We Are All Conscripted

There’s usually not much of interest for me in the official LDS Twitter feed. It’s usually too difficult to tell what they’re tweeting because all the prefacing leaves no room for content (Most tweets read as “LDSNews/AroundTheChurch: Short title http://crammedin.url”) Today I clicked on one randomly and found something of interest. Apostle Russell M. Nelson gave a talk entitled “We Are All Enlisted” to 400 high school and university-aged people in the Boston area. It seems to be a good example of the church’s current strategy to reinforce faith in the demographic where they are currently losing the most people: young adults. And it focused on the reason that young adults are leaving: secularism.

Unfortunately the full transcript of the talk does not seem to be available anywhere. That’s a shame, because I can only base my observations on the highlights picked out by the LDS Church News. However, based on how highly Correlated all LDS public communications are, I think it’s fair to say that what the LDS Church News reported accurately represents the bullet points that Correlation would want out in public. The highlights included the following:

  1. Those with theistic views are more moral than those with non-theistic views, because they know someone is watching them even if the police or their acquaintances never find out
  2. Complete separation of church and state will result in the destruction of religion while, effectively, the state mandates atheism
  3. The “atheistic mindset” encourages attacking “the family”
  4. Pornography is an “atheistic force” that also attacks “the family”
  5. Atheistic principles encourage “so-called same-gender marriage”
  6. If same-gender marriage is legalised, moral objection to homosexuality would be criminalised
  7. It’s up to the youths of the church (i.e. the audience present) to be “soldiers of God” and fight all of this. The church is counting on them.

I believe the main point of the talk was put best by Nelson himself: “Atheistic moral bedlam and religious repression go hand in hand.” I must say I admire the form of that sentence. Say it out loud whilst pounding your fist on the table and raising your chin with indignant morality. It’s loads of fun. The content, however, is hogwash.

It’s taken a bit of careful listening to figure out LDS PR’s latest installation of buzzwords. I think I can safely identify a few terms that the Church Office Building is trying to get out in the Mormon vernacular. “So-called same-gender marriage” is the first. I doubt it will catch on, mainly because it’s a mouthful. The term very carefully avoids the word “gay,” which allows the LDS Church to continue its denial of the idea that there is any such thing as gay in the first place. Read public communications on the subject very carefully; there are abundant references to “attractions” and “feelings” but I believe there is a coordinated and official effort to avoid using any words that imply that someone is gay as a part of their essential personhood.

A second thing I’ve noticed is the effort to personify non-theistic and secularist ideas. Atheists have explained until they were blue in the face that atheism is not killing god. If an atheist looked in an empty box and said there were no puppies inside, nobody would accuse that person of killing puppies. But getting intense believers to understand that the same principle applies to the way different people view the universe without tempers flaring can be a tricky thing to do. I think the effort to use phrases like “atheistic mindset” and “atheistic forces” is an attempt to turn them into a person — SATAN, that is. That’s right. Atheism and secularism are really — BUM BUM BUUUUMMM! — the efforts of the Devil. What a plot twist! I can only hope and dream that one day I will hear the words “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” at General Conference. This viewpoint may be irreconcilable between theists and non-theists. Non-theists may want nothing to do with religion, and they may try to explain that they do not think there is a white-bearded man in the sky watching their every move like a celestial stalker. To them, theism is like claiming there are invisible, intangible puppies in the box, and if only you believe in them one day they will lick your face and play fetch with you forever and ever. To theists, those invisible, intangible puppies are oh-so-real, and how could you not believe in them. Why wouldn’t you want to believe in them?

The claim that theists are inherently more moral than non-theists is unfair. There’s the obvious point that some religionists are bad people, and many atheists are good people. I’ll volunteer my own head for the chopping block on this point. I no longer have any idea of what lies beyond this world. Afterlife, nothing, punishment, reward — who knows. I could see how some people, when confronted with this belief, would adopt moral anarchy. There is no punishment, so live it up while you can. I believe that only a minority of people really think this way, and that most of these people wind up in prison or at least social pariahs. For my own part, the realisation that this existence may be all that I have has only reinforced to me how precious human experiences are. I have come to love my friends and family with a greater intensity than when I was a believing Mormon, because this may be the only time I have with them. I have heard family members and other Mormons explain their reasoning behind cutting off a loved one from their lives for the horrific crime of apostasy — “I will get the chance to spend time with them in the afterlife, when they’ve repented and are no longer living a life of sin.” Belief in an afterlife can actually provide Mormons with an excuse to take their families for granted. A busy father spending too much time on his church calling is no problem, because he will have plenty of time for his children in the Celestial Kingdom. Regardless of religious belief, this world as we experience it is a one-shot deal. Doesn’t it make sense to care for it and appreciate it simply because it is so brief and precious?

Working out a non-theistic morality can be difficult, but there is a quiet, comforting certainty to the idea that I am trying to make morally correct choices without the meddling influences of divine retribution and reward. If I choose to be kind, it’s because I know it will make someone happy, not because I’m trying to earn spiritual XP to level up to being a Celestial Paladin. If I refrain from doing evil, it’s not because I’m afraid of a divine spanking when daddy gets home after Armageddon. And as far as the threat atheism poses to the world, there have been thousands of suicide bombings in the name of god, but I cannot think of one act of murder that was motivated by the belief that there is no god. (There have been pogroms against believers, but these acts are usually motivated by political dogma rather than the actual belief that there is no god.) If I am wrong, please do provide a link as I’d find the story interesting. But it still leaves the tally somewhat starkly against theists when it comes to violence. By the way, Episodes of South Park don’t count.

I don’t feel I need to address the silliness of claims that legalisation of gay marriage automatically leads to being “persecuted” for disapproving of gays. I do wish that I could have polled those who attended to find out how many believed civil gay marriage is just fine. After all, in the state of Massachusetts, where the talk took place, gay marriage has been legal for six years and my understanding is that no religious person has been given so much as a waggling of the finger for stating their disapproval. I wonder how many of the youths present rolled their eyes when Nelson spouted the party line on the evil so-called same-gender attracted so-called people. I wonder how many of them will still be attending church in five years.

I think I can safely add a few bullet points to my list of what I believe the church’s communications priorities are:

  • Atheism and homosexuality are “forces,” to be spoken of in the same way as “The Devil” or “The Forces of Evil.” They are not simply states of being, with no inherent good or bad traits.
  • Atheism and homosexuality, as forces, are inherently hostile to “Good,” “The Family” and “The Church.”
  • The people who are most likely to leave the LDS church (young, single people) need to be instilled with the guilt and/or pride of knowing that they have been conscripted to fight against these forces, which hopefully will make them less likely to leave

These are all well-aimed strategies, given the current challenge the LDS church has against the young-skewing idea that secularism and homosexuality really don’t do any harm to society or churches. Some will absorb the party line, but others will see these things as straw men. What I’d really like to find out is if messaging like this has any effect on staunching the flow of young people out of the church.

5 thoughts on “We Are All Conscripted

  1. The real reason people are leaving: those who consider themselves to be faithful members, but who inexplicably fail to become mindless jumper-wearing, jello-eating drones, are told “faith promoting” things like “you shouldn’t have a Temple Recommend”. If membership has to dictate one’s personality and character, then it’s only going to become less and less appealing. I, for one, like to think that I can be both religious and free-thinking–but, increasingly, I’m being told by church that I’m wrong.

    I wonder how many people are leaving due to a lack of belief (there’s certainly plenty of that) and how many are leaving because they prize their individualism?

  2. Oh, and I had an act of violence perpetrated on me by an atheist who found my religion offensive. What was I doing at the time? Objecting to having been told offensive things about myself and my life, out of the blue, by someone else. Had I been attempting to share my views, I might’ve understood this better. One of the reasons I write my blog is that I don’t discuss my views, for the most part, in real life.

    • Same with myself; I think there is something to the idea that people shouldn’t discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. It rarely produces any good. If everyone’s in agreement the conversation plunges into nasty statements about those who are different. If there is disagreement then the best case scenario is awkward silence and stilted conversation. The Internet seems so much better for it as it makes discussion more impersonal and leaves more time for in-depth discussion. It’s also easier to opt in or opt out as you please.

  3. Contrasted with being ecumenical and reaching out towards other denominations that they either hate or that hate them (e.g. Prop 8 wooing of Evangelicals, Vatican II), trying to fight the looming enemy satanism…er…secularism…is easily the better choice.

  4. The main issue I have with any conservativism, be it religious or political, is the idea that there is a right and wrong. OK so you believe that but there is no way you KNOW it is right and what I believe (or don’t) is wrong. That is pretty darn egotistical and closed-minded. And unfortunately a lot of more orthodox religions (esp LDS) say this and if you dare to question it, you run the risk of being labeled an apostate. It rubs me the wrong way, as it should any smart, thinking person (but, oh wait, aren’t “intellectuals” one of the main dangers facing the LDS church? ;-)) and the fact that culture and families are so intertwined with religion for Mormons makes any crisis of faith a potential personal tragedy. Speeches like this are likely to turn more young people off the church than lock them in, IMO, and are a disaster from a PR perspective.

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