There is a fundamental question that religion needs to answer if it expects to survive in an increasingly secular world. The question is, “how is your religion better at making the world a better place than ethical atheism?” Now, I’ve never heard this question stated outright like this; many atheists (and some others, too) seem to take it as a given that religion is inferior to ethical atheism and that religion is a “crutch” for the unintelligent. I, naturally, disagree. I would like to address this assumption and answer the question from a Mormon perspective, generalizing to wider Christianity when appropriate.
Let me begin by saying, I have a great deal of respect for ethical atheists. By “ethical atheists” I mean people who believe in right and wrong and who do their best to follow their understanding of how to be a good person – helping others, being productive, advocating for education, making the world a better place, etc. These people tend to contribute substantially to society. Christians could learn a lot from them. A good atheist can be just as good for society as a good Christian.
Ethics, as understood my most Christians, is rooted in love for your fellow human beings. However, we also acknowledge that people are “fallen” and require salvation, because our nature is, as stated in the Book of Mormon, “an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) A post I read recently by Michael Sitman described this state well:
This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.
The science is pretty clear to support this. Our Darwinian instincts and survival mechanisms make us inherently selfish and self-centered. Even our desire to do good is nearly always rooted in “what’s best for me?” So, even when we have excellent standards and ethics most of the time, there are always times when we will fail to follow our principles, and will take an easier or more appealing path. Do that a few times, and you will be in a rut that can be hard to get out of.
Salvation, particularly the Mormon interpretation thereof, not only raises our sights to the ethics taught, but gives us hope and help in striving to meet those ideals, despite our past and inevitable future failures. We believe that even failed efforts to do what is right will be rewarded in the end. In this way, our efforts to do good are never wasted. This can be a great comfort in difficult or dark times in our lives, thereby encouraging us to keep trying.
On top of that, there is an excellent support structure in the LDS church, for those willing to accept the help, consisting of the leadership, the home teaching and visiting teaching programs and fellow members. Because the church is run by the members, people are involved in the congregation and in each others’ lives. Wherever you go in the world, you will find a congregation with shoulders to cry on and backs to help carry your burden.
Another area where religion surpasses ethical atheism is in teaching the next generation. There’s a simple reason for this – Christianity has an absolute moral authority. While most atheists see a lack of authority as a positive, the level of knowledge and wisdom necessary to turn that into a positive is a significant barrier to teaching children ethics. While the litmus test of “can I predict any negative consequences from my actions?” may, for a mature adult, be a good way to make decisions in an unforeseen scenario, for children or teens, this could be potentially disastrous. Even if a parent claims to be the ultimate ethical authority, that authority will be mimicked and challenged eventually.
People need an ethical authority when they are growing up. A parent can be an ethical authority, but our children know us far too well for that to be consistently effective. To have God and the scriptures as an ethical authority takes that burden from us, and helps us to teach kids even when we want them to do what we say, and not what we do. When we teach our children how to reconcile ourselves to that moral authority when we make mistakes, we can even help kids become better through our failings.
I guess you could summarize my argument in one word: sustainability. Devout Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, are more sustainable systems for perpetuating ethical behavior than ethical atheism. It is for this reason that I truly believe that following Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities is the best way to bring about a better world.
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. – Ether 12:4
Just to be clear, according to Mormon doctrine The Antichrist is Satan. An antichrist is anyone who actively teaches against Christ in an attempt to deceive believers. I have not read Ayn Rand’s books, nor anything written by her that I can recall, other than the snippets necessary to write this article. However, in recent weeks, I have heard a lot about her, and have even seen parts of old recordings of interviews with her. I believe I have learned enough about her to make this assertion; Ayn Rand was an antichrist.
One of the adjectives often associated with an antichrist is “cunning,” in that they tend to be skilled with logic and language – as Rand was – and use it to distort the truth to fit their views. The process of deceiving is most effective when it starts with indisputable facts. When it can also appeal to the natural desires of human nature it becomes very persuasive. In the case of Rand, she used the logic of capitalism, to promote the “virtue of selfishness.”
Rand used her vision of how capitalism should be as a lure to win over her listeners. She appealed to their base desires to win followers. She indoctrinated them with ideas in direct conflict with those taught by Christ, and ultimately asserted not only that God does not exist, but that believing that God exists is weakness.
Here are some of her core tenets and directly conflicting teachings from scripture:
Rand: “The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value”
A prophet: “If ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God…ye must perish.” (Mosiah 4:30)
Rand: “The reasons why man needs a moral code will tell you that the purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.”
Christ: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” (Matt 6:19-20)
This is only a cursory survey; I’m sure I could come up with more but I really have no interest in reading her material. (If you think of any, please leave a comment.)
There is no doubt that Rand was well-educated and persuasive. Unfortunately, her arguments were inspired by the worst of human traits, and served primarily as a means to justify wickedness. She was not an ethical person, as was manifested most openly by her public affair with a younger man. Instead, she tried to redefine “ethical” so that it applied to her, but this was merely calling black white.
Not everything Rand said or wrote is a deception or wrong. Her logic is very good to a point. However, the conclusions she draws cannot be reconciled to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her goal was not to enlighten others. If you believe her philosophies will bring society to a better place, you are deceived. Lasting peace and happiness can only be obtained through principles which are in harmony with God’s laws. Rand’s teachings may bring power, wealth and self indulgence, but never true happiness. “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10)
Perhaps Rand was sick – with uncontrollable sociopathic tendencies. Perhaps she herself was deceived. Perhaps. Ultimately, that makes little difference now that she is gone. Her words are her legacy, and her words are in direct opposition to Jesus Christ and everything He stood for. Her words are those of an antichrist.
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matt 7:15-16)
Let me start out by saying this is an unpleasant topic. It saddens me to think of all of the legitimate reasons women might choose to end a pregnancy. However, because of the current political climate and the lack of real analysis happening within the Church, I feel compelled to write this in order to provoke thought among my fellow members.
Most Mormons consider themselves to be Pro-Life. This is probably due to the Church’s very clear stance on abortion; it is permitted in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life or health is threatened. Naturally, being otherwise against abortion, we want to prevent it in other cases. Hence, the vast majority of Pro-Life Mormons.
If this was a rule that could easily be enforced without causing women who have been abused any additional pain or stress, I might agree that more strict Pro-Life laws were a good idea. However, this is not the case. In fact, determining whether any of those three criteria might apply in a certain scenario is more likely to cause contention than not.
Let’s take the medical scenario first. Who is to decide whether the mother’s life is threatened? Hopefully her doctor is making that call and not the government or an insurance company. What if her doctor is particularly pro-life or pro-choice? Could the woman seek out a second opinion, or a third? What percent chance of death should be considered enough of a threat to allow an abortion? You can be sure that no matter how the law was written to enforce a policy, some women wanting abortions would die from this, and some with little risk of death would be able to get a legal abortion despite the rules.
In the case of incest, what are you going to require from a young woman who has been abused by someone who should have been protecting her to do to prove that it was incest? The earliest a paternity test can be performed is at about 9 weeks. Even at that point, there are risks of causing miscarriage. Would such tests be outlawed for the risk to the fetus? How long would she have to carry the baby in order to prove the charge? What if the test comes back inconclusive? Or even worse, what if the girl has no family members to support her charge, and she is afraid to charge her father with a crime? No crime filed, no abortion?
As for rape, who gets to decide what constitutes rape? Surely we wouldn’t leave this up to a group of men who have publicly stated their opposition to any abortion in any form. There are a number of states where husbands are allowed to essentially rape their wives under full legal protection. Non-consensual sex is not rape if the people are married. Do we really want to force mothers to bear children into a home where domestic violence is already rampant? What about date rape? Rape under the influence? Does the rapist have to be convicted before the abortion is granted? What if it takes 7 months for the trial to even get to court?
This is all ugly, messy stuff. I don’t believe government is capable of legislating reasonable rules, let alone of regulating or enforcing them. When you add in the challenges of local authorities and corruption, you begin to see how hopeless a clean distinction is.
Particularly painfully, there are the women whose beloved children die before they see their faces. Those mothers, too, are affected by these well-meaning laws. Mothers with miscarriages today are read to from scripts designed to produce guilt in those seeking an abortion, when they should be receiving counsel and comfort. Some have even been taken to court in states with “Personhood” laws, so that the courts can legally determine whether or not the miscarriage was of natural causes. These offenses would only increase with stricter laws.
Our church believes strongly in the principle of agency. There is no freedom more important than the freedom to make your own choices. Some would argue that we can choose to break the law, so restricting abortion rights does not diminish agency. I would suggest that if it is possible make an ethical choice and still break the law, the agency of those who choose to obey the law is diminished, as is the law itself.
Hopefully, we pro-agency Mormons will grow in numbers as the ramifications of legislating this kind of morality becomes more apparent.