Sunday, April 17, 2011

Standing for Truth and Righteousness

The Young Women motto is "stand for truth and righteousness." When I was in Young Women, my group had a tradition on Sundays that during opening exercises, we would have a period of time during which anyone could get up and share with the class how they had "stood for truth and righteousness" during the week. Usually the girls who got up would get a small piece of candy as a reward. At the time I thought nothing of this tradition, but looking back it disturbs me.

The things that girls would share as "standing for truth and righteousness" varied widely, but they most commonly involved being Mormon in a profane world. Many of the girls in my group were in choirs or plays at school, and it was common every few weeks for these girls to share that they had altered their performance dress with sleeves and a higher neckline or that they had refused to say a petty swear word such as "damn" as part of their lines in a play. I'm all for standing up for one's principles, but the part that bothers me is the getting up and telling everyone every Sunday. Most girls would try to share something every week, both because they wanted their Sunday chocolate and because of social pressure. During pauses, girls would elbow each other to get up. I was no different from anyone else. For me, as I suspect it was for most girls, sharing the ways I had been "righteous" in the past week was almost a kind of high. I got to show everyone else just how righteous I was, and enjoy their admiration. It was an ego booster, but it also served to bind me more closely to the group and to cause me to base a lot of my self-esteem on how I was perceived by the other girls. Everyone judged everyone else. If one of the girls didn't add sleeves to her choir dress or chose to perform on a Sunday, everyone else would look down on her--even though no one ever said anything.

The real difficulty with this kind of "standing for truth and righteousness" is that no one seemed to think very deeply about what they were standing for, or why. Sure, we swallowed all the rhetoric about standing up for "values" and being a "light to the world," but what did that really mean? It really boiled down to following rules--the church's rules--even if they seemed silly. There were no exceptions to the rules, ever. The world was black-and-white.

We were encouraged to be "steadfast and immovable" in the gospel. But where is the value in that? Where is the value in sticking by something even if it doesn't make any sense? Why is obedience a virtue? In the church, standing up for "values" ultimately boiled down to being obedient, to doing what the prophet has told you to, even if it seems silly. We were taught that "obedience is the first law of heaven." In other words, the ultimate virtue was not honesty--it was subordination of one's own reason, intuition, and moral compass to a dictatorship of "revelation." The ultimate result of this is that if obedience is the first law of heaven, the primary and most important virtue, then honesty is vilified. The person who says, "that doesn't make any sense; I don't think I'm going to follow it" is not a moral hero, but a weakling or a hedonist. The young woman who asks why, exactly, it's wrong to have two sets of earrings, and refuses to obey that command until reasonable justification has been given, is not to be praised, but chastised. She is not standing for truth and righteousness--an ironic phrase indeed when it implies moral dishonesty.

Perhaps I am going too far in calling obedience moral dishonesty. Perhaps it's unfair of me to apply my own standard of ethical epistemology to everyone else. But in my own view of the world, "good" and "bad" must be justified. They can't be arbitrarily assigned. They have to have reasoning behind them. If one rejects this, then the whole concept of morality, ethics--whatever you like to call it--is utterly meaningless. If "good" is solely determined by what an authority figure says, then there is no point in calling that authority figure "good." It becomes a circular argument to say that the prophet's counsel is good. How do we know that counsel is good? Because it came from the prophet. How do we know he is a prophet? Because his counsel is good. And round and round it goes.

If you're going to stand for something, you have to have something to stand on. You have to have some kind of epistemological rationale, some kind of logical footing, in order for you to even say that you are standing for something worthwhile. The kind of ethics I was taught in church was completely empty in this respect. The kind of ethics I now espouse are not based on obedience and faith, but on honesty, truth, and humility--the humility to admit that I was wrong.

1 comment:

  1. "We were taught that "obedience is the first law of heaven." In other words, the ultimate virtue was not honesty--it was subordination of one's own reason, intuition, and moral compass to a dictatorship of "revelation.""

    This is the worst tenet of most Christian religions, that subjugating yourself, or "joining your will with Christ's" as they like to put it, is the most important part of your faith, the most important thing you can do to make sure you keep your faith. You would think that people who believe that God created us intentionally would see it as a horrible crime to say that you aren't supposed to use the brain that God gave you! It was mindless obedience, far more than sexism or homophobia or anything else, that made me leave religion behind in the end. I couldn't believe that any god would give me a brain just to do what I was told and not think too much about it. It just didn't make sense to me.