Recently, a friend shared with me a story from this book, a story that I have heard elsewhere before. In the words of my friend:
[Wilcox] shares an experience that one of his daughters had with a college professor who was always challenging his students' faith in God. Brother Wilcox told his daughter to challenge the professor back by using Alma's statement to Korihor (Alma 30:40): "And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only." Well, one day the professor said, "We don't know that there are moral absolutes. There is no proof that there are moral, ethical absolutes. Society makes the rules and they can change what is right and what is wrong." Brother Wilcox asked his daughter if she was able to say anything to counter that statement. She was! She told him that she had raised her hand and asked, "What evidence do you have that there are no moral absolutes? You don't have any evidence. It's just your word." Brother Wilcox told her how proud he was of her and asked what happened then. She said, "It was wonderful. The kids all got into it and they kept saying, 'Yeah, what evidence do your have? And finally he had to admit that there was no evidence for his point either."This story bugs me, just like the stories of Antichrists in the Book of Mormon (including the one about Korihor that it alludes to) have always bugged me. In the Book of Mormon, the Antichrists (Sherem, Nehor, Zeezrom, Korihor) are invariably presented as dolts. Nehor is a transparent thug (who flies off the handle and kills Gideon when the latter ventures to disagree with him in public debate). Zeezrom is introduced as this cunning lawyer, an expert debater out to trap the righteous missionaries Alma and Amulek in their words, and then his only debating tactic worth noticing is to ask Amulek how much money he will take to deny the existence of God. Even as a kid, I found this really lame: "Well, Zeezrom, I know I just put my reputation on the line in front of the whole community watching us here, but when you mention money I get so weak in the knees: I'd be happy to out myself as a liar for the big wad of cash that you're not going to give me anyway (since you are only bringing it up to discredit me)." Finally, the only two Antichrists with anything worth saying, Sherem and Korihor, are dismissed without argument, really: God intervenes and kills them (striking Korihor dumb first) without effectively refuting anything that they say. The closest thing to a really useful discussion of atheism that readers of the Book of Mormon get is the debate between Alma and Korihor, which follows the script of the discussion between Wilcox's daughter and her professor. Forgive me for pointing this out, but either that professor was an idiot or God intervened and shut him up prematurely (like Korihor). Since God has not yet bothered to shut me up, I am going to come to the rescue of the atheists, who are not all stupid (or thugs, or even Antichrist, at least not any more than they are anti-Thor).
In the Book of Mormon, Korihor comes along offering a familiar atheist message: God is just an old tradition that priests invoke to gull people out of their time and talents. Alma offers a standard defense to this schtick: "Thou knowest we do not glut ourselves upon the labors of this people" (Alma 30:32) -- at least not compared to those other guys (the whore of all the earth); our pet projects are modest and beneficial, so "Let's go shopping at City Creek!" Blah, blah. Let's skip to the important part, Alma's only argument (apart from reading Korihor's mind and then invoking the power of God to strike him dumb):
And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only. But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? (Alma 30:40-41)Voila! The seminary teacher working with S. Michael Wilcox's daughter must be proud: she knows her Book of Mormon, and can put "rational" atheists like Korihor in their place. Unfortunately, this argument is actually quite lame, particularly when it is offered the way Alma (and the young Wilcox) offer it, i.e. as an end to discussion instead of a beginning. From my own personal experience with atheists (as an LDS missionary and one of those eternal college students), I am going to tell you what really happens when you uncork Alma's argument in live debate. In my experience, real atheists don't role over and take it the way Korihor does, and believers like Alma are not typically able to invoke the magic power of God to make their rivals shut up (unless they happen to be living in an area where rabid fanaticism predominates).
Alma and the younger Wilcox do have a point: in debate, the only things actively shared are words -- mine against yours. But not all words are created equal. Some map reality better than others. Some correspond to things in the real world. Some are just hot air. How does one tell the difference? Well, you have to put them to some kind of test (as Alma himself admits somewhere else). You have to live with them a bit. If you live with your eyes open you will notice several things that cast serious doubts on the efficacy of the argument that Alma and Wilcox use to dismiss atheists like Korihor.
(1) People actually do have different ideas about God, the world over. The fact that people have different ideas about what is important should be totally obvious today. Some people think that drawing a picture of the prophet Muhammad (or representing his figure in any kind of art) is an offense worthy of death. Others condemn these pious followers of the prophet as murderous terrorists. Some people think that monogamy is divine. Others (including a number of early Mormon leaders) think that the supreme being prefers polygamy. God himself is no better: in every religious tradition whose history I have examined closely, he contradicts himself, telling people to be nice and commanding them to slaughter one another ruthlessly. (I have already blogged about the schizophrenic God of history here.) What are we supposed to make of God's inscrutability? How can everyone be right, when we all contradict one another (and ourselves)? Mormons should be familiar with this theme, since it is prominent in the canonical version of the First Vision. We should know that rational people really do wonder how the heck it makes sense for God to tell people all over the world to care passionately about things that other people find completely uncompelling (like whether Muhammad gets a posthumous portrait done). Which leads us to another problem.
(2) God doesn't strike the right people dumb. In the Book of Mormon story, Korihor is never refuted. Alma accuses him of secretly believing and then strikes him dumb when the poor fool wants a sign that God exists. Here I think Korihor gets a bad rap. After all, if we think back to the First Vision, Joseph Smith went into the Sacred Grove to get a sign. That was the whole point. "Hey, God! People have no clue what you value. All your preachers contradict one another. I would like some personal direction, yo!" Why didn't young Joseph get stricken dumb? Maybe for the same reason so many of my Spanish "investigators" couldn't get a personal witness that God wanted them to drop everything and become Latter-day Saints? Maybe for the same reason I don't get an urgent desire to become a Scientologist every time I see Tom Cruise? Is it conceivable that people believe different things about the nature of ultimate reality, and that whatever divinity there is doesn't see fit to change that? I think it is. As I look at history, it seems to me that God is very hands-off. He lets people do their own thing. He lets them attribute anything to him, no matter what it is. Across the world, people build churches to him. They give food to the hungry in his name. And in his name, they blow up churches, take food from the hungry, and beat up homosexuals. They call God all kinds of names, say all sorts of contradictory things about his nature, and he is perfectly cool with it. He lets the Holy Inquisition do its thing with the same nonchalance that he shows toward the Salvation Army: the sun riseth upon the just and the unjust. The prosperity gospel found in Deuteronomy (and the Book of Mormon) is a steaming pile of crap (as Christians should know: Jesus was the best God had, and look what happened to him; no tradition that I am aware of has him "prospering in the land").
(3) No matter what anyone says, we don't know squat about God. The upshot of points (1) and (2) above is that we don't really know (a) if God exists or (b) what his nature is (what he wants from us). Let's say my friends tell me that there is this guy named Pete. Pete wants me to be nice, they say, and he will make things go my way if I send money regularly to a certain PO box. I am intrigued, so I start being nice and making payments. Then, my friends come and tell me that Pete wants me to rob a bank. I protest that this is not nice. My friends come up with all kinds of arguments showing me that robbing the bank is necessary: the clincher is that Pete cannot make things go my way if I don't trust him absolutely. I inform my friends that I am not willing to become a bank robber for a man I have never met. They ask me if I am willing to give up all the blessings I have incurred sending money to Pete. I ask them, "What blessings? You mean the same ones I used to get before you even told me Pete existed?" (Being nice is a good idea, even if you don't have an imaginary overlord recommending it to you.) And our conversation is over, unless and until Pete deigns to reveal himself and give me convincing reasons why the bank must be robbed. My friends can strike me dumb as a sign-seeker if they want, but that just proves that they are thugs (the same way Pete would be if that were his only response to my inquiry about the bank job). To make the analogy complete, imagine that I make some new friends who tell me that Pete's real name is Bob, and he wants me to move to LA and take up surfing. Then, other people tell me that my friend is a woman named Chris, and I should be selling Mary Kay products door-to-door. Everyone knows (passionately) that Pete, Bob, and Chris exist, and that they care (passionately) about banks, surfing, and Mary Kay. But I cannot ever meet them face to face. Until I do, our relationship is going nowhere: I cannot have a relationship with someone who cannot talk to me more clearly (and kindly, not to mention coherently) than God does.
What is really wrong with Alma's argument against Korihor, and Wilcox's argument against her professor, is that we are all using the same evidence. We all have opinions. All of our opinions are based in facts (i.e. they derive from our personal encounters with an objective reality "out there" in the world). So, Korihor has "all things as a testimony" that his opinions are true, the same way Alma does (in the passage quoted above). If Alma wants to change the game, he needs to introduce Korihor to God. (If my friends want me to rob the bank for Pete's sake, then they need to put me in touch with the guy.) In real life, you cannot simply introduce people to God. Wilcox does not convince her professor by calling down an angel. She cannot even strike her professor magically dumb (without some apparatus like the Holy Inquisition: what a marvel of divine engineering that was! was God pleased with it? why wouldn't he be, assuming he approved of the way Alma handled Korihor?). So she is left stating the obvious: "Well, you have your opinion, and I have mine." OK. Where do our respective opinions come from? She leaves the really interesting question unasked. She doesn't talk about human psychology, the nature of myth, or even her own personal experience. But let's assume she does.
Let's assume she is an LDS missionary like I was, and she tells her professor (who is supposed to be inquisitive, investigative, interested) the story of her personal relationship with God.
"I was born into a family where we prayed regularly to God. I prayed. I read some holy books. It felt really good. I grew up and came to the realization that I could be a moral, ethical person."
"Fascinating!" the professor might say. "I have a history too. I have experiences. I have meditated. I have read books that I consider holy, after a fashion. I too have learned the value of being a moral person."
"No," the missionary says, "you cannot be really, authentically moral unless you join my church, which is the only true church."
"But I like my church," the professor objects.
"You are misguided! Your church is really just an abomination, honestly. I mean, you believe all kinds of incomprehensible crap about God, whom you don't even worship consistently over time -- some of you don't even think of him as a real person -- and you drink coffee. How can you possibly be a decent human being, with these attitudes?"
"Well," the professor says, "I guess we have different ideas about what constitutes decency (but we agree on the big stuff, right? I mean, we're sitting here talking politely: we haven't gone berserk on one another yet). And everyone has different ideas about God. That is for the best, I suppose."
"No way! Everyone should know how God really is. Everyone should be a member of my church (the only true one). Everyone should see God the way I see him. Everyone should avoid coffee the way I do."
"Really? Why do you think the world would be a better place if everyone agreed with you?"
Here I will leave the conversation, since this is something I could not get over on my LDS mission. Shortly after my arrival in Spain (where I served), I realized that I did not want everyone to believe precisely what I believed. I did not want everyone to drop their personal religion to come join mine. I did not want all the old Catholic churches (some of them quite beautiful) to be abandoned so that we could all gather in strip malls (where most of the LDS meetinghouses were) or other drab, modern buildings. I did not want the Latin chants to cease. I did not want the incense to stop burning. I did not want people to stop making pilgrimages to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I did not want everyone to think the same way I did about God, the universe, and everything. I liked it when people were honest with me. I liked it when we shared real conversations, in which both of us spoke our truth and nobody felt pressured to deny the reality he was living in (whether that reality was Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, pagan, or atheist). It seemed to me that converting the whole country to Mormonism would be a shame: think how much culture would be lost. It would be like replacing every restaurant in New York with a McDonald's. Why would anyone want to do that?
I guess if all the restaurants but McDonald's were serving poisonous food it might make some sense, but they aren't. I have encountered many people outside Mormonism as happy and "spiritual" as any Saint I ever met. The fact that they are not precisely like me does not make them "anti-me" -- we are different, but we are not enemies, and neither one of us is better than the other (even when one of us happens to be atheist). Behind all the posturing -- the culture, the different ideas about God -- we are both human. We are all human: it doesn't matter what religion you happen to belong to; what really matters is what kind of person you are. This truth hit me like a ton of bricks in the mission field, and I have not been able to get rid of it since. I don't really want to: I think it is one of the most valuable insights I have ever had.
In conclusion, I would like to refer my readers to two contemporary atheists explaining their beliefs. One gives the answer that Wilcox's professor should have given. (If all we have are opinions, which opinions matter most to you: those that are rational, arguable, and open-ended, or the ones that you accept untested from men who claim obscure magical powers and think that winning an argument means doing whatever it takes to shut the other guy up? Most professors will pick Socratic logos over tyrannical ethos every time, whether they are atheist or not, and rightly so. That is what civilized people do, even in antiquity.) The other reminds us, in a very personal way, that atheists are people just like everybody else: they have personal testimonies, too.