Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Don't Need Reasons To Believe in God: I've Experienced God

There are lots of other reasons people give for the existence of God besides the cosmological or teleological arguments. However, these two arguments (or variations of them, that I have covered in my last two posts) are the big ones that I wanted to address. I hope I've demonstrated that the arguments have major problems with them, and therefore do not constitute valid arguments for God's existence. But just because these arguments are not valid, does NOT mean I've convinced anybody that God doesn't exist. I may have knocked down two bad arguments for God's existence, but I haven't proved God's nonexistence.

What I'm getting at is the fact that people still believe in God without rational arguments to support that belief. That's why every argument for God's existence could be swatted down (and they have been by others besides myself), and still, belief would persist. It's naive for people to believe, as some "New Atheists" do, that belief in God will cease because we have disproved all theistic arguments. Belief in God will live on even if all rational arguments for God are dead.

So why does belief persist without evidence? There are many reasons for belief beyond reason: belief in God is natural for humans because of our human nature, belief is comforting and reassuring, belief helps us belong to social groups by reaffirming social bonds, belief helps us cope with tragedy or uncertainty, etc. The list of reasons is long. But notice that these reasons for belief have nothing to do with logic or rationality. They are emotional, psychological, and sociological reasons rather than rational and empirically based reasons. Evidence just isn't that necessary for belief.  Rather, the believers world is infused with meaning, purpose, and spiritual experience that only makes sense with God in the middle of it all. Take God away, and life seems devoid of something vital and necessary. Therefore, God doesn't go away even if good reasons for God's existence do. Other reasons are found, beliefs are modified (but persist), and belief survives.

After all rational reasons for God's existence are depleted, the believer usually falls back on a few fail-safe answers for the hope within them. No evidence or argument to the contrary are convincing against these reasons. They are beyond reason because they are NOT rational; that is why rational arguments can't effect them; which is all the betterAnd these reasons, safe from all evidence to the contrary, are religious experiences and faith.

Religious Experiences:

When rational arguments for belief fail, believers will fall back on their personal religious experiences. These experiences come in a variety of forms such as answers to prayer, spiritual impressions, a sense of peace that God is present or aware of the individual, a conviction that your religious leaders are speaking the truth, or that your scriptures are God's word. Whatever it is, these religious experiences are powerful, very convincing, and difficult to dislodge once interpreted for meaning. Joseph Smith, for example, was convinced of the reality of his "First Vision" despite an apparent multitude of naysayers: "I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it." It sounds as if nothing could dissuade him from his belief. That is probably true of most people who have had religious experience.

Therefore, I know I'm probably not going to convince anyone to the contrary. However, there is a major problem with religious experiences that should make them less convincing that believers might think:

Believers of different faiths all have spiritual experiences that convince them of of the truth of their different faiths.

Same religious experiences; different conclusions. Same powerful, personal, emotional, subjective religious experience resulting in vastly different interpretations. Religious experiences, regardless of your religion, are all described in the same language, and are probably experiences in largely the same manner, and yet they interpret them in vastly different (and mutually exclusive) ways.  A Catholic nun sees a vision of Jesus, a Buddhist monk feels transcendence, a Muslim feels the presence of Allah or that the Koran is Allah's word, a Mormon thinks God is confirming to them the Book of Mormon is true. The problem is that not all these interpretations can be correct. And if not all of them can be correct, then how likely is it that any one of them is? Maybe people are just interpreting these religious experiences incorrectly?

Religious experiences require interpretation. People interpret their experiences in vastly different ways because they are very powerful, yet VERY VAGUE AND NONSPECIFIC also. And the conclusions people reach are colored by the expectations they have. People who have religious experiences are taught before hand (or during the experience) what they mean. I taught this to investigators on my mission, I taught missionaries how to "identify the spirit" when I taught at the MTC, I taught missionaries how to tell investigators what their spiritual experiences meant. Pretty manipulative.

Therefore, while I do not deny that people have "spiritual experience" (I've had them too), I do content that these experiences require interpretation, and that frequently, the meaning we apply to them aren't justified.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Teleological Argument for God's Existence

The other day at work, a friend and I were engaged in a lighthearted discussion about our religious differences (he's Jewish, I'm atheist). In jest, he accused me of knowing with absolute certainty that God did not exist. I disagreed that was the case, but asked him what reasons he had for believing in God. He said "You can't honestly think that the universe, the world, and everything in it just happened. It couldn't have just sprang into existence by mere chance. It's all just too complex. Therefore, God must have designed it." An interesting discussion then ensued. But what my friend was appealing to is one of the most common rational justifications of God's existence: the teleological argument.

The teleological argument is similar to the cosmological argument, in that it tries to infer the existence of God from the world around us. But whereas the cosmological argument tries to infer God's existence due to the fact that the universe exists, and therefore must be caused by God, the teleological argument infers God's existence because of the way things in the world appear to be designed. It is because of the apparent design of everything in the world, especially complex biologic life, that we can infer a God who designed us.

The teleological is a popular contemporary argument in the Mormon church. This is from the current website:

We can look up at the sky at night and see a never-ending universe. There are millions of stars and planets, all in perfect order. They did not get there by chance. We can see the work of God in the heavens and on the earth. The beautiful plants, the variety of animals, the mountains, the rivers, the clouds that bring us rain and snow—all these testify to us that there is a God. An ancient prophet  wrote, “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.” 
modern prophet (current prophet, seer, and revelator Thomas S. Monson) said: “If there is a design in this world in which we live, there must be a Designer. Who can behold the many wonders of the universe without believing that there is a design for all mankind? Who can doubt that there is a Designer?”

So if you believe that God inspires prophets and scripture, then the teleological argument is one of the reasons God uses to convince us that He exists. If you believe that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith's imagination as I do, then it is likely that he had Alma voice the argument William Paley popularized about 30 years before Joseph wrote it.

William Paley popularized the argument in his 1802 book Natural Theology. Joseph Smith was a consumer of the religious ideas of his time, and it is undoubtedly true that he was familiar with Paley's teleological argument.

Paley starts his argument by assuming that we have the ability to tell the difference between designed things (such as a watch that we found on a beach) and undesigned things (such as a rock). Paley then goes on to list a number of other designed things even more complex than watches (such as noses that point down instead of up, thumbs, and eyes). Paley argues that just as we are compelled to infer a watchmaker from the example of a watch found on the beach, we are compelled to infer an eye maker from the occurrence of eyes. But while a watchmaker could be a finite but clever and powerful person, the designer of eyes, thumbs, and noses (Paley was particularly impressed that our noses point down, and thus protect us from rainfall) must be infinitely wise and powerful (ie. God).

The teleological argument from design (or argument from "apparent design") is still very contemporary, and comes in many forms. Intelligent Design advocates argue that there are many examples of "irreducible complexity" in biologic life forms that are too improbable to have happened by naturalistic means (ie. evolution by natural selection). Today, however, the teleological argument is extremely vulnerable to attack because natural explanations of biologic complexity (evolution by natural selection) do a better job of explaining apparent design than appeals to a supernatural designer God. In order to avoid such attacks, many apologists cite the complexity of an apparently "fine tuned universe," with its improbable cosmological constants, as evidence of a supreme designer. At least Darwin's ideas don't explain cosmological constants.

However, whatever form of the argument is invoked, it has at least four problems that I'll discuss below:

Objection 1: It is an Argument from Ignorance

The first flaw in the teleological argument, is the fallacy of "Arguing from Ignorance." In a sense, advocates of the teleological argument are arguing that they can't possibly imagine any way that the complexity and apparent design came about - except by invoking a great big supernatural designer to do it. But this is merely a failure of imagination and admission of ignorance. Scientists have succeeded in explaining many complex things that were once thought to be an unexplainable mystery. Once a natural explanation is available, it is no longer possible to remain willfully ignorant of it. This is simply an admission of lack of intellectual curiosity at best, or willful ignorance at worst.

Today, even though many people remain ignorant of it, evolution by natural selection elegantly explains the complexity of all biologic life on earth. It explains how complexity and diversity arose because of genetic variation within species, how environmental pressures and genetic variation gave certain individuals a better chance of passing on their genes (at the expense of others who did not possess advantageous genetic mutations), how these genes then became more prevalent within a population, and how, over time, this genetic variation led to new species.

While mysteries still exist, there is no reason to assume that scientists will not discover natural explanations of them.  Scientists are hard at work in finding answers to these questions, and there is no reason to assume they will suddenly stop finding them.

Objection 2: It Assumes More Than Is Necessary

The teleological argument does not exercise explanatory restraint dictated by Ockham's razor. It thereby commits "explanatory overkill" by assuming more than is necessary. For example, even if the argument works to show that a designer was necessary to design life on earth, do we need to assume this designer was the God of ethical monotheism? In other words, do we need to assume that this necessary designer was all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent? 

Instead of assuming the god of ethical monotheism, perhaps the universe was designed by committee of gods, or by several independent designers, or by a Deistic God, or by any number of the long extinct gods people once worshiped? What about an advanced alien life form with super advanced technology? Perhaps it was made by a very powerful evil God?  We can't rule any of these designers out, and therefore the teleological argument is guilty of explanatory overkill, or assuming more than is necessary. 

Objection 3: It's Guilty of Selection Bias

The most damaging flaw in the teleological argument is that it is guilty of ignoring vast amounts of data. It selectively pays attention to things in the world that are beautiful, amazing, wonderful, and dazzling (like sunsets, eyes, and the cosmological constants) but ignores the existence of suffering and evil in the world. If God truly designed everything within the universe, including all life on earth, then it is "explanatory underkill" to fail to give an account of what is disgusting, abhorrent, vile, and unthinkable. 

More to the point, the teleological argument claims that we can infer something about God (the cause) because of the effects we observe (the universe, life, complex eyes or flagella). Just as Paley claimed to be able to infer something about a watch maker from the existence of a watch, similarly we should be able to infer something about the universes designer by observing the universe. Therefore, what are we to infer about a designer that allows diseases and sickness to kill indiscriminately (usually the weak, the young, the frail)? What are we to infer about a designer who created the birth canal of a mother so small, and the head of a fetus so large, that prior to the recent invention of modern medicine, countless millions of mothers and children died in the process of giving birth? What are we to infer about a designer who created the universe so that asteroids sometimes crash into the earth with deadly consequences? 65 million years ago, one such asteroid crashed into the earth near the present day Yucatan peninsula, destroying over 90% of life on earth. A large asteroid could strike the earth again and there would be little we could do to stop the devastating destruction that would follow. 

What are we to make of a designer that allows so much suffering due to man's inhumanity to man? What are we to infer about a designer who allows natural disasters, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, droughts and famine, hurricanes, tornados, etc. etc. etc., to kill thousand and thousands of people indiscriminately? Couldn't God have designed the earth a little better so that there weren't so many natural disasters? 

Or what about the eventual fate of our planet? If we don't destroy ourselves first, in a few billion years, the sun will run out of nuclear energy and will expand to engulf the earth, destroying all life on it in a fiery death. For those intelligent life forms living on other planets in other galaxies, who wont even notice our own planet get swallowed up by our sun, the universe will continue to expand until it dies a slow and cold death? Finally, what about the galaxies in the universe that are right now being eaten up by black holes, or are being destroyed because of galaxy cannibalism (what happens when galaxies bump into each other, and one galaxy "eats" up the other. Much destruction of entire planets and stars ensues in the process, and for any life in the neighborhood, it wouldn't be pleasant. 

Objection 4: It Fails to Explain Who Designed God

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, does a good job explaining a final reason the teleological argument doesn't work. His explanation, that he calls the "The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit" basically boils down to the fact that if everything that exists must be designed, then who designed God? If complex things (such as a Boeing 747) require an even more complex designer, then the most complex thing ever (God, or The Ultimate 747) must require something even more complex to have designed it. However, this leads us into an infinite regress, and so theists simply state that God doesn't need any designer. This is similar to the illogic used in the cosmological argument. However, instead of assuming that God terminates the infinite regress, why  not assume that the universe itself terminates the infinite regress? We have a natural explanation as to how the universe came into existence in the Big Bang. So why assume a supernatural explanation (that really is no explanation at all)? 

And there you have it. The teleological argument appears to make a lot of sense at first. I suspect it is convincing because it appeals to our human nature to see patterns and purpose and design in almost everything.  Indeed, it was convincing to me for many years. However, the argument has major flaws, and therefore is not a valid argument for the existence of God.  In short, it fails because it's an argument from ignorance, it assumes more than is necessary, it commits major selection bias, and it fails to explain who designed God, and we are left with a Scottish verdict: not proved. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Cosmological Argument

". . . be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." 1 Peter 3:15  
"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." Carl Sagan

When believers are asked how they know God exists, one of the most common answers given is some version of the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument is usually credited to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who was one of the first theologians to teach that God's existence could be proven through reason alone.  In his cosmological argument, Aquinas argues for the existence of God based on the fact that the universe exists, and every thing that exists must have a cause. For example, it doesn't make sense to assume that the table I am sitting at wasn't created by someone. Also, if we found someone that had been murdered, we wouldn't assume that it just happened. No, we would assume that someone killed this person, and we would call the police to try find the murderer. Similarly, the world exists, and it too must have a cause. Here is the cosmological argument in full:

(1) Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe exists.
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence, then that cause is God.
(5) God exists.

However, the argument itself is self-defeating; for if the first premise is true, then the conclusion must be false. Why? If God caused the universe, then who caused God? If everything that exists has to have a cause, then God must have a cause as well. You can't argue that everything must have a cause of its existence, but exclude God from the same requirement! This is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem about God himself. No mystery has been explained by invoking one mystery to solve another. 

Bertrand Russell refuted premise (1) thus:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as god, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Indian's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that.

However, prominent theologians and philosophers try to avoid this objection by exempting God from premise (1). Basically, they argue that everything except God has a beginning, and therefore has a cause of its existence. Notice how William Lane Craig - who has popularized a more advanced version of the cosmological argument, called the Kalam cosmological argument - subtly changes Aquinas's  argument to avoid refutation:

(1) Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe has a beginning of its existence (the Big Bang).
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God.
(5) God exists.

Unlike the first version of the argument, this argument is not self refuting since it implies that God does not have a cause. In defense of premise (1), Craig simply says that it's inconceivable that something could pop into existence. 
Now, with respect to premise (1), whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence, I'm not going to say very much in defense of this premise this evening. I really don't think that it's necessary because the premise that whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its existence I think is so intuitively obvious that scarcely anybody could sincerely deny that it is false.

However, despite Craig's attempt to save the cosmological argument, premise (1) is still false. Modern physicists have shown that some things do pop into, and out of, existence. (Remember how I said physics is not intuitive?) According to quantum physics, subatomic particles like electrons, photons, and positrons come into and go out of existence randomly (but in accord with the Heisenberg uncertainty principles). This was first proposed Edward Tryon in 1973: 
Quantum electrodynamics reveals that an electron, positron, and photon occasionally emerge spontaneously in a perfect vacuum. . .  The spontaneous, temporary emergence of particles from a vacuum is called vacuum fluctuations, and is utterly commonplace in quantum field theory." 

Even though most of us have never heard of or understand vacuum fluctuations, their significance is enormous. In fact, vacuum fluctuations are what most of the matter in the universe, including us, is composed of. It's not just subatomic particles that vacuum fluctuations can spontaneously create from nothing (the nothingness of a vacuum at least). Rather, entire universes can be created within vacuum fluctuations. Therefore, there are things that can begin to exist without being caused to exist by something else. If it can happen to subatomic particles, then why not to the universe as a whole? Actually, that is exactly how todays leading astrophysicist thinks the universe got started.

Here is Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow from their recent book The Grand Design, describing the effects of quantum fluctuations:
An important consequence (of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) is that there is no such thing as empty space. . . . space is never empty. It can have a state of minimum energy, called the vacuum, that that state is subject to what are called quantum jitters, or vacuum fluctuations - particles and fields quivering in and out of existence. . . Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us.

Therefore premise (1) of Craig's argument is false, and his conclusion doesn't follow. However, there is yet another problem with Craig's argument: it assumes too much about whatever created our universe. Even if our universe was created by something outside it, why assume that it was the God of ethical monotheism?  Philosopher Theodore Schick believes this assumption is not justified:
(E)ven if this argument did succeed in proving the existence of a first cause, it wouldn't succeed in proving the existence of God because there is no reason to believe that the cause of the universe has any of the properties traditionally associated with God. Aquinas took God to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. But from the existence of the universe, we cannot conclude that its creator had any of these properties. 

Perhaps the universe wasn't created by just one God, but by a committee of Gods. Or perhaps the universe was created by something less than all-powerful being. Maybe it was created by a super advanced alien?  Or maybe it was created by a committee of super-advanced aliens. Or maybe the God of this universe was lacking in one of the other "omni-qualities" that I discussed in my last post. If so, then this being would not merit the title of God, and therefore would not be worthy of our worship.

Considering all that is problematic with the world and the universe, it is difficult to conceive that it was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. For example, our world is filled with pain and suffering where death is universal and extinction is the norm. Faulty design is everywhere we look within our own bodies, and in the Earth as well. Destructive weather, tornados, floods, mudslides, and earthquakes kill millions of innocents. Disease caused by viruses, parasites, and germs usually target the young and the weak. The planet we inhabit will eventually die in a hot death when it is consumed by the Sun as it runs out of energy. And our own universe will eventually fizzle out in a very cold death since it will continue to expand forever.

Therefore, for any number of the reasons listed above, the cosmological argument fails to prove God's existence. But it is important to remember, lest the atheist also commit the fallacy of assuming what has not been proved, that the failure of the cosmological argument does not prove that he doesn't exist either. At best, we have only shown that the cosmological argument fails to prove God's existence, and we are left with a Scottish verdict of "not proven."

The Only God Worth Worshiping

In arguing for the existence of God, we won't get very far unless we first define what that term God means. Defining terms eliminates ambiguity and equivocation, and facilitates clear communication.

God = a title meaning "that which deserves to be worshiped."

Even though the term is sometimes used as a NAME for the myriad different gods that people have worshipped throughout history, the term God is not a name (like Yahweh, Elohim, Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, etc). God is a TITLE. And, as noted above, the title means "that which deserves worship."

Worship denotes obedience to, deference and awe toward, devotion and adoration of some being or some thing. In the past, people referred to their ruler, Pharaoh,  or King as "your Worship." Of course, Kings and rulers used to be thought of as offspring of Gods, Gods themselves, or part-God. Nowadays, we don't think of Kings and rulers in the same way, and we therefore do not worship them anymore.

And the reason we don't feel it appropriate to worship mere mortal Kings or Presidents, despots or dictators, is that they lack qualities that God has. And the qualities that the God of ethical monotheism has to have, in order to earn the title of God, and merit any one's worship, include:

1. Omnipotence = God is not limited in power. God can do whatever God wants, or needs, to do.

2. Omniscience = There is no limit on God's knowledge. God knows everything.

3. Omniperfection = There is no limit on God's morality. God is all good, all loving, all-(any good moral quality). Fill in the blank. He is not limited or deficient in any moral quality.

4. Omnipresence = God's power or ability is not limited by space or distance. There is no corner of the universe that God's influence cannot reach.

5. Aseity = a big word philosophers use that means God is not dependent or subordinate to anything external to itself. He does not need to check in with, or get approval from anything else in the universe. He's the head-honcho.

Notice, that I can't help myself from using gendered terms for God. You can just ignore this gendered convention if you wish. God should be worshiped if it turns out to be a he, she, it, or something non-gendered. I'm just falling into the common convention of calling God a "He" (even though the idea is absurd when you consider the evolution of sexual organs).

It's also worth noting that most believers in the God of ethical monotheism (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) believe in this sort of God. Mormons believe in the God of ethical monotheism as well; intact with all the aforementioned OMNI qualities. At, God is described as "the Supreme Being in whom we believe and whom we worship. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, and He is full of love, mercy, charity, and compassion. He is the Author of the plan for our happiness."

And God better have all these OMNI qualities, since a God that does not possess them would not be worth worshiping.  For example, God would not deserve worship if he was not all powerful. Why worship a wimp, or even a very powerful yet limited being like an advanced extra-terrestial? An advanced alien life-force that has evolved for millions of years beyond us, and possessing some amazing technology, would surely appear to be all-powerful (just as I might appear all-powerful to my dogs).  But this limited being would not be deserving of worship because, despite appearances (and really cool technology), it wouldn't be omnipotent. Therefore an advanced E.T. does not earn the moniker of God, nor does it deserve to be worshiped.

Second, a being that isn't all knowing does not deserve our worship. Why worship something that is not very bright? Again, go back to the E.T. argument. An advanced E.T. might be smarter than us, but not all knowing. It might not know the future, for example, and therefore wouldn't know the consequences of their actions (which might be catastrophic). Or they might not know anything about human beings, and therefore not know what is best for us. Whatever it is that they know (which would be much more than we do), they don't know everything, and therefore are undeserving of worship.

Third, a God deserving of worship would need to be all-perfect. If God was lacking in courage or love or goodness or any other moral quality, then worship is off the table. Why worship a being who could sometimes be cruel, petty, vindictive, or selfish? (Read the Old Testament for examples). This type of all-powerful being would be something of a dictator or tyrant.  I wouldn't worship such a being, and neither should you; this sort of God is not deserving.

I almost want to skip omnipresence since it usually isn't emphasized. However, I will just say that if there is some corner of the universe or world that is beyond God's powers, or ability to travel to, then God has a blind spot of sorts, and isn't omnipresent. If God had to travel by spaceship across the universe, rather than instantaneously by some sort of God-magic, then again, God is limited.

And finally, my favorite word of the bunch: aseity. Aseity is a big ten-dollar word meaning that God is not dependent on anything else, like another God for example. For example, Mormons sometimes make the mistake of believing that God is checked in power by another God (maybe a God that existed before Him, since Mormons believe that God was once a mere mortal like we are). This sort of God does not have aseity, and therefore is not supreme. Why worship a non-supreme being? It would be more appropriate to worship whoever is supreme - not the one that is subordinate. Zoroastrians (a really old religion that predates Islam in the Middle East) believe in dualism, which is the idea that a good God is checked in power by an evil God. The two are locked in an eternal struggle for control of the universe. Asian philosophy and Confucianism have a similar idea in yin and yang. This almost sounds familiar to the LDS concept of God and Satan, except that Mormons think that God allows Satan to roam for a season to fulfill his purposes of providing an "opposition in all things," after which God will banish him.

So, God must have all these omni-qualities if worship is an appropriate response or attitude to take towards it. If God is shown to not have at least one of these qualities, then worship towards God is not an appropriate response. OK. Just needed to get that out there to define terms. That's all I have to say about that.

Next, we will look at the first argument for God's existence: the cosmological argument.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What is Knowledge?

Lately I've been studying the philosophy of religion and various explanatory theories about religion. Philosophy of religion, and the different naturalistic explanations of religion, is an area that many people don't spend a lot of time reading about, and I think that is problematic since the fields are packed dense with fascinating ideas and arguments. Therefore, some of these ideas might just be interesting to blog about, especially if I can examine them through a Mormon lens.

The real aim of the philosophy of religion is to try and answer the question: "Can we know anything about God?" and "Is religious knowledge possible?" But first,we have to clarify the term "knowledge." What counts as knowledge? What conditions must be satisfied before we can claim to "know" something?

At a minimum, to count as "knowledge" something must be believed, it must be a true belief, and you need to have good evidence to justify that true belief.  Or, in other words, knowledge is "justified true belief." (See the venn diagram above). That's a pretty good working definition to keep in mind whenever we hear someone claim to know something.

The first criteria, that you must believe something for it to count as knowledge, is fairly straight forward. A belief is an experiential expectation. Or in other words, belief carries with it an expectation based on experience. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow based on my own experience of this happening over and over again. I believe that gravity will cause whatever goes up, to eventually come back down. Nuff said.

However, beliefs - no matter how certain we are of them, or how sincerely the beliefs are held - can be just plain wrong. For example, some people really do believe the world is only 6,000 years old, others believe they have been abducted by aliens, some insist that they are the Jesus Christ, while others believe that Rick Perry will be the next President of the United States. Clearly, beliefs can be untrue. Therefore belief alone does not qualify something as knowledge. To be considered as knowledge, beliefs must therefore be true beliefs.

Finally, for a true belief to count as knowledge, we also must have good reasons to believe it. Something doesn't count as knowledge, even if that something is true, until we have good reasons for believing it's true. To illustrate why this is so, imagine going to a carnival where they have a large jar of jellybeans. If you guess how many jellybeans are in the jar, you win a prize. If you were to guess the correct number of jellybeans in the jar, everybody would assume it was just that - a lucky guess. It would be silly for you to claim that you knew how many beans were in the jar. Even though you had a true belief about the number of jellybeans in a jar, you had no good evidence for believing it. Therefore, you did not know it. It was merely a lucky guess. Lucky guesses don't count as knowledge.

Moving on. The next question to consider is what counts as good evidence? And this is where battle lines are drawn and debates rage. The English mathematician William Clifford is famous for saying "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Amen. And there are a wide variety of "kinds of evidence" that people appeal to; some better than others.

First, most people appeal to their own experiences. They claim to know something because they have had direct experiences through their senses of sights, sound, touch, taste, smell, or proprioception. However, as good as our senses are at helping us experience the world around us in a valid and truthful manner, we need to remember that our experiences need to be interpreted correctly. We have all had the experience of thinking we have seen or heard something, only to later discover, on closer examination, to have been mistaken. Optical and auditory illusions are commonplace. Therefore, sense experiences, as good as they are, need to be interpreted and checked for validity because they can occasionally be interpreted incorrectly.

Second, many people appeal to reason as an important component of evidence. We use reason to know that 2 + 2 = 4 without any need to appeal to experience or senses. We can know it a priori (which is knowledge independent of experience) that 2 + 2 = 4. Other reasoning is done a posteriori, or on the basis of experience of some sort. Reasoning is usually categorized inductive or deductive reasoning. The application of the scientific method is a good example of reason. Reason has been a powerful tool for acquiring knowledge ever since the Greek philosophers invented logic and the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and Galileo, invented the scientific method.

Other "kinds of evidence" that are less reliable than sense experience and reason, are appeals to authority, intuition, revelation, and faith. Things get really squishy and subjective when we try to use these kinds of evidence as foundations of knowledge. Here's why:

First, appeals to authority is nothing more than "secondhand" reason and experience. People might claim to know something because somebody else (some authority) told them so.  In this way, appeals to authority are the worlds most commonly used short-cut. Appeal to authority can be valid if the authority appealed to has expertise in a certain field of knowledge, such as a world renowned scientist who has valid evidence for his claims, and a reliable track record in making them. However, if the authority appealed to is only an "authority" because of a position they hold (whether through election or appointment) then they might not be very good "secondhand" sources of knowledge. For example, a Catholic Bishop or Mormon Apostle, might not be good sources of knowledge about biology, human psychology or climate change, although they might be good sources of information about theology. However, when authorities (whether scientists or theologians) stray from their area of expertise, then they no longer become authoritative sources of information.

Second, intuition is nothing more than shortcut or "blink" assessments of things; immediate insight, gestalt feelings, or hunches. We are usually pretty good with our intuitions, but they can also be way off the mark. Our hunches need to be tempered by careful analysis and empirical validation before they can be considered knowledge. Intuition that is not founded on any other evidence is groundless, and really amount to nothing more than faith.

Third, revelation via religious authorities is sometimes offered as evidence for religious knowledge claims; "I know because God revealed it to me," or "I know because God revealed it to me." However, appeal to revelation is usually nothing more than an appeal to authority, and the validity of the claim is contingent upon the reliability of the religious authority in question. Therefore, knowledge claims based on revelation should be screened with the standard tests of reliability that we employ for any other knowledge claim (such as a scientific claim made in a peer reviewed journal). Because there is no way to verify the religious experience that led the authority to claim revelation in the first place, revelation usually fails as a valid source of knowledge. We just can't get to it and verify revelation in any meaningful way.

Lastly, people who claim to "know by faith" are simply misusing language. Saying "I just know," in this context, is nothing more than saying, "This is what I believe." Saying you know something because you absolutely believe it, ignores that fact that our strongly held beliefs can be unreliable. Saying "I know because I trust my religious leader or scriptures," is nothing more than an appeal to authority. It therefore fails to be a source of reliable evidence.

Therefore, as we begin to try to answer the question whether we can say we know anything about God, or whether the arguments for or against God are convincing, we need to keep this definition of knowledge in mind.

The late Christopher Hitchens summed up the need to have good evidence for any claims of knowledge: "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." Exactly! And that goes for people on both sides of any argument - especially the argument about whether we can know God exists, or does not exist.

Next, I will discuss why we should argue for the existence of God, what arguments we will examine as evidence for or against God's existence, and what concept of God we will be arguing for and against.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book Recommendations

I love to read nonfiction - especially nonfiction about religion, psychology, science, and history. I try to incorporate ideas from the books I read into my blog. But I know that I can't do the books, or the brilliant authors that write them, justice by blogging about them. Blogging is - well - it's inadequate: a sort of amateur online journal that others get to peak into.

But reading is one of my passions in life. When I finish one book, I already know what I'm going to read next. My problem is actually buying/reading too many books that I know I'll have a hard time finishing. Blogging is a sort of "speed bump" to slow my reading down, in hopes that I will have more time to process and digest what I read. But, to be honest, I think you (the very few readers I may have) will get more out of your reading if you skip my blogging "Cliff-Notes", and go straight to the source for some of my ideas: read these books. That is where the ideas are fleshed out, where the arguments are more convincing, and the arguments are more elegant and complete.

So, without further throat clearing, here are some of my favorite books (not a comprehensive list by any means). They deal mostly with the science of religion, the psychology of religious belief, and how the mind works. That is what is most exciting to me as I process my religious journey.  I hope these books will be exciting for you as well.

Happy reading!

Books About Philosophy:
How Are We To Live by Peter Singer
50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk
Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell
Why I Am Not A Christian by Richard Carrier

Books About Science:
The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Origins by Neil DeGrass Tyson
The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer
Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
How the Brain Works by Steven Pinker
On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right When You Are Not by Robert A. Burton

Books About Religion:
Who Wrote The Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman
Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
50 Reasons People Give for Belief in a God by Guy Harrison
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell
Eight Theories of Religion by Daniel Pals

Books About Mormonism:
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie
The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power by Michael Quinn
The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power by Michael Quinn
Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard Van Wagoner
In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton
The Mysteries of Godliness: A History of Mormon Temple Worship by David John Beurger
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince and Robert Wright
An Insiders View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reforming Mormonism

When I attended the Mormon Stories conference in NYC, in conjunction with the opening weekend of The Book of Mormon musical, John Dehlin asked how the LDS Church could be reformed in such as way as to maintain membership rates, but not decrease current tithing funds.

I took a stab at this question a few months ago here on my blog.

However, someone recently made a video in answer to the same question that John posed.  I think his video response (below) is much better than my own attempt.

Lots of good ideas. If the Church made the changes, it could prevent many people like me from walking away. Here's the video:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Evolution and The Plan of Salvation: "You Must Choose One and Reject the Other"

One of the most controversial subjects in religion today is evolution. While some enlightened religions (Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and some liberal Protestant religions) have little difficulty accepting the scientific consensus on human evolution, most religions either reject evolution out-right, or else qualify their acceptance of evolution as being directed by God. However, this is not evolution; it's Intelligent Design or creationism pseudoscience.  

Mormons have an especially difficult time accepting evolution: only 22% of Mormons agree that "evolution is best explanation for the origins of human life on earth." Mormons are even more skeptical than Evangelicals who believe the Bible is inerrant and literal. 

Why are Mormons so skeptical of evolution?  

1. Evolution contradicts LDS scriptures and official (and unofficial) statements by LDS leaders: 

See the Church's official website for an broad overview of the current LDS position. What becomes clear by reading official LDS scriptures, First Presidency declarations, General Conference talks, Ensign articles, and LDS lesson manuals - is that Mormons believe the creation was an event caused and controlled by God, that humans are the offspring of God, and that we were literally created in God's image.  

However, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection explains the origin of man in natural terms; no God required. Therefore invoking a God is unnecessary and superfluous. Using God to try and explain human origins is like trying to explain the theory of gravity in theistic terms. Gravity, like evolution, has no need to invoke God as a causal agent since it operates all by itself.  We don't need to invoke a supernatural explanation when a purely natural one will do - even if it leaves God with nothing to do. Mormonism - through scripture and prophetic leaders - has repeatedly invoked God as our creator. Now, after scientists have explained the one-time-mystery of human origins, it's hard for Mormons to leave God out of the picture. Doing so would challenge the very core of Mormon authority: revelation. Also, if God didn't create us, then what obligation do we have to Him? The myth of creation is weaved into the fabric of our doctrine so intimately and so literally, that pulling out that thread would destroy it. 

2. Evolution contradicts core LDS doctrine:

The "three-pillars" of Mormon doctrine are the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. Mormon faith rests on the validity of each of these doctrines. Without one of these pillars of belief, the entire Mormon worldview collapses. Joseph Fielding Smith said: 
... the doctrine [of evolution] is so incompatible, so utterly out of harmony, with the revelations of the Lord that a man just cannot believe in both ... I say most emphatically, you cannot  believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation . . . You must choose the one and reject the other, for they are in direct conflict and there is a gulf separating them which is so great that it cannot be bridged. . .  for, according to this theory, death had always been in the world. If, therefore, there was no fall, there was no need of an atonement, hence the coming into the world of the Son of God as the Savior of the world is a contradiction, a thing impossible. Are you prepared to believe such a thing as that? (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:141-142, quoted in Old Testament Student Manual for Genesis - 2 Samuel, page 34.)
Therefore, evolution not only destroys the doctrine of the Creation, but also the doctrine of the Fall and the Atonement. If there was no need for Adam to "fall" in order to introduce reproduction and death into the world (since birth and death had been going on for billions of years prior to Adam), then there would be no need for Jesus to redeem mankind from the fall. No creation - no Adam; no Adam - no Jesus; no Jesus - no true Church of Jesus Christ.

3. Evolution contradicts Mormon belief in the nature of God:

Mormons believe God is an evolved man; an advanced superhuman from another planet. In his King Follett Sermon, Joseph Smith said "What sort of a being was God in the beginning? . . . God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret."  It was President Lorenzo Snow who coined the famous couplet "As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may become."

So, according to LDS doctrine, God is clearly a human male. However, evolution shows how Homo sapiens shared a common ancestor with both common chimpanzees and bonobo chimpanzees only 7 million years ago. Given our recent common ancestry, we share an amazing 98.4% of our DNA in common with chimps. The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees (1.6% of our DNA) is barely double that separating bonobo chimps with common chimps (0.7%). In fact, our genetic difference from chimps is less than that separating chimps from gorillas! Put another way, chimpanzees closest relative is not gorillas, but humans. Human DNA differs from gorilla DNA by only 2.3% (with whom we shared a common evolutionary ancestor 10 million years ago), and we differ from orangutans in only 3.6% of our DNA (since we diverged from orangutans between twelve and sixteen million years ago). To further put our similarities with chimps in perspective, consider that the human hemoglobin molecule - a protein that transports oxygen to every cell in our bodies - is absolutely identical in all of its 287 units with chimpanzee hemoglobin. What is good enough for chimps is good enough for humans.

The remaining 1.6% of human DNA, that differs from chimpanzees, accounts for all the obvious differences between our closest primate relatives. And much of that small 1.6% difference is accounted by "junk DNA." Junk DNA - what the majority of our DNA is actually composed of -  is noncoding "garbage" segments of DNA, leftover from our evolutionary past, that don't really do anything at all other than tag along for the ride.  Junk DNA just gets copied along with the rest of our genes, but doesn't get translated into proteins.

Even more similar to humans are the now extinct hominid species. In fact, leading up to the origin of modern day Homo sapiens about 500,000 years ago in Africa, there were about 25 different human prototype species (like Australopithecus robustus, Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus). Now, our human-like relatives are all extinct. But about 400,000 years ago, we shared a common ancestor with Neanderthals. And between 80,000 and 40,000 years ago, modern looking humans even lived alongside and even interbred with Neanderthals. Sounds shocking, but scientists discovered in 2010 that 1 - 4% of our DNA comes from Neanderthals. In fact, Neanderthal DNA and human DNA is 99.7% similar. Our DNA is so similar that they could apparently even interbred with each other (which is what defines what a species is).

What are the implications of these biological facts on LDS theology? Well, if man is created in God's image, and God is the same species as we are (a Homo sapien who literally reproduced with Mary to sire Jesus - his only begotten son) then does God also share 98.6% of his genome with chimps? Does God also share 99.7% of his DNA with Neanderthals? Does God also have all the same "junk DNA" in his chromosome as well - mutations and all? Did he also evolve from 25 different prototype hominid species like we did? Is God a hairless ape like we are?

Does He have all the imperfections and faulty designs in His supposedly perfect body that humans do? For example, does God have a blind spot in his vision because there is a big optical nerve in the middle of his retina, are his eyes built inside out and backwards like ours, or does he have a right recurrent laryngeal nerve that (like all mammals with this design flaw) loops worthlessly and wastefully around our aortic arch? Does God have vestigial  features (leftover, but now worthless, organs from our evolutionary past) like an appendix, nipples, body hair, and toenails? Does God have a limited brain like we do? Although slightly crude, we shouldn't hesitate to ask if God has an anatomically complete reproductive system? Does he have an entire digestive system; mouth, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, and anus? If so, does it work - end products and all?  If not, then what is in God's abdomen? Does God's skeletal system share the same limb homology with other mammals, birds, frogs and lizards?

The story of evolution is told by our physical bodies - from our DNA to our anatomic appearance so similar to the other great apes. As Jared Diamond argues so eloquently in his book, we are "the third chimpanzee." But according to LDS theology, that would make God an ape, which is an absurd notion for God. I really like apes, but feel no need to worship one.

4. Evolution contradicts the doctrine that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing:

In order for species to evolve they have to outproduce other species.  This always involves the production of more offspring than will survive long enough to reproduce. Only the animals that don’t die of disease, starvation, or being eaten alive while young can survive long enough to pass on their genes. Random mutations that assist in passing on genes more successfully will be passed on. Genetic changes that decrease evolutionary fitness do not. And the genetic changes that improve evolutionary fitness are usually things that help help one carnivorous species kill and eat another, or things that help the hunted animal avoid being eaten. Over 99% of all species that have ever lived were so unsuccessful at living that they all died out. Not a single one of them is left alive today. Extinction is never a pretty picture for the species involved. What kind of loving parent would use such method of creation?

Why would God go to all the work to create a species if He is going to eventually annihilate it?  If God was all knowing, why would he employ so much suffering and waste in the process of creating man? An all-loving God would not choose to hash out so much death, cruelty, and suffering on his creations. Would any kind of moral human create life simply to kill it in the most cruel ways? An all-knowing God would have known how inefficient and cruel the process of evolution was, and refused to employ it like some kind of mad-scientist sowing suffering and destruction all around him. And an all-powerful God could have chosen to create life in another way - perhaps with the snap of his almighty fingers if He wanted to, or in a way that was not so wasteful and cruel to his creations.


Mormons are skeptical of evolution because their scriptures and leaders have said repeatedly that it is incompatible with a Creator-God, evolution nullifies the need for Adam's fall and Christ's atonement, evolution implies that God is an evolved ape like humans, and evolution is a cruel and inefficient process that is incompatible with an all-loving, omniscient, and omnipotent God. In short, accepting evolution fully (which is the only way to accept it) threatens to destroy a literalist view of Mormon doctrine and theology. Therefore, it's an extremely dangerous idea to Mormonism. That, to answer the original question, is why Mormons are so skeptical of evolution.

When Napoleon asked Pierre-Simon Laplace why he had not included God in his explanation of the variations in the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, Laplace is purported to have said "I have no need of that hypothesis." Just as physicists like Laplace don't need to invoke God to explain the orbits of planets, biologists today don't need to invoke God to explain the origin of humans. A natural explanation of our origins does the job more parsimoniously without the need to invent a capricious, cruel, human-like God (evolutionary warts and all) who did it. Today, we simply have no need of the creator God-hypothesis.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Romney and Religious Tolerance

A poll just released showed that about 1 in 5 Americans wouldn't vote for an otherwise qualified Presidential candidate if he were Mormon (insert Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman).

When you look at political affiliation, the breakdown of people unwilling to vote for a Mormon President breaks down like this:

  • 18% of Republicans won't
  • 19% of Independents won't 
  • 27% of Democrats won't

The difference in political opinion probably stems from the fact that Mormons are usually very conservative, and have vociferously supported anti-gay-marriage legislation in states such as Hawaii and California. Conservative block-voting, blurring boundaries between church and state, and trying to legislate personal religious views are not very popular ideas among liberal Democrats. The only other real differences in opinion toward Mormon candidates is determined by level of education, where college graduates were less likely to not vote for a Mormon candidate (12%) than someone who hasn't gone to any college (31%). However, it  didn't seem to matter where you are from, your gender, age, or what religion you belong to.

This doesn't mean the writing is on the wall for Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman. An article from the LA Times highlights the fact that in 1959 - the year before John F. Kennedy became president - 25% of Americans said they would not vote for a Catholic. So Mormon politicians have an uphill - but not insurmountable - battle.

But what about people who don't believe in God (or at least admit it)? What's their chances of becoming President? Virtually nil;  According to the same Gallup poll, only 49% of people would vote for a well-qualified Presidential candidate if they were atheist.

And Romney, who is trying to convince voters that a candidates religious beliefs are irrelevant (at least his own), seems to agree that atheists have something fundamentally wrong with them.  Ironic, isn't it? In his 2007 speech, where he tried to summon the spirit of JFK and convince people to vote for him despite his Mormon faith, Romney took the time to throw some rocks at America's real enemies of freedom: atheists!

While trying to make the standard conservative point that our freedom is ensured by religious belief, Romney said "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. […] Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

He then goes on to make the point that separation of church and state are necessary, but that "in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust."

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'"

Here is the problem with Romney's views:

1. Political, individual, or religious freedom does not rest on belief in God.  Atheism just means you don't believe in God, not that you don't believe in freedom. However, the association between atheism and communism was branded into the American psyche during the Red Scare of the 50's, and continues to linger today. Our form of government was derived from classical Roman and Greek political ideals; not from belief in God. Our Constitution doesn't even mention God.

2. If you are trying to convince people that religious belief does not affect political qualification, then don't turn around and say that another misunderstood religious minority (atheists) are somehow unqualified. At least he didn't say, like George H.W. Bush did, that atheists shouldn't even be considered as citizens. But saying that people who believe in the separation of church and state "are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism" - and that "religion and freedom endure together, or perish alone" comes pretty close.

3. Our Founding Fathers were suspicious of religion. That is why they were insistent that there be no state sponsored religion, and that there be a wall of separation between church and state. However, isn't the insistence by conservatives today that our country was founded on the principles of Christianity - or even on the principles of theism - nothing more than support for the state sponsored religion of theism? Why marginalize people, as Romney does, simply because they don't believe as he does? Isn't this the definition of religious intolerance?

This is all very ironic, coming from a guy hoping that more religious tolerance be showed towards him, but seemingly unwilling to give it to others.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Atheism Is A Double Edged Sword

I just finished a great little book called Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini. It summarizes nicely the main arguments about why atheism is a logical, ethical, and healthy worldview; and you can read it in a couple sittings.

The book closes with a great couple of paragraphs that express an idea that I have thought of often, but have not been able to put into words quite as well as Baggini does:

Many atheists throughout history have compared their belief with a form of growing up. Freud, for instance, saw religious belief as a kind of regression to childhood. With religion, we are like children who still believe that we are protected in the world by benevolent parents who will look after us. It is no coincidence that God is referred to as father in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. 

Atheism is the throwing off of childish illusions and acceptance that we have to make our own way in the world. We have no divine parents who always protect us and who are unquestionable good. The world is instead a big and scary place, but also one where there are opportunities to go out and create lives for ourselves. 

The loss of childhood innocence is a double-edge sword. There is something to lament and something to fear, hence the dark tinge of an atheist belief system which is akin to this loss. But it is also the precondition for meaningful adult lives. Unless we lose our childhood innocence we cannot become proper adults. In the same way, unless we cast off the innocence of supernatural world views, we cannot live in a way that does justice to our natural as finite mortal creatures. Atheism is about moving on and taking the opportunities that life affords, and that carries with it risks of failure and the rejection of reassuring illusions. 

It is this realism that means atheism cannot ever be presented as an undiluted, positive joy. Real life is about accepting ups and downs, the good and the bad, the possibility of failure as well as the ambition to succeed. Atheism speaks to the truth about our human nature because it recognizes all this and does not seek to shield us from the truth by myth and superstition.

So what will it be? Will you take "the blue pill"or "the red pill?"

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Scientific Method

According to a recent National Science Foundation study, over 70% of Americans do not understand what the scientific method is.  What is more common, however, is belief in pseudoscience and myth. This shouldn't be too surprising since the scientific method is somewhat non-intuitive while pseudoscience and myth come natural to us; scientific education in the US is poor compared to many other developed nations; and because humans are beleaguered by a slew of cognitive biases that can distort our perception of reality.

Here's a great video explaining what the scientific method is, what it is not, and some of the problems it's up against:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why I Resigned My Membership

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” - Martin Luther King

After walking out of my bishops office two-and-a-half years ago - having just told him that I didn't believe in the Church anymore, and needed to be released from the bishopric - I have had an internal debate about whether I should resign my membership.

I'll start with the cons of resigning my membership:


1. My family (mom, dad, siblings) will find out and they will be hurt. 

Living your life in a way that don't upset other people, is not very genuine or authentic to who you are. We all have to strike out at some point and live our own lives; not the life that our parents envisioned for us. If my family has hurt feelings about my decision, that is their issue - not mine. I love my family, but their love of me should not be conditional on whether I retain my membership in a church I don't even believe in, or identify with, anymore.  With time, I think they'll get over it, because they should love me for who I am, not because of what church I do, or don't, belong to.

2. I will lose status in the church.

This is a slightly embarrassing admission, but it's true. I did my time and hard labor and had begun to climb up the Church's social ladder ; I was a High Priest (are you impressed?), had a pretty good Mormon resume, and was on the Mormon leadership track. If I resigned, I would be stripped of all that.

I suspect that the love of status and authority (maybe recognition from family) is what motivates a lot of men to serve in the Church.  I didn't fully realize this until after I had left myself.  Man's quest for power and status is a universal human trait; Mormons are not exempt from this basic (base?) human drive, even though they claim to be "humble servants" of God. Some are humble in their service; but I suspect that most enjoy the adulation that comes from climbing the church's social ladder.


1.  The Church is not what it claims to be.

The Church makes a lot of claims about who they are. I don't believe these claims anymore because of the history and facts about the Church I discovered on my own. Why belong to an organization that is man made and dishonest? Time to move on. Having my name "blotted out" may be cathartic; helping the process of moving on occur. Simply stated: the Church is not who I am anymore. Why identify with it by keeping my name on the roster?  Nuff said.

2. I have ethical objections to what the Church organization represents.

Let me clear something up first: I like Mormons as people.  My beef is not with Mormons as people; it's with the Church, the hierarchical organization; the bureaucracy; the power-structure; the dogma and the doctrine and the made up history.

This is the analogy that kept coming to mind when I considered Church membership: Imagine you were a member of an exclusive Country Club that had exclusionary policies toward women or blacks or gays (or some other policy that you opposed on ethical grounds). Why would I keep my membership in such an organization? Don't I have a responsibility to resign my membership in protest of such policies? Isn't continuing my membership tacit approval of such policies? I think so.

Some would argue that the best way to effect change in the Church is from within.  I disagree.  If nobody resigned their membership, or spoke out, or protested in some way, then what motivation would there be for the Church to change? Very little, since members would still fill up the pews, pay their tithing, and be counted in the membership stats.  Now consider what would happen if everybody like me spoke out and resigned.  I think that would change things faster than anything else because the Church, and the men who lead it, are interested in one thing more than anything else: growth, strength, and survival of the Church.

Nothing threatens the survival of the Church more than walking away from it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Resignation From the LDS Church: Letter From The COJCOLDS

In return for a letter - such as the one I posted last week - you get a return letter from Greg Dodge, Manager, Confidential Records of The COJCOLDS - saying the following:

Dear Brother (or Sister) So-and-So:

I have been asked to acknowledge your recent letter in which you request that your name be removed from the membership records of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

I have also been asked to inform you that the Church considers such a request to be an ecclesiastical matter that must be handled by local priesthood leaders before being processed by Church employees. Therefore, your letter and a copy of this reply are being sent to President "So and So" of the "Such and Such" Stake. He will have Bishop "So and So" of the "Such and Such" Ward contact you concerning the fulfillment of your request. 

In view of (this is the best part) eternal consequences of such an action, the Brethren urge you to reconsider your request and to prayerfully consider the enclosed statement of the First Presidency.


Greg W. Dodge

(very official looking, very big, signature of the Dodger)
Manager, Confidencial Records

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Resignation Letter (from the LDS Church). I'm Out.

May 17th, 2011

Member Records Division, LDS Church
50 E North Temple Rm 1372
SLC UT 84150-5310

This letter is my formal resignation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and it is effective immediately. I hereby withdraw my consent to being treated as a member and I withdraw my consent to being subject to church rules, policies, beliefs and discipline. As I am no longer a member, I want my name permanently and completely removed from the membership rolls of the church.

My resignation should be processed immediately, without any waiting periods.

After a lifetime of affiliation and commitment to the LDS Church, the reasons I have decided to resign my membership in the LDS Church are as follows:

1) The Church presents a false account of its history. Significant, yet unflattering, facts of Church history are simply whitewashed and ignored because they are not faith promoting.  Omitting unflattering facts from the Church's accepted history is a form of dishonesty since it purposely misleads others - most importantly, the members of the Church itself. The Church shows little effort in trying to correct the inaccurate version of history it has invented.

2) It is impossible to participate in the Church, with intellectual honesty and integrity, when you do not accept the myths upon which it is based. This tyranny of belief in the Church results because of a homogeny of thought and an orthodoxy created by the leaders of the Church. Freedom of thought and speech is simply not tolerated within the current Church.

3) The Church's beliefs about, and treatment of, homosexual people is reprehensible.  I am particularly concerned with the Church's political involvement in California's Proposition 8 - as well as other similar political misadventures - in which the Church attempted to enforce its religious beliefs on others. The Church's treatment of homosexuals is hurtful; it is not something I want to be associated with in any way.  I view my membership in the LDS Church as tacit approval of its bigoted policies towards homosexuals.

When the LDS Church corrects its dishonest version of its history, and when the Church treats all people - regardless of sexual preference - with equality and love, then I will consider returning to the church that I grew up in, and still continue to identify with in certain cultural ways.  However, I don’t expect this will happen anytime soon.  Please respect my request for name removal from the LDS Church immediately.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Natural and Supernatural

Here is a mind-bendingly illuminating quote from Michael Shermer's new book about the difference between the natural and supernatural, science and theology. I'll piggyback a few thoughts afterwords:

"Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as supernatural and paranormal just provides a linguistic placeholder until we find natural and normal causes, or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest. This is what usually happens in science. Mysteries once thought to be supernatural or paranormal happenings - such as astronomical or meteorological events - are incorporated into science once their causes are understood. . .

"When theists, creationists, and intelligent design theorists invoke miracles and acts of creation ex nihilo, that is the end of the search for them, whereas for scientists the identification of such mysteries is only the beginning. Science picks up where theology leaves off. . .

"To our Bronze Age ancestors who created the great monotheistic religions, the ability to create the world and life was godlike. Once we know the technology of creation, however, the supernatural becomes the natural. Thus my gambit: the only God that science could discover would be a natural being, an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God who exists outside of space and time is not knowable to science because he is not part of the natural world, and therefore science cannot know God.

Main points:

1. There is no supernatural. The "supernatural" or "paranormal" becomes natural when scientists learn how to describe something previously thought of as supernatural - in natural terms. Or in other words, there is a perfectly natural explanation for all phenomena. For things that currently escape scientists ability to fully describe by natural means (i.e. What happened before the Big Bang? What caused the Big Bang?  How does human consciousness work?) a supernatural explanation is not an explanation at all.  It just pushes the mystery back one more step to God.

Scientists are working on explaining these, and other, mysterious phenomena. They have a great track record of explaining things that were once thought to be due to magic, demons, ghosts, and God. While science cannot (and does not) explain everything, and occasionally gets it wrong (until it corrects itself), it still remains "the best tool ever devised for explaining how the world works."  Is there any doubt that scientists' great track record will continue, and that they will simultaneously chip away at the pseudo-explanations offered by religionists and believers of paranormal phenomena?

2. The only God that science can ever understand is a natural God; the same sort of God Mormons believe in; an evolved super intelligent ET.  If God exists beyond nature, outside the Universe, and outside of space and time (as many theists have placed him so that he cannot be falsified), then there is no way that natural beings like us, who do occupy space and time in this universe, can understand him or interact with him.


Many philosophers and scientists argue that in an age where our technological abilities expand exponentially, that in the not-too-distant future, we Homo sapiens will have the technology to create new universes seeded with stars and planets and even life.  When you consider what we humans have done in the last 100 years with our technology, just imagine what an alien super species, who has evolved 50 million years beyond us, would be capable of doing with theirs.

However, if God is nothing more than a super intelligent ET designer, an evolved human with godlike abilities who created the world by natural means, then one big question comes to mind:

Why should we worship him if he is just a natural being? Indeed, why would self adulation, or worship of oneself  (a fairly base human quality that we despise in others) be important to him? Why does he even care what we think about him? And why would he device silly religious rituals that allow us to remain in his good graces?