Addressing Elder Hales and the Darkness of Secularism
In case you didn’t know, last weekend was one of two annual General Conferences for the Mormon church, where the General Authorities present talks on *whatever* they deem critical for the member body at the time.
Many blogs have already covered the General Conference, and I think many writers have very good entries about it (and podcasts!). I apologize for my lateness: I specifically wanted to wait for the talk transcripts to post online, and those transcripts just came online yesterday.
Even though I don’t believe (and I know many ex-members and non-members would like to stay as far from church talks as possible), I thought keeping up with the latest pronouncements would be good for me, so I’ll be going through a few of these talks on Irresistible (Dis)Grace…my hope is that I can try to be charitable to these talks (in the same vein as my Elder Hafen article series)…but more experimentally, I want to see if I can turn the messages of these speakers around into applying positively for non-believing Mormons…who says we can’t benefit from a message with which we do not agree?
So, the first talk I’d like to discuss is Elder Hales’s talk from the Saturday Afternoon session, entitled “Seeking to Know God, Our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ.”
The reason I want to go over this one first is because it hits close to home. Hales starts off early pointing out that he is addressing the growing ‘darkness of secularism.’ He remarks that these days, it is becoming more popular to question belief in God…and atheism (which he defines in the strong sense as a doctrine that there is no God) is fast spreading across the world. His talk is simple: to delineate why belief in God is important.
The line that everyone loves to hate from him is this one:
Without God, life would end at the grave and our mortal experiences would have no purpose. Growth and progress would be temporary, accomplishment without value, challenges without meaning. There would be no ultimate right and wrong and no moral responsibility to care for one another as fellow children of God. Indeed, without God, there would be no mortal or eternal life.
Many of my non-believing brethren and sisters have become distraught or angry at this pronouncement. How dare Elder Hales say such a thing!
But out of charity for Elder Hales, I am not angry for him. Rather, I lament. I lament that what he is saying doesn’t say anything about me and other atheists, but about him and people like him. I understand the method behind Hales’s message, but I disagree with his limited conclusion. The method and message: seek value, meaning, progress, and purpose. Hales’s limited conclusion: these things are only found within belief in God.
But as an atheist, I know that my life does not need an afterlife to have purpose. I know that accomplishment has value, that challenges have meaning. Even in the places where I happen to agree with Hales (I do not believe in objective, absolute, ultimate morality), I take these positions for different reasons than Hales presents.
I am an existentialist. I am an absurdist. I note that we don’t need ultimate right and wrong (and in fact, even if there happens to be such…humans are doing just great utterly blind of it) to have moralities.We don’t need objective purpose to have subjective purpose, and in fact, subjective value, purpose, and meaning are the true motivators for people. This is actually true for Hales and others like him — though they may not admit. Because the morality they claim is objective, a product of God, simply represents their subjective morality, their subjective valuation and purpose projection on a universe that doesn’t care. It is absurd to project such things on a universe that doesn’t actually care, but we all do it. We create our own roles for a play that has no audience but ourselves and try not to realize that there is no audience.
I know these things…probably as well or better than Hales knows God exists. (The reason we both can know contradictory things is precisely because they are subjective — I am not constrained by Hales’s subjective experiences, and my subjective experiences don’t try to create objective reality for Hales.) So, Hales doesn’t speak to me. Rather, he is projecting his subjective experiences…and then assuming that they would apply for all.
What I get from his message is that Hales doesn’t believe that his life has value, meaning, and purpose without God. And so, he clings to God and assumes that all have similar situations. So, I am not angry at Hales. I lament for Hales, that he cannot valuate his life without the concept of God as an anchor.
But I think Hales has a problem. He wants to assert objective facts about the world: that God exists and is physically like us. Because if God isn’t objectively existent, then Hales has to admit that God provides subjective meaning to him — and then, Hales can’t take a high road against anyone else’s subjective valuation. But this appeal falls flat for me because Hales is attempting to assert objective facts with subjective evidences. We know God exists because…we believe on the testimonies of prophets? Because we have felt confirmation?
These don’t quite establish objective existence for God. However, they CAN and DO have meaning and value under existentialist and absurdist models. We can point out what nourishes and strengthens us exactly because we know what we feel and believe. We know what our purposes are because our compasses are within. And Hales does too — Hales and other believers simply have compasses that direct toward some thing that they call God, regardless of what this thing actually is.
I’ll take a look at another line that has been addressed by a few others:
However, we must be careful not to constrain His influence. When we do not do what is right or when our outlook is dominated by skepticism, cynicism, criticism, and irreverence toward others and their beliefs, the Spirit cannot be with us. We then act in a way that the prophets describe as the natural man.
Some might say this line is a “slam dunk” against me. Oh Andrew S…you can’t truly be right about all this existentialist nonsense. Really, you’re empty inside, and you’re just hiding and running from God by being skeptical and cynical, and criticizing the church and Hales.
I disagree. In fact, looking at this general message and method, I agree with Hales, though I use different terms. If we are skeptical of ourselves and our feelings, then yes, we cannot find what brings us joy and peace. But we can’t set a fixed conclusion here: because if it is the church and the gospel that lead us to be cynical of ourselves, and irreverent toward the nonbeliefs of others, then we cannot accept that the church and gospel will bring us joy.
So, I do see Hales doing two things. He has a general message and method and he has a specific, limited conclusion.Most people focus on his conclusions: he wants people to conclude that God exists, God is good, the church is good and true, atheism and secularism are bad. But really, I think his general message is that we should seek value, meaning, and purpose. Hales speaks toward finding these things within God, the church and the Gospel, but we should be able to recognize that one size doesn’t fit all.