Alain de Botton is not the most famous atheist . . . but he might be the most interesting. He recently wrote a book called Religion for Atheists and has started a movement in which atheists attend — for lack of a better word — church. They sing hymns and hear sermons. To many Christians, this sounds bizarre. It sort of is. But it’s also pretty rad.
You see, when de Botton was in his twenties, he experienced what he called a “crisis of faithlessness.” All his life, he had believed in neither God nor religion, yet suddenly, he found himself jealous of religious people. They had a community, where they worshipped and suffered and truly lived together. That sense of community, that social engagement, is incredibly meaningful, to de Botton and to all of us.
Sadly, community interaction is on the decline in our society. More and more, we are disconnecting from each other, sidestepping real interaction for the virtual kind. We’ve joked before about Klout scores here at Normons, but some people actually take it seriously. And it’s not just about social media. Recent generations are a lot less neighborly than older ones: only 42% of Americans know most of their neighbors and 30% don’t know any. The busier our lives get, the less often we extend ourselves outward. And the less often others extend themselves toward us.
Enter the LDS Church. One of the cool things about being Mormon is the community we inhabit. No matter where you move, there are a bunch of Mormons waiting to help you unload your stuff from the moving truck and welcome you to the congregation.
This past summer, I moved to Palo Alto, California (it was actually East Palo Alto, the ‘90s murder capital of the US, but I didn’t tell my mother that). I hardly knew anyone, and that made me more than a little nervous.
I arrived on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning, I went to the local Mormon church meeting. Within minutes, I met ten new people — just a few kids reaching out to shake the hand of a new face. By the end of the first hour, I got to know dozens more, and they got to know me, too. They seemed to genuinely care why I was there and what I hoped to get out of my time in the area. It was a relief. In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t spend that summer alone. And it was awesome.
When you become Mormon, you are instantly connected and plugged in to a network of people who are, by and large, very eager to weather life’s storms with you. Mormon communities are full of imperfect but striving people, and we are all keenly aware of the fact that the life and vitality of our congregation depends on how much love we spread around. To be sure, we aren’t always perfect at loving our neighbor because, well, we aren’t perfect. But that’s another great upside to being connected to other people: our character is forged through interaction, both good and bad. Our associations often teach us more about life than we could otherwise learn if our eyes were always glued to our iPhones on subways with our earphones in and giant “DON’T TALK TO ME OR I WILL BITE YOU” looks on our faces.
One of my favorite stories in Mormon history really underscores our sense of community. As you probably know, Mormons were some of the first, and best dressed pioneers to ever cross the plains. For many, the journey was fraught with hardship, disease, and death.
One group of pioneers had it worst of all. These men and women — who had walked the entire way, pushing handcarts full of their only earthly possessions — had departed for Utah so late in the year that they became hopelessly trapped in frigid snowstorms. Over 200 of their company died (about 20%), and the rest were cold and destitute, without provisions and without hope.
Brigham Young, leader of the Church at the time, learned about this on October 4th. It just so happened that the next morning was General Conference, the semi-annual event where all the members of the church gather together to sit and listen to the Prophet speak. Except this time, Brigham did not allow them to just sit and listen. Instead, he told them to get up and go to their rescue, a command that captures the essence of Mormon community:
“Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here . . . And the subject matter for this community is to send for them and bring them in before winter sets in. That is my religion . . . I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”
That’s the Mormonism I’m grateful for. That is the power of religious community. THAT is my religion.
Alain de Botton is right: community is one of the most important aspects of life, and it’s something we religious folks do really well. And even before de Botton came around, I knew that my staunchest atheist friends would still benefit from being a part of an LDS congregation — that their lives would flourish and expand toward a richness they would never know on their own. Maybe they still could. After all, everyone loves cheap movers.
I asked a bunch of friends, some currently Mormon and others formerly so, why they are grateful to be a part of a Mormon community. There responses are featured below. Note: Each slide stays up for 10 seconds, but you can pause it or move forward and backward by clicking inside the box.[metaslider id=2250]
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