Sunday, January 15, 2017

Does Self-Reliance and Happiness Lead to Atheism? : A Response to Joshua Valentine (Part 5)

In his final argument about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepares its members to be atheists, Joshua Valentine attacks two things that Mormons believe in very much, but do not necessarily associate with their theology: self reliance and happiness. Valentine writes:
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches self-reliance, both in temporal and spiritual concerns. Members may not agree with that statement, but the LDS Church does teach a significant place for human effort in obtaining the approval and blessings of God in this life and in the next. Our actions and our strength have a necessary place in our worthiness for salvation and eternal blessings. This “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” cosmology was described by an online participant as “trusting in the arm of the flesh.”[2] The optimistic humanism of Mormonism, its insistence that humans can and must contribute to their worthiness of salvation and exaltation, can easily fit into the humanistic optimism of atheism that humans can and must solve their own problems and continue as a species and progress on this planet and in this universe.[3] Along the lines of trusting in the flesh, Latter-day Saints are taught to trust their leaders. When they leave, they have determined that their LDS leaders have betrayed them and are untrustworthy. This may lead the ex-Latter-day Saint to seek the objectivity of science in order to avoid being fooled or dependent on particular humans or institutions. Interestingly, however, if this confidence in humans, in the flesh of man, is not reevaluated, then it may lead them to put their trust in the men of science and the institutions of human reason. In any case, the LDS-taught optimism about mankind’s ability to progress by its own effort is offended by the Christian Gospel’s diametrically opposite assessment.

Lastly, as regards compatibility with Christianity, the LDS Church teaches consistently, and in many ways, that human happiness is the ultimate goal. It is the goal of the Mormon God. Heavenly Father’s own happiness is found in his children’s happiness. Happiness and good feelings are indicative of truth. Unhappiness or bad feelings indicate that something is wrong or false. Our happiness is generally the purpose of life — overcoming life’s challenges, learning, and progressing being sources of happiness now and in the future. In light of all of this, Christianity’s view of sin is impractical and even morbid; its gospel is still too “easy,” and its truths are disturbing and repugnant to the mind that has been cultivated by Mormonism.  Atheism, however, embraces the significance of personal happiness, the pragmatism of actions called “sin” by Christianity, and puts forth human progress and happiness as the only purpose worthy of our short lives. In these many ways, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught its members how to flourish as atheists."
Like this young child, Jesus carries us all

The Apostle Paul, whom I assume that Mr. Valentine would believe is an apostle, cautioned the saints in ancient Philippi to "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12) No one can obtain salvation and exaltation without the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ and following his commandments. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi makes this perfectly clear when he states:
"Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise." (2 Nephi 2:6-8)
It is clear from this and other prophets in the Book of Mormon (Jacob, Alma, Nephi, etc) that without the Savior's grace and mercy, there can be no salvation. Christians often attack Mormons for trying to earn their way to heaven; this is only partially accurate. Jesus made the matter abundantly clear that one needed to keep his commandments in order to enter into his rest (John 3:5). But keeping commandments would not matter or have any effect if Jesus had not laid down his life; keeping the commandments are an application of Christ's atonement, not a substitution for it. To quote Lehi again:
"And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever." (2 Nephi 2:5)
It is simply a hasty generalization (a logical fallacy) to state that Mormons believe their salvation rests primarily upon works. The scriptures and ordinances of the Gospel, especially those performed in the holy temple, provide a constant reminder that without him, we are nothing.

As far as science is concerned, its objectivity or non-objectivity are not really involved in this debate. But I am curious as to why Mr. Valentine believes one can't be both; I am a devout Mormon and thoroughgoing Darwinian for example. Scientific naturalism is not only compatible with the Mormon religion, it shows how Mormonism makes sense.

On to the matter of personal happiness and atheism. Simon Blackburn in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines atheism this way:
"Either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none" (pg 35)
Atheism itself can be characterized as either a belief or a non-belief, but it is not linked to other beliefs. An atheist can be a humanist who believes that humanity is worthwhile and there are objective moral values, or a nihilist who believes there are no such values. Atheists can view happiness as important, or they may not. So, linking happiness and self-reliance with atheism is not necessarily accurate.

Valentine seems to think, as others have thought, that Mormonism is by necessity utilitarian about its morality. While Mormonism can be utilitarian, other philosophers, such as Blake Ostler, have defended a Kantian view of ethics as being more compatible with Mormonism. Myself, I see Hume's sentimentalism and virtue ethics as being more compatible than utilitarianism.

Because God is our father, he , like most parents, desires his children to be happy. This does not mean however that is his ultimate goal. When speaking to Moses he states "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. " (Moses 1:39) God's desire is for his children to become as he is, not for them to just be amused and comfortable. If God's goal for man was merely happiness, the Savior failed the goal because he was a man of sorrows. (Isaiah 53:3)

It should also be noted that Valentine gives no empirical evidence about how many Mormons after leaving the Church become atheists. Many Mormons go on to another form of Christianity, or continue with some sort of belief in God. There is no reason to believe that Mormonism prepares its members for atheism any more than other religions.

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