What if . . . ?

May 14, 2007 | 49 comments
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What if I didn’t believe in God? Would I still be a Mormon?

That’s a tough question since I do believe. Because I believe, I understand being a Mormon as living in covenant relation with God, recognizing him as my Creator Father, remembering his wisdom and kindness and my nothingness before him. That remembrance carries with it my covenant relation and my obligations not only to him, but also to those with whom I live—to my family, to the Church, to the world at large. I have covenanted to receive God’s wisdom and kindness, and to partake of that wisdom and kindness by confessing the divinity of his Son, who offered his life for all, and by imitating his atoning sacrifice. The Christian’s relationship with God cannot be solitary, just as the Godhead is not solitary. The good life is life with God (and, therefore, also with others), and I can receive that life because I am covenant with him and have the gift of the Holy Ghost, God-with-me.

But what if? What if there were no God? What would the good life be then? I think that, at least for me, it would be very much like the life I live now. Of course what I think about the meaning of my life would change drastically, but I don’t think that what I do would change very much. I doubt that many, if any, of my friends would notice much change. Why not? Because even if I think about my life merely in practical terms, ignoring its covenantal quality, it is very good.

My life with my wife and my children is shaped through-and-through by LDS scripture and by the practices and teachings of the Church, both as an institution and as a culture. It should go without saying that neither the institutional Church nor Mormon culture is perfect. I’ve been a member long enough and I am wide-eyed enough not to need someone else to rehearse for me a list of Mormonism’s faults and failings (though, if they make such a list, I wish they would get it right). Nevertheless, a life shaped by the institution and culture of Mormonism is a good life. My children are close and care-full for each other and for Janice and me, not only because of history and circumstance, but also because Mormonism’s doctrine of sealing has taught us to be so and because Mormon culture is a culture of families. Of course there are also non-Mormon families who are close. I’m not claiming that only Mormons have good families. But Mormonism gives us a way to do so, a way that is attractive, a way that has worked for us. I cannot dissociate my life with my family from my life as a Mormon, so I would stick with my life as a Mormon to have my life as a family, as this family that we are.

Being a Mormon has also given me something that is rapidly disappearing from the world, life in a village. Again, I’m not unaware of the difficulties of village life. Yet I’m also aware that, since my conversion, my constant membership in a Mormon village—sometimes a ward, often a branch—has given me a community of other people with whom to share life, people who deepen the meaning and experience of life, Aristotelian friendships of all three types (virtue, utility, and enjoyment). I stand in front of my house to chat with the neighbors and, because I am part of the Grandview Fourth Ward in Provo, Utah, I know everyone on the street and most within several blocks, Mormon or otherwise. We stop to visit, we gossip, we worry for those with problems, we reach out to those who need help. The shape of that friendship has been quite different when we have lived in branches in other places, yet there was an important sense in which the result, a village, was the same. Our villages away from Provo were less local, but they created the same spiritual relationships: we had friends; we had obligations; we had a place among others and a social life, access to information about living, and faces to recognize and be recognized by, sometimes by pleasant surprise on the metro or the tram or in a museum. Wherever our Mormon village has been, it has brought us to know and genuinely live with people outside what would otherwise be our natural circle of acquaintances: blue-collar workers and Filipina maids; patent attorneys, corporation executives, and family farmers; truck drivers, civil engineers, and foundry workers; African, Eastern European, and Latin American immigrants. Life in our Mormon villages has made us more aware of the world.

I don’t know, however, how I would deal with the spiritual witnesses that I have received: the gentle, quiet release of meditative prayer, the forceful testimonies of those whom I love and respect, the sometimes surprising and occasionally overwhelming witness that the Spirit has born to the truth of what I have seen and heard. Nor do I know what would become of the ordinances I take to be so significant to being a Mormon: baptism, confirmation, blessings, the endowment and sealings. Without those witnesses and ordinances—experiences which make it difficult to ask “What if I did not believe in God?”—the good life would be significantly impoverished, even though it would still be good, very good.

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49 Responses to What if . . . ?

  1. greenfrog on May 14, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Jim,

    I enjoyed this, but I’m not sure you answered your own question.

    As I read this, you outline some of the doctrinally-independent values you identify with being a Mormon, but toward the end of the essay you turn away from assembling those thoughts into an answer and toward wondering how you would account for experiences that constitute important parts of your testimony of God.

    If I’m not mistaken in my reading (and I surely may be), may I confess interest in how you might respond to your question? Does the counter-factual posture overwhelm the effort to formulate a response to the hypothetical?

  2. ronito on May 14, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    I think we’ve all played this game and come to the same conclusion and patted ourselves on the back profusely.

    However, I have found the question of “What if I was raised, Catholic? Or muslim? or Hindu? Would I be mormon now?” to be a much more interesting/telling question.

  3. Jim F. on May 14, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    ronito, I am sorry that I seem to you to have been patting myself on the back for being a Mormon. I tried to avoid that. And the answer to your “more interesting” question is easy for me. I was raised in the Disciples of Christ, so the answer is, “Yes, I would be a Mormon now.” Had I not been a Christian of some kind, I don’t know what I would be now.

    greenfrog, Yes, the end is there because the counterfactual posture may overwhelm the effort. I’m not sure. When I try to do the counterfactual, I seem able to do it until I run into the experiences that give me my testimony. Then, . . . I’m no longer sure that I’m really taking up the counterfactual posture. In any case, though, I was thinking about how good my life is and how its goodness has so much to do with its Mormonness.

  4. Keith on May 14, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Interesting post Jim. You might be interested to see what Clark wrote on the advantages of Mormonism here : http://www.libertypages.com/clark/10976.html
    Much of what you write deals with the value that would still exist in a community, in having ties, etc., whether there were a God or no. I agree that much would not change. I also agree that it would be a real puzzle as to what to do with the ordinances and covenants. The might still serve a communal and personal good, but the power of being in communion with a real, personal God is lost.

    I imagine, further, that one’s teaching might differ subtly, but that tiny difference would be all the difference. The need to make things clear, or to help people find meaning in life and to live good, moral lives might be very similar, but the extra something of testimony would be missing, as it would be in giving blessings, or otherwise acting in one’s calling. Without belief in God, we simply end up representing the values of the community (a good thing) but faith in God would be transferred to faith in each other and the values we hold. This may have value too, but ultimately this would make the gospel and the Church a blind, weak, and desperate people trying to help each other.

    The sticking point for me (hypothetically speaking) if I stopped believing, would be when the community (locally or globally) started in a direction that I found socially, morally, ethically, or religiously deplorable.. For instance, I would likely have jumped ship when polygamy was introduced. I stayed with the Church and defended the Church’s ban on the priesthood because I believed those in charge were called of God, but more importantly because I knew God knew me, knew the world, knew the Church, and that he wanted me to stay with the Church. In other words, I think when one is faced with a kind of Abrahamic test (and there are may be any number of these on a communal scale or at the level of the individual—personal matters that one wrestles with) the issue really comes to a head. There I suspect one’s reaction would be vastly different—indeed that whole situation would be taken differently—if there were a God or no.

  5. Rosalynde Welch on May 14, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    If I didn’t believe, I think I, like you, would retain joy in fellowship with the Saints. But it would also be much harder to observe, say, the Word of Wisdom, or the law of tithing—those commandments that pertain not to inherent morality but to mala prohibita. But of course those are the very practices that tend to bear the load of community-making, and so my fellowship with the Saints would be weakened, maybe even fatally so.

  6. Ardis Parshall on May 14, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    If I didn’t believe in God, I don’t think I could or would be a Mormon, not even for the community it affords. Community is being like-minded, sharing an intimacy that is so much deeper than outward appearance and behavior. The fellowship and sisterhood I feel with men and women whose backgrounds and weekday lives are so different from mine comes from the recognition that we share a knowledge and hope and understanding centering on belief in the same God, and all that that implies. Not to believe in God, to go through the outward motions without the inward conviction, would be worse than empty, and I couldn’t keep it up for long. Life might still be “good” in that music would still be beautiful and fruit salad would taste as sweet and helping a friend would be as rewarding, but life without belief in God would lose its foundation. At least, having once had that foundation, I would miss it. Would I recognize the lack if I had never had it? I don’t know.

  7. Jim F. on May 15, 2007 at 12:27 am

    Keith, thanks for the link to Clark’s piece. As usual, he’s done a terrific job. And I think you’re right about the sticking point. If I didn’t believe, if I hadn’t had experiences that told me that I must be and continue to be LDS, then there are several issues that probably would have forced me to part company at some point.

    Rosalynde, I don’t have any trouble with tithing and I don’t think my lack of trouble is very tightly connected to my belief in God. Nevertheless, some of the others would be, indeed, difficult. I think, however, that, as you suggest, I would continue to keep them because they are the “practices that bear the load of community-making.”

    Ardis, could I have the feelings I have for others who otherwise are so different than I am were it not for the Church? I think I could have something like them. I certainly think I should have those feelings and that membership in the Church may not be the only way to get them. So I think–and the doubt implied by “think” is intended–I disagree.

    Could I continue to go through the outward motion if the inward conviction were missing? Obviously I’m not sure, but I think it might be possible. Nietzsche believed that the best response to the discovery that there is no Platonic realm of ideas and morality–no foundation–was to create the most beautiful life one could. Perhaps I could be a Mormon who doesn’t believe by understanding my Mormon background, belief, culture, etc. as the pallet from which I would paint the most beautiful life I could, the pallet that history had provided me. Though I’m sympathetic to Nietzsche’s response, however, I agree with you that something central to my present life would be missing.

  8. Kaimi Wenger on May 15, 2007 at 2:01 am

    Great question, Jim. Thanks for this post.

    As I’ve blogged about before, I’ve had my own ups and downs as to belief, and my own journey has been (and still is) circuitous at best. When I didn’t really believe much, though, I generally still attended (at least intermittently), for various reasons. The community was good for me. Contra Ardis, I think that the community is a fine place for people who aren’t sure, or even who think that they are sure in the opposite direction. It’s generally a community of good people, worthwhile endeavors, relatively good values. There are a lot worse things I could do on a Sunday than attend church. No matter my belief or disbelief, I can talk to people, participate in lessons, play piano, sing hymns, greet friends.

    If I believed less, I suspect (with Rosalynde) that I might avoid some of the less-obvious signals. I’d probably avoid tithing; I might not wear garments; and so on. I’d probably keep blogging, though. :P And at least making an effort to read scriptures sometimes. Even if we take away divinity and God, the scriptures still offer a lot.

    One of the best people I know, or have ever known, is an atheist Jew. He’s a truly remarkable man, one who I admire tremendously, and who absolutely meets the model of Christ-like in his interactions with everyone around him. His interaction with religious ideals is fascinating. He closes his office for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, not because he observes, but out of respect for his parents. He’s explicitly told me on more than one occassion that he tries to live life by the Golden Rule — and as far as I can tell, he succeeds wonderfully. His compassion and genuine caring for others is legendary. Meanwhile, he writes beautifully, drawing on the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, arguing for justice and fairness for people around him. I don’t know how realistic it is to have that kind of hope — but if I weren’t Mormon, I like to think I’d follow a path of that sort.

    In some ways, I think attending would be easier for the non-believer, because the non-believer can go in with lower expectations. Mormonism has its warts — doctrinal, cultural, and otherwise. I suspect it would be easier to accept and overlook those warts as a non-believing community member. It seems a little like the clarity that (sometimes) happens with a break-up. I can personally remember girlfriends who were all wrong for me, with whom I fought terribly when we were together. But once I stopped trying to see them in a way that didn’t fit — as a girlfriend — I was more able to see and appreciate their good qualities, the fact that they were remarkable and strong people. And similarly, I think a nonbelieving attendee could apply filters, block out the bad, and benefit from the good of the community, chances for service, and the friendship of ward members.

    Of course, this assumes an amicable break-up, so to speak. :P So I guess my own reaction would depend a lot on the circumstances, I think. If I had _bad_ experiences with the church that made me upset, that made me question God, that triggered depression or feelings of inadequacy or anger, I doubt I’d stick around. I’ve known people who have left for those reasons, and haven’t returned. I don’t blame them — I think if the church triggered depression in me, I’d leave, too. And if it triggers depression in a member, that member probably should leave, should find some way to approach God that is less painful.

    But if I lost my belief under better circumstances, I don’t think I’d be averse to hanging around. I’d make friends on the New Order Mormon message board, attend, avoid tithing, sing hymns, and have a nice group of friends for babysitting, activities, service, music, and even worship.

    Also, I would type lengthy blog comments at midnight rather than work on the paper I need to have finished tomorrow, because I like to procrastinate, and this is a nice distraction. Alas, all distractions must end . . .

  9. Ugly Mahana on May 15, 2007 at 2:29 am

    Nice to see that you are up, too.

  10. DKL on May 15, 2007 at 4:52 am

    I’m a former atheist and a recovering non-believer, and it sounds odd to hear commenters focus so much on how it would impact their motivation to follow the differentiating commandments.

    For me, commandments like tithing and the Word of Wisdom are motivators in themselves. I think it’s a waste of time to pay tithing and abstain from alcohol, coffee, and tobacco if I’m not going to read the scriptures and do my home teaching and attend church and magnify my callings. So I guess I see the relationship between the differentiating commandments and my activity as exactly the reverse of many of the commenters.

    Furthermore, I think that the biggest difference that being a Mormon makes for me relates to how I see my family. I think that many of the responsibilities surrounding family are among the most profoundly rewarding things that we can experience as humans (this seems more true in the abstract than, so I’ll leave aside any examples). The Mormon concept of eternity expands the extant of our parental obligations beyond our lives, and expands the horizon of parental responsibility beyond our comprehension. That’s definitely an outlook that would change if I reverted to atheism.

    I guess this notion of eternity entails the covenants with God that you mention in your post, but I have a hard time conceiving of God as actively involved in my life. I remember reading somewhere that after Ronald Reagan got shot, he was a pretty passive executive, but everyone around him had worked with him long enough to know what he wanted to get done. I tend to think that God operates that way, too, only without the bullets. And maybe we don’t pray to Heavenly Mother because she left Him (following Margaret Barker, I’d say that the divine separation likely coincided with the Deuteronomist revision that excised the feminine aspects of the Hebrew God…)

  11. Nehringk on May 15, 2007 at 8:35 am

    There seen to be layers of identity coupled with the “what if?” question. Were I to lose my belief in God, would I still be a Mormon? Would I still be a Christian? Would I still be religious? Would I gravitate toward Buddhism? Would I still live a life of hope? Would I be at all charitable? Would I be a humanist? Would I be a cynic? Would I value my family in the same way? Would I come to search for God?

    You have raised an interesting question, Jim, and offered a thoughtful start at an answer. Our identities are shaped by pulls and tugs of the mind and the spirit, by hopes and fears and promises kept and unkept to ourselvers and others — including God. Life is rich, complex, and tangled. But we press forward, even when our hope is neither perfect nor bright. We want to say, with Abraham, “thy servant hath sought thee earnestly, now I have found thee.”

    Thank your for such a thoughtful post, which has lifted a burden for me today.

  12. Adam Greenwood on May 15, 2007 at 9:53 am

    I’m not sure one could honestly participate in Mormonism to enjoy the sociality, though come to think of it there could be room for a kind of “righteous gentile” status where one came and listened and helped out with things and kept the norms but didn’t participate in the ordinances.

    But I think someone who has the phrase in their heart “Lord, help thou my unbelief” would not be participating in Mormonism just to enjoy the sociality, even if they did not currently believe.

  13. DKL on May 15, 2007 at 10:03 am

    Adam, I wonder what Jesus would do. If He didn’t believe in God, would He still participate in Mormonism?

  14. Glenn on May 15, 2007 at 10:30 am

    If a Filipina maid no longer lives in the Philippines is she still a Filipina maid? (and what if she no longer cleans but she still wears the outfit?)

    “I think it’s a waste of time to pay tithing and abstain from alcohol, coffee, and tobacco if I’m not going to read the scriptures and do my home teaching and attend church and magnify my callings

    DKL —

    Maybe I don’t understand exactly what you are saying here, but it seems to me that a former athiest and recovering non-believer (it’s been 12 weeks since my last doubt…) would recognize the value in doing good for good’s sake, rather than doing good for god’s sake. I have known several atheists (some who consider themselves Mormon because of the culture they were raised in that will always be a part of their “DNA” as they say) who talk about ethics vs. morals (which I expect is not a new debate to anyone on this blog) and I would think that if someone really believes that there is wisdom in the WoW they would follow it whether they believed it was divine counsel or not — it wouldn’t seem like a waste of time or that it was connected to home teaching (which may also be independantly “good” if it is helping others) or magnifying callings, etc etc.

    I hope I’m not totally misreading you. I found it an interesting statement.

  15. Adam Greenwood on May 15, 2007 at 11:08 am

    DKL,
    if Jesus were persuaded of his own non-existence, I believe he would not participate in Mormonism.

  16. DKL on May 15, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Glen, I don’t share your friends’ outlook on the intrinsic wisdom of the Word of Wisdom or tithing. Though I was raised a Mormon, Mormonism is not in my DNA. I’ve got some very good Mormon friends, but in general I do get along better with non-Mormons than with Mormons — I’m just a glad-handing frat-boy, so “the world” ends up being a very comfortable place for me. When I was a child being raised in Mormonism, I spoke as a Mormon, I understood as a Mormon, I thought as a Mormon. But when I became an atheist, I put away religious things.

    Now that I’m a believer again, I see the Word of Wisdom and tithing having the same impact on members of the church as hazing does on fraternity pledges — what Rosalynde refers to as “community-making.” As one who used to haze fraternity pledges, I’m fine with that. All the same, I’m not sold on their innate goodness.

    But just to be perfectly clear: My point is that I pay tithing and obey the Word of Wisdom in order to believe — not vice versa.

  17. greenfrog on May 15, 2007 at 11:55 am

    nehringk wrote: There seen to be layers of identity coupled with the “what if?” question.

    Nice point, interesting angle.

    Respecting various mala prohibita commandments, I think simultaneously of Gawain’s green sash and Alma’s sermon at the waters of Mormon. Perhaps tithing and dietary limitations can be considered ways of sharing and bearing one another’s burdens.

  18. Brian G on May 15, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    I guess I’m alone in thinking that if I truly didn’t believe in God I would become a drunk and a sexual degenerate.

    Yeah. And in short order too.

    I’m sure like a lot of people on this thread I’d start out trying to make a run at still attending church, still keeping up appearances, but surrounded by temptation like I am, like we all are, well, I, for one, would eventually cave a little, and bit by bit I’d indulge more and more, and ultimately give in to my baser instincts. Life is short, and it only gets shorter the older you get. Without belief in God my definition of what the good life is changes drastically. The good life for me becomes getting the most out of your existence as possible because it is limited. You can have so much fun without hurting anyone but yourself these days, and there are very few people that I care about not hurting, and those I do care about I’m sure I would feel I could protect or keep in the dark.

    There is community among sinners and the worldly–a lot of religious people don’t fully grasp this, or don’t want to comtemplate it. In many ways their communities are just as tightly bound, if not more so, than our own. I could find what community I felt I needed. And besides, I tend to value my individuality over my place in a community anyway. Without God I think I would have no choice, but to value my individuality even more.

    The believers like to believe that it all catches up with you in this life, but if you’re smart and clever, and only a little bit disciplined, you can avoid nearly all such consequences. And, of course, without God there are no consequences beyond this life. Sure, I might hurt some people close to me, but I hurt people close to me believing in God too. I might drive some more people away from me by my behavior, but the one true advantage of sin is that it helps to numb what, if any, guilt would result, and I’m certain I’d have enough intellect left to rationalize the rest of my guilt away.

  19. Glenn on May 15, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    DKL-
    I pay tithing and obey the Word of Wisdom in order to believe — not vice versa.

    I feel suddenly naive — that is a new and fascinating idea to me. It actually raises a ton of questions. I’ll forebear for now for fear of threadjacking — but wow, I’ll be thinking about that line of motivation for a while.

  20. Nathan on May 15, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    If I were strapped down and forced by the CIA to take a lie detector test, I wouldn\’t be able to affirmatively answer the question \”Do you believe that God exists?\” without the needles going crazy. That\’s simply a statement of fact. And it\’s a fact that, in the end, is not even really up to me. Having honestly weighed the evidence to the best of my ability, God\’s existence simply seems wildly improbable.

    But that doesn\’t mean that I don\’t want to believe and that I can\’t act as if I do. Now, there is certainly something dishonest about doing this – but it would seem even more dishonest to me if, not believing that God exists, I stopped wanting to believe that God exists. To act as if I didn\’t want to believe – that would be dishonest.

    This, I think, is a crucial distinction. And this distinction (the distinction between believing and wanting to believe) may ultimately be more important than the distinction Jim has in mind (the distinction between believing and not believing). Many people may believe without wanting to believe. And many people may not believe while still wanting to believe. I can\’t help but think that the dimension of desire is ultimately the key – and that it is ultimately the key whether or not God exists.

    In the end, the substance of every testimony may simply be our adherence to the spiritual imperative: \”Don\’t give way on your desire!\”

  21. ronito on May 15, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    I have to agree with Nathan. I’ve heard said that out of all religions only 5-10% actually believe while vast majority simply wants to believe.

  22. DKL on May 15, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Adam, Jesus wouldn’t have to believe that He, Himself did not exist. He might just get whacked on the Head and forget that there’s a Godhead that He’s a member of. So the question is whether He’d still attend the Mormon church if that happened, or whether He’d wonder into some other church. I’d like to think that not only would He still choose Mormonism, but be He’d give one Hell of a good opening prayer.

  23. Russell Arben Fox on May 15, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    As Jim has implied a couple of times, the counterfactuals involved in thinking through his question(s) are pretty huge. I was raised to belive in God; I was in a believing environment from when I was born, and I am who I am in part because of that environment. To ask, then, what I would do if I didn’t believe in God is to ask me to imagine being someone other than who I am, and then ask what I would if I were that person. But “I” wouldn’t be (couldn’t be!) that person; I would be someone else. Which means that, to a great extent, the question is unanswerable.

    But blogging is for nothing if it’s not for answering unanswerable questions, so…what if I didn’t believe in God? I guess the necessary prior question is, in this counterfactual, did I never believe in God, or at least did I never come to fully articulate that belief to myself in a conscious way, or am I believer who lost my faith? If the latter–if I were a Mormon who all of a sudden stopped believing, for whatever reason–I doubt I would stay active in or even much associated with my faith community; as Kaimi said above, presumably in such a case the cause of or at least aspects of my loss of faith would be tied up in some disappointment with Mormonism, and so the emotional/psychological work of staying involved would almost certainly be too much. (Not that I might not attempt it–I have known men who have lost all belief due to bad experiences who have nonetheless toughed it out for the sake of their wives and children, and some of their attempts strike me as having some real nobility to them. But I wouldn’t bet on my ability to pull it off.)

    If, however, the situation were the former–that is, if I were a Mormon who gradually realized I didn’t really believe in any of this, or came at last to the point of being able to admit my lack of belief to myself–I think I would and could remain fairly involved. I would likely turn down demanding callings, or at least live in such a way so that I wouldn’t be likely called to such in the first place. After all, if, somehow, this person who isn’t me still nonetheless thought like me, then I would still be a strong believer in community, collective sacrifice, covenants–the whole “village ideal” which Jim very thoughtfully sketched out. Since Mormonism provides that, then so long as I had familial or historical reasons to stick with this community, I would probably stay with it. (As for Rosalynde’s point about the mala prohibita, I’d probably end up taking them on a case-by-case basis; the Word of Wisdom wouldn’t be a problem, but tithing might, because I might be more concerned that my tithing dollars were going to service and humanitarian projects than printing Book of Mormons.)

  24. Jim F. on May 15, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    Just as there are layers of identity (Nehringk #11), there are layers of belief, with knowledge at the top and complete ignorance at the bottom, and many things in between. So my question, “What if I didn’t believe?” is too broad. I might be someone who doesn’t believe at all, I might be someone who doesn’t believe but wants to (Adam Greenwood #12; Nathan #20), I might be someone who believes but can’t claim knowledge. Presumably, the answer to the question could vary for each of these.

    DKL (#10) reverses the usual “in order to” of commandment and belief: “I obey in order to believe” rather than “I believe in order to obey” (or, perhaps better, “I believe, and my belief dictates my obedience”). I think that is interesting and thought-provoking. I wonder, however, whether belief and obedience necessarily have an “in order to” structure at all. When James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20, 26), isn’t he telling us, as per verse 22, that works are the completion or fulfillment of faith? They are each part of or a way of thinking about a whole, the whole of religious life? We divide them for purposes of analysis, but that division may be misleading.

    I’m with Glenn (#14) rather than Brian G (#18) on whether believing would ultimately result in debauchery. There are a lot of non-debauched atheists. I hope I would be one of them. With Nietzsche, I don’t believe that belief in God is required for life to be good, even though I also believe that the greatest goodness and happiness comes with belief in God.

    In the Phaedo Plato’s Socrates argues that there is no principled difference between the person who acts to get the most pleasure they can from life, on the one hand, and the person who abstains from some pleasures in hopes of a reward in the afterlife. Each is a pleasure-seeker. The only distance difference is how far in advance each anticipates pleasure. But if it is wrong for the former to seek pleasure, then it is equally wrong for the latter. The implication is that there is yet another way of living, doing good things without doing them for the pleasure that they may nor may not bring. I’m convinced by the argument.

    Russell (#23) shows just how complicated the counterfactual is, but I agree with his point about the difference in reasons for no longer believing.

  25. Jonathan Green on May 15, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I come up with slightly different answers to Jim’s question. For me, there is the issue of commensurate gratitude towards an institution that, upon sober consideration, has given me everything I have and value. And not in an “all things bright and beautiful” abstract sense, but in a connect-the-dots, straight line sense. The church made possible, in a tangible way, my family and education and career. In return, I think I can manage to show up once a week. This doesn’t necessarily apply to everybody, but it certainly applies to me.

    In addition, there’s the matter of service. The local ward is a little band of God’s children who labor under tremendous burdens; why not help them carry some of that load? Just showing up means a lot to them, and teaching the occasional priesthood lesson or a weekly primary class isn’t beyond my abilities. All in all, I don’t see why a little thing like unbelief would keep me from being a Mormon.

  26. Nehringk on May 15, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Jim F., wrote: “Just as there are layers of identity (Nehringk #11), there are layers of belief, with knowledge at the top and complete ignorance at the bottom, and many things in between.”

    To make things even more multidimensional, we could throw in Peirce’s take on the various ways we have of “fixing belief.” I am not bringing this up to be facetious — I think the question of how we fix our beliefs, particularly our religious beliefs, is a fascinating one, one that is of course related to the various doubts that we all have from time to time.

    There are those, for example, who believe in God but doubt his mercy. What might sound like a philosophical point quickly becomes quite real when one serves as a bishop and encounters ward members who need to repent, have a testimony of Christ, but who also feel as though they cannot be forgiven. The dimensions of belief keep multiplying!

  27. Todd Wood on May 15, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Jim, if I didn’t believe in God, I would definitely stop everything that I am doing right now and head for the Sawtooths in central Idaho or the Winds in Wyoming. My weekly schedule is like a landmine of awkwardness, tension, and difficulties. I am looked upon by some as an idiot. If God is not real, I am the biggest fool in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

    But I am living the way I do right now (as politically and socially inconvenient as it is presently) because of what I see with eyes of faith. Because of God, I live not for my life but for others and the next life in God.

    In a different sense, your first question has me thinking.

    A heart issue question, indeed.

  28. Adam Greenwood on May 15, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    I’m with Glenn (#14) rather than Brian G (#18) on whether believing would ultimately result in debauchery. There are a lot of non-debauched atheists. I hope I would be one of them. With Nietzsche, I don’t believe that belief in God is required for life to be good, even though I also believe that the greatest goodness and happiness comes with belief in God.

    I don’t want to threadjack, but I’m with both gentlemen. I believe that without God there is no good but I also know that empirically many atheists live decent lives and I believe for religious reasons that one need not formally believe in God to apprehend the light of Christ. At the same time, I would be surprised if believers weren’t statistically more likely to be virtuous along various axes of virtue. I don’t doubt that most of you would be virtuous if you didn’t expect eternal reward and punishment but in examining my own soul I have my doubts about me.

  29. anon on May 15, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Jim’s question is my reality. After a lifetime of active membership and raising six faithful children (now all adults), and after serving for years as Bishop, YM leader, seminary teacher and gospel doctrine teacher etc, I have now come to the point of unbelief. It is not that I actively disbelieve. I just lack belief. I still have some hope, but not that much any more. I think there might be a God. I pray as if there is a God. Although those prayers are less frequent than they once were, they are even more sincere. But I now think that the God in whom I once believed exists. I am without faith. I have no reason to believe in a personal God who is interested in my life. He has not made himself known to me despite a lot of pleading by me and I now think it is unlikely that he ever will. I am not angry or depressed by that thought. If mortality is all there is, so what? It is not as if I will be around to feel bad about it.

    How has this unbelief changed me? Well, I still attend and serve in my calling, trying to do my best. I hide my doubts quite well. I don’t want my lack of faith to become a barrier between me and my family. My parents are extremely devout and would be devastated if they knew, so they never will.

    I don’t think I would miss the church social structure. I generally like and respect my fellow members. They are good people. But I don’t have a lot in common with them and I don’t think I would miss attendance at church or other church related functions. However, I can’t bear the thought of hurting my family. Church bores me and I think we should expend more effort doing good and less effort indoctrinating each other. However, I will tolerate a few hours of boredom each week for the sake of my family.

    Some of my moral values have changed. I think that the Church places far too much emphasis on some issues, and not nearly enough on others. I am trying to adjust my own way of living to make my life more consistent with my moral values. But there is no risk of me living a life of debauchery. If anything, I think more deeply about morality than I ever did as a believer, because as a believer I just accepted what authorities told me. If God or his representatives said it, that was all I need to know. Now, that is not good enough.

  30. Clark on May 15, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    If I weren’t Mormon I’d be a Nietzschean anti-Christ. (grin, or at least partial grin)

  31. Adam Greenwood on May 15, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I never intellectually disbelieved in God but at one point in my life I just couldn’t bring myself to feel that there was anything out there that cared about me. It was very much a stage like Anon described. It ended.

  32. Brian G on May 15, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    I just want to clarify. It’s not that I think atheists can’t live moral, principled lives. They can and do. I just don’t think I could, not for very long anyway.

  33. Jim F. on May 16, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    Jonathan Green: Gratitude is an important part of my feeling for Mormonism, something that I hope was implicit but that I should have made explicit. Service is also an important part of what the Church makes possible.

    Nehringk: Though, obviously, people who believe they cannot be forgiven don’t think so, I’m always shocked by the arrogance of such a claim. God says, “I can forgive you.” And I say, “No you can’t”?!

    Todd: If God is not real, I am the biggest fool in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Perhaps, though I assume you have a company of fools with you, so I’m not sure how to measure who is biggest. But, as you know, we are called to be God’s fools: 1 Corinthians 3:18-19: “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” and, apparently, vice-versa.

    Adam Greenwood: No threadjack, and if it is, you’re welcome to do so. I think there are many of us who recognize the conflictedness you describe.

    anon: Thank you for your honest response to this post. I’m glad someone in the situation I am wondering about has answered. If I did not believe, I think I would live much as you have lived. I also agree with you when you say, “If mortality is all there is, so what? It is not as if I will be around to feel bad about it.” But I think you go farther than you imply in those two sentences, for you not only are willing to accept mortality, you are working to make that mortal life a good one.

    I think I agree with you that we often place too much emphasis on some issues and not enough on others. I don’t know what the etiquette is for threadjacking one’s own post, but I would be interested in hearing which issues you think are over-emphasized and which under.

    However, if it is true that “As a believer [you] just accepted what authorities told [you]. If God or his representatives said it, that was all [you] need to know,” then it is possible that your current unbelief is a response to a defective version of belief. I believe and I believe deeply, but that isn’t how I relate to church authorities. I don’t think I’m unusual, though I admit I may not be in the majority. I don’t think that kind of blind belief is really faith.

    Finally, it might interest you to know that one of my sons read your response earlier today, and he pointed out that much of how describe yourself can be understood as describing what it means to hope. I think there is a lot to what he said. I couldn’t have said whether you have faith before my son’s comment, but you may have hope without knowing it. And if you have hope, then you have a degree of faith.

    Perhaps you will have the same experience that Adam had (#31). I hope so, and I think that what you are doing is the way to make that possible. Allowing the seed to grow means that it cannot be forced, neither by someone else nor by you.

    BrianG: Sorry if I implied that you don’t think atheists can be moral people. I didn’t mean my comment to do so.

  34. SilverRain on May 16, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    At the risk of sounding dramatic, if I didn’t believe in God, I would have been dead a long time ago.

  35. russ on May 16, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Nearly everything in the gospel has a secular equivalent, which speaks to its underlying truth. Prayer is like meditation, goal setting, reflection. Faith is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, which emphasizes positive thoughts as a way of changing emotions. The steps of repentance are reflected in the AA process.

  36. Brian G on May 16, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    No worries, Jim. Great post.

  37. queuno on May 17, 2007 at 12:29 am

    Best line from a movie, prompted to memory from Jim F’s opening line:

    Mickey Fitzpatrick: Why are you getting so upset Dad? You don’t even believe in God.
    Mr. Fitzpatrick: That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being a good Catholic.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117628/quotes

  38. queuno on May 17, 2007 at 12:33 am

    [By the way - I'm apologize in advance for anyone who checks the link in #37 and sees the R-rated quotes.]

  39. Jim F. on May 17, 2007 at 12:48 am

    queno (#38): That’s one way to get lots of people to follow your link!

  40. queuno on May 17, 2007 at 1:15 am

    I thought after I posted that I should have just not included the link. But as I’m working on my dissertation these days, it’s become second nature to cite everything. Sorry.

    [Despite the representative quotes, it's actually a sweet movie.]

  41. anon on May 17, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Jim F.: I must say that it is such a pleasure to read your comments and observe the way you interact with people here. You are always so thoughtful and thought provoking. I will try to elaborate on a couple of the points which you highlighted in your response to me.

    When I said that as a believer I just accepted what the authorities told me, I meant that primarily as a reference to my moral values. I learned moral values at church and at home, and I accepted them uncritically. Honesty, living the word of wisdom, chastity, activity in the church, patience, tithing, sabbath observance, kindness, respect and general obedience to church counsel were all required of a moral person. I felt no particular need to ground any of my values in anything other than the words of the prophets. As my belief in God has declined into a form of hopeful agnosticism, I feel a need to ground my moral values in something else. In the course of doing that, some of my values have changed.

    This leads into one of your other questions. You asked me which issues I think are over emphasized and which are under emphasized. A complete response would take too much space but I will give you a few examples. I think we overemphasize church “activity” as an end in itself, rather than as a means to a more worthy end. Just being there at all meetings, and being active and participating has become something of a litmus test for how “good” a person is. I think our attitudes about sexuality are distorted and receive more emphasis than they deserve. I think we emphasize obedience to church leaders too much. I think we emphasize the value of “having a testimony” too much. We exalt the value of believing correctly sometimes at the expense of behaving correctly.

    I think we underemphasize values such as the value of genuine caring for our neighbors. We underemphasize the importance of caring for the poor. I think that in our insistence on obedience and orthodoxy, we sometimes isolate or offend others, and thereby sacrifice values such as love, empathy or understanding.

    In general, I think I may have become a humanist. I have found I still believe deeply in values which are rooted in a love of other people. Values which seem like they are arbitrary rules dictated by God for reasons that I can’t justify no longer matter to me.

    You and your son are probably right that I maintain some form of faith, because I still have hope. I act as if I had faith. However, I often do that out of a sense duty and fear of being discovered, and so I sometimes feel like a fraud. I wonder whether faith really matters in the end. I think that I am a slightly better person today with very little faith than I was when I had a lot of faith. I can’t think of any reason why regaining my faith would make me a better person, or more acceptable to God. The scriptures state that I cannot please God without faith. I don’t understand that. It does not make sense to me. So I don’t believe it. I carry on, trusting that if there is a God, he will judge me based on something other than my weak faith.

  42. Nehringk on May 17, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Jim F. wrote: “Though, obviously, people who believe they cannot be forgiven don’t think so, I’m always shocked by the arrogance of such a claim. God says, “I can forgive you.” And I say, “No you can’t”?!”

    Indeed, this is the point that has to be made with these people in counseling with them. In their defense, though (and this speaks to one of Jim’s main points, the roles and varieties of belief and its influence upon our lives), these people are often intimately, even painfully, aware of with their own shortcomings, whereas their beliefs about God and mercy and the atonement and such are at a more abstract level. Thus they can hold the apparently contradictory beliefs that God is merciful but they have done things for which they cannot imagine being forgiven. At the logical level, these are two contradictory beliefs, but at the human level, they can both be embraced at some level. Complications thus ensue…

    The do not see themselves as saying “God can’t forgive me.” Rather, they are sometimes simply too ashamed to ask for forgiveness, or assume that although God could forgive them, they can’t imagine that he actually would forgive them, given what seems to be the awfulness of their sin. Or it may be that they feel as thought they have come to God too often about the same failing, and that after three strikes, they are out. Thank goodness that God really will forgive them for, among other things, having such deficient beliefs.

  43. anon on May 17, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Jim: I have a couple of questions for you. You rightly point out that life can be very good without faith in God and without being a Mormon. The relationships with friends and family which are so meaningful to you and to most people found in equal measure among people of all faiths and among people of no faith. However, you mention your own private spiritual experiences and priesthood ordinances as things that enrich your life and which would be lost if you had no faith. Do you believe that ordinances enrich your life only because they bring you the promise of eternal happiness with your loved ones, or do they enrich your life in other ways? I have never been able to find meaning in ordinances except as requirements imposed by God for reasons known only to him. Baptism seems like just a symbolic gesture, devoid of any real meaning or power. I never felt endowed with anything as a result of the endowment. Those ordinances had meaning to me only because they were part of the rules of the game. God wrote the rules, and I had to live with them so I did. I would like to understand why you think your life would be impoverished without them.

    I sometimes think that God should prefer that his children not believe in him. That way, their behavior would reflect their real character and would never be determined by fear of punishment or by a desire for eternal reward. Why do you think God requires belief in him as a condition of qualifying for the celestial kingdom?

  44. Rosalynde Welch on May 17, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    “The relationships with friends and family which are so meaningful to you and to most people found in equal measure among people of all faiths and among people of no faith.”

    anon, I look forward to Jim’s response to your questions. There does seem to be some empirical data to contradict what you’ve suggested above—that is, the general population’s involvement in community and social organizations does seem to be declining, at least according to some measures. See, for example, sociologist Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” (I am not sure if there are disaggregated data sets to compare Mormon social capital with other groups.)

  45. anon on May 17, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Rosalynde: You may be right. I have no evidence at all to support my assertion that they are found in equal measure. It is my impression, however, that the social benefits that result from active participation in the Mormon church are found in equal measure by active participants in many other churches and certain other organizations as well as in other cultures. But I have no solid evidence to support that impression either.

  46. Jim F. on May 18, 2007 at 12:06 am

    anon, thank you for your thoughtful response. I think I misunderstood what you were saying when you said that you just accepted what the authorities told you. Sorry about that. Perhaps it is because I am a convert, but I’ve never thought that my moral values were grounded in the words of the prophets. I’ve believed the prophets when they’ve preached the moral law, but it has seemed to me that they were reminding me of something true rather than revealing it to me.

    I’m not sure what I think are the grounds for morality. I know a variety of philosophical theories, but I am constitutionally drawn to Nietzsche even though I cannot be a Nietzschean. My experience with family, God, and community won’t permit that, but my experience with Nietzsche makes it hard for me to decide what the grounds of morality are. So that remains a question on the shelf for me.

    I have a lot of sympathy for what you say about what we overemphasize and underemphasize. I particularly think that we often put too much stress on “activity” as the sign of goodness and, as you say, “an end in itself, rather than [. . .] a means to a more worthy end.” I also agree that, overall (I know of some remarkable exceptions), we underemphasize care for our neighbors. To the degree that is true, I also take it to condemn us as immoral. The Book of Mormon says very little about any kind of morality except care for neighbors, and it makes it clear that not to do so is a grievous sin.

    For a long time I’ve also thought that we emphasize sexuality too much, though I’m not sure whether I agree that our attitudes about it are distorted, partly because I’m not sure what our attitudes are. However, lately I’ve been in a position to see how sexual immorality of various kinds has ruined life after life and family after family. Seeing those tragedies makes me understand why the Church spends so much time warning against sexual transgression.

    You ask me how the ordinances enrich my life. I think of taking part in one of my granddaughter’s baptism a short while ago. Margaret Young said it much more eloquently than I could (in the piece at BCC to which I linked), but seeing her baptized was seeing her come into a new relation to me because she is now not only a granddaughter, but also a sister in the gospel. The ordinances are where God, family, community, and individual come together. In them I make a statement about who I am and about my relationships with others, including God, and I publicly take on myself obligations to each of those persons and groups. But you’re right. If I didn’t believe in God, then I don’t think they would mean very much to me. I would miss them.

    As I mentioned obliquely when I responded to Brian G, I accept—and teach—that Socrates’s argument is right: those who live their lives either to avoid punishment or to receive reward are morally equivalent, whether they do so for short term punishments and rewards (as do those we think of as hedonists) or whether they do so for long term punishments and rewards (as do those we often think of as moral). The unrepentant criminal in his cell and the sanctimonious High Priest in priesthood meeting are equally pleasure seekers, but the latter can see pleasures lying further down the road. Their better “eyesight” doesn’t make them more moral.

    So I believe that God punishes few, if any (one of the things I especially like about Mormon doctrine), and that he rewards all or almost all, including some of the vilest people who have ever lived. We know that there are a variety of rewards, rewards of various degrees, but since all of them are wonderful beyond imagination, there is little point in moral avarice, seeking after better and better rewards and trying to get them in a bargain with God: “I’ll do x, y, and z if you’ll give me the best stuff.” We will be rewarded whether we are bad or good, so we should be good because it is good. We should live moral lives because being good is the good life, not because it will someday be the rewarded life—even if we believe that a good life here will be rewarded. I try to live a good life because it is good and I also believe that God will reward me for doing so because he loves me and showers me with good things. However, I think I can honestly say that I don’t live as I do in order to get that reward. In fact, I don’t think I can get the highest reward if I live my life in order to get that particular reward (nor will such a life be the good life).

    Nehringk: Thanks for providing a useful corrective to what I said earlier. I was too brief, thinking that the word “implicitly” would cover the ground you’ve explained. Obviously, it wasn’t enough.

  47. greenfrog on May 18, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Jim F. wrote: You ask me how the ordinances enrich my life. I think of taking part in one of my granddaughter’s baptism a short while ago. Margaret Young said it much more eloquently than I could (in the piece at BCC to which I linked), but seeing her baptized was seeing her come into a new relation to me because she is now not only a granddaughter, but also a sister in the gospel. The ordinances are where God, family, community, and individual come together. In them I make a statement about who I am and about my relationships with others, including God, and I publicly take on myself obligations to each of those persons and groups. But you’re right. If I didn’t believe in God, then I don’t think they would mean very much to me. I would miss them.

    This interests me a lot and confuses me more than a little.

    I start from the premise that there are a million and one ways not to believe in God, just as there are a million and one ways to believe in God. So I infer from the quoted statement, especially the last two sentences, that you’re thinking of a version of not believing in God that I haven’t figured out — one that I don’t really get — so I’m curious.

    Here’s why: My belief structure has changed — a lot — over the past 10-15 years, and while I think of my current beliefs as variety of theism, I’m reasonably sure that with a detailed explanation of those beliefs, at least some people would disagree with me on that. Still, even with as “soft” a belief in God as I hold at present, I find great value in LDS rituals as ways to connect the devotee to the person officiating the ritual and representing the community, and connecting both the devotee and the community. There are few actions more important to me than joining with and honoring a person in her or his decision to mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort. I find LDS rituals to be powerful and remarkably beautiful embodiments of our best desires and aspirations. As I see things, those desires and aspirations connect us to what we think of as God, whether God is a discrete embodied personage or only the collective substance of our desires, aspirations, and experiences. The structure of the Church, including the rituals of the Church, enable us to act within a context of understanding, desire, shared trust, and love.

    From that standpoint, it’s not easy for me to construe your statement that the rituals wouldn’t mean much to you without a belief in God. Perhaps I’m mis-understanding which version of non-thestics belief you have in mind, or, alternatively, perhaps I’ve deceived myself into valuing a merely telestial experience, but it doesn’t feel that way to me.

  48. Jim F. on May 18, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    greenfrog: excellent point. I agree that ordinances can be quite meaningful without a strong belief in God. Confucianism (in which I am interested an for which I have considerable admiration) proves that if Mormonism doesn’t. However, my belief in God is the kind I described in the first paragraph of my post: I am covenant with God and the ordinances are an expression of that covenant as well as of its implications in my relations to other people.

    What would be missing and would, therefore, make the ordinances mean comparatively little would be their very real connection to God. However, even with the italicized caveat I may have overstated my point. I would miss that connection a great deal, but I think you’re definitely right, “The structure of the Church, including the rituals of the Church, enable us to act within a context of understanding, desire, shared trust, and love” whether or not we have a strong theistic belief.

  49. Bev P on May 22, 2007 at 6:07 am

    “The structure of the Church, including the rituals of the Church, enable us to act within a context of understanding, desire, shared trust, and love” whether or not we have a strong theistic belief.”

    And in the doing, might it also lead us into faith – circle to DKL? The first law is that of obedience and sacrifice, not a bad default in the absence of ability to own the later laws, whether in an episodic lapse of commitment, a chronic loss of commitment, or a heretofore never made commitment. I’m grateful for a simple beginning and cushion to catch me when I fall.