There is an idea I that I hear often in church, in many forms. I heard it expressed very plainly today in Sunday School as we discussed the prophet Amos and what he called a “famine” in the land of hearing the Lord’s voice. As we talked about the Israelites having prophets and truth, and then falling away, a recurring theme came up which was this: You can’t have true happiness if you don’t have the Gospel.*
There are variations on this, like that your marriage can’t be as happy if its not in the temple, that LDS families are happier than other families, and that if someone decides to leave the church, then they are necessarily oppositional and bitter toward the church and its members from then on.
I raised my hand and mentioned my friend Greg the atheist who I have known since 1996 (I think) and with whom I spent a lot of time during my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college. We had many conversations about religion, atheism, morality, rationality, and the LDS church. Contrary to what I firmly believed would happen, Greg never came around to my way of thinking.
And here’s the thing: Greg is happy. He lives in Silicon Valley now with his wife and a dog and he works as a computer programmer. In fact, as my friends go, he strikes me as one who is particularly content. The main reason that I think he is content is that he isn’t constantly using facebook and twitter to express how utterly fantastic his life is. There you have it. Greg doesn’t have the Gospel in his life, but he is happy.
When I finished sharing this idea, there was a polite murmur of agreement. Then another person in the class raised her hand and said “sure, anyone can be happy, but when you have the gospel, you have joy”. Nice. In the words of my generation, I see what you did there. That’s just another trick to say Greg isn’t really happy, that if had the gospel in his life, he’d know what real happiness is, the poor soul.
Can I make a suggestion? Consider for a moment that an atheist finding joy** in his life does not necessarily invalidate the teachings of the church in one fell swoop. I know, things would be simpler (and conveniently self-serving) if we could say that only Latter-day Saints know true joy. If atheists can be happy too, then the world is more confusing. But its also more interesting and mysterious. That’s worth the tradeoff if you ask me.
*The “Gospel” has at least two meanings in the LDS world. The more basic one is that it’s the message of the New Testament: that salvation comes through Jesus Christ through Faith, Repentance, Baptism, and The Gift of the Holy Ghost. The other meaning refers specifically to the Mormon understanding of the New Testament message and along with it, everything else that Mormons believe (the Word of Wisdom, the organization of the church, going to the temple, etc.) When I mention “the Gospel” in this entry, I mean this second more specific definition.
**Real joy in every sense of the word, and maybe even moments of spiritual ecstasy.