Although I’ve written many posts about my political beliefs, I have not written any to date about my religious beliefs. There are several reasons for that. It’s not that religious beliefs are less important to me (actually, the reverse is true). It’s partially related to the fact that I hold them so personal. Also, with my political posts, I am, at some level, hoping to convince people to adopt some of my political philosophy. With religious beliefs, I’d rather do that in a more personal locale than over the internet, and even then, it would not be with the intent to convince them… merely to share.
However, recently I’ve been thinking about one specific question: why am I religious or perhaps more specifically, why I choose to be an active and supporting member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I’ve been pondering this question for quite some time.
The reason I have considered this question is NOT related to any doubt or question I have concerning the church, or religion in general. It is more related to the fact that, to outward appearance, I suspect that it isn’t completely obvious that I would be interested in religion to begin with. When I step outside myself and look at me, I’m not the type of person I generally associate with being religious.
Growing up, like most kids, I had a personal hero. I still remember who my hero was: Spock from Star Trek. I like logic, and always have. Math is perhaps my favorite subject to study because there is (at all but the very edge of our mathematical knowledge) a clear set of logical steps that define everything we do. I believed then, and I still believe to a very large extent, that when you base your decisions on cold, objective logic, you are generally going to make better decisions with better outcomes. Although I don’t believe that I ever told anyone at the time (probably because I recognized that people would consider it strange), I remember modeling some of my decision-making process after Spock. Even now, I like to think that every decision I make is based on logic. Now, I’m certain that there is an element of self-delusion there. Also, I don’t always find that I’m able to convey that logic to others (which either means that they don’t understand my logic… or that I’m just wrong in thinking that my thoughts are logical… or most likely some combination of the two).
Anyway, given the desire to choose things based on cold logic, it sometimes strikes me as odd that I am equally devoted to my religious beliefs which are certainly not provable in any mathematical-type way.
So, why am I devoted to my religious beliefs?
In thinking about this, I have come up with some thoughts that I want to present here. This is by no means a comprehensive description of why I believe the way I do. It’s really just a set of ideas that contribute to an understanding of why I believe… but it is by no means complete.
I am also forced to acknowledge a chicken-and-egg relationship where I cannot answer ‘which came first’. I was raised in this church. I have attended weekly, more or less, from the day I was born. I would like to think that my religious beliefs are an extension of who I am (the logical person that I am), and my church fits smoothly into those beliefs. But, there is also the question of to what extent growing up in this church environment actually molded my beliefs to fit that religion.
I would like to be able to say that I am 100% unbiased and objective about things, even about myself. However, I am quite certain that it is 100% impossible to be fully unbiased and objective about oneself. So… here are my 100% unbiased objective thoughts about my religious beliefs (which you should absolutely not trust as being either unbiased OR objective).
The very first question to ask is why accept any religion at all?
My formal education is all in science, and I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the current scientific models of how we came to be starting with the big bang theory and the creation of our universe and culminating with evolution and natural selection. I accept all of this as factual (subject to any scientific findings that might alter our current understanding of those events).
As a result, the question of ‘how did we get here’ is basically answered, in my head, though a great number of specific details are still being discovered. When I hear a religious person (of any faith) using scriptures or religious principles to define the ‘how’ of our existence, I typically reject their statements quickly and completely. Religion has little or no presence in that portion of my understanding of the world.
But there is a second question that is actually greater and more important to me than the question of how. It is the question of WHY. WHY are we here?
There are two possible answers to that. The first is based on an explanation that completely excludes religion from the process. Once you do that, then the explanation of WHY we are here is that a large number of scientifically understandable events occurred, more or less randomly, and at the end of that sequence of events, here we are. In other words, we are here because of random chance and probability. From a purely scientific standpoint, this is absolutely a plausible answer. I understand completely why people accept it. It is based only on objective scientific facts which means that it is exactly the type of answer I generally look for. I will state here that I accept that answer as a completely reasonable answer, but reasonable or not, I find it unsatisfactory, or incomplete. At some level, I just don’t like to accept the idea that I am here for no reason other than random chance. Like many people, I want a better answer to WHY than that.
I can of course decide to assign my own purpose to my existence. Many people choose this path, including many who accept the random chance explanation. I might decide that my purpose is to cure cancer, or lead a country, or found some huge world-wide company, or any other grand purpose (or perhaps a not-so-grand purpose), but even if I DO envision such a purpose, and even if I DO accomplish said purpose, once I am gone, that purpose is gone as well because the source of that purpose is gone. The fact that I decided it was my purpose to accomplish something is largely irrelevant, even if it is a purpose who’s benefit extends beyond my life. The accomplishment endures… but the purpose does not.
For that reason alone, I would hope for something that science alone can’t provide at this moment: an acceptable answer for WHY. And not only that, but I hope for answer that is supplied, not by myself, but by something else. Something higher. Something that transcends me. Something that persists. I want the universe to provide the answer, thereby acknowledging that I am something. It is not enough for me to say “I think, therefore I am”. I want the universe to say “You think, therefore you are”.
And so, that naturally brings us to a religious answer. The religious answer for WHY I am here represents something higher than me assigning my purpose, justifying my existence, and giving a meaning to my life that I simply cannot do for myself. I personally find that science and religion complement, rather than contradict each other. Each has a purpose. I would never base my understanding of HOW the earth was created on my religious beliefs. It provides no such information. But by the same token, I do not want to base my understanding of WHY it was created on science. They each provide an answer; but to different questions.
WHAT DO I WANT FROM RELIGION
So, what do I want from religion? In other words, what do I want the answer to WHY to look like and what are the characteristics of the source of that answer (i.e. what are the properties of God)? Conversely, what do I NOT want?
This does lead to an interesting secondary question. Do I really get to specify the characteristics to the answer to WHY? If I am looking for an answer provided by some external entity, then I really don’t have any say in the answer. I can only respond to that by saying that the answer that was presented to me at an early age, and continues to be presented to me as I participate in church, fits. I don’t create it. I don’t define it. I even find some aspects of it challenging. But I DO accept it.
So what does my answer look like? Before I answer that, I want to talk about some of the ways that it could look like (ways that it has looked like to other people at other times).
Throughout the ages, there have been many different representations of God and many different modes of worship. Each of these actually provides a possible answer to WHY, but as I consider them, the answers are not generally acceptable to me. It’s not sufficient that the religion provide me an answer to WHY. It needs to meet certain criteria for me to want to accept it.
I do note that it is certainly plausible that a religious answer could exist that I’m not okay with accepting. But let’s look at an answer that I can accept.
There are a number of religious beliefs based on an absent God. This is a God who is dead or uninterested in us, or who does not even exist. It might seem strange to include a non-existent God in this discussion, but I have certainly met people who treat atheism as basically a religion. They believe in no God in the same way (with the same level of blind faith) that others believe in a God, and that forms a basis for their belief system. Just as science does not prove anything about the existence of a God, it also does not prove anything about the non-existence of a God. So, in a very real way, accepting atheism (i.e. accepting the absence of a God) is nearly identical to accepting the existence of a God.
I should note that accepting atheism at this level (i.e. at a religious level) is different to me than simply not believing in God. The person who espouses atheism as a religion actually uses that belief as justification for things, whereas someone who simply does not believe in God just ignores the existence (or non-existence) of God in their decision making process.
The religious belief of an absent God seems futile to me. If the purpose of religion is to provide an answer to WHY, and to have that answer have some current meaning, it seems to require an active, participating God. An absent or non-existent God cannot provide this, or at least not in a way that would require my active participation, so I see no reason to pursue any type of religious observance based on an absent God.
Another form that God often takes is that of a self-centered God. This is a God who has created us for the purpose of worshiping Him. This is the God who sits surrounded by angels who’s job it is to tell Him how wonderful He is.
This type of a God does actually provide an answer to the WHY question. My purpose is to give God the praise that He wants.
My problem with this type of theological system is that it seems rather meaningless. As a rule, I’m not interested in spending a day with a self-centered person. Why would I wish to spend an eternity with a self-centered deity? I would hope that there is a better answer than this. I might be willing to follow such a God (after all, this type of God presumably would give some benefit to His believers in order to keep them believing), but it’s pretty unsatisfactory overall.
Also common in history is the belief in a vengeful God. This is a God who says ‘Do this or else!’ (where the ‘else’ is typically something along the lines of going to hell).
I’d have to say that this provides a pretty good explanation of WHY. We exist because God wanted someone to do whatever we are told to do. It even provides a good motivation for falling in line in the religion because who wants a God mad at you who can turn you into a frog (or send you to hell) if you disobey Him.
The downside is that this type of God is not someone I would want to worship. I may do so out of prudence, but not due to a desire to follow Him.
A far more interesting God to me is a contractual God. This is a God who spells out a contract. If you do X then I will bless you with Y.
This could actually be a satisfactory God to worship in my opinion, though the details of the contract would be the determining factor. The problem is that for any contract to be acceptable, all of the important details need to be clearly spelled out, and I’m not aware of any religion which does this. Plenty of deities offer blessings in return for obedience, but the terms tend to be so vague that they don’t sit well with me from a contractual point of view. So, though I might be happy to follow such a God, I’m not aware of one, so it’s not really an option.
This leaves the most desirable of all the deities, a loving God. If there is a God that really loves us, than that could be a God worth worshiping. I may choose to worship a vengeful God or a contractual God, but it is a loving God that I would actually want to worship.
So, if there is a loving God, that would be ideal.
REASONS TO WORSHIP AN IDEAL LOVING GOD
So, assuming that we have a loving God, what are some of the qualities that make this ideal?
Here again, I will state that I’m unsure of my objectivity. I have grown up in a religion that regards God as literally our Father. As such, I regard His relationship with me in a similar way to my relationship with my daughters. Obviously, I don’t consider my relationship with my daughters as ideal in any way, but even so, my relationship with them gives me a frame of reference that helps me to understand what I desire of a relationship with God. Obviously, if I had not grown up thinking of God as a Father, my perception of an ideal God might differ greatly, and my expectation of the qualities of a loving God might be dramatically different.
Loves us individually
When I talk about a loving God, there is the question of who He loves. It might be that he simply loves humanity in general. This would be reminiscent of an zoologist who loves his subject of study. They love the species and are devoting their life to ensuring their continue existence. Although interested in the species in general, the zoologist’s interest in any individual member of that species is limited. If God loves us in the general way that the scientist loves the species they study, then it is not a strong argument to worship Him. I’m a member of humanity, whether or not I worship Him, so a generic love isn’t a sufficiently good reason. He’ll love me whether or not I worship him.
But, if God loves me personally, then it is a completely different situation. If God loves ME personally, then that is a very good reason to worship Him.
By like fashion, it is not good enough that I love my children, just because they are my children. I have to love each of them individually (which means that the exact relationship I have with one differs from the other).
Has to want what’s best for us
If you have a loving God, it seems reasonable that He would want what is best for us.
Without this characteristic, any demands that He makes of us are questionable. Why is He asking us to do XXX? Is it to help us? Or is He having fun making us jump through hoops for no reasonable purpose?
It would seem to me that a truly loving God would only ask something of us if it was in our best interest. Again, I liken this to my relationship with my daughters. I’ve asked many things of them as they grew up, but I would like to hope that my motives were mostly motivated by the question of what would be of benefit to them, rather than what would benefit me.
Has to be fair
Here’s a big one. In order for a God to deserve being universally worshiped, He has to be universally fair. If He is not universally fair, than how can I be sure that I fall in the group who will be treated justly, as opposed to the group who will not receive that treatment. Everyone has to have an equal opportunity to get the reward; to be the recipient of His blessings.
Now, there is a caveat that it’s not a requirement that it be fair NOW… just that it works out fair in the long run.
This automatically places some limitations on the religion. A God that says ‘anyone who is not baptized’ or ‘anyone who never joined a church’ is doomed cannot be in the category of being universally fair, because no religion ever has been available to everyone everywhere. No religion has ever been able to offer everyone the same opportunity.
So, in order to be fair, some provision must be made that everyone gets a chance. This might be something like reincarnation where, if you didn’t get a chance to learn something this time around, you get another chance at it. It might be some sort of period after death, but before any final judgment, where everyone gets the chance to catch up on any missed assignments (this is where my church falls). Or it could be some kind of forgiveness where you are only judged based on the subset of things that you actually got to learn about, and the items that you never had a chance to learn are not counted against you.
So, there are a number of ways to achieve that fairness… but one (or more) of them must play a prominent role in the doctrine of a fair God.
Has to offer a great reward
Another characteristic of a loving God is there needs to be a significant reward for worshiping Him.
It makes sense that if there is no reward for worshiping, there isn’t really a reason to worship. You can if you want, but at that point, the worship doesn’t play a significant role in your life. It’s just something you do.
Having the stakes higher allows the worship to be more meaningful, and when you’re talking about worshiping God, the stakes SHOULD be meaningful.
Of course, almost every religion succeeds in this category. Most religions offer ‘heaven’ as the reward for worshiping. Typically, the definition of heaven is somewhat vague, so it might not be clear what the reward is exactly, but almost without exception, it’s described as being wonderful.
What I do has to matter
One final characteristic that I will list is that what I do has to matter. If my actions don’t matter, there is no compelling reason to worship. If my actions don’t matter, than the act of not worshiping won’t be held against me. So why worship?
As a result, anything like predestination (where my final reward was decided regardless of my actions), or even universal salvation (where everyone is saved), don’t work for me; or at least they do not give me a reason to worship that I could accept wholeheartedly. I might be perfectly willing to accept the reward (such as universal salvation), but there’s still no compulsion to actually participate in worship.
If my actions don’t matter, than there is no reason for me to adhere to a system of worship.
THINGS I EXPECT FROM A LOVING GOD
Here again, I have to say that my thoughts could be (and almost certainly are) influenced by the church I’ve been raised in. However, once again I will say that, even though my thoughts have been influenced, they have not been totally dictated by the church.
I do not view myself as being brainwashed in any way. Being raised a certain way is not the same as being forced to accept that way. I have never been forced to accept things, even growing up in a devout family where I was clearly EXPECTED to accept things.
The specific list of things that I expect from a loving God are clearly impacted by being raised in the church. However, they still feel right (and by that, I mean REALLY right) to me, so I’m comfortable listing them.
He has a plan for me
A loving God who is personally interested in me and wants the best for me should have a plan for me.
This plan is not to totally dictate every step of my life, any more than I dictate every step of my daughters’ lives. But, just as my wife and I taught our daughters the things they need to live good lives, such as honesty, kindness, and self-worth, God must teach me the things that I need. He must have a plan for getting from where I am to a place that He realizes is where I want to be (even if I do not fully understand that at this point).
He expects me to work
As I said above, I expect that my actions will play an important part of the plan.
I have given many assignments to my daughters, and expected them to fulfill them. There have even been negative consequences when they did not. I absolutely expect the same from a loving God. I do not consider it unreasonable in the least way that a loving God would require things of me, even things that I do not necessarily want to do. I don’t expect them to be easy. I don’t expect them to be fun. I DO expect that they will benefit me, but I recognize that a loving God has a much greater understanding of the long-term affects of something and would have a clearer view of how something will be of benefit long-term than I can understand at this point.
He has a view on how things should be
Here’s part one of a 2-part characteristic that is perhaps controvercial.
If there is a loving God, He should have a view on what the best course of action for me should be. Not only that, but His view will, almost by definition of what a God is, be more complete than my own. Given that God’s view of how things should be comes from a perspective far greater than mine, it is not at all unexpected that God would say “I understand you better than you understand you”. I remember saying almost that exact same thing to my young daughters, speaking to them with the experience and perspective of an adult.
And this leads to the second part of the characteristic…
Those views may not be popular
It is inconceivable that a loving God (who, by definition, has a far greater understanding of how the universe works, and what my potential based on an eternal perspective is) would not have views about my path that differ from my own.
When my daughters were young and wanted to eat candy for lunch, in their limited view of things, candy was a better option than vegetables. From my larger view of things, it was obvious that a balanced meal, with a limited number of treats after completing the meal, was the far healthier path to go.
Now, I have a view of my life that is still relatively limited. Like most people, my goals might include ‘where I want to be in five years’, and I can have a pretty good grasp of that. It’s much harder to have an understanding of where I should be 100 years from now, especially since I’ll be in a totally different state of existence at that time.
And so, in the same way that my view of a balance meal was higher and better than the view of candy as a meal; God’s view of my eternal path has to be higher than mine.
And so, it is inevitable that a loving God will understand a better path for me than the one I see for myself AND He will expect me to walk that way.
The upshot of this is that, even views which are collectively popular, may be contrary to the view of a loving God. His views may contradict popular belief or opinion. As a direct result, His views may not be very popular.
As such, I accept, and even expect, that some of the things that a loving God asks of us will not meet with universal approval. As a matter of fact, they might meet with nearly universal disapproval.
He makes those views known
One final aspect of this is that a loving God would make those views, even the unpopular ones, known.
How could I have been a loving parent if I did not teach my daughters the importance of eating vegetables, even though that view was unpopular? Likewise, a loving God would make His views known (though this could come about in several different ways).
The reason that I am comfortable accepting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is because it checks all of the right boxes. At it’s core, it teaches of a loving God who cares for me individually.
True, some of the things that it teaches are sometimes uncomfortable. But that is expected. If a religion doesn’t give me anything outside of my comfort zone, what good is it? Sometimes I’m asked to do things that I find very challenging, but that’s okay too. If a religion doesn’t push you to change, if it doesn’t challenge you, then it is not something with the power to change you.
As I said at the beginning, I also have other, far more personal reasons for accepting my church. In fact, those other reasons are the source of my conviction. But the things I have written here are the reasons, as best as I can describe them, why my belief in religion is not a contradiction to my love of logic and math.