Monday, April 27, 2009

Our Friends the Atheists

This morning's New York Times has a front-page article by Laurie Goodstein regarding the resurgence of atheism in the United States. The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, an atheist organization in South Carolina, has been overwhelmed by the positive response to its billboard campaign. "The Secular Student Alliance now has 146 chapters" at colleges and universities, "up from 42 in 2003," as Ms. Goodstein reports.

There are those who would be disturbed or even offended by such news. As I was reading this article, however, it occurred to me that the resurgence of atheism actually presents a great opportunity for Latter-day Saints to share the gospel. This is because the reasons that many people become atheists is quite similar to the reasons that some people become Latter-day Saints. The outcomes of their searches are miles apart, but the questions and issues are actually rather similar.

Does that sound surprising to you? I have no survey data, but I have known more than a few atheists during my life, and of course I have known many LDS converts, as well. Consider the following:

  • Many people are disillusioned with the Bible as the fundamental source of religious truth. As Ms. Goodstein notes in describing a meeting of college student atheists in South Carolina, "many of the ... students at the meeting were highly literate in the Bible and religious history." However, there are many different and conflicting ways to interpret the Bible, some of which have been used to justify horrific behaviors, such as sexism, racism, slavery, and genocide. Within most of mainstream Christianity, what is used to justify belief in the Bible itself is often some variety or another of tradition--and tradition simply isn't a sufficient basis to direct one's life; different peoples have different traditions, which often conflict. As far as "having faith" is concerned--well, the people of Jonestown had a lot of faith, too. Disillusionment with the Bible as the sole source of doctrine is a factor in some LDS conversions, as well, by my experience.
  • Many people are disgusted with the anti-reason / anti-science bias of many Christians. The persecution of Galileo is often cited in the atheism literature as an example of how religion treats science that seems to conflict with the Bible. The recent disputes regarding the teaching of evolution in schools have convinced many people that committed Christians simply are not open to the evidence of science--an untenable position in the twenty-first century. For some LDS converts, as well, the aspect of the Gospel that embraces learning and knowledge is a factor in their attraction to the LDS Church.
  • Many people are disgusted with Christian attempts to violate the separation of Church and State. In ways large and small, attempts are made every year to give Christian beliefs some special status under the law. This is offensive to the many people who understand the American Constitution to state that no such special status is legal--which is indeed part of the point of the First Amendment. For some LDS converts, as well, it is a relief to associate with a church that embraces the Constitution as a revealed document (see D&C 101:77, 80).
To people with concerns like these, the LDS faith and its understanding of the Christian gospel can have special appeal:

  • Latter-day Saints base their belief primarily upon personal revelation, not primarily upon the Bible or other written scriptures. Oh, sure, we have more written scriptures than any other Christian church; indeed, although I am not sure of this, I suspect that, when it comes to what are considered central scriptures, the LDS have more than any other religion of any flavor. And, yes, we stress knowing the scriptures. However, all of this is secondary, in terms of what our faith is actually based on. The ultimate basis of an individual's faith, for the LDS, should not be confidence in the scriptures, or in allegiance to tradition, but rather on personal revelation directly from God to the individual. This is the most radical and distinctive approach to justifying religious claims about truth in the history of religious thought. We LDS should embrace our distinctiveness, and make this the centerpiece of our discussion with our atheist friends (and others, for that matter).
  • The Latter-day Saints embrace modern science. In particular, I think of the example in chemistry of Henry Eyring, the late father of Elder Henry B. Eyring, a current member of the Quorum of the Twelve. (See Henry J. Eyring's book, Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring, published by Desert Book in 2008.) Although individual General Authorities have had opinions on the issue--sometimes conflicting with each other--there is no official position of the Church specifically regarding evolution. To my way of thinking, the closest description of an official position is that mentioned in the brief article on "Evolution" in the LDS Church-sponsored Encyclopedia of Mormonism: "The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again (D&C 101:32-33)" (Evenson, 1992). One way of looking at it is that the LDS assume that there cannot really be a conflict between science and religion: we expect that many things are yet to be revealed to us. Here again, ongoing revelation, this time as a communal event, is a revolutionary position within the history of religious thought, especially within Christianity. And, here again, we should embrace our uniqueness, and make this a centerpiece for discussion with our atheist friends. It is worth pointing out that it is a scriptural tenet with us that "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth" (D&C 93:36, emphasis added).
  • The Latter-day Saint faith embraces the separation of Church and State. It is literally an article of faith with us--our Eleventh Article of Faith, to be precise--that we embrace the separation of Church and State: "We claim the privilege of worshipping 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."

Yes, I am well aware--painfully aware--that not all Latter-day Saints live up to these ideals. However, we must distinguish between our core principles, and the imperfect ways in which the Saints live those core principles. Those core principles are what some of our atheist friends will find attractive. They, and our personal testimonies, should inform the discussions (illustrated) that we have with our atheist friends, acquaintances, and family members.

Overall, with regards to our friends the atheists, we need to keep in mind the principles taught in D&C 123, particularly verse 12:

For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it--
Let us be the ones who show these people where to find the truth.


Evenson, W. E. (1992). Evolution. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 478.

Laurie Goodstein. (2009, April 27). More atheists are shouting it from rooftops. The New York Times, pp. A1, A13.

(The photo--"KJ, Delphine, and THD discussing Wikimania at warm up party," by Cary Bass, dated 30 July 2007--was obtained from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license.)

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