If you are nice and decent person, does it matter what you believe?
Some of the nicest people you could ever meet are Mormons — or, as they prefer to be called, Latter Day Saints.
They’ve responded to the open ridicule of their faith in hit musical The Book of Mormon with smiles and an offer to audiences to check out the book itself.
They also believe some of the strangest things of any religion I’ve come across — including that ancient Israelite tribes built boats and sailed to America, and that there’s a planet or star called Kolob next to the throne of God, and that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from a language called “Reformed Egyptian” inscribed on golden plates that he discovered near his home in New York state.
I saw the musical The Book of Mormon last week. I was expecting it to be a scathing satirical attack on the LDS church and on religion in general. I was excepting to feel pretty uncomfortable, to be honest, as a person of faith.
But, despite the profanity and the satire, the show was surprisingly pro-religious faith as a transformative power to bring hope in the world.
The musical tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to convert people in Uganda. They find the remote village where they’ve been sent to be a desolate place, beset with AIDS, female genital mutilation, disease, and being overrun by a local warlord. The people survive these calamities by shaking their fists (and more) at God.
It’s one of the oldest human responses to suffering and confusion. Protest against God for allowing terrible things to happen even finds its way in to the pages of the Old Testament.
The young Mormon missionaries are dismayed. What does their faith have to say about AIDS, female circumcision, and crop failures? But they discover that there is a great power in belief, in and of itself.
Elder Price finds his courage to stand up to the warlord by reminding himself that “a Mormon just believes” (it helps if you get to sing it in a musical theatre style of course!). The people of the village find hope and resolve in the contorted, but more practical, version of Mormonism that Elder Cunningham teaches them.
And that seems to be the message. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It’s belief that matters. Any belief.
Belief makes our lives go better
Believing in some source of meaning and hope, such as a religion, makes your life go better. And the lives of those around you.
You are more kind, more healthy, more generous, and less isolated. You are less prone to addictions. You are more resilient when disaster hits, as it inevitably does.
Religious communities do the heavy lifting in Australia when it comes to volunteering and welfare work.
This is not particularly controversial, and it is widely substantiated by research. Even atheist journalist Matthew Parris, after a visit to Africa, wrote a piece entitled: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. He could see that it was people with faith who were opposed to corruption, committed to building their nation, and filled with compassion for the needy.
But is that enough? If a flaky idea makes us nicer people, is that OK?
I am with atheists like the late Stephen Hawking here in saying, “no, it isn’t”.
To happily believe an illusion is simply tragic — like imagining you are happily married while your spouse has multiple affairs, unbeknown to you.
It’s surely a vital part of the human gift that we are capable of inquiry and reason. To shut that capacity off surely diminishes us. And it opens us to the possibility of believing things that are really poisonous, too.
Easter can’t just be a myth about re-birth
Faith isn’t the opposite of reason. Faith is a necessary complement to reason. For one thing, since we cannot know everything, we have faith in the work of others. For another, we proceed by faith that the world is a coherent and knowable place. We take it on trust that there is good and evil.
But faith in anything, however weird, is not a good thing in an of itself. Trust a scam artist, and you’ll be scammed. Believe in a lie, and you’ll be taken for a fool.
The apostle Paul even admitted this, arguing that if the resurrection of Christ was a hoax, then the Christian faith is a pathetic joke.
Easter can’t just be a myth about re-birth, or a vague story about hope. It’s either based on events that actually occurred in time and space, or it is nothing at all.
That’s where I am putting my faith on the line. I believe some strange things, too. A guy rose from the dead, for starters. But I am not going to hide behind the “take it on faith” mantra or suggest that you should overlook my odd beliefs because I am a nice guy.
The Christian faith offers itself for scrutiny, especially over its historical claims. Either it is convincing or it isn’t.