Saturday, November 08, 2014

Religion and Morality

I posted the following as a kind of rant in a private FB group yesterday. As such, it’s not what I would consider a finely-tuned piece of writing. It leaves open the question of what the relationship between morality and religion should be, and yes, I think there is a relationship to be had there. But I trust that my general point and concerns will come across if I post this as is. The post seemed to garner a good response in the group, so I trust it’s not entirely incoherent. Here you go.

Maybe religion shouldn’t be in the “morality” business.

This might sound cuckoo crazy, but bear with me a minute.

As I think about all the things religion tells us to do or not to do, it all begins to look quite silly. Birth control, R-rated movies, tattoos, sleeveless shirts, mothers working outside the home, same-sex marriage. Do this, don’t do that. Is this really what religion is for?! It seems so shallow and meaningless! And yet that’s how we so often approach religion, as an authoritative guide to not being naughty. Really?!?! That’s what I’m supposed to get out of all of this?!? “I”m so grateful for a living prophet, so I don’t wear two sets of earrings and unknowingly sin.” For reals, people?!?!??!?!

I’ve heard people talk about how the church can infantalize people. I think this is almost unavoidable when we’re so obsessed with right/wrong actions (an external focus) instead of embracing and becoming (an internal focus). In many ways, we invite this upon ourselves because we want someone to tell us what to do and we want to be able to say, with all the ease and simplicity of glimpsing at a checklist, that we are good people doing things right and pleasing God. But the result is that we’re babies, crawling around on the floor, with the looming parent ever there to remind us, “Don’t put that in your mouth!” That’s what religion tends to do ... often quite literally! “Don’t put bacon in your mouth!” “Don’t put coffee in your mouth!” “Don’t put cigarettes in your mouth!” And I think we’re all aware of the famous First Presidency letter of 1982 that forbid us from putting other things in our mouths.

I was reading about the Cutlerite movement in Mormon history and the list of things they forbid on Sundays. The list includes reading newspapers, reading novels, playing checkers, and having conversations that are not spiritually-based. We look back and laugh and think it’s so ridiculous. But we latch onto our own rules and applaud ourselves for doing things right and flourishing spiritually. Well, I look back at the Cutlerites and think they probably wasted a lot of their time and missed a lot of happiness because they were following these rules. Why would we be any different today? What will we look back on in 150 years and laugh at because it so clearly has absolutely nothing to do with being a morally upstanding person?

Joseph Smith said something about teaching correct principles and letting the saints govern themselves. That makes sense to me. Teach truth and goodness, insofar as you are able, and let people embrace those things that they want to embrace or that benefit them. Don’t just give us a list of what to do or not to do. How do we learn what makes those things good or bad if you’re just telling us what to do? Help us to understand the whys, and then we won’t need you to tell us what’s good or bad. We’ll know for ourselves! The funny thing is, Jesus tried to tell us what makes things good: love, on which supposedly hangs all of the laws. And yet we refuse to believe it. We really do refuse. Instead, we villainize those who endorse this approach as embracing a “comfortable God.” We shame those who dress differently than we do, because we assume personal righteousness and hemlines can be measured with the exact same yardstick. And we shake our heads in disapproval at parents who allow their children to attend birthday parties on Sundays, because we assume we should be willing to follow rules at the expense of nurturing friendships, showing fellowship, and giving our support.

Boy, do we sell ourselves and our religion short.


  1. Wow well said. A lot of passion comes through.
    I love the Ophelia post you put on my FB page. It has so helped my thinking. I am afraid of doing the wrong thing and I do look for rules just like you've stated here so that I can know if I'm doing things right. I am selling myself short and I'm ready (I think!) to stop doing that!
    Here's my example. Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. In my line of work :) this is rarely the case. Sometimes I honestly feel like it's just better on all of us to spend a quiet day at home than to try to get to church. Of course this means missing the sacrament which I am trying to make a priority but other than that, do you know what my real concerns are? That my home teachers will want to come over and they'll find out we didn't go to church. Or the other nursery leaders will think I don't have a testimony because I call in sick too often. But if I can think and feel for myself, I believe that as long as I stay honest with myself and don't get lazy about it, sometimes a day off is the "right" thing to do. And it's funny that I feel like I just confessed a big sin and stepped onto the "bad" side :)

  2. Melanie and I have taken Sundays off before and spent them as a family. They have felt more peaceful, refreshing, and dare I say holy than many, many, many other Sundays. We have found it important to do this from time to time. Elder Bednar said this in a video I watched: "What would you do if you didn’t go to church? What if there wasn’t Relief Society? What if you didn’t have all that stuff? What would you do? Well, you ought to be okay! Your ability to worship, your ability to have connection to the Godhead, to the power of the Holy Ghost, that doesn’t go away if ... you can’t be there on Sunday." He was talking about people being in situations (out of the country, for example) and literally not being able to make it to church. But I found it interesting to realize (even if Elder Bednar didn't) the implications of what he was actually saying.

  3. I agree with both of you. I have also had some Sundays when I wondered if I wasn't actually inspired to stay home.
    Now I haven't been to church for a whole year...I've been on hiatus, I say. I don't know that I'm getting anything out of
    that, and I do miss church. But it's just how it is right now.