BACK ~ @Com ~
Kirk Robinson's Talk to SLVA
Dan told me I could talk as long as I want and that the more controversial the better! But I don’t want to risk boring you, so I’m going to try to restrict myself to about 45 minutes. And since I suspect much of what I say will be preaching to the choir, I want to make sure I get the most controversial stuff out at the startLet’s make a commonsense distinction between religious dogma and religious practice. Religious dogma, including theology, consists of the doctrinal elements of a religion. It is a belief system. Religious practice is of course informed by doctrine, but goes beyond it. It includes rituals, ceremonies, holidays, fasting, praying, offering sacrifices, etc. And in a genuine religion, these are, to one degree or another, social phenomena as much as they are personal. They are part of the social fabric of the religion. Examples from Christianity include the sacrament, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, confession, etc. If the social element is missing, then I think what is left is superstition. The social element is what makes superstition into religion.
These days we often hear people say that they are spiritual but not religious. No doubt this can mean almost anything, but I think it gets at something, whatever it is, that is important to people who are not practicing religionists; and it tends to be more private than social – things like getting in contact with Nature. I’m all for that, by the way, and to the extent that I am religious, that’s the category I’m in. Sometimes, though, this “spirituality” is other-worldly – contact with spirits from the other side or the netherworld and all that. I don’t go for that. I would call that superstition. My spirituality, such as it is, is this-worldly, not other-worldly. I don’t believe in future or past lives or in divine reward or retribution. And I am an atheist in the sense that my belief system has no room for supernatural beings or forces.
Okay, here’s the potentially controversial part of my talk, I suspect. There is a way in which atheism can be a lot like a religion. That happens when atheists begin to evangelize. When atheists flout religion, when they are rude and obnoxious and pretentious and smug, when they belittle others for their beliefs, when they make their atheism a moral crusade and make themselves into moral busybodies, they do atheism and other atheists a lot of harm. They are then copying some of the worst aspects of religion. And this is no trivial matter. I, for one, couldn’t care less whether an asshole doesn’t believe in God. Having a true belief is not a license to be an asshole.
One thing I quite often hear from atheists that is disconcerting to me is the claim that religion exists and thrives only because there are lots of stupid, gullible people and a few clever knaves who pull the wool over their eyes in order to control and exploit them. I am sure there is truth in this; but if anyone thinks this is pretty much all there is to explaining religion, they should think again. Religion has probably been present in every single culture of Homo sapiens that has ever existed – tens of thousands of years before there was any such thing as organized religion and priesthoods that were capable of putting the fear of God into people, of conducting inquisitions, etc. – and so we might as well wake up to the fact that there is something very, very deep in human nature that predisposes most people towards religious thinking. This has become an important area of research for evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and philosophers. You can read about some of this research in philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.”
Now for a few somewhat more positive points. I – and I believe most of you – realize that there is no connection whatever between morality and theism. To be a theist is not necessarily to be moral; and to be an atheist is not necessarily to be immoral. We don’t need to hash over the reasons for this. It’s an obvious fact despite longstanding belief to the contrary. The best thing we can do, then, to present the best face of atheism to the world, is to strive to be moral, and at the same time let it be known from time to time, without being boorish, that we are atheists. Be kind and considerate toward other people and toward animals. Show love and respect when it is deserved. Don’t be afraid to express your own beliefs about mortality and death when occasion calls for it, but don’t get into fruitless, alienating arguments when there is no possibility of converting someone to your point of view – unless the other person starts it.
Also, try to appreciate the good things that religion has given the world. And there are plenty of examples from painting, architecture, literature, music and mythology (understood non-literally as metaphor and allegory). There is great value in these contributions to culture. If you are skeptical of this point, then maybe you haven’t got the right point of view. Think outside your own culture for a minute, to see what I mean. How many of you have been to Mesa Verde, Hovenweep or Nine Mile Canyon – or any of the places on the Colorado Plateau where ancient Indian ruins and artifacts are found? Do you realize that in the basic cultures that left these creations nearly every single aspect of people’s lives, including their art and architecture and hunting and harvesting, was a religious expression? Basic cultures don’t have religion, they ARE religions. There is no distinction whatever between the two.
Finally, let’s give credit where credit is due. When religious institutions engage in genuine charity, which does happen, that is a good thing. Atheist organizations would do well to follow suit. And while we’re at it, let’s admit that religious beliefs can help some people deal with the tragedies and disappointments of life.
Okay, enough of that. That’s the preachy part of what I have to say. I have a long background in philosophy, so I tend to think about religions primarily in terms of the belief systems they embody, and less in terms of their social and historical aspects. When I used to teach World Religions in the philosophy department at the U, that’s what I focused on. I thought if I could convey the belief system of a religion to students, to give them a sense of what the religion is all about from the inside, so to speak, that would be better than merely having them memorize a number of historical and social facts.
So in the remainder I am going to be talking on a pretty high level of abstraction about religious and non-religious belief systems. Hopefully I will succeed in making my thoughts clear to you – and interesting too. By way of introducing topics I’m going to recount experiences from my life that I think many of you will relate to, and which will serve as preludes to discussion. Please hold any questions until the end. There will be plenty of time for Q & A.
I grew up in Bountiful in the 1950s and 60s, the oldest of six kids. Our house was surrounded by alfalfa fields and peach orchards when I was little. I remember many occasions when I sat on the floor against the fridge while my mother worked in the kitchen, asking her questions as curiosity prompted me. As I got older, more and more of my questions had to do with the Mormon religion that I was being indoctrinated with. Both my parents were strict practitioners of the faith and believers in the literal truth of the Bible and Book of Mormon. My dad was a bishop for eight years when I was a kid, and my mom was in the Relief Society presidency.
One of the questions I remember asking my mother was why God punished Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit when He had commanded them to “multiply and replenish the earth,” which they could only do after they’d partaken of the fruit and lost their innocence. (The first commandment is found in Genesis I; and the second commandment is found in Genesis II.) They couldn’t obey either commandment without violating the other one, which seemed an unfair setup to me. Her answer was that it was necessary so we could be born and Jesus could redeem us from our sins so we could be resurrected and return to God. I have to say, I didn’t find this answer fully satisfactory. So seeds of doubt began to sprout in my young mind.
As the years went by and my favorite childhood haunts were devoured by suburban sprawl, I wanted to know why it was so important to multiply and replenish the earth. How far was this business going to go anyway? Until all the trees and deer were gone and there was nothing but people and houses and cars? It was bad enough that the wolves had already been wiped out. Frankly, it seemed like poor planning to me. So, you see, already I was an environmentalist and conservationist.
In high school I took a class that had a profound and lasting effect on me: Mr. Harward’s A.P. biology class. He taught us all about DNA, which had been discovered only a decade earlier, about genetic inheritance, and about the theory of evolution. The scientific picture I got made a lot of sense to me and really captured my interest. At last I had a plausible explanation for my existence and for the existence of other living things; and it didn’t involve God. Natural selection had replaced God. And predation – predators hunting and killing and eating prey animals – is a big part of what drives natural selection and hence evolution. So much for the lion lying down with the lamb. I began to suspect that God wasn’t good for much.
The summer following high school graduation I decided to go backpacking in the Wind River Mountains. That’s a high mountain range in Wyoming, in case you don’t know – so high that it has a number of glaciers. It was 1966, before the backpacking craze had begun, when the trails were sometimes faint or non-existent and your chances of encountering another human being were slim. Now the reason I’m telling you this is because the question of God’s existence was very much on my mind, since my whole future seemed to depend on the answer to it. Think about it. If the universe really was created by a powerful deity who will punish and reward you for your deeds, and if Earth is just a stopover on the way to eternity, then that would be something very much worth knowing. If you knew it to be true, it would give you powerful reasons to conduct your life a certain way. So the question of God’s existence had been churning away in my head for some time and it resulted in me having a religious experience in the wilderness – you might even say it was an anti-religious religious experience. It happened when I was 18.
First some background. Like most of the boys I grew up with, it was expected that when I turned 19 I would become a missionary for the LDS Church. It was perfectly obvious to me that everyone I knew expected me to do this; and it was especially obvious to me that it was my mother’s fondest dream. She had herself been a missionary in Minnesota while my father was stationed in Europe during WW II. So I felt a lot of pressure to do it. But by then I had doubts about the teachings of the church and I’d become quite cynical about the seemingly obligatory returned missionary refrain “It was the best two years of my life.” Frankly, that line always seemed phony. A mission didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me and the returned missionaries sounded like they had been lobotomized. On the other hand, I had no idea what to study in college or what career to pursue; and one by one my friends were leaving on missions. Also, the Viet Nam War was ramping up and I knew I could get a ministerial deferment as a missionary. On top of all that, I couldn’t be sure that the church was not true. What if it was? So the balance of my motives was clearly on the side of going on a mission. But since I wasn’t convinced that God existed, or that any of the church’s teachings were true, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a mission. How could I spend two years trying to convert people to Mormonism if I wasn’t convinced it was true? I was in a bind.
My conception of God wasn’t the traditional Christian one. As you probably know, Mormons conceive of God as less than omnipotent and omnipresent. According to the Mormon idea of God, God is not omnipotent because He did not create space, time and matter; and He can’t suspend the laws of nature either, as in the traditional conception of a miracle. He is subject to the laws of nature like everything and everyone else. And He hasn’t been God forever either. He had to work his way up to divine status. Moreover, He isn’t omnipresent because he has a physical body much like a human body, only immortal; so he exists in space-time like everything else. Think of him as the god who needs a haircut and beard trim. Nevertheless, Mormons conceive of God as being morally perfect and as being so knowledgeable and powerful that He can do anything that can be done. He’s the ultimate superhero. Anything that can be done, He can do; but of course He only does what is for the best. And one of those things was the creation of Earth and populating it with living creatures, including us – though Mormons like to think of it more in terms of organizing matter, like building a house, not creating things ex nihilo, as in “Let there be light.”
It was a long hike up New Fork Canyon of the Wind River Mountains that day and at first I was overwhelmed by the size and lonely feel of the place. There were no people, no houses, no city noises or smells, just a huge expanse of naked rock and wilderness that was both beckoning and frightening. I thought “What if I get lost?” What if I slip on a log while crossing the river and fall in, maybe drown? What if I get attacked by a bear? These were very real fears, but I couldn’t resist the allure of the big unknown. My plan was to climb into the high country and make a long 25-mile loop back to where I started.
As the hours passed I began to feel far removed from the familiar world. Yet strangely, I also began to feel at home and at peace. Waves of euphoria swept through me. I had a sense of being in contact with the world soul. It was an experience of the sublime. It was as if I had awakened from a dream, or been born, and stepped into reality for the first time. I thought: How can anything this grand, this magnificent have been created by God? And why would God bother to create it in the first place, since it apparently exists only for its own sake? (I had always been taught the earth had been created for use by human beings, you see!)
Eventually I arrived at a profound question, which I felt more than thought: Why does something this magnificent and wonderful and self-sufficient need a creator at all? It seemed almost blasphemous to suppose that it did, since I couldn’t imagine anything superior to it.
The experience did not make me an atheist, but my reaction was ironic, since many people have evidently had precisely the opposite reaction to experiences of a similar kind. In this connection, I want to talk about a famous type of argument for the existence of God called the teleological argument, or argument from design. This argument is motivated in part by recognition of the complexity, intricacy and beauty of nature. It is often associated with William Paley, a late 18th Century English Christian apologist. I want to talk about it now, because it is still very popular. Creationists use it all the time. Here are the nuts and bolts of it: A watch is a complicated device and it was designed and made by an intelligent being for a particular purpose, namely telling time. An eye, too, is a complicated device and it fulfills a purpose, namely seeing. So the eye too, must have been designed and made by an intelligent being. Not only that, the eye is ever so much more complex and wondrous than a watch, so its maker must be proportionally much more intelligent than any watchmaker. And this great maker is God.
An important feature of this argument is that, even if it is successful, at most it proves the existence of one or more beings just sufficiently intelligent to design and make an eye (or heart, or whatever); and that is surely far short of absolute omniscience and omnipotence. There is no reason to think that a being would have to know absolutely everything and be able to manipulate laws of nature as He pleases in order to produce an eye. Human beings can already make artificial hearts, and no telling how far they’ll go in engineering artificial organs and limbs. So the argument at most proves the existence of a very knowledgeable creator. (Incidentally, in one of his early books, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins talks about the argument from design and the fact that Darwin came up with a perfectly plausible naturalistic explanation for design in nature without positing a divine creator: natural selection. You might want to read that book if you haven’t. It’s really interesting and informative about the processes of organic evolution, an explanation for living beings that takes most of the wind out of the sails of the teleological argument.)
Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was Paley’s older contemporary, wrote a book called “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” about a hundred years before publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” in which he raised several difficulties for the argument from design. One of them points out that the universe or world as a whole is a different category of thing altogether from any of the things composing it, including living things and their organs. There is nothing comparable to it in our experience. It is totally unique. So while on the basis of various experiences of people making things and using them we come to know that watches and the like have intelligent designer-makers, we have no comparable experience with respect to the world as a whole – hence no warrant for concluding that it also must have had an intelligent designer-maker. So in one way the argument from design doesn’t prove nearly enough.
(Incidentally, have you ever found a small pretty stone that you kept? I have dozens of them. Have you ever found an arrowhead? I’ve found a few. You know at a glance that the arrowhead was made by a human being even if you’ve never actually seen a human being make one. That is not true in the case of the stone. You might wonder what mineral it is and how it was formed, but it never occurs to anyone to wonder who made it. So right from the start, I think the argument from design is shaky.)
You might also say that the argument from design proves too much, for the following reason. One kind of thing there seems to be an overabundance of in the world is suffering. I’m not talking about the suffering humans cause to each other and to other animals. Let’s leave that aside because it’s not necessary for my point, although it underscores it mightily. I’m talking about the suffering inflicted by natural occurrences such as disease, accidents, being preyed upon, and the common disappointments of life. The point is that if God is truly all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good, He or She would have been able to create a world in which creatures never experience suffering of any kind. In fact, if you take the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden literally, this is the way it was in the Garden of Eden. Never mind that we don’t know how this could be possible, the point is that He or She, being all-powerful, would have the ability to do it. Moreover, he or she would have done it, because not to do it would be pure malevolence and God is supposed to be good. Not creating a world without suffering would be indistinguishable from – indeed, would be identical with – creating a world with suffering. So given all the suffering in the world, what are we to say about God? It seems to me we have two choices: we can say either that there is no God; or else, if there is, that He or She is terribly cruel.
This is known as the problem of evil. And as far as I can see, there is no way to avoid this problem if you want to rely on the argument from design. If you are going to argue from the existence and nature of the universe to conclusions about the existence and nature of a creator of the universe, then you must accept the fact that all the phenomena of nature reflect the moral qualities of the creator. And I don’t think this problem can be avoided by recourse to the ultimate superhero Mormon version of God either. After all, according to Mormon teaching, God, or maybe Jesus, was the master designer and builder of this Earth, which at first did not include death and suffering and eventually won’t again. So He obviously could have arranged it so there would never be any death and suffering to begin with – if He had wanted.
There is one type of clever attempt to explain away the problem of evil, which takes one of two tacks: It either says that the evil in the world isn’t really evil at all, but only appears to be from our limited perspective (but tell that to the rabbit being swallowed by a snake or to the innocent child dying of cancer); or it argues that the evil is real but necessary to bring about a greater good – like the opportunity for people to be ennobled through suffering and to show compassion for sufferers, I suppose. Personally, I think both are desperate moves. It would be far more rational to simply conclude that there is no God.
In fact, these moves presuppose the very thing to be proved, which is the existence of God. They do so by employing ad hoc hypotheses whose sole purpose is to rescue the main argument from failure. To see what I mean, consider this example: Imagine that Sherlock Holmes has identified three murder suspects. He rules out Jack as the murderer because the boot prints left in the snow by the murderer were two sizes larger than Jack’s boot size; then Watson points out that Jack might have purposely worn larger boots in order to throw them off his track. Does this suggestion help? If Holmes has no independent reason for regarding Jack as the chief suspect in the first place, then the ad hoc hypothesis does nothing to strengthen the case against Jack. You certainly wouldn’t say “The boot size is two sizes bigger than Jack’s, so that clinches it, he must have been the murderer.” What the ad hoc hypothesis does is show that Jack can’t be absolutely ruled out as a suspect, but it can’t strengthen the case against him. The point is, if you are trying to prove the existence of God, and you can’t get your argument off the ground without resorting to an ad hoc hypothesis, then you will never get your argument off the ground. At best you can only create the illusion of having done so. Apparently that’s good enough for creationists.
Well, summer passed, then fall. Winter rolled around and I applied to be a missionary. Trying to psyche myself up about the prospect, I asked to go to New Zealand or Switzerland or Hawaii, which I thought would be beautiful and interesting places to go. A few weeks later the stake patriarch called me in for an interview. When he asked me if I believed all that stuff about Jesus being resurrected from the dead, dying for my sins, and Joseph Smith being a prophet of God, I must have hesitated, because a few weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. Meanwhile, a friend of mine who was a week younger than me got his mission call. So I started to worry. What if I had been found unworthy? Another week went by before the stake patriarch called me in for a second interview. And it turned out that he had just one question that the brethren had instructed him to ask me. And that question was: Do you believe in God? Boy was I ever on the spot. The fact is, I didn’t really disbelieve, but I didn’t really believe either. I was agnostic. Fortunately, I was ready with a reply and I told him that I wanted to believe, but didn’t feel that I could say I knew it was true (Thou shalt not bear false witness, right?); and I told him that the main reason I wanted to be a missionary was so I could make a sincere show of faith that would merit the reward of eventually receiving a knowledge that God exists. Now let’s pause again.
I think this was similar to Pascal’s wager. As you might know, Blaise Pascal was a brilliant 17th Century French mathematician, scientist and philosopher who, having already made significant contributions to mathematics and physics by his mid-thirties, had a religious experience that convinced him it was rational to believe in the Christian God simply on the basis of probability. And just in time too, since he died at age 39.
Here’s a quick gloss of Pascal’s reasoning: Either the Christian God exists or He doesn’t. Granted, the existence of the Christian God may be very improbable, and we may have no way of ever knowing for certain whether He exists, but it is still a possibility. Now let’s consider three options. If God should exist and I don’t believe it, then I will lose out on salvation, which will be a loss of something infinitely valuable. On the other hand, if God should exist and I do believe it, then I will gain salvation, which is of infinite value. And finally, even if God should not exist but I believe He does, though I might not reap an infinitely valuable reward, at least I will live in the happy expectation of resurrection and everlasting life. What’s not to like? Therefore, on balance, it is better to believe than to disbelieve. It is the rational choice. So while at the time I hadn’t even heard of Pascal, here I was making my own Pascalian wager. Except that for Pascal there could be no rational grounds for terminating the wager, while for me, if I didn’t get the proof I bargained for within a reasonable time – say by the end of the mission – I would feel free to terminate it. In legal terms, I’d included an escape clause in the contract I’d entered into with the God that might exist.
Well, what I said must have reassured the old patriarch, because a week later I got a letter calling me on a mission. Not to New Zealand or Switzerland, but to northern California. Frankly, my private reaction to this news was kind of mixed. A lot of my friends were going to foreign countries, and here I was going to northern California, just the other side of Tooele. It was like I had been assigned to the Telestial Kingdom when all my friends were going to the Celestial Kingdom. On the other hand, I’d never been farther from home than Yellowstone National Park, and California seemed exotic and interesting. There were the Grateful Dead, the free speech movement, the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge, and of course San Francisco and hippies. As it turned out, it was very interesting indeed – especially in the summer of 1967, when I was transferred to the San Francisco district. I actually saw Haight-Ashbury at the very height of the hippie era – the summer of love. For a kid whose sense of fashion was stretch Levis, Adler sox and Gant shirts, it was quite a scene. Years later when watching that bar scene in Star Wars I was reminded of my experience walking along Haight St. gawking at all the weirdoes in their bizarre costumes and being awakened to the exciting possibility of other beliefs and other lifestyles – and at the same time thinking that it was all the work of the devil. This was really brought home when a hippie held up a baggie of pot and offered to trade it for my paisley tie to use as a headband.
Well, I lasted out the mission and was honorably discharged. I can’t say it was the best two years of my life, but I fulfilled my part of the bargain I’d made with the God that might exist. Then, within two years of returning, I had completely broken away from the Mormon Church, and from all religion. I was never excommunicated and I never asked to have my name taken off the membership rolls, I just left it all behind. However, it wasn’t an easy transition. First, I had to be certain that the Church was false, which basically came down to one question: Is there a God? Or more precisely, does the superhero god I have been taught to believe in exist? There was also the fact that I was rupturing the relationship between me and my family, but I won’t go into that right now.
As some of you may know, there is a passage near the end of the Book of Mormon that we missionaries used to quote to prospective joiners after we had taught them a few lessons. It is Moroni, Chapter 10, verses 4 & 5: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”
Anyway, odd as it may seem, I had never actually tried the prayer experiment myself, although I had prescribed it to many of the prospective Mormons I preached to. Instead, I had made a show of commitment by devoting two years of my life to being a missionary. My thought was that if there is a God, my gambit should be enough to obligate Him to meet me half way by revealing the truth of the LDS doctrine to me in no uncertain terms. And I had upheld my end of the contract, but He had not upheld His. At no time had I acquired unshakeable knowledge of the truth of the teachings I proclaimed to be true. Rather, early on I had put all my doubts aside in order to avoid cognitive dissonance so I could get on with being a missionary. But now I had to make a decision. Should I try this experiment or not? Should I get down on my knees and pray to God, asking Him if he really exists?
I sensed a trick. There is something really quite cunning in the suggestion that in order to know that God exists you must ask Him if he exists. It’s not at all like meeting someone on the bus and asking them their name, because there you already know that the person exists; and it’s not at all like knocking on the bathroom door and asking if it is occupied before you enter, because if you don’t get an answer you can be pretty sure no one is in there. I thought, “What if I should ask and not get an answer? Would it be because there is no God or would it be because I hadn’t prayed sincerely enough? How could I possibly know? That would be a whole new level of quandary! And the only way I could possibly avoid that terrible quandary would be to be so convinced in advance that God exists that I would come away from the prayer equally convinced of it, thus making the purpose of the prayer moot. In fact, according to the instructions, you already have to have faith in Christ for the prescription to work; but if you have faith in Christ, why would you doubt the existence of God in the first place? Once I figured this out, it was as if I had stepped out of Plato’s cave into the noonday sun. I still didn’t know whether God existed, but at least I knew that I couldn’t find out by praying about it.
This experience also taught me something about knowledge and certainty. I realized in a way that I had never grasped before, that knowledge and certainty are two quite different things. You can be certain of something – as in being convinced of it – even if you don’t know it. For example, you might feel certain that you left your credit card at Smith’s, go to retrieve it, learn that it isn’t in the lost and found, then find it in your car. And, paradoxically, you can know something even while not being completely certain of it – in other words, even while accepting the possibility that you are wrong about it. For example, if asked you might claim to know you left your credit card at Smith’s, because that’s the last place you remember having it; and indeed, you might go there and retrieve it from lost and found saying “See, I knew it.” Yet, if pressed, you might admit that you weren’t completely certain it would be there. After all, sometimes you have been wrong about things like that even when you were very certain. As a famous philosopher Wittgenstein once said, “It is always by favour of nature that one knows something.”
Now you might be asking yourself what all this talk about certainty and knowledge has to do with atheism. Well, have you ever heard someone say that science is just another religion? I have. And inevitably these people justify their claim by pointing out that scientists are fallible – they can be, and have been, wrong. For example, there was that Piltdown Man hoax, where the lower jawbone of an orangutan and part of a human skull were planted in a gravel pit at Piltdown, England in 1912 and later discovered. At first all the paleontologists and anthropologists, or nearly all of them, thought they were parts of a skeleton of one of our prehumen ancestors. Then it finally came out that it was a hoax. Imagine how embarrassed those scientists must have been. So if scientists can be wrong, why should we prefer science to religion? This is an important question for us atheists because we claim that it is rational to disbelieve in God or in mythical creation stories like the one in the Bible. Indeed, we tend to feel quite smug and superior in our presumed knowledge. Wouldn’t it be ironic then, if science is really just another religion?
Let’s start with a different question: Is atheism a kind of religion? I’ve heard and read many times the claim that atheism is just another kind of religion. Maybe you have too. So is my disbelief in God a religion? Well, I don’t believe in unicorns either, so am I an a-unicornist as well as an a-theist? I could never possibly think of all the things I don’t believe in, so how could all these disbeliefs be my religious beliefs?
So atheism is not a religion, but what about belief in science? Atheists tend to believe in scientific accounts of the origin of species, for example, while religionists tend to believe in what is called “special creation,” where God created each species separately. Also, science tells us that dinosaurs roamed the earth during the Mesozoic Era (250 – 65 mya) but the Bible seems to contradict this. Now suppose someone says: You have faith in science and faith in science is just another kind of faith, on no better footing than religious faith. I’ve heard people say this and I suspect you have too. What are we to make of it? Is my belief that the earth is spinning at 1000 mph a simple matter of faith? After all, I can’t see it spin and it doesn’t feel like it is spinning. Similarly, I didn’t see Jesus rise from the dead. What’s the difference?
The important point I want to call your attention to is that scientific theories and hypotheses are subject to testing against evidence – evidence that is available to other scientists. Planned observations and experiments can be replicated. If a scientific hypothesis predicts that things are so-and-so and it turns out they aren’t, then the hypothesis is either discarded or modified to agree with the evidence. That’s the way science works. Moreover, in every case where scientists are proven wrong, scientists are the ones who discover it. So if we can’t trust scientists, because by their own admission they have sometimes been wrong, then how can we trust their admissions that they were wrong? I hope you can see from this that the claim that science is inherently unreliable refutes itself. It undermines itself. Scientists can be wrong, but science is not inherently unreliable. Science is evidence-based. And because of this science is self-correcting. In fact, this feature is a sine qua non of science. Further, different fields of scientific research converge and are logically consistent with each other. Think of how the theory of evolution, biology, geology and paleontology are consistent with each other and mutually supportive. All these features are missing from religious mythology. (Incidentally, this fact about the convergence and logical coherence of scientific facts gives belief in science one mighty advantage over belief in religious mythology: the possibility of a functioning democracy where aren’t divided by fundamental disagreements over whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools or whether we should accept what 98% of the atmospheric scientists in the world say about anthropogenic climate change, and the like.)
There’s another aspect to this. The very fact that scientific hypotheses and theories are open to the possibility of falsification is a necessary condition for the possibility of them ever being established as true; and this fact also distinguishes them in an important way from myths. To see this, let’s examine a hypothesis that cannot be falsified. When I was a little boy, once or twice a week a roll of Life Savers would “magically” appear rolled up in the evening newspaper delivered to the box on the street. My father told me and my brothers that an elf was putting the Life Savers in there, so I decided to watch for a long time through the front window for the paper boy to deliver the paper, and then watch for an elf to show up. After seeing the paper boy deliver the paper, I ran outside and retrieved it, took the elastic band off, unrolled it, and lo . . . no Live Savers. When I told my father about this he told me that he was pretty sure elves won’t put Life Savers in the paper when they see I’m watching. Next time I watched anyway and didn’t see an elf, but it turned out there were Life Savers in the paper. When I told my father about this he told me that elves are ever so fast, and so if you even blink you miss them. Now with these ad hoc hypotheses in place, there was no way I could falsify the original hypothesis. No matter what I might observe, it wouldn’t disprove the elf hypothesis. But equally, there was no way I could prove it true either, because there was no way I could ever actually see an elf put the Life Savers in the paper. Compare this now with the Piltdown Man hypothesis. (As you might suspect, my father, according to a later admission, paid the paper boy a little extra each month for putting the Live Savers in the evening paper.)
We’re back to ad hoc hypotheses. An ad hoc hypothesis, you’ll recall, is one that is invented to explain why certain facts only apparently conflict with the hypothesis of interest. So for example, a creationist might argue that dinosaur bones are not proof that the earth is more than six or then thousand years old because God could have put them there to test our faith. And so on. So you have a core hypothesis that is not supported by any evidence – in this case the hypothesis that a deity created the earth and all living things within the last six or ten thousand years or so – and it is in conflict with observable facts – in this case datable dinosaur bones – and so it is in turn propped up by ad hoc hypotheses that are not supported by any facts either – in this case the hypothesis that God put the bones there to test our faith. So you end up with a whole belief structure just hanging in the air, as it were, not grounded in anything. This is what I meant by the illusion of an argument or hypothesis having gotten off the ground when I introduced the Sherlock Holmes example. And it is the basic difference between belief in the findings of science and belief in the pronouncements of religion; and why the second can be called matters of faith, and the first can be called matters of fact.
I think one important moral of my argument is that you do religion a big disservice by trying to construe religious myths literally. You really end up robbing them of all their mystery, richness and beauty – in short, you rob them of their meaning. Not only that, but you’re forced to deny the scientific facts, which is a huge disadvantage for anyone who is a religious fundamentalist: Not only do you not have the benefits of a scientific view of the world, but you deprive yourself of one of the most valuable features of religion.
Now just one more point to finish off my talk. Have you ever heard someone reason along the following lines? I can’t prove the existence of God and you can’t prove the non-existence of God, so it’s just as rational for me to believe as it is for you not to believe? To start, let’s try to think of a different example where that kind of reasoning seems appropriate. Let’s imagine that you and a friend know – never mind how – that there is a cat in an oven, but you don’t know whether it is a female cat or a male cat. For no particular reason, you believe it is a female cat and your friend believes it’s a male cat. Obviously, there is a roughly 50:50 chance that you are right and a 50:50 chance that your friend is right, since male and female cats are roughly equally common. Equally obvious, if you are right, your friend is wrong, and conversely. Now imagine you and your friend are at Sears looking at ovens and your friend says “There’s a puppy in that oven and we need to get it out.” In reply, you say “No, I seriously doubt it – why would you think such a thing?” To which your friend replies “Well there very well could be a puppy in that oven and we really ought to let it out if there is or it will die.” You say “Wait a minute, why do you think there is a puppy in the oven anyway?” to which your friend replies, “Well either there is or there isn’t, those are the only two possibilities, so there’s a 50% chance that there is and we ought to rescue the poor thing if there is a puppy in there.” I hope no further comment is needed. Possibility does not equal probability.
If you want to drive the point home with even greater absurdity, consider the three propositions “There is a Smith’s Marketplace on the moon,” “There’s a Walgreen’s on the moon,” and “There’s a 7-11 on the moon.” If there is a 50% chance of each of these propositions being true, then by the laws of probability there is an 87.5% chance of at least one of them being true. And if you add the proposition “There’s a Walmart on the moon,” there is a 93.75% chance that at least one of the propositions is true. You get the picture! Possibility does not equal probability. So even if it is possible that an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent being created the universe and us, it doesn’t follow that there is a 50% chance that such a being exists. The probability of it must be vanishingly small. Incidentally, this goes a long ways toward undermining Pascal’s wager. You’ll recall that the only reason his argument had any force is because he described the consequences of God existing as having infinite value for the believer. You need that to make the argument convincing if the probability of such a being existing is vanishingly small.
Is eternal salvation of infinite value? I prefer Zarathustra’s point of view: “Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.” from Nietzsche's Thus spoke Zarathustra, p. 3,4,5, Walter Kaufmann transl.
My talk is above. I made two changes to it. I cut the part about the highway crosses as maybe going too far. I waver on that; and anyway, it doesn’t add to my point. Second, I replaced the Nietzsche quote at the end with another Nietzsche quote that is more on point.
Thanks for inviting me to talk to your group. I enjoyed it. I have a pretty thick skin, so I don’t mind controversy unless it just gets nasty. Sometimes it’s good to stir things up a little.
Please put me on your email contact list.
1. that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief.
2. something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign: His flushed look was visible evidence of his fever.
Freedom From Religion in Utah
Is the Universe an Alien's Simulation?
Are We Living in the Matrix?
The Standard model
Nag Hammadi Codex - On the Origin of the World
Peter Lynds: On a Finite Universe with no Beginning or End
Why do Americans still dislike Atheists?
The Grand Design
by Stephen Hawking
BACK ~ @Com ~
Kirk Robinson --
Mormon Doctrine and President Mitt Romney
This article was written before the re-election of president Obama.
As Mormon missionaries in the 1960s, Mitt Romney and I were required to present six “discussions” to “investigators” before baptizing them – he in France and I in northern California. Central to those discussions was the “Plan of Salvation” (POS); and central to it, the “Doctrine of Eternal Progression.” These doctrines are also the essence of the Mormon temple “endowment ceremony” in which covenants of allegiance to God and the Church are made, accompanied by oaths of secrecy.
The doctrines are unique to Mormonism and absolutely central to it. There is no way that Mitt Romney’s view of the world cannot have been shaped by them, especially given the rather cloistered life he has lived. Together with passages of Mormon scripture, they imply several disturbingly retrograde political views that define the Republican-Tea Party:
■ Women are subordinate to men.
■ People of color are, or were, morally underdeveloped compared to white people.
■ Gays cannot become gods, i.e., will be damned.
■ The correct political philosophy is libertarianism.
■ The best form of government fosters free-market capitalism with minimal regulatory oversight of business and industry.
■ Earth is only a temporary home to be used as a stepping stone, not necessarily to be preserved or conserved.
■ War in the Middle East is inevitable as part of God’s plan for “the last days.”
■ Lying for the cause of righteousness, such as winning the election, is morally acceptable.
The Plan of Salvation. This takes us back to before the creation of Earth, when we were spirit beings living in a “spirit world.” We were created out of “spirit matter” through a process of conception, gestation and birth involving a heavenly father (God) and mother. The firstborn spirit of our heavenly parents was Jesus, the second was Satan, and other notables included early Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They were especially “righteous” beings who were “fore-ordained” to play important roles in the historical unfolding of Mormon eschatology.
God eventually decided there were enough spirit children and it was time to start sending them away to college (my metaphor). So He created Earth and its myriad creatures for the college campus and solicited plans for a curriculum, graduation requirements, and future career tracks. Jesus and Satan each submitted a plan.
Jesus’ plan. According to Jesus' plan, the spirits who would decide to go to Earth would receive a mortal body, suffer and die, then be resurrected in a perfect union of spirit and body that would never suffer or die. A “veil of ignorance” would be placed across their minds so that they would not remember their pre-existence, and God’s commandments would be revealed to them through prophets. Importantly, they would have “free agency” to choose to obey them or not and would be responsible for their choices and actions.
Eternal Progression. All spirits who agreed to go along with Jesus’ plan will eventually receive resurrection as a graduation diploma and will be exalted to a level of glory commensurate with their earthly grades. The most righteous ones will receive the highest degree of eternal glory: the Celestial Kingdom. Others will go to the Terrestrial (middle) Kingdom or to the Telestial (lower) Kingdom. Each of these kingdoms is better than mortal existence, which is better than the spirit pre-existence. The three estates and the three kingdoms of glory represent a continuum of moral and material progress: an increase in righteousness leads to an increase in mastery and dominion over creation.
Satan’s plan. Satan had a different plan. He knew that many spirits would be unable to resist temptations. He empathized with them and thought a much more compassionate plan would be to “force” them to live God’s commandments, so they could go to the Celestial Kingdom. The catch here is that they would have to be deprived of their free agency through dictatorial force. And this would be very bad because then they would not earn, and would therefore not merit, their eternal rewards.
There was another important difference between the two plans. Jesus told God that even though he would suffer for the sins of the world, he would give all glory for the salvation of mankind to God; while Satan said that since he devised the plan and would be doing all the work to ensure salvation for mankind, he would accept the glory for himself - and he wouldn’t have to suffer for people’s sins either, because they wouldn’t be allowed to sin.
War in Heaven. A “Council in Heaven” was held in which Jesus and Satan each pitched his plan. God liked Jesus’ plan best and gave the spirits an ultimatum, which was essentially this: “Follow Jesus or follow Satan of your own free agency. But if you follow Satan, you will be barred from eternal progression.” This fomented a “War in Heaven” in which one third of the spirits took sides with Satan and rejected Jesus’ plan, apparently out of sheer orneriness for they had nothing to gain thereby; and so they, along with Satan, were banished from the divine presence for all eternity. The rest of us were eventually born into mortal bodies on Earth (with an untold number still waiting to be born), while Satan and his minions now occupy a kind of shadow Earth where they are constantly scheming and working to thwart Jesus’ plan.
The status of women. There was a rank order among all the spirits with respect to their degrees of righteousness. Jesus was the highest ranking spirit. Satan was second until his “fall.” The Biblical patriarchs and prophets were high achievers too, and so were “fore-ordained” to play a big role in the unfolding of the divine plan here on Earth. The rest of us were less stellar.
Because of the natural ranking of the spirits, there will be a roughly corresponding ranking among them as mortal beings too. Eternal progression can be compared to a foot race in which the starting points in the pre-existence were staggered according to the degrees of righteousness of the spirits, with the most righteous ones having a head start. Because of their superiority, they will tend to pull further ahead on Earth. The most righteous of all will naturally be great leaders and empire builders and the like. But for some inexplicable reason, the spiritual leaders will all be males. Women cannot hold the priesthood or become prophets in the Mormon Church, and they enjoy no ultimate decision-making authority. Their primary job is to serve men, which above all means homemaking, child bearing, and child rearing.
The curse of the Negro:
"Had I anything to do
with the negro , I would
confine them by strict
law to their own species
and put them on a
~ Jos. Smith,
inventor of Mormonism
The status of blacks and American Indians. The more inferior spirits on Earth start at the back of the pack and tend to fall behind even while progressing. They are the descendants of Cain (Negroes) (here the race analogy tends to break down – pun intended) and the descendants of rebellious Laman and Lemuel in the Book of Mormon (Native Americans). God “marked” or “cursed” them with a dark skin to distinguish them. But because they have their free agency, through extra diligence they might eventually overcome their poor starts to join God’s elite. A 1978 “revelation” to then-Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball allowed blacks to hold the Mormon priesthood for the first time, presumably because they had then progressed sufficiently. There was once a passage in the Book of Mormon (it has been excised) that said the descendants of Laman and Lemuel would one day become “white and delightsome.”
Polygamy and the status of gays. The people who earn the best grades on Earth will get the best jobs upon graduation from Earth. They will be the most god-like beings and accordingly will receive Celestial glory. They will become gods, endlessly creating and ruling over their own cosmic empires. Also, despite the Mormon Church’s official repudiation of polygamy, which was a precondition for Utah statehood, it is still generally accepted that achieving godhood will require the institution of polygamy in the Hereafter, with husbands being “sealed” to multiple wives. Needless to say, gay people won’t participate in this, so they can’t become gods; which is to say that they will be damned in the sense of not continuing to progress for eternity.
Cosmic pyramid schemes. It is a kind of axiom of Mormon doctrine that to be righteous is to follow “correct principles” that tend to produce successful and happy lives, conceived in both spiritual and material terms. Achieving godhood status is believed to be the highest possible source of happiness and joy. And presumably this grand POS will be repeated over and over for eternity, with new gods creating new worlds ad infinitum in a cosmic pyramid scheme. (This may go some distance in explaining why Utah is plagued to an unusual degree with earthly pyramid schemes in which trusting Mormons are bilked out of their life savings by trusted Mormons.)
The status of Earth. From the point of view of the POS, Earth and its myriad creatures exist primarily for the benefit of mankind, and thereby to glorify God. They are like a pair of shoes: It is prudent to take good care of your shoes, but their primary purpose is to help you get where you want to go, in the course of which wear and tear will be unavoidable. So don’t worry too much about global climate change or species extinctions. Yikes!
Free agency vs. compassion, brotherly love, and cooperation. The POS illustrates the relative importance of two Mormon moral ideals: free agency, which entails taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions; and compassion, brotherly love, and cooperation, which require helping those in need. Each is in its own way commendable, but combining them in a way that is responsive to real circumstances can be challenging: Concerning people ostensibly in need, when is compassion the right response and when is demanding that they take responsibility for themselves the right response?
Of the two, free agency is in an important way more fundamental than compassion, as shown by the fact that God preferred a plan that emphasized the one over the other. It is more important than doing good deeds because only good that is done freely merits moral approbation and reward. Free agency is therefore a necessary condition for individual moral progress – and ultimately also for material progress as represented by gods creating worlds and exercising dominion over them. So far, so good, but . . .
The right form of government and economic system. The POS pretty clearly supports a libertarian political philosophy, including free market capitalism with minimal regulatory oversight of business and industry. Anything less would necessitate a sacrifice of free agency.
In this connection, it is interesting that in the early days of Mormons in Utah, Brigham Young attempted to establish a very pure socialistic system, the “United Order,” that would have made Karl Marx envious. In doing so, he was clearly giving precedence to compassion, brotherly love, and cooperation over competition. Why? One can presumably imagine a morally perfect being, such as Jesus, who always chooses and does what is right without being forced to; and Brigham Young thought the Saints ought to give it a try. Unfortunately, the experiment failed. Too many of the Saints gave in to avarice when they saw a chance to make money selling stuff to overland travelers. And they weren’t anxious to share their lucre either.
The best of all possible worlds? In Mormon terms, the best of all possible worlds will be one in which all people freely live God’s commandments. If compassion is called for, like the “good Samaritan” they will show compassion even at the expense of personal inconvenience. And they will share their talents and possessions freely to advance the greater good – as was supposed to happen with the United Order experiment. However, real people and the real world being what they are, an astonishing amount of human suffering goes unalleviated – suffering that might be prevented or relieved to a considerable extent through the institution of government programs designed to promote the general welfare, e.g., Social Security and universal health care. Yet paradoxically, given the ethical primacy of respect for free agency over the duty of compassion, from the point of view of the POS such a world must be reckoned morally inferior to one in which there is more human suffering, perhaps much more, but less state coercion. This fact doesn’t fit comfortably with Jesus' message of love and compassion in the New Testament. Ouch!
Mormon exceptionalism. A person who has been indoctrinated with Mormon dogma, especially if he is also a male born into a privileged social and economic position, is physically attractive, intelligent, and charismatic, might easily come to believe that he is one of the fore-ordained or “chosen ones” of God who will play a critical role in the events of the last days, including perhaps saving the United States Constitution when it is “hanging by a thread,” as predicted in the uncanonized “White Horse Prophecy” that was reputedly delivered by the Mormon Church’s founder Joseph Smith in 1843. It is known that Mitt Romney had such delusions of grandeur when he was younger. Does he still?
Sinning for the Lord. Because Mormon eschatology views human history, from the War in Heaven through Armageddon, as a continuing war between the two great forces of good and evil , sinning for the Lord” might at times be a moral necessity. Indeed, in the opening pages of the Book of Mormon, the most prominent hero of the book, a revered Mormon prophet named Nephi, murdered a man named Laban in order to steal a genealogical record of his people to take with his family to the Americas. This act was ethically justified as follows: “And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Nephi 4:12-13) (One can’t help but think of Romney’s shameless shape-shifting and etch-a-sketching.)
Armageddon. According to Mormon eschatology, we are now in the “last days” of our earthly estate, which explains the official name of the Mormon Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Surely Armageddon is not far off, when the forces of righteousness will permanently conquer and subdue the forces of evil. This will usher in a millennium of peace in which Jesus will return to Earth to rule, assisted by the most worthy of God’s children, a good many of whom will of course be Mormons. These elite will include men who are leaders of men and empire builders the likes of Mitt Romney. They will also be members of the “House of Israel,” which consists both of the descendants of the Biblical patriarch Jacob and people who are “adopted” into the House of Israel by being baptized Mormons. From the Mormon perspective, this implies a special affinity between Mormons and Jews that is reinforced by a common history of persecution. It’s an obvious step from this to the conclusion that ineluctable Armageddon will involve a war between the righteous nation of Israel and its supporters on the one side, and its enemies on the other. As things presently stand, we are talking here about a war to end all wars between Israel and Iran and their respective allies. Just what we don’t need!
Tipping point: Our nation has reached a point of extreme political and moral polarization, with the Republican-Tea Party on one side and the Democrat Party on the other, each vying for command of our future. One can say, accurately enough, that the one side fervently embraces the propositions listed at the beginning of this essay, while the other side vehemently rejects them. It is to be expected, therefore, that the views of the respective presidential nominees reflect this same stark opposition. While it is hardly likely that the upcoming election will resolve this clash of values for once and for all, all the indications are that it will mark a singular, momentous, and irreversible turning point in our nation’s history.
Kirk Robinson, Ph.D. (A former Mormon, having left decisively over 40 years ago)
Executive Director, Western Wildlife Conservancy