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What privileges should an atheist Mormon have in church?

March 28, 2009

So, I had just a wonderful discussion at Mormon Matters beckoning liberal members to come out of the closet. This has been an idea I’ve been reading up on for a while, based on the ideas of Seth Payne that I wrote about before (that chanson doesn’t like too much). I not-so-secretly hope that I can make it one of the top 10 posts at MM for this month (yes, really, I am so easily motivated just by traffic ranking).

My point was that the church should be a place where different kinds of believers can come together. It shouldn’t just be for conservative, orthodox members. There should be some room for different kind of thought, and it shouldn’t simply be relegated to a Sunstone conference or whatever.

A bunch of people…didn’t get what I was trying to suggest, I guess. I think they got this idea that I advocate that liberal members should be purposefully trying to shake up things and be doubtful and cynical and faith-destroying. I hope it would be obvious, but that is not what I mean when I say liberal Mormons should make themselves visible.

What I mean is that they should be visible so that they can be a support group if other members have doubts.

…however, even if I think that the church can be a more flexible entity…I do think there are some ends that shouldn’t be crossed. Mormon Heretic presented a case:

I know a guy in my in-laws ward who is a vocal atheist mormon. On the one hand, because he is so vocal, he has attracted some of the liberal mormons in his ward, and my father-in-law does tell me what he says at church occasionally. On the other hand, he’s had some real problems with current and former bishops deciding that he is not worthy to baptize or ordain his children, even though he is a regular church attender, follows the WoW, and is temple worthy (except for the testimony part).Most people don’t want to jeopardize losing their temple recommend, losing callings, etc.

But I immediately had some bells going off in my head.

OK, so this guy is an atheist. And I mean, I don’t speak for all atheist Mormons, but I think it would be reasonable to say that although the Mormon church *should* have room for flexibility of beliefs (regardless of if wards will accommodate this or not)…at some point, you’ve got to be serious. This is a church. It kinda depends on belief in God. Especially things like the Priesthood, temple worthiness, etc.,

So I recognize that if I were to go to church and speak as an atheist, then I wouldn’t be pretending to be anyone’s priesthood holder. I don’t pass a necessary qualification.

However, I don’t think this has anything to do with liberal vs. orthodox members. If you believe that Joseph Smith was a little more human and error-prone than the more orthodox member next to you, but you both believe in the restoration, then you both really pass. But I mean, if you think it’s all candy and lies…that’s a distinction.

But that made me wonder…what kind of privileges should an atheist Mormon have in church? I mean, perhaps giving him superspiritual callings wouldn’t be the best idea…and I dunno, lessons might not go well. But should he be shunned and kicked out until he reforms that one dealbreaker (non)belief?


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  1. Andrew,

    My friend represents an interesting case. On the one hand, he went on a mission, his parents were famous Utah pioneers, he got married in the temple–all the typical “good mormon” stuff. When he did all this, he was a firm believer. He “earned” his priesthood without deceit of any kind.

    He mentions that there are plenty of people in the ward who may have been baptized at 8 years old, perhaps they never believed in the church, but their parents had them baptized. They know nothing about the church. Then some well-meaning home teachers come by, get him to quit smoking and drinking for a few weeks, ordain him to become a priest, and voila–he can baptize his kids. Then the guy quickly goes back to his old habits. Who really knows what he believes? Perhaps he is an atheist as well, but nobody bothered to ask–they just wanted to know if he would baptize his son.

    In my friend’s mind, this is hypocritical–and I agree. My friend believes the mormon church is a good organization, and wants his children exposed to all the priesthood ordinances, and he wants to be part of these ordinances. He’s been living better than the guy in my last paragraph.

    I get your point of view, and I think it makes sense. But the church is not consistent in how it handles these situations–which is what my friend’s issue is. Bar the inactive from baptizing, and I think my friend would have less reason to argue with the decision to bar himself. Shouldn’t the inactive’s worthiness to perform a baptism be a greater consideration than it currently is?

  2. I guess I see what you and your friend mean. The church has these standards, but most of the standards are based on physical, tangible factors (e.g., can we get you to stop drinking, smoking?) rather than the less tangible stuff (do you truly believe?). The discrepancy allows for some gross “what was THAT?” situations.

  3. Wow, that’s a really interesting case! The guy wants to be a member of the ward, in full participation, but — because of his disbelief — he’s automatically disqualified from the priesthood and from any callings that require the priesthood. That poor guy’s situation is almost like being…

    a woman.


  4. osnaps

  5. Actually, all of the Bloggernacle posts about “callings men can hold if they can’t hold the priesthood” always remind me of one heart-rending story my mom told me long ago:

    My mom went on her mission to Brazil in the late sixties, so he “priesthood ban” was still in force. There was one Brazilian guy who was very faithful — a leader in the ward — who enthusiastically followed the commandment to do his genealogy, and (oops!) discovered that he was part black. From that point on he was no longer allowed to exercise the priesthood. After that, he willingly took no-priesthood-required callings like young mens’ leader, etc…

    Sad as that is, the atheist probably wouldn’t even get to be young mens’ leader, given the stance of the BSA.

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