My religious friends and family fear for my soul—not because of anything I’ve done, but because on questionnaires asking for religious affiliation, I mark “none.” In the Christian view, belief in the God of the Bible is essential to salvation.
To faith, Mormons add works. Receiving Church ordinances and keeping commandments are both essential in order to make it back into God’s presence and receive all the blessings of eternal life. Catholics, as I understand, must be baptized and receive the last rites to gain access to Heaven. Evangelical Protestants must confess Jesus as their personal savior. Non-believers are out.
Probably few contemporary Christians believe in the hell of Dante and Milton who depicted Satan and his minions torturing sinners in fire and brimstone. Still, I suspect that in the minds of most Christians, Hell is a permanent place of misery. Only true believers who have repented of their sins will be allowed into Heaven and reunited with loved ones.
If God had made perfectly clear which humanly-flawed religion has divine approval, I could see some justification in condemning those who can’t jump on the bandwagon. As it is, I don’t buy Alma’s argument to Korihor in the Book of Mormon. Alma claims that the testimony of the prophets in the scriptures and the wonders of the earth and order of the planets prove the existence of God. Alma fails to acknowledge that scriptures are sometimes contradictory, and that the creation of the earth has plausible explanations beyond a divine creator.
If I were God, I would judge people by how they live, not by what they believe. I can’t believe in a God who is a worse person than I am.
In the “Articles of Religion” section of the The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (the curse of curiosity sends me ranging far and wide), I found the following statement: “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ: neither do they make men meet to receive grace . . . for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.”
I rather doubt that many modern-day Episcopalians believe that non-believers in Christ commit something “in the nature of sin” when they do good works. Good works are good works no matter who does them. Personally, I can’t fathom a God who counts good works by non-believers as sin.
I don’t know if other denominations have similar statements restricting good works to believers, but many religious people tend to restrict goodness to members of their own faith. This belief radically narrows the number of “good” people running around—and promotes the idea that those who are not with us must be against us. The fuss over allowing American Muslims to build a mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center is an example.
On a personal level, I feel marginalized by neighbors who judge me not for what I am or what I do, but for not attending church. Church attendance is equated with goodness in Mormon minds. Friendliness, service to neighbors, community service—none of this counts unless a person also warms a bench on Sundays. But maybe they’re only trying to share. Maybe I should return the favor by asking why they don’t join me in community service and meditation classes.