The Failures of New Atheism

Introduction

As for social and intellectual movement, the term ‘New Atheism’ is a diverse and contested notion, potentially encompassing a wide diversity of positions and ways of thinking. My subsequent discussion of the differences between ‘New Atheism’ and ‘Old Atheism’, therefore, should be understood as explicating general tendencies, rather than presenting an absolute binary dichotomy. This caveat being made, however, I believe that the New Atheist movement does exhibit sufficient regularities and commonalities for us to make some tentative general observations.

In contrast to Old Atheism, by which I mean atheism as it existed roughly prior to the turn of the Millennium, New Atheism has tended to be much more assertive in the public discourse, much more eager and willing to make its views heard, and much less concerned about respecting the religious beliefs or faith of others. New Atheism also has tended to focus, to an even greater degree than did Old Atheism, on the social and political harms of religion, especially fundamentalist religion. New Atheism has also placed a much greater emphasis on creating a sustained mass movement, and of developing a socially and politically engaged atheism. All three of these trends are themselves worthy of much deeper analysis, however in this article I want to focus on a fourth major trend that I observe in New Atheism, one which I find to be a much less positive development. Simply put, I believe that New Atheism represents an intellectual retrogression from Old Atheism, doing away with the sophisticated philosophical positions of old, and replacing them with a crude form of scientism and general disinterest in rigorous philosophy. In this essay, I will argue that this trend represents a profoundly negative development in the history of atheistic thought, and puts atheists and rationalists in a poor position to counter increasingly sophisticated apologetic arguments.

Atheism: Old and New

New Atheism is undoubtedly a movement thoroughly infused by scientists and the scientifically minded. Beginning with the canonical ‘four horseman’, we find that Richard Dawkins is a biologist, Sam Harris a neuroscientist, and Christopher Hitchens a journalist. Daniel Dennett is the only professional philosopher of the four, though he too represents a particular strain of highly scientifically-minded philosophical thought, and is not himself a specialist in philosophy of religion. Other prominent figures associated to varying degrees with new Atheism include Victor Stenger (physicist), Laurence Krauss (physicist), Jerry Coyne (biologist), PZ Meyers (biologist), AC Grayling (philosopher), Michel Onfray (philosopher), Dan Barker (former pastor), Michael Shermer (historian of science), Bill Nye (biologist), and Neil degrasse Tyson (physicist). Though this list is hardly comprehensive, it is I think representative of the strong (though not exclusive) domination of New Atheism by scientists, particularly biologists and physicists.

This preponderance of scientists in the New Atheism contrasts greatly with the much larger proportion of prominent philosophers among Old Atheists. Key atheist figures from the twentieth century include Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul-Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Anthony Flew, Michael Martin, John Mackie, and Richard Rorty. All of these figures, with the possible exception of Freud, were notable philosophers who provided robust and challenging arguments against religion. Such thinkers, as I have indicated, are much less preponderant among the New Atheists. Indeed, a number of New Atheists or allied thinkers, such as Dawkins, Krauss, and Tyson, have publically expressed their disinterest and indeed active distain of philosophy in general, or philosophy of religion in particular. From their public remarks, many New Atheist thinkers and their supporters seem to endorse some form of scientism, a view (not widely accepted even by scientifically-minded philosophers) which asserts in essence that science is the only legitimate way of acquiring knowledge about the world. New Atheism has largely turned its back on serious philosophy, embracing science as the queen of all human knowledge.

The Christian Resurgence

Contrasting sharply with the New Atheist turn away from philosophy, since roughly the late 1960s there has been a surprising resurgence of theism in general, and conservative Christianity in particular, within the Anglo-American philosophical world. This resurgence has been manifested in several ways, including the publication of a series of highly influential works by thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, and William Lane Craig. Supporting this burgeoning Christian scholarship have been two academic societies, the Evangelical Philosophical Society was (founded in 1977), and the Society of Christian Philosophers (established 1978). Both these societies have their own peer-reviewed academic journals, respectively Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy, which regularly publish articles relating to Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics.

This resurgence of conservative Christianity with the academy has been mirrored by the rise in popular evangelical apologetics. A simple Google search reveals a positive cornucopia apologetic ministries and organisations: The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (founded 1995), Creation Ministries International (founded 1977), The Christian Apologetics Alliance (established 2011), Reasonable Faith (founded 2008), and Cold-Case Christianity (founded 2013) are just a few representative examples. Many of these groups and thinkers are financed and publicised by evangelical Christian universities such as Biola University, Denver Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Southern Evangelical Seminary, all of which also over masters degrees in apologetics. Needless to say, organised atheism lacks anything like this degree of institutional support.

This new brand of evangelical apologetics bears little resemblance to the uneducated, scientifically illiterate caricature that New Atheists frequently present of theists. On the contrary, many of these Christian thinkers utilise a wide range of cutting-edge discoveries and concepts from both philosophy and the sciences. In his Kalam Cosmological and Fine Tuning Arguments, for example, William Lane Craig synthesises old philosophical arguments with new scientific discoveries and ideas such as the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, Boltzmann branes, and quantum cosmology. Alvin Plantinga has constructed a sophisticated and much-discussed version of the Ontological argument using modal logic, and has also built upon recent work in reliabilist epistemology to develop a careful argument defending belief in God as properly basic. Richard Swinburne has used principles of inductive logic and bayesian inference to argue for the Resurrection of Jesus. Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins has argued on the basis of modern findings in biology and neuroscience for the compatibility of Christianity with evolutionary biology.

New Atheism’s Intellectual Shortcomings

What do the New Atheists have to say in response to this rising tide of increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced evangelical apologetics? With a few exceptions, such as the excellent writings of Dawkins and PZ Meyers against creationism, and the work of Stenger critiquing the Fine Tuning argument, on the whole the answer seems to be relatively little. One searches in vain through the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others for detailed, careful examination of the apologetic arguments raised by Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig, and others. Indeed, as I noted above, generally New Atheist thinkers express considerable distain for philosophy of religion, and evince little or no interest in presenting carefully-crafted responses to apologetic arguments. A related severe shortcoming of the New Atheist movement is its predilection towards outmoded scientistic approaches to philosophy, harkening back (though generally without attribution) to the early-twentieth century Vienna School in holding that claims which are not scientifically or empirically verifiable or testable are meaningless and not even worth discussing.

The New Atheist movement is also particularly poor at advancing any positive arguments in favour of atheism as a worldview. A common approach is to mock religion for its many absurdities, denounce its many negative social and political consequences, and then make various self-aggrandising statements to the effect that modern scientific discoveries in biology, physics, neuroscience, etc, have made theism obsolete and indefensible. The multifarious epistemological, ontological, ethical, and other assumptions which underpin such beliefs are rarely addressed, and almost never with reference to contemporary literature on the subject.

There are a number of atheist philosophers who have produced sophisticated, thoughtful responses to Christian apologetic arguments, including Kai Neilsen, Theodore Drange, Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Michael Ruse. Such thinkers, however, have substantially lower profiles than either their New Atheist or Christian apologist counterparts, and also typically have not been much associated with the New Atheism movement. Indeed, Michael Ruse has been highly critical of New Atheism, describing it as ‘a bloody disaster’. Similar views have been echoed by other philosophers, for example in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, it is remarked that ‘New Atheists are largely seen as bush-league by professional philosophers of religion’.

My assessment of New Atheism as a movement, therefore, is that it represents a shift in atheist thinking away from the philosopher and towards the scientist, and consequently has led to a relative decline in the intellectual standing of atheism as a worldview. Indeed, whilst New Atheism has been successful in raising the profile of non-belief and in drawing greater attention to the harm and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion (both noble pursuits to be sure), I believe it has failed in its endeavour to provide a rigorous, carefully constructed, philosophically defensible account of the world around us and our place within it.

Why it Matters

Why should we, as rationalists and critical-thinkers, care about these developments? I think there are several reasons. First, as freethinkers we have an obligation to the pursuit of truth through examination of the best available evidence, careful argumentation, and critical analysis of reasons given for different beliefs. It reflects very poorly upon our position if we continue to repeat the slogan ‘there is no evidence for the existence of God’, whilst turning a blind eye to the many rigorous, carefully-development arguments that have been and continue to be advanced by Christian apologists and theistic philosophers.

Second, inquiring minds who seek out the best evidence and arguments increasingly are encountering the writings of Christian apologists and philosophers, and then searching in vain for persuasive responses in the New Atheist literature. This leads some, I suspect non-trivial, number of people to either adopt or maintain strong evangelical convictions. This is of concern to me because it represents, particularly in the case of young thinkers, a diversion of talent and intellect away from potentially more productive endeavours such as science or humanist causes, towards Christian apologetics programs, theology, or Christian ministry. To me it is a tragedy that even a single person would devote their life in pursuit of a false set of beliefs, let alone that this may happen in part as a result of the failure of New Atheists to provide clear and robust refutations of apologetics material. A corollary of this is that atheists themselves might also be concerned about holding false beliefs, particularly if they cannot provide adequate responses to apologetic arguments.

Third, the prestige and influence of any intellectual movement is, in the long run, substantially affected by its ability to add to the store of human knowledge, and to produce new and insightful ways of understanding the world. For the most part the New Atheists, (in disturbing contrast to the new apologists), have failed to do this, and I believe it is partly as a result of this failure that their influence in intellectual circles is waning, and will continue to wane unless the movement substantially lifts its intellectual game.

All of my criticisms of New Atheism would not be so much of a concern if this represented but one among many competing brands of atheistic belief, since if New Atheism proved not up to the challenge of providing rigorous philosophical responses to the new apologetics, other approaches to atheism could fill its place and step up to the intellectual mantle. Unfortunately, given the relatively small monetary and organisational resources of atheist, freethought, and humanist groups (certainly in comparison to the many incredibly well financed Christian churches and universities), it seems that there is not really room for more than one significant ‘brand’ of atheism. New Atheism seems to have ‘crowded out’ other approaches to atheism, at least in the popular consciousness and discourse. Consequently if New Atheism fails to present a philosophically rigorous and persuasive response to the new apologists, this will be taken to represent a failure of atheism or freethought as a whole to provide such a response. To avert this deeply concerning outcome, we as rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists, must learn to better combine the New Atheist passion not to be silenced with the Old Atheist respect for careful philosophical argumentation. Anything less represents, in my view, an abdication of our intellectual and social responsibilities.

Sources

Craig, William Lane. “Does God Exist?” Philosophy Now (2013).

Dougherty, Trent, and Logal Paul Gage. “New Atheist Approaches to Religion.” In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, edited by Graham Oppy, 2015.

Ruse, Michael. “Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster.” Science and the Sacred (2009).

Taylor, James E. “The New Atheists.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2015).

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Reflections on ‘Why I am not an Atheist’

Introduction

Recently I went along to an event entitled ‘Why I am not an atheist’, in which Scottish pastor and Christian apologist David Robertson answered questions outlining his answer to this question. Here I just want to respond to some of his remarks and record my reflections on the event. Overall I thought the evening was pleasant. It is always interesting to hear other people’s ‘worldview stories’, and I appreciated that Robertson emphasised at some points that he wasn’t making an assertion about what everyone should believe, but just outlining his reasons and thought processes about the various issues raised. I found this approach refreshing, and glad he did not pursue the approach that some apologists take of throwing out dozens of reasons which are supposed to be convincing to all those who hear and properly understand them. That being said, there were a number of things that grated at me about his remarks over the course of the evening. Here I want to discuss a few of them in turn. Since most of the words of this essay focus on criticisms, it is easy to infer that I disliked the evening or thought all Robertson’s remarks were rubbish. That isn’t the case – I am glad to have attended and glad these events can take place. However, since I value discourse and interchange of perspectives, I think its appropriate for me to focus on discussing the points of disagreement.

Critiques of Focus and Tone

Let me first begin by expressing my frustration at Robertson’s almost obsessive focus on New Atheism. This was manifested in his continual referencing of the works and sayings of various New Atheist writers, predominantly Richard Dawkins, but also people like Laurence Krauss and Steven Hawking. Granted there was some discussion of Bertrand Russell, largely in response to a few questions from the moderator, but overall the focus was overwhelmingly on the New Atheists. To some extent this is understandable, as these figures have certainly been the highest profile atheists of recent years and still attract a great deal of public attention. However, as many other prominent atheist scholars themselves have noted, New Atheism is also an extremely intellectually shaky version of atheism, at least when it comes to actually engaging with tricky philosophical issues. I think New Atheism has some valid political/social points to make, but beyond that it has little of value to add to the discussion. In particular, as I have said many times before, New Atheist arguments as to why one should not believe in God or why all religions are false, are almost universally crap. They just aren’t well thought-out, carefully developed arguments. If one is going to seriously consider atheism, I think its important to consider and respond to the writings of respected, contemporary atheist philosophers who write on relevant subjects, such as Graham Oppy, Quentin Smith, Michael Ruse, Jordan Sobel, and J.L Mackie (the latter two being deceased but much more recent than Russell). Such people basically never get a mention by Christian apologists in these sorts of talks, and this event was no exception. It is for this reason that I expressed to Rob Martin afterwards, perhaps 70% seriously, that we should think about doing an event on atheism in which all discussion of New Atheism and the works of New Atheists was banned. I think this would actually do a lot to advance the discussion.

Another thing that I found detracted from the evening was Robertson’s occasional tendency to be quite dismissive towards atheists, and to disregard their arguments or views with little serious thought. This is probably directly related to the first point, that most of his interaction has probably been with New Atheist thinkers or ‘fans’ (he did explicitly mention spending a lot of time on the Richard Dawkins forums so I think this is a safe assumption). In my experience, the arguments presented by such people to defend their atheism philosophically are quite weak, and often show profound lack of ignorance of pertinent philosophy, history, or science. As such, a degree of frustration and annoyance on Robertson’s part is understandable. Nevertheless, particularly in the context of the topic of the evening, I felt that some of his remarks were in very poor taste. With regard to the problem of evil, an issue that has been debated for centuries and continues to be the subject of much serious philosophical discussion, Robertson said “I think the problem of evil turns middle class liberals away from God because its a nice excuse”. To me, a flippant remark like this is up there with ‘people just believe in God because they like the idea of an afterlife’, as a mean-spirited just-so story by which one avoids having to seriously think or engage with disagreeable viewpoints. Is it really plausible that the problem of evil is not at all a serious intellectual/spiritual/emotional problem? I know Robertson didn’t exactly say that, but it sure sounds like that’s what he meant. When I hear a Christian apologist say something like that, I’m basically ready to end the discussion, because it seems clear they are not the slightest bit interested in what I actually think or why I think it, but will just dismiss anything I say as me making ‘an excuse’. I do hope this isn’t actually the case for Robertson, but this remark in particular (as well as a few other more minor ones) rather put me on the defensive for the rest of the event.

Critiques of Arguments

There were times in the evening when I felt that Robertson was not doing justice to the atheist arguments or positions he responded to. One particularly bizarre example which (to be honest) still confuses me, I will relate below. Robertson was responding to Russell’s claim that the theist cannot give any sensible answer to the question ‘who created God?’ He said that this is an “intellectually vacuous question”, and remarked (apparently only half joking) that if his twelve year old daughter could not have easily come up with a response to this, then he would have disowned her. Robertson’s own response was that theists have never claimed that God is a created being, and so asking who created him is a completely irrelevant and moot question. Now I don’t know if Robertson is being fair to Russell’s argument here, and honestly I don’t really care, as this argument itself is not what interests me. Rather my purpose is to compare Robertson’s response to this argument to a different argument that he presented a bit later in the evening. With respect to ethics, human rights, and equality, Robertson claimed that “you cannot argue that all human beings are equal if your whole basis is naturalistic materialism because obviously we are not”. He then gave an example of what he meant, saying: “I’m not equal to Brad Pitt in looks, or Usain Bolt in speed, or Steven Hawking in intelligence, etc.” It seems perfectly obvious, however, that when we are talking about all people being equal in this context, we do not mean that they are equal in every ability, or in every type of ranking we could devise. The idea is rather something like that every person is deserving of equal basic respect, or has equal human rights, or is of equal moral value, or something along these lines. Obviously there is a discussion to be had about what exactly we do mean by this sort of claim, but Robertson’s comparisons are clearly irrelevant, since no one is claiming the sorts of equalities that he mentions. I really find it hard to fathom how Robertson can be so dismissive of the ‘who created God’ argument on the one hand, while a few minutes later himself making such an absurdly weak and misconstrued argument.

There were a few times during the evening when Robertson made assertions that I thought were very dubious and should not have been stated in the bold, confident way there were without at least providing some further explanation, evidence, or qualifications. I will cite a few key examples. In response to some of the claims of New Atheists he stated ‘‘there’s lots of things that science can never explain because science by definition is not able to explain them”. Now I don’t know whether I agree with this statement or not, primarily because I have no idea what ‘definition’ of science he is talking about. He didn’t provide one, nor refer to any of the many competing theories and accounts of what constitutes ‘science’ that have been discussed in the literature. There is simply no such thing  as ‘the definition of science’, and thus no way to make any sense of what he’s talking about here. In a second example, Robertson claimed that “there has never been a human society ever where people did not believe in some sort of God.” Once again, I don’t know whether I agree with him or not because I don’t know what he means by ‘some sort of God’. If he means ‘any sort of supernatural being’, then I would probably agree with this statement, though defining it so broadly blunts the force of this claim rather a lot. If instead we interpret ‘God’ to be something at least moderately close to an all-powerful personal creator being that Christianity believes in, then I think his statement is clearly false. Two obvious counterexamples are Buddhist societies, and the many animistic religious traditions which worship nature-spirits, without necessarily having any concept of a supreme being over and beyond nature. There’s obviously much to examine here concerning conceptions of God and comparative anthropology of religion, and that may well go beyond what he wanted to convey, but I don’t think that justifies such a careless sweeping statement. I expect that somebody who spends much of their time writing and speaking about such things to be more precise in their statements and not make such bold, dubious, unqualified claims as this.

I now turn to a couple of the two major substantive reasons that Robertson gave for why he isn’t an atheist. He first mentioned that he didn’t think atheism could make any sense because “there’s no way that all this (nature/the world) is an accident”. I would have liked him to expand a bit more on exactly what he meant by this statement. At other times over the course of the evening he mentioned the origin of life, the origin of the universe itself, and cosmic fine-tuning, but none of these were ever really expanded upon or fleshed out, so it’s difficult to really evaluate what sort of argument he would want to advance. One thing that I did want to mention is that he appealed to the idea that nature/life/the universe clearly looks as if it were designed by an intelligence, and that therefore it is reasonable to infer that (more probably than not) it actually was. I actually think that in essence this is a perfectly valid argument – I just disagree with the crucial premise that the world looks as if it were designed by an intelligence. Robertson mentioned Dawkins and Hawking as saying something along the lines that they agree the world looks as if it were designed, however I’m not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate. So what if they do think that – does that mean that it must be right? The issue is what reasons we have for thinking that the world/the universe look designed. I don’t think one can simply side-step the issue by asserting that some of the staunchest advocates of atheism concede the point.

Before leaving this issue there’s one further clarification I’d like to make, which may perhaps relate to the Dawkins et al quotes about design. This is to say that just because human minds are such that we have a strong tendency to make certain judgements or ascriptions doesn’t mean that such judgments are actually the most justified when all the evidence is properly considered. To give an example, to many people the famous ‘face on Mars’ really does look like a face that some agency constructed there. We are so well adapted to seeing faces that we make this ascription so readily, even of a blotch of blurry shadows on rocks. Of course, there is ample evidence, including multiple high-resolution images of the site in question, that there is no face there. And yet, to many people (including myself!) it still looks like there is a face on Mars! My point here is that something can ‘look like’ it is the case without it following that, when all evidence is properly considered, that is actually the best explanation for the phenomenon. Thus when people like Dawkins say that nature ‘looks designed’, I believe what they are saying is that we see design in nature because of the way our minds work (e.g. tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objections, find patterns in noise, etc). They aren’t saying that ‘all considered, the evidence seems to indicate that nature is the product of design’. Its just our sort of naive, intuitive reaction that leads us to see design, but this is overcome by more careful consideration of all the evidence (like the face on Mars case). Now perhaps you think that there aren’t the sort of powerful countervailing reasons in the case of ascribing design to the universe as there is to rejecting the face on Mars, or perhaps you think that these naive ‘intuitive’ ascriptions of design are more reliable than Dawkins et al give credit. I’m not attempting here to adjudicate those issues. Rather, what I’m saying is that there is a plausible way to understand what Dawkins et al say about the appearance of design without them granting the premise that design actually is the best explanation for the state of the world.

The second major, substantive reason that Robertson advanced as to why he is not an atheist was the familiar one that if atheism were true, then there would be no free will, no good or evil, and no morality. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure if Robertson would accept this characterisation of his position, but I did the best I could to note down his remarks and follow his reasoning – I just found this segment of the evening particularly disjointed. For instance, Robertson clearly expressed his view that determinism and free will are incompatible, but its unclear how this is relevant to atheism because the two (atheism and determinism) are completely independent positions. He did mention this in the context of responding to the problem of evil, however, so perhaps he had not intended that as an actual argument against atheism. Similarly, he clearly seemed to think that without God there would be no good or evil and no morality, but he never explained why. He didn’t mention anything about the various metaethical theories that attempt to account for the nature and origin of morality (most of which make no appeal to God), so its unclear to me what the basis of his objection is. Again, however, perhaps he never intended to offer this as an argument so much as a personal view of his – as I noted before, I found this part hard to follow. Later on in the evening he returned to the issue of morality when he discussed the idea that ‘all humans are equal’, as I discussed above. He argued that according to Christianity, all humans are created in the image of God, and thus are all fundamentally equal, whereas ‘naturalistic materialism’ cannot make any such appeal. Aside from the issues I discussed previously regarding this question, I also just fail to see the logic behind this argument. Suppose Robertson is right and all humans are created ‘in the image of God’. How does it follow that all humans are equal? Some humans could be created more ‘Godlike’ than others, thus negating any equality. I know this isn’t what traditional Christian doctrine says, but if the claim is really ‘Christian doctrine says all humans are equal because they are made in God’s image’, its hard to see how this is actually a compelling argument to anyone who doesn’t already accept such a doctrine. It doesn’t seem to follow from being a theist that all humans are equal, but rather seems to depend on particular theological assumptions that Robertson didn’t really discuss or defend. I also note that ‘naturalistic materialism’ is but a small subset of atheism – Buddhists are atheists but often not naturalistic materialists. As such it would have been good to know more about why Robertson rejects atheism as a whole, and not simply one particular subset of it.

Conclusions

Concluding, I was refreshed and encouraged by some aspects of Robertson’s presentation, in particular his willingness to engage, to share views, to take a more personal approach than ‘here’s a list of twenty reasons to believe’, and to acknowledge that he isn’t in the business of telling people what to believe. At the same time, I was disappointed and frustrated by the undue focus on New Atheism at the expense of engaging with more robust arguments from other atheist or non-religious philosophers, as well as the occasional unsubstantiated claims and poorly-structured arguments. I think these issues are important and typically far too little attention is paid to them in the popular discourse. As such I think its important that, when we do have these opportunities, we should seek to carefully articulate our own views with appropriate nuance, be charitable to opposing views to present them in their strongest form, and in general  stay respectful of those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately I didn’t feel like these virtues were exemplified as well as they could have been in this event.

Note: my quotations from Robertson at the event are based on notes that I took at the time. I believe they accurately reflect the views he presented at the event, however I cannot guarantee they are word-for-word perfect renditions, as I do not have access to a transcript.

Why Arguments are (almost) Never Convincing: A Dynamical Systems Approach to Belief Change

Introduction

What I want to do in this piece is outline a perspective for thinking about belief systems and how people change (or don’t change) their beliefs in response to new arguments and evidence. The key observation that motivates this analysis is that in general, when people have a particular entrenched perspective with respect to an issue or subject, it is very rare that they find any new evidence or arguments sufficiently persuasive to significantly change their beliefs. I have been thinking about a model that would have to explain why this is the case, a model which incorporates concepts from physics and dynamical systems theory. That might sound very complicated, but I think the key idea is relatively simple. I am not claiming that this approach is exhaustive or completely accurate, but rather that it may be a useful way of thinking about when and why people change their beliefs, and why they seldom do. My focus here will be on disputes surrounding complicated and controversial matters such as politics, religion, and philosophy, though the model my be applicable elsewhere as well.

Background

Imagine a bowl with a marble in the middle, lying stationary at the bottom of the curve of the bowl. If we jiggle the bowl around, or push the marble up one side or another, it will roll back down towards the centre. It may jiggle around for a while, rolling up one side and down the other, but eventually it will return to rest at the centre of the bowl. This behaviour corresponds to that of a potential energy well in physics, whereby a system has a state in which its energy is lowest, to which the system tends towards as a result of the overarching tendency to reach its lowest energy state. Perturbations away from this minimal energy state will generally only be temporary, and eventually the system will return towards its ‘preferred’ state. In the language of dynamical systems, this state is described as a stable equilibrium, because if the system (in our example the system consists of the bowl and the marble) is perturbed slightly one way or the other, it will eventually return to its initial resting equilibrium state.

Now imagine that we placed two bowls next to each other, and joined together their edges so that they were connected by a smooth, curved edge, sort of like two sinks nested next to each other in the same bench. If we placed our marble exactly halfway in between the two sinks, we could get it to rest there without moving. However this equilibrium state, unlike the one where the marble is in the middle of one of the bowls, is unstable, since a small nudge in either direction will send the marble rolling into one of the bowls, never to return. This illustrates the key point that in contrast to stable equilibria, unstable equilibria are not robust to small perturbations.

Now imagine that we place a third, much smaller and shallower bowl in between our larger bowls (again with the edges smoothly joined), but placed on a platform so that its top is level to the top of the other bowls. This may be slightly more difficult to imagine, but essentially it would correspond to a shallow sink placed in the same bench in between two deeper sinks. A marble placed in the centre of this smaller will remain there and will return when subject to small shocks. However if we push the marble with enough force, it will have sufficient energy to exit the central bowl, travel over the curve connecting it to one of the larger bowls, and fall down to the centre of this bowl. From this location, it will obviously not be able to return to its original position in the shallower, central bowl. In the language of dynamical systems theory, this central bowl is called a locally stable equilibrium – it is robust to small perturbations, but not to larger ones. Note that it is also possible in theory to knock the marble out of the larger bowl all the way over the lip and back into the shallower central bowl, however this would take a very large push indeed. Thus we say that the larger bowl is a more stable, ‘lower energy state’ (in physics terminology) than the central bowl.

A final concept that I need to introduce is that of a dynamical system. The precise technical definition of a dynamical system is not of interest to me here, and would detract from the key logic of the argument. What I mean by ‘dynamical system’ is in particular a system which changes over time in a manner which is (in some sense) ‘recursive’, such that changes of the system depend upon the current state of the system. A simple example would be differential equations, which are equations whereby the value of one variable (say x) depends on the rate at which that variable is changing with time (dx/dt), which itself depends upon the current value of x. The key property is that many such dynamical systems can evolve in quite complicated ways, leading to some solutions which are stable (corresponding to equilbria discussed above), and others that are not. Dynamical systems evolve over time in what is called the state space, which corresponds to the set of possible values that all the variables could take. A simple example of a dynamical system is a pendulum. The system is dynamic because the velocity of the pendulum depends on the height of the pendulum, which in turn obviously depends on past velocity values, producing a potentially complicated temporal trajectory. The state space consists of the possible values of the height of the pendulum and the rate at which that height is changing. As the pendulum moves from side to side, speeding up and slowing down under the force of gravity, the pendulum moves through the state space, constantly changing its velocity and position values.

The Model

Having outlined some key concepts, I will now apply these ideas in understanding belief formation and change. The key idea is to consider the process of belief formation as a dynamical system seeking to find the ‘lowest energy’ state. Imagine viewing our set of bowls from above. Our marble corresponds to a particular person, and the marbles position in and around the bowls represents that person’s current set of opinions and beliefs about a specific subject; ‘where they are at’ intellectually. We can describe movement in three dimensions: north and south (the ‘y axis’), east and west (the ‘x axis’), and up and down (which corresponds to the depth below the top of the bowl). The position along the x-axis represents one’s opinion on one particular specific question, while the position on the y-axis represents one’s opinion on a different particular question. The depth below the top of the bowl represents one’s degree of confidence in one’s overall set of positions. It should be noted that for any sufficiently complicated issue there will be far more than two particular questions of relevance – they may be dozens or even hundreds. Mathematically there is no limit to how many dimensions a dynamical system can have, however for simplicity of visualisation we will stick with only two for this example, always bearing in mind that for real world examples we would always wish to extrapolate out the analysis to many more dimensions.

The system is said to be dynamical because each individual evaluates the x- and y-axis positions interdependently. That is, it is not the case that they arrive at a position on the issue corresponding to the y-axis and then independently decide upon the issue corresponding to the x-axis. Rather, they consider both issues simultaneously, so that the plausibility of a particular position along x is judged in relation to the position along y, which in turn is judged with respect to the position along x, and so on. The overall degree of confidence (depth) then depends upon how well one’s views on the two issues cohere or fit together, and so will also vary in accordance with the positions along the x- and y-axes.

Sometimes it may seem to us that with respect to a particular issue, different people have opinions that are spread ‘all over the map’, with each person being similarly confident in their individual set of beliefs. In the context of our model, this would correspond to a situation where hundreds of marbles were thrown into a flat-bottomed swimming pool, each at the same depth (degree of confidence), spanning the entire range of views along the x- and y-axes. In practise, however, I think this is a relatively rare outcome. More typically there are a few particularly deep wells that seem to serve as attractors for opinions, with only a few people residing outside of these deeper wells. Each of these wells, or deep bowls to use our previous language, corresponds to a particularly common set of positions on the subject in question. The reason these wells are so common is because they are self-sustaining, or in the language of dynamical systems, they are stable equilibria. Small changes in beliefs along either the x- or y-axes will not have any significant long-term effect on the system (the individual’s set of beliefs), which eventually will return to its initial state at the bottom of the well. The reason few people reside in between the major wells is because these positions, being much ‘higher up’ (corresponding to the connections between bowls discussed above) are unstable equilibria, where small perturbations in beliefs will lead to that individual ‘rolling down’ into one or other of the surrounding wells, arriving at a new stable equilibrium.

Applying the Model

To provide an example for this rather abstract model, consider the issue of the truth of Christianity. In this broad issue, two (among many other) specific questions would be that of whether the cosmological argument for the existence of God is found to be persuasive, and whether the historical evidence for the resurrection is found to be compelling. In theory, any possible combination of positions on these two issues is possible. In practise, however, probably only three main subsets of beliefs will be found: those who find neither argument very compelling (atheists and agnostics), those who found both compelling (Christians), and those who find only the cosmological argument compelling (some Muslims, Jews, and generic theists). Of course other combinations and intermediate positions are possible, but in general views will tend to cluster around these three positions. The reason for this, I think, is that these positions constitute attractor ‘wells’, such that people whose views are nudged in the direction of one of the wells are likely to fall into that well, seeking the lowest ‘energy state’ (i.e. a position with a high self-sustaining degree of confidence).

I think there are two processes key at work that lead to this outcome. The first is the interdependent way in which people analyse different specific arguments: those who are compelled by the cosmological argument are likely to find the evidence for the resurrection more persuasive, which in turn can feed back and increase one’s confidence in the cosmological argument. Conversely, a skeptical attitude towards one of these is likely to contribute to a skeptical attitude towards the other, thereby in turn reinforcing the original skeptical belief. In this way particular clusters of beliefs corresponding to ‘potential wells’ are likely to be far more stable than other possible clusters of beliefs, and thus result in these clusters being far more populated. The second process is that people tend to seek greater confidence and certainty, and this is likely to be found when their set of opinions on particular issues is mutually coherent and reinforcing. Again, this leads to certain particular clusters of beliefs, corresponding to the self-sustaining potential wells, to be more highly populated than other possible positions.

The combined effect of these two processes explains why people with intermediate or conflicting views on many particular questions are relatively rare. These people are not highly confident because their views are not mutually reinforcing. As such they seek out new arguments and evidence and are much more likely to change their views in the direction of greater coherence. Intermediate positions are thus unstable or only locally stable, so small perturbations (consisting of exposure to new arguments and evidence) are much more likely to push them into more stable potential wells. Once in one of these wells, however, opinions are much more stable. Even when confronted with potentially powerful counter-evidence on one particular question, the combined force of all one’s other positions (forming the coherent, mutually-reinforcing position) serves to pull one back to the original, stable position near the bottom of the well.

The only time when most people will move out of their wells is when they are subject to very large shocks, or enough moderate shocks in a relatively short span of time. Large enough shocks, or enough additive smaller shocks, may be enough to push someone out of their potential well and into the unstable area that lies between opposing wells. From there they may eventually return to their original well, or find themselves in an opposing well. Either way, it is unlikely that they will remain in the intermediate position for long, since this corresponds to an unstable or only locally stable equilibrium, where beliefs are not mutually reinforcing to a large degree and hence overall levels of confidence (corresponding to the depth of the potential well) remain low.

Virtues of the Model

This model can allow us to understand not only why people tend to cluster around a few particular positions (sets of beliefs about particular questions), and why people seldom change their belief when exposed to new evidence, but also why people sitting in opposing ‘wells’ (stable sets of beliefs) tend to react in exasperation at the ‘irrationality’ of each other. Consider the example of an atheist providing one argument in favour of their position. A christian evaluates the argument not in the context of the atheist’s set of beliefs (where the argument is persuasive), but from the context of their own set of beliefs. Because their set of beliefs is very different, and also because it is mutually coherent and stabilizing, the christian will either not consider the argument to support atheism at all, or they will not regard it as sufficient evidence to move from their current position (again, because their current position is a stable equilbrium, robust to even moderate shocks). The atheist seeing this intransigence to (from their perspective) such an obviously reasonable argument, regards the Christian as unreasonable and irrational. Exactly the same process occurs in reverse when the Christian presents arguments in favour of their viewpoint. As such both sides become polarised, viewing the other as unreasonable or irrational.

This model can also explain another puzzling phenomena: when the same evidence is claimed by different people as supporting their own, mutually incompatible positions. In the context of our model, this corresponds to a push in the same ‘direction’ leads to very different subsequent movements in the state space of possible positions. The explanation for this behaviour is that the way people respond to evidence and arguments (‘pushes’ or ‘perturbations’) in a dynamical system does not depend only on the size and direction of the push, but also on one’s current position in state space (i.e. one’s current set of beliefs). As such, the very same evidence (push in the same direction) can be interpreted by both the atheist and the christian as supporting their existing set of views. This renders the idea that ‘evidence speaks for itself’ as essentially impossible, since the manner in which evidence is interpreted depends upon one’s current set of beliefs.

Conclusion

I think it sheds quite a bit of light onto the process of belief formation and change, including explaining why people tend to congregate into groups with particular sets of beliefs, why once arriving at such a stable equilibrium in a ‘potential well’ people are unlikely to change their beliefs, how different people can react so differently to the same evidence, and why people on both sides of an issue can plausibly see each other as being intransigent and irrational. I think the model can also account for why substantial belief change is rare but possible, since it requires sufficiently large or sufficiently many shocks to one’s beliefs, and these shocks are (plausibly, in many cases) randomly distributed across people, substantial belief changes will occur but only relatively infrequently. Supposing we take this model as useful and informative (though certainly not complete), how should we respond? What effect, if any, should this have on our discourse and belief forming process? My honest answer is that I don’t really know, I’m still thinking this through. I think that overall the model paints a pessimistic picture of prolonged and resilient disagreement, where each side regards itself as rational by its own lights. I suspect more can be said here, but at the moment I’m still uncertain as to where to go with this analysis. Nevertheless, I think it does highlight the importance of intellectual humility and of respectfully considering opposing positions from a sympathetic viewpoint.

The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

Introduction

In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist

Theodicies

Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.

Defeaters

The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.

Conclusion

In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.

The Question of Christianity: A Personal Manifesto

Synopsis

In this article I outline the general framework of my overarching approach to the question of whether I should become a Christian. Beginning with William James’ observations that the decision regarding whether to adopt Christianity is both momentous and forced, I acknowledge that Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise nor necessarily something we decide upon purely by our own volition. Nonetheless I conclude that the question of whether Christianity is in fact true is still paramount, and proceed to examine how one might go about determining the answer to this question. In doing so, I discuss the need to consider arguments for relative plausibility rather than certainty, and outline my view about the importance of basing our beliefs on reasons and evidences that are reliably truth-tracking. I then apply this framework to four major types of arguments advanced in support of Christianity: philosophical arguments for God’s existence, arguments based on the bible, experiential evidences, and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, in each case discussing how compelling I find the arguments, and why I ultimately find them to be insufficient. I then briefly consider three arguments which I believe mitigate against the truth of Christianity, namely the problem of evil, religious confusion, and evils done in the name of Christianity. I conclude with some reflections on the importance of the question and a plea for more sustained dialogue.

Background and Methodology

Momentous and Forced Options

Most fundamentally, the question I seek to answer is not ‘is Christianity true?’ More important to me is the even broader question ‘should I live as a Christian?’ The second question is related to the first, but the two are not synonymous. In particular, the question as to how one should live one’s life is much deeper and richer than merely a question concerning what is true. It depends not only on questions of facts about existence, but also on one’s values and on a certain element of personal choice as to what one wishes to commit oneself to. It also depends upon the set of plausible alternative life paths that are available, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

To take a fairly trivial example just to illustrate the point, if Buddhism is true (read ‘the claims made by Buddhism about suffering, reincarnation, nirvana, etc’) and I don’t become a Buddhist, my journey toward enlightenment will be that much slower, but I will still have another chance in another life. This is not the case for Christianity or for Atheism, and as such, the cost of being wrong about Christianity is greater (at least by this analysis) than the cost of being wrong about Buddhism. This is similar to William James’ idea about how ‘momentous’ a decision is: choosing not to live as a Christian is a more momentous decision than choosing not to live as a Buddhist.

The decision to live my life as a Christian is thus what William James calls a “momentous” one: it has weighty consequences. It is also what he calls a ‘forced option’, meaning that I cannot decide to merely sit on the fence and wait until I have more evidence available. Like the decision to get on a train or to get married, there is no middle position available: either I live as a Christian or I do not. I may decide to postpone serious thinking about the question until later, but then I have already made the decision (at least for the moment) to not live as a Christian. I thus find myself forced to choose one path or the other. I can switch paths at any time, but at any given time I am always on one path or the other. (Note that I don’t wish to imply that living as an atheist and living as a Christian are totally distinct paths that always diverge, nonetheless they clearly diverge in enough ways for me to speak of them constituting different paths.)

The Key Questions

So how can I decide whether or not I should live as a Christian? For me there are three main subsidiary questions that I need to address in order to arrive at an answer:

  1. What is the probability that Christianity is true? By ‘Christianity being true’ I mean that ‘Jesus really was the son of God who died and was raised for our sins, etc’.
  2. Is living as a Christian a morally good life? This is where I raise concerns such as being able to trust that God is good given apparent biblical atrocities, etc.
  3. What are the costs of living as a Christian? Here I don’t mean things like ‘won’t get to sleep in on Sundays as often’, I mean more substantive things like giving up other goals and priorities.

Currently I am most interested in answering 1, as I think this is the most important and most difficult of the three. As such, the rest of this essay will be concerned with this question. I may address 2 and 3 in a future piece.

What Role for the Holy Spirit?

Christians generally believe that becoming a Christian is not primarily/not only/not at all (depending on their theological dispositions) something one chooses for oneself. They generally believe that it is something that happens through the grace and intervention of God and the Holy Spirit. I do not wish to dispute this, only to highlight that this point seems to me to be not particularly relevant to my enquiry here. Should I just wait until the moment when God decides to make himself known to me in a way that I will accept, ‘road to Damascus’ style? Whatever the exact role God may or may not play in the process, I still need to decide how to live, and I need to go about answering this question in the best way I can. I can’t control what (if anything) God decides to do for me, and so I find it useful just to speak as if converting to Christianity were something entirely up to my own volition, even if, theologically-speaking, many Christians would not agree with this. Thus, I’m using this language as a shorthand so that I can avoid making this qualification every time.

The Need to Consider Plausibility

How can I decide how likely it is that Christianity is true? In considering this question, it is important to understand what I mean when I talk of probability or plausibility. The fact of the matter is not probabilistic – either Christianity is true or it isn’t. But since I don’t know what the fact of the matter is, the question becomes one of how confident I can be given the evidence that is available. That is, how strongly does the evidence support the contention that Christianity is true over alternate possibilities? I think it absurd to say that it is impossible that Christianity is true, and likewise absurd to say that it is impossible that it is false. Maybe one quarter of both my atheist and Christian readers alike will now find themselves disagreeing, but so be it – I feel quite confident in claiming that neither extreme can be justified. Having ruled out certainty in either direction, I am left in the uncomfortable middle position of having to weigh up relative plausibility. This is no easy task, and so we are led back to our initial question – how can it be done?

Evidence and Truth-Tracking

It is my view that there is only one useful way (meaning ‘a way that actually helps us to achieve our object’) to go about answering this question, and that is by utilising what I (very broadly) call “reason and evidence“. Although there are always more subtleties and complexities than can be gone into at any one time, for now I’ll define “reason and evidence” as being those things that help us, with some better than chance degree of reliability, to ‘track the truth’ of propositions in some relevant subject domain. This notion of truth-tracking is subtle, but extremely important. Informally (I can present a more formal analysis another time for those desiring of more rigour), something is truth-tracking if the presence or existence of that thing tends to go along with, or be indicative of, the truth of certain propositions in a particular domain.

Consider the simple example of tossing a coin. My looking at the coin and seeing which side it landed on (in general) reliably tracks the truth as to what side it actually landed on. If I close my eyes and make a random guess, this does not reliably track the truth of what side it actually landed on. If I was incredibly tired and removed my glasses, my looking at the coin would probably less reliably track the truth as to what side it actually landed on, but would probably still be better than random guessing. Thus truth-tracking is an inherently probabilistic notion, always a matter of degree.

To take a more relevant example, suppose I find an argument for God’s existence which, upon consideration, I find to be quite compelling. Rather than merely assuming that because the argument seems compelling to me, that therefore the conclusion is likely to be true, I ought to ask myself ‘how reliably truth-tracking is the process of people like me analysing such arguments about God’s existence?’ The answer is, in general, that this process is not very reliably truth-tracking at all, as so many intelligent and honest people come to such different conclusions despite going through essentially the same process. I am therefore very wary of any argument which relies on me (or any other lone person) coming to a conclusion on the basis of their own analysis when there exists substantial disagreement on that question among epistemic peers (a consideration which, it should be noted, makes me at least somewhat less confident about nearly everything I say in this piece).

It is often difficult to determine how reliably truth-tracking any given type of argument or mode of reasoning is. However, difficulty in making such a determination does not entail that the concept has no value. It seems that we can say with reasonable confidence that beliefs based on widespread scientific consensus are quite reliably truth-tracking, those based on consensus of historians are somewhat less reliable but still fairly good, arguments that appeal to careful philosophical investigations are quite unreliable but probably still better than naïve unreflective opinion, while convictions based on subjective personal experience are often very unreliable at tracking truth. I wish to emphasise that this does not constitute an adoption of some form of scientism. Subjective personal experience can often be a reliable truth tracker (e.g. how hot is it today?), but I don’t think it very reliably truth-tracking for questions of the sort ‘how likely is Christianity to be true?’. For our purposes here, therefore, I believe it is accurate to say that scientific sorts of evidence are much more reliably truth-tracking than personal experiential evidence.

Needless to say, if I knew what the truth was, I would just believe that, and then I wouldn’t need to worry about all this nonsense about plausibilities and truth tracking. But since I don’t know of any place where true beliefs rain from the sky or grow on trees ready for the picking (that is, there is no easy way to just get straight to true beliefs without mediating processes), I must resort to the next best thing – finding methods that track truth and apply them as best as I can. This won’t guarantee that I hold true beliefs in the end, but given that I don’t know what the truth actually is, this method gives me better chances than any other.

Starting Points: Atheism and Agnosticism

Having established some basis for how I will conduct my analysis, I will now say a few words concerning my starting point. Of course, this is really only a hypothetical starting point, for in practise we all start from wherever we happen to be at the moment, bringing all our personal experience, knowledge, biases, and quirks with us. Nonetheless, I think it can be helpful to consider such a hypothetical starting point as a way of framing one’s thinking. Understood in this manner, therefore, I start from a position that I call atheistic agnosticism. Let me explain each of these terms.

I start from a position of atheism, because I believe that absent a reason to believe something, the proper default position is not to believe it. Crucially, this is not the same as saying that one disbelieves it. Consider “there are an even number of hairs on my head at this moment”. I do not believe this proposition, for I have no reason to. That does not, however, mean that I affirm its converse, “that there are an even number of hairs”, which would be equally unjustified. In this sense I am agnostic: I do not know. I begin the enquiry about Christianity, therefore, as an atheist in the sense that I do not affirm the proposition ‘God exists’, and an agnostic in that I do not have any particular reason to prefer atheism over theism.

I believe that in order to shift from this position of agnosticism and move my confidence in one direction or the other, it is necessary to have, as I say, ‘reasons and evidence’. Remember that by this I just mean things that help me to reliably track the truth of whatever proposition I’m examining. Thus, saying ‘I need a reason to change my beliefs’ is, for me, tantamount to saying: ‘I will only alter my best guess about what is true away from the initial agnostic position because of some factor which I have reason to believe will reliably improve my best guess about what is true’. So I’m not looking for reason or evidence that feels compelling to me, or that helps me to convince others, or that (by some other standard) grants sufficient epistemic ‘warrant’ or ‘justification’ to my belief. I am looking for things that will help me track the truth, so that I can increase the chances that my belief will be accurate, given that I start out from a situation of not knowing what the truth is.

Four Types of Arguments for Christianity

Having laid out this rather extensive groundwork, I will now fairly briefly consider four broad classes of reasons that I have heard offered in support of increasing one’s credence in the truth of Christianity. I find some of these arguments more compelling than others, in the sense that some of them cause me to raise the plausibility I assign to the truth of Christianity more than others, but ultimately none of them cause me to increase my credence by enough to push me above some fuzzy but nonetheless real threshold beyond which I would be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. For each type of argument, I will briefly explain why I find it lacking.

Philosophical Arguments for the existence of God

This includes the cosmological argument, ontological argument, teleological argument, etc. Philosophers are not the experts on God’s existence, but they are expert on the question of evaluating the strength of philosophical arguments. As such, I regard the collective opinion of professional philosophers to be more reliably truth-tracking than my own personal attempts to evaluable these arguments. Since philosophers are a state of fairly considerable peer disagreement concerning the strength of philosophical arguments for God’s existence, some being persuaded by them, while others are not, I find it hard to accept that the strength of the argument s is sufficiently strong either way for me to reliably make a large update to my opinion in either direction.

On balance, I do think that arguments such as the cosmological argument and the fine-tuning argument constitute some reason for increasing my credence in the proposition that God exists, however because of the immense disagreement surrounding them (and also the many unknowns to which such arguments necessarily appeal, such as knowledge about the nature of time, causation, and possible alternate laws of physics), the amount by which my credence is increased is not large.

Arguments based on the Bible

This category includes arguments based on the power, majesty, coherence, transforming influence, beauty (etc) of the bible. Such arguments are, I think, even weaker than philosophical arguments, in the sense that the fact that one may find a particular holy text to be very powerful, transforming, coherent, etc, is clearly not a very reliable tracker of whether that text is actually true. All one need do is examine what Mormons say of the Book of Mormon, Muslims of the Koran, Buddhists of the Pali Canon, Hindus of the Upanishads, Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other such examples, to see that this method of arriving at beliefs about religious texts is exceptionally unreliable. Most people who read a religious text and find it to be compelling nonetheless are not followers of the correct religion (whichever religion that turns out to be).

Even worse, there are no real criteria on which to judge these sorts of properties. Philosophical arguments are often difficult to judge objectively, but at least there are some clear and agreed upon standards for doing so. In the case of comparing holy texts I would say there are none at all, and that all judgements made concerning the beauty, coherence, and power of such texts are fundamentally little more than subjective reactions which are not truth-tracking in the slightest. Muslims say the Koran is without comparison among any book written by man. Christians say it isn’t. Who is to judge? I know of no criteria on which this can be decided (note that I’m not talking about criteria for historicity. I’m talking about beauty, coherence, power, etc). In the end, I simply find no good reason (again, read ‘truth tracking reason’) to shift my belief in response to considerations such as these.

Subjective and Experiential Reasons

Subjective, experiential, personal reasons for believing in Christianity are not reliable trackers of truth, for essentially the same reasons noted above. Namely, such reasons are clearly not truth-tracking given the immense amount of religious disagreement. Millions of people from dozens of religions around the world and throughout history have reported all sorts of spiritual, supernatural, personal, mystical, divine experiences which have been immensely formative and persuasive for them, and on which they believe their own particular religious beliefs can be justified. Given that such experiences are so diverse and contradictory, however, it is clear that this is not a reliably truth-tracking process for forming beliefs about any particular properties of the divine. Some people think that these are all different manifestations of the same underlying God or spirit, but Christians (generally) do not believe this. Christians believe that they have correct beliefs about God and other religious have incorrect or less correct beliefs. If we are to determine the truth of this claim, we must seek out evidence beyond from subjective religious experiences, for these equally well support essentially all other religious claims. I think subjective religious or spiritual experiences can have value in helping one to stay committed and motivated in one’s chosen faith, but not in providing evidence (in the sense I understand it) that the path one has chosen is the correct one.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is, in my view, by far the strongest piece of evidence in favour of the truth of Christianity. Nevertheless, after a great deal of thought and consideration, while I do find that it constitutes a reason for thinking Christianity more probable, I do not think it provides sufficient evidence to overcome the countervailing factors I discuss below. I outline my thinking on this point in detail in my HBS model of the resurrection appearances. In very brief terms, I believe that human psychology and sociology is more than capable of explaining what took place with Jesus’ followers after his death, and that no reference to supernatural interventions is warranted or necessary to explain the way events unfolded.

Three Arguments Against Christianity

I will now, again very briefly, outline some considerations that lead me to think that Christianity is relatively less likely to be true. These reasons are not definitive, but I do think they hold some value as being somewhat reliable in helping me to arrive at true beliefs.

The problem of evil/suffering

I believe that the existence of the immense quantity of apparently pointless suffering in the world is less likely in a universe governed by an all-powerful and all-good God as posited by Christianity. It is true that such a God may have reasons or constraints unknown to us that explain the continued existence of such evils, however I do not believe I have any reason to believe that such reasons or constraints exist. Merely stating this as a possibility does not change the fact that, given what we do know, the amount of suffering that exists in the world and lack of any evident reason for much of it is more consistent with a universe that is not governed by a Christian God than in a universe that is. As such, I believe this constitutes a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity by some non-trivial (though not enormous) amount.

The Problem of Religious Confusion

This problem mirrors concerns raised above about religious disagreement and diversity. It seems to me that the Christian proposition that God wants all mankind to enter into a relationship with him is less consistent with the immense plurality of religions and of apparently genuine religious piety and experience, than the proposition that religion is an invention of man (or also the proposition that God is indifferent to which religion we follow). Again, there may exist reasons why God allows so much apparent religious confusion and competing revelations, etc, however as noted above, the mere possibility of their existence does not alter the fact that we do not know of any such reasons, and yet we do know that religious confusion exists, and seems to conflict with a Christian God’s desire to relate to all of mankind. As such, I consider the problem of religious confusion/divine hiddenness to be a reason to lower my credence in the truth of Christianity. Again, not by an enormous amount, but by an amount that is not insignificant.

Evils done in the name of Christianity

This includes such things as Old Testament atrocities allegedly commanded by God, misogynistic teachings of parts of the Bible and many churches historically, events such as the crusades and inquisitions, Christian homophobic teachings and doctrines, and other such things. None of these are definitive, and indeed I probably regard them as weaker than the previous two concerns, however I do feel that they mitigate somewhat against the plausibility of Christianity, so I include them here.

Conclusions

The brief analyses of the various arguments I have provided above will no doubt be unsatisfying to many readers. They are intended more as summaries of my thinking and as starting points for further discussion, rather than as comprehensive or definitive accounts. All in all, after considering the arguments, I am left in a position of thinking that the reasons advanced for increasing my credence in the truth of Christianity are outweighed by the reasons to reduce my credence, and so are insufficient for me to be willing to affirm the truth of Christianity. (Note, however, that I am less confident about my ‘reasons against’ than I am that the provided ‘reasons for’ are insufficient).

Returning to my original question, I find that the probability that Christianity is true given the truth-tracking reasons I have available is too low for me to feel like becoming a Christian is the best decision for my life. This is where I currently stand, acknowledging a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance on my part. I am constantly searching for additional reasons, new considerations, and previously unconsidered evidences that may lead me to change my mind. Indeed, I think I have good reason to expect to find at least some such reasons and evidences, as I have changed my mind about such things several times in the past. My opinion is therefore provisional and subject to change as I learn and think more. That said, I will not change my beliefs without reasons of the sort I have described. I want to believe truth things and live my life accordingly, and truth-tracking reasons (or something very much like them, even if I choose to abandon that particular mode of description) are the best way I know of achieving this, given the state of ignorance in which I begin.

I would hope others would join me in this quest for truth, and that we can aid each other in pursuing our end with firm resolve, not wavering, without fear for what false beliefs we may need to give up, or new true ones we may need to adopt. This journey is not easy. We must not get complacent because of the comfort of a waystation we find along the way. As long as ignorance remains – and for us humans it always does – the journey must go on. We must not be satisfied with anything less than beliefs that are as true as we can reasonably make them. For questions as important as those we consider here, nothing less will do.

Why I Left Mormonism and Became an Atheist, and What it Would take for me to Return to Religion

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss my five main reasons for leaving Mormonism: historical anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the existence of many competing prophets and holy books, changes made to temple ordinances, the inaccuracy of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham, and the unreliability of subjective spiritual experiences as evidence. For each reason I include a reflection as to the general lesson I learned from this which I now apply in my examination of other religions. I conclude with some remarks about the important of seeking truth through reason and consideration of alternative views.

Introduction

I was born into a Mormon family. Both my parents were Mormons, and for the first twenty years of my life we went to church (more or less) every Sunday. I regularly read the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, attended additional church activities, volunteered at church events, and on several occasions gave talks at different congregations. When I was nineteen years old I went overseas for nine months (shorter than the usual two years owing to health reasons), to share the teachings of my church full time in what Mormons call ‘serving a mission’.

Several months after returning home, I was preparing a church lesson that I was to present when in the course of my research I stumbled across some historical information about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon which was concerning to me and with which I had previously been unfamiliar. I cannot recall exactly what this first material was, but it marked the beginning of a period (from 19th December 2009 to 28th February 2010) of intense study, reflection, and prayer. After a great deal of reading and an immense quantity of soul-searching, I eventually came to the conclusion that I was most likely mistaken in my beliefs, and that Mormonism was probably not the true religion.

I told my parents of my decision on the morning of Sunday 28th February 2010, and as of that day I stopped going to church, and have never returned since. In the intervening five years, I have learnt much more about philosophy, history, and science, and grown a great deal as a person. Nevertheless, my outlook and views are still shaped to a significant degree by my time spent as a Mormon, and my experiences in leaving Mormonism.

In this piece, therefore, I explain my reasons why I changed my beliefs, and the lessons I believe that I learned from these reasons which affect how I evaluate religious and other claims to this day.

Book of Mormon Anachronisms

Key point: the Book of Mormon contains numerous references to animals, technologies, and languages which did not exist in pre-Columbian America.

Out of Place Animals and Artefacts

I was raised to believe, as do most Mormons, that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record of various peoples who lived on the American continent which Joseph Smith translated into English by the power of God. It was not always clear to me how the events it narrates intersected with secular history, but nonetheless I believed that the two would be reconcilable if we had sufficient information. When I began to read more concerning the historicity of the Book of Mormon, however, I discovered that many specific practices, animals, and objects that it refers to simply did not exist in Pre-Columbian America.

Among those things mentioned explicitly in the Book of Mormon for which (as far as I am aware) no evidence has been found in ancient American cultures, and which mainstream scholars and scientific institutions do not believe existed or were found in the ancient Americas, include:

  • Knowledge of Hebrew or other Semitic languages (Mosiah 1:2, Mormon 9:33)
  • Jewish religious sacrifices, priests, temples, etc, (Mosiah 6:3, Mosiah 2:3, 2 Ne. 5:15)
  • Jewish synagogues (Alma 16:13, Alma 32:1)
  • Record keeping on plates (Mosiah 8:5,9)
  • Horses or the wheel (3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 4:4, Alma 18:9-12, 1 Ne. 18:25, Enos 1:21, Alma 20:6, Ether 9:19)
  • Domesticated cattle (Enos 1:21, Mosiah 13:18, 3 Ne. 3:22, 3 Ne. 6:1, Ether 9:18)
  • Donkeys (Mosiah 12:5)
  • Steel (Jarom 1:8, 2 Ne. 5:15, Ether 7:9)
  • Advanced metallurgy, including smelting (Mosiah 21:27, Helamen 6:11, Ether 7:9, Ether 10:23, 2 Ne. 5:14)
  • Silk (1 Ne. 13:7, Alma 1:29, Alma 4:6, Ether 9:17, Ether 10:24)
  • A land northward covered with bones, rusted metal weapons, bronze and copper breastplates, many ruined buildings, and more written records (Mosiah 8:8-10)
  • A tradition or mythology of being cast out of an ancient land and travelling across the sea (Mosiah 10:12)
  • Metal coinage (Alma 11:5-19)

Apologetic Responses

Learning about all these discrepancies was greatly disturbing to me. Like many Mormons, I was ignorant about the history and archaeology of the ancient Americas, and was not aware that the sorts of artefacts that the Book of Mormon predicated should exist simply had never been found. I went to the Mormon apologetics websites to see what responses existed, thinking there was presumably some explanation for such apparent discrepancies. The responses that I found seemed to fall into three main categories:

  • Appeals to some obscure finding of a possible horse fossil or piece of steel, etc, which were advanced by various Mormon apologist scholars but did not seem to be accepted by any other academics.
  • Claims that the Lehites, Jarodites, and Mulekites (the three separate groups of people the Book of Mormon mentions having travelled to the Americas from the Old World) were only some of the peoples present in the ancient Americas, and thus we fail to find remains of their language, buildings, or material culture because there constituted only a fairly small proportion of the overall population.
  • By far the most common response, however, is that when Joseph Smith used words like ‘horse’, ‘steel’, and ‘silk’, he was not referring to horses, steel, and silk as we would understand them, but rather was using these words as translations for words which originally referred to something that looked somewhat like, or functioned somewhat like, horses, steel, silk, etc. Thus, the translation is not literal, but analogical. Horse does not refer to Equus ferus caballus, but instead to llamas or deer or some other animal, and is only rendered as horse for ease of narration and understanding.

My Reaction to the Responses

I thought about these responses, read some rebuttals to them written by others, and eventually came to the following conclusions:

  • Obscure findings not accepted by mainstream scholars and scientists might be legitimate, but it is unlikely. The fact that mainstream scholarship does not support the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the way that it does for much of the Bible (at least post-Exodus) counts as evidence against it being a historical record, even if it is not totally decisive evidence.
  • Other peoples may have existed in the Americas at the time or after the time of the Book of Mormon (though this is not a belief that seems to be widespread in ‘Mormon culture’, where generally it seems to be believed that Native Americas are descended from Lehites and Mulekites), however the cities spoken of in the Book of Mormon are large enough and the cultures advanced enough that we should expect to see at least some surviving remains and records.
  • The explanation about ‘alternate translations’ was the one I found least compelling. First of all, this is something virtually no Mormons I knew believed or spoke about – certainly I was always brought up to believe that in the Book of Mormon, horse meant horse, steel meant steel, etc. Secondly, many of the items referred to simply have no known plausible alternate referent: there are no pre-Columbian domesticated animals that were anything like horses or cattle or sheep. Bison (one proposed candidate for ‘cattle’), were never domesticated, and deer (a proposed candidate for ‘horses’) are not ridden or used to pull chariots. Another suggestion is that ‘horses’ refers to ‘llamas’, but horses and llamas are really nothing like each other, and llamas are not used to pull chariots. Likewise, there was no smelted metal that was used at the time in ancient America which could plausibly be described as ‘steel’. Thirdly, the notion that ‘horses’ and ‘cattle’ are loose translations of some other form of animal seems inconsistent with the fact that some names in the Book of Mormon are left untranslated, including the unknown metal ziff (Mosiah 11:8), and the animals ‘cureloms and cumoms’ (Ether 9:19). It seems implausible that Joseph Smith would choose to, or be instructed to, use misleading translations like ‘horse’ and ‘steel’ whilst at the same time leaving some names untranslated. If ‘steel’ is actually some other metal or material, why not leave that untranslated? Of why not just call ziff ‘steel’? This inconsistently seems to have no explanation if Joseph was indeed receiving divine revelation during his translation.

Problems with Dating the Birth of Christ

There is one further problem with the historical accuracy with the Book of Mormon which, as far as I know, I may be the first to have noticed (I’m sure other people have come across this too, but I can’t recall having read of it anywhere else). The problem concerns that dating of the birth of Christ. 1 Nephi 1:4 states clearly that the record begins at the beginning of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, which has been dated to 597 BC. In 3 Nephi 1 versus 1,4, and 26, it is made clear that the signs associated with the birth of Christ occurred exactly 601 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. So, if Lehi left Jerusalem in 597 BC and Christ was born 601 years afterwards, that places Christ’s birth in the year AD 5 (remembering there was no year 0). This date is simply far too late; even the traditional dating places Christ’s birth at 1 BC, and most modern scholars accept a date of 4 BC or earlier, given that Herod died in this year and so was not alive in 1 BC.

Thus, according to the Book of Mormon, Jesus was born about nine years after he actually was. I do not think it is plausible to argue that the dates given are approximate, as says quite clearly ‘the ninety and second year of the reign of the judges’. This also tallies with Mosiah 29:46, which tells us that the first year of the reign of the judges (when Mosiah died) occurred 509 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, and 509 plus ninety-two equals 601. Joseph Smith was generally quite good with keeping dates in the Book of Mormon internally consistent, but in the one instance where we have the ability to cross-reference them with known historical events we find a discrepancy. A nine year discrepancy in dates is hardly sufficient by itself to totally discredit the Book of Mormon, but to me it was interesting (as I discovered it myself as far as I know) counterevidence to the belief that the book was divinely inspired, especially given that Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any Book on earth”.

Lesson 1: Historicity matters

The lesson that I take away from this examination of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is that it is exceptionally important to examine religious events that claim to be historical, and determine whether their claims are consistent with what is known from history and archaeology. Any inconsistencies that are uncovered do not by themselves necessarily disprove the religious claim, since history and archaeology can be wrong. Inconsistencies of this sort do, I think, count as evidence against the claims, and the greater are the discrepancies, the less plausible it becomes that the religious events in question actually took place.

Before accepting a new religion, therefore, I would need to conduct a careful investigation of whatever historical claims it makes, and determine the extent to which they are validated by, or at the very least consistent with, what we otherwise know about history. This is one reason why, for instance, I have become very interested in the historicity of the New Testament, and am concerned by some of its potential inconsistencies and problems (particularly the birth narratives). I am now very wary of religions that make false claims about history.

Competing Prophets and Holy Books

Key point: there are numerous prophets and holy men who have produced their own works of scripture comparable in various ways to the Book of Mormon, and there is no clear basis for accepting the claims of one over the other.

Other Claimed Prophets and their Scriptures

One of the most common reasons for accepting the Book of Mormon as divinely inspired that I heard as a Mormon was that there is no possibility that an uneducated young man like Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon by himself, given its considerable length, narrative complexity, internal consistency, inclusion of many specific cultural and technical details, and application of various literary conventions. I myself found this argument quite compelling for quite some time. During the course of my research, however, I discovered that there have been a great many alleged ‘prophets’ who, like Joseph Smith, have written lengthy and intricate works which they claim to have been revelations or divinely-inspired translations of ancient records.

A brief selection of some of these, many of them being breakaways from the main body of the Mormon church, includes: James Strang who wrote The Book of the Law of the Lord, Goker Harim who wrote The Sealed Portion of the Brother of Jared, Christopher Marc Nemelka who wrote The Sealed Portion: The Final Testament of Jesus Christ, Art Bulla who wrote The Revelations of Jesus Christ, and Joseph Morris who wrote The Spirit Prevails. Particularly intriguing is the case of Pearl Lenore Curran, an alleged spirit medium around the turn of the 20th century who produced a voluminous amount of literature (including many poems) allegedly all authored by the spirit she was in contact with.

View of the Hebrews

I also found out about a very interesting work called View of the Hebrews, which was published seven years before the Book of Mormon by New England clergyman Ethan Smith. It shares with the Book of Mormon a number of key themes, including that native Americans are descended from Israel, and the inclusion of many references to Old Testament prophets. There is no evidence of which I am aware that Joseph Smith knew of this book or copied it in any direct way, and there are many differences of details between the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews.

I do believe, however, that the existence of this work does show that many of the core ideas and major themes of the Book of Mormon were already circulating in the intellectual and social spheres in which Smith was raised. This does not prove that the Book of Mormon is not divinely inspired, but it seems to me more consistent with the hypothesis that Joseph Smith wrote the book out of his own (very vivid) imagination drawing upon ideas that were current at the time, than with the hypothesis that the content of the book was revealed de novo from a divine source.

Could Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon?

Another claim with which I was familiar was that the time taken to translate the Book of Mormon was far too short for it to have been done without divine inspiration. During the course of my research I began to have doubts about this claim, and at one point I sat down to do the math. The bulk of the Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph Smith during a single period of 90 days, some sources saying that only about 65 of these days having been used for translation work. The Book of Mormon is 275,000 words long (which includes quite a lot of material copied verbatim from Isaiah which should probably be excluded from this count). If we assume Smith worked 65 days, he must have produced an average of 4,200 words per day, which for an eight hour day is roughly 530 words per hour, or about nine words per minute. Putting it that way, the output seemed much less miraculous to me. Still quite impressive to be sure (Smith was known to be a keen story teller and have a very active imagination), but hardly superhuman.

It must also be remembered that Smith originally started writing over a year before, when he produced the 116 pages that were subsequently lost. Thus Smith had quite a lot of time to think about, and perhaps even make notes, concerning his story – it’s certainly not the case that he started from scratch at the beginning of those 90 days. Also, Joseph Smith had a further eight months to make corrections and adjustments before the book was first published in 1830. Even then, the first edition is not the polished work we read now: it was not broken up into versus, and the chapter divisions were much longer and different to those now used. There were also a large number of spelling and grammatical errors which were progressively corrected by the church in subsequent editions. Considering all these factors, I came to conclude that although the production of the work by Joseph Smith was quite impressive, it was not a superhuman feat, and can certainly be explained without appeals to divine revelation.

Lesson 2: Comparative religion matters

The primary lesson I have taken away from this analysis of different prophetic works is the importance of not considering the merits of only a single perspective, but to instead compare the relative merits of different religious teachings. Joseph Smith’s claims and writings looked far more impressive to me when they were all I knew about, and much less impressive after I compared them alongside the alleged prophecies and holy books produced by many other religious leaders. It is so easy for one viewpoint to look amazingly compelling when it is the only one we have seriously examined.

This observation has contributed to my current deep concern with religious disagreement, and desire to find some clear, objective criteria on which the truth or falsity of given religious claims can be adjudicated. The mere fact that a religious book and body of thought seems incredibly impressive and compelling to us is insufficient, when there are so many in other traditions who think that their revelations, their beliefs, and their holy books are likewise so uniquely compelling. We need to try to look at things from comparatively form multiple perspectives, and not merely from within the narrow framework of the one tradition we are comfortable and familiar with.

Changes to Temple Ordinances

Key point: certain Mormon temple ordinances have undergone significant changes since they were originally restored by Joseph Smith, contrary to the church’s own teachings that God’s ordinances cannot be altered.

A Note to Mormon Readers

In this section I do not discuss or reveal any details or aspects of the current endowment ceremony which endowed members have covenanted to keep sacred. I limit myself to general remarks, and go into details only in the case of certain elements of the ceremony that have now been removed. If even this makes you uncomfortable, skip this section.

Changes to the Endowment

All Mormons go to religious services at a chapel each Sunday, but those who are of age and deemed worthy are also encouraged to attend another set of worship services in a building called the temple. There, Mormons perform special ceremonies and ordinances, the most important of which is called the ‘endowment’. Most members experience the endowment ceremony as a combination of pre-recorded videos and live actions performed by those present. With a few small exceptions, the entirety of the ceremony, which lasts over an hour, is scripted, and thus is performed word-for-word identically on every occasion. This is relevant because this script has been changed in some important ways since the endowment was introduced. Aspects of the endowment which have been significantly altered include the following:

  • Penalties: the endowment used to contain penalties associated with revealing any of the sacred elements of the ceremony. These were removed in a 1990 revision of the ceremony.
  • Ministers as agents of Satan: the ceremony contained several scenes in which a protestant minister was portrayed as an agent of Satan. This was removed in the 1990 revision.
  • Wives obedience to husbands: women used to be required to promise to ‘observe and keep the law of your husbands, and abide by his counsel in righteousness’. In 1990 this was changed to ‘obey the Law of the Lord, and to hearken unto the counsel of her husband, as her husband hearkens unto the counsel of the Father’.
  • Oath of vengeance: beginning in the days of Brigham Young and lasting until around 1930, the endowment ceremony included an oath of vengeance for the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. It read ‘you and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation’.
  • There have also been substantial changes to another ordinance called the initiatory. For more information on this see http://www.i4m.com/think/temples/temple_ordinance.htm

There is no question about these changes; they are not lies made up to discredit the church, as some Mormons tend to say of such things. More information can be found on the relevant wikipedia pages, and also on the FairMormon Mormon apologetics website.

Divine Ordinances Cannot be Changed

While Mormons and non-Mormons alike may be troubled by the content of these removed portions of the endowment, most troubling of all for me when I discovered this information was that it seemed to directly contradict the church’s teaching that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly in the specified manner and cannot be altered. This was one of the justifications of the need for a restored church in the first place, namely the argument that the original correct form of many ordinances like baptism had been lost and corrupted over time. As stated in the official church publication Teachings of the Presidents of the Church:

“Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed.”

Likewise from the church magazine the Ensign:

“Through time and apostasy following Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, however, the divine authority of the priesthood and the sacred ordinances were changed or lost, and the associated covenants were broken. The Lord revealed His displeasure over this situation in these words:“For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;”

And from church General Conference:

“We explained briefly the Apostasy and the Restoration: that there is vast evidence and history of an apostasy from the doctrine taught by Jesus and his Apostles, that the organization of the original Church became corrupted, and sacred ordinances were changed to suit the convenience of men, and that today good people all over the world are confused with contending religions with differing doctrine and methods of worship.”

Apologetic Responses

Mormon apologists have claimed that there is a difference between changing the ordinances themselves, and changing some outward details of their presentation. This is certainly contrary to what I was always taught, that God’s ordinances must be performed exactly. It also seems contrary to teachings such as this:

“No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God.”

According to this passage, every small detail of ordinances is important. Changes as substantial as removing entire portions of the endowment would thus surely be counted as ‘important’ details which contribute to the spiritual value of the ordinance, and thus presumably ought not to be changed. The church does not like to discuss these matters, and discourages members from speaking too openly about temple ordinances, even beyond the specific aspects that members promise not to reveal. As such, relatively few members (especially younger members) are aware of these facts. When I became aware of such things, my confidence in the church, though not completely undermined, was considerably shaken.

Lesson 3: Openness is essential

The main lesson I gained from learning about the changes to temple ordinances was the importance of openness to critical examination and discussion. The LDS church is notoriously sensitive to criticism, and very secretive about matters such as changes to the temple ordinances. I am not talking here about keeping certain aspects of the ordinances sacred; I’m talking about hiding from members the changes that have been made to key salvific ordinances (this also applies to various aspects of church history, but that’s another matter).

I do not believe that truth needs protecting, and were I to adopt another religion I would look for one which is open about its past and present activities, and which does not attempt to keep certain facts from its members or discourage them from thinking critically about such things. Any sign of resistance to critical open enquiry of this sort is thus very suspicious and off-putting to me. No true religion should feel the need to ‘protect’ its members from facts that they think may be unpleasant or may lead them to doubt.

Inaccurate Translation of the Book of Abraham

Key point: Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Abraham from ancient Egyptian papyri. Some of these papyri have been discovered, and the translations provided by modern Egyptologists bear no resemblance to those given by Smith.

Background to the Book of Abraham

The Book of Mormon was not the only ancient record Joseph Smith claimed to have translated. In 1835, Joseph Smith acquired several ancient Egyptian papyri taken from some mummies that had been brought to America from Egypt several years earlier. At the time, Egyptian hieroglyphics had still not been deciphered, and owing to his famed translation abilities Smith was asked to attempt a translation. Smith examined the papyri and declared that they contained the writings of the ancient patriarch Abraham. He translated the papyri over the course of a few months, and the resulting work, the Book of Abraham, was published several years later and eventually canonised by the church in 1880. It now forms a key component of the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four canonical texts of the church.

Joseph Smith’s Inaccurate Translations

The original papyri owned by Joseph Smith were long thought to have been lost, but in 1966 several fragments were discovered in some university archives. It is unclear exactly what proportion of the original documents these fragments represent, however they do include large portions of one of the figures (called facsimiles) that are included in the Book of Abraham alongside the text (see here). Numerous professional Egyptologists have since examined these recovered fragments, and they are uniform in their assessment that their content bears no relation whatever to Smith’s translation. Essentially, the papyri are first century Egyptian funerary texts, and contain no mention of Abraham or any of the other doctrinal or historical elements contained in the Book of Abraham.

Apologetic Responses

When first I discovered these facts I was shocked and dismayed. This seemed to be a very clear disconfirmation of Joseph Smith’s ability to translate through divine assistance. I immediately sought out responses of Mormon apologists to see what they had to say on the matter. In preparing the present article, I discovered that just last year the church published a piece on its website discussing the translation of the Book of Abraham. The answers provided in this piece fall into two basic categories, and are essentially the same as those I read on Mormon apologetic sites when conducting my original research:

  • Since we have only recovered a fraction of the original papyri, we do not know whether the portions we have are the same as those Joseph Smith translated from, or what degree of overlap there may or may not be.
  • Joseph Smith may not necessarily have engaged in a literal textual translation of the papyri. I will quote from the lds.org essay on the subject, which articles this perspective quite succinctly: “Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artefacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalysed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri”

My Reaction to the Responses

I never considered these responses to be very satisfactory. At the very least, we know that Joseph Smith did not translate facsimile 1 correctly, since we have recovered large portions of it, and if any inference can be made about the missing portions of the papyri, surely the most reasonable presumption would be that they would likely resemble in subject matter the portions that we do have, not that they would concern matters totally unrelated. As to the idea of a ‘non-literal translation’, once again this is not what I had always been taught. I was always told and read in church materials that the Book of Abraham, like the Book of Mormon, was a genuine translation of a real historical document.

There is no way we can know from historical investigation whether or not Joseph Smith received some sort of spiritual revelation catalysed by the papyri, however from my perspective the evidence fits far better with Joseph Smith having falsely believed in his divinely-inspired ability to translate, rather than God actually having inspired Joseph to write something that bore no relation to the document he thought he was translating, and then have highly misleading teachings about said document continuing to be taught throughout God’s true church. Like everything else, this alone is not completely definitive, but for me it was exceptionally compelling counterevidence against Joseph being a true prophet of God.

Lesson 4: Beliefs need to be testable

From my investigations of the Book of Abraham, and particularly upon discovering the ‘not a literal translation’ response, it became increasingly clear to me just how important it is that we have same method of testing or falsifying our beliefs. Not in some scientistic sense, but simply in the sense of being able to determine whether they are likely to be true or not. The ‘spiritual translation’ answer was so unsatisfactory to me precisely because there is no way to tell whether it is true or not, and can therefore be said of essentially any text from any religion. Thus, any religion which I joined now would to have at least some methods of testing out the truth of its claims, and not merely rely on completely untestable claims of spiritual revelation.

The Unreliability of Subjective Spiritual Evidence

Key point: Mormon doctrine places very heavy emphasis on personal spiritual witness as the prime method of learning the truth of the church, however the existence of many competing religion, as well as the findings of modern psychology, show that evidence of this sort is extremely unreliable.

Spiritual Witness in Mormonism

By far the single biggest reason why I accepted the truth of the Book of Mormon and the restored church is because of the validating ‘spiritual witness’ I believe I had received from God. Mormons believe this is by far the most important and most fundamental way one comes to a knowledge of the truth of the church, often appealing to a passage found in the Book of Mormon in Moroni 10:4, which reads:

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Mormons and those investigating Mormonism are encouraged to read the Book of Mormon and pray sincerely to God to provide them with a spiritual witness of its truth. For many years, I believed that I had received such a witness, which I described as a powerful sensation of peace, comfort, and insight that I gained when reading and pondering the Book of Mormon. I believed that this was a witness from God telling me that the things I was reading and praying about were indeed true, that they were good, and that they were from God.

Cognitive Biases and Conflicting Experiences

During my period of reflection, however, I started to learn about human psychology. I found out about expectation bias (how our expectations enormously shape our perceptions), cognitive dissonance (how we use motivated reasoning to manage apparently conflicting beliefs), the availability heuristic (our tendency to misjudge the probability of events based on a few particularly vivid examples), post-purchase rationalization, pareidolia (seeing patters where none exist), and selection bias (distorting our view of something by the biased way in which examples are chosen). I learnt about a fascinating book called When Prophecy Fails, which documents how may end of the world cults continue to believe even after their predictions fail to come to. I learnt about the immense research documenting the fallibility of human memory, how every time we recall an event we reconstruct and potentially alter the memory, and how relatively easy it is to generate false memories.

Learning about these things, I began to see how they applied in so many ways to my own experience as a Mormon, and also to the way in which Mormons approach spiritual witnesses generally. When I prayed for spiritual confirmation, it was with a strong expectation that I would receive it, which greatly increased the chances that I would come to believe I had such an experience regardless of whether or not there was any true supernatural involvement. Pareidolia would help ensure that I interpreted a wide range of potential thoughts, feelings, and sensations as being consistent with a spiritual witness. The immense amount of time and energy I had put into the church throughout my life would lead to a significant amount of cognitive dissonance and post-purchase rationalisation effects if I were to fail to receive a witness, and thus I was much more likely to convince myself that I had received one. My memory of the spiritual experiences I had had, and those I had heard about from others, was likely altered over time and perhaps had changed significantly from the way events originally occurred.

I also became increasingly concerned about the variability of personal spiritual witnesses across different religions. I found examples of people from Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Wicca, all who reported experiences and feelings which were broadly similar in form to those I had experienced, and those I had heard other Mormons witness about. I wondered how different people could receive genuine spiritual witnesses of conflicting spiritual truths. The more I thought about this, the more dissatisfied I became with simply believing that I was right and others were wrong. I could not find any rational basis for thinking my spiritual witness, or those of Mormons I knew, where more likely to be true than those experienced by people in other religions. This realisation, combined with my new knowledge of human psychology and our powers for self-deception, eventually led me to believe that the experiences and sensations I believe I had had were in fact the products of my own mind, and not the result of divine influence.

The Three and Eight Witnesses

It was a result of similar considerations that I came to believe that the testimonies of the three and the eight witnesses (groups of men who claimed to have seen the gold plates from which the book of Mormon was supposedly translated) were also not a reliable source of information. In the course of my research on the matter I came across this quote by Illinois governor Thomas Ford, who opined that the event of the witnessing of the plates may have proceeding something like this:

“The witnesses were ‘set to continual prayer and other spiritual exercises.’ Then at last ‘he (Joseph Smith) assembled them in a room, and produced a box, which he said contained the precious treasure. The lid was opened; the witnesses peeped into it, but making no discovery, for the box was empty, they said, “Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates.’ The prophet answered them, ‘O ye of little faith! how long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, brethren,  every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins ‘ The disciples dropped to their knees, and began to pray in the fervency of their spirit, supplicating God for more than two hours with fanatical earnestness; at the end of which time, looking again into the box, they were now persuaded that they saw the plates.”

I had no reason to believe that the details of this hypothetical account are correct, but it seemed to me that something like this was eminently plausible given what I now knew about human psychology. There were also some other problems with the witnesses which came to my attention, such that virtually all of them were either relatives or friends of Smith, and a number of whom had strong financial and social interests in the success of the church. Also, the witnesses did not give their own independent accounts of events, but merely signed a single document prepared for them, thus leaving us with no way to corroborate their separate accounts with each other, or see whether each of them experienced the same thing, rather than each having their own rather unique spiritual experience which they then misremembered and reconstructed upon later recall as being consistent with the written account. I also found out that a number of other prophets had their own groups of witnesses, including Solomon Spalding and Jesse Strang. I found out about the many sightings of the Virgin Mary, some of them very well documented and with a large number of witnesses (as a Mormon I did not believe in such apparitions). All in all, I was left far less impressed with the accounts of the witnesses than I had previously been.

Lack of Apologetic Responses

Searching for responses to these concerns from Mormon apologists, I could find almost nothing. It was almost as if Mormons had never even thought about such questions before, a notion which I found both bizzare and deeply discouraging. In the face of such evidence and in the absence of any real responses, I became extremely skeptical both of my own spiritual experiences, and of the reported and recollected experiences of others. I no longer considered them to be a reliable way of finding truth, or of determining the veracity of writings like the Book of Mormon.

Lesson 5: Subjective evidence is unreliable

My experience with Mormonism has taught me to be highly skeptical of any claims to divine or spiritual knowledge gained primarily on the basis of personal religious experience, sensations, or feelings. I do not believe that such things are a reliable way of finding truth, and as such any religion which I joined today, though it may have an important place for such experiences, would not elevate them to be the primary means of determining the truth of religious claims.

Bringing Things Together

Leaving Mormonism

By the end of my period of intensive study and reflection, I had come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was probably not a divinely inspired prophet, and that the church he established was probably not God’s true church. I did not come to this conclusion on the basis of any single argument or piece of evidence, but as a result of multiple, largely separate considerations, the five major ones I have outlined here (there were many other lesser considerations as well, but I have omitted them to save space). No single discovery I made was enough to completely undermine my faith by itself, nor did any of them definitively and conclusively disprove the truth of Mormonism. Rather, it was a question of relative plausibility and explanatory power of different ways of interpreting the facts.

Becoming an Atheist

Having come to the conclusion that Mormonism was probably not a true religion, I found myself having little or no reason to continue believing in god. The main reasons why I had previously believed in God were as a result of my belief in the Book of Mormon, in the first vision of Joseph Smith, and also as a result of my own personal spiritual experiences. Having become convinced that all of these reasons for belief were mistaken or inadequate, I lacked any reason to continue believing in God. I thus began describing myself as an atheist or an agnostic, depending on the mood I was in – at present I prefer the term ‘weak atheist’.

Continued Searching

To this day I remain open to the possibility that my decision to leave Mormonism might have been incorrect, and that the Mormon church is in fact true, and that Joseph Smith is in fact a true prophet of God. For me to once again believe in this, however, I would need to find compelling answers to these five problems I have outlined here, as well as a number of other comparatively minor matters that I have not discussed here. To my continued disappointment, none of my Mormon friends or acquaintances were interested at the time, or have seemed interested since, to discuss these issues and concerns with me.

Since leaving Mormonism I have also continued to search for new reasons or arguments as to why I should believe in God, or adopt some religion other than Mormonism. As yet, I have not found reasons or arguments which I find sufficiently persuasive. Nonetheless, my ignorance and limitations remain immense, and so the search goes ever on. I am still only near the beginning of my journey

Lesson 6: We must compare worldviews holistically

Partly as a result of my experiences investigating various aspects of Mormonism, I have come to the view that it is essential to consider a body of evidence collectively, rather than merely examining each argument or fact in isolation. It is certainly important to look at details of each particular argument, but if this is all one does, it is very easy to get caught in the trap of ‘explaining away’ every possible counterargument or discrepancy within the framework of what we already believe. In this way, we never shift our beliefs, and we are not receptive to new evidence.

Instead, we need to make the effort to consciously take a step back and think ‘which perspective, which worldview is most consistent with the evidence as a whole? What is the most reasonable thing to believe that has the greatest chance of being true?’ This means making a genuine sincere effort to understand alternate viewpoints and interpretations, rather than just dismissing them point by point on each particular argument. We need to put on the goggles of those we disagree with, see through their eyes, and then switch back to our own goggles and consider which pair provided the better view of reality. This is not an easy thing to do, but I think that if we wish to maximise our changes of holding true beliefs, it is something we must regularly strive for.

Some Concluding Thoughts on Reason and Belief

Many Christians I know are very committed to their faith, believing very strongly in Jesus and his power in their lives. Nevertheless, I have found that many such persons are unable to answer many of my questions, objections, and criticisms. When I raise such matter, they tend to change the subject, fail to get back to me after saying they will, respond in ways that seem to portray an almost complete lack of understanding of my perspective, or sometimes even flat out say to me that they do not know how to respond. At the same time, such persons, seemingly without fail (although I guess I cannot know for sure) remain unwavering in their beliefs. Nothing I say seems to have much of any impact at all. Even in the very act of being unable to provide any cogent or relevant response to something I have said, they nevertheless maintain the same level of confident certainty that their beliefs are correct. I speak mostly of my Christian friends here (and some of them are among my very dearest friends), though I suspect similar remarks would apply to many of my Mormon friends as well, had I ever had any substantive conversations with them about such matters.

My reaction to this attitude is one of considerable incredulity. It’s not that I want to prove to these people that they are wrong or to get them to change their minds. Rather, it’s a matter of wanting to understand their reasons, and becoming frustrated and disappointed when they seem unable to articulate them. As far as I can see, weighing up and interpreting evidence and arguments is the way we try to distinguish truth from falsity. If we hold on tenaciously to a belief even in the face of objections to central aspects of that belief to which we have little or no idea how to respond, then we are in effect abdicating our role as searchers after truth. If we are right, we hope to be so by sheer luck, not because we have done all we can to cleave true from false beliefs and maximise our chances of holding to the true and rejecting the false.

I refuse to believe that God created us with an intellect only to have us forego its use, and instead wallow in confident certainty in the very face of our own admission (tacit or explicit) that we do not have the tools we need to discern whether our most dearly held beliefs are in fact likely to be true. This is a rejection of the paramount importance of truth, an abdication of our intellectual integrity, and, having given up truth as our guiding light, constitutes a surrender to the vicissitudes of chance and passion to control our destinies. Such a life is not the life I want to live, and I call upon everyone everywhere reject this form of passive slavery to falsity and unreason, and instead fight with all our might, with all our strength, and with all our souls, to find out what is true, and to live by those truths that we find, always with a confidence proportionate to the reasons we have for belief.

This does not mean that we will have all the answers – that would be absurd – but it does mean that we should always have sufficient answers to justify our current level of confidence in how we can know what we claim to know. If we cannot give such answers but nonetheless hold fast to our beliefs, then we are lying to ourselves, and (if he exists) we are lying to God too, for we are pretending to know things that we do not in fact know, or at least do not know with the level of confidence we claim. I am guilty of doing this; I think we all are at times. But that doesn’t make it right or good.

I urge all people everywhere to think more carefully, to learn more, to listen to alternate views, and generally to put more effort into finding and holding onto truth, and not merely the appearance or the feeling of truth. I have no interest in this counterfeit version – only the genuine article will satisfy. I hope that Christians, Mormons, Atheists, and everyone else will recognise their fundamental underlying unity as seekers of truth, and join together on this grand and noble quest to understand this vast and confusing world in which we all live.