I don’t believe that the world has ever faced a day and age when the existence of deity has been as openly and commonly challenged. There are many reasons for this. As scientific understanding has advanced, that has led many to incorrectly conclude that science rules out the existence of deity. In addition, we have the challenge of historical hindsight which is full of seemingly innumerable examples of errors and even atrocities committed in the name of deity. Lastly, there are so many religious doctrines that struggle to hold up against thoughtful examination that it can be easy to conclude that all religions are the same in that regard. While religious truth will always require faith, the full truth can and should provide meaningful and comprehensible answers to intellectual challenges.
In this post, I hope to share how LDS (short for Latter Day Saint) doctrines answer the challenges to the reality of deity. At the very least, I hope to explain things well enough that an atheist can at least see how the belief in deity is not inherently fraught with contradictions and fallacies as is often claimed. In order to do this, I will be drawing from a lot of doctrinal concepts that I believe are needed to fully understand the truth of God’s existence, and His love for all of us. One could say that I am trying to utilize walls and windows without laying the foundation. However, I feel that it is more akin to examining the larger structure to demonstrate that the foundation itself is sound.
Religion and Science
For many, the advances in scientific knowledge appear to contradict religious doctrines. This is partly due to the unfortunate reality that many religions have strenuously fought against scientific discoveries that contradicted their doctrine. In our day for example, many view Darwin’s theory of evolution to be in direct conflict with religious understanding. Similarly, many religious thinkers feel threatened by the Big Bang theory, or by scientific accounts of the earth’s creation compared to scripture.
In the LDS faith, we believe that all truth is part of religious doctrine, and we embrace scientific discovery. There are several areas of perceived conflict that Mormons easily accept and understand. For example, many religions feel that scientific claims of the earth’s age contradict the Biblical notion that the earth was created in seven days. However, in the Pearl of Great Price (which includes translations from writings of Moses and Abraham) we have additional accounts of the creation that shed understanding. In particular the seven time periods are explained to be just that – periods of time, not an exact twenty-four-hour period.
Even Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t necessarily have to rule out the notion that deity created mankind, nor does the Big Bang theory mean that a deity didn’t get the ball rolling. While I acknowledge that there are scenarios where scientific explanations are difficult to reconcile with written scripture, this doesn’t have to create a crisis of faith. This is because we openly believe that there is more doctrinal truth to be given to us.
“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (9th Article of Faith)
In other words, we are open to the possibility that additional truths that are currently unknown to religious and scientific thinkers provide the resolution. That additional truth could come in the form of revelation that helps us see and interpret scripture correctly, or it could come through scientific discovery that brings science in harmony with our current understanding of scripture.
Many scientific thinkers struggle with the notion that belief in deity requires faith. They state that they won’t believe in anything that has not been scientifically proven. However, the reality in the scientific world is quite different. While what I am about to say may rub many religious thinkers wrong, I believe it actually holds quite true. If we simply exchange the word “faith” with “theory” then we see some strong similarities in scientific thought and religious conviction. Most aspects of science start as a theory. In other words, the scientist has faith that the idea is true. They then go about seeking to establish that theory as fact. The difference between science and religion comes down to the means the theory or faith is changed to fact or conviction. One gains conviction of deity typically through powerful experiences of the heart. A scientist seeks empirical verification of a theory to declare it fact.
The key to the above analogy is that science constantly is moving forward based on the assumption that theories are indeed true. Today’s science essentially has faith in theories like string theory, the big bang, evolution, and the existence of dark matter. Each of these theories is in different stages on the scientific continuum between virgin theoretics and iron-clad fact. However, science requires scientists to exercise faith while they seek to establish truth. It is surprisingly similar to belief in deity.
As scientists evaluated Einstein’s theories, they didn’t discard the things he had right at the first sign of trouble. Instead, they realized that his understanding was not entirely correct. In a similar fashion, we should be open to the notion that it is a faulty or incomplete understanding of deity that leads to perceived contradictions rather than discarding the baby with the bath water.
History and Deity
Another challenge to belief in deity comes from historical and current events. Many look to things like the Spanish Inquisition, or the Crusades, or current violence from religious extremists and wrongly conclude that all religious belief is to blame. It ties strongly into the third point I will discuss later as it leads them to ask how a loving deity could allow such confusion and violence to occur. We will discuss that in a moment. For now, I want to discuss the abundance of religious confusion, and the sadly prolific examples of terrible things done for the sake of deity.
Mormons believe that God is not an author of confusion, but rather a being of order. However, we also believe in the existence of a being whose whole aim is to thwart and destroy God’s plans. Once again, we will examine why a god would allow such a being to operate in a moment. For now it is sufficient to understand that there is a real being (commonly called the devil, Lucifer, or the adversary) who works in the hearts of men around the world to oppose deity. It would come as no surprise that a crafty, cunning and intelligent adversary would be hard at work distorting truth in as many ways as possible. The confusion he sews is one of his greatest tools to then convince people that neither he nor a loving god actually exists.
Ultimately, one can choose to see the commonalities between various religions as a form of cultural plagiarism, or as evidence that the cultures started with a common truth that was then distorted and evolved. A Mormon would feel that similarities in the Greek notion of Hercules divine heritage and the notion of Christ being the divine son of deity born to a mortal woman as evidence that the Greeks descended from a religious heritage that at some time correctly anticipated the advent of Christ. An atheist would obviously look to such things in a different light. The point is that we all analyze history in a light that confirms the view we chose to have in regards to religion and deity.
Mormons for example see abundant evidence of God’s hand throughout history. We believe that events like the Reformation, Renaissance, and American Revolution were all brought about by God in preparation for the full restoration of truth (more on that in a different post). Mormons will find evidence of God’s watchful hand throughout history because our beliefs inform how we see history. In reality, the same is true of any historian.
Even accounts of Joseph Smith and the Mormon Pioneers are largely left for people in our day to believe the account that agrees with their beliefs. Mormons disregard accounts that vilify Joseph Smith as slanderous falsehoods, whereas those who are not of our faith will consider accounts of miracles to be falsehoods of a similar nature.
Proper Understanding of Deity
What I would consider to be a traditional understanding of deity presents major challenges that I don’t believe can be reconciled. A notion of an all powerful being, who is also almost singularly defined by a loving nature contradicts the state of the world we live in. A common question typically asked in jest sort of but not truly touches on the problem: “Can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?” Such a trivial question really serves no purpose, but it touches on one aspect of deity that traditional religious thought doesn’t share with LDS doctrine.
What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God. (Alma 42:25)
In other words, justice is an inviolable law or principle that God cannot violate. There are many other scriptures that can show similar inviolable principles. LDS doctrine declares that God is empowered by obedience to inviolable eternal laws. In other words, we actually believe that there are things that God can’t do.
This is hugely important as part of the understanding for why God has allowed so many terrible things to happen. If we truly believed in a god that could literally do anything desired, then a life of trial and hardship wouldn’t be necessary. Even the notion that we need to gain experience for ourselves wouldn’t really hold any water because such a deity could snap his finger and grant us all such experience painlessly. We have to understand that there are things that God cannot do even if it breaks His heart to watch those He loves suffer.
Mormons believe that we are on this earth to grow and gain experiences that will help us become more like God. This is something that cannot be done in any other way than by us coming here and going through the challenges of this life. God cannot wave a magic wand and give us the experience we need. Our doctrine also teaches that agency is an eternal principal that cannot be violated, and as such God allows us to make terrible choices with all the consequences. In a later post, I will discuss how these principles tie into the need for Christ and his sacrifice.
LDS doctrine also teaches that each of us came to this earth by our own choice, and that each of us has always existed in some form or another. In other words, God didn’t give Hitler the character flaws that caused him to do the evil things he did. Were every person’s very nature something God created, then that would remove all accountability from an individual. In essence, it is the ultimate “I was born this way” argument, and it is not true. Each of us chose to undergo this experience, with a sound understanding that there would be terribly hard things in store. We did so because the potential blessings were worth anything that could happen to us in this life.
That touches on the other thing that is so important to understand. We believe that we are essentially in part 2 of a 3 part play. At this point, the plot feels full of holes, and nobody has reached their “happily ever after.” However, we also believe that God is perfectly just and merciful in ways that we simply cannot fully understand at this time. It may require faith for us to hear of natural disasters, human atrocities etc. However, we have the truth to understand that a loving deity is in charge, and that all will be made right. Nobody will be able to honestly tell God that they were treated unfairly when the final curtain falls.
In my life, I have had personal experiences that have strengthened my faith in God’s existence. You could say that what started as a theory has become fact in my life. I know that God lives, and that He loves us. In this post I largely discussed intellectual challenges to the idea that a loving god exists. I have full confidence that there is no train of reasoning that can truly show faith in God to be contradictory and unreasonable when the full truth about religion and science is had. However I wish to emphasize that it is not through the rational or the intellectual that I gained my conviction of God’s existence. I have felt His love, and seen His hand in my life in ways that I simply cannot deny.