Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What is the conscience?

What is the conscience?  Is it an angel that sits on your shoulder?  Is it the Holy Ghost?  Is it the Light of Christ?  Different people will give you different answers, but in general it is some vague presence that tells us the difference between right and wrong.

As Mormons we tend to view the conscience as something that comes directly from Christ, universal in presence and interpretation among all humans.  While I agree that the Light of Christ is an important component of the conscience it is just that, a component.

Take a look at the eleventh article of faith: “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.”  Does that mean that the conscience can dictate to someone that they worship a different god, in a different way, and in a different place from what the “true church” worships?  I think so, and from the wording of the eleventh article of faith it looks like Joseph Smith thought so as well.

So then, what exactly is the conscience?  I view it as the collective influences in our lives that determine our sense of morality.  It consists of the following:

Our innate humanity.  This is what Mormons call “the Light of Christ.”  Whatever the original source, I believe that there is a universal sense of goodness common to all humanity.  Some of us are better at ignoring it than others.

What we learned at home.  This is why the church places so much emphasis on the family.  Most of what we believe about wrong and right is based on what our parents taught and reinforced at home.  In my house watching the Simpsons was just fine (except on Sundays), but at my friend’s house it was forbidden.  He still doesn’t watch it because it feels wrong to him.

What we learned at church.  Now, there are plenty of people who don’t have a religious background and still have a well-developed sense of morality.  I don’t believe religion is absolutely necessary to a moral lifestyle, but for those of us who did grow up going to church it provides the framework for why we do or don’t do certain things.  That’s why most non-Mormons don’t feel bad about drinking tea, coffee, or alcohol, but many of my Mormon friends won’t touch a smoothie with green tea extract in it.

What we learn from society.  This is based on what is legal or illegal.  In some places bribes are customary, and someone from such a place may not feel it is wrong to pay a bribe to get out of trouble.  For someone where bribery is highly illegal and aggressively prosecuted, it is morally reprehensible to try to pay your way out of accepting the consequences of your behavior.

What we learn from our culture.  On my mission I was shocked to see that in Latin culture people are blunt, almost brutal sometimes.  If they think your accent is bad, or that you’re fat, they will tell you so without blinking an eye.  Where I come from you would never, ever tell someone you think they’re fat.

Our individual personalities.  Each person takes the above factors and determines which parts are more important than others.  That’s why some people rebel against their upbringing and do the opposite of everything they were ever taught, and others maintain it. 

There probably are other influences on the conscience, but these are the main ones I have noticed.  I don’t care what background someone comes from, but every human being needs a well-defined conscience.  With over seven billion people on earth that means there are more than seven billion definitions of conscience, and that is fine.  The entire purpose of us coming to earth was to live according to our agency, and even if I have a different sense of right and wrong it would be inappropriate of me to expect anyone else to conform to mine.

What about laws and legally defining right and wrong?  That’s a discussion for another time.  I suck at politics (which is why I’m studying biology) and am woefully underequipped to discuss that topic.  If someone more enlightened than I wants to take a shot at it go ahead; I’d like to see what you have to say.

I first started thinking about conscience when one of my brothers dropped out of the church.  He used to be painfully Mormon, to the point where he drove the rest of us crazy with how self-righteous he was.  It was surprising and confusing to see him change directions so radically, but my other brother made an interesting point: “I’d rather see him outside the church and true to who he really is than making himself miserable trying to be something he’s not.”  Could it be possible that the dictates of his conscience compelled him to leave the church?  I believe so, and I wouldn’t have him do anything else.

That explains the title of my blog.  I’m listening to my conscience, and sometimes it tells me I should do the “wrong” thing.  I have to decide now whether to follow the church just because that’s what good Mormons do, or to do what my conscience says.  

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