Coping as a Woman of Faith in a Secular World

Coping as a Woman of Faith in a Secular World

By Sister Jean B Bingham, Relief Society General President

Additional Resource

An address at the World Women’s Interfaith Conference held at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales on February 9, 2018.

Distinguished guests, dear friends, we are delighted to be hosted at this important event.  We are so grateful to the organizers who have brought us together.  Thank you for your generous hospitality, and thank you for your outstanding service. 

It’s especially significant that we’re meeting in Wales.  The country of Wales stands as an example of religious diversity and religious tolerance.  We see the fruits of that today as we get to know each other in this gathering, and as we serve with each other, we unitedly lift others from a variety of faiths.

Wales saw the growth of religious diversity as the Nonconformist tradition developed within Christianity.  At one point in the mid-nineteenth century, over 80 percent of worshippers in Wales attended Nonconformist chapels.  Welsh Nonconformity had a great social and cultural impact on life here, and far beyond Wales itself.[1]

The musical tradition within Welsh chapels, for example, is world-renowned.  You may be aware that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir originates from Welsh roots.  As Professor Ronald D. Dennis explains:

The fame of the Welsh for singing came with them as the [Mormon pioneers crossed the United States by wagon] in 1849…William Morgan, a participant in the “Welsh Choir,” recorded: “As we sang the first part of ‘When the Saints shall come,’ we saw the English and the Norwegians and everyone…with their heads out of their wagons. With the second part, in an instant the wagons were empty and their inhabitants running toward us as if they were charmed…

“Some asked me where they had learned and who was their teacher? I said that the hills of Wales were the schoolhouse, and the Spirit of God was the teacher. Their response was, ‘Well, indeed, it is wonderful; we never heard such good singing before.’”

When this group of approximately 85 Welshmen reached the [Salt Lake] valley, President Brigham Young [then President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] asked John Parry, their leader, to organize a choir to sing at General Conference...[John] Parry…responded with enthusiasm.

The choir that he directed was the nucleus of what would become the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.[2]

That musical heritage from the Welsh valleys lives on. 

The religious landscape of Wales has changed over the years.  This country continues to celebrate diversity, and that diversity is growing.  Whether by proselyting or by immigration, all the major world religions are represented in Wales[3] and there have been significant increases in many faith groups here over recent decades.[4] Increasingly interactive religious communities, especially evidenced in large towns and cities, illustrate the benefits of tolerance and dialogue.

This is a time of opportunity for each faith-based organization to contribute to the good that is in Wales, in the UK, and around the world.  It is an opportunity for all, with women and men working together, to focus on a common cause and to respond together to meet urgent needs.  There are many difficult issues across society where help is needed.  Economic challenges, civil unrest, and natural disasters create disruption and difficulty for the personal welfare of thousands upon thousands of individuals. 

In the spirit of true womanhood, we yearn to respond to and alleviate the suffering of those around us, regardless of our own burdens and challenges.  As women—and men—of faith, we have the responsibility as well as the blessing of serving those in need.  When doing so, we find that uniting in good works is not only beneficial to others but is ennobling to the soul.  

Each faith group represented here has a desire to use their resources to the best advantage and work unitedly in a common cause.  In doing this, the benefits and blessings multiply.  As Queen Elizabeth II said, “…whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load.”[5]  The more we get to know each other, the closer we become.  Nothing works to unite people like serving together. 

Yet in many ways, religion finds itself on the margins of society, where one’s beliefs and values may be expressed privately, but are often dismissed publicly.  Conflicts sometimes arise when religious organizations or individuals share their views of right and wrong in the public sphere.  Tension can be seen, for example, in rules sometimes banning religious clubs from colleges and universities, or in regulations curbing the conscience of health care practitioners. Public figures and regular citizens often hesitate to articulate their religious values to avoid controversy.

This separation of religion from public life is a feature of what is often called secularism. Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the current environment as a shift “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is [only] one human possibility among others.”[6]

So, to answer the question posed in our theme today, how do we cope as women of faith in a secular world?

A woman of faith makes decisions based on her spiritual values and religious framework, not on the latest popular trends or political pronouncements.  First, she needs to know what she believes and be able to articulate those beliefs and values to herself and others.  Second, she acts on her beliefs and strives to live according to the highest and noblest virtues her belief system espouses.  She is an example and a light to others through the clouds of uncertainty and darkness in the world around her. 

She also recognizes that others live by different faith systems and allows them to express themselves in ways consistent with their beliefs.  In the eleventh Article of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that principle is affirmed:  “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may.”[7]  She defends the religious rights of others at the same time that she acts in accordance with her own beliefs.

The secular world dismisses religion as irrelevant in this modern, science-driven world.  Yet studies corroborate what religious adherents instinctively feel:  there is social value in allowing religious expression in the community.  Research has shown that more than 90 percent of those who attend weekly worship services donate to charity, and nearly 70 percent volunteer for charitable causes.[8]  Such giving also benefits the giver. According to one study, “the correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction is powerful and robust.”[9]

Human beings are religious by nature. We seek a higher purpose outside ourselves.  Religion offers a framework by which people find meaning, belonging and identity.  As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written, religion gives us “a feeling of participating in something vast and consequential.”[10] And this feeling tends to flow into civic interactions.  Religious observance is linked to higher civic involvement, is connected to trust and correlated with the neighbourly virtues of charitable giving, volunteerism and altruism.[11] Faith groups of all kinds bring communities together and provide a space and setting for individuals to serve people they otherwise would not. [12]

The value of religion speaks less through sermons and more through the soup kitchens, hospitals, schools and countless other humanitarian works it nurtures.

Religion and secularism do not always have to be at odds. Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.  Each can benefit from the other.  The encounter between the two can be a productive tension that provides opportunities to learn, not contradictions to avoid. 

People of faith reject the notion that religious faith and practice are devoid of rational thought. Mormons, for example, believe that "the glory of God is intelligence."[13] Science can explain much of the human experience, but without faith we lack ultimate understanding and meaning.

Religion and faith is part of who we are – as women, as men, as fellow humans, as children of God.  Despite pressure and ridicule from those who see no value in religion, people of faith must maintain the ability to love and serve others as our tenets teach and as our hearts desire.

Women of faith can provide a powerful lift to humankind as they express their religious values through charity and service.  Russell M. Nelson, prophet and president of the Mormon faith, said, “We need women who know how to make important things happen by their faith and who are courageous defenders of morality and families…” [14]

I am convinced that when we unite together as women of faith, we not only strengthen the relationship between religions, but individual lives are touched as we reach out to those in need.

This is the true value of faith – to others, to us – in our so-called ‘secular world’.  The building of hope and faith and even greater love between receiver and giver are the inevitable results of true charity.

Whatever our situation in life, we can bring the light of faith into our own environment and the environment of others – be it a high-rise flat, a terraced house, a large detached home, or a tent in a refugee settlement.  We can determine to look for the good in others and in the circumstances around us, while seeking to improve those circumstances for our sisters and brothers throughout the earth.  Young and not-so-young women everywhere can demonstrate charity as they choose to use words as well as actions that build confidence and faith in other people. When we work together as women of faith, we can accomplish great things, and individuals’ lives the world over will be immeasurably improved by our united efforts.

I invite you to “make important things happen by [your] faith and be courageous defenders of morality” as you look for ways to lift and love those who need your help.

Thank you.

 

[1] “The Story of Nonconformity in Wales”. Accessed 28 January 2018. http://www.welshchapels.org/welsh-chapels/ 

[2] “John Parry and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir” by Ronald D Dennis. Published in the April 1985 issue of Y Drych accessed 28 January 2018 http://welshmormon.byu.edu/Resource_Info.aspx?id=4077

[3] “Religious Groups and Communities in Wales” Accessed 28 January 2018 http://www.wales.com/communities/religious-groups

[4] “A Statistical Focus on Religion in Wales” published on 27 October 2015, taken from the 2011 Census, accessed 28 January 2018. http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2015/151027-statistical-focus-religion-2011-census-en.pdf

[5] “Her Majesty The Queen’s Ireland State Banquet Speech” reported by BBC News on 18 May 2011, accessed 28 January 2018 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13450099

[6] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3. Accessed 28 January 2018.

[7] Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith, 11. Published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed 5 February 2018.

8 Arthur C. Brooks, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving,” Policy Review, Oct. 2003. Similar statistics are found in the “Faith Matters Survey 2006,” as cited in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Accessed 28 January 2018.

9 Robert A. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 491. Accessed 28 January 2018.

10 Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), 101. Accessed 28 January 2018.

11 Robert A. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010). Accessed 28 January 2018.

12 Jonathan Sacks, “The Moral Animal,” New York Times, Dec. 23, 2012. Accessed 28 January 2018.

13 Doctrine & Covenants 93:36, Published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed 28 January 2018.

[14] Russell M. Nelson, “A Plea to My Sisters,” Ensign, Nov. 2015, 96, 97. Accessed 5th Feb 2018.

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