If you are looking for a repository of absolute truth, unalterable mental meanderings, or in-amendable sophistry I suggest you stick to your favorite house of worship with its preferred texts and energetic spokesmen. One of the beauties of empirical science and philosophy are their willingness to be censored and amended. Not long ago, I didn’t see it that way. I felt that knowledge or wisdom failing to stand up to the scrutiny and competition of new and better data was a glaring weakness. An idea or affirmation should stand on its own merits and, if it does not, deserves to be cast aside under the appropriate pressure of new, better-supported theories. The dichotomy of the faith-affirming mind is it’s tendency to believe in this standard of evidence while remaining so devoted to its affirmations that it refuses to see or hear new, contrary information. Both reason and faith espouse the superiority of ideas that withstand the test of time. The difference being that reason would seem not only open to but eager to be proven correct in the face of contrary facts or inconsistent dogma. It would not disregard new data because it makes claims on probability, not on feelings.
Leaving a theory open to amendment or falsification is not a weakness, it is an incredible strength! A researcher will often declare ahead of time what criteria or finding will nullify their hypothesis. Theories are, by definition, subject to revision and even negation. Any idea that leaves itself open to being disproven also permits itself to be proven right while not making itself a prisoner of its own conceit. Theories are expressions of confidence based on repeated demonstrations of accuracy. Ask a theist what would cause them to renounce their belief. For most of them, nothing could do so. Ask a scientist what would disprove evolution or ask an atheist what would induce them to believe in god. Even at their most evasive, they will simply and honestly reply, “I don’t know.”
As a Mormon missionary, we had an entire discussion with potential converts regarding the changing knowledge and wisdom of men. We actually talked about how the prevailing theories of a flat earth or geocentric dogmas in science and religion in the past were evidence of damning inadequacy. Societal disagreements regarding race, gender, and sexuality provided proof that we needed divine revelation now more than ever. We appropriated the stories of men like Galileo for our own purpose, oblivious to any self-effacing irony. We relished the fact that the Roman Catholic Church convicted the 16th and 17th century Italian astronomer of heresy for challenging the prevailing scientific model and official church dogma of geocentrism. Based on the evidence and future observation, science caught up with his theory much more quickly than the representatives of an omniscient deity. And that was precisely the problem we Mormons wanted to capitalize upon…so long as the potential convert or committed adherent didn’t look behind the curtain.
You see, we wanted it both ways. We wanted to use science when it suited us and spurn it when it did not. The merry example of the corrupt, Catholic church being so dependent upon their dogma as to refute science and imprison and silence its brightest minds to protect their authority as arbiters of truth helped us promote the idea of all religion having “fallen away” truth and into apostasy. The Mormon prophet now is the Mr. Burns-esque figure of Russell Nelson. By any account, Nelson’s medical career is one of phenomenal accomplishment and well-earned accolades, appointments, and honors. Perhaps he didn’t find it fulfilling and the call to church service was a welcome one. As an apostle and church president, he has overseen the acquisition of numerous pieces of valuable real estate, defined the “M-word” that offends God, and convinced destitute people all over the developing world that the cure for poverty is to dutifully pay a full tithing to the hundred-billion dollar
church investment empire over which he presides. We could speculate on the thousands of lives he would have saved or improved as a talented if unfulfilled surgeon and the many millions of lives other hands down the line would have saved from techniques or technologies he pioneered. But why save people’s hearts when you can save their souls? His expertise as a man of god extends to economics as, from his Ivory Tower and sacrosanct pulpit, he so genuinely extorts the impoverished with prosperity-gospel guarantees. The LDS church PR machine makes big news about donating some $9 Million dollars to the NAACP while quietly purchasing, in the same week, a $148,000,000 Marriot resort on Maui.
It’s not Mormon’s, alone, that conveniently choose which scientific theories they will reject and which they will commandeer. I’m no expert on logical fallacies–you may find many within my writing–but I believe the tendency to take ideas or data that support your position while rejecting any that do not, is simply and colloquially referred to as Cherry Picking. One of the most prevalent examples of this from apologists is with regard to The Fine Tuning Argument. Herein, the apologist takes the scientific observation that the values we observe for gravity, the expansion of the universe, the weak and strong nuclear forces, the mass of electrons, protons, and neutrons are so precise that should just one of them be changed by infinitesimal, almost inconceivable amounts, life as we know it would not be possible. For them, this scientific conclusion demonstrates, conclusively, that God is the author of the universe! Forget the fact that we cannot, outside of mathematical proof, actually demonstrate that such variance would be incompatible with life–theists love it! Forget that they have yet to demonstrate the existence of deity; they inductively conclude that not only is a god outside of space and time the cause but, from that assertion, they are capable of deducing this deity’s mind and will and are sanctioned–even commanded–to tell everyone else how to live their life.
The scientists such as Stephen Hawking who have described this incredible degree of complexity and the perception of fine-tuning have not gone so far as to postulate a deity to fill-in the gaps of understanding. Humans need an explanation so badly for every happening that we will make up a bad one rather than persist in not knowing a why. Deity provides a convenient deus ex machina, not only here, but in every explanation for every natural occurrence. Theists have gone from explaining lightening, earthquakes, plagues, and every disorder of mind and body as the active punishment of God to the passive, benign, but equally deferential “will of God.” He didn’t cause them but he could have prevented them. Except he didn’t. And the death of millions of children from the lack of clean drinking water to abuse at the hands of God’s anointed is so apathetically dismissed with the trite refrain, “God works in mysterious ways” that even I begin to wonder how I could ever have said such a hideous thing!
The God of monotheists went from a being who used his corporeal finger write the Ten Commandments after speaking with Moses with the equally corporeal description, face to face, to a being who exists outside of space and time. The Nicene being without body parts or passions becomes more critical than ever. The infinite regress of God’s existence is cleverly ignored or refuted by an equally unknowable assertion that God does not exist within space and time. Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, offered an interesting perspective on the tendency of humans to perceive fine tuning in the universe.
While the religious often appropriate science for their purposes (I was taught to as a missionary), they have become adept at also rejecting any claim it makes that doesn’t fit their inviolable, bronze-age mythos. Two of the most consistently confirmed, testable theories of biological science, Germ Theory and Evolution, find their only opposition from the religious. What is obvious when you discuss either theory with a believer, is that they do not know what they don’t believe any better than they know what they claim to believe. Ask a Catholic to what the “immaculate conception” refers. Chances are you, the reader, are incorrect. Look it up! It’s easy to find and well-defined by Catholicism. I also have found that an atheist is more likely than a Christian to know the correct answer to “what is the immaculate conception?”
A recent, person experience for me involved my chiropractor. In the middle of the COViD pandemic he quietly and in all sincerity whispered to me with a conspiratorial smile, that “we both know masks don’t work.” As a dentist, I have worn one daily for my protection even before it was mandated for everyone. In shock that one of my health care providers would say something like this, I was also not surprised to hear it from someone who’s profession is rife with devotion to homeopathy and promises of cancer cures that result directly from realignment of the spine. When he explained that one of the men who first postulated Germ Theory recanted it on his death bed, I realized that the spirit of Theocracy and its attendant, desperate desire to force recantation from heretics or slyly interpret their final words as a recantation of heresy, is alive and well even in the twenty-first century. Said chiropractor, at my dubious expression, explained that its not germs that get us, it’s something called “host theory” in which the host must be susceptible to disease and that alone is why some get sick and some do not. I challenged him in that moment to enter a closed room with me. I get a KN-95 mask and he has nothing. Tuberculosis is then released into the air of the shared space. How strongly does he believe Germ Theory is a hoax in that situation? I might have gone with condoms and HIV, but we simply aren’t that close…not yet.
He balked, back-tracked, and mumbled some deflective statement but, unfortunately, did not recant. Perhaps on his death bed as many COViD-deniers, gravely ill in their final moments, gasping for breath, have done to their caretakers. What actually bothers me most regarding this entire exchange is that my chiropractor doesn’t know what he doesn’t believe. A susceptible host is a key component of Germ Theory along with a route of transmission and a viable infective agent, or “germ”. Coronavirus wants human cells to infect. I’m human, and cannot change that. What I can do is make the route of transmission a greater obstacle for the virus with a mask. Who do we see in this country claiming masks are an outrage? The religious right. Friends and family in the south and in the Mormon, Intermountain West, confirm to me that there exists a large, vocal subset among whom the prevailing ethos is that mask mandates are a breach of their rights and by extension, religiously discriminatory or even blasphemous.
Akin to this is the Catholic church’s campaign against condoms, opens a route of transmission for the HIV virus in Africa. Not just amongst the sexually promiscuous but in the babies born with it due to the piety of their parents who’s sin of adultery was far less preventable and damning than the life of a child that will be damned to suffer from a disease that is often very preventable in the neonate. While children born in wealthy, western societies have access to expensive medical treatments, the already destitute child born in Africa of an HIV positive mother is almost certainly damned to a short and horrible existence.
Even more fundamentally, the disdain of the Theory of Evolution, most often bares its ironically maladapted head in discussions of the origins of life. How many times have you heard seemingly eloquent and well-educated people of faith aver, “Humans didn’t evolve from monkeys!” Some hit a bit closer to our own DNA profile by saying chimp instead of monkey. However, both statements are actually technically correct though the speaker is wrong in their own understanding. Evolutionary theory does NOT teach that humans evolved from monkeys or chimps. In this, the speaker, quite unwittingly, declares a demonstrable fact of evolutionary theory. The problem is, like the immaculate conception or germ theory, many with firm opinions on the matter do not know that what they have so confidently decided upon. They think evolution makes the case that humans did, indeed, evolve from a primate we see today like chimps or another ape. They even go so far as to say, “If humans evolved from chimps, why are there still chimps?” I’m not here to teach evolution and many of the the religious seem incapable of teaching it let alone comprehending it. The fact remains that they willfully remain ignorant of the theories they deny and in so doing acknowledge that the theory is an actual threat to their faith. Having lost their monopoly on teaching and affirming facts of nature, they now must fearfully, if not silently, watch the last corner of their moral soap box disintegrate.
There is a great difference in trusting a book or another human and in trusting a process. The process of scientific enquiry is trustworthy not only because it has been demonstrated to work, but because part of how it works is by being open to amendment–We can trust it because it will let us know if it is wrong. Trusting a man or a book as infallible or, if fallible, still excusable in their failing, is not only sufficient, but also necessary for cults and tyrannies to rise from their predecessors ruins or even from utter obscurity. Faith, that most exhausted and counterfeit ideal to be named a virtue, makes credulity respectable in its vast shadow.
Rather than trust that our current understanding is dynamic and always improving with modification and clarification and that such a position is perfectly alright, the faithful only trust unanswerable questions that pose no threat to their paradigm. When Jesus supposedly placed the mantle of leadership upon the broad, fisherman’s shoulders, he told Peter that “upon this rock I will build my church.” Catholics claim this meant that Peter, himself, was to be the cornerstone and foundation of the church he would build in his fulfillment of the law of Moses. Mormons claim that the teaching in the verses previous to Christ’s “upon this rock” declaration is that revelation is the rock upon which the church would be built. Thus the need for living prophets and the string of con artists to take up the mantle since Joseph Smith. If there is one universally applicable and unifying tenet of all religion is its un-falsifiability. Jesus may as well have told his chosen apostles that he would build his church upon the rock of the lack of contrary evidence. Both the claims of divine appointment and equally arrogant claims of being receptacles of divine revelation cannot be disproven. The other side to the coin that never lands “up” when a theist pulls it from their pocket is that neither has any man managed to demonstrate their claims to such lofty posts.
Hitchen’s Razor has become an easy standard for those of us who believe a claim should stand on its own merits not just the bombast or confidence with which it is spoken. The absence of contrary evidence to supernatural claims is not in and of itself evidence for the claim.
Consider the unanswerable question regarding life after death. This may be the penultimate mystery upon which a theist builds their faith. How many, facing the death of a loved one or their own passing, hasn’t wondered at or even hoped for life beyond the grave? One cannot be blamed for hoping for another moment with loved ones who passed, particularly those who’s death was premature. The religious double-think on salvation is also curious to behold. The believer’s son who rejected Christ, who abused his wife and kids, and who died in an alcohol related car accident that claimed the lives of two children may, nevertheless, be “saved.” The same believer who claims the grace of God and salvation for their wayward son offers no grace to those currently living who, despite their best efforts, cannot find the credulity to believe in Jesus. A physician who volunteers her time to community service needs saving so desperately because she was seen reading a book by Richard Dawkins! And she needs saving before she dies! Otherwise, her time is up! Debts will be called due and Jesus won’t be able to make the payment when his name never fell from her lips. I’ve been on the faithful end of this conversation, and I’ve been the atheist doctor as well albeit with a “Y” chromosome.
I don’t begrudge these parents their need for hope. Over seventy years, their entire world-view has been built upon hope of Christian salvation. Unlearning or deprogramming was difficult for me as a 35 year-old man. The entirety of religious history seems to have been formed by mankind’s need to explain the unexplained. Shakespeare described death well in one of his most well-known soliloquies, musing “that the dread of something after death,” is common among men because it is an “undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns.” He admits to the un-verifiability of life after death–a journey we must all make but, for which, no one can claim certainty regarding the destination. And considering a sample size of zero, any likely probability is impossible to substantiate. But that doesn’t keep the frocked from claiming their certainty!
The belief in this afterlife in which a person will see all their deceased relatives, friends, even pets, and get to meet the long deceased, epileptic narcissists that they call prophets, is unfalsifiable. Anyone can claim to have knowledge of anything, but unless it is open to empirical review and testable by indifferent, third parties, no on can add any degree of legitimacy to their claim–be it alien abduction, visions of angels, near-death experiences, or witnessing miracles that defy our notions of natural law. I’ve ridden a unicorn to the city of Atlantis: A benign claim that would make the most credulous among us scoot farther away on the subway. What matters is when the claim carries the claimant into the realm of speaking for deity and demanding control over the minds or actions of other fellow primates. Those who make extraordinary claims have only one logical determinant on their side: in most cases of extraordinary claims, no one can prove that what they claim did not happen or is not real. Like Bertrand Russell’s teapot, we can’t prove it isn’t there. For the believer in supernatural, eternal beings, their God’s existence and the reality of an afterlife can’t be proved–or, at least, has yet to be. The alleged apostle Paul made a faithful refutation scriptural when he drearily taught that without faith we can’t please God. The strength of their conviction comes not from evidence but from clinging to the fact that their God’s existence cannot be falsified.
They care less, if at all, about positive evidence for their claim yet irrevocably place the entire burden of their faith upon the lack of evidence that could refute it. “Is there any position a person could not take on faith?” Matt Dillahunty often asks on the Atheist Experience call-in show. The answer is, “No.” And most callers will admit this because most callers have the vestiges of an understanding of logic. Public school hasn’t utterly failed them despite the religious’ attempts to commandeer it. Unfortunately, most callers understand logic only insofar as it applies to everyone else’s unverifiable claims. Their own faith, however, is a case of special pleading because, well, it is special. In the eyes of the Evangelical: Islamist, Mormon, and Eastern religions are all falsifiable. Catholicism is three-fourths correct and Judaism may be half-right. But to be wrong even in the slightest is to be completely in apostasy or aligned with the repugnant gentiles.
The reality to which I slowly became aware as a rosy-lensed Mormon is that an overwhelming majority of religious claims throughout history have been falsified and only adapted under immense secular pressure. While many historical aspects of scriptural stories are accurate with regard to places, people, culture, and events, the miraculous are often refutable by evidence and probability. But their foundations, the belief in an unseeable God and a blissful afterlife cannot. And in this age of rapid scientific progress, the existence of God and an afterlife are the pillars of faith that remain because they cannot be negated by any information we have or that we might even imaging acquiring in the future. Upon this rock they must place the entirety of their hope which, as they love to profess, cometh of faith.
While there are some differences in Atheists and Agnostics, the majority of both take the stance that when a claim is made that affirms the reality of a being, the burden of proof resides on the maker of the claim. We are simply not convinced. Our stance is a default position until reliable evidence is presented to support a claim. Theists believe the burden of proof is upon the people who are not convinced due to lack of evidence rather than upon themselves and their affirmations despite the absence of any evidence. Why should we be surprised when they also believe that the Sun stood still in the sky without any attendant cataclysmic events. And any evidence that they require as a standard for belief, trust, and action in any other area of their life need not apply to how they evaluate the truth claims of their religion.
Only…ask them if they believe in unicorns…
Fine tuning and the moral argument, among others, are thought provoking rationalities for the existence of deity. What they are not, is evidence. They may involve clever deductive or inductive reasoning but they could care less about habeas corpus. Convenient that there is no resurrected Jesus to examine. Convenient that the Mormon’s haven’t access to “the gold plates” from which their scripture was “translated.” Nevertheless, proponents fall back on arguments like fine-tuning or the moral argument eagerly if not in desperation. All-the-while, they easily dismiss scriptural evidence that the god they worship is a sadistic narcissist. They proclaim him to be a god of love when he clearly states in his sacrosanct, approved text that he is a jealous god who answers disbelief upon the head of generations beyond the offender.
Coming upon the heels of his policy failure surrounding the great flood, the god of Israel decided to choose one tribe and make a nation of them. Rather than destroy everyone, he would use this chosen people to wipe out entire races. Why? For the reason Mel Gibson gives as the title character in the 1994 film, Maverick. Of the Native Americans, Maverick jokingly declares that he tries to kill one [Native American] every day. His justification: for them “being on [white man’s] land before we got here.”
Despite the fact that those with the greatest to gain from it, well-funded Israeli archeologists have not found one jot or tittle of evidence for the Exodus story. Perhaps piously, perhaps innately, perhaps professionally, these researchers have chosen not to bear false witness to evidence or attempt to substitute the trivial or unfounded as authentication of their tribe’s mythology. If the “Exodus” story teaches us anything, it is that the god of the Old Testament eagerly utilizes plagues to reach one of two ends. The first goal would be to humble someone or an entire people enough to bend them to his will, using torture to permit free will to play out. Or, secondly, he may punish and destroy those who do not accept and cow to his will. Even if the story is no more than mythology, the lessons taken are intended to be the epitome of morality and godliness. Consider the example of the Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, who died at the hands of those he to whom he was determined to proselytize. The Sentinelese, an indigenous tribe inhabiting an island in the far east Bay of Bengal, had already attempted to kill him once but failed when, miraculously, their arrow struck the Bible he carried. Having already willfully neglected not only the warnings and advice of others but the law of India as well, he proceeded to land his boat on their shore for a third attempt at preaching Jesus to them. He knew that death was a real possibility and, I suspect he also realized that the foreign microbes he carried and to which his immune system had evolved to combat posed a genuine threat to these people. It’s no surprise that our species has an innate fear of outsiders when they often bring disease and death with them.
Such was Chau’s conviction that he was right in his belief, that the risk to himself was nothing. How could the Indian government claim any authority to prevent him from preaching the Good News when he was on God’s errand? If he considered the danger contact with him would pose to the Sentinelese lives, we have no record. No doubt the arrow that struck his Bible confirmed to him his Godly errand and the words of Isaiah echoed in his head, “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.” (Isaiah 54:17) He would attempt to communicate with them and, if he was lucky or blessed, would succeed. The gift of tongues is a thing…right? Undoubtedly, he would share a refined and virulent microbiome. Language and immune systems evolve divergently but susceptibility to disease needs no translation. Anyway, their deaths were a small price to pay so long as they could hear about an obscure preacher from two-thousand years ago. What is un-falsified Germ Theory against the power of my un-verifiable God?
One might translate the Christian, proselytizing ethos to: it’s better to make a child an orphan than to allow its parents to “serve other gods.” We are so convinced that god will protect you from our diseases and us from your arrows, that we will go forward in faith. If I happen to die, that’s God’s will. If you die, at least your heard his word and can now be condemned to hell for it. And if your kids have to be raised without a mother or father as a result, well, that is God’s will too. And believe me, he loves them so much, it must be good for them.
While we may refute a great deal of a person’s beliefs, their faith is founded upon claims we cannot hope to falsify.
I say this as a once devout and utterly convinced Mormon: Joseph Smith’s claims are ridiculous. The Kinderhook Plates are a verified fraud. The Book of Abraham is an even greater example of Joseph’s con. Despite the divinely translated record declaring that it was “Written by his own hand,” no credible examiner of the original documents–who is not a Mormon themselves–has concluded that Joseph’s story about their translation could be correct. Now, contrary to the declaration of the book itself to have been written by Abraham’s own hand, we are told that maybe the common funerary text simply acted as a catalyst to inspire Joseph to translate.
Joseph even claimed to produce an “inspired translation” of portions of the Old and New Testament. Research out of Mormon flagship university, BYU, concluded that “it is arguable that [Adam] Clarke is the primary source Smith used” to make inspired changes to the King James Bible. Not revelation from God, in other words.
The Book of Mormon is not respected by ANYONE as a book of history of ANY people that lived in the pre-Columbian Americas. (I had a patient that once upon a time who spent over forty years as a professor of North and South American anthropology. I once carefully brought up the Book of Mormon and needed smelling salts to bring his rolled eyes back to facing forward.) Being considered “the keystone of [their] religion, the Book of Mormon may be the hill Mormon’s choose to die on. In 2009, Mormon Apostle, Jeffrey Holland, offered a stirring and rousing sermon on the divinity of The Book of Mormon. During a diatribe in which doubters and skeptics were called foolish for being unconvinced, he proceeded to make the case for the book based entirely on its un-falsifiability.
Upon this rock, I will build my church. How appropriate, unmoving and unthinking. To borrow from an old Chevrolet truck ad-campaign: “Like a Rock.” Holland commits a fallacy here, essentially a false dichotomy in which he asserts that, since another explanation has not been proven correct (by his pathetic, faith-addled standard) then ONLY his explanation could possibly be an alternative. All of it, however, rests on the foundation of un-falsifiability.
Joseph not only lied, he was a compulsive liar. Consider polygamy in which his spouse was kept in the dark for years and, just shortly before his death, he publicly declared that he’d been accused of polygamy but, (see the pattern) since no one could prove it, he could confidently affirm that he “could find only one.” The Mormon temple rituals are simply appropriated from already bizarre, male-centric Masonic rites. It helps to claim that they were inspired, godly rituals to endow mortals with the power to become gods. It helps even more that no one can prove they weren’t inspired. Despite his long history of deceit or incompetence, most of my family hope to meet Joseph in heaven and thank him for his dedication to “restoring” the gospel.
The afterlife…their yearning and hope for and faith in an afterlife that cannot be verified. Yet this dream accounts for such a large contribution to their faith that they will disregard all else. Nothing, NO THING!, could be given credence enough to call their faith into question. The belief proves it, and that is enough to build their life upon it.