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.