Talmage and the Nonexistence of Reasonable Atheism.

One of my favorite Mormon books that I own is a little hardback copy of Talmage’s ‘Articles of Faith’ from 1937. While not exactly rare, this edition (15th) was designed for missionary use and is organized in a way that allows for  the kind of individual and discreet “lessons” a missionary is likely to engage in. The added bonus is that the book is old enough to have that great old book smell, so I often take it down just to casually peruse when the mood strikes me.

Recently I stumbled upon this subheading in chapter 2 (p. 44-45):

Idolatry and Atheism–From the abundant evidence of the existence of Deity, the idea of which is so generally held by the human family, there seems to be little ground on which man may rationally assert and maintain a disbelief in God; and, in view of the many proofs of the benignant nature of the divine attributes, there ought to be little tendency to turn aside after false and unworthy objects of worship.

This is actually one of the oldest arguments for religious belief that I’m aware of and it bears the fancy Latin name of argumentum e consensu gentium (argument from general consent of humanity). It even makes an appearance in Book X of Plato’s ‘Laws’ (886a: translation is that of Trevor J. Saunders):

Clinias: Well sir, don’t you think that the gods’ existence is an easy truth to explain?

Athenian: How?

Clinias: Well, just look at the earth and the sun, and the stars and the universe in general; look at the wonderful procession of the seasons and its articulation into years and months! Anyway, you know that all Greeks and all foreigners are unanimous in recognizing the existence of gods.

It came as no surprise to me that Talmage would marshal such a venerable argument that is centuries older than Christianity itself, he is afterall one of the most well read and articulate Apostles in the Church’s history. What interested me more is how this is used by Talmage to support the following (p. 46-47):

Atheism is the denial of the existence of God; in a milder form it may consist in ignoring Deity. But the professed atheist, in common with his believing fellow mortals, is subject to man’s universal passion for worship; though he refuse to acknowledge the true and living God, he consciously or unconsciously defies some law, some principle, some attribute of the human soul, or perchance some material creation; and to this he turns, to seek a semblance of the comfort that the believer finds in rich abundance through prayer addressed to his Father and God. I doubt the existence of a thorough atheist–one who with the sincerity of a settled conviction denies in his heart the existence of an intelligent and supreme power.

The idea of God is an inherent characteristic of the human soul. The philosopher recognizes the necessity of such in his theories of being. He may shrink from the open acknowledgement of a personal Deity, yet he assumes the existence of a governing power, of a great unknown, of the unknowable, the illimitable, the unconscious. Oh, man of learning though not of wisdom, why reject the privileges extended to you by the omnipotent, omniscient Being to whom you owe your life, yet whose name you will not acknowledge? No mortal can approach Him while contemplating his perfections and might with aught but awe and reverence; regarding Him only as Creator and God, we are abashed in thought of Him; but He has given us the right to approach Him as His children, and to call upon Him by the name of Father. Even the atheist feels, in the more solemn moments of his life, a yearning of the soul toward a spiritual Parent, as naturally as his human affections turn toward the father who gave him mortal life. The atheism of today is but a species of paganism after all.

What intrigues me here is that Talmage isn’t so much as giving the reader an argument to be used against atheism, but conducting a sort of philosophical-theological anthropology of atheism that gives rise to internal suspicions. As an atheist I reject the Talmage’s reasoning in toto, but how am I to know if my reasoning is good or is just a manifestation of a symptom of denial?

This sort of hermeneutic of suspicion was not innovated by Talmage and was used to level  devastating critiques of organized religion (and Christianity in particular) by the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century. Still this sort of suspicion predates German atheism by nearly two millennia and is firmly rooted in scriptural tradition.

While there is some fertile ground for the development of this suspicion in the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?), the fullest exposition comes from Paul’s epistle to the Romans (1:18-22):

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools

Talmage is really just echoing Paul’s sentiment when he writes, “…in view of the many proofs of the benignant nature of the divine attributes, there ought to be little tendency to turn aside after false and unworthy objects of worship.” The evidence that the world is God’s creation is obvious, it has been shown to us all and those of us who deny it have ulterior motives for doing so. All of us are without excuse.

You can see this theme again in the Book of Mormon in Alma Chapter 30; when Korihor was bound and brought before the high priest Giddonah to give an account of his activity, we see this reaction (v. 29):

Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land.

It is interesting to note that Giddonah recognizes Korihor’s obstinence almost immediately as if he was able to discern the real issue behind Korihor’s unbelief. He does not even engage with Korihor at all, but sent him to Alma to be cross examined. Alma deals with the charges of corruption and exploitation while demanding evidence for Korihor’s unbelief (v. 40-42):

And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only. But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true? Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

Alma doesn’t just say Korihor has no evidence, but that Korihor really knows God exists, and that his prophecies are true. This unbelief is not rooted in any sort of rational or empirical issue, but is at heart a spiritual issue. The devil is the one behind Korihor’s preaching. When Korihor asks for a sign from God to demonstrate existence, Alma castigates him for having enough signs to see the obviousness. Korihor persists and Alma eventually grants him a sign; God will strike him dumb so that he is unable to speak. When this occurs Korihor is given a chance to write (v. 52-53):

And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God. But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

In light of Romans 1 and Alma 30 we can see how easy it was for Talmage to come to his position on atheism. What exactly is a Mormon supposed to do with this though? Talmage takes a position similar to what Richard Dawkins wrote in the preface to his now (in)famous book ‘The God Delusion’ (p. 5):

The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder“.  The first part captures religious faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom o a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, when he said, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”

I can imagine that most Mormons (and most Theists as well) don’t particularly care for the way Dawkins describes religious faith. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Dawkins is insulting believers and dismissing carefully thought out convictions without properly considering them. If my Mormon friends, readers, and contributors agree with me on this point, will they dismiss Talmage as well?

Dawkins and Talmage are not so different in their appraisal of others that they can‘t honestly be compared; while Talmage accuses atheists of bearing a false consciousness by secretly believing what they publicly deny, Dawkins accuses theists of being delusional in the face of evidence. Each believe that the rivals position has little to do with evidence and more to do with personal or cognitive flaws.

I can shrug off Dawkins and simply say he is wrong, I can even publicly rebuke him if I’m of a mind. I don’t think a Mormon could do the same with Talmage, he was after all an Apostle of the Church. More importantly (I think) Talmage’s ideas stand on a reasonably firm ground with scripture. If Talmage is wrong, how is a Mormon to exegete Romans 1 and Alma 30? How does Mormon theology explain apostasy and unbelief in relation to scripture? Nonbelievers would like to know how we fit into the Mormon paradigm, is our existence merely to be explained in terms of sin and unrighteousness?


Talmage and the Nonexistence of Reasonable Atheism. — 41 Comments

  1. > is our existence merely to be explained in terms of sin and unrighteousness? – See more at: http://www.withoutend.org/talmagereasonableatheism/#sthash.auL7aFOy.dpuf

    Yes! Just kidding.

    I do think at least the scientistic form of atheism is very intellectually appealing as science has been so successful. In science, you assume your scientific laws are all that exist and history has shown it’s incredibly successful with that assumption. Again, it’s success makes it very appealing.

    However, if I were Talmage I would critique it in the same way this comic suggets. If you press many such atheists, who say science is good and faith is bad, how they would define this they often say something to the effect:

    1. Any claim that is unable to be shown true either empirically or objectively is meaningless and should not be believed.

    However, that statement itself cannot be shown to be true either empirically or objectively so by their own criteria the premise that undergirds their worldview is meaningless and should not be believed. It’s a self-defeating worldview.

    Now I realize I am being overly-simplistic but my main point is I believe the argument can be made to be robust: it is impossible to have a coherent worldview where something isn’t taken on faith. (An actual belief in something beyond objective or empirical proof.)

    And as soon as one accepts the necessity of faith-based wolrdviews in order to maintain logical coherency, what is the appeal of atheism? I’m pretty sure you don’t see many atheists priding themselves in their faith-based atheism for good reason. Once you accept the necessity of faith, theism becomes much more reasonable in my opinion than atheism. I have a *lot* more points to make on this subject but have already written more than I should. Sorry for that.

    Oh, and great article!

  2. I would say atheists don’t really fit anywhere – for the simple fact that there isn’t any such thing as an atheist in the pure sense.

    To explain – ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. People can’t be reduced to a single belief they have, and even less to a mere non-belief they have.

    Atheists I’ve encountered in online scrums are fond of saying that atheism isn’t a religion (in counter to taunts from the religionists). No more than non-stamp-collecting is a hobby. I tend to agree with this isolated point.

    But that’s only because I consider atheism to be trivial, irrelevant, and unworthy of notice in and of itself. Anyone can “not believe” in something. It’s easier than anything – any doofus can do it. And contenting oneself to mere non-belief has all the conveniences of not having to defend a position, advocate for it, or reconcile it with anything. As such, it’s a rather juvenile and intellectually lazy refuge. Hardly worthy of notice, and if noticed, merely contempt.

    That said, I consider the “atheist” in his pure state to be as much a mythical and imaginary creature as Dawkins’ Spaghetti Monster. They really don’t exist for the most part. If they did, they’d be mentally ill.

    The self-professed “atheist” usually holds any number of positive beliefs about reality. She is not simply defined by mere unbelief. The atheist might combine their unremarkable non-belief in deity with any number of faith positions. It could be a new mythological narrative – like Hitler’s superman. A worship of pure brute power. Naive Marxist visions of human destiny. Or the latest – an almost infantile faith in the goodness and virtue of pure science (perhaps the most unreasonable delusion humanity has ever cooked up).

    But atheists never – EVER – content themselves with mere non-belief in god(s). They almost always combine it with other mythical or faith narratives.

    They’d be absolutely good-for-nothing otherwise.

  3. Seth, am I correctly interpreting that you’re arguing that any positive belief about reality constitutes a theology? I’d agree that atheists, like everybody, hold to various mythological narratives–that’s what humans do, and armchair Dawkins enthusiasts who insist that science and reason are special or exempt are misguided. Still, lumping that together with a positive belief in God seems to water the concept of theism down to practically nothing. I like differentiating myself by a belief in an empirically unknowable God, and I think that’s qualitatively different than my attachment to the mythological idea of the power of comic books.

  4. I wasn’t talking about comic books. I was talking about Hitler’s mythology. The idea of the “superman” started with Nietzsche.

  5. Theism isn’t a useful lump-sum category either. Since you couldn’t find more different ideologies than the brutal and indifferent cosmos of pagan Roman worship and the Christianity that supplanted it.

    Saying “theist” doesn’t really describe anything useful either.

  6. Pagan and Christian Rome/Byzantium weren’t so different, but that’s beside the point. Speaking of points, you missed mine. You said atheists all hold faith positions; I agree. Even granting that “religion” and “theism” are messy terms, I fail to see what a belief in any particular ideology, whether it’s scientism, Marxism, capitalism, or comic book-ism, has to do with belief or non belief in God unless you’re arguing that any belief about anything holds the same significance to everyone everywhere.

  7. “Belief” qua belief has no ideology.

    But belief is always attached to something.

    Non-belief doesn’t have to be.

    And Roman paganism and Roman Christianity really weren’t that similar.

  8. I was watching a debate on Youtube between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens recently. Craig said that he had experienced God and asked Hitchens if he thought that Craig was insane. My answer to that is in a sense, yes, Craig is insane, but so is everyone else. It is common for people to feel the presence of God (or gods, or enlightenment, depending on their theology). Yet this experience does not match up with the evidence in the outside world. I think it likely that the human brain evolved to believe in God because it provides hope for those in difficult times, it builds community, and it provides hope of seeing your dead relatives again and living beyond death yourself. Remember the human brain evolved to survive, not to find the truth.

    Joseph Smidt: Yes, Atheists assume some basic things (like that the material world exists and that causes create effects) but two points are important. 1. there is a difference between assuming something and having faith. Assuming something means believing it until there is evidence otherwise. Having faith means believing something even if there is evidence otherwise. That is an important difference and the reason why Atheists don’t have faith. 2. the principle of occam’s razor applies here. When faced with two theories that explain the evidence, the simpler one is almost always true. To believe in theism, you have to believe that there is a supernatural being manipulating the world according to his plan. Theists also believe there are natural laws that exist when God isn’t manipulating them. To believe in Atheism, you just need to believe that there are natural laws. Since Atheism explains the world in a simpler fashion without contradicting the evidence, while theism explains the world in a more complex fashion (that there is a hidden God) and sometimes goes against the evidence (creationism) that is why Atheism is more likely to be true under Occam’s razor.

    Seth: It is true that Atheists believe in more than just that God probably does not exist due to lack of evidence. Most Atheists also believe in physicalism, the belief that all that exists in this universe is matter and physical laws (like gravity). This is not based on faith since that is what the evidence suggests. Most Atheists don’t believe in Marxism or Hitler’s superman. That is just a false claim that some people make to tarnish the Atheists’ reputation.

  9. I never said most atheists have hibernia. But some have. And it is a history for which atheism (if it even usefully exists) should be held accountable.

    My view on physicalism is that it is completely unverifiable by its own criteria. And it’s usually propped up by some of that naive trust in the goodness and virtue of science I mentioned.

  10. Atheism is just as complex an explanation for the universe as theism is.

    This is just more of that misuse of Occam’s Razor rubbish that you regularly get on atheist message boards.

    Old news.

  11. Joseph,

    Any claim that is unable to be shown true either empirically or objectively is meaningless and should not be believed.

    However, that statement itself cannot be shown to be true either empirically or objectively so by their own criteria the premise that undergirds their worldview is meaningless and should not be believed. It’s a self-defeating worldview.

    The requirement that a statement be proven before it be accepted is called “positivism,” and it’s not generally considered a valid framework in philosophical circles. However, being an atheist—even a “scientistic” atheist”—doesn’t require being a positivist. Positivism is merely one kind of empiricism. Other empiricist approaches include “falsificationism” (in which science advances by disproving hypotheses rather than proving them) and “pragmatism” (which holds that ideas are true in proportion to how well they “work”). One can construct persuasive arguments for atheism within either of these frameworks.

  12. And it is a history for which atheism (if it even usefully exists) should be held accountable.

    Why should modern atheists be “held accountable” for nationalist and racialist ideologies they don’t believe in?

  13. I don’t know Chris. We religious folk have been asking that question for quite a while now.

  14. Both falsificationism and pragmatism only work if you ignore the moral and objective assumptions on which they move forward. Otherwise, they’re just as unfounded as any framework.

    Scientific frameworks for explaining the human condition usually fall apart when you get to the point of asking what their goals are, and why they have those goals.

  15. I don’t know Chris. We religious folk have been asking that question for quite a while now.

    That’s sort of comparable, but not entirely. You may not personally hold the ancient Israelite ideology of genocide, for instance, but you do promote the authority of a text that teaches that ideology. I could understand you wanting to hold me accountable for the Holocaust if I were saying, “I don’t believe in eugenics or genocide, but I think Mein Kampf is a supremely authoritative book.” In that case, I would be acting in ways that tend to promote and legitimize an ideology of genocide even if I didn’t hold that ideology myself.

  16. Chris:

    It doesn’t matter that the single example was for positivism. As I said, the stament can be made robust. For example:

    “Other empiricist approaches include “falsificationism” (in which science advances by disproving hypotheses rather than proving them) and “pragmatism””

    I completely agree. But:

    1. The statement that the only meaningful claims are those that can be falsified scientifically is a statement that can’t be falsified scientifically. Hence the foundation for a self-defeating worldview.

    2. Pragmatism is more interesting because it is not a self-defeating wolrdview in the ways these other two are. Instead, it is a faith-based wolrdview as there is no more objective evidence for pragmatism than there is for God. Pragmatism cannot be falsified in the scientific sense, not proven true analytically etc. If you are a pragmatist, you are one because you have chosen to place faith into a certain worldview that you can no more prove is true objectively as a theist can prove his God objectively.

    So, I appreciate the comment, but I still stand by mine: you either have to accept a logically incoherent worldview or embrace one that requires just as much faith as theism. (Since it can no more be objectively proven true than theism.)

  17. Seth,

    Both falsificationism and pragmatism only work if you ignore the moral and objective assumptions on which they move forward.

    Pragmatism doesn’t make objective assumptions; it defines truth in subjective terms. Pragmatism says, “My experience is constrained in particular ways. Some beliefs help me cope with those constraints better than others. For instance, the belief that I can’t walk through walls prevents me from hurting myself by attempting to walk through walls. Regardless of whether that belief corresponds to some objective ‘reality,’ it helps me predict my own experience and work within the constraints thereof to obtain desirable outcomes. So since I don’t have any access to ‘objective reality,’ I choose to define the ‘truth’ of a statement in terms of its utility for dealing with my experience.” This way of thinking about truth requires no foundation other than subjectivity and turns out to be pretty robust against attempts to logically deconstruct it. The most obvious line of attack would be to say it’s solipsistic, but that objection doesn’t hold water because my experience includes other agents who purport to possess subjectivity with mostly the same constraints as my own. Thus while pragmatism is founded solipsistically, it doesn’t function that way.

    Within this framework, the argument against God would basically be that the idea of God (at least as usually defined) seems inconsistent with my experience. It has little discernible predictive utility and, indeed, seems predictively invalid in many respects. Maybe there’s a “God” in some objective reality outside of my subjective experience, but if such a reality exists then I would appear to have no access to it.

  18. Joseph,

    I wouldn’t say pragmatism is faith-based. In fact, I think a thoroughgoing pragmatism is utterly faithless. It says, “I have no way of knowing whether anything within my subjective experience corresponds to something metaphysically real or true, so I’m going to use the terms ‘real’ and ‘true’ purely as tools or conventions for manipulating my own subjectivity.” One needn’t even need to go so far as Descarte’s “I think, therefore I am.” The thoroughgoing pragmatist might say, “I think, and in the course of thinking I find it useful to think as if I am.”

  19. Chris,

    I once again I appreciate you comment. You have always been an intellect I admire and hence follow all your blogs. 🙂

    I think in this case we are talking past each other just a tad. I admit that pragmatists often frame things in terms of subjective experiences. But all I am suggesting is if you think pragmatism is *actually* the correct worldview, that takes faith.

    Now, perhaps you are agnostic to whether pragmatism is actually the correct worldview. But even then, I am sure you have some reason for accepting pragmatism over theism. For example, perhaps you think it best accords with your experience. But then you are assuming the best worldviews as those that best accord with experience.

    Now, of course I do too, but I am convinced it takes faith to make that leap. As in the Descartes you mentioned, we could all be completely fooled, hence worldviews that best accord with experience are flawed and thus our “faith” in them is misplaced.

    Anyways, now that I have gone all the way to Cartesian skepticism I am starting to approach the area where eyes being rolled is justified. 🙂 But still, like Descartes I think these subtle issues should be taken seriously.

    And since I have devolved to Cartesian skepticism there’s not much further to go and so will give you the last word. But I hope you know, despite my back and forth, I think the world of your research and this blog. You both are awesome parts of my life.

  20. Haha, thanks Joseph. I don’t think I’d say pragmatism is the “correct” or “best” worldview. Instead, I think I’d say that since I have no way of determining the “correct” or “best” metaphysic and all the available candidates are self-defeating anyway, I choose to simply live by the metaphysic I find most “useful”. If that’s a leap, then it’s more a leap of resignation than a leap of faith. Anyway, thanks again for the kind comments. 🙂

  21. Chris, I technically agree with the proposition you put forth that “all available candidates are self-defeating anyway.” But I don’t like the spirit of resignation that goes with it.

    My view is that God arranged the human situation specifically so that doubt and its opposite – faith – would be viable options for us to take. As such, I consider proving God empirically to be theologically impossible. In the converse, I consider disproving him to be equally impossible.

    But I take it a step further and also assert that it is impossible for the atheist to make God more unlikely than likely either – which is why I reject attempts like Hibernia’s to mis-invoke Occam’s Razor and other such arguments (which are often based on nothing more frightening than skeptically raising one’s eyebrows and adopting a superior tone).

    So we arrive at kind of a stasis point where you cannot derive theism or atheism empirically. Neither can you even derive a likelihood that one or the other is more or less true.

    So it comes down to what you want, in some sense (I’m hesitant to reduce it like this and I’m likely making a misstep here). You talk of what is most useful and how it was more a leap of resignation than anything.

    I think you have a lot of company in that stance (myself included on occasion in my life). But it seems rather gloomy and defeatist, doesn’t it?

    It reminds me of the college students who poll a distaste for marriage, and fervently vow that they won’t repeat the mistake their now-divorced parents made. Shell-shocked. Once-burned-twice-shy. Mistrustful, cynical, jaded.

    Are these really the crowning modern virtues we want the historians to label our society with ten thousand years from now?

    Because they damn well seem to be the defining virtues of our modern society, at any rate.

  22. I don’t know, Seth. I think making persuasive arguments for the improbability of God (at least as usually conceived by Christians) is pretty easy. Problem of evil, immorality of the Bible, contradictions in the Bible, unreliability of revelation, failure of prayer to perform better than a placebo, etc. As a side note, a God who arranged the human situation so doubt and faith would both be viable options would be a total troll. There may be a leap of resignation at the foundation of my worldview, but I refuse to resign myself to being epistemologically trolled. JMO. 🙂

    Pragmatism is founded on a “leap of resignation,” but it isn’t really “gloomy” or “defeatist”. That initial step of resignation allows one to pretty quickly transcend resignation and start functioning as a critical realist. Once I’ve decided that it’s useful to think of things as “real” or “true” even if there’s no metaphysical truth or reality, then I can kind of let myself forget that it might be a fiction, and I can do so without any of the anxiety that comes from holding an incoherent view of knowledge.

  23. But the human condition is inherently a matter of contradictions and incoherencies. So why would we be surprised to find a transcendent reality that reflects those difficulties?

    Personally, if God were simple and non-contradictory, I’d find him less believable, not more.

    That said, I think a lot of the objections you raise aren’t really as problematic within Mormon theology as they are in classical Christian apologetics.

    For me, it boils down to this – you can’t force love. And if you want to have it – then you have to cultivate an environment where the “other” has an actual chance of choosing it.

  24. the human condition is inherently a matter of contradictions and incoherencies.

    I would say the human experience is contradictory only in the sense implied by chaos theory. Chaos theory doesn’t deny that there’s an underlying order and consistency to the universe; it simply posits that that order is so complex that it seems like chaos, and you can’t predict long-term outcomes. Similarly, I’d say that the law of logical non-contradiction seems to hold for human experience even though people contradict themselves all the time. So I don’t think the messiness of reality absolves religion of logical contradictions even if it could supply an excuse for why God is kind of bad at predicting the future, keeping his promises, and acting in morally good ways.

  25. I don’t see God as behaving in a lot of bad ways.

    Most of the Old Testament, for instance, strikes me more as a matter of damage control than active bad-doing.

  26. One tribe wiping out another tribe that certainly would have wiped the first tribe out given the chance?

    It was an ugly sort of dog-eat-dog situation back then. There really wasn’t a good solution to the problem of moving into Palestine.

  27. Seth: Science works under the assumption of physicalism. It assumes that atoms will follow physical laws and does not make room in the theory for the idea that God might modify the weight or electrical force of these atoms. And it seems to work pretty well. Contrast that with prayer, which they have actually done studies on and have shown it to have no effect. Religious people will say “Well, it just wasn’t the will of God”. But then what are you praying for if God already made his decision and how do you know that what happens is actually the will of God? It seems that different people will pray to God and be convinced that opposite things are the will of God. Physicalism works because it provides a simple explanation that can correctly make predictions about the world. Atheism is much less complex than theism because it does not say that there is an invisible planner manipulating the world according to his plan in ways that can not be seen.

    When trains crash and they pull a little boy alive out of the rubble, theists will cry that it is a miracle. They ignore, of course, the other hundred passengers that are dead. If it was part of God’s plan that this boy be saved, why couldn’t he do a little more and save the rest of them? He’s supposed to be all powerful, isn’t he? And where is the evidence that the train was affected by God at all? Where does the actions of the train differ physically from what would have happened without God’s intervention? The real explanation is that the boy happened to be in the part of the train that wasn’t hit as hard by the crash and all the people who died happened to be in the parts of the train where the crash was lethal.

    Science never claims to offer goodness or virtue. Science can teach you how to build a nuclear bomb. It can not teach you whether to use it. Science is all about what is, not what should be. Theists often try to claim that there can only be objective morality if there is a God. But this is false. The existence of objective morality is a completely separate question from whether God exists. Objective morality can exist with or without God and God could exist with or without objective morality. You can’t use one to prove the other.

    Seth, why would God make doubt and faith viable options and then want us to worship him? People would be just as justified (actually more justified in my view) in doubting his existence so he would be unable morally to punish them. Under this system an atheist would be worthy of the highest levels of heaven since he had no logical requirement to believe in the faith since God set up the world so that he didn’t have to.

    You also seem to be hinting at the “we need God to convince people to be good.” It would seem logical (fool people into behaving the same way we fool children into being good because Santa Claus is always watching). But it isn’t true in reality. If you look at the prison population, the percentage of prisoners that are atheist is much smaller than the percentage of prisoners who are theists. It seems that religion doesn’t keep people behaving any better after all.

    Joseph Smidt: see what I wrote before. Atheism takes fewer assumptions and contains more logic. Can it be completely proven? No, but it is a hell of a lot closer to that goal than theism is. If you don’t think that truth is correlated with less assumptions and more logic then you may just never be able to say anything at all since you’d never be able to be sure which ideas were better than others. It seems odd to me that theists claim “atheism requires just as much faith as theism!” and yet these same theists are very sure of not only the existence of God but even exactly which religion he endorses.

  28. Actually Hibernia, atheism makes just as many assumptions as theism does.

    This line of argument of yours simply isn’t going to fly.

  29. Incidentally Hibernia, under my belief system, God doesn’t even do the punishing anyway.

    It’s entirely self-inflicted on your part.

  30. Seth you are going to have to explain why you think Atheism makes as many assumptions as theism does. What makes more sense, that our lives are defined by our choices and by the laws of the physical universe or that our lives are defined by those two things plus the power of an invisible god who influences the world somehow but doesn’t leave any changes that scientists can measure? I think it is pretty clear that the first one is the simpler explanation.

    You believe that God created the world. When bad things happen, most theists say that it is because of the free will of people or because it teaches a lesson. However disasters like earthquakes aren’t caused by free will and they make people’s lives much worse. Even things like murder or rape which are caused by someone’s free will could still be stopped by God. Does the law say “well we have to let people have the free will to commit crimes and we’ll punish them later”? No, it sends police out to try to stop murder or rape if they get calls that it is happening. Why can’t God with his infinite knowledge do the same. He either isn’t powerful enough, doesn’t know when murders are happening, doesn’t care if murders are happening, or (most likely) just doesn’t exist at all.

  31. One tribe wiping out another tribe that certainly would have wiped the first tribe out given the chance?

    It was an ugly sort of dog-eat-dog situation back then. There really wasn’t a good solution to the problem of moving into Palestine.

    Yes, I can see why God might think genocide was a good idea within an unimaginative, tribal, nihilistic moral system like the one you’re articulating. But the problem is that said nihilistic moral system stands in rather direct contradiction to other things the biblical God is supposed to stand for, such as love, turning the other cheek, not murdering people, and generally being the opposite of an unimaginative tribal nihilist.

  32. “Why can’t God with his infinite knowledge do the same. He either isn’t powerful enough, doesn’t know when murders are happening, doesn’t care if murders are happening, or (most likely) just doesn’t exist at all.”

    Or there are other, more nuanced options. I think that Patrick’s essay speaks against lumping people together in a group and accusing them of poor thinking.

  33. “If Talmage is wrong, how is a Mormon to exegete Romans 1 and Alma 30?”

    Speaking personally, I don’t see Alma 30 as having anything to do with philosophical or modern atheism so it doesn’t support Talmage’s position (which I find mistaken).

  34. Allen please give me a more nuanced option for why God would allow murder and rape to happen besides the four options I listed.

  35. Chris,

    How, short of divine-mind-controlling the Israelites would you propose that God solve the “let’s move into Palestine” problem?

    It’s not that God’s unimaginative, it’s that he’s always been constrained by his decision to allow us to make our own decisions without overriding coercion from him. That’s a big restriction on what he can do. And it’s something he self-imposed.

  36. For example, you might suggest that God allow the Israelites to do what they wanted to do in the first place – the standard invade another tribe model:

    Ride into town, kill all the men, burn the houses, rape the women, enslave the children, round up the livestock, pillage the treasury.

    Preferable in your view Chris?

  37. Seth, God could have simply moved the Canaanites to another location without killing them and allowed the Israelis to settle in Israel. Or he could have provided resources for the Israelis wherever they happened to be. Again, none of that proves that God exists. It simply provides a more ethical framework that he could have followed if he did exist. This is just providing more evidence against the idea of an all powerful, all knowing, all good god.

  38. Hibernia, where do you draw the line?

    What sort of evils do you think God should NOT prevent – and please provide a justification why?

    Then go watch the movie Clockwork Orange and go rethink your sense of morality.

  39. Well, I think he could safely draw the line at “no murders or rapes” without offending too many people’s desire for free will. I think no one except the anarchists would be too angry about that.(I mean, the civil libertarians might be angry at the constant monitoring of what people do, but according to theology don’t we already have that now?)

    Clockwork Orange is on my Netflix to-watch list. There are over 300 movies on that list, but with your endorsement I might move Clockwork Orange up in the line.

  40. Problem is Hibernia, pain has a component of relativity to it.

    If God abolished murder and rape, you might cheer.

    But in 30 years, your granddaughter would be complaining just as loudly as you about the atrocity of muggings and borderline sexual encounters where we weren’t sure if all the parties were consenting or not.

    And what justification would God have for denying her request?

    And 50 years later, what justification would he have for denying the abolishment of stubbed toes?

    The problem is with drawing the line and saying – “oh, let’s keep token free will, but just get rid of the stuff I find the most icky” (aside from it being completely subjective to your own preferences) is that the logic works just as well against abolishing the next pain item on the list. Eventually, it gets ridiculous. But that’s because the idea was unworkable to begin with.

    You can’t just “do a little mind control” Hibernia. It’s pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’ve done “just a little” you’ve basically done it all.

    Just like you can’t get “just a little pregnant.”