UU Mormon

Agnostic Morality?

Posted on: October 5, 2009

I had a lovely talk with Butterfly the other day. She’s 11 and very scientific and serious-minded. It’d surprised me the week before that she commented with such astonishment on how they didn’t tell her what to believe in her RE class. We talked about that some more. I told her that I don’t have all the answers and I know what it’s like to feel guilty about not being able to believe everything I was taught at church, and I want her to hear different points of view and be free to make up her own mind about what she believes.

She thanked me. Not with a casual “Oh, thanks, Mom,” either, but enthusiastically, with sincere gratitude. Thank you for not telling me what to believe! It sounded like it was something she had already thought about. Something that was important to her.

Can that be? She’s eleven.

Then on Sunday I heard some of General Conference, and this statement from Elder D. Todd Christofferson jumped out at me:

I’ve heard a few parents state they don’t want to impose the gospel on their children. They want them to make up their own minds about what they will believe and follow. They think that in this way they are allowing their children to exercise their agency. What they forget is that the intelligent use of agency requires knowledge of the truth, of things as they really are. Without that, young people can hardly be expected to understand and evaluate the alternatives that come before them. Parents should consider how the Adversary approaches their children. He and his followers are not promoting objectivity but are vigorous multimedia advocates of sin and selfishness. Seeking to be neutral about the gospel is in reality to reject the existence of God and his authority. We must rather acknowledge him and his omniscience if we want our children to see life’s choices clearly and to be able to think for themselves. They should not have to learn by sad experience that wickedness never was happiness.

Hm. It was in the context of a talk about moral discipline. Basically, it seems to be saying that you can’t have or teach morality without believing in God.

When mev met with the missionaries this was a topic of the discussion where I saw the mismatch in underlying assumptions. The missionaries said that in order to do what was right, you had to know why you were doing it, which was to follow God’s plan. “Why?” asked mev. Why couldn’t you do good for its own sake? Why couldn’t you want to make the world a better place simply so that the world would be a better place?


Point for the atheist, I thought.

I agree with Elder Christofferson on some things. I think my kids do need to be prepared to evaluate the intelligence and rightness of their possible courses of action. I don’t think they should be left to be influenced purely by the world at large, although I don’t believe they’re being targeted by Satan. I want to raise them to be responsible and compassionate. I would like them to know about their own religious heritage and other people’s too. But I don’t think pretending certainty about the unknowable would help me accomplish those things. And admitting what I don’t know seems to have increased my daughter’s trust in me. We can talk about what we think and believe and don’t believe.

I told her that they said in General Conference that I shouldn’t let her make up her own mind about what to believe. She laughed.

And she said that it didn’t make sense to her for there to be one correct religion, because what you believe depends on where you were born. How could she assume the religion she happened to be born into is the right one when everybody else all over the world thinks the same thing? (This was not something she heard at church. It was because of something she read in a fiction book about how you wouldn’t find Hindus in the Arctic (well, you know, unless they moved there) and she thought it through.)

If I were a Calvinist I would think she was predestined to be a Universalist…


15 Responses to "Agnostic Morality?"

I think I was about the same age when I told my mother that "We think we're right and everyone else is wrong, but don't they all think the same thing. What if they're right and we're wrong?".

The reaction I got was anger and contempt – should have been a clue right there!

I have a 9 year old son who I think might be lured into a similar chat with me, as you had with your daughter. Thanks

I was thinking about your post on General Conference, and how you would like to raise your children with this tradition. What exactly is your game plan (or do you have one yet) on how to raise them in a way that they are familiar with their mormon heritage, while they are going to UU church on most Sundays?

I take it you have some LDS traditions that you cherish and want to pass down, while on the other hand you don't intend to raise your children stricly LDS. How is that balance going to work? Are you going to do every-other-Sunday at LDS vs UU church, for example?


Wow, that's great. I hope my kids are as thoughtful as yours when they're that age. I'm afraid of attitudes like Christofferson's, but for now all I can do is keep asking my kids questions and encouraging them to think. That's all I really hope for, anyway. That they'll learn to ask questions and think.

I hope my daughter arrives at similar conclusions, and thanks us for not dictating her beliefs to her. sadly my parents would agree with Christofferson.

@Na’me – I haven’t quite figured that out, but I was thinking along the lines of Family Home Evening lessons on the LDS church. 🙂 I’d like the kids to know where it came from, what the basic doctrines are, what the controversies are, and how our family got to be who we are. They might be interested to know they have a great-great-great ?? grandmother whose husband was killed by Indians and so she married his brother, who was a prominent polygamist.

And honestly, with the correlated lessons I’m not sure how much you can really learn about the church at church. They’ve had the same faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Ghost, temple, and priesthood lessons over and over for the last eight years. I think they’ve gotten as much as they’re going to get out of them.

Are you going to have your kids read the BoM, D&C, PoGP, Friends, Ensign, etc. ?

Do you anticipate any pressure from family and friends that could result in your kids wanting to go back, or feeling weird about being UU?

Have you broken the news to your family yet?

Here’s where I’m coming from. I love the idea of “home-churching” my kids, but dh thinks we need a religious community to give outside support to the values we teach at home – not to mention the whole “it takes a village” idea.

So I like the idea of FHE, which is essentially a home-church supplement to organized religion, in which to provide our personal family perspective on religion / morality / family religious history / mormonism 101.

And I’d like my kids to be well-versed in the Bible for these reasons:
(1) There is a lot of beauty in it.
(2) There are some perfect case examples which can be used to demonstrate the flaw of religious fundamentalism (Abraham & Isaac), or of thinking that any man-made thing is 100% god-given and divine (Lot’s daughter), or of highlighting the historical and cultural nature of religious evolution (view on women).
(3) Also, there is a lot of external cultural value in being familiar with the bible.

I’m not so sure how I feel about spending time on the BoM, for these reasons:
(A) Can meet objectives (1) and (2) above without BoM.
(B) Concerned about inconsistent message – Why aren’t we mormon – BoM is no more flawed than Bible, so why do we call ourselves Christians if we don’t call ourselves Mormons? If mormonism has so many *extra* flaws (polygamy), why are we wasting our time reading this? Etc.
(C) Not so much cultural value (outside of family / mormon culture).

Besides – so much of mormonism is in the cultural experience of it. If the purpose of teaching my kids about it is to give them an insight into their parents and extended family, I don’t really think I’ll be all that successful. I think to really understand mormonism, you need to have experienced it from an insider’s perspective. Watching Big Love isn’t going to cut it.

That said, there are some elements of mormonism that I don’t want to give up. Not sure how I’d effectively teach these without the mormon framework:
1) Heavenly Mother
2) Personal revelation (ok, so I realize this isn’t only LDS doctrine)
3) Companionship of the Holy Ghost
4) Pre-Mortal Existence
5) Purpose of life is to become God-like / to live like daughters & sons of God.
6) Law of Chastity
7) idea that we don’t drink alcohol because it compromises our ability to make decisions. (no problem with tea or coffee.)

While all of these could theoretically be taught without the LDS framework, I wonder how effective I’ll be as a parent without that external support group to reinforce these teachings.

Have you looked into the Community of Christ at all? They’ve got some of the same basic doctrines but without a lot of the more restrictive literalness. We’re considering visiting them later on.

My DH felt the same away about having a church. I didn’t feel a great need for one, but DH wanted the kids to have somewhere to go every Sunday with other people where they talk about what it means to be a good person. He didn’t care much what church it was, as long as we went somewhere.

My aim is for my kids to learn that it’s important to be responsible and compassionate. I’m not concerned about any particular doctrines. And yes, I’m not sure my kids will really understand Mormonism. It may be that they grow up not even thinking of themselves as Mormon. I’m okay with that, as long as they grow up believing that they have a responsibility to help and respect other people.

You asked about family and friends… We don’t really have friends in the church, and the kids don’t either, so that’s not a worry. My husband’s side of the family don’t know what we’re doing and MIL would be heartbroken, so yes, when it comes out I’m sure there will be some pressure there. But we’re not in an LDS-dominated environment, so I don’t think my kids will feel strange about not going to the LDS church. If they do ever decide that they want to get involved there, though, I’ll support them.

I understand where Elder Christofferson is coming from (after all, he must advocate for the rigid, absolute, ultimate truth of the church and the Gospel).

But here’s what I would say in response to his message. Does intelligent use of agency require knowledge of things as they actually are? I think so. ABSOLUTELY.

But if this is the case, then don’t kids need KNOWLEDGE that wickedness never was happiness? In this case, they actually cannot run off the borrowed testimony of others. They need to know for themselves what wickedness is and what despair is.

And I think where I would disagree with Christofferson is that what is wickedness *isn’t* the same for everyone. GASP — such relativism! But it is a *lived* experience. Christofferson’s advice to not let kids decide on the Gospel for themselves will be miserable for many, and these children — if they are subjected to such a hostile environment — will learn to see the gospel as wicked. This is more anti-Christian than anything Christofferson worries about (such as…”being neutral about the Gospel.” If the Gospel is truly a good thing, then it shouldn’t have to be forced on children for them to see its goodness…)

[…] Sunday Afternoon talk “Moral Discipline.” Also popular around the blogs, so you can read about it (some people got too tired/frustrated of it all at about this point.) To get […]

Completely agree with Andrew – religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and religious arm-twisting will always result in more harm than good.

Also, I wanted to make a topic addressing some of the comments back and forth here. I think na’me stated things well:

Besides – so much of mormonism is in the cultural experience of it. If the purpose of teaching my kids about it is to give them an insight into their parents and extended family, I don’t really think I’ll be all that successful. I think to really understand mormonism, you need to have experienced it from an insider’s perspective. Watching Big Love isn’t going to cut it.

I think this is true. That being said, philomytha, you said that you’re OK if your kids grow up without ever thinking of themselves as Mormon…If you’re fine with that, I’m fine with that…but then the side effect is that they will not and cannot fully understand the family heritage…they will understand it from an academic, rather than personal sense. There’s a marked difference between a non-member (or someone who has never identified as Mormon) learning about polygamist great great great (??) grandparents from a member (whether ex-Mormon or faithful Mormon) learning about the same heritage.

Similarly, it’s painful, but it’s entirely different to learn about injustice, intolerance, and religious arm-twisting from personal experience vs. learning about it from afar. A difference between grappling with the controversies in beliefs from *afar* or grappling with them hands-on.

I don’t know though. I don’t know if personal experience is necessarily worth it. I don’t know if it’s worth purposefully subjecting children to a faithful regimen of Mormonism PURELY so they can know the deficiencies thereof. It seems a bit cruel to purposefully subject kids to that.

Personally, I wouldn’t want that. I would rather my children be ignorant than have them be acutely aware because I subjected them to the same. While I lament that many people do not understand where I come from, ultimately, I’d rather be misunderstood than to have everyone understand me perfectly because they too have experienced the song of regret and lament.

Andrew & Philomytha,

Let’s face it – my kids probably won’t be the first to not *get* their folks. 🙂

Ultimately I do agree that it would be better for them to not understand religious arm-twisting than to be acutely aware, as Andrew says!

Andrew, do you have kids?


I don’t have kids. I’m not even married. Hah!

[…] Aerin’s kids have discovered one of my favorite educational videos, and another mom makes a very good case for why she wants her daughter “to hear different points of view and be free to make up her […]

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