Of Humanism and Religious Freedom

Can a creed that claims to be non-religious be itself a religion? Is the professed irreligion of the leading social elites not only a religion but America’s state religion, reinforced by Federal, state, and local governments?

Consider a typical school commencement ceremony, whether college or high school. A speaker declares that we must leave all talk of God behind, toss into the dustbin the dogmas of religion that divide us, and embrace a view of life that brings people together in a common cause of humanity, a village of fellow passengers on this tiny planet as it wends its course through the universe. At another similar commencement ceremony a different speaker declares that we should rise above the hates and lusts of mankind and embrace the love of God, join together in our common heritage as children of the family of God, learning to live with each other here that we may all the better live with our Heavenly Father in the eternities. Which of these, today, is likely to receive the greater applause and public commendation? Which of these speakers, on the other hand, is more likely to be censored and not even permitted to present his views, perhaps under threat of a lawsuit? Or, to make the question easier to answer, which is more likely to receive favorable coverage in the media?

Expressions of skepticism about God and His existence are embraced, praised, and rewarded in contemporary American society. Declarations of faith in God meet anything from patronizing smiles, to hostility, to punitive sanctions under the prevailing culture. The predominant American society, while professing to be neutral about religion, has some very strong opinions about religion and its expression.

In a land of constitutional free speech, that allows no state religion, this should seem an odd discussion, a throwback to history. Cursory familiarity with the historical chronicle would bring to mind other places and times when an incautious word on religion could earn a speaker severe punishment, not excluding cruel execution. Deviation from the local religion was certainly risky business anciently. We also may recall tales of the Spanish Inquisition and the bloody controversies of the Protestant Reformation, as well as the perennial anti-Semitism that has followed the House of Israel throughout its Diaspora. Social revolutions have dealt harshly with religion, from the French revolution to every communist regime, while clumsily endeavoring to create new secular religions (that failed miserably to engage adherents).

The malodorous plant of state religion followed the colonists to America, but it had trouble taking root, particularly among the English colonies. The freedom of wide open spaces, and the need for an armed populace, made oppressive government difficult to maintain. Thomas Jefferson considered the establishment of legal guaranties of religious freedom in Virginia to be among his life’s most important achievements (the other being the founding of the University of Virginia). The principle of that law was later made a part of the United States Constitution with the adoption of the First Amendment.

The public outcry from media and politicians (with little echo from the general populace) over recent efforts of states to reinforce freedom of religion against encroachments by regulatory dicta and court edicts strongly suggests that there is one—and only one—protected national religion in the United States today. It needs no protection offered by these state laws, because its tenets are the motivating heart of the government actions threatening all of the other religions. It goes by many names—as do many broad religions—and includes a variety of sects, also not uncommon among religions. For facility of discussion, I will refer to just one of its appellations, Humanism.

The religion of Humanism has a core belief—shared by all of its sects and denominations—that man is the measure of everything. Man decides what is truth, what is good, what is real. Yes, that is more than a bit narcissistic, which is probably the key to its attraction, particularly among the intelligentsia and the elites. The chief corollary to this main tenet is that God does not matter, whether you believe in Him or not (some Humanist sects tolerate a belief in God or some sort of Supreme Being for reasons of nostalgia and to broaden popular acceptance).

Humanism has an elaborate set of dogmas, commandments, taboos, and rituals. It has its own liturgical language, which is required to be used, for example, in all doctoral dissertations—especially those in the social sciences, though its linguistic hegemony is now reaching to hard sciences as well—and in more colloquial versions observed by all media outlets, especially broadcast journalism. Humanism has its sacred texts along with its college of revered and beatified Humanists of yore.

I was going to write that Humanism has its own seminaries, but, frankly, that includes nearly all colleges and universities in the nation. The clergy of Humanism is largely self-appointed, though it has intricate, Byzantine hierarchies, with no one at the top for long, though all presume to speak for everyone. The clergy are supported by varieties of orders of acolytes and sycophants, the gathering of disciples a key method of rising in Humanism’s hierarchy, and the loss of disciples a sure path to disfavor and obscurity.

While most religions preach exceptionalism, exclusivity, or preeminence, whether in faith or favor with God, Humanism may be the most intolerant of all. Being the state religion, it uses the full power of legislatures, regulators, law enforcement agencies, and the courts to advance its cause and bring in to line people who disagree with its tenets and prescriptions, who violate any of its taboos—particularly who utter any of its taboo words—or who remark on the foibles of its revered demigods. Significantly, any practice by any other religion that interferes with Humanism must yield to Humanist demands, not excluding the profligate use of federal, state, and local moneys to fund its projects, prescriptions, and priests.

Therein lies the explanation for both the desire of various state legislatures to reaffirm religious freedom and the inveterate and fierce hostility to these efforts from the media and a bevy of national celebrities. Freedom of religious belief and practice is a threat only to an established national religion, erecting obstacles to forced conformity with the state church. Failure of efforts to reaffirm the protections of the First Amendment will result in an increasingly intimidating society, constraining intellectual freedom and unauthorized religious observance to a degree unseen in the United States since 1787.

In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Those words are the most prominent inscription in the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson might get into trouble saying such a thing at a modern commencement ceremony at the University of Virginia.

Of Christmas and Faith in Miracles

The events associated with the birth of the Savior occurred in a miraculous time during an age of miracles. It was also an era of grinding poverty, breathtaking opulence, and many gradations of wealth in between. People were ignorant, well educated, parochial in vision, and metropolitan in view. Religious beliefs involved spurious superstitions, animistic traditions, polytheistic practices, monotheistic faith, and sophisticated atheism.

That is to say that those times and ours have more in common than we might have supposed, which is the point of my writing this evening. Perhaps we create too much distance between us and the birth of the Savior. Measured in human lives, 2000 years is a long time. In the eternal measures of God and heaven, it must be acknowledged as being brief, a matter of yesterday and common memory.

That being true, it would be odd to assume that God, whose miracles were on prominent display in Judea of long ago, would work by miracles yesterday and not do so today. The lack of belief in either one logically undermines faith in the other, because it assumes limits on either God’s ability or His willingness to work by miracles, a possibility hard for the mind to accept. The disbelief in either ancient or modern miracles inclines the mind to reject God’s miraculous interventions entirely.

For some it can be much easier to believe in miracles of the past than to recognize modern ones. Others may be willing to see God’s hand in their own lives but consider the ancient scriptural accounts as morality stories, the details of which should not be taken too literally. We find examples of both among our contemporaries and throughout history.

Of course, among the sophisticated set have always been those who doubted miracles of both past and present. With no recognition of personal involvement in miracles, they reject the word of those who actually witnessed them. They are quick to dismiss others’ experiences, with nice attitudes of condescension for the “lovely legends” and “faith traditions,” that must be taken figuratively if accepted at all. When those who know assert the reality of the wonders, the sophisticates can be known to turn to anger and scorn.

And yet reality can be stubborn and defy rejection. Angels delivering messages from God to priests in the Temple and to shepherds in the fields, God speaking to common men by dreams, signs from God to men in distant places motivating them to “traverse afar” to witness God’s works of salvation, and many other examples of heaven’s direct involvement in human affairs can be easier to dismiss if they only happened in hazy history. When presented with facts of past and present miracles skeptics are hard put to know how to deal with them, other than to dismiss them out of hand and cast ignorant aspersions on those claiming any direct and tangible involvement with Divinity. Nevertheless, the facts remain.

It works the other way, too. Denying modern miracles makes it easier to deny their existence long ago and to convert them into lovely stories instead of real world evidences of the power and love of God and of His involvement in our lives. If there are no miracles now, then they were unlikely to exist in the past. The miracles attendant to the Savior’s birth are transformed into fabulous fabrications rather than marvelous signs of the reality of the birth of the Son of God. The reality of modern miracles, however, attests to the reality of the miracles recorded in ancient scripture.

Admittedly, with rare exceptions, miracles are not for the edification of the faithless anyway. The Lord usually provides room for disbelief for those who choose to disbelieve and for their own sake spares the doubtful from divine confirmation of what they doubt. The Lord did not send angels to invite the leaders of society to the stable in Bethlehem, but instead He called out to those who readily accepted His invitation to witness the baby laid to rest in the cattle’s manger. He did send signs, and through the signs a summons, to the believing wise men of the East who had faith that this child was to be the King of Kings.

Similarly, in modern times, to prepare the way for the approach of the Savior’s second coming, the Lord has reached out through angels, heavenly messengers, and by His own voice to the humble faithful who are ready to believe His word, confirming their belief with many and miraculous signs and wonders.

It is a lot easier to believe in the wonders of the Savior’s birth when we witness and receive their like in our own day. Our unchangeable God works by similar methods with all of His children. And the saints of all ages rejoice.

Of Free Agency and the Game of Life

This past week my wife and I were drawn to an interesting and insightful headline from the Sports section of the newspaper: “Free agency can be useful tool if used correctly”. Very true. This may be true in the games of sports. It certainly is true in life.

In professional sports, free agency means having some choice as to which team a player may join and on what terms, depending on talent and performance, interest, and the advocacy skill of his representative, among other factors. Used well, the player may go on to a successful and happy career, profitable for him and for his team, opening up even greater opportunities, including perhaps championship achievements and continuing successes beyond. Used unwisely, free agency can lead to a career that is a frustrating struggle inhibiting growth, achievement, and limiting follow on opportunities.

In life, free agency means that you and I can choose our manner of living in mortality and, in the process, the terms of living and opportunities available in the immortal worlds, depending again on talent (as expressed in performance), interest (again demonstrated by performance), and the effectiveness of our representative. If you will agree to His terms, you can have the very best Advocate as your representative, who only emphasizes your triumphs and takes upon Himself the blame for all of your failures.

A popular board game I knew as a child was “The Game of LIFE.” In this game several players compete by moving along the board on a marked path, buffeted by the vicissitudes and aggrandized by the rewards of life as determined by the cast of the die. Its virtue is that it presents to children how life is a steadily moving journey filled with a variety of experiences building to some degree on the ones before. The game was not a favorite of mine, because it asks for little skill from the players, the events of the game subject almost entirely to chance. In that sense, it teaches the false lesson that how you fare in life has almost nothing to do with your skill and the exercise of your free agency and everything to do with fate, beyond your control. Success or failure happens. Perhaps the game does little harm as a diversion, but I have not played it in a long while.

Life is not a game of chance. Neither, is it a sport, least of all a spectator sport. Each of us is the key and central player involved in making and applying decisions. The period of life called mortality is a testing ground, where decisions are free only because results are meaningful. The results derive their meaning from their reach into the worlds of immortality, following our death and resurrection. Because life has meaning then, it has meaning now.

That meaning is a gift from Jesus Christ, purchased by His free gift of voluntarily suffering for our sins, including surrendering His life in an unjust execution, one that He could have prevented should He have exercised His free agency not to bear our burdens. Because of the injustice of that suffering, He came back from the dead and conquered death, to die no more. Death was thus converted into a temporary interlude for all of us, allowing the choices of this life to extend beyond the grave.

If, on the contrary, each one of us were to end in death, if our being were then to cease to exist, then nothing we did would really matter in that end. Whatever we did, whatever we achieved, whatever we learned, so what? It would all be gone, never to be reclaimed.

Nothing we do makes any difference in the end, if in the end we are nothing, literally nothing. As far as we are concerned, it all vanishes with us, and any memory of us ends with the end of any who remembered. With nothing now mattering later, then all loses any present meaning. Any meaning we attach to anything now is a mirage, or even a charade. Like a child’s game, things seem to matter until the game is over, when nothing matters.

If nothing that we do matters, then the choices and decisions that we make do not matter, they have no lasting result, they make no real difference in the end. Whether we put too much salt or pepper in the soup, it makes no difference if no one eats it. With death as the end of it all, of all existence of any kind for each of us, then we really have no freedom, because we cannot and do not change anything for ourselves or for others. In any and all cases, whatever choices we make, it all ends the same way, in complete nothingness, annihilation of being. Choice itself becomes meaningless, a mirage, a charade.

But it is not like that in reality. It does not feel like that, and very few of us, even the atheists among us, believe or act like nothingness is our destiny, as if what we do is lost in the void, as if our choices do not matter. Christ’s redemption of us and of the world has changed everything for everyone. It gives lasting value to our choices, our actions, our decisions, making them all very real, preserving their consequences, their reach into the continuing life beyond our very temporary death. Our decisions can and do affect ourselves and others, in lingering ways. Christ’s redemption from death makes our freedom possible, then and now, because what we do matters, and how it matters is preserved.

With that freedom, Christ has given us a tool, which certainly can be useful, if used correctly. Fortunately, He also has given us guidance and still gives us guidance so that we may get and save the best results from the use of our free agency. And that is a big part of why we celebrate Easter, why Christ’s atonement and resurrection are the central event in Earth’s history.

Of Belief and Choice

Belief in God is a choice, and with all choices worthy of the name, there are results directly related to that choice. If you choose to believe, you receive the fruits of belief, and with belief strong enough to result in action you receive the fruits of faith. If you choose not to believe in God, you receive the results and consequences of that choice, also.

It is important to understand that belief or disbelief in God does not change the reality of God’s existence or change Him in any way. All it does is change your relationship to God. A major purpose of this life, for each person who lives it, is to develop and test faith in God, so your choice of belief matters a lot to you and how you live and succeed in this very brief and temporary existence we call mortality.

The principles of belief and faith in general are recognized for being so closely tied to action that the maxim is oft repeated that whether you believe that you will fail or that you will succeed in something you are likely to be right, since your belief will govern your effort. There is a similarity—but only a similarity—with regard to belief in God. Whether you believe in God or not in this life, the events of life are likely to seem to confirm you in your belief. Those who believe in God will, if they choose to persist in their belief, increasingly see His hand in everything. Those who choose not to believe in God will find many ways to convince themselves of their choice.

Those with faith in God see evidence of Him in all things and are increasingly able to draw upon the powers of heaven. The ancient American prophet Alma declared, “I have all things as a testimony” of God (Alma 30:41). Jesus Christ, after His resurrection, declared to His disciples that “signs shall follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17). In modern times the Savior declared again that “signs follow those that believe”, but He warned and added that signs come “not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:9, 10) God is not a machine, responding to direction and command, but rather a loving parent who bestows His blessings on His children for our benefit as plentifully as we will receive. Our belief enhances our ability to receive.

On the other hand, those who choose not to believe in God in this life can usually conjure up reasons not to believe and even to explain away what believers would consider strong evidences of the reality of God. These words spoken nearly a hundred years before the birth of Christ, by one who chose not to believe, sound very fresh in the twenty-first century:

Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.

How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so. (Alma 30:14-16)

It has been my observation that God usually leaves for those who choose not to believe plenty of room to apply their choice, to find an explanation that excludes God and His power. He rarely provides knowledge founded on hard, convincing evidence until after a person has made his choice to believe and exercised faith. Then the evidences come and with increasing clarity.

The Lord wants the virtues that are associated with belief—humility, patience, perseverance, trust, courage, obedience, and many others including broadness of mind and soul—to be developed in us, which would be scarcely possible if He provided the evidence of conviction before the development and trial of our faith in Him. As we grow in our faith, we grow in these other virtues.

Not only does the person who chooses not to believe fail to recognize the evidences of God before Him, but God intentionally withholds from him the greater evidences. In effect, the Lord rewards believer and unbeliever with what they choose, confirmation of belief or the withholding of what the unbeliever would consider verification. The unbeliever, as with the believer, has to come to the knowledge of God through faith.

Part of the grace of God, available in this life, is that the choice of unbelief is not final while mortality lasts, and those who believe are commanded by God to employ their faith to help stir belief and faith in others. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) Believers are commanded to tell, to share their belief. God is ready to begin to lead to faith and from faith to knowledge those who will begin to hear. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15)

Of Farewells and Forever

My son considers the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings evidence that Tolkien did not know when and how to end a book. On the other hand, I have always loved those chapters. I find the passages deeply moving each time I read them. In a book rich in art and story they speak to my heart while tying important threads of the work together, completing the grand pattern woven of many tales, valuable to the telling of the greater story.

Part of the attraction for me, as with other great books with which I have enjoyed many a memorable experience, is that I am reluctant to close the cover and say goodbye. These final chapters of The Lord of the Rings are a prolonged goodbye in a trilogy that is at its core a farewell to a whole world that Tolkien spent his life elaborating and never finished.

Like other great books of art, the work brings into bold relief important themes of reality. In this life we experience a continuing series of goodbyes. They fill our hearts with a tenderness, with a longing for lingering.

For those who consider this life all that there is, goodbyes have a dreadful finality without remedy. The dear one is gone, the experience has ended, something cherished is lost. These are finalities that are hard to face. People avoid them or refuse to recognize them when they cannot be avoided.

Notice even in our language of parting that our words have a lingering quality about them, as if there were no break, as if there were an enduring connection, another day. We do not seem to have a parting phrase that means, “so it ends,” or, “it is over, done.” Instead, we use words like, “goodbye,” a contraction of “God be with ye,” as if to connect us by our wishes and thoughts to the one leaving. Similarly, “farewell” carries with it our interest in the future success of our family member or friend. And, “until we meet again,” expresses the expectation, however forlorn, of another day in each other’s presence. Those words, however, cannot mend the finality of it all if there is nothing beyond this life.

If this life is all that there is, there comes a time when there will be no other day of meeting. This life is then full of endings that are absolute and unalterable, the greatest of which is our own ending, when with our departure all existence ceases for all that it concerns us. The awesomeness of that leaves a longing for something more, something to convey meaning that otherwise would not exist. If when we die all is done, if there is no more, then how does anything matter? We intuit, “there must be something more.”

Indeed there is. Rather than finality governing mortality, the defining characteristic of this life is that so much around us is so very temporary. As it should be. This life was designed as a temporary existence, a brief exception to the order of the universe, ever changing with the movement of time. Mortality was not designed to be the end of anything, the only finality being when mortality itself comes to its conclusion and this world is brought back into the realm of the eternities, where real, unending life prevails.

Jesus Christ descended from the eternal worlds into the world of mortality in order to preserve all good things forever. An angel, a messenger from the eternal worlds, explained it to the ancient prophet Nephi as “the condescension of God,” whereby Jesus, the Savior, experienced all things mortal, and suffered for all things mortal, including death itself, gaining power to preserve all of this world worth preserving and worthy of being brought into the eternities (see 1 Nephi 11:26-33). With His resurrection, Christ left mortality, creating the avenue for all of us to leave it as well and bring with us all that we had gained from our mortal experience.

Most important of these gains are our relationships with each other. Most important among these relationships are those of the family, of parent and child and, highest of all, of husband and wife. All that matters, and these relationships matter most, is preserved through Christ.

Without Christ, as everything perished it would be lost. People would die and would be eventually forgotten, their works decayed and vanished. Memories would fade. Relationships would end. All would end, constantly, until the end of the earth itself, a pointless and meaningless existence. Without Christ and His atonement, there would be a dreadful finality to every parting, every last touch, every last glance, every last memory clothed with a hopeless END that nothing could cure. With Christ, every good thing is saved.

By receiving Christ, since entering into His eternal order through the ordinances that He prescribed and authorized, I have the promise that the farewells have become temporary. The goodbyes and the partings have an end. Even death itself is swallowed up as a transient phase of life. I have no fears of losing any good thing but rather peaceful confidence of inheriting all good things forever.

(First published May 26, 2013)

Of the Power of God and Creation

The prophets teach that God is all powerful. I accept, believe, and know that to be true. This means that God has all power that there is, but it does not mean that He has power that does not exist. God does not have power to create something out of nothing, ex nihilo. He does have power to make something a greater, more useful, more organized something.

This is the true notion of creation, taking elements and substances that have always existed and organizing them into things more complex, greater, better, more useful. When God created the earth, He took matter and elements that already existed—that always existed—and formed them into this globe, this planet.

This doctrine, by the way, avoids the silly “logical conundrum” that some supercilious atheists have liked to raise against the concept of an all-powerful God. One of their posers used by some in an effort to perplex believers in the Almighty is the question, can an all-powerful God create a rock too heavy for Him to lift? The inspired response to this question (that does not merit serious response, because it is not a serious inquiry) is either or both of two answers. One, no, He cannot do what cannot be done. Two, all matter already exists, and none of it is too great for Him to handle.

(First published August 31, 2008)