Atheists’ Arguments and Latter-day Saint Theology

Carl Cranney, “Atheists’ Arguments and Latter-day Saint Theology,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2003 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 39–48.

Atheists’ Arguments and Latter-day Saint Theology

Carl Cranney

Many today describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. [1] Their organizations are becoming increasingly complex, and their philosophies are following suit. [2] This paper seeks to define a few of the traditional arguments against believing in God and then shows why those arguments are straw-man arguments, or “weak or imaginary [arguments] set up only to be confuted,” [3] when dealing with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [4]

It will come as no surprise to a student of comparative religion that the Church of Jesus Christ is unique and varies in many ways from traditional Christianity. Many traditional Christians do not even hold valid our claim to being Christians. The Latter-day Saint position that all other Christian denominations are “wrong” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19) implies obvious differences in doctrine, theology, and practice. However, as one looks at the general position of atheists against religion, many of their arguments are against traditional Christianity. What then, is the state of the atheistic arguments when held up against the doctrinal and theological claims of the Church? It is my belief that to lump the Church with traditional Christianity is unfair and leads to straw-man argumentation when trying to attack the Latter-day Saint belief in a higher power. [5]

Here I will outline several of the atheists’ more common arguments against the existence of God and examine why they do not do justice to the Latter-day Saint position. Many times I find that Latter-day Saint theology makes the atheists’ points moot. Where it does not, the problem is complex.

The first argument I will analyze is the problem of evil. The second is what I will term the abandonment of mankind. This second argument has three parts: (1) God’s apathy for this little speck of blue we call earth, especially in designing it during the creation period, (2) the lack of intervention on God’s part for us now, and (3) His intention to send His defective creations to hell.

As we delve further into these arguments it will become obvious that they are interrelated. Still, I will address each point as explained by atheists and answer how our religion responds to it in ways traditional Christianity cannot. [6]

The Problem of Evil

Robert Ingersoll defines the problem of evil like this:

Can infinite wisdom and power make any excuse for the creation of failures? . . . Is [God] responsible for all the wars that have been waged, for all the innocent blood that has been shed? Is he responsible for the centuries of slavery, for the backs that have been scarred with the lash, for the babes that have been sold from the breasts of mothers, for the families that have been separated and destroyed? Is this God responsible for religious persecution, for the Inquisition, for the thumb-screw and rack, and for all the instruments of torture? Did this God allow the cruel and vile to destroy the brave and virtuous? Did he allow tyrants to shed the blood of patriots? Did he allow his enemies to torture and burn his friends? What is such a God worth? Would a decent man, having the power to prevent it, allow his enemies to torture and burn his friends? [7]

Or, as Walter Kaufmann observed, “The problem arises when monotheism is enriched with—or impoverished by—two assumptions: that God is omnipotent and God is just.” [8] Simply put, if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does evil even exist? Why doesn’t He, by His very nature, eradicate it from the universe?

Common answers to this problem usually arise with the concept of free will. God created humankind to be free agents, and the first two humans transgressed God’s law, thereby bringing evil into the world. This sounds largely like the answer most Latter-day Saints would give. But a crucial element is overlooked when dealing with the Latter-day Saint worldview: if we believed in creation in the traditional Christian sense, ex nihilo, then we might say, “We are what He has made us; nay, we are but manifestations of Himself—how can He complain?” [9] God made us; we then chose against His will. Why on earth (or in heaven) is He complaining? He made us what we are! This would be much like the artist complaining that his sculpture wasn’t good enough. Is it the sculpture’s fault? Surely not.

However, the Latter-day Saint view of the universe gives a different perspective. President Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “Our spirit matter was eternal and co-existent with God, but it was organized into spirit bodies by our Heavenly Father.” [10] President Marion G. Romney echoed the thought: “Through that birth process, self-existing intelligence was organized into individual spirit beings.” [11] In other words, we weren’t created out of nothing; God organized us and then sent us down to earth. He is not responsible for our free will and our actions.

Still, the atheist might ask, even if He didn’t create you by Himself, why does He still allow evil to exist? The idea taught by the restored gospel of Christ that this earth is a proving ground leads to an interesting concept that I believe diffuses this criticism. “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11).

If the purpose of this life is a proving ground for those spirits that are “co-equal (eternal) with God himself,” [12] “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25), then of necessity we must be allowed to choose good or evil and suffer the consequences. If good were rewarded instantly or evil punished instantly, small wonder the world would be a better place—but would that be a true test? [13]

God’s Abandonment of Mankind

This leads us into our next point—God’s abandonment of mankind. As previously mentioned, this argument breaks down into three parts: first, the apathy of God toward us, especially during the creation period; second, the lack of intervention by God toward us now; and third, His intention to send a number of us to hell.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Why did He do so? asks the atheist. To put people on earth that they may worship God, comes the traditional Christian reply. “Suppose that an infinite God exists, what can we do for him? Being infinite, he is conditionless; being conditionless, he cannot be benefited or injured. He cannot want. He has. Think of the egotism of a man who believes that an infinite being wants his praise!” [14] Traditional Christians are still, to my knowledge, at a loss to answer this criticism. Why did God create us? He doesn’t need us, so what was He thinking? Usually the answer goes something like this: since He is the perfect being, He wants to share Himself with others. “What is man’s chief end? To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” [15] I have never heard consensus from traditional Christians on exactly how we are to glorify God. But all this would make sense only if there were others to glorify Him and share Himself with. There weren’t any such others, so He had to create some. This answer begs the question; the reasoning is circular. The only reason humans, and probably the angels for that matter, were created was to fulfill a need that did not exist until they were created! And then it goes back to the question of why God wants to share Himself—which has still not been answered. Also, even when He did create us, God did a poor job since so many refuse to fulfill their assigned purpose of divine worship. Bertrand Russell wrote, “A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of his children.” [16] As Nietzsche puts it in the words of Zarathustra, “How [God] raged at us, this wrath-snorter, because we understood him badly? But why did he not speak more clearly. And if the fault lay in our ears, why did he give us ears that heard him badly? If there was dirt in our ears, well! Who put it in them? Too much miscarried with him, this potter who had not learned thoroughly! That he took revenge on his pots and creations, however, because they turned out badly—that was a sin against good taste.” [17]

To reply with the Latter-day Saint point of view, I would use many quotes from the above discussion on the purpose of life. I will not repeat the argument in full here but rather give a brief summary. God did not create us from nothing and then send us here to worship Him. He sent our eternal souls here so that we could learn to be like Him. That leads to a question I would like to ask traditional Christians: Why does God keep creating disobedient forms of life? If He is omniscient, why doesn’t He create other beings that even with agency will follow His will? Our reply is that He is trying to help self-existing intelligences become like him so that they can enjoy the same kind of life He has, even eternal life.

The next aspect of the abandonment of mankind argument is that God is not helping us out very much here. He is not intervening. Bertrand Russell says, “When I am come to my own beliefs, I find myself quite unable to discern any purpose in the universe ... if [the Creator] were omnipotent, He could decree the end without troubling about means. I do not myself perceive any consummation toward which the universe is tending.” [18] The argument asserts that God created the universe to fulfill a purpose. What purpose? And why is He not more active in helping us achieve that purpose? Think of the millions of people who never heard of Jesus Christ in their lifetime. If the statement “God is dead” [19] is not true, then, atheists ask, why is He playing dead?

Traditional Christians reply with a few points. Dr. Billy Graham remembers when his son crushed an anthill and then wanted to help the ants rebuild it after realizing what he had done. Graham makes the point that to help them his son would have to become an ant himself. God became a human in the form of Jesus to help us rebuild. [20]

The rebuttal is, since God made us, He is responsible for our mistakes. To extend the metaphor, why did He simply not step on the anthill in the first place?

A reply goes as follows: God is not dead. He is very active through His Spirit, helping us understand His will. And as far as I know that is as far as traditional Christians really can go. He has spoken His word, the Bible. That part is finished, and now it is up to us to figure it out, with the help of His Spirit. And those who never heard of Christ during their short time on the earth go to hell.

The Latter-day Saint view agrees with most of what the traditional Christians say but adds some key concepts that change the nature of the reply. God isn’t dead at all; He was quiet during the great apostasy, but now, with the inauguration of the dispensation of the fulness of times, He is once again speaking. The Christian argument that we cannot ever fully know the will of God, since we are finite and He is infinite, goes right out the window because living prophets and apostles are telling us His will. Atheists sound much like Korihor, who argued that God is a “being who never has been seen or known” (Alma 30:28), but to Latter-day Saints, God is very much seen and known.

God is now very involved with us. Think of the many revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith alone. And not just him—since his death there have been fourteen other Presidents of the Church, not to mention myriad Apostles who have served as members of the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Compare the unknowable God of the traditional Christians, whom the atheists argue so much against, with the God who came to visit the boy Joseph in the Sacred Grove. A document in the front of every Book of Mormon attests that the Three Witnesses saw the angel Moroni and heard the voice of God. Think of the words “for we saw [Christ], even on the right hand of God” (D&C 76:23) and of their import. God is very involved with us, and we can know His will as He passes it on through His chosen prophets.

Now I have you, counters the atheist. And here indeed is an objection that I believe has some merit and that Latter-day Saint theology does not dissolve completely. Their objection is this: “Belief in revelation has first to proceed from the assumption that a god exists and then to go further to the assumption that he communicates his will to certain men. ... And what man could overwhelmingly persuade his fellows that he had been selected and that they must accept him as authentic? The best they could do would be to have faith in the two assumptions and to test the revealed will by its correspondence to their imaginations and wishes.” [21] Few other Christian denominations try to convert others on the basis of personal prayer and revelation. [22] Critics charge that revelation is for the elite believers in God, not for everybody who believes. A further criticism is that regular believers have no way of verifying revelation. The Church of Jesus Christ, however, does not limit communication from God in such a manner. As is taught in the first discussion, “You have been promised that through the power of the Holy Ghost, your Father in Heaven will help you know that this message is true.” [23] Granted, God’s house is a house of order, so we are not given revelation outside our jurisdiction, but even then we are granted revelation to confirm the revelations of those above us in the hierarchy. I personally think the atheist argument here has some weight—revelation, or at least our reaction to it, is relative. I believe this because the interpretation of revelation is subjective—different people may interpret the same feeling differently. Nevertheless, the revelation exists, and if one learns through experience to understand revelation, it is definite in its message.

Concerning those who never heard of Christ or had a chance to accept the gospel during their lifetimes, the Latter-day Saints believe they will have that chance in the spirit world after this life. The Church’s purpose is to help every child of God have a chance to accept or reject the gospel. Between perfecting the Saints, proclaiming the gospel, and redeeming the dead, the Church has not overlooked anybody.

The third part of the abandonment of mankind argument asks why God condemns so many of His creations to hell. He made us badly, then He doesn’t help us out very well while we’re here, and then He sends a number of us to hell. After all, according to Leslie Stephen, “God is angry with man. Unless we believe and repent we shall all be damned. It is impossible, indeed, for its advocates even to say this without instantly contradicting themselves. Their doctrine frightens them. They explain in various ways that a great many people will be saved without believing, and that eternal damnation is not eternal nor damnation.” [24]

The position of the Church of Jesus Christ is that there is no hell in the traditional sense. The Church does believe that wicked souls do suffer intense mental anguish akin to physical burning; however, this condition ends once the “uttermost farthing” (Matthew 5:26) has been paid. True, a very small number of souls will suffer the second death and be sent into perdition with Satan and his followers. Only these suffer eternally, but “God will find no solace in the path these few have chosen. They were his children. Yet all has been offered: light, strength, repentance, help, knowledge, and a grace sufficient to cover all sins should each of them merely have sought forgiveness and a better way. They simply weren’t interested.” [25] The Latter-day Saint position is that those who do not live up to their potential after myriad chances in this life and in the spirit world will simply be assigned to a lower kingdom of glory, and even the lowest of those degrees of glory, the telestial, has a glory “which surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89). Even those assigned to perdition are not being punished. “They have sunk so low as to have lost the inclinations and ability to repent, consequently the gospel plan is useless to them as an agent of growth and development.” [26] It’s not a matter of punishment. It’s a matter of not reaching one’s full potential. Nobody will be burning in hell for eternity.

Therefore, the atheists’ view of God’s abandonment of mankind is threefold. First, God was apathetic during our creation and did a bad job at that stage, then He left us in that state through this earthly existence, and then since we do not live up to His expectations of us He will send a large number of us to hell for the rest of eternity.

And none of these arguments work when compared to Latter-day Saint theology.

We could discuss other arguments that follow a similar pattern. For example, Percy Bysse Shelly contends that intelligence cannot exist in a noncorporeal body and that since God is incorporeal He can’t be intelligent. [27] Also consider Clarence Darrow’s contention that religion cannot be based on an errant book—the Bible. [28] One familiar with Latter-day Saint teachings can see how those criticisms are easily diffused—we believe God is corporeal and our religion is not based solely on the Bible. [29]

As the forces of atheism rise in both numbers, organization, and quality, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be called upon to defend their religion against the doctrinal, philosophical, and theological attacks of these professed unbelievers. However, most atheists and even many Latter-day Saints do not “know the strength of [our] own position.” [30] It is my observation that most atheists’ arguments are based on the concepts of the traditional Christian God, concepts Latter-day Saints do not believe. Therefore, the majority of these arguments are not valid when dealing with Latter-day Saint theology.

Notes

[1] Hereafter “atheists,” despite the differing philosophies between the two groups.

[2] “Atheists Urged to Unite,” Deseret News, 5 Oct. 2002, p. E, col. 4.

[3] Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 9th ed., s.v. “straw man.”

[4] Hereafter “the Church of Jesus Christ.”

[5] Or defend an atheists’ disbelief in a higher power, as the case may be.

[6] It should be noted, of course, that I do not officially speak for anybody. My apologies to anybody whose position I misrepresent or misinterpret. Due to the shortness and nature of this article I have stated the traditional Christian position in my own words.

[7] Robert G. Ingersoll, “What is Religion,” in Ingersoll’s Greatest Lectures (New York, Freethought Press, 1944), 480–81.

[8] Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), 151.

[9] Leslie Stephen, “An Agnostic’s Apology,” in An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1893), 29.

[10] Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 5.

[11] Marion G. Romney, in Conference Report, October 1978, 18.

[12] Joseph Smith, Jr., The King Follett Discourse, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Joseph Lyon and Associates, 1963), 12.

[13] For a more complete discussion on the Problem of Evil, see David Paulsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” in Speeches of the Year, 1999–2000 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2000), 27–35.

[14] Ingersoll, “What is Religion?” 491.

[15] Elmer W. Homer, “The Master Purpose in Life,” in American Lutheran Preaching, ed. Miles W. Krumbine (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 91.

[16] Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?” in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943–68, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Kollner (London: Routledge, 1997), 547.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Thomas Common (New York: Dover, 1999), 185.

[18] Russell, “Is There a God?” 547.

[19] Nietzsche, Zarathrustra, 3. There is more to this statement than meets the eye, but for purposes of this paper I need not elaborate on Nietzsche’s meaning of this phrase.

[20] Billy Graham, “God Is Not ‘Dead,’” in Is God Dead? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1966), 66–67.

[21] Carl Van Doren, “Why I Am an Unbeliever,” in Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (New York,: Duffield, 1926), 202–3.

[22] The only exception I am aware of is the Community of Christ, formerly the RLDS Church.

[23] The Plan of Our Heavenly Father: Discussion 1 (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 1986), 18.

[24] Stephen, Agnostic’s Apology, 30–31.

[25] Coke Newell, Latter Days: A Guided Tour to Six Billion Years of Mormonism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 238.

[26] Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, 125.

[27] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Refutation of Deism,” in Atheism: A Reader, comp. S. T. Joshi (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000), 76.

[28] Clarence Darrow, “Why I Am an Agnostic,” in Why I Am an Agnostic and Other Essays (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995), 15.

[29] Unfortunately space is limited for the purposes of this paper and therefore it’s impossible to address all the possible atheist arguments and Latter-day Saint counterexamples.

[30] LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 3.