who is not enlightened like themselves. And most of all they pity religious people, just as the party-going teenager pities the repressed fool who still listens to his parents.

This page looks a little closer at the idea of "free thinking" and what it really means.

Thinking and following

Most Mormons (at least outside the US) are converts. They examined the church, and chose to join, despite going against what everyone else said. They do not change all their views overnight, but continue to examine and question even after baptism. They are thus free thinkers. But some people try to pretend that those who give up and rejoin the majority view are really the free thinkers. What do they mean?

What is "free thinking"?

Definition 1: not following?

I recently came across a web site that divided people into either "thinkers" or "followers." The implication was that "followers" did not think for themselves, and "thinkers" do not follow others.

Apart from being offensive, it is of course complete nonsense. This is why:

  1. Everyone relies on others for most of their ideas. So called "free" thinkers are simply following a popular path.
  2. It is naive to think that we can completely rise above our environment. We are all influenced by those around us, because they set the agenda, and because they lead us to associate certain thought patterns with certain behaviors (e.g. religious people look boring, and rebels look exciting).
  3. "Free thought" web sites sometimes tell others what to think, and always tell people how to think. In other words, they want followers.
  4. Followers choose to follow.
  5. Just as pure "thinkers" do not exist, so pure "followers" do not exist. Those who choose to follow do so because they think it is the best route, from what they can see of the alternatives.

    Definition 2: choosing?

So called "followers" choose all the time. For example, I choose each day to follow the prophet. If there ever comes a day when following the prophet becomes a bad idea, I will stop following him. So far, I have heard many arguments for rejecting the prophets. But none of the arguments make sense, so I still follow.

Following a prophet means looking at the evidence every day.

David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, Pg.100-101:
" Now it is given unto some, says the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants, to know by the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. It is to these I refer who stand firm upon the rock of revelation in the testimony that they bear to the world. But the Lord says further there are others to whom it is given to believe upon the testimony of others' words, that they may also receive salvation if they continue faithful. To all these, however, there comes the testimony also of daily experience.

"The Latter-day Saints throughout the world find confirmation of their testimony in every performance of duty. They know that the gospel teaches them to be better individuals, that obedience to the principles of the gospel makes them stronger men and truer women. Every day such knowledge comes to them, and they cannot gainsay it; they know that obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ makes them better and truer husbands, true and honored wives, obedient children. They know that obedience to the principles of the gospel makes them in every respect ideal home builders; the ideal is there; they sense it in their minds; they cannot gainsay it; they know it; and they know that transgression of these principles will have the opposite effect upon their individual lives and upon their home life.

"They know that obedience to the gospel fosters true brotherhood and fellowship among mankind; they know that they are better citizens by virtue of obedience unto the laws and ordinances. So, as they go through their daily acts and apply religion in their vocation, the truth of the gospel becomes exemplified in their lives. Thus, with the testimony of the Spirit, the testimony of reason, and the testimony of daily experience, the Latter-day Saints throughout the world must stand impregnable."

Many readers will argue that they have tried the church and they did not experience this. But that is the whole point. If you are not living in a better way, you have not got it. If it's good, it's Mormonism. If it isn't good, it isn't Mormonism (that was Moroni's test - see the page on answers to prayer). The ranks of ex-Mormons are full of people who were in the church for years but never really understood what it was about.

Definition 3: not bound by a particular idea or set of ideas?

Look at a good "free thinker" web site and you will see a mass of links to different ideas. Sounds good? Maybe. But those who constantly move from idea to idea think they have quality when in fact they have quantity.

If your current ideas fulfill your needs, why waste time with more searching, then risk something which may turn out to be more superficially appealing, but less useful in the long run? if it ain't broke, why fix it?

More seriously, looking does not solve any problems. Accepting new ideas does. But as soon as you choose to accept an idea, you are bound by its implications. You cease to be "free" in these terms.

Definition 2: not aligning yourself with any group?

This idea sounds very appealing. It is also rather stupid, as will be discussed next.

Free thinkers have hijacked noble-sounding words and quietly applied them to narrow and misleading ends. In reality, "free thinking" refers to unintelligent thinking.

Why lone thinking is a bad idea

Obviously, each person must choose for themselves. But this inevitably involves choosing to follow some existing scheme for the time being. (Remember, we are not talking about blindly following, but choosing to follow on a day to day basis). The alternative - to develop your own private morality and world view - is a bad idea. This is why:

Life is too complex.

Few people (if any) are able to develop a genuinely consistent and proportionate world view. E.g. one that makes sense in terms of logic and in terms of priorities. For example, a "rational" person will usually give way to intangibles like love and art. A "moral" person will usually rather spend his spare money on himself rather than giving it to the poor. As a famous philosopher once put it, when it comes to everyday living, most people are pragmatists. They muddle through. They do not worry about the details. In other words, this kind of lonely philosophy does not work.

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

Lone beliefs are, by definition, not examined objectively. Even if we present them for others to criticize, we act as our own judge and jury - hardly an objective measure.

Group beliefs are more robust. If a political party has a set of beliefs, its opponents can take them apart and see if they are moral, consistent, or proportionate. The beliefs are further clarified as party members come to some consensus about what they actually mean. But private beliefs have none of these advantages. They cannot be examined in any way that is even close to objective. The potential for self-delusion is unlimited. Put another way, churches and political parties are easy targets. Private beliefs are usually far weaker, but are not open to examination, so go uncontested.

I am constantly amazed how people can see themselves as rational, yet would rather risk endless contradictions than make a serious attempt to be consistent.

Lone thinking is not practical.

It is no accident that almost every nation on earth has a form of party politics. When it comes to finding real answers to real problems, people have to think as groups. This allows ideas to be tested and examined by many different minds. It demands consistency and holds people to account if they diverge from the standards. It also allows others to understand and thus choose between word views. The alternative is for everyone to have their own vague and unexplained philosophy. With purely lone thinking, nothing would get done.

For similar reasons, most of the world's financial business is done by businesses larger than one man. In the real world, if you want to get things done, you have to organize.

There is no alternative to organization...

What is called "free thought" is just "let's all be different." But if you ever do find some better ideas, you will need to work together, and then you find yourself acting like an organization again. "Free thought" is thus a useful tool of organization, but is no solution on its own.

(N.B. Some organizations - e.g. cooperatives, do not have a single person at the head. But the problem is exactly the Same The majority acts as if it was a dictator. You can either find a way to get long with this dictator, or leave).

Voters discovered this centuries ago. Just about every nation in the world is run on some kind of part system. It is just not practical for each person to go their own way on every topic. Nobody has enough time top become an independent expert on everything, and even if they had, politics would just be too confusing for the voters.

Business discovered this years ago. The one man company still has a place, but not where serious amounts of work have to be done.

...and organization implies loyalty and compromise.

In the real world, people organize. And organizations require loyalty (so the members stand for certain standards) and compromise (since individual members may differ in many areas). It is a fact of life. It is unavoidable in any sphere, and the church is no different.

Some fringe members think an organization works better if everyone argues all the time. But people who have to actually run organizations know better.

(Does this mean a church is just like a political party?)

No, because:

  1. It deals directly with the big, universal questions. Who else does that? (OK, everybody does, but who else has a single, consistent set of answers, and a clear spokesman?)
  2. It is the only church with any serious claim to authority.
  3. There is good reason to suppose that God speaks through It
  4. The Holy Spirit confirms this.
  5. It is concerned with the kingdom of God - which is fundamentally different from the kingdoms of men.

The problem with intellectual anarchy

For ideas to be meaningful, they must be shared.

For ideas to have much effect, they must be accepted y more than one person.

But as soon as you share ideas, you have to accept some things on faith, you have to make compromises, cope with differing interpretations, and agree on an official party line!

In other words, where those ideas are concerned, you cease to be a "free thinker." You become a Marxist / Humanist / Deconstructionist / Feminist / Mormon or whatever.

Thus "free thinking" has all the problems of any other form of anarchy. It is at best the gap between following "a" and following "b." On its own, It can only offer chaos or apathy.

Free thought and free ignorance

So-called "free thought" confuses "good" thought with "perfect" thought. Yes, It is necessary to think for ourselves. Our conclusions may even be pretty good. But how do we know? All of us only work with a small sample of the information we might need. We are all ignorant.

There are only two solutions to the problem of ignorance:

  1. Either we accumulate practically infinite experience and intelligence,
  2. or we find someone who has.

"Free thinkers" take neither route, and fool themselves into believing that a tiny bit of knowledge is practically as good as the whole thing. It ain't.

Of course, if you do not believe that religion really has access to God, you may say "what have I got to lose by rejecting religion?" Well, quite a lot actually!

Who is really free?

Freedom implies power. If I am free to do something, I have the power to act. By giving more power, organizations give more freedom. Without being organized, our lone efforts are very limited, and are likely to be undone by the next person. Unity is strength. Thus, unity offers freedom to act.

The prophets' teachings are all designed to increase freedom.

American attitudes to rule

The following is based on a poll of American attitudes:

"No strong God. No strong rules. No strong superiors, moral or otherwise. 'The Way We Live Now' poll finds that most Americans want to decide for themselves what is right, good and meaningful."

A number of responses come to mind (each response is not related to the others):

  1. School children who feel this way are usually the ones who get the worst results.
  2. Pride comes before a fall
  3. While typing this I am listening to a news item about job satisfaction. An international study found that Denmark has the highest levels of job satisfaction, and it was noted that they also have the strongest employment legislation. Maybe strong rules are OK when they suit us?
  4. This is NIH taken to its extreme. ("Not Invented Here") This reminds me of the tendency for companies to fail because they are suspicious of any ideas originating elsewhere
  5. How long before anarchy becomes the norm? (Has anyone here read any well-argued anarchist books? They are superficially very appealing. As a political stance it is founded in exactly these principles)
  6. "United we stand, divided we ... ???
  7. Yeah, who needs strength anyway?
  8. This disdain for strong government (in general, as opposed to disdain for a particular strong government)is a childish fantasy that is only held by those who have strong governments. It is like the idea that "I am a citizen of the world!" - it only works if your government is strong enough to look after you when you get stuck on your holiday in south east Asia
  9. No strong rules? I wonder how that affects the legal system? Does this mean that Americans are losing their interest in litigation? :-)
  10. No strong God? They already have what they want, from what I see of most religions.
  11. No strong superiors? There must be a hundred witty Political responses to this one!
  12. To be fair, I may be misjudging the American character. Americans may simply be reacting to the fact that they have never seen anything but man-made morality, which naturally disappoints. If I had the exact same experiences, I would probably agree with them. In the same way, most atheists I know are not atheists out of any claim to ultimate truth, but have simply judged all religion in terms of some very bad prevailing norms)
  13. What is "right" depends on our goals. If our goals involve other people, or the objective outer world, we will need to take those ideas into account. So to this extent, we CANNOT decide purely for ourselves.
  14. I guess this means that Americans are getting tired of democracy, since democracy implies accepting some "strong rules" with which the individual will disagree.
  15. If we rely exclusively on our own understanding, we are at the intellectual mercy of those with a greater understanding than ourselves. Inother words, governments and corporations that can hire the smartest spin doctors (and develop the most acurate information gathering systems) are in a position to manipulate us. The best propaganda begins by telling you how independent you are...
  16. I had better stop somewhere!

A summary of the problems with so-called "free thought:"

  1. The whole premise is illogical. Everyone is a follower.
  2. The anti-religion arguments are vain (in every sense of the word). Every claim can be answered with just as much logic and evidence. Have we moved forward any?
  3. The big idea has not been thought through. It replaces a structure with anarchy. Is this a step upward? It is good to reject a naive view of religion. But what is replacing It? Something splintered, vague, full of promises, but delivering nothing. It keeps "free thinkers" happy. But I have to conclude (based on the evidence above) that self-styled "free thinkers" are not deep thinkers. They are in it for vanity (to say "look how clever I am!") and nothing more.


All thinkers are followers

Even the greatest thinkers rely on previous thinkers. In other words, they choose to follow. As Newton put it, great scientists and thinkers get where they are by "standing on the shoulders of giants."

We are all followers. We believe and act on authority. We choose such authorities as:

Following is the basis for society, culture, science, etc. All these things rely on agreed standards, institutions, authorities, infrastructures, etc. In other words, rules. And rules rely on following. How would the economy work if each generation had to create civilization from raw materials without any books? If we do not wish to follow others, we may as well totally destroy all of civilization every few years. Is that smart?

The great mistake is to think that "following" is blind. No, we all choose to follow because it is the rational thing to do.

Why following is rational

Independent, original creative thought is so unusual that even academics are expected to routinely quote sources for their ideas. Following is inevitable. It is just not possible to create each idea from scratch:

  1. There are too many possible ideas.
  2. There is too much information, too many "facts".
  3. We need to comprehend so much simultaneously - and the more we simplify, the more we risk mistakes.

Following others (allowing, of course, for some checking) is a vastly more efficient method of learning and working than trying to work it all out for yourself. So the more questions you can answer by "following," the better.

If we have enough time, we can perhaps work out some scientific principles from direct observation. But that is only because pure science deals with relatively simple concepts. The greatest ideas - the meaning of life, the best ultimate use of our time - are so difficult to work out that the only rational hope is to find existing ideas.

Must we all think the same?

No - most Mormons do not. It is true that most people choose not to examine their beliefs too much (this applies to declared atheists as much as to declared theists), but among those who do choose to examine their beliefs, there is a wide variety of opinion. Just get talking to members about tithing, or evolution, or Coca-Cola, or feminism, or just about any other topic.

But for an organization to work, some ideas must be shared. Let us have a look at the kinds of ideas that are shared - what are these "commandments" all about?

Is It wrong for the whole world to think the same about... ?

Working together. (Is the United Nations wrong to exist?)

Human rights. (And by implication, human responsibilities, and some minimum international standards of law.)

An open-ended approach to truth. (E.g. a limit to dogma. The great difference between Mormonism and traditional Christianity is in having living prophets.)

A shared language. (We need to share some concepts so that we can understand each other. This in turn implies a shared model of reality - nothing set in stone, but something that can work for all cultures.)

Rule by consent. (There are many approaches to democracy.)

This is all that Mormons share - although we use different words. We call them "organization," "commandments," "revelation," "scripture," and "common consent." Are these concepts evil? I suggest that they are in fact the basis of all that is good.

Unless it allows these things, a "Free Thinker"'s woolly approach to "variety for its own sake" is a commitment to misunderstanding and mistrust.

Do we follow the prophet - a fallible human?

We follow the prophet only as a useful pointer to something greater. See the page on deep doctrine and fallible prophets for details.

The real basis for Mormonism is personal revelation not revelation to a prophet. See the page on spirituality for evidence of this.

We can of course go beyond the prophet's simple words, just as Einstein went beyond what Newton said. But this does not mean we have to reject the prophet (or reject Newton). If their ideas are any good, we can build on them without rejecting them.

Why follow the prophet: a summary

  1. You're going to follow something anyway.
  2. It is better to choose an organized system of ideas then invent your own unorganized grab-bag.
  3. If you are going to choose an organized philosophy, only religion can handle the biggest questions of life.
  4. If you are choosing a religion, only the Mormon Church can do the job.
  5. The nature of revelation means that you are still in charge of your life.
  6. Following the gospel actually increases freedom.
  7. The church offers more than any other system.

    Put simply, if you want a better world, then this is the only way.


Einstein and Gordon B. Hinckley

Everyone chooses to follow sometimes, and chooses not to follow at other times. The distinction between "followers" and "thinkers" is a foolish one. It is a false dichotomy. It is a bogus dilemma, a trick of the sophists. To illustrate this, let's look at two well known men: Albert Einstein (usually held up as the ultimate example of independent thought) and Gordon B. Hinckley (the prophet, a product of Mormon obedience).

Einstein had independent thought, but also relied on following others' ideas.

Hinckley had independent thought, but also relied on following others' ideas.

Einstein has the higher IQ, but both are followers, and both have independent thought.

Einstein was a follower too

Einstein did not claim to be especially creative. While a student, he wrote:

"I imagine myself becoming a teacher in those branches of the natural sciences, choosing the theoretical part of them. Here are the reasons which lead me to this plan. Above all, it is my disposition for abstract and mathematical thought, and my lack of imagination and practical ability." (Source)

His gift was not independent thought, but intelligence in choosing what to follow, then sticking with it and taking it further. He followed what he thought was worth following. He just went further than most people. " 'I have no special gift,' he would say, 'I am only passionately curious.' ... Later he would say, 'It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.' " (Source)

He followed his family:

"He first realized the wonders of science at the age of four, when his dad introduced him to magnets and their properties. Einstein later said: 'that experience made a deep and lasting impression on me.' later in his life as a kid, Einstein's uncle Jacob, introduced him to mathematics and specifically, equations. ... "At the age of fifteen when he decided to dropout of high school and join his family to travel to Milan." (Source)

He followed the Greek mathematicians:

"At age 12, Albert Einstein came upon a set of ideas that impressed him as 'holy.' It was a booklet on Euclidean plane geometry. The concept that one could prove with certainty theorems of angles and lines that were in no way obvious made an 'indescribable impression' on the young student. He adopted mathematics as the tool he would use to pursue his curiosity and prove what he would discover about the behavior of the universe." (Source)

He followed (i.e. relied upon and believed in) the great scientists

"At the [university] library he studied the works of physicists such as Heinrich Hertz, the discoverer of radio waves; Hermann Von Helmholtz, a proponent of the theory of sound and light; and many others." (Source)

" Einstein was not the first to propose all the components of special theory of relativity. His contribution is unifying important parts of classical mechanics and Maxwell's electrodynamics." (Source)

In the first of his famous papers (on black body radiation, in 1905), "Einstein examined the phenomenon discovered by Max Planck... Einstein used Planck's quantum hypothesis to describe the electromagnetic radiation of light." In his special theory of relativity, he relied on two key assumptions developed by others: that the laws of physics are always constant, and Maxwell's assumption that light always has a constant velocity, no matter what the frame of reference. (Source)

Of course he did not blindly follow others, but neither did Gordon B. Hinckley.

If there is any real difference between the scientist and the prophet, it is that Einstein found his teachers could only take him so far before he had on move on. In contrast, the church always has more depths to discover. It is true that some people deny this, and reject the church, believing it to be shallow. But in my experience, whenever self-styled intellectuals reject the prophets, It is because they have not understand those depths, and have given up.

Gordon B. Hinckley is an original thinker too

Hinckley does not claim to have the great mind of Einstein. But he shares Einstein's habit of relying on others where appropriate. Also, like Einstein. and all human beings, he is an original thinker.

Before becoming the prophet, he pioneered the adapting of Church materials, particularly historical, for the media. Since then, he has used the media more than any recent prophet. He has built more temples than all other prophets combined - more than at any other time in the history of the world. None of these things would have happened if Gordon B. Hinckley had not been the driving force. They are the product of independent thought.

Maybe you don't agree with how Gordon B. Hinckley uses his independent thought. So what? That is a hallmark of being independent! No-one else would have done it in quite the Same way. But in doing so, he has made a real difference.

Who has done the most good?

Gordon B. Hinckley has taken real initiative. He directly addresses issues of human behavior in an original and creative way. Love him or hate him, he has made a difference to the morals of millions of people, and laid the foundation for even greater effects in the decades to come.

In contrast, Einstein., though no doubt a greater intellect, has made almost no impact on the world of morals. He campaigned for the Hebrew University and against nuclear weapons, but then so did many others. That was not original. His work is morally neutral. It can be used for either good or evil. For example, by showing the equivalence of mass and energy, he laid the path for the atomic bomb. If the world should ever destroy itself in nuclear war, this single act will outweigh all the other good that has come from Einstein's work. He could yet be remembered as the greatest monster who ever lived, despite being a kind and peaceful man.

Although Einstein had plenty to say about peace and about traditional religion, his religious views were not original. (He said he followed Spinoza's views.) He contributed little if any original thinking to the field of religion. He was, in a sense, a follower of the religious fashions of the time (he disliked organized religion, and looking to science for answers).

So, in terms of the bigger picture (the forces that control science), Einstein. was a follower. Gordon B. Hinckley is an original thinker.

Criticism of obedience in the church
See also: is the church a big bad brainwasher?

There is great danger in uncritical obedience?

Maybe, but there is danger in uncritical acceptance of any philosophy. For example, it is possible to see atheism as a license for extreme selfishness and disregard for other people (who are, after all, just machines). Sure, a critical look at atheism might lead to different conclusions, but we are talking about uncritical acceptance here.

But just how dangerous are the teachings of President Hinckley? Judge for yourself. Go to and read what he has actually said. Subversive and dangerous ideas like:

And consider the alternative. If someone is uncritical, would you rather they uncritically followed something else?

And what about previous prophets' teachings? Critics of the church are quick to allege all kinds of strange teachings, but all the problems disappear under closer examination. A common criticism regards the church position on Negroes and the priesthood before 1978. It is possible to interpret any teaching in a negative way, and that is a risk with any set of beliefs. But the doctrine itself caused no problems.

Power tends to corrupt leaders in any organization?

Maybe, maybe not. But this is not relevant. What power do church leaders have? They have authority, but that is a different thing. Authority does not automatically bring any power (except, as a last resort, the power to exclude people who do not want to be church members anyway!) Any power can only be earned from respect. Authority and power are discussed in more detail here.

Leaders can make mistakes? - the Salamander Affair

This tragic series of events (where a forger tried to blackmail the Church, and killed two people) indirectly provides more evidence for the inspiration of the President Hinckley. It is discussed in more detail on the page about historical documents.

But a leader could, in theory, lead the church astray?

It hasn't happened yet, and it is extremely unlikely, because:

  1. The church is based on massive doses of freedom (see previous comments). The doctrinal basis for all this in a personal testimony. So the individual has the final say.
  2. Changes have to be accepted by vote, and also have to be carried out by a lay membership. If the membership is not with the prophet, the policy cannot be carried out. Prophets are well aware of this, and one of their major tasks is to maintain unity in a large and diverse church. Indeed, the prophet is largely a figurehead - which is why the church continues quite nicely even when occasionally the prophet is very old and ill.
  3. The prophet only gets called on merit and a very long track record of service.
  4. He himself is constrained by millennia of church history and scripture (next point).


Given the way that prophets are chosen, and their background in the church, it may be helpful to non-Mormons to see the prophet not as a single man, but as a representative of six thousand years of evolving ideas. The weight of scripture, history, and responsibility, weighs very heavy on his aged shoulders. He follows existing thought and builds upon it only where necessary. He defends ideas that have been developed to work across a worldwide church (most Mormons now live outside the US) and across a huge range of cultures (ideas that must work in Japan and Nigeria, and also worked in ancient Israel and ancient Rome). They use ideas that have to work in a real life missionary-oriented church. They are above all realists.

It may be useful then, to see prophecy as the ultimate example of evolved thought. Compared to the prophets, modern political theorists are babies.


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