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Global Religious Trends (Are we less religious)

On Friday, I posted about an article I found that suggested that intelligent people are less likely to believe in God.  With all the comments I received, it got me wondering about religious trends in general.  While none of this is conclusive, it is, however, interesting.

Using Google’s search trends analyzer, I found that search trends for religious words were generally down accross the board.  In other words, fewer people are searching on these words today than there were in 2004 (as far back as these trends go).  What’s more, all this in the context of an ever-increasing trend toward online usage.  In short far more people are online today than in 2004, usage and familiarity with search engines has climbed in that time, broadband and internet access in general has increased, yet fewer people are searching on religious terms.

Here’s what I found (more below the charts)…

Search traffic for the term “Christian

For the term “Christianity

For the term “Religion

For the term “God

For the term “Mormon

Searches for the term Faith, Church, Protestant, Catholic, Lutheran, and LDS were all down in general as well, some more than others (clearly there are myriad other search terms to look at – feel free to pick your own and peruse at will at http://trends.google.com).

Could this indicate a reduced global interest in religion in general?  Could it be another sign that as society evolves intellectually and scientifically, they push God away in general – trusting more in themselves and their own knowledge?

One possible alternative explination, is that churches in general have been slow to embrace the new medium and build up a suitable online offering.  In short, if pickin’s are slim, and search results find little of value, people will stop searching.  But is that just the optimist in me?  What do you think this means?

Rusty

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The sufficiency paradox, understanding the atonement

The atonement is the single greatest event in history, nothing else even compares, and as the single most important and relevant event in each of our own individual lives, it deserves our attention.

Unfortunately, amongst the various Christian denominations, there are lots of differences and views about the atonement, and many inaccurate understandings of how, exactly, it works.

As I have endeavored to teach the doctrine of the atonement, and how it pertains to mercy and justice, and the role of works in achieving exaltation, there has understandably been a lot of “firm” disputations voiced here by followers of other Christian faiths (those outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LDS, or Mormons).

Their (and the traditional) view of the atonement is one of what they call “sufficiency”.  In short, Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, and we do nothing to deserve or earn it, and that the atonement in and of itself is sufficient for our salvation – nothing need be done by us.

We seem to agree right up to that last qualifier.  Mormons too agree that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, and that we do nothing to deserve or earn it.  But we do believe that we must accept it, for it to have efficacy in our life.  And in that regard, the notion of “works” enters the picture.  The idea that we must “do” something in order for the atonement to take effect (not mentioning the myriad biblical references to works as a requirement to salvation which I explore here:  What do Mormons believe about works?).

But this is where I always get met with opposition, for it flies in the face of the view that Mercy and the atonement is sufficient, and there is nothing we must do for it to take effect.  As these discussions continue, I inevitably ask the unavoidable question “If the Atonement is sufficient, and there is nothing we must do, then I am already saved, as are all Mormons (in truth, all humanity), correct?”  But that is always met with a “No”, and the statement that Mormons are not saved (as in the discussion on this post: How to tell if it’s the spirit or yourself). 

But to say in one breath that Christ’s atonement is sufficient without anything being required by us, and then in the next to say that it doesn’t work for one particular group of people, creates a belief paradox.  An irreconcilable contradiction.  For if one believes in “sufficiency”, but that a particular group of people isn’t saved, then it begs the question “Then why are they not saved?”

The answer must be because that particular group has not “done” something that they needed, that there is some unmet requirement, in short, that the necessary “works” have not been fulfilled.  So that in the process of attempting to refute the notion of works in salvation, they simultaneously validate the notion themselves.

There is one other possible explanation, which was presented in the comments of that last link (How to tell if it’s the spirit or yourself).   Jim B. who regularly posts very thorough doctrinal analysis about this topic, claims that we “can’t embrace the gospel without divine enablement”.

This implies, of course, that I because haven’t accepted their beliefs, I haven’t been divinely enabled.  Which would be to say that God plays favorites, and he loves some more than others, or seeks some, and not others, as opposed to loving all man equally, as one would expect from our understanding of the Character of God. 

Jim goes on in another comment to say “I am saved by grace, through faith, and it is all a gift of God’s grace.  I have merited nothing from God.  I did not desire God until he desired me.”  But then states that I am not saved.  Why?  Does God does not desire me?

But again, this creates a paradox, for in order to validate the belief in this doctrine of “sufficiency” (at least as it has been explained), you have to claim that all are saved.  But when they try to say that all are NOT saved, they’re left in contradiction to the first statement, which they attempt to explain by saying that either one hasn’t done the right things, or that God plays favorites – in either case defeating the belief of sufficiency.

But a true understanding of the atonement and its actual sufficiency doesn’t necessitate a rejection of the notion of works.  The two principles are perfectly harmonious.  Many mistakenly believe that this reconciliation between the atonement and works means that Mormons think that they earn their salvation.  But this is not true.

We too believe that no matter what works we do, no matter how hard we try, without the atonement salvation is impossible.  Only in and through the atonement of Christ can man be saved.  The Book of Mormon teaches this point repeatedly: “…remember that there is no other way nor means whereby man can be saved, only through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, who shall come” (Helaman 5:9).  There is “no redemption for mankind save it were through the death and sufferings of Christ, and the atonement of his blood” (Alma 21:9), and many others.

But what then of works?  What about all these scriptures (listed here) that say “the dead were judged … according to their works (Revelation 20:12-15), and that salvation is “unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:5-10), and that only “doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13-16), and that God shall “render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:5-11), and that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26), and many others.  After all, they were “commandments”, not “recommendations”.

As I explain in detail here (“Picking the lock of salvation?“), the atonement of Christ made a gateway into the kingdom of God, but at those gates, we are required to present a key (symbolically speaking), we are required to have done certain things (e.g. baptism).  Without the gate, it wouldn’t matter what keys you have, and therefore, only “through” the atonement (or gate) can we enter the Kingdom of God.  But nowhere does it imply that the gate is sufficient in and of itself, to the contrary, the bible teaches that we must be baptized, keep the commandments, and do other things that qualify us, or give us the keys necessary to open that gate and enter the kingdom of God.

So you see, a true understanding of the Atonement of Christ need not create such a paradox.  We needn’t assume that these scriptures about works are somehow incongruous with the scriptures about Mercy.  As I explain here “The grand panorama of scripture” all scripture must be considered together (we cannot cherry pick only those doctrines that are most convenient).  And the principles and doctrines of Mormonism are sufficient to encompass the full breadth and depth of all scriptures, without such contradictions and paradoxes.  That’s the miracle of Mormonism.  That God, working today as he did in times of old, gave us prophets and apostles, inspired men of God who receive direct revelation to clarify such points of doctrine as this – even the most important.  To correct those beliefs that have mutated and changed over the years based on the philosophies of man and their committee-based cannon.

My invitation is to all people, to consider these things, to learn about the prophet Joseph Smith, to read the Book of Mormon, and to pray for yourself, if they are not true, that we all might glory in the beauty of clear doctrine, and avoid such confusing paradoxes, particularly as they pertain to the most important event ever to occur, even the very atonement of Christ.

Rusty

Whose answer is right?

On my “Ask a Mormon” page, Brad asks a very important question (summarized):

If Mormons claim that the best way to know if their church is true is by a witness from the Spirit, how do you counter the argument that others in different religions have claimed to have received their own witness?

I can’t say that I have the definitive answer.  I’m not inherently intellectual, so I don’t have much native capacity to draw on to address such a difficult issue.  On the other hand, I try very diligently to approach such matters of eternal consequence with humility, seeking only to understand Gods will and, with his grace, his assistance in presenting it cohesively.  In short, if my thoughts are of no value, that’s my fault alone, but if they shed any light on the issue, then the credit is not mine.

That said, the answer, of course, is as individual as the purported testimonies of those who claim to have received a witness.  There won’t be any single answer inherently and independently capable of adequately addressing every possible scenario.  But that doesn’t mean the question can’t be answered; it just means there are many possible answers.  I’ll address several.

Feelings

I elaborate more on this particular topic in “Is your testimony based on emotion?“.  Feelings are fallible things.  Not every “warm fuzzy” we feel has the depth of divinity or is the substance of the Spirit. 

But since the Spirit speaks to our hearts, gives us feelings and inclinations, the burden is upon us as individuals to distinguish what is of divine origin, and what is merely a biochemical reaction to something of psychological appeal. 

But the very nature of feelings and their interpretation is highly subjective.  A vulnerability quickly capitalized on by commercialized religions, who stock their services with mechanisms to manufacture such emotions… live bands, shouts and songs, and preachers adept in the art of oratory entertainment (which I address here, since our meetings are so different).

Is someone attending one of these sessions likely to “feel” something?  Well if they didn’t, then these churches wouldn’t currently be in business.  That IS their business and they’re very good at it.  So simply feeling something at one of these sermons doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve received a divine confirmation that you’ve found the true church.

But even outside of a church sermon, two separate people praying to know if their differing religions are true, are highly prone to erroneously interpreting their answer, if based solely on how they “feel”. 

Does it feel more “comfortable” following what your family, friends, and associates might be doing?  Does it feel better continuing on a path with which you are already familiar?  Of course, so if you’re relying simply on your feelings, then they’re bound to be polluted with these kinds of sociological and psychological pressures that naturally affect the way we “feel” about anything, but that are entirely external to the issue at hand. 

For example, if someone, raised in another religion, were to ask God if Mormonism was correct or if they should continue going to their current church, then the first, and natural tendency is to feel like they should continue on the path that they were on, because that feels comfortable.  After all, the host of difficult, life-changing ramifications of converting to another religion does not generally constitute a welcome proposition.

If all you’re relying upon is a feeling for an answer, with no more investment but to ask, then you’re feelings are bound be be born of influences other than a witness from God.  This brings me to my next point.

But first, in summary – we simply MUST figure out if the feelings we receive are divine, or the natural result of preconceived notions, or the tendency to cling to what we know, or what is easiest, or are they simply superficial fluff manufactured by those who know how to do so.

Why might we find contradictory “witnesses”?  Because feelings are fallible things, and not all of them are of divine origin.

Sincerity

Due to the difficulty surrounding some answers, our natural tendency is to try less hard, to invest less effort, or to be less sincere about pursuing a course that would be uncomfortable.

If I were to pray “Is Mormonism true, or is my current church true”, the simple nature of the question pollutes my ability to isolate an answer.  It introduces far too much external emotional baggage (as explained above), and illustrates a general lack of sincerity in seeking the answer.  A question such as this seems to simply pay lip service to the search, when the extent of your effort was but to ask.

The level of sincerity with which one seeks an answer will be directly proportional to their mental investment into researching the answer.

For unless you first study it out in your own mind, truly researching (not to refute, but to understand), and then coming to your own conclusion, will you be appropriately armed to transcend the emotional baggage of the answer of either option.

At that point, you’re comparing principle to principle, and not the implications of the options.

But without first studying it out in your mind, your feelings are far too susceptible to exterior emotional baggage, leaving you ill-suited to accurately determine the divinity of your answer.  You simply haven’t invested the time, or the emotional and mental effort, and by not doing so, have shown that you’re not truly sincere in your search.  An insincere search is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

A good measure of your sincerity is your actual willingness to appropriately act upon the answer you receive, regardless of the consequences.

Why might we find contradictory “witnesses” – insincerity.

Multiple Sources

We’re talking about salvation, and in this battle, there is more than one power working to influence the souls of men.  Satan has had much time, and has proven highly adept at mimicking and impersonating anything of worth, anything of the Spirit, and anything of God.

And so, should we be surprised that when it comes to praying to know if a church is true, when it actually isn’t, that he is there with an affirmative answer that would mislead? 

Surely we can’t think that he would choose to sit back and let the cards fall where they may, no, not when we’re talking about the souls of men.  We should expect him to take an active role, introducing as much noise and confusion as possible.

Why might we find contradictory witnesses – because God is not the only one fighting for the souls of men.

Line upon line

The premise upon which this answer is based is a principle upon which we might not agree, but is (in my mind) no less real than any of the others.

Throughout the bible we find the inspired principle of progression by degrees.  He gives us line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little.  Why would he do this?  Why not give us the whole from the beginning? 

I propose that he chooses not to overwhelm us like this, because he loves us.  His desire is for our salvation.  Because of this, he will never give us more than we are able to bear.  Because we are accountable for that which we receive, he is not anxious to give us more than we can live up to, but instead to allows us to progress in stages. 

So he gives us a little truth, and that becomes our stewardship.  But only after we have proven our ability to live in accordance to the laws and truth we have received, do we demonstrate to him that we are ready for more.  Truth is treasure, and we will not be given more until we become profitable stewards over that which we have already received.  There are many parables about this in the Bible.

For sake of illustration, let’s say church B is some general Christian denomination, teaching much truth, and doing much good, while church A is the actual true church of Christ.

Under this scenario, and based off the principle above, let me ask the following questions…

 If I was an atheist, or of no particular religion, but attended Church B, would I be likely to feel a confirmation from the spirit that this was good?  Under this principle, I’d say that’s very likely.  It’s a step in the right direction, it’s line upon line.

What about if I’m an active participant in Church B, but find out about Church A, but in my heart of hearts (which only God knows), would be unwilling to follow the stricter laws and greater truth in Church A, or simply unwilling to accept the answer that Church A was Christ’s true church because of the difficulty of the path, when I pray, what would my answer be?

These are difficult questions, and I won’t pretend to know the answers.  But I submit, that there are far more variables to one receiving a true and actual witness from the spirit, than we can possibly imagine.

Is there any question on how so many can receive so many different answers?

Can man truly understand the mind and will of God?  Can man, in his limited natural capacity, question his divine intent?  Is it even our place to question the answers of others?  Is it a cop out to simply accept that we may never know why someone received the answer they did, but be willing to step forward in search of our own just the same?  Or is that humility and faith?

We’re talking about the eternal salvation or damnation of our very souls.  With this perspective, I submit that we should waste little time wondering on the answers of others, for sufficient is the task of finding our own, and living under the stewardship that it entails.

We must search diligently, figure it out in our own minds, make our own decision, and then approach the Lord in humble and sincere prayer, and what’s more, be willing to follow the answer, whatever it may be.

So I invite all to learn more about Mormonism, to learn about Joseph Smith, and to read the Book of Mormon.  My testimony is that if you do this with proper humility, sincerity, and diligence, then the answer you receive will be indisputably divine, and unquestionably distinct from any other superficial daily emotion.  You will know that it is from God, and not from man – whether it be of our selves, or feelings manufactured by another.

I invite all to take the challenge.

Rusty

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