Response to Dawkins’ “Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children”

Certainly we need to remember that no person should force anything on anybody else. But we should at least recognize Dawkins’ own perspective, a perspective which includes a negative view of religion.

And yet, I personally believe that Dawkins isn’t really arguing against religion as much as he thinks he is. What he is really arguing against is forms of human totalitarianism–whether on the large scale or the small scale. After all, no person should force anything onto anybody else.

But what his article doesn’t take into account is that any religion that is good and that is true actually doesn’t force its way onto anybody. I do admit here that there are many modern-day pharisees (for lack of a better term, though they are found in many religions) who have used the language of religion to negatively influence others–to force them, so to speak. I myself have witnessed firsthand many sad accounts. But that isn’t an argument against religion. It’s an argument against those people who try to force things on others by subtly manipulating language to get people to believe the same things they do. People who do evil in the name of good are the worst kinds of people. They are the ones which we must denounce.

But that doesn’t mean we can equivocate “forcing someone to do another’s will” with “teaching someone to do that which is good.” In other words, we must at least acknowledge that there are merits to teaching one another the basic principles that any good person believes, the same principles that any good religion teaches: principles like kindness towards others, respect and love for those who differ from you, selfless service towards one’s neighbor and in one’s community. Genuine honesty. Sincere gratitude. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Don’t hurt others. Don’t shed innocent blood. Be kind. Be respectful. Values like these are the values of any good society, and they are values on which I believe all good people–no matter how we were raised or where we come from–can agree.

Two Stories about Forgiveness

I like stories about forgiveness. I like them because I believe that forgiveness is a manifestation of love, and love is something for which each of us have the faculty to feel. Indeed, I believe that we all, deep down, have a desire to love and be loved. But that is because, recognizing my own bias, I believe that all human beings are the literal offspring of Heavenly Parents, who themselves have bodies of flesh and bone, and who endow us with the capacity to love one another. The same love that They have for us, we can have for one another. That love, in more practical terms, has the power and potential to transcend all boundaries of nation, creed, color, and class. Here are two stories that that illustrate forgiveness that I would like to share with you.


This first one comes from October, 2005. 

“How would you feel toward a teenager who decided to toss a 20-pound frozen turkey from a speeding car headlong into the windshield of the car you were driving? How would you feel after enduring six hours of surgery using metal plates and other hardware to piece your face together, and after learning you still face years of therapy before returning to normal—and that you ought to feel lucky you didn’t die or suffer permanent brain damage?

“And how would you feel after learning that your assailant and his buddies had the turkey in the first place because they had stolen a credit card and gone on a senseless shopping spree, just for kicks? . . .

“This is the kind of hideous crime that propels politicians to office on promises of getting tough on crime. It’s the kind of thing that prompts legislators to climb all over each other in a struggle to be the first to introduce a bill that would add enhanced penalties for the use of frozen fowl in the commission of a crime.

“The New York Times quoted the district attorney as saying this is the sort of crime for which victims feel no punishment is harsh enough. ‘Death doesn’t even satisfy them,’ he said.

“Which is what makes what really happened so unusual. The victim, Victoria Ruvolo, a 44-year-old former manager of a collections agency, was more interested in salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant, Ryan Cushing, than in exacting any sort of revenge. She pestered prosecutors for information about him, his life, how he was raised, etc. Then she insisted on offering him a plea deal. Cushing could serve six months in the county jail and be on probation for 5 years if he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.

“Had he been convicted of first-degree assault—the charge most fitting for the crime—he could have served 25 years in prison, finally thrown back into society as a middle-aged man with no skills or prospects.

“But this is only half the story. The rest of it, what happened the day this all played out in court, is the truly remarkable part.

“According to an account in the New York Post, Cushing carefully and tentatively made his way to where Ruvolo sat in the courtroom and tearfully whispered an apology. ‘I’m so sorry for what I did to you.’

“Ruvolo then stood, and the victim and her assailant embraced, weeping. She stroked his head and patted his back as he sobbed, and witnesses, including a Times reporter, heard her say, ‘It’s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.’ According to accounts, hardened prosecutors, and even reporters, were choking back tears” (“Forgiveness Has Power to Change Future,” Deseret Morning News, Aug. 21, 2005, p. AA3.). 

I found that story in a talk by Gordon B. Hinckley. The talk was given at a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 2005. The talk is called “Forgiveness.” Hinckley was president of said church from 1995 to 2008. 

Here is the next story. This one also comes from a general conference, but this time is from James E. Faust, one of Hinckley’s counselors:

In the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania, a devout group of Christian people live a simple life without automobiles, electricity, or modern machinery. They work hard and live quiet, peaceful lives separate from the world. Most of their food comes from their own farms. The women sew and knit and weave their clothing, which is modest and plain. They are known as the Amish people. 

A 32-year-old milk truck driver lived with his family in their Nickel Mines community. He was not Amish, but his pickup route took him to many Amish dairy farms, where he became known as the quiet milkman. Last October he suddenly lost all reason and control. In his tormented mind he blamed God for the death of his first child and some unsubstantiated memories. He stormed into the Amish school without any provocation, released the boys and adults, and tied up the 10 girls. He shot the girls, killing five and wounding five. Then he took his own life.

This shocking violence caused great anguish among the Amish but no anger. There was hurt but no hate. Their forgiveness was immediate. Collectively they began to reach out to the milkman’s suffering family. As the milkman’s family gathered in his home the day after the shootings, an Amish neighbor came over, wrapped his arms around the father of the dead gunman, and said, “We will forgive you.” Amish leaders visited the milkman’s wife and children to extend their sympathy, their forgiveness, their help, and their love. About half of the mourners at the milkman’s funeral were Amish. In turn, the Amish invited the milkman’s family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed. A remarkable peace settled on the Amish as their faith sustained them during this crisis.

One local resident very eloquently summed up the aftermath of this tragedy when he said, “We were all speaking the same language, and not just English, but a language of caring, a language of community, [and] a language of service. And, yes, a language of forgiveness.” It was an amazing outpouring of their complete faith in the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”

The family of the milkman who killed the five girls released the following statement to the public:

“To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community:

“Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you’ve extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.

“Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.”

. . .

Hearing of this tragedy, many people sent money to the Amish to pay for the health care of the five surviving girls and for the burial expenses of the five who were killed. As a further demonstration of their discipleship, the Amish decided to share some of the money with the widow of the milkman and her three children because they too were victims of this terrible tragedy. (Faust, April 2007 Conference, “The Healing Power of Forgiveness.”)

There you have it. Two stories about forgiveness. I like them because I think that while maybe it is so easy to get angry and become spiteful or hateful, and maybe it is so easy to resort to violence, but I believe that forgiveness can do much to heal our relationships, both with others and with ourselves.

Cicero on How to Treat One’s Neighbor

Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BC and who is considered the greatest of the Roman orators, often has some pretty good things to say. In book 3 chapter 5 of his On Duties, for example, he writes that it is better to spend one’s time in the service of others instead of spending it in the service of one’s self. Here is the passage: 

There he is. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

[I]t is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods. The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man. (Loeb 30; 1913, 132)

Pretty good, right? I like it because it inspires me to want to work at making the world a better place instead of trying to make my own life as easy and extravagant as possible. I think it is true that the best human beings who have lived on this earth, the most respected and the ones who have done the most good, often “underwent [much] toil and tribulation” when they could have spent a life “revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth.” 

This certainly doesn’t mean entirely neglecting one’s own duties to one’s self. But it does mean not letting what I want distract me from recognizing that the most important things in life are not things: having a bunch of awesome stuff that I keep for myself doesn’t really make me happy. The most important things, on the contrary, are other members of the human family. They are brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers. After all, strangers to us are not strangers to themselves. Strangers have lives similar to our own, and their lives are certainly not strange to themselves. Doing things for these people–even strangers–is what makes me happy, and it is also what makes the world a better place.

On Death and Life and Kindness and Respect

Well, friends, there’s no reason for us to lie to ourselves, so let’s be honest: someday we will all die. We’re by no means invincible or immortal. We feel pain, we get sick, and our bodies grow older and decay. And just as our life began with birth, so it will inevitably end in death.

Is this an uncomfortable topic, and if it is, why is it? I mean, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, but I admit it is certainly an unusual thing to talk about–after all, who thinks and writes about these sorts of things? Death is (by definition?) a topic we tend to avoid unless its necessary (or unless we’re compelled to face it), and we want to write about things that people enjoy so that we can get views and hits and stats and likes. Right? Nobody is going to like an article or blog post on an uncomfortable topic. 

Maybe it was the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that set this whole thing off. Or maybe it was any number of other news stories carefully written to tell some kind of sensational or emotion-evoking story under the guise of “journalistic objectivity.” Or maybe it was something else. I don’t really know. But whatever it was, the anger and violence and unkindness in the world is painful to watch, read, and listen to. Why do some people treat one another with disrespect? Why is there hate? Don’t we intelligent beings know better, deep down? And isn’t it a bit strange that all of us–all human beings–may come from different countries and backgrounds, we may speak different languages, eat different foods, and have different pastimes, but isn’t it a bit strange that all of us, no matter what we believe, may still–and must ultimately–define ourselves as human beings? Let’s admit it: there is something that transcends our differences and enables us to finally unite together as members of a human family instead of pretending to be divided as nations or races or parties or platforms. No matter what we believe or think, we must at least recognize and acknowledge that we’re all human beings, we’re all living out mortal lives on this earth together, and that we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. There is no argument that will justify any degree of hatred, prejudice, or bigotry–as human beings that value life, we know better. We know that these things don’t get us anywhere. We know that these things lead to a symbolic death.

This idea of symbolic death is an interesting one, but there’s more to say about physical death. (A discussion about symbolic death will have to wait until another day.) Far from being pessimistic or melancholic, these thoughts about physical death and dying motivate me to ask myself if I am doing the things that really matter the most to me: I know that my mortal life will not last forever, so am I becoming the kind of person I really want to become? Am I living the kind of life I really want to live? Who am I, anyway? 

Serious questions like that cannot be answered in a non-serious manner. They involve expressing what one really believes, deep down. But before I do that, let me say that I do not wish to impose my beliefs on others. Actually, I claim the right and privilege to believe what I choose to, and I believe that all people have the same right and privilege–let all people believe what they may. Let us all believe what is in our hearts and minds, and let us listen to, understand, and compromise with those whose beliefs differ from ours. We may believe different things, but we are also human beings. We can live together in peace. We can live together in harmony.

But I got off on an idealistic tangent again in those last two sentences. I was about to say a few things that I really believe. So who am I? The answer to that question depends not just on who I am today, but who I have been in the past. Where did I come from? Is death really the end, and was birth really the beginning?

The English poet William Wordsworth gives an interesting answer. He completed the poem in 1804, but it was not published until 1807. He wrote that 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
     Hath had elsewhere its setting,
        And cometh from afar:
     Not in entire forgetfulness,
     And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
     From God, who is our home (Ode: Intimations of Immortality 5.58-65)

In other words, Wordsworth is saying that there is some part of us that was not created when we were born. The poet says here that “our life’s Star,” or “The Soul” “Hath had elsewhere its setting.” Our birth may be “a sleep and a forgetting,” but it is not an “entire forgetfulness” because there’s still something that longs for what we might call our real home. I believe the principle Wordsworth is teaching. I believe that birth was not the beginning and that death is not the end. We lived before we were born, and we will live after we die. While mortal life is only a temporary thing and will not last forever, there is a part of us that existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we die.

This belief gives my life direction and meaning, and it also gives me peace. It gives me direction and meaning because I believe there is a purpose to my existence. It gives me peace because while I may be called “Jarron Slater” during mortality–and although I may have been called by another name before I was born and I may be called something else after I die–I have been, and I will still be, me. 

Let me be even more specific. My own personal belief is that all of us really are a part of the same family. But we are not just all a part of the same human family: as beings who have been created after the very image of heavenly parents, as beloved and literal spirit sons or daughters of those heavenly parents, and as sons or daughters with a divine nature and divine destiny, we are also a part of God’s family. I find abiding peace in believing that there is a God and that He, as a loving Father, has a plan for each of His children. And I find lasting comfort in believing that He wants to help us be happy now and in eternity. 

But whatever any of us believe, we must at least admit that we’re here on this earth to live out our lives together, and we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love.


Communicating without Words?

Last week, two of my favorite people were married to one another. Here’s what the 3 of us looked like at one point:

About halfway through the reception, Ryan and Ju left for a minute. They returned, having changed into traditional Korean wedding robes. Awesome.

Two chairs were then brought in, and Grandpa and Grandma sat down. Ryan stood in front of Grandpa and Ju in front of Grandma. And then, in unison, Ryan and Ju knelt down in front of Grandpa and Grandma and bowed to them three times. The four of them then stood and embraced one another.

Then Mom and Dad sat in the chairs.

Again, Ryan and Ju knelt down and bowed their heads to the floor. They stood, and so did Mom and Dad. Then all four embraced.

Finally, Ju’s mother sat in a chair and her uncle sat in the other chair (on this occasion, her uncle took the place of her father). Again, Ju and Ryan knelt and then bowed. And at the same time Ryan and Ju were bowing, Ju’s mother and uncle bowed their heads. All 4 bowed in unison. Then all arose and embraced.

Ryan then presented Ju’s mother with a gift bag. In Korea, if the mother of the bride receives a wooden goose from the groom’s family it means that her daughter will be well-taken care of. Well, Ryan handed Ju’s mother a gift bag, and she opened it. Inside was a wooden goose that our mother had painted.

I can’t describe the expression on Ju’s mom’s face. It was one of gratitude, surprise, and joy, and when she saw it she let out an audible gasp. She began to weep, and Mom ran over and embraced her.

Several people that were watching were a bit confused because they didn’t understand the symbolism of the gift. But all who watched understood that there was something being communicated between two families that did not speak the same languages.

Human beings can only communicate insofar as a margin of overlap exists between person A’s experiences and person B’s experiences. But that margin of overlap always exists, even if we do not speak the same language, because we are all human beings. We are all embodied spirits. It seems to me that, no matter where a person is from, tears are universal. Love is universal.

We’re all human beings here. And we don’t have to completely understand one another in order to treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. Our traditions, though they are different, are good. And human beings have an innate capacity for love and kindness.