After months of my personal journey into learning and discovery, I feel I’ve reached a point where the information I have and continue to collect seems to fit within three major categories – all of which have enough substance to be considered a “pillar of doubt” within my belief system.
To be quite frank and honest with myself, I feel I have gathered sufficient information to intellectually justify a departure from a belief in God. I feel like many reasonable people would turn around at this point (or before) and drop their religious beliefs — I’ve spent some time in the ex-Mormon community and I’ve found people who’ve left the church for much less than the information I’ve managed to gather. (In fact I believe many of their reasons are not substantial enough at all – I feel some of them have left over spilt milk).
Conversely one must ask oneself: how much in enough? There will never be entire certainty either way. Some people take in much more information “to the contrary” than I have and still come out believing; in fact almost no matter what happens they will still believe. How does one then decide at which point to change their beliefs? There are two extremes; on the one hand people will leave over spilt milk (they will leave over the smallest intellectual issues or contradictions), and on the other hand even a large quantity of evidence and arguments to the contrary will not dissuade a true believer, who never changes their faith (before we laud such people, think twice; they could be followers of another religion which is not yours – even wanting to blow themselves up!).
I am not certain at which point I would have gathered enough information to leave but, I feel if I wanted to turn around now and justify it, I could. (But I won’t, I’m not done yet).
In the beginning of his keynote speech in the recent FairMormon conference, Dan Peterson gives a fantastic introduction to the idea of rationality under uncertainty. (The conference is not yet public so I can’t link to it.) He explains this through an analogy, which I will paraphrase:
“Imagine you’re in a carriage rolling down a hill and it begins to go out of control. You have a choice to jump out, or remain inside. It’s uncertain as to whether the carriage will finally crash in a dangerous manner so as to kill you, and it’s uncertain that if you jump off you’ll survive because of its speed. So it’s also uncertain which choice you should make. Perhaps this could be construed as a 50/50 or 60/40 type scenario, there’s a probability that either way you could survive based on either choice (jumping out or staying in). Under these circumstances either choice is a rational choice. Jumping out makes sense, and staying inside makes sense, each with its own set of corresponding arguments and reasons. We can’t appeal to pure rationality in this case to make what is unequivocally the “logical” choice – there is no single logical choice, both choices make sense and can be reasoned for or against given the different variables; this because of the inherent uncertainty of the situation”
I really enjoyed his description and it has greatly assisted my thought processes around this area. After months of research something I can say for sure it is indeed uncertain (from a purely intellectual point of view) whether God exists. Sure enough, you may look up at the majesty of the night sky and you see God in the magnificence of it, but many “rational” people just see a bunch of hydrogen and other elements re-arranging themselves. The connection between the creation and the creator is not clear and is not unequivocal to everybody, even if it is clear to the believers. In fact it would appear that the more educated one is about the universe (from a scientific perspective) the less inclined one is to believe in a supernatural creator (religiosity is negatively correlated with education, or as people become increasingly educated, in turn they become increasingly secular), but there are exceptions to this rule.
I still believe in God and believe in Mormonism at this point in time. By “belief” I mean our basic definition of “faith”, that is, a strong enough belief or confidence in something to galvanise me to act in accordance with my beliefs (to obey the commandments, pray, and try to live a worthy life, go to church, pay tithing, serve in my calling etc.)
But believing by itself isn’t good enough for me to put my mind at rest, or I could say my religious experience to this point has not been powerful enough to do so (some people have immensely powerful spiritual experiences which just put their minds and hearts at rest).
But I think generally I will not and cannot surrender my mind’s ability to reason and figure things out (and learn through exposure to new information) to my beliefs at this time; such a choice would be the very definition of ignorance – willingly ignoring any information or truth that could contradict my beliefs – intentionally avoiding cognitive dissonance and thus missing out on the potential opportunity to learn new, grander things.
So in any case, to be loyal to my mind, and for the sake of recording the journey, here are the three pillars of doubt: the main three groups or areas of thinking, evidence and reasoning to cause me to doubt / give me pause. These are the “argument against”, where as explained above, there are also “arguments for” which together create intellectual uncertainty. These are questions which I don’t yet have the answers for.
Pillar 1: The God Delusion; it’s reasonable to assume God doesn’t exist
The God Delusion is a book written by Richard Dawkins, (the same man who has a TED talk entitled “Militant Atheism”). Professor Dawkins is probably one of the most outspoken atheists in the world. If you go to YouTube and do a search for his name you will find possibly hundreds of videos of him around the world arguing with theists, videos with titles like “Richard Dawkins makes creationists look as dumb as rocks”, “Richard Dawkins exploding at rubbish in the Bible”, etc. (“The spirit of contention” comes to mind – if we believe the Book of Mormon scripture).
It made sense for me, in my journey, to go straight to the “worst” and start from there. So I chose Dawkins and his book The God Delusion. I finished reading the book about two months ago now. It was fascinating really; I take the train to work, after driving to the train station in my car. In the car I was listening to the Book of Mormon, and on the train I was reading the God Delusion – some might call that a contradiction, I call it “giving the Lord equal time”.
The God Delusion was a very well written and interesting book. In case you’ve not read it, the title kind of gives away the main point. It genuinely made me think and provoked much reflection. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind is “I (a theist) am so far behind in the arguments in this area” – what I mean is the stuff that he was talking about was way ahead, in the “meta-game” so to say. I feel like the traditional arguments for God that I had embraced were weak and insubstantial, and they are well countered in the book.
Below I will write about some of the most striking arguments I found in the God Delusion that cause me to pause and think:
The scientific probability of God existing
One of the major points of the book comes from a scientific and evolutionary perspective (naturally (no pun intended)) because Dawkins is a professor of evolutionary biology); often we cite the existence of God as an explanation for the existence of everything. In fact there is a Book of Mormon scripture which does just that: Alma 30:44
“All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator”
This is called a “crane” type argument; we justify the existence of highly complex things (the universe, us, the eye, life, etc.) by wheeling in an even more complex thing as a designer. This is because this is what we see and experience from our everyday life; if you see a watch lying around, that watch is complex, and it was designed by an even more complex human. That makes sense.
“What’s the chance that a hurricane came through a scrap yard and created a fully functional Boeing 747??” – you may have heard this before, there are several variations. The point of the argument is that human life is so highly complex that it could not have come about by chance, the argument also proposes that humans are irreducibly complex. However, as Dawkins points out very eloquently, this type of argument leads to infinite regress:
(Paraphrasing the book)
OK, sure, God created us and He is a much more complex being than us, and that’s how we got here — but then who created God? The very existence of God is the ultimate Boeing 747 – Sure, so we didn’t come into existence just by chance, Okay, fine – but then God did. God came into existence “just by chance”, and if He didn’t (say, his father before him created him) then whoever created Him DID.
And so you go on to infinite regress – at some point along the way, a super-highly complex being “God’s God’s God’s… God ” came into existence “just by chance”. The “just by chance” problem doesn’t actually go away when we wheel in God, it just hops up by one level, and becomes a whole lot harder to explain away. Wheeling in God to explain the existence of the complexity of the universe creates an even bigger problem than the one it solves; where did God come from? How do we explain the complexity of God? At the end of the day, somebody got here just by chance — if not us, then God (or his God or his God’s God …)
Based on my reading of the God Delusion and many other materials, I believe that by the best reasoning and rationality available to man, it can be very reasonably argued that God doesn’t exist. Again, see my poem The Ant God for a reflection of the limitations of man’s reasoning.
Willing God into existence
An argument Dawkins mentions for belief in God is the “Argument from Sheer Will”:
“Argument from Sheer Will: I do believe in God! I do believe in God! I do I do I do. I do believe in God! Therefore God exists.”
The moment I read this I was reminded of a piece of music I listened to on my mission where (I think it was L Tom Perry) repeats: “I know he lives, I know he lives, I know he lives” very slowly and emotionally to the music.
I’ve heard it said in atheist circles that man created God in his own image. This does strike me as a very scary possibility. Have we simply willed God into existence? Have we simply created this idea of God in our own image to fill the desperate void in our hearts for our lives to have deeper meaning?
The celestial teapot
“But science can’t prove that there’s no God” – this may be a common argument you hear in favour of God, but unfortunately it’s flawed in several ways.
Firstly, nothing can absolutely prove anything! Evidence can suggest, or infer, even very convincingly that something is the case, but there is no such thing as ultimate proof, even for basic things like gravity. There is no evidence or argument so compelling and so powerful that it forces people to believe.
But perhaps an even stronger counter-argument: Yes, science can’t prove there’s no God – but science also can’t definitively prove that there’s no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy or no flying spaghetti monster either. This is illustrated in the story below dubbed “the celestial teapot”:
“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. We would not waste time saying so because nobody, so far as I know, worships teapots; but, if pressed, we would not hesitate to declare our strong belief that there is positively no orbiting teapot. Yet strictly we should all be teapot agnostics: we cannot prove, for sure, that there is no celestial teapot. In practice, we move away from teapot agnosticism towards a-teapotisin.”
There are arguments for and against God, many of them scientific in nature. Nothing can prove anything, so we should just drop this idea that “science can’t disprove God” – it’s silly.
A weakness in the book: argument from personal experience
One thing I did find rather weak in the book is the “arguments from personal experience” section in the “arguments in favour of God” chapter. The personal experiences described therein are rather weak and insubstantial. This felt conspicuous to me, and left a gap in my heart for a further witness, which was then challenged later on by additional information: And so we move on to the second pillar of doubt:
Pillar 2: The unreliability of spiritual witnesses and religious experiences
A few months ago I emailed my closest family and friends advising them that I’d decided to re-evaluate my belief system. This was shortly after watching a particular video that did an excellent job in demonstrating the Macro-unreliability of spiritual witness (by Macro I mean between people, but not within people, I contrast that with Micro-unreliability in this article)
I have two quite powerful and devastating videos to show on this topic.
What struck me in this video is the abundance of “spiritual witnesses” (and their consistency with the types that we describe in the church) that folks of other faiths have experienced. If someone can pray for a witness of the truth of Islam (for example, there were several others) and receive a peaceful feeling – then this technically shatters a LOT of missionary type efforts wherein we encourage people to “pray to know if these things are true”.
This has made me seriously question the reliability of a spiritual witness (let’s make it personal: my spiritual witnesses), and this is further compounded by the below video which I recently came across.
This video demonstrates several things:
- We are hard wired to believe. Even those people who didn’t believe in a devil were unwilling to complete a ritual intended to sign their souls away to the devil. This demonstrates a fear that does not compute with their religious beliefs: wait so, you don’t believe in a devil? Then what problem do you have performing a ritual signing your soul away from him? I found the devil example rather scary myself, showing clearly that I am also inclined to believe in, and be scared of, the devil.
- We definitely imagine things and are highly susceptible to suggestion. They put a few atheists into a dark room under a church that had been “rumoured to be possessed by spirits” (a false rumour told them just to see the reaction) and they quickly imagined things and presences of otherworldly beings.
- And finally, they managed to induce a full on “religious experience” of the feeling of being overwhelmed and flooded by immense love, awe and the image of a perfect father to an atheist, who was then highly conflicted internally about her experience. This was done through some hypnotic techniques and suggestion. Later on she was interviewed by Derren Brown and she said the experience expanded her emotional repertoire.
- People pray to know if their religions are true and get positive answers; why? That causes me to pause.
- It appears that so called “religious experiences” or “religious feelings” can be induced by the right signals. I wonder if there is any correlation between susceptibility to being hypnotised (vulnerability to suggestion) and frequency of religious experiences.
Pillar 3: Church history issues
In a prior article I did write how church history issues are not really issues for me. But now I want to revisit this given more recent revelations.
I don’t think I can just categorically write off church history issues as “non-issues” anymore, though for me they are still the most minor issues of them all; hence pillar 3 is the weakest pillar of my set (this is, in part, due to my really enjoying the lectures of Joseph Smith by Truman Madsen wherein he’d already explained many of the issues).
In order for this section to be more authentic, I will only reference formal church sources, interviews and well-known issues:
- OK, let’s say it, polygamy. I’m upset that Joseph could have forty wives but I can’t. (Granted, he had to go through a lot more than I did, so many that’s why) I’m upset that we now denounce polygamy as a sin when our own article on the subject says “Latter-day Saints’ motives for plural marriage were often more religious than economic or romantic.” — Joseph was threatened by an angel with a drawn sword to take additional wives; this is a stark contrast with now. Clearly, our doctrines have changed, even though we had the “fullness of the Gospel” when we had polygamy. D&C 132 has some interesting stuff on polygamy… Though Gordon B Hinckley says “it is not doctrinal” (I guess at this time it is not, where it was before — hence doctrine does change, and is not solid enough).
- Seer stone: a short explanation is in this article. Honestly; if you met some random, rational human being and told him that the Book of Mormon was translated by someone looking at a stone in a hat they might have issues. (Especially given the BOM could contain errors found in the King James version of the Bible, available at that time) Nevertheless, of course God is capable of doing this if he wanted to, but we must remember this is the same seer stone Joseph used to find lost objects: (LDS.org article on the Book of Mormon translation) “The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.”18 As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.” and that Joseph was a “village seer”. Seer stones were apparently folklore at the time which Joseph accepted. One of the major tools used to translate the Book of Mormon was a seer stone based on folklore…
- Temples & Freemasonry: “We have the true Masonry. The Masonry of today is received from the apostasy which took place in the days of Solomon, and David. They have now and then a thing that is correct, but we have the real thing.” Heber C. Kimball. It is church folklore that Masonry originated in Solomon’s temple. I’ve not yet encountered any evidence to support this idea, but have heard it before. The temple endowment used to contain penalties (here’s an interview of Jeffery R Holland saying so) which evidently included “slitting throats” if we disclosed the content of the temple ordinance (our member parents would actually know this, they were around when it was so).
I won’t belabour this pillar, suffice it to say there are plenty of other issues which could be listed here. One major popular critique of the church and its doctrine is the CES letter which can be found here)
Potential resolution: the Book of Mormon
Interestingly after all of those pillars, if somehow the Book of Mormon is true then it would help to resolve some of the conflicts:
Let’s assume the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record translated by the prophet Joseph Smith:
- The probability of the correct translation of this record by an uneducated boy would have been astronomically low. That would increase the probability of God existing (or at the very least the supernatural)
- Spiritual witnesses could be partially resolved if the BOM is true; because we’d have more than just a pure “emotional” witness, we’d have some evidence.
- Church history issues are less aided by the truthfulness of the BOM, because, just as an example, there are multiple split off groups from our church and other issues. Church history issues occur after the BOM translation.
Conclusion: Where to centre my life
Currently I am reading the book “the divine centre” by Stephen Covey. He discusses the foundation, the centre of our lives, and suggests that should be Christ. I intend to write a separate article on this topic but, as a preview, I feel like the doctrines of the church are too susceptible to intellectual attack to base my entire life and belief system on them; there are just too many folks out there with plenty to say that makes a lot of sense that goes against my belief in these doctrines. This is hard to write, and hard to admit, and I know some of my family would have issues with it but; Christ is too uncertain as a foundation. (But who knows, perhaps that perspective will change over time)…
I note something interesting: Stephen Covey wrote the divine center in 1982, and the 7 habits of highly effective people in 1989, in those 7 years there is a difference: The divine center suggests we should centre our lives on Christ, and is written to a Mormon audience. The 7 habits suggests we should centre our lives on true principles, and testifies at the end that he believes true principles originate from God. Interesting distinction based on the audience it’s addressed to isn’t it? I am not suggesting that Covey changed his mind, not at all. But what I am suggesting is that true principles seem to be more universal and more solid as foundations to build ones life and beliefs off than doctrines of the church, or spiritual witnesses which I have clearly shown tend to change or be inconsistent.
So watch out for my next article:
My life centre: (Gospel) Principles