Monday, May 10, 2010

Knowledge is Satan's Plan

Over at Mormon Matters there was an interesting discussion about magical thinking in Mormonism. There were some excellent comments made by many. One comment I'd like to address in this post was made by Thomas:

I believe that God does intervene in history — but only in a manner by which he can preserve “plausible deniability.” If miracles were frequent & obvious enough that a reasonable person paying attention would conclude that divine intervention were more likely than not to be occurring, then this life would no longer be a test of our hearts, proving to God (or, more likely given God’s wisdom, to ourselves) that we love God and righteousness for their own sake. It would only show that we could be bought.

For whatever the reason, it appears that living through a random, unjust heartless universe is a necessary condition for the kind of ultimate existence God wants us to experience. Faith is really nothing more or less than believing this — that the “broad arc” of a faithful life is ultimately worthwhile.


While it may be possible for the Lord to sneak the odd one or two dramatic physical blessings into the world without spoiling the isolation of the experiment, I think that since it is critical that the just live by faith, as opposed to certain knowledge, there must always have to be a choice to interpret what comes to us as a divine blessing, or something ordinary. I choose to believe that certain experiences, thoughts and feelings are divinely sent — but I recognize the possibility that it could be coincidence, or neurons, or an undigested bit of beef. It’s not obvious — and so there is always the choice available to me not to believe. I think that’s how it has to be, if salvation is not to be just a simple purchase transaction.

I've heard this before. God cannot give us certain knowledge of his existence, otherwise we wouldn't be able to exercise faith. As my home teacher put it, God works through faith and Satan works through knowledge. Why is it that internet Mormons who recognize the difficulty of interpreting claims of divine intervention make the leap from there to saying that direct, unambiguous divine intervention would be the equivalent of Satan's plan to compel everyone into being righteous? It seems to me that Mormonism is predicated on the existence of a humanly identifiable cause and effect relationship between obedience to God's commandments and blessings. If you take this away, I cannot see what there is left.

Thomas posits that this life is a test to see if we will love God and righteousness for their own sake. He seems to be backed up by the scriptures (Abraham 3:25):
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
The problem I see is that if we are not supposed to be able to tell whether or not obeying God's commandments actually results in blessings, then what is the justification for requiring that a person believes in any particular instantiation of God and His Commandments in order to be saved? Our internet Mormon in this case must resort to the spiritual realm, saying that this life is a test to see if we'll follow our feelings (spiritual impressions, whatever you want to call them), which naturally point toward belief in God and perhaps even in Mormonism. So we purposefully can't distinguish cause and effect between obedience to commandments and blessings, yet we can reliably distinguish emotional responses and confirmation bias from a metaphysical objective truth gauge given to us by an external and invisible being. No, I'm afraid I don't buy that for three reasons: 1) people in the church confuse their feelings with spiritual promptings almost as a rule, 2) people from other faiths make the same spiritual claims about completely contradicting doctrines, and if this was an argument by numbers they would overwhelmingly win, and 3) people's beliefs follow the culture and/or religion they were raised in, and not everybody feels drawn to God.

Faith, as defined in the Book of Mormon, is to "hope for things which are not seen, which are true." Since we necessarily cannot rely on our feelings (spiritual eyes) or any other kind of scientific evidence (physical eyes) to determine if God exists, there is no basis on which to declare that God exists in the first place, and this definition of faith becomes self-contradicting.

We are now left with two possibilities. Since we cannot reliably ascertain whether God exists by obeying his commandments, and we cannot trust our feelings to reliably indicate whether God exists, then either 1) God is a big jerk, saving only those who chose to believe the right things for no other reason than that they were in the right place at the right time and kept a sufficiently gullible disposition in regards to their religion, or 2) whether or not God exists, this whole idea of "salvation" as a belief-discriminating principle, requiring "faith" in something spectacular without any distinguishable physical or emotional (spiritual) evidence, is false. In order for a fair and just God to exclude a non-believer for not believing, the lack of belief would have to be dishonest in some way, like a willful rejection of what is undeniably true. In other words, it couldn't be possible for a true non-believer to exist, because if someone truly does not believe, and they admit that they do not believe, they are necessarily being honest. If an honest non-believer were to be punished for it by God, then God is indeed a jerk.

Mormonism, and religion in general, is very reluctant to allow for honest non-believers, at least not the ones who have already heard the gospel message. The Book of Mormon does not allow for it at all, in fact. In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites are given a pass because they "dwindled in unbelief". Their parents never taught them the gospel, and they were bloodthirsty and iniquitous only because that's what they were raised to be. The Nephites, on the other hand, were fully accountable for their knowledge of the gospel, and from there they take one of two possible directions: 1) they remain faithful to the gospel, or 2) they fall into an even darker iniquity than the Lamanites. Korihor, who is the archetype of atheists in Mormonism, was ultimately proven to be a liar who believed all along.

Well, according to Thomas's comment above, God must provide enough plausible deniability to allow for an honest person to come to their own independent conclusion that God is simply not there. This does not require dishonesty or a rejection of an innate knowledge of God. It may, however, require an effort to distance oneself from natural cognitive biases when trying to come closer to objective truths.

1 comment:

  1. The faith issue is difficult for me. My husband feels like he is more righteous than me because I question and study Mormon religion and church history and question it, whereas he doesn't, but has simple, righteous faith. Is faith supposed to toss out reason? Following that logic-- Are we more righteous if we believe in Santa Clause?