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.