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
The Bible is full of descriptions of what is right and what is wrong. For most of the Christian world, it is THE definitive source of such knowledge. So, it should be little wonder that so many Christians spend so much time defining modern ethical questions in terms of right and wrong based on Biblical knowledge. This is generally a good thing. However, it is very easy to get into a position where one sees this information as prescriptive for the world, and to demand that the world conform to this standard. That is not why this knowledge of good and evil was given.
The Hebrew religion of the Old Testament as passed down by Moses was very much a societal religion. They were told how to worship, structure their lives, prepare their food, and punish the sinners. Everything had a process and a purpose, and part of that purpose was to protect the community.
When Jesus came, the religion he taught was not about the collective, but was instead focused on the individual. He taught many of the same principles, but within a completely inverted paradigm. He taught that it is not enough to perform religion, you have to believe it. It is not enough to know the scriptures, you have to understand them. It is not enough to respect others, you have to love them. In these ways and more, He showed that the purpose of religion is to make us better people, not simply to preserve a society.
As Christians, we need to understand this shift. It is a shift from looking outward to looking inward. From compelling obedience to encouraging growth. From enforcing peace, to finding peace. We must first cast the beam from our own eyes, to help a brother with the mote in their eye.
In this light, it should be clear that the definitions of wrong and right as given in the Bible and interpreted under the New and Everlasting Gospel exist for the edification of the individual. They are not meant to be compulsory, and, in fact, would be largely impotent if made so. They are a guide for the believer to find peace and joy in this life and in serving the Lord.
It is quite natural to want to share the path to this surpassing peace and profound joy with those around us, but we cannot lead them down this path if they do not wish to come. To attempt to force the issue often results in a greater resistance to these teachings. We can only effectively share the Gospel through love.
For this reason, there are few guidelines in the new testament for how to treat others except using these two principles: love and forgiveness. Yes, we want them to obey the word of the Lord, but this should be because we love them, not because we want them to be like us. When they sin, we must forgive them, as that is what we all require for our own sins.
Until we are perfect, as only Christ ever was, we must use our knowledge of right and wrong to improve ourselves. And part of that goal for which we strive is learning to love and forgive perfectly.
For anyone who knows anything about Mormons, the answer to the above question is obvious. Yes.
So, the real question is, why are we still getting this question?
The people who declare that Mormons are not Christian are using a definitional argument. They are defining Christianity in a way that suits them and excludes us. As a general rule their arguments are generally along these lines:
- We don’t believe that the Bible is the only word of God.
- We don’t believe in the Trinity.
- They (those who call us non-Christian) are offended that we won’t accept their baptisms or other sacraments.
- They are offended that we proselytize other Christians.
Our divergence from other Christian religions on these points is significant, and makes us very different from them. Each of these points also stems from a much deeper core difference. For example, it’s not just the Book of Mormon that is additional scripture for us. We also believe anything spoken by prophets when they are fulfilling their callings is scripture, even talks given in General Conference by General Authorities is considered scripture. However, even when you consider these deeper differences there is nothing that reduces the role of Christ in our doctrine. We are very different from other Christian religions, but are still very much Christian.
Ultimately, it’s a desire to marginalize or denigrate our faith that motivates people to assert that we are not Christian, and ignorance that perpetuates the slander. Sure, we can try to simply retort, “yes we are,” but ultimately that carries little weight. What we need to fight is the ignorance and prejudice behind the assertion.
Next time someone asks you if Mormons are Christian, try getting some clarification. What do they mean by Christian? What do they know about Mormons? Why would you think that we are not Christian, despite the name of Jesus Christ in the name of our church? Once you get clarification, don’t shy away from our differences. Some people don’t like us because we are so different. Difference is explanatory. Our responses and our lives should show that we are Christian.