For Christian public school teachers, the most interesting opportunities happen in the staff lounge at lunch.
As I sat down to eat lunch on Friday, a few of the teachers were talking about Mormonism.
“My pastor calls Mormonism a cult. That pisses me off. Why doesn’t he just leave them alone? The Mormon kids in my classroom are such nice and dependable kids.”
“What’s his definition of a cult?” I asked. There are two definitions of a cult. One is a straightforward sociological and theological definition: a religion is a cult if it departs in some heretical way from orthodoxy. Usually people who use the term in this way are implying that because the cult departs from the norm or accepted authority or theology, it is therefore a false theology. At least according to Jews, Christianity fits as a cult defined this way. I’m not particularly offended if a Jew calls Christianity a cult like this. It is not necessarily negative, and it’s what most Christians mean when they call Mormonism a “cult.”
The other way of defining “cult” is definitely pejorative, and it includes such groups as the Branch Dividians and the Heaven’s Gate cults. These cults have odd and harmful practices that cut their followers off from family and coercively keep them within the group. This is more of a psychological definition.
Though some individual Mormon (and Christian!) churches fall under this definition, Mormonism proper doesn’t. Even if the pastor of my coworker was insinuating Mormonism is wrong (he probably was), I don’t see why my coworker was so miffed. Wasn’t he, in expressing his anger, saying his pastor was wrong?
I honed in on a more fundamental issue, though:
“You know, I’ve got a better question to ask. Rather than asking, ‘does a certain religion make nice and conscientious followers’ (which is a plus in some ways), a more fundamental question to ask is, ‘is the religion true‘?”
One of the teachers at the table balked, “That can be kind of hard to determine, can’t it?”
“Not necessarily. If a religion makes historical and scientific claims, it can be verified or not. Most of the monotheistic religions make these types of claims, so they can be tested in that regard.”
A religion that is verifiable has a distinct advantage over religions that are not.
He then brought up his skepticism about the miraculous claims in the Bible.
“Well, you should take them on an individual basis, an approach them with an open mind. Highly unwise to put the cart before the horse and throw out testimonies of the miraculous because miracles are improbable or because they violate some so-called ‘scientific worldview.’ (If you base your beliefs on what is improbable, for instance, then you would be a skeptic in regards to my marriage!) Approach a miracle event like you would any other historical claim: if you have good grounds to believe it happened on its own merits (if the testimony turns out reliable and/or if the book it comes from is a reliable historical source), that gives you reason to accept it.” That’s not the whole issue, to be sure, but that’s a great part of it.
It was a good conversation. And that is the fundamental question, isn’t it? A certain religion can produce nice people and still be wholly false. Of course, you need to figure ‘what kind of person it produces’ into the equation–if a certain religion, followed accurately, routinely produced a Charles Manson, that would most definitely be a strike against it–but that isn’t the most fundamental issue. It’s necessary, but not sufficient.
Rather, the most fundamental question you should ask is, “is the religion true?” Asking such a question doesn’t make you intolerant or bigoted.