Religion is, and always has been, an important part of the social fabric of a society and the moral state of one’s soul, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught during the Brigham Young University Campus Education Week devotional held on Aug. 16.
Participants of all ages come from around the world to attend the five-day conference hosted by BYU. This year marks the 94th year of the annual conference and included more than 1,000 classes by 230 presenters. More than 600 volunteers helped throughout the week.
The conference theme — “Assist individuals in their ‘quest for perfection and eternal life’ ” — comes from the opening sentence of the BYU Mission Statement. BYU President Kevin J Worthen opened the devotional and Elder Holland gave the conference devotional address.
Focusing his remarks on the topic, “Religion: ‘Bound by Loving Ties,’ ” Elder Holland spoke to more than 17,000 people in the Marriott Center about the important role religion has always played in societies.
“Voices of religious faith have elevated our vision, deepened our human conversation and strengthened both our personal and collective aspiration since time began,” said Elder Holland.
Speaking of the etymology of the word “religion,” Elder Holland shared the word’s origins from the Latin word religare, meaning to “tie” or “re-tie.”
“For our purpose today, ‘religion’ is that which unites what was separated or holds together what might have been torn apart, an obvious need for us, individually and collectively, given trials and tribulations we all experience here in mortality.”
Recognizing the great conflict that is facing devoted believers today — between good and evil, right and wrong, the moral and the immoral — Elder Holland said the intensity of the conflict is increasing, creating an ever-wider segment of culture.
“We should be genuinely concerned over the assertion that the single most distinguishing feature of modern life is the rise of secularism with its attendant dismissal of, cynicism toward, or marked disenchantment with religion,” he said.
Drawing from the words of former LDS Apostle Elder Neal A. Maxwell in a BYU devotional in 1978, Elder Holland spoke of what Elder Maxwell called a time when “irreligion” would be established as the state religion and freedoms of a Judeo-Christian heritage would be diminished.
“My goodness! That forecast of turbulent religious weather issued nearly 40 years ago is steadily being fulfilled virtually every day somewhere in the world in the minimization of, or open hostility toward, religious practice, religious expression and even in some cases the very idea of religious belief itself,” Elder Holland said. “Of course, there is often a counterclaim that while some in the contemporary world may be less committed to religion per se, nevertheless many still consider themselves ‘spiritual.’ But frankly that palliative may not offer much in terms of collective moral influence in society if ‘spirituality’ means only gazing at the stars or meditating on a mountain top.”
Recognizing that many people in generations past were devoted to spirituality, Elder Holland said an important aspect to their devotion included a concern for the state of their soul, an attempt to live a righteous life, some form of Church attendance and participation in that congregation’s charitable service in the community.
“Yes, in more modern times individuals can certainly be ‘spiritual’ in isolation but we don’t live in isolation; we live as families, friends, neighbors and nations,” he said. “That calls for ties that bind us together and bind us to the good. That is what religion does for our society, leading the way for other respected civic and charitable organizations that do the same.”
Realizing churches or institutional religions collectively in a society do not produce an infallible solution to society’s challenges, Elder Holland said it is through people trying to be an influence for good, trying to live to a higher level of morality than they might otherwise have done, and trying to help hold the socio-political fabric of their community together that religion has a positive impact.
“My concern is that when it comes to binding up that fabric in our day, the ‘ligatures’ of religion are not being looked to in the way they once were,” he said.
Noting the “many colliding social and cultural forces in our day that contribute to this anti-religious condition,” Elder Holland shared the observation that the shifting away from “respect for traditional religious beliefs — and even the right to express those beliefs — has come because of a conspicuous shift toward greater and greater preoccupation with the existential circumstances of this world and less and less concern for — or even belief in — the circumstances, truths and requirements of the next.”
Whether called secularism, modernity, or “existentialism on steroids,” such an approach to life “cannot answer the yearning questions of the soul nor is it substantial enough to sustain us in times of moral crises,” he said.
Modern technology gives an unprecedented personal freedom with the access to virtually unlimited knowledge and communication capability beyond anything ever known in the world’s history, Elder Holland explained. Yet, neither technology nor its “worthy parent science” gives as much moral guidance on how to use that freedom, where to benefit from knowledge or what the best purpose of communication ought to be as does religion.
“It has been principally in the world’s great faiths — religion, those ligatures to the divine we are speaking of — that do that, that speak to the collective good of society, they offer us a code of conduct and moral compass for living, help us exalt in profound human love and strengthen us against profound human loss,” he said. “If we lose consideration of these deeper elements of our mortal existence — divine elements, if you will — we lose much, some would say we lose most, of that which has value in life.”
Recognizing not everyone agrees that religion does or should play an essential role in civilized society, Elder Holland spoke of “The New Atheists” and the case for non-believers.
Faith has almost always been an “embattled option” that has almost always been won — and kept — at a price, he said.
“In fact religion has been the principal influence — not the only one, but the principal one — that has kept Western social, political and cultural life moral to the extent these have been moral,” he said. “And I shudder at how immoral life might have been — then and now — without religious influence. Granted religion has no monopoly on moral action, but centuries of religious belief, including institutional church — or synagogue- or mosque-going, have clearly been preeminent in shaping our notions of right and wrong. Journalist Will Saletan puts it candidly, ‘Religion is the vehicle through which most folks learn and practice morality.’
“I am stressing such points this morning because I have my eye on that future condition about which Elder Maxwell warned, a time when if we are not careful we may find religion at the margins of society rather than the center of it, where religious beliefs and all the good works those beliefs have generated may be tolerated privately but not admitted, or at least certainly not encouraged, publicly.”
Sharing a few of his favorite religious-related pieces of literature — as well as an audiovisual presentation showcasing religious works of art and music — Elder Holland emphasized the “religious heritage all around us.”
“So the core landscape of history has been sketched by the pen and brush and words of those who invoke a Divine Creator’s involvement in our lives and who count on the ligatures of religion to bind up our wounds and help us hold things together,” he said.
But true religion goes beyond the social, political and cultural contributions to a society — true religion is the “only way to peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come,” he said.
“May we think upon the religious heritage that has been handed down to us, at an incalculable price in many instances, and in so remembering not only cherish that heritage more fervently but live the religious principles we say we want to preserve. Only in the living of our religion will the preservation of it have true meaning.”
Visit https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/bound-by-loving-ties?lang=eng to read the text of Elder Holland’s address or watch the devotional message.
[email protected] @marianne_holman