Can Atheists Be Religious, Can they Be Mormon?

A few years back I wrote a blog post expressing a literal(ish) belief in Santa Claus. In summary, Santa is real because we all collectively, cooperatively make it so. There’s a lot of magic in this shared sense of cooperation and good-will. There’s a spiritual power that’s in it. I believe in it. I have faith in it. It’s religious for me.

I’m obsessed with community and relationships, partly because they are so difficult, so fraught with trouble. We’re too easily envious, too easily offended, we can be difficult for each other, too prone to gossip, too prone to find fault, difficulties with miscommunication. Sometimes it’s easier to just be by ourselves. To reach out and participate with others is risky, but the rewards are too great not to try. I’m obsessed by them because relationships have always been so difficult for me, and I’m assuming for most of us. And I think it is a religious practice to drive directly into one’s difficulties. I think this is what it means to repent. I’m also obsessed by them because I recognize the power of networks and relationships. We’re all stronger together. We do amazing things cooperatively. We learn quicker. We’re happier in healthy, balanced relationships and communities.

And it’s central to why I believe religion matters.

It’s a point central to Samuel Brown’s book, The First Four Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel, where he takes the principles of faith and repentance and the sacred ordinances of baptism and confirmation and emphasizes the relational power of these practices, principles and rituals. Its through a religious practice we learn to get along with others.

I’ve heard some people complain that we Latter-Day Saints stay too busy to think deeply, as if church leaders conspire to give us callings and three-hour weekly church services to keep us from ever pondering the truth about Mormonism. That perspective misconceives faith, which is a principle of action, of experiment, and experience. Faith is a conscious commitment, often tedious, stretched over the course of our lives. Our participation in the church community is an expression of our faith rather than a distraction from it. Faith does not live in the echo chamber of an isolated mind. Faith grows in strength as we enact it. This close connection between faith and action explains why as we immerse ourselves in the work of the kingdom our faith burns more brightly.

Later in the chapter on the Holy Ghost and the confirmation ordinance required to receive it, Samuel Brown describes a process of committing oneself to the sustaining power of the church community

Confirmation is in its literal sense refers to making hard or strong or firm. At confirmation, you are well and truly a member of the church….

Through confirmation we bring our own lives – our bodies, our aspirations, our wisdom, and our failings – into the community of saints. In that community, we find strength – firmness – that allows us to resist the many miseries that can be inflicted upon us when our brokenness is not yet healed by Christ.

In his book, The End of the World, Plan B: A Guide For the Future, Charles Shiro Inouye calls for compassion as a solution to injustice. In it, he talks about how to find peace. Too often we choose peace through isolation:

We are simply who we are, and we celebrate our own ways of doing things. We are justified because we live alone and are alike. This is the peace of isolation. Peace of this kind has us living with ‘our kind’, free from the dangers and complications that strangers bring. This is the peace of ‘us’ without ‘them’.

Whether in actuality or in our imaginations, many of us dwell at least partially in this kind of isolation. Some of us live far from the highway, deep in the woods, away in the desert. Others of us keep strangers at a distance by setting up gates and fences, or by employing guards and doormen. We have many ways to isolate ourselves. We join clubs, churches, associations, societies, political parties. Avoiding those who are different is one of the easiest ways to find peace in a world that would otherwise trouble and threaten us.”

Here, Inouye talks about isolation from people generally or just people who aren’t like us. Trying to find safety in conformity and sameness. Instead Inouye calls for a different kind of peace, through diversity and this demands compassion:

It manifests itself as an appreciation of difference. Is there a clearer, simplier definition than this? Peace is a cultivated appreciation of the ways we are different. You and I are not alike. But precisely because we are not, we contribute to each other’s well beling.

The fulness of the Plan B paradigm, which requires us to push through sorrow to discover compassion, eventually brings us the third kind of peace. Beyond the reflex of retreat and isolation, beyond the demand for uniformity, beyond the call for justice, comes an expanded capacity to appreciate difference, including the ways each of us is different from all others.”

Adam Miller walks on more abstract but similar grounds in his book, Future Mormon, in the chapter entitled “Network Theology: Is it Possible to be a Christian but not a Platonist?” In this chapter Adam Miller makes a compelling case for an inter-connected theology where among other ideas Christ’s grace and power comes to us through this relational network.

In network theology, an understanding of grace as an external, sovereign intervention is out of place. The model of a transcendent, sovereign power would be apt only if God were a king perched at the top of a cosmic hierarchy rather than a servant whose power resides in his solidarity with the poor and the outcast. What, then might be an immanent notion of grace appropriate to a flat, network cosmology?

Here, grace can be understood as a systemic excess produced by a complexity of a network’s ongoing, local interactions. In other words, grace is an emergent property of a self-organizing system. Or again: it is the unintended remainder of an unbalanced equation. This kind of ‘free’ emergent excess – an excess that cannot be wholly accounted for by any individual relations or locally intended consequences – is essential to the success of any truth. Truths overwrite banked knowledge by bringing into play the excess of grace.”

Adam Miller is obscure here, but I’d like to tease this idea out more and unify it with the ideas presented earlier. Also, I’d like to return to the originating question of this blog. Can atheists (or at least agnostics) be Mormon? I think the answer should be yes, because Mormonism is fundamentally, in my opinion a religion of relationships that builds its power through a web of connections unified primarily in a shared commitment to one another. It’s true there are specific propositions about God, Jesus, the atonement, the restoration, scripture and part of our membership is predicated open declaring our testimony of these truths. But even in these truths, if there are ways to tease out the relational power of faith as commitment to a community, atonement in finding at-oneness with God through service to others, being able to find God in each other, these truths are inherently more about commitment and relationship, then they are about specific ideas of who or what God precisely is.

In other words, someone could be agnostic about the existence of a God (as an all-powerful king reigning and ruling in heaven) while still feel a commitment toward the daily work asked for when we feel called into Mormonism. Someone may wonder about the literal historicity of the main events of Christ’s atonement, while still find the power of Christ’s grace in our relationships.

Mormonism I feel can, does and should make room for people who find nuance in these beliefs even as they remain unsure or uncommitted to a literal declaration of belief in a white-male all powerful God in heaven.

Can one be an agnostic Mormon? I say yes.


My Name Used to Be Muhammad – Islam, Modernity, and Liberalism

Donald Trump ran a fairly ideology-light presidential campaign. He made a handful of incredible promises with precious few details on how he’d actually accomplish any of them other then to just trust his ability to get deals done. On one point he was consistent, on his willingness to call out Islamic extremism for what it is. He promised to crush it, and the first step in his plan I guess was to name it. Second step is anyone’s guess.

Sam Harris and Shadi Hamid in their latest podcast, make a reasonably convincing case that there was some meat on this Trump bone. That radical Islam does have to be reckoned with as it does present a threat to Western liberalism, that the democratic party generally, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically have not adequately addressed this fact, and so far, they haven’t even been willing to talk about it honestly.

Shadi Hamid is a liberal Muslim thinker and a thoughtful critic of the religious tradition he belongs to. He makes two points that resonate: First, unlike other religious traditions, the Quran is written with God as the narrator, making the reading of the Quran a reasonably direct interaction with God. The book is also old, a product of a different time and place with cultural norms far different than the ones we take for granted today. Modern day believers of Islam have to wrestle with the tension of bringing God’s words from a place 1500 years ago and finding application for it today.

The Bible, by contrast, is a historical narrative of a people and their prophet and how they struggle to connect with God through their trials. This scriptural indirection allows a greater degree of freedom to find nuance as Christianity has been more successful in its shift into modernity.

Second, Islam was never just a political movement, but a religious one as well. Muhammad  and those that succeeded him, used the unifying power of Islam to unite the Arab world and extend its reach and influence into Europe, Africa and Asia and now, of course, worldwide.This history of a God-ordained political movement carried out by a prophet sanctified a set of behaviors that fit nicely within a first century world.

By comparison, Christianity was born from weakness, poverty and suppression. Rather than revolt, Christ taught peace, meakness, submission and then ultimately submitted himself completely, submitting himself to an unjust mob culminating with his crucifixion Christ came not as a ruler but as someone who was ruled and ultimately overcome. His victory and his kingdom was never part this world.

Given the out-sized importance Islam is currently playing in our world and politics and the threats many feel it imposes to western, liberal values and the recent trends to pre-world war European nationalism and tribalism, there seems to be something interesting going on here worth exploring.

With this as context, I finally got around to reading a recent birthday present given to me last summer, “My Name Used to Be Muhammad, a true story about a man born in Nigeria, raised to become a Muslim cleric, who eventually risked his life and lost his freedom converting to Mormonism while attending university in Egypt. The author of the book was born Muhammad Momen, but eventually changed his first name to Tito upon leaving the religion of his youth. The book describes a life of intolerance, brutal misogyny and horrifying abuse.

He was his father’s favorite son to his second wife. Although polygamy was common, his father didn’t practice, he had re-married after his first wife passed away. “It wasn’t unusual for women in northern Africa to die before middle age. Conditions were rough, and women were perpetually pregnant. Plural marriage was also common, so the loss of one wife didn’t work a hardship on the husband. His children were simply raised by his other wives.” But his father saw in him something special and felt like he was destined to be a powerful Islamic cleric and groomed him for it. Starting at age five, he was forced to begin to memorize the Quran, and although his education was broad, his focus was always Islam. And this straight path was enforced with violence, suffering beatings whenever he strayed, banned from anything that could be a distraction – soccer, art.

It’s a long story and I’m leaving plenty of details out, but he eventually makes his way to Egypt to attend college in Islamic studies. There he meets who in a different set of circumstances, would have become his wife. He describes what sounds like a beautiful, authentic romance. They were soon engaged. But his life, his training, his culture was deeply problematic. He was on a path he did not choose. Their love was strong and the relationship survived his neglect, his alcoholism, his infidelities, but was split in two when he converted to Mormonism.

His conversion happened by chance, a friend of his introduced him to it but only when pressed. He want to church, saw and felt some things missing from his own life experiences. And this may not have been enough but he had also discovered cracks within Islam that caused him to questions life-long assumptions.  Conversion to Christianity in a deeply Muslim world was a risky thing to do. Not only did he lose his fiance, he eventually lost his freedom, receiving a life sentence but eventually serving ten in prison.

The book did not fully address Tito Mommed’s current feelings of the religion of his birth. For him, it was obviously excruciating and tragic. But Islam has 1.6 billion adherents or 23 percent of the global population. It’s a religion that’s not going away, not now, likely not ever. And for good reason, there are plenty of healthy, strong, committed, good Muslims through out globe. Muslim communities thrive in many places. It’s a deep, thoughtful, beautiful religion.

How much of the real damage Tito Mommed both experienced and witnessed can be blamed on the religion? How much of it is cultural, historical or just deeply human. Tito’s father had a dream that his son would one day grow up to become an important cleric in the community. He drove him hard to achieve that goal. How different is that from say Andres Agassi’s father, who drove him to tennis excellent in ways that were similarly obsessive and abusive.

I was disappointed when his relationship severed after his conversion to Mormonism. I thought it was a tragic result. It would have been legitimately beautiful for the path he was walking to have completed successful. A beautiful marriage, a wonderful family, a committed spiritual journey as a respected leader in a major world religion. I understand why it couldn’t happen, it simply was not a path he wanted. Suffering life-long abuse to stay on a path, no matter how potentially good it may have been, is really no life at all.

At the end of the book, in what sounded like a real miracle and after Tito spent ten excruciating years in prison, he meets his dad on his dad’s deathbed. Here his dad apologizes and expresses regret for all the damage and pain he inflicted. It’s easy, I can imagine, it the last moments of one’s life, in a moment of reflection and regret, to free yourself of the real drag this world places on one’s soul and think higher, deeper, more compassionate, generous thoughts. It was tragic and sad this moment couldn’t have come sooner but it was a precious gift it came when it did.

I personally believe Islam can reform and make a significant and important  contribution for good in this world. In fact, it already is in many places and in many ways. What’s not needed are not national databases to track Muslims in this country, a war on Islam generally in foreign lands, or excessively restrict immigration restrictions on Muslims seeking to come here.










When Conservatives and Liberals Debate – My Thoughts


VOX has a nice summary of a recent discussion between Trevor Noah of The Daily Show and a conservative lightening-rod Tomi Lahren of the Blaze. Watching the debate, I found Tomi Lahren articulate and passionate even as she found herself falling into self-contradiction, and logical dead-ends. The obvious example is when she tried to conflate the rioters with the entire black-lives matter movement but refused to accept that this is equivalent with conflating the KKK support of Donald Trump with Trump himself.  Or when, in the context of Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the national anthem, refusing to explain how should a black person get their message out there.

I’m nowhere near as articulate as Tomi Lahren but I have tied myself into my own logical knots trying to defend deeply, emotionally held positions using rational logic alone. The reason why liberals lose democratic elections even when it seems they have the better argument and when they have, what seems like the expert consensus from academics, scientists, economists and the “mainstream media” is because they are coming at these debates from a decidedly secular point of view without having a deeper emotional, religious narrative to really drive it home and to inspire passion. The movement has been largely data driven, evidence based, reasoned and logical approach to government. The expectation is that the American people will be reasoned their way into the correct position.

Liberalism has become the movement of reason and rational thought. 2008 Barack Obama is an interesting exception. His presidential race had a decidedly religious, even evangelical feel to it. His campaign slogans included “know hope” and “yes we can”, even as it was mocked by his critics for being too messianic in tone. This video is a really great example of this:

But when the realities of his presidency hit, many of his followers felt let down. He transitioned from messiah to conventional democratic politician fitting into the same government grooves carved out by his predecessors.

Conservatism has always been a little more illiberal and a lot more rooted in old ideas and a lot more dependent on churches for its authority, guidance and power. The conservative elites are largely religious.

And conservative rhetoric, as a result, is more emotional, more earnest, at times thicker and more difficult to explain. It’s why the gay marriage debate was so difficult for conservatives. Liberals found a broadly appealing and sympathetic narrative, made their case over and over again, logically, rationally in ways that were difficult if not impossible to refute. The conservative counter relied more and more on religious appeal. When the gay movement started to make a religious case for marriage, it just became a matter of time they would win. Ross Douthat made a late valiant effort and in that debate, hit on something that describes much of what goes on in conservative circles still.

The particularities of heterosexuality are very particular, and only a thick understanding of wedlock, I suspect, can hope to do the kind of important cultural work that Tushnet is describing, and push heterosexuals not only to think about their behavior within marriage, but also how their entire sexual lives fit into the marital ideal. (This thickness issue also helps explain what often sounds like tongue-tiedness and/or desperation from social conservatives when they’re asked to explain what, exactly, it is about marriage that makes it distinctively heterosexual: the whole “well, it’s about love and monogamy and complementarity and fertility and sex differences and childrearing and …” refrain, which seems unconvincing to many people, should be understood in part as an attempt to grapple with just this complexity.)

I suspect, though, it was never really about a complexity too difficult to explain so just trust us. It was more that opposition to gay marriage has always been fundamentally rooted in religious tradition. Liberals were making mostly secular, rational arguments while conservatives have traditionally relied on a more religious reasoning that fundamentally “defies all understanding.”

Getting back to Tomi Lahren’s apparent anger that Colin Kaepernick would dare defy the flag, I wish that instead Trevor Noah would have invited David Brooks who could have explained it this way.

Sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism. When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.

If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

Both David Brooks and Ross Douthat are gifted conservative writers and thinkers who also happen to be employed by the fairly liberal, definitely “mainstream” NY Times. They constantly confront and wrestles with liberalism while maintaining their conservative (though in both cases, moderate) sensibilities.  And they have a rather rare ability to wrestle out of what is inherently emotionally and religiously held view, the underlying deeper logic. In other words, they understand conservatism but they speak liberal – and as a result, they have been transformed by the process and are now largely (and unfortunately) mistrusted by the movement they claim to represent. And it’s no accident that both have been among the most passionate critics of the Trump presidency.

The Problem

The problem here is that not only are both sides talking past each other, they aren’t even speaking the same language. But it’s more than that. They have completely lost trust in each other. It’s not just that both sides disagree, it’s that they both claim moral superiority. When Trevor Noah asked Tomi Lahren what she wants people to understand, she responds by saying that she’s just saying stuff that needs to be said and by saying this stuff, by believing this stuff, she wants people to believe it doesn’t make her a bad person. Fundamentally, she and her listeners want a voice, they want a platform and they want respect.  And liberals want the same thing. In fact it’s what we all want. We want to be heard. This is human and natural.

A Possible Solution – A Conversation

Is it possible to talk our way through this?  I think it’s possible, but most people don’t have the time, willingness or inclination. Which is fine, but if we’re not willing to engage, then we should at least hold onto our position with a lot more humility. Before you point your finger my way, know that I agree. Humility is a goal for us all. In fact, this is a prerequisite for thoughtful conversation – where you always leave yourself open and vulnerable to a conversion to the truths presented by the person you are talking to. And if we choose to skip the conversation, it’s even more vital to recognize our fallibility. The less often our views are challenged, the more likely they are to be wrong (or at least shallow).

The way forward is to recognize we’re each trying to solve the same problems using different set of tools and approaching it from different perspectives. Religious arguments tend to be more emotional, spiritual and rely more on tradition, spiritual authority and scripture. Their power is driven more from the heart than the head. Rational, secular arguments rely more on reason, logic and data.

Both points of view have value, both are important but both have significant flaws. An over-reliance on reason can feel like hubris in our own ability to understand a universe that really is beyond all comprehension. An over-reliance on emotion, feeling and religious sentiment can leave us stuck in old prejudices and traditional thinking based on bad information.

We need both points of view in the discussion. A religious appeal, at its best, connects with the inherit goodness and generosity within each of us, aspires us toward something beyond ourselves, and helps us to connect with each other. A healthy loyalty to our religious tradition roots us to the wisdom of our past and keeps us from pushing too far, too soon. Rational argument keeps us tethered firmly to the realities of this world and grounds us in our capacity to learn and discover and helps to evolve into new truths.

We need each other.