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Addressing Elder Hales and the Darkness of Secularism

October 8, 2009
Elder Hales

Elder Hales

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.

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  1. I just read an Kai Nelson’s “Ethics without Religion” which I am lecturing on tomorrow. There is a great quote which goes along with your post, but I am too tired and lazy to pull it out of my bag… so I won’t. Maybe tomorrow morning.

  2. Very interesting viewpoint of taking a talk against atheism and pointing out how it actually isn’t about that at all 😛

    Someone asked me why Hales was talking about atheism, and I responded something to the effect that in order for the church to stand, they must prove that those without God are ammoral, deviant, and, well, “godless”. I think this is a BoM principle… the idea that eternal punishment is required in order for there to be a right and a wrong. Its as though Hales and others believe that without a belief in God, we will all end up like Lord of the Flies.

    In actuality, of course, there is ethics without morality. How else would a government “separate from church” operate?

    The part that I found humorous of the part of the talk you quoted was “Indeed, without God, there would be no mortal or eternal life.” Well… of course if there is no afterlife, then there is no afterlife. I mean… it either is, or it isn’t. My belief or nonbelief will not change whether or not eternity exists. So, if someone is atheist, that doesn’t mean that if there is an afterlife they don’t get to partake of it.

    Since my disaffection, I’ve been focusing a lot more on making my “celestial” marriage terrestrial. Meaning, I have stopped looking at my marriage and family relationships as something eternal that I can really focus on getting the most out of tomorrow. Because, if there is no tomorrow, then I will have wasted today.

  3. JTJ permalink

    A couple of points. They may be wrong, but at least their my own.

    1) you nailed the argument on life having meaning, best I’ve seen from anyone so far.

    2) You could have touched on the irony of secularism = darkness, (although it’s a bit contentious) seeing as the microphone he was speaking into, the communications network broadcasting it, and the computer I read it on, under the incandescent light, through my surgically enhanced cornea, were all products of secularism. My favorite secularist in this instance, being Edison, with a nod to Franklin for the vision. It’s a bit off focus, but it reminded me of this cartoon.

    3) Dovetailing into #2, I would argue that skeptical inquiry can bring happiness. Study, research, and science can (and have) identify how and why we are and can be happy, and there’s some good literature with studies and explanations, like Dacher Keltner’s “born to be good”

  4. “A man who says, “If God is dead, nothing matters,” is a spoilt child who has never looked at his fellow men with compassion.” -Kail Nielson

  5. By the way,

    Sorry, narrator/Loyd and JTJ for taking so long to approve your comments…have you guys recently switched emails on me? Because I only have to approve comments from first-time commenters (and that’s by email address).


    Will get to the comments soon.

  6. re Madam Curie:

    I actually agree with you on why Hales would specifically address atheism. Because again, he has a general message (find meaning, value, purpose, morality, etc.,) and he has a specific conclusion. His specific conclusion is that the CHURCH is true, so the CHURCH is the ultimate source of all the things he has just mentioned. He MUST present a case wherein the CHURCH does provide these things. Morality *must* be objective for the church, so God must objectively exist…because when these things are objective, they can be right for everyone or wrong for everyone. So, if the church is objectively true, then it is true for everyone. (On the other hand, if it is only subjectively true — which is the problem he runs into from using arguments of faith, personal experience, personal revelation — then it depends on the person and what experiences and revelations they have.)

    Speaking about a government separate from church, didn’t you hear/read about the other GA who noted that expanded government and rules is a sign of moral decay?

    With his comments regarding mortal and eternal life, I think Hales was actually saying something like, “Without God, the universe couldn’t even be here. So since we are here, living, God must exist to have set it into motion.” I don’t think he’s saying, “Without belief in God, there is no mortal or eternal life.” (So he’s not saying that eternal life is contingent on believing.) Rather, I think he’s saying that eternal life is contingent on God giving eternal life.

    I agree with you on the relationship focus. For that cliche proverb…one in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, right? I think if we do well by TODAY, then any possible tomorrows will be secured for. But as you point out, if we only focus on tomorrow, today will be wasted, and if there is no tomorrow, all of our efforts will have been for naught.

  7. re JTJ:

    1) Cool; this has been one of the most significant parts of my philosophy in a while, and I’m not formally well-read, so I try to question it frequently.

    2) I already got too long on this comment, and I didn’t think that this would necessarily be appropriate for *this* post. I’m nearly 100% sure that Hales is talking about a “moral” or “spiritual” darkness rather than a general darkness…so he would point out that Edison’s lights don’t do anything to light up the soul. So, REALLY, I think the irony is to show that mainstream religions have actually tended to be morally dark, but independent, skeptical secularists are “bright” (and there’s even a movement called the “bright” movement). That would be consistent with the message, I think. In specific, every day, there are people who realize that their church of upbringing or where doesn’t allow them room to grow, expand…it is needlessly restricting and “darkening” of their progress. It is oftentimes restricting and “darkening” of the rights of others. If these people can question and move away from tradition, then they can create a morally brighter society for themselves and the people they live with.

    3) Yep, this is where I think the real point *should* be made. But I think there is sketchy research both ways on it. Some people say religious people are happier; some people say that the “confident” of either side (religious vs. skeptical) are happier…some say there’s no major difference. So it’s tough to evaluate.

  8. re: the narrator

    I FULLY AGREE WITH THAT QUOTATION. Thanks for looking it up!

  9. JTJ permalink

    Andrew, re: your response to my item #2. Naturally Hales is drawing the spiritual analogy, and there’s some good examples of purely secular people, ideas, and institutions (Jefferson, the reason project, and doctors without borders) in addition to the constitutionally secular united states that espouse enlightened ethics to argue against his position. I think we’re probably of one mind with that, I just loved the literal irony of the secular = darkness analogy.

  10. This is an excellent post. You’re right: Hales’ message would be so much more beautiful if we could all take it as his own subjective opinion. Unfortunately, because of his position, people will instead take it was true doctrine and revelation from God.

    I think it is insulting to the human race to say that morality and order would be non-existent without God. It’s an insult to the human brain, the human power of reason, and thousands of years of civilized progression among societies. I don’t get how anyone can say that we would all be killing each other if Big Brother wasn’t watching, which is essentially what Hales is saying: “Without God, there would be no mortal or eternal life.” Depressing.

  11. re Charles:

    It would be beautiful, but I don’t begrudge him for the bold conclusion he takes, because he *is* ultimately an advocate for the church.

    I personally don’t find it insulting to humanity to say that morality and order would not exist but for God…rather, I think this reflects on the extreme cynicism and pessimism and perhaps misanthropy of the person (Elder Hales) making the claim. So, again, I think it’s interesting that Hales cautions others to not be cynical and critical, and yet his comments are most cynical of human capacity.

    So again, I lament for Hales. Because IMO, he’s not speaking about humanity or me or you. Rather, he is speaking about himself and then generalizing that to the rest of humanity. So, I think the real issue is that Hales believes that he wouldn’t feel moral responsibility to care for others without God…but instead of saying this, he assumes that this must be true for everyone, so he boldly states this as a condition for all, when most of us don’t share the sentiment. I lament that Hales believes this way, and I hope he has underestimated himself…because I think it would be tragic IF the only thing motivating Hales were God.

    If I could speak to Hales, it wouldn’t be to condemn. But rather to try to get him to understand that even if there weren’t a god, he STILL would be personally motivated not to kill. He doesn’t need a divine law to do this. He doesn’t need an earthly law not to do this. All he needs is something WITHIN HIM that gives him a sentiment regarding PERSONAL valuation of life.

  12. Excellent post. Makes me want to read some more talks myself.

    It’s funny how obvious now appear the half-truths and subjective, improbable conclusions presented as objective fact.

    I think my fear of becoming depraved and hedonistic was one of my biggest obstacles to leaving the church. It was such a pleasant surprise to finding that my desires to be and promote good didn’t fade away with my faith.

    My experience is that life actually has MORE meaning and purpose now. How ironic is that.

  13. Re Simplysarah:

    Excellent post. Makes me want to read some more talks myself.

    Excellent. My grand master plan is in effect!

    Re: presenting the subjective as objective…I actually think many people do this. It’s what we do and it’s difficult to avoid doing such. I mean, wouldn’t you like if you could say that your personal beliefs were *true for everyone*? I mean, it’s one thing if they are true for you, but if they are true for everyone, you can reprimand people for acting and believing differently. This is an easier path than accommodating and attempting to understand others.

    I agree with you on your final line. I feel more able to live and appreciate my life these days.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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