This is the second part of a two part post about Elder Hales talk on secularism: I am going to talk a little bit about the end of Elder Hales talk which I think has a lot of potential but can be improved by a better understanding of what ultimately can be effective.
Elder Hales is better at the end of his talk when he simply invites people listening to : “Cultivate a diligent desire to know that God lives. This desire leads us to ponder on the things of heaven—to let the evidence of God all around us touch our hearts. With softened hearts we are prepared to heed the Savior’s call to “search the scriptures” and to humbly learn from them.”
Ultimately, cultivating this desire to know that God lives is the task of Latter Day Saints and all believers. We must present a belief structure that is interesting, enticing and ultimately something that others wish to be true.
When I was an atheist I believed that my atheism had three pillars. The first was the notion that we can understand the universe without a belief in deity—This pillar still holds as I think that we ultimately have come to the point where arguments from design and natural forces are equally persuadable and that we have to make the choice based on other factors. The second was that the nature of evil in the world made it more likely that a loving god did not exist ( Theodicy). The third was that belief in God actually caused more ill than god in the world and so I would rather that God did not exist.
It is not the first pillar that we should be attacking. The problem with Christianity is that it has been too concerned with trying to prove itself on the basis of evidence for creation. Karen Armstrong illustrates this point beautifully in her book “The Case for God.” Instead, what led me to believe again and what I think ultimately is most effective in getting people to seek God with humble hearts is to show them that faith in God can and does make people ultimately better, and that this world is consistent with a loving a merciful deity. Ultimately, the examples of scripture show that what is most vital in the search for God is a true desire to know that he is and that he lives. Arguments from design can at best lead to agnosticism and more and more often lead to atheism altogether. The more we understand about the natural world the less effective such tactics are and the more God becomes a God of the gaps.
“Gaining this knowledge is ultimately the quest of all God’s children on the earth. If you cannot remember believing in God or if you have ceased to believe or if you believe but without real conviction, I invite you to seek a testimony of God now. Do not be afraid of ridicule. The strength and peace that come from knowing God and having the comforting companionship of His Spirit will make your efforts eternally worthwhile.”
I think that this is a promising bit on enticement to prayer sincerely. Yet, Elder Hales does not seem to understand that the chief problem of those that do not believe is not that they are afraid of ridicule. Indeed, living in America means that one is more likely to be ridiculed for a lack of faith than faith. Instead, it is an inability to see how such language can be anything other than subjective. I think that there is a real need to emphasize why we believe that such prayer works.
Ultimately, a loving deity would want to communicate with his children in a way that cuts across language barriers and knowledge barriers alike. One should not require a theology degree or a PHD in astrophysics in order to be able to commune with deity. Prayer is thus a simple language that we can all cultivate regardless of our language of birth or our standing. For me, prayer is a great equalizer of all men before God. That is why I seek spiritual insight and tend to believe what I receive with all of my heart and soul. It is precisely the way that a deity that is no respecter of persons would communicate with us.
Elder Hales talk is ultimately a bit misguided. He does not seem to understand what leads people to lose faith or how to reach out to people in language that is inviting rather than shunning or antagonistic. I hope that our general authorities or the rising generation in the church learn to become better equipped in ways to more effectively reach out to those in doubt.