Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why religion doesn’t matter

It’s still cycling season, but today’s post is about religion. I don’t usually get into religion. I don’t really try to hide mine, but I don’t dwell on it either. Because, as the title states, I don’t think it should matter. If you’re interested in knowing more about why I feel this way, read on.

Although I’m “from” Utah, I’ve spent a lot of time in other places, too. Washington, Maryland, California (twice), Hawaii, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Idaho to be exact. I don’t exactly struggle to make friends, so I’ve known a lot of people with a lot of different attitudes about religion over the years. The one thing I’ve learned from this is that someone’s professed religion has absolutely no bearing on the kind of person they are.

Before I moved to Utah, there were Lutheran or Jewish moms who didn’t want their kids to play with me because they thought I had horns or my dad had more than one wife. When I moved to Utah, there were certain moms in the neighborhood who wouldn’t let their kids play with non-Mormon kids for fear of the negative influences these non-Mormon kids would bring. This is utterly ridiculous. I learned to swear from Mormon kids (and my Mormon mother—hi mom!) and was first exposed to alcohol, drugs, and pornography by Mormon kids. If anything, the non-Mormon kids respected my beliefs and tried to keep me away from that stuff.

Mormon or not, civilized, reasonable people recognize that there’s a difference between right and wrong and that people should act a certain way for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. We don’t need religious texts or leaders to tell us these things—we just know them. In fact, religion as often as not is used as a crutch or to justify questionable behavior. “My religion doesn’t forbid it, therefore it’s OK.”

Never has this been more apparent than when I lived in Indiana. We lived near an Amish community. In general, the Amish are honest, hard-working people who help their neighbors and do the right things. Their religion, however, requires them to eschew certain modern conveniences such as cars, phones, and electricity.

Which is not to say they don’t use cars, phones, or electricity. If you travel through an Amish community, you’ll notice that it’s dotted with little shacks—phone booths. Lately these have fallen out of fashion, but cell phone sales are brisk. The homes don’t have electricity, but if there’s a carpenter’s shop adjacent to the home, you can bet it does. And my father-in-law has a pickup truck titled in his name that he paid a dollar for and never drives. His Amish friend paid the balance and has one of his employees drive it for him.

Mormons are no better. Coffee and alcohol are forbidden, but you should see the rate at which we (inclusive) consume Diet Coke. Utah has the highest per-capita consumption of ice cream in the nation. As one of my B-school friends put it when I wanted to stop for ice cream while following him to the bar, “we all have our vices, they’re just different vices.”

The LDS church teaches that there are certain ordinances or sacraments that one must receive in order to obtain certain rewards in the afterlife. Wikipedia goes into way more detail than I have time to here. Suffice it to say I believe in these ordinances and their necessity.

But even more than I believe in these ordinances, I believe in a just, merciful God. A God who loves his children and is anxious to reward them for a life well-lived. A God who will sooner glorify an agnostic who does the right things for the right reasons than exalt a believer who never did anything “forbidden” but never bothered to discern right from wrong, let alone act accordingly.

I’ve had the pleasure of being friends with several people who were agnostic or atheistic. The thing that strikes me most about these friends is the moral code that they live by. For many religious people, the motivation to do what’s right is the promise of a reward or fear of a punishment in the hereafter. But for one who claims no such belief, from whence comes the drive to do what’s right?

And yet, it’s there. And it’s unshakable. Perhaps it’s because they don’t believe in repentance. Or they believe that as human beings we’ve evolved to a higher order than other life forms and as a result we’re supposed to exhibit certain behaviors. Or they believe in Karma. Or they know that all we take with us from this life is the legacy of how we’ve treated other people. Regardless, on more than one occasion, how to respond in a morally ambiguous situation has been made perfectly clear to me by a friend who believes what’s after this life is nothing more than organic matter rotting in a box.


  1. yes, can we once and for all stop equating atheistic with amoral.

    it's those agnostics that cause all the trouble.

  2. Great post and great topic. Someday I hope to do a post around the question you raise in the last 2 paragraphs- the whole basis/foundation of ethics in non-religious folks. But I’ve shied away from it so far, mainly because I regularly put readers to sleep already with all my geeky plant info. If I try to tackle metaphysics, they might just spontaneously combust or something…

  3. Watcher, FWIW, this is something that's been brewing for some time. I didn't name names in the post, but what you did to adjust the results at the Tour of Park City was what finally prompted me to write it down.

  4. Well said. I share similar beliefs.

    Everyone has their own path through life affected by circumstances, beliefs/values and choices. To each their own, live and let live, I'm OK you're OK, and all that.

  5. this is well thought out, and I think that you've got a great attitude towards other's beliefs.

  6. Bob has been listening to 70's music again. Good post. I wish my neighbors would read this one. I live on bizarro street where we have LDS, Catholic's, Lutherans and Jews. Utah is becoming more diverse however the seperation exists from all parties.

  7. Very enjoyable, indeed. As a mother, this is precisely what I am trying to teach my children. Focus on people's behavior, not their religion because sometimes their is a great divide between the two.

  8. dood.

    theWife just asked if I was the one who introduced you to "swearing, alcohol, drugs, and pornography".

    i gotta block her from reading your blog. maybe dug can sell me some product to help with that.

    the reason mormons dabble in all that forbidden stuff is so they don't get called as a bishop or maybe a master landscaper for that matter.