Elder Hales on Secularism Part One of Two

As a former atheist, I listened to Elder Hales talk entitled “Seeking to Know God, Our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ,” with much interest. As much as I believe that Elder Hales is correct in suggesting that there is a light of Christ within us all, I don’t think that most of his talk is effective as a strategy to get those that are cynical about faith to reflect and to consider the gospel. I offer this analysis with hope that we can improve our strategies and ways of talking about and talking to people that doubt.

“As prophesied, we live in a time when the darkness of secularism is deepening around us. Belief in God is widely questioned and even attacked in the name of political, social, and even religious causes. Atheism, or the doctrine that there is no God, is fast spreading across the world.”

Secularism is probably not the word that Elder Haled intends here, as secularism describes a freedom first and foremost from religious imposition in public life. This is something that we as latter day saints affirm in our articles of faith. “”We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Likewise, Joseph Smith issued one of the most passionate defenses of secularism that I have ever heard from a major religious figure “We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it,… but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.” (D&C 134:4)

It seems to me that the right to worship freely and the ability to have the freedom of ones soul necessarily must also include the right to NOT worship freely or to firmly believe that there is no God. Thus, we regularly affirm the right of Atheists and non-believers to continue in their doubt and even to actively seek to (de)convert others to their belief in no God. Elder Hales seems to imply that this is a menace, but this is the other side of the coin of free exercise, which we all value so much.

“Some wonder, why is belief in God so important? Why did the Savior say, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent”?2

Without God, life would end at the grave and our mortal experiences would have no purpose. Growth and progress would be temporary, accomplishment without value, challenges without meaning. There would be no ultimate right and wrong and no moral responsibility to care for one another as fellow children of God. Indeed, without God, there would be no mortal or eternal life.”

It seems pretty harsh to declare that without an afterlife life could have no purpose. People can find meaning in fame, family or excellence regardless of the long-term implications of these actions. Most people also conceive of the afterlife as a place where their mortal actions are essentially irrelevant and where they are merely harp playing angels, this is a place where the Latter Day Saint faith offers a big distinction that perhaps should have been emphasized more in this talk. For us, our earthly actions are of vital importance and continue to make us who we are for eternity. Emphasizing the point where our doctrines and beliefs provide additional hope would be a better tactic than this criticism.

Even more starkly, I think that most secular humanists I know would reject the notion that there is no moral responsibility. Secular individuals can live morally upright lives based on the secular ethics of such thinkers as Mill, Rawls, Kant etc. Indeed, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has outlined, very effectively in my view, how we could have easily evolved a secular theory of rights. Based on collective human experience. These models seem like they have great potential. Of course, I think that a great claim can be made that a value system based on a belief in God has unique cohesive power to bind people together in common pursuit. This is the claim that has been advanced by social thinker from Durkheim onwards.  The selling point of our faith should not be that morality without it is impossible, but that human bonds are strengthened by it. I know that I considered myself a moral person before I found the church, but I have found my relationships with others improved and my moral sense attuned through membership in the church.

Elder Hales next goes through a lengthy description of how we know God lives and that he has a physical body etc. I don’t see how this is meant to encourage anyone to look into the faith. People that do not believe in a deity are probably less likely to consider a faith that is anthropomorphic and will laugh at this idea. It would perhaps be better to emphasize that we don’t believe in creation ex nihilo or the idea that something came out of nothing. We instead believe that the same laws of nature and the universe allow for deity to take form and mold the world to his will.

Elder Hales than presents the story of Korihor. This story is absolutely a terrible one to present to a non-believer. A person is struck dumb because he demands a sign! To those that do not believe, this story can only smack of religious egotism and puffed up belief.

The argument from design that Elder Hales presents is also likewise not especially convincing

“Yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:44)

Science has been able to explain naturally so many of the patterns of nature. Many secular individuals are actually likely to view nature as the ultimate sign that there is no God. Indeed, the vast and desolate nature of much of the observable sky seems to lead to the conclusion for many that there is no purpose. Latter Day Saints can emphasize that this whole universe is part of God’s plan and once again place emphasis on the fact that we believe that the natural laws that govern the universe are also those that govern deity. There is more common ground than ground for attack.

This talk also misses out on a chance to reach out to humanists—whose ultimate belief is in some notion of human rationality and perfectibility—by emphasizing that we believe in the loftiest potential for man possible. Elder Hales could speak about how it is only through faith and submission that one can possibly overcome the natural man and achieve a higher state of being. This was the first thing that struck me about the LDS faith and attracted me in particular. The language in this talk is simply not equipped to entice or interest non-believers.

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4 thoughts on “Elder Hales on Secularism Part One of Two

  1. Pingback: Addressing Elder Hales and the Darkness of Secularism « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  2. Karen Armstrong succinctly outlines the problems with religion in her book “A History of G/D” She makes the dichotomy between, lets call it the Eastern religious notion of G”d and the Western anthropomorphic ideal. In the East G/d is an ineffable abstract ideal. It’s beyond time and change. The monotheist religions, like Judaism and Islam and to a certain extend the Greek Orthodox church, believe in something very abstract and incomprehensible. However, Christianity attributes human attributes to G/D; it’s not a Mormon notion or the Elder’s, it is just the way Christians have talked about G/D for thousands of years. K. Armstrong emphasizes the argument, like the almighty has a body etc, as the Achilles Heel of Christianity because if you bring G/D to our human physical level then subsequently we can apply tests, be it scientific or logical, to prove his existence or not. But why is Christianity wrap up in anthropomorphic ideals of G/D? Armstrong traced it back to the origins and history of Christianity. Christianity has been part of the Western tradition along with the Romans and Greek philosophers. Therefore, religious priest and intellectuals, who had a formal education, can’t help but talk about Christianity in light of the philosophies of logic and natural science-cause and effect processes. But if you talk about G/D this way then your subjecting him to the scientific method where all you have to do is provide proof and evidence of his existence or not. Richard Dawkings has approach the idea of G/D by providing proof and evidence of his non existence. And the only reason scientist and atheist, like Dawkings, could do this IS because Christians, like the Elder, have open the flood gates of argumentative attacks on G/D because they talk of a anthropomorphic G/D. However, the Eastern Ideals of God are sort of immune to this attacks because their God is abstract and ineffable. In fact some of the greatest Easter religious thinker have pointed out that you can’t talk about god, you can’t depict him(Islam), without getting into reasonable trouble. So, if you doubt the language and symbols to describe G/D how do we get closer to this abstract G/D. The mystic gurus said you can only talk about G/D in the negative; you can say what G/D isn’t. For example:
    G/d is Not light,
    G/d is Not human,
    G/d is Not existence.
    If you make this a mental exercise-it’s like a prayer-then you can get into the notion of a G/D beyond time,change, or even language. This is the Eastern God and he can’t be subjected to proof and evidence tests. Like a Buddhas would tell you, He is here and nowhere, he is not time yet he is eternal, he is a paradox. So, enticing atheist with talk of a human god is obviously ludicrous to somebody who is looking for confirming proof of his non existence. But if you talk about a abstract G-D then it becomes more bewildering and intriguing. I am Christian, but I am not naive, and I do see that atheist do have good arguments. I rather accommodate my beliefs by keeping the idea of the Eastern G/D as the more aesthetically pleasing or at lest the more therapeutic one in this crazy world.

  3. Dave

    I think you are conflating two related but in my mind vitally distinct topics. The fact that Latter Day Saints believe that God has a physical body must be made distinct from the platonic totalizing of the modern Christian world view. By placing God outside of the system but also in charge of the natural order, traditional christians are making their God one of the gaps. God’s role is to fill in whatever mysteries are yet to be understood by natural forces. The Latter Day Saint conception is not platonic in the sense that we do not think that everything was created from a single source. We believe that God exists within the confines of nature even if we do not fully understand all of the laws of nature which God uses to manipulate the world. Thus, all of the science in the world is at least for me a way to understand the methodology of deity more fully or comprehensively than was understood in the past.

    Our conception is actually very true to the pre-exilic Jewish conception of God as anthropomorphic which underlies the Jewish scriptures and is particularly strong in places such as the Genesis 2 creation narrative. For me, an anthropomorphic deity is essential if I want to be able to relate to deity in some meaningful way. A being without a body and without passions and appetites is not my father in any true sense of the word. I don’t believe that this subjects him to evidence testing in that I don’t think that our current tools are going to explain all of the underlying properties of the universe or come to totally understand underlying reality. I don’t need to abandon my believe in a god with a physical presence and with thoughts and feelings in order to say that scientific testing can neither conclusively prove or disprove god.

    The problem with modern christianity is the notion that the creation narratives of the scriptures present a literal depiction of events. Instead, these narratives seem to me to be a temple text crafted as a way to spiritually bring man and God closer together. There’s no need to limit our scientific advances for that reason. As we find out about the scope of the universe it should lead to an increase in our appreciation for the glory of god and his majesty. It is the notion that the biblical account is meant to be total or complete that holds us back from doing so. As a Latter Day Saint I am certainly not bound to do so.

    Part of the great and terrible nature of the 20th century was the realization that man more and more has achieved a power to create and destroy without the creation of moral control over human appetites. Yet, I think that ultimately the distopic nature of our scientific inquiry illustrates the extent to which we still require deity in order to try to achieve goodness. The dreams of scientific perfection turned into nightmares in ways that reveal our deficiencies glaringly.

    • I’m not thoroughly verse in the Mormon philosophy, but you’re saying they consider g/d part of nature. And that the rest of Christendom believes in a deity that created the laws of nature but is not part of nature-very interesting. Perhaps, why some other traditional Christians secs don’t consider Mormons Christians. The Mormon anthropomorphic G/D, indeed, sounds like the pre-exile Jewish conceptions of G/D; the one that is closer to earth than an abstract notion. A human-like G/D is appealing because, like you said, you can relate to him- can even wrestle with him. But I’m afraid he falters because, if he does have human qualities, then he can also have human flaws. Then how is G/D perfect in the traditional notion. Perhaps, he is a reflection of our ideas of what a G/D should be like.

      The human-like G/D is the old way of talking about G/D. The Greeks had a myriad of G/Ds with human desires and appetites,so do the Hindus, it is the natural way of relating to something abstract. But human-like G/Ds post question, like, do they feel pain?, do they mourn?. The questions sound like something a silly child might ask, but if you tell a child: G/d has a human body, he might ask even more ridiculous ones. What do you tell this astute child? Yes, he feels pain, Yes, he can touch you, Yes, he can see you when you do naughty thing; No, he doesn’t go to the bathroom, No, he doesn’t like girls. You see the kind of problems an anthropomorphic G/d lead to. This is why, and Armstrong, in her book, back it up, religions decided to grow up and move to an abstract monotheistic G/D.

      I agree that science will never get to the truth, it might get pretty close, but the real truth is beyond our powers. Science works by conjunctions and refutations. Your throw in a theory that is testable, which is the key, and subsequently it is rigorously tested, if it withstands the tests then it is keep as a good explanation of the world-you can even make predictions. But it is always held to suspicion, it’s not dogma. Science should be allergic to dogma and group think. It is the attribute of proving previous theories wrong that leads us closer to the truth. Indeed, Einstein proved Newton wrong with the theory of relativity. And just in time, too, since Newtonian theories were becoming deterministic dogmas. You can’t refute religions unless they provide the means to do so. And the fact that most religions rely on principles, which are suppose to be the word of G/D; thus, never wrong, makes it hard to apply scientific methods. Science and Religion should be in two different domains.

      But enough talk about the essence of G/D,science and theology. We may never know who is right. I agree: a G/D is better than no G/D. A godless nation, like a the Soviet Union, led to unspeakable horrors. I rather go to church, interact with people, sing a song, learn parables that instill morality into my subconscious than follow cold logical thoughts. Perhaps, the humanity of the Christian G/D is what leads us to the see the humanity and flaws in each of us.

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