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Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke to Education Week attendees about the importance of religion in society.

PROVO — Religion is crucial to maintaining a moral society, said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the LDS Church's Quourm of the Twelve Apostles, during his devotional address Tuesday morning at BYU's Campus Education Week.

“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,” said Elder Holland.

Brigham Young University, the flagship private university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hosts the annual five-day mid-August conference, with thousands of people from around the world to the Provo campus. More than 17,000 people met in the Marriott Center to hear the devotional message, which is considered to be the keynote address of the weeklong conference.

Titling his remarks “Religion: ‘Bound by loving ties,’” Elder Holland spoke of the importance religion has always had in societies and reminded listeners to stay true to the teachings of God, despite current threats and trends.

Elder Holland spoke of the etymology of the word “religion,” recognizing its 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 facing devoted religious believers today — between good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral — Elder Holland emphasized the role religion plays in maintaining moral life and successful societies.

“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.”

Noting that many people in generations past lived, breathed, walked and talked in a world full of spirituality, Elder Holland said their lives also 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.

“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,’” he said. “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. …

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, 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 rational, non-believers. Faith has almost always been an “embattled option” that has almost always been won — and kept — at a price, he said. It is key to more than just the social fabric of a society; faith is crucial to the moral state of one’s soul.

“In fact, religion has been the principle influence — not the only one, but the principle 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 … 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 a 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.”

[email protected] @marianne_holman