June 1996

Earl Wunderli

My Journey to Humanism

I frankly don’t know why I became a humanist. By this I mean that I have three younger brothers, and of the four boys, the middle two are active in the LDS church, while the youngest one and I have left it. I don’t know whether skepticism is genetic and only two of us inherited the gene, or something happened to two of us that did not happen to the other two. There are some particulars that are unique to me later in my life, but they are not essential for the journey to humanism. These particulars have confirmed to me that I took the right fork in the road, but from all outward appearances in my youth, I should have grown up to be a faithful Mormon.

I was born in Salt Lake and grew up on the avenues. I had a stable home and a happy childhood. My two older sisters and three younger brothers and I all went to Longfellow Elementary School and the 21st ward, to Bryant Junior High School, and to East High School. Perhaps my earliest memory of anything bearing on my journey to humanism was learning in church that science was not to be trusted, which created a bias in me against science that I was years in overcoming.

Together with most kids in my high school graduating class, I went to the U. I worked stuffing the Sunday Tribune to pay my tuition of $25.00 per quarter and my fraternity dues. As a freshman I dated a girl whose father was up there somewhere in the church hierarchy. I must have been asking impious questions at that time because he talked to me at length one evening and lent me a book entitled After Its Kind, which argued against biological evolution. I was willing to go on a mission after my sophomore year except that my parents sent me to a hotel school in Switzerland instead. I thought I aspired to follow in my father’s footsteps as a hotel manager. My father had emigrated from Switzerland to Salt Lake after the first world war to join the rest of his family in Zion. Here he met my mother, whose grandmother was a polygamous wife and whose father served on three missions, including the presidency of the British and Eastern States missions. I had helped my father at the Beau Brummel Cafe during the second world war when help was hard to get. And so my parents scraped together enough money to send me to Lausanne, Switzerland, where, because of their sacrifice, I finally became a dedicated student.

I spent over a year in Lausanne where I was active in the LDS branch, knew the missionaries, and participated in a chain letter with a number of fraternity brothers on missions. The hotel school required that students serve apprenticeships, and so a friend from school got me a job as a cook at a hotel in Bermuda. While in Bermuda I didn’t look for a branch of the church but I did buy a Bible. I also remember consciously trying to think through some problems for the first time. After two years in college and more than a year away from home, I was just learning to think.

After Bermuda, I spent two years in the navy during the Korean war, where I was active in the LDS ward or branch in Norfolk, Virginia. It was then that I read the Book of Mormon for the first time.

I returned to the U, being four years older but uncertain about what I believed so I majored in philosophy to find out. Sterling McMurrin, O.C. Tanner, and Waldemer P. Read were among my great professors.

I went on to Law School at the U for want of anything better to do with a philosophy degree, during which time I managed to qualify for marriage in the temple. After our marriage, we lived in Apostle Mark E. Peterson’s basement apartment and had Sunday dinner upstairs every week. Apostle Peterson’s wife, Emma Marr, would leave a roast in the oven during church for our dinner together. I taught Sunday School to some 12-year-olds. They were particularly unruly because I taught the class on the Book of Mormon like a law professor.

I practiced law with Fabian and Clendenin in the old Continental Bank Building for three years, during which time we bought our first house and I became almost inactive in our new ward. I was then in my late twenties.

It is still unclear to me why I had wavered for ten years and my LDS friends had not, or, if they had, why they kept on the straight and narrow and I wandered away into uncharted territory. It is true that although I was raised LDS, I did not go to primary or seminary or on a mission, but so far as I know, neither did my younger brothers who are active in the church, although one of them did go on a mission.

In any case, after three years of private practice, I joined IBM’s law department and moved east, where we spent 31 years until I retired nearly three years ago and returned to Salt Lake. When we moved to Connecticut, we stayed with an aunt and uncle for a few days until we found a place to rent, which I mention only to explain why I attended church. I was not prepared to confront our kind hosts on the issue. I even substituted as the gospel doctrine teacher for a friend two or three times. My aunt had shown me a study by a member in which the doctrine of salvation had been constructed from something like 69 different passages from the four standard works. As the substitute teacher, I remember upsetting the class by asking whether it disturbed anyone that the doctrine of salvation had to be pieced together like that, my point being that God should be able to communicate more clearly. The last time I ever attended church, except for funerals, farewells, weddings, and such, was when the class discussed the creation. The class had little use for Darwin or evolution, and I’d had enough.

Still, I did not want to be just another apostate. I wanted solid reasons for my position. Shortly after moving east, my wife and I spent a number of evenings comparing the first and current editions of the Book of Mormon, since we had heard there were changes but didn’t know what they were or what to make of them. We did the same with the Doctrine and Covenants. It was so satisfying to have solid facts that I began an internal analysis of the Book of Mormon to find out whether there was any objective evidence of different ancient writers. Thus began the particulars unique to me.

My job gave me enough free time to do what I wished someone else had done and saved me the trouble. The internal analysis of the Book of Mormon took me 14 years. If I were beginning today, I would be able to use a computer and save many years in time. In any case, my conclusion was that not only could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon but much of the internal evidence indicates that he did.

In 1976, I sent three large loose-leaf volumes containing my research to Sterling McMurrin for his review. He was, I proudly report, “absolutely overwhelmed by the extent and thoroughness” of the work. He suggested drastically reducing the size of the work for publication, and thought that for publication I would have to “show [my] hand more clearly” than I did in my chapter summaries. He thought I was “a little too cautious.” He told me about a manuscript on the Book of Mormon by B.H. Roberts that confirmed my findings.

During the last twenty years since 1976, I have written many papers and have given four of them at Sunstone Symposia in Salt Lake and Washington, DC. I also completely rewrote the book but decided it was not right. I later rewrote the first four chapters but could generate no interest among publishers. I have now just about completed rewriting the book in my fourth attempt and this time I think I’ve got it right. I was recently encouraged by something I read in the last issue of Dialogue. In an article by Karl Sandberg (not the poet) entitled “Thinking about the Word of God in the Twenty-first Century,” Sandberg wrote that “for the first time serious efforts of wide-scale textual criticism of Mormon scriptures have begun among Mormon scholars.” I’m encouraged that there may be some interest in my work out there.

For much of the time that I was researching, I felt negative even though the evidence kept mounting against the Book of Mormon and I consciously withheld judgment until my work was finished. I had to overcome the feeling that skepticism was somehow destructive. I felt the need to articulate what I was for in contrast to what I was against. This was easy, since I was for truth and against falsehood. But there was another issue: even if the book was not true, wasn’t the church nevertheless good? I eventually concluded that religion, which preaches faith over reason, does more harm than good. On this point there is too much to say to say just a little. I will only note two local examples of what disturbs me that many in our community would take no exception to: a Bountiful woman was quoted in last Sunday’s Tribune that if she counted the cost, she might not have children, but she “just figured the Lord would provide,” and in the name of God we prohibit high school clubs where gay students can find mutual support against our intolerance of them.

I concluded that we needed better options. I heard the best option yet at, ironically, a Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City some ten years ago or so. A humanist spoke at a plenary session. I don’t remember who it was or what he said, but I went back to my office in New York, got a directory of organizations, found the American Humanist Association, and joined.

Humanism is the rational, ethical, positive philosophy that I discovered little by little. My faith is that, unless we destroy ourselves first, it will prevail in the future because it is rational, science-based, and open-minded. My faith may be misplaced, given the slow pace at which rationality progresses among humankind. But reason ultimately seems to prevail. Virtually everyone now accepts that the earth is round and revolves around the sun. Although many still do not accept biblical higher criticism or the theory of evolution, in time they may make today’s religious superstitions seem as untenable as the Gods on Mt. Olympus. Meanwhile, the American Humanist Association and Humanists of Utah serve important purposes. They would have helped me earlier in my life and I believe may help many others who just have to learn of them. And as human beings gradually let go of mythology, the humanist philosophy the AHA and Humanists of Utah espouse will be there to catch them.

–Earl Wunderli

Boogie Man

I am writing in response to Jay Liechty, 3rd Congressional district candidate for the US House of Representatives (article–Metro–April 1, 1996.)

I would simply like to remind Mr. Liechty that atheism and secular humanism, being in the extreme minority of belief systems in the US, could not possibly be responsible for the current down trend in American morals, rising crime, and society’s demands on Government.

Looking for a boogie man will not solve the very real human problems that society faces.

In a world where diverse ethnic, religious, class, and national groups are interdependent yet conflicting, we must strive to work together to create a world that allows for productive and meaningful lives and remains open to change and growth.

–Sandy Usry
Letter to the Editor
Published in the Deseret News
April 15, 1996

Flag Day

The flag, like a computer icon, is a powerful symbol that can generate a lot of action but it is not an idol that demands religious reverence. The flag deserves respect for what it represents, not for its construction; for its essence, not its being. As the U.S. observes the annual Flag Day, June 14, I think it is appropriate to share the thoughts of Edward L. Ericson, a leader of the Ethical Culture Society. In his book, The American Dream Renewed, Ericson wrote: “In recent months the American public has been agitated by a few isolated incidents of flag burning. What needs to be understood is that an American who deprecates or despises another American by reason of race, or who deprives another of opportunity or dignity on grounds of color or ethnicity, sets the torch of social conflagration to the flesh of our liberties. The racist violates our flag and all that it represents more than if he had soaked a thousand banners in gasoline and set them ablaze.”

As humanists observe Flag Day we honor the ideals of the Enlightenment: the equality and dignity of every human being, freedom from the dictates of religious and secular authoritarianism, and the human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

–Flo Wineriter

Why Are Americans Frustrated With Politics?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

With the approach of a new presidential election, Americans remain frustrated with politics and unhappy with the alternatives the parties have to offer. “Our public life is rife with discontent,” says Michael J. Sandel, author of “America’s Search for a New Public Philosophy,” in the March Atlantic Monthly. Democrats say this situation is due to the insecurity of jobs in the global economy, and Republicans respond that it is a result of unhappiness with big government. But the debate does not speak to the two concerns at the heart of our discontent. One is the fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives; and the other is the sense that, from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling all around us.

The central idea of the public philosophy by which we live is that freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends for ourselves. Government should not affirm any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within which people can choose their own values and ends. This liberal vision of freedom, having arrived on the scene only during the past half-century, has replaced the previously prevalent one, the republican political theory, the idea that liberty depends on sharing self-government. The republican theory involves deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping shape the destiny of the political community. But such deliberation requires more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and to respect others’ rights to do the same; it requires that citizens possess certain civic virtues such as a knowledge of public affairs, a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community. It means that politics cannot be neutral towards the values and ends its citizens espouse. It requires a formative politics that cultivates the qualities of character that self-government requires.

Both these understandings of freedom have been present throughout American political life, but in changing measure and relative importance. The decline in interest in cultivating civic virtues sheds light on our present discontent. Despite its appeal, the liberal vision lacks the civic resources to sustain self-government. Our present public philosophy “cannot secure the liberty it promises because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”

Where political discourse lacks moral resonance, the yearning for a public life of larger meaning finds undesirable expression. The Christian Coalition and similar groups seek to clothe the naked public square with narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread. Despite the expansion of rights in recent decades, Americans find to their frustration that they are losing control of the forces that govern their lives. Even as we think and act as freely choosing, independent selves, we confront a world governed by impersonal structures of power that defy our understanding and control.

Self-government today requires a multiplicity of settings, from neighborhoods, to nations, to the world as a whole. It requires citizens who can abide the ambiguity associated with divided sovereignty, who can think and act as multiple situated selves. The civic resources we need to master these forces are still to be found in the places and stories, memories and meanings, incidents, and identities, that situate us in the world and give our lives their moral particularity. The task now is to cultivate these resources, to repair the civic life on which democracy depends.

It is impossible to do justice in a brief summary to the insightful comments I hear in our study group discussions. Some conclusions of the group at this month’s session follow: Humanists don’t feel as much difficulty relative to the current political dissatisfaction as some others because in their world view they relate to all human beings. Perhaps some common goals and values such as honesty, justice, and compassion would be helpful if they are viewed in a framework of situational ethics. If people are to have enough muscle to fight back against the vast power structures that threaten self-governance, they will need to do more reading and thinking to get informed and then vote. Also, we are asking the wrong questions.

The main problems in the controversy in the Utah legislature this year over support groups for homosexuals in the public schools were ignorance and too much focus on getting to the Celestial Kingdom. Nevertheless, it did help build awareness of the need to show understanding towards groups that are different from the majority. The newly organized Seagull Forum can help counteract the intolerance promoted by the Eagle Forum.