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?
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?