Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Silverman talks about belief in religion as a form of brainwashing, during a panel discussion at the Salt Lake Library, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Atheists David Silverman and Joanne Hanks joined BYU professors Richard Holzapfel and J B Haws to participate in a panel discussion to discuss their respective ideologies .
Atheists, Mormons hash it out in religious give-and-take

Panelists discuss oppression of religions v. idea that churches are a force for good.

First Published Apr 16 2014 10:17 pm • Last Updated Apr 17 2014 10:46 am

Is a religion like Mormonism fundamentally a force for good, or a "poison" that "deserves to die"?

Those were the two opposing views presented Wednesday night during a panel discussion at the downtown Salt Lake City Main Library. On one side, American Atheists President David Silverman and author, ex-Mormon and ex-polygamist Joanne Hanks argued that religion basically brainwashes its members. Silverman, in particular, came out swinging, repeatedly describing the faithful as "victims" of their respective religions.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

On the other side, Brigham Young University religion professors J.B. Haws and Richard Holzapfel argued in favor of religion. Their point: that despite failings of individual members, Mormonism is ultimately a force for good.

The discussion — which moderator Paul Reeve said was "not a debate" — focused most intensely on the idea of inclusiveness. Silverman argued that religion generally, and Mormonism in particular, produces exclusive groups that shun outsiders. As evidence, he said his organization was unable to purchase billboard space in Utah and that many Mormon youths are expelled from their families for coming out as atheists or for being gay.

"Religion is bad, religion is a poison, religion does not deserve to live," Silverman added. He quickly clarified that he was talking about institutions, not religious people individually.

The filled-to-capacity crowd clearly agreed with Silverman, repeatedly clapping during his comments and occasionally cheering.

But the BYU professors resisted Silverman’s characterization. While they acknowledged that shunning does happen, they argued that it’s not part of the religion itself.

"It’s not a Mormon ideal to shun," Holzapfel said.

As the discussion continued, the panelists seemed to be grasping at what exactly religion should be held accountable for. Silverman and Hanks — who recounted her own traumatic experiences in a Manti-based polygamous sect — implied that religion was responsible for cultural behaviors of its adherents. If members of a religious group are especially exclusionary, the two atheists were saying, the religion itself is consequently problematic.

Haws and Holzapfel defined the terms more narrowly; their point was that the actions of religious people are not necessarily synonymous with "religion."


story continues below
story continues below

That conflict over the fundamental nature of religions was, unsurprisingly, not resolved during the discussion. However, Silverman and Hanks continued asking for explanations of specific behaviors within Mormonism such as baptism for the dead — a Mormon practice that involves baptism living members in the name of dead nonmembers. Silverman called the practice "appalling" to the families of the dead people. Later, Hanks said that during her time working for the LDS Church she bought a $200,000 chandelier for a temple. She and Silverman argued that such expenses represented misplaced priorities for a religion.

The BYU professors countered that their church gives considerable amounts of money to charity. Holzapfel also said that he likes to donate money to Mormon charities because those charities have no overhead costs. The professors also acknowledged the issues raised by baptism for the dead, but said that for people who recently died the church has to get permission to perform the ceremony and examples otherwise were due to rogue members acting on their own.

While much of the discussion had the Mormons explaining their religion and the atheists asking questions, the purpose of the event was ostensibly to dispel stereotypes on both sides of the issue. To that end, Silverman said he hoped to convince people that atheists are not mean or immoral people.

Toward the end of the discussion, Mormon history came up after several audience members submitted questions critical of the way the LDS Church deals with the topic. Both BYU professors essentially seemed to concede the point, at least as far as the past goes, but said their church has recently begun a new chapter of openness and honesty.

The tone of the evening was mostly cordial, though few on either side of the aisle were likely converted.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.