One Thing Matters, In Science and Religion

As the world continues to scrutinize the LDS Church during this election season, there are plenty of would-be experts ready to share some weird and scary nuggets of what Mormons “really” believe.  Besides almost always being bizarre, disingenuous distortions, these “shocking secrets” never seem to be considered by those who “reveal” them—or by those who reads them—with the only important question in mind: are they true or not?

Secular America prides itself on being scientific, a bastion of the reason bestowed by the Enlightenment; only an extreme irony can account for this myopia.  Yes, a lot of the supposed facts out there about Mormons are, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “weird and sinister.”

But why stop at pointing that out?  Plenty of things that are weird and sinister are also true (any number of strange historical occurrences and scientific findings).  If those who would criticize the LDS Church have any real intellectual honesty, why not definitively expose the errors in its claims?  Or, more objectively, investigate those claims to see if they’re true or not?

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A Universal Mission Statement

For believers or skeptics, atheists or theists of all stripes, might this function as a call to arms that everybody could support?

Discern the nature of reality as accurately as possible and, as far as any facts have practical applications, bring ourselves into alignment with them and exercise them habitually.  

Sure, that’s just a draft, but I think it gets at the point clearly: we all just want to learn things that are true, and act on them accordingly, to the benefit of ourselves and the larger world, whether those things are secular or spiritual, artistic or scientific, or all of the above.

The Book of Mormon and Agnostic Prayer

I haven’t always known much about God, much less believed in Him.  I remember one time especially as a young man when I collapsed in prayer, very late one lonely night, and begged God to let me know that He was there, if He was at all.  I didn’t receive any sings or feelings, and felt terribly depressed for a while after that.  I didn’t receive an answer for a long time.

I’m hardly the first or the last to offer what’s known as an “agnostic’s prayer,” a plea to a God whom the prayer isn’t sure is there or not.  The most popular such published prayer seems to be this one, from the 1969 science fiction novel Creatures of Light and Darkness, by Roger Zelazny:

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to ensure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

I also found this much shorter agnostic prayer online, apparently an anonymous work:

Dear God,

If there is a God,

Save my soul,

If I have a soul.

These are honest, searching thoughts–general enough to be universal, yet deeply personal–and I love seeing them.  By far the best agnostic prayer, however, comes from 1830 in the Book of Mormon.  In Alma 22, a missionary named Aaron teaches the gospel to the father of a king in an unfriendly land, a man who had actively hated the believers.  The truth that he hears touches him, though, and he feels compelled to act on it, even if he isn’t sure how.  Aaron tells him to try prayer but, being a stranger to spiritual things, the king’s father can only pour out his feelings in a raw, desperate first prayer:

O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.  (Alma 22:18)

Notice how simple this request is, with evidence of both overwhelming confusion but an undeniable experience of…something…that has to be investigated further and acted on.  How lucky are any of us who have been there, to start learning about God’s love, and begin that journey of discipleship!  This powerful man’s childlike prayer was then answered with a stunning spiritual manifestation that changed his life forever.

And, ultimately, so was mine.  A few months after offering my own agnostic prayer, I discovered the Book of Mormon.

The “Gift” Of Faith

One of my favorite colleagues in education was an agnostic science teacher with whom I whiled away more than a few lunch periods commiserating about all our sundry complaints.  Particularly at the school where we worked together, we had both noticed that the population had a strong, seemingly built-in sense of fatalism, wholly internalized, woven into the fabric of their DNA.  Far too many kids would come into our classes at the end of a summer already convinced that they couldn’t learn, that they would never want to learn, that work of any kind just wasn’t important.  Their philosophy was one of paralyzing nihilism, a mix of predestination and hedonism, I thought.  They were absolutely sure that their intelligence, talents, and abilities were all immutable, a fixed, inherent quantity that they couldn’t improve or develop even if they wanted to, so why bother?  My friend and I lamented our failure to convince them that they were far more powerful than they were giving themselves credit for. 

During one of our conversations about religion, though, he short-circuited my attempts to get him to analyze his own agnostic assumptions when he asserted that I simply had the “gift of faith,” a thing which he said he respected, but just didn’t have.  I don’t think any amount of banging my head against the wall ever got him to see the irony. 

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