I want to endorse the notion that we don’t mock other people’s religious beliefs. Viewing any major religious tradition from the outside, jeering onlookers have no difficulties finding elements which appear terrible or implausible. Every single holy text with which I am familiar (admittedly a small set) includes intertwined strands of the ugly and the humane, not to mention the peculiar. Every established church or religious authority combines ugly and humane elements, as well. Because religion is so intimate to our humanity, this is hardly surprising.
There’s a place for emphatic atheists and others to note the human and intellectual shortcomings of organized religion, religious dogma, and the implicit and often-troubling premises of religious belief. One should honor (and learn from) Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, John Stuart Mill, and many others for forthrightly pursuing this agenda. This path was a lot braver 70 years ago and more than it is today.
Viewing these same traditions and texts from the inside, intelligent people are not blind to these difficulties and contradictions, and do their best to navigate them. People work, imperfectly, to improve these traditions. People navigate these contradictions, imperfectly, in their own lives.
If we are to judge people, we should do so based on how they live, not on the basis of forbidding religious beliefs we presume them to hold. Latter Day Saints, the immediate subjects of Mark’s post, provide an excellent case in point. The LDS adherents I know live quite admirable lives. They help each other. They are generous neighbors. Many have complicated personal views regarding problematic positions one associates with their church.
I was reminded of this Friday night when I went on a work visit with Ceasefire violence interrupters in Chicago’s East Garfield Park. It’s a tough, low-income neighborhood. I stood out like a sore thumb. When I stopped at a traffic light nearing the office, some guys walked over and started banging on my car door. I and a graduate student accompanied Ceasefire interrupters to a local basketball tournament. Interrupters were there to ensure that no on-the-court or off-the-court fights marred the family event or led to something worse.
As I munched on a hot dog and chatted up Ceasefire staff, I met some conspicuously buoyant and clean-cut white families associated with Breakthrough Urban Ministries. I spoke with a leader and with a volunteer associated with Breakthrough, which supports the tournament and many social services in the local community. Both people I spoke with have homes within walking distance of the basketball tournament.
One volunteer works in Wilmette. He, his wife, and their toddler just moved in, a few blocks away. I asked him, with awkward humor, whether he chose that spot to shorten his commute. He just said “Christ wants me to be here.”