Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Basis for Belief, Part One: The Burden of Proof

This is part one of a projected series of four posts, inspired initially by a couple of comments I received to old posts on this blog. The main purpose of these posts, of course, isn't to reply to the comments--I've already done that in the appropriate threads, and in any case I suspect that both comments in question were "drive-bys" and that neither (anonymous) commenter is ever going to return to see my response anyway. But the comments raised some issues that I think may be worth addressing.

Comment #1, in response to my post "Callings, Part 4":

Naturally, the gift of the Holy Ghost is only available to those who ask God for it and who are faithful and believing. Which means that, if that doctrine were true, then as an atheist ... I definitely shouldn't have had the Holy Ghost with me, and my lesson should have been completely uninspired. The fact that people still told me afterwards what an effective lesson I'd given... and that not one person remarked on the absence of the Spirit that was supposed to be such an important part of the process, is then perhaps rather telling.

Not really that telling actually because of two basic principles:

1) You're right that the full Gift of the Holy Ghost is only available to people who meet the criteria you listed above. However, the Light of Christ, which is a function of the Holy Ghost, is available to all - member, non-member, less active or atheist. A classic example of this is when missionaries identify the influence of the Holy Ghost when teaching investigators.

2) The Holy Ghost's prime role is to confirm truth. Put simply, it's more about the message than the messenger. As long as you are speaking truth then the Holy Ghost can confirm it. The speaker doesn't "channel" the Holy Ghost they can only help invite its presence by speaking truth. The fact that you don't feel you have the Spirit with you or even believe in what you're saying does not change whether it is true or not or whether the listener can recognise and have truth confirmed by the Holy Ghost.

This is standard and basic church doctrine. It seems to me that you are clutching at straws to justify your "deconversion" (great term by the way) which is apparently not as firmly based in logic as you might believe.

If peace of mind in this matter really is important to you then an honest investigation and perhaps a reevaluation of some other basic beliefs might be [in] order. Moroni 10:4-5 would be a great place to start from. It's not called a Promise for nothing. Of course the positive aspect is usually spoken to in reagrds [sic] to this scripture, but the opposite is equally true. If you come away from a genuine application of the principles mentioned in that scripture and still don't believe then it's all good. Peace of mind will be yours.

Yeah, because it's not like I grew up in the church and had been genuinely applying the principles mentioned in that scripture for decades, or anything like that. (Hint: The previous sentence was sarcasm. It actually is exactly like that.) And yes, I have indeed found greater peace of mind since coming to terms with that and finally rejecting the church, thanks.

I should note, incidentally, that this commenter is a little off base with his "standard and basic church doctrine". (Look, I may not believe in the church anymore, but I'd been in the church long enough I'm quite familiar with its doctrine.) It simply isn't the case, according to church teachings, that "[a]s long as you are speaking truth then the Holy Ghost can confirm it," and that "[t]he fact that you don't feel you have the Spirit with you...does not change whether...the listener can recognise and have truth confirmed by the Holy Ghost." The church puts a lot of emphasis--for missionaries in particular, but for instructors in church classes as well--on teaching by the Spirit and on avoiding things that drive the Spirit away, and is quite clear on the matter that the Spirit will not be present to testify where conditions are incompatible. (I think the church actually has a very good motive behind this emphasis on not driving away the Spirit ("good" in the sense of well-devised and effective, not in the moral sense), but that's something I'll get to in the last post of this series.)

Which, in any case, is beside the point, since this one teaching experience the commenter focuses on was certainly not a defining moment in my deconversion (it couldn't very well have been, since it happened afterward). I even included a "perhaps" in the statement the commenter bolded, so clearly I didn't think this was a particularly important argument myself. The fact that it's this argument that the commenter chose to focus on (and that he did so by misrepresenting church doctrine, though I don't know whether that was intentional or out of ignorance on his part) seems to suggest that I'm not the one who's clutching at straws here.

But there are some hints, I think, that the commenter may be assuming there were certain other factors at work in my deconversion (I guess at least I'm glad he liked that term). But before I address that, let's get to:

Comment #2, in response to my post "And Yet Another Ex-Mormon..."

I am a Universalist-Unitarian. So I am a Christian of sorts, I guess. I guess? Well that’s a strange thing to say. Either you proclaim your faith in god and accept Jesus as your lord and savior or you don’t- right? Well no- there are degrees to everything. And I guess that’s my corny way of pointing that out. Although mainstream Christianity might advocate strong lines between good and evil/ atheism and a belief in god, I believe spirituality to be a complex issue beyond any church authority's comprehension. So the point to my rant? Well, I guess I'm just disturbed at your all or nothing approach to Christianity. I just don't like thinking that a person who grows away from the Mormon religion should become an atheist. If you become disillusioned with a particular sect of Christianity, it does not mean that you are an atheist. If you read a biology book and realize a world full [of] scientists can’t be wrong, it doesn’t mean that god is dead.

I don't really see why the commenter's "I guess" should be considered a strange thing to say. The commenter's apparent assumption that I'm unaware that other denominations of Christianity exist and that they have different beliefs...okay, that's a little strange.

There are other things I want to discuss about this comment, but first, I want to touch on what seems to be a common thread between these two comments. They're coming, you'll notice, from rather different perspectives, and the commenters have rather different goals. The first commenter is trying to persuade me to remain in the LDS Church, the latter to look into other Christian denominations. But they both make similar assumptions about the reasons for my having left Mormonism.

"If you read a biology book and realize a world full [of] scientists can’t be wrong," the second commenter says, "it doesn’t mean that god is dead." The commenter is almost certainly alluding, of course, to evolution; she* is saying (as I interpret the comment) that evolution and Christianity aren't incompatible, and that just because I couldn't reconcile evolution with Mormonism doesn't mean that I should reject other versions of Christianity that are more congenial.

(*For some reason I tend to think of the first commenter as male and the second as female. I'm not sure why; I don't actually have any idea what their actual genders are. Still, I'll go ahead and use masculine pronouns to refer to the first and feminine for the second, if only to avoid the awkwardness of writing out "he or she" every time I refer to either of them.)

The first commenter didn't ever refer to evolution directly, but there are some things that make me suspect he was thinking of it. In particular, his statement that "a reevaluation of some other basic beliefs might be [in] order." Quite possibly he didn't write that with evolution in mind specifically, but it still seems that he assumed that I decided I didn't believe in the church because its doctrines conflicted with scientific findings--and it's his view that it's these findings, not the church doctrines, that are in error.

Now, in actuality, my deconversion had nothing whatever to do with evolution (well, at least not directly), or with other sciences either. I didn't decide that Mormonism was false because I couldn't reconcile it with evolution. As a matter of fact, I could reconcile it with evolution--as I mentioned in one of my first posts (a post, incidentally, that I'll be referring to again in the last post in this series), I did come up with an explanation of how I thought the church's creation account could be reconciled with modern paleontology, geology, and cosmology. Now, Noah's Ark was harder, and I never did come up with any way to make any sense at all out of that (and no, a local inundation doesn't do it; the church's doctrine is quite explicit about the fact that the Noachian flood was supposed to be worldwide)--but there I just more or less told myself that maybe there was an explanation that I hadn't thought of.

I guess what I was doing, although I didn't think of it in those terms, was practicing a personal kind of apologetics. I was aware of some problems with the church's doctrine, in light of modern science, but I was doing my best to find ways to get them to mesh. And there almost always are ways, if you're creative enough, and willing to be as broad with your interpretations as you can get away with. There's a prominent institution in the LDS Church (it's not officially an arm of the church, but it's unofficially strongly supported by the church leadership) called FARMS (the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) that does nothing but pump out apologetic material to try to explain, for example, why the Book of Mormon mentions horses, which aren't known to have existed in the Americas in pre-Columbian times...its responses are often elaborate and imaginative and presumably very reassuring to believers, but utterly unconvincing to anyone who doesn't already believe. Still, be that as it may, their explanations, while not necessarily very plausible, aren't entirely impossible. It's true that, for example, the lack of evidence of horses in the pre-Columbian Americas doesn't actually prove, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that the Book of Mormon is false.

And even if, after all one's efforts of imagination, one still can't think of a way to explain something, well then there are still a few options open. One can--as some of the more rabid ID proponents do--simply accuse the scientists of lying or incompetence, and assert that the scientific evidence doesn't exist, though this is obviously a rather desperate ploy. Or one can do as I did concerning the matter of Noah's Ark and just concede that one doesn't know how to reconcile matters, but retain faith that some way to reconcile them must exist. This isn't without precedent in the scientific world--after all, for years scientists knew that Maxwell's Equations and Newton's Laws contradicted each other in certain respects, but kept on using both, confident that there was a way to reconcile them, even if they didn't know what that way was--and of course the reconciliation did finally come, in the form of relativity. By the same token, one might perhaps justify believing in both modern scientific findings and in religious beliefs that seem to contradict them, confident that some reconciliation exists that is merely beyond our present understanding.

So, from that standpoint, both commenters are right--one need not necessarily discard religious belief because of apparent conflict with science.

And that's not why I discarded mine.

The problem is that it's not enough not to have an ironclad reason not to believe something. There has to be a reason to believe it. And that's what I realized was lacking. It's not that I thought science and reason had disproved Mormonism. It's that there was nothing that proved it. There might have been nothing to establish definitively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was false...but there was also nothing that gave any good reason to indicate it was true.

So, when the first commenter says that my deconversion "is apparently not as firmly based in logic as you might believe", what he overlooks is that my deconversion wasn't based on logical arguments that Mormonism wasn't true, but on the lack of any good arguments suggesting that it was. And when the second commenter says there's no reason to believe "that god is dead", she fails to supply any reason to believe that God is alive.

I know I'm not saying anything new here, but it's important enough to be worth reiterating--the burden of proof is on the positive assertion. The burden of proof is on the person who says that something exists. You say that I don't have any absolute and undeniable proof that there is no God? I agree. But I don't have any proof that there is a God either--I have no real evidence of God's existence at all, in fact--and in the lack of evidence, the default position is one of disbelief. Is there, at this moment, a purple lawn gnome on top of the Empire State Building? It's a safe bet that there isn't. It's not outside the realm of possibility, but I have no reason to believe that there's any such lawn gnome there, and it's more reasonable in the lack of such evidence to suppose that there isn't than to suppose that there is.

Like I said, I'm not saying anything new here; it's been said before in many forms. Russell's Teapot. The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Carl Sagan's Dragon in the Garage. But it's an issue that some theists--the two commenters quoted above, for example--seem to be unable to grasp. It's not enough to say that you don't know for sure something isn't true. Just because you don't know for sure something isn't true doesn't mean it is. It's not enough not to have absolute ironclad unanswerable reasons for knowing something to be false. You still need some reason to believe it's true.

Of course, theists do claim to have such a reason--and the first commenter above did allude to it at the end of his comment. But that'll be the subject for the next post in this series...


At 4/27/2007 6:32 AM, Blogger Gary McGath said...

Good analysis.

I have more experience with Unitarians than with Mormons. I once worked for a Mormon, but avoided discussing religion with him for obvious reasons.

The implication by the Unitarian tht you can kinda sorta accept Jesus as your lord and savior is a bit odd. To the extent that Unitarianism has any official doctrine, it certainly holds that Jesus was not God. Unitarianism is, in my experience, usually something for people who want the social experience of a church without the religious doctrines; there are a good many Unitarian atheists (though that should also contradict Unitarian doctrine -- one god doesn't equal zero gods).

A comment like that from a Unitarian strikes me as unusual, but I guess there's a lot of variation within the church.

At 4/27/2007 3:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a very similar reason to my tipping point to becoming an atheist. There were lots of those arguments that cast doubt on Christianity, but none of them concretely disproved it, so I could get around with some creative apologetics. But then I finally got to the point where I asked myself, why Christianity? What good reasons are there to accept it over the other religions. And there weren't any good answers.

At 5/14/2007 4:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As orginized religions go, Unitarian Universalists are way at the top of my list of favorites. This is probably because they are the least organized of any religion I am aware of. My wife and I were married by our mutual friends mother, who is a UU minister, and an atheist. We had some discussion about whether to mention a deity at all in the cerimony, but out of respect for our parents (hers Catholic, mine Mormon) we threw a vague 'under the sight of god' line into the ceremony at the beginning.

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