“The Book of Mormon” is a Broadway musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda by the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez. The young men- one idealistic and arrogant, one reluctant and ill-prepared- find the natives are more worried about war and don’t have much use for God. And yet they are eventually won over by the second’s change of attitude toward his mission, and all are happy Mormons at the end. The play has been tremendously popular and praised by all kinds of people, including Jon Stewart.
But don’t the kind of people who go to Broadway musicals hate religion? Aren’t they typically atheists, or at best functionally agnostic? This is all strange on the surface, but it shows a lot about how religion actually works in America.
I see the terms “low church atheist” and “high church atheist” bandied about, the latter being a serious and intellectual opponent of religion like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, the former someone who just doesn’t believe in God but isn’t dogmatic about it. Low church atheists generally believe religion is a harmless fantasy for the simple-minded, but not the actively destructive force high church atheists regard it as, unless you’re talking about fanatics of course.
Parker and Stone take this a bit farther though. They grew up in Colorado, and seem to have known quite a few Mormons. They seem to have noted that while Mormons believe wacky things- not that all religions don’t believe wacky things- they were nice, well-adjusted, responsible people, so maybe the Mormon belief, while false, has the functional purpose of producing positive behavior. If religion is treated as a metaphor- not as literally true- it can have big positive effects with few or no negative effects, or so the play argues.
I haven’t seen the show, but Parker, Stone and Lopez seem to have made their case brilliantly. Still, the only reason they were able to is because they seem to have exactly nailed the low church atheist view of religion.
To the LCA religion is something pretty foolish, for people not too bright, people weak of mind and spirit. They do seem to understand though that it can be very helpful to certain people in certain situations. If a drug addict gets religion and is able to get off drugs, that’s good. If a criminal gets religion and stops committing crimes, that’s good. People believe a lot of crazy things and whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon said. Of course LCAs believe some pretty wacky things themselves, like that the races are all equal (except for lower class whites of course) and that anything bad blacks do or suffer is the result of racism (by lower class whites, of course).
On the other hand, LCAs don’t the idea that such a person now becomes their moral superior and has the right, privilege and duty to look down on them. This is rarely explicitly stated, because LCAs being liberals hate to condemn drug addicts and criminals, even annoying Bible-thumping ones. The guy quoted in this post is an unusual example.
It’s much easier for LCAs to express their discomfort with religion by attacking morally traditional Christians who oppose homosexuality, other forms of sexual immorality, and abortion. Religion is OK, they say, as long as you use it to live your own life in a positive way and don’t judge anybody else. Because it says right there in the Bible don’t judge, right? (Even liberal Christians, even plenty of conservative Christians, use this one all the time themselves!) HCAs feel the same way but don’t bother to talk about much since they are more interested in the lack of verifiable evidence.
So, while we see two general critiques of religion in general, and Christianity in particular- variance from current moral standards, and lack of verifiable evidence- I think something much deeper and stronger lies behind it. On one level, the idea of a God with no moral standards- who judges nothing if you believe- shouldn’t bother atheists of any kind, because they are mostly liberals and don’t believe in judging much behavior themselves, especially deviant lower class behavior, even if it involves harm to others. And yet while they themselves don’t judge- partly because this is a value, partly maybe because they don’t feel qualified, which is a healthy skepticism to a limited extent, but not as far as they take it- the idea of a God who judges nothing, not even rape and murder is very disturbing to them. People need to believe in a just God, and the thought of an unjust and capricious God is very disturbing, even to those who say they don’t believe.
But God is just. The idea that simple belief frees you from judgment, while attractive to bad people and those who love them, is wrong. Repentance and a change of heart is required, and this is no easy thing. It can only be approached with bottomless humility.
I came across this in my wanderings. I like it because the guy knows he’s not there, and he knows he can’t get there by himself at all, that he is totally dependent on God.
Holy Sonnet XIV, John Donne
Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Truth be told, I have more confidence in a humble, honest atheist than the average Christian. At least atheists don’t have false doctrine, and to believe in nothing is much better than to believe in something false.