04 January 2014

In re.: Faith versus Atheism

A recent post a professor at Brigham Young University had regarding atheism, and the somewhat heated discussion that ensued on Facebook, got me to think some more about faith.  I received some impressions early in the morning before New Year's about some thoughts I should write out, then kept typing during New Years itself, then intermittently thereafter.  Towards the end of the week, I wondered to myself what my point was in the message I wanted to get across, but then only this evening, I received a message from a close friend that touched upon some of the same issues.  Not only that, but a portion of what I learned I applied in a discussion I had with my daughter earlier tonight.  So I will take as my text a passage from the Book of Mormon, but I think most of my thoughts may be generic enough to be of application within any faith.

Before doing this, I want to set forth some basic definitions.  You may choose to agree or disagree with these, but this is after my level of understanding.
  • Atheists are those who firmly adopt a belief system in which God does not exist, and where there is not even the possibility of such existence.  I recognize that at least one American organization provides a more complex definition, but it still boils down to the above.  After all, if someone states that the "cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious purpose [and] there is no supernatural interference in human life," this plainly rules out the existence of God.  It is not really a matter of further exploration, study or negotiation, because the mind is settled on the point.   
  • Agnostics are those who question the existence of God.  Webster's definition is satisfactory for my purposes, but Wikipedia's definition is reasonable also.
       I find the terms atheist and agnostic to be mutually exclusive.  Atheists cannot be agnostics, because atheists have expressly ruled out that God exists.  Agnostics cannot be atheists, because even though they are skeptical regarding God's existence, they choose not to rule it out, either.  They appear at least open to the possibility.   
  • Turning to facts: A thing is objective if it can be proven in a tangible way.  If I bring to you a snowball in an effort to show you that it's cold outside, I'm taking an objective approach in sharing information.  The same thing happens every day at criminal trials when prosecutors present to the jury murder weapons or photographs of the crime scene or DNA samples or store security videos of people doing very dumb things.
  • A thing is subjective if it is truly known only by the person giving the information.  Pain is a good example of this.  If someone has chronic low back pain, I can try to relate to it, but I don't truly know what it is like to have the condition.  However, the fact that I don't experience the other person's pain doesn't make the underlying fact less real or valid.
       However, objective and subjective are not mutually exclusive terms, in the sense that the same fact can have both.  If someone gets a heart attack, he may have chest pain, a subjective symptom.  But he may also have a positive Troponin lab result, an abnormal electrocardiogram, and ultimately, the blockage is found during a catheterization.  All these things are objective. 
  • A thing is spiritual if it is known in the course of studying scriptures, praying, pondering, or interacting with God in some way.  Now spiritual and subjective are not necessarily the same thing.  One may say that answers to prayer might be subjective in the sense that only the individual giving the prayer receives it that instant; however, I would also submit that answers to prayers are repeatable under the right conditions.  Those conditions include, but are not limited to, a capacity to understand truth, the actual opportunity to receive it, and a willingness to follow it, once received.
  • An inference is what happens if we say that one thing is true based on knowing that another thing is true.  If I know that a friend has had more than a few beers over the past couple of hours, I infer that he's not in any condition to operate a motor vehicle.  If I know that the cup in front of me contains orange juice and traces of arsenic, I infer I shouldn't be having it with my scrambled eggs.  Operating from inference is something we do all the time.  Whether an inference is reasonable or not depends on the authenticity of the original fact, and how well the inference correlates with that fact.  For example, if astronauts and NASA scientists have established that the surface of the moon contains no oxygen and cannot sustain human life, it would not be reasonable for me to infer that I can go there for my retirement and expect to have an enjoyable experience.  As another example, if a border guard in Canada infers that I am up to no good because I would drive from Nashville just to cross the international border out of Detroit and visit a Windsor shopping mall, the inference is not reasonable because he fails to understand that my main purpose for the travel was to visit my mother in the Detroit area, and that once there, it would be neat to just take a look around for a couple of hours or so.  (True story, by the way.  Happened only last week.)
I created the following illustration to outline the interaction between the objective, subjective, and spiritual (again, this is my personal view)--

Just one more term to discuss, and then we're off and running.  Now I have located multiple definitions for faithWebster describes it as the "firm belief in something for which there is no proof [emphasis added]."  There are, however, other definitions that contain subtle differences in type and degree.  Moroni speaks of faith as "is things which are hoped for and not seen" (Ether 12:6), a view that is very similar to the Apostle Paul's (Hebrews 1:11).  But Alma, I submit, has the most comprehensive definition of all: "...faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true" (Alma 32:21).

In the end, I carefully considered Webster's definition and found it wanting.  To say that faith is to firmly believe in something "for which there is no proof," is to deny even the possibility that proof exists in the first place, or that his beliefs are in any way capable of validation.  Moreover, the definition does not account for the fact that truth exists independent of our potential or actual ability to prove it.  At the same time, it is a curious thing to report that a child's firm belief in the Tooth Fairy does not qualify as faith, after the manner of this definition, because her views are actually validated by the currency that appears under her pillow upon her awakening.  Is the child, after all, not acting upon tangible proof, even if her inferences are based upon an arguably incomplete fact pattern? 

I think Moroni and Paul come far closer to the mark, and in fact, are very nearly spot-on.  When faith is described as something that is "hoped for and not seen," this definition does not assume, in rather mechanical fashion, that the underlying truth can never be proven or that the evidence can never exist.  It simply speaks to situations where the evidence is not immediately available or objectively tangible.  Still, I like Alma's definition most of all, because he teaches that to the extent we have faith in anything, it must ultimately be anchored in some way in truth.  I would venture to say that people of all faiths would agree that to the extent life has any expressible objective at all, it would be to follow truth to the greatest extent possible and not to knowingly follow error.

And while I do not purport to speak for atheists, I would infer that even the most outspoken among them would say that their one guiding principle is the truth.  I may disagree with them, even strongly, as to what constitutes truth in all spheres, but in the absence of facts showing otherwise, I will not presume that a given atheist is deliberately seeking or following things that are false. 

Now on to the main point of my message.  

In Alma 30:13-16, we are briefly introduced to a fellow by the name of Korihor.  His mission--if I am able to call it that--was to share a message that it is foolish to have faith in God in general or in Christ in particular.  And he makes the argument on this wise: 
O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come . . . How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ . . . Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so [emphasis added]. 
To me, this sounds, to a very remarkable degree, what an atheist might say, or at least the more vocal among them.  For if I go to the stated aims and purposes of American Atheists (that is to say, atheists.org, the same organization originally founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair in 1963), they view their position as unrestrained in the sense that it is accountable only to the "supremacy of reason."  They further state that the primary criteria by which they view any teaching are solely those things that are "...verifiable by experience and scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds."  This speaks towards a heavy emphasis upon the objective, with very little--if anything--of a subjective nature, except insofar as experience is concerned.  But even the concept of experience seems to be constrained by the need for objectivity, repeatability, and verification.

The need for this degree of verifiability is astonishingly consistent with Korihor's view that Christ's impending arrival cannot be proven, because, first, it was (at the time) at some point in the future, and second, because there was no objective data in any event.  But Korihor's message does not end there, and neither does the message of atheists at an organizational level.  For Korihor saw all those who were acting in faith as people desperately in need of change.  He saw these people as--to put it benignly--under the yoke of bondage.  In fact, he takes it yet a step further: Playing the role of psychologist, he characterizes the interaction between God and man as indicative of a form of mental illness.  He seems to at least implicitly suggest that all spiritual experiences are entirely disconnected from any and all underlying truths, because they are solely the product of a fallible and vulnerable mind.

In a similar vein, if one looks at American Atheists' Facebook page, messages tend to indicate that faith itself is the enemy, in that it, variously, misguides its followers or places them into a badly and perhaps irreparably damaged mental state; causes death, misery and destruction; and serves as a negative influence or drag upon society at large.  One graphic, which I will not reproduce here, shows a person using a crucifix exactly in the same way an addicted person uses a hypodermic needle to take narcotics.  Another states that prayer is an inappropriate response to a natural or other disaster.  Still another indicates that it is offensive to mention Christ over the holiday season.  Still another depicts a well known religious figure imprinted over rolls of bathroom tissue.  (Indeed, it is especially curious to say that although atheists seem to value the importance of independent thought within the guidance of society's affairs, it appears perfectly acceptable to ridicule or mock those who independently chose faith as the means for personal guidance, or who otherwise varies in any significant degree from atheist orthodoxy.)

Now if I am outspoken as a Mormon, and someone else is as outspoken as an atheist as what I've been reading of late, I will say that with all due respect, we're not going to be able to persuade each other.  I can try, of course; but I can also assure you that my own views will not change, except within the realm of my own spiritual growth, which I have every intention of preserving.  Philosophically, then, we're on different ends of the courtroom on an issue where there is not a great deal of common ground.  In such circumstances, we'll have to agree to disagree and move on.  

But in turning my attention to a more general audience, I have several issues with atheism as a philosophy.  It is likely that some may be of the kind atheists have already pondered many times, such as the implications of our lives being finite (with an undefined future upon death), the possibility that the life of the earth as a whole may be finite, or that the circumstances of our birth at a certain place or time, as species Homo sapiens (as opposed to something else, like a bomb-sniffing dog or a horsefly), to certain parents, or with certain characteristics or capabilities, as purely random or circumstantial.  (Or, to borrow from Korihor, "...every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength." (Alma 30:17)).  But I am satisfied that not all of my concerns are of the garden variety.   

First, atheism's emphasis upon the purely objective and the scientific is inconsistent with how even much of secular society operates.  As an example, courtrooms and rules of evidence emphasize the objective, as it must; yet subjective facts continue to play a significant and remarkable role.  Jurors may be asked to consider the plaintiff's pain and suffering when awarding damages in a civil negligence case, for instance.  Judges may consider a claimant's pain as part of the disability analysis.  At a sentencing hearing in criminal court, victims or their family members speak of their grief and anguish in a final effort to persuade the adjudicator to impose the maximum lawful punishment, while defense counsel tries to establish mitigating factors--a number of which involve intangible items involving the defendant--in an effort to reduce the sentence.  Even hearsay evidence may be admissible under specific conditions, such as when the declarant is subjectively operating under the stress of a developing event, or if (s)he believes--without medical expertise or the advice of a doctor--that death is about to occur.  Nor are examples limited to law:  Can advertising and marketing executives create in a laboratory or under purely scientific conditions a campaign designed to cater to the wants and needs of a broad segment of society, or even a particular demographic?  To what extent are they even able to rely on past campaigns for this purpose, seeing they are unreliable in predicting future results? 

Second, atheism's emphasis upon the objective and the scientific--even to some extent its emphasis on experience--is also inconsistent with how individuals naturally operate, even when decisions are made outside the realm of religion or spirituality.  How often do we take a particular action, or buy a particular product, when the motivation for doing so was nothing more than intuition?  Cases of mental illness or phobias aside, how often do we avoid certain situations when we are unable to articulate the reason, save that we were not comfortable or that it didn't feel right?  How often do managers make hiring decisions, rightly or wrongly, on the basis of a "gut feeling"?  How often do police officers act on a hunch when deciding whether to contact a potential suspect or other individual?  Perhaps at a more practical level, how is it that some people have strong interests in certain things, even to the point of choosing a career that involves it, when the available objective evidence indicates the person has other talents or the career is not one that is in great demand?  Other examples are numerous.  

Third, atheism, as a philosophy, discounts the fact that scientific knowledge is itself very limited and finite.  This is not to say that the knowledge we have obtained isn't important; indeed, the achievements that have been accorded over the last several hundred years, and especially over the last half century, is nothing short of astonishing.  In recent years, groups and individuals have been able to take a base of knowledge, and greatly build upon it through experimentation, bold thinking (even to the point of challenging conventional wisdom), and as astronauts would surely attest, considerable risk-taking.  Very little of that is to be disparaged, and much is to be commended.

But the fact of the matter is that the moment we deal with events that occurred thousands, millions or even billions of years ago; the moment we predict events up to billions of years hence; or the moment we deal with distances involving numerous light years; or in fine, anything that wildly exceeds our present mortal capabilities, the most we can do--the very best we can do--when left to our own devices, is to make an entire series of inferences and extrapolations to form models.  Now these models may be reasonable in light of available data, and they may be well-informed, but they are still extrapolations, and not of anything that anyone personally witnessed or could recreate in even the most sophisticated of laboratories.  Now Korihor said, "You cannot know of things that you do not see."  All right, Korihor, I will take your point and run with it.  Were you around when the earth and the planets were set into motion?  Did you witness the advent of the earliest and most primitive forms of biological material that can properly be called life?  Were you even around a century before?  Have you been on any planet besides your own?  Have you even left your own continent?  What say ye?  (See also Job 38:1-7.)

I do not write these things in an effort to disparage those who sincerely believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, who feel that human civilization has apparently lasted beyond the timeframes indicated in scripture, or that the entire universe came about as the result of a singular event known as the "big bang."  However, I return to Alma's definition of faith, which speaks of "...things which are not seen, which are true."  If a scientist builds a model or a theory regarding events happening thousands to billions of years ago, (s)he may say that it is based on the best available data, and that person would probably be right.  However, my point is that it takes at least as much faith to make a series of inferences and extrapolations that extend well beyond the human experience, based on all available data, as it does to suppose that a loving God would create and fashion our universe after the manner that He desired.  

Fourth and finally, atheism discounts, discards, and even ridicules the notion that knowledge can be obtained in ways other than the objective or purely scientific.  Specifically, it ridicules the idea that knowledge can be obtained spiritually, since this is the antithesis of the view that there is no source that exists which can provide spiritual knowledge in the first place.  If there is one area where atheists stand on one side of the fence, and I'm completely on the other side, this is the one.  If the atheist states that I don't understand where (s)he is coming from, I'm willing to consider that.  At the same time, however, I respectfully submit that the atheist is unlikely to understand where I am coming from, either.  Why?  Because it involves a line that neither side is willing to cross.  The atheist will not cross the line, because it requires that (s)he consider--even hypothetically--the idea that an entity such as God exists.  I will not cross the line, because I know from my own experiences that God exists, and as certain as anything, I will not even consider unlearning such things.

Now the crux of the matter is addressed by Alma in a couple of different ways.  The first is directed towards Korihor, when the latter requests--or more accurately, demands--a sign regarding His existence and power.  And his response was, in relevant part:  "...all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator." (Alma 30:44).  And I know that this is true, independent of the words of anyone else.  Why?  Because in the first instance, I came to an understanding, even from a very early age, that there is considerably more to life than what we now experience, even more than the sum of all of our experiences.  In the second instance, I would submit that although an atheist would hold it to be illogical that there is a God who is capable of creating anything, much less everything, I would hold that it takes a massive leap of something--I am unable to call it faith, sorry--to suppose that the successful alignment of all the planets of our solar system, the composition of our atmosphere, the balance of all of the required chemical elements, the workings of our ecosystem, or the exceptionally complex nature of our human bodies, to say nothing of the way our brain works (very little of which is successfully re-creatable by mechanical or artificial means by the even most capable of today's doctors, scientists and engineers)...that any of this happened out of circumstance or chance.

But Alma approaches things a second way, not to Korihor, but to others.  Here, I would commend to you all verses of Alma 32:27-43.  The scripture is too large to quote verbatim, so I will link you over to it instead.  The main thing I desire to point out is that Alma takes an approach that does not follow traditional scientific convention or wisdom, neither does it inherently involve objective evidence.  Yet at the same time it involves a result that is reproducible under the right conditions and circumstances.  The approach that he takes is, essentially, "Don't simply take my word for it.  Don't accept something to be true, merely because I told you.  You can know for yourself...in fact, you can obtain even the same level of understanding, if you take certain steps and your mind is open to the corresponding possibilities."  This is precisely the approach Moroni takes as well (see Moroni 10:3-5).

But ultimately, the thing I want to point out--and this was what I explained to my daughter earlier tonight--is the interaction that exists between the objective, subjective, and the spiritual.  For just because something is subjective doesn't invalidate the underlying truths behind what that person is feeling.  And just because what a person experiences is purely spiritual doesn't invalidate the underlying truth, either.  Yet spiritual truth has an objective component, for even the most impartial of observers will notice that a person who sincerely loves God with all of his might, mind and strength will behave a certain way and desire to do certain things for himself, his family, and his community, within the limits of his capabilities, and notwithstanding his weaknesses and imperfections.  Now I'm not speaking solely or even substantially of my own faith this instant. I submit that if you could have asked Mother Theresa during the time she was alive; if you could have asked Martin L. King, Jr., who was a protestant minister; if you could ask a representative sample of the Amish; in fact, if you could ask my younger brother, who is an observant Jew, I think you will find there's going to be a similar pattern.

In the final analysis, I have considered atheism this week, and found it wanting.  In part, it is because I was not particularly enamored by the fruits I was seeing, especially in terms of the ridicule and the lack of understanding.  But mainly, I have to conclude they see only a small portion of a much larger tapestry, nor do they consider the source of the tapestry.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.  I shall stick to it for the remainder of my days.

Thanks for your time in considering the foregoing.  After the manner of my faith, I will close these thoughts in the name of Messiah, even Jesus Christ, Amen.

P.S.  I will welcome your responses, including those that are in disagreement, but I reserve the right to moderate them.  As an extreme example, F-bombs are not going to appear here.  If a post seeks to mock or ridicule the closely held or sacred views of any faith, that's probably not going to pass muster, either.  These are not intended to be the sole prohibitions.  I appreciate in advance your understanding.  


Unknown said...

I think you have some misconceptions about atheists and I hope to have corrected them so anyone else reading this doesn't also believe what you have written to be true. I have written a post on my own blog commenting on your post as I was reading it. Please read and I'd love any comments you'd make, perhaps we can both dispell any misconceptions the other has.


Unknown said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I received them late this afternoon, and it was quite evident you had put significant time into it. I plan for a separate blog post in response, sooner rather than later, although today appears unlikely at this point. Feel free to follow this blog, as historically it has been rather low-volume. :-) Regards, --Sandy

Unknown said...

I'm definetly following and hope you keep it up. Some people i know dont like to talk about religion but want people to know what they believe. I really believe that everything should be on the table and able to be commented on.
If you know anyone who likes to talk about religion send them my way.

Unknown said...

Below is a link to a YouTube video that talks about one of the largest falsehoods you made in your post. I mentioned it in my post but the video, I hope, will show you that I speak the truth about it. The video starts at about 4:42 so you only have to see the part pertaining to us. Please watch until at least 5:34 but you could continue until 7:15, or even watch the whole video. Thanks


Unknown said...

Your last response appeared to arrive twice, so I deleted the duplication. If you meant something different, please advise. --Sandy

Unknown said...

No thats what i wanted you to do, i forgot the link in the first comment.