Monday, July 2, 2012


"Which is more likely? That the whole natural order should be suspended in your favor, or that you are under a misapprehension?"
--Christopher Hitchens

When I was a missionary, many of my colleagues used the following clip from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" to illustrate a leap of faith: 

I thought it was clever, but I never used it myself. The idea was simple: plant the seed of the Holy Spirit, show them the video, let them put two and two together, and "leap" into church membership by being baptized. The trick was, of course, convincing people to let you "plant the seed" in the first place. People were often hesitant to even talk to us, since they thought we were a blood cult which coerced teens to jump from windows or sacrifice babies (I'm not making this up). But every once in a while we found someone willing to listen. These curious people are commonly referred to as "investigators" within Mormon circles.

So let's look at this from the perspective of a typical investigator from my mission (Eastern Europe):

You, the investigator, have lived your whole life believing in Christian Orthodoxy because of tradition, or family and social ties; never really thinking too much about your beliefs, or questioning things because you have no need to. Everyone around you pretty much believes the same things, so why bother? Besides, this many people can't be wrong, right?

Along comes a couple of nicely dressed, smiling young foreign men, armed with a rebuttal to many of your core beliefs. You are forced, possibly for the first time, to think critically about your beliefs, and you start to wonder if they are justified. So you agree to meet with these young men again.

Later that week, you meet with these boys in their modest church (again, this is for my mission), and they start to tell you this fantastic story of an other young boy who prayed to find out which church is true. God and Jesus appear to him and tell him that he is to start a new or restored church. But how can this be? This story sounds too good to be true, or maybe just a little far fetched. Well, the boys continue.

This young man also found some ancient records of a Native American tribe which originated from Jerusalem. These "Indians" wrote a book similar to the Bible, and, guess what? Here is your own personal copy of this book. A generous offer, certainly. The boys recommend a few passages and offer to say a prayer with you before you leave. One of the boys offers the prayer. You sense sincerity and passion in his voice as he prays. You are touched by the prayer offered on your behalf by this young man.

A few days later, you meet with the missionaries again. Having read the recommended passages, you feel good, and confident that this meeting will be as uplifting as the first one. The boys continue talking about their church, the other boy who founded it, and the book you hold in your hand. Everything these sincere boys say sounds so positive and inspiring. It is clear that they truly believe this message, as evident by their being in your country. Conviction is a good thing, is it not? And faith--doubly so. But is their message true?

Finally, one of the boys asks you to say a prayer to close the meeting. Before you begin, he adds that you can also pray to find out if the message that they are sharing and the book you are holding are truly inspired by God, as these boys profess. Indeed, if you ask, God will tell you in your heart. You are taken aback by the power of this message as you begin your prayer. You have never heard such an offer before. Could it be possible? Could God communicate with you in this way? Before you leave, more passages are recommended; one of which is Moroni 10:3-5.

At home, you decide to try this experimental prayer right away. You open to the passages, and read them as quickly as you can--each one more beautiful than the last. Finally, you come to Moroni, which reads:

"3 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
4 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.
5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."

You have never read such a thing in scripture before. This is wonderful! A real test which could verify the existence of God and validate the message shared by those nice young men. So, you instantly drop to your knees and pray. You keep it simple and to the point:

"God, are you there? Are these young men really telling me the truth? Is this book truly your inspired word?"

There it is. You have asked God the most important questions you can think of. All you can do now is wait.
Several minutes go by and you are still waiting. What is wrong?

At the next meeting you burst through the church doors and cry foul. How could these nice young men have been so deceptive? You are outraged that your prayer didn't work and demand an explanation. After calming you down, one of the missionaries reviews the passage in Moroni with you. Citing verse 4, he explains that you must "ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ." Therefore, if it didn't work, you need to try again with more sincerity and real intent. You need to convince god that you mean it. He adds that the feelings of the Spirit are like a burning in the bosom--an overwhelming sense of inner peace and warmth. You reflect upon this for a minute and agree to pray again. This time with the missionaries present.

The boys have been very gracious so far, and you feel a connection with them. You recall the vigor and conviction they had when explaining all this before, and you wish you had that in your life, too. So you begin your prayer, same as before:

"God, are you there? Are these young men really telling me the truth? Is this book truly your inspired word?"

And, you wait.

Suddenly, you feel overwhelmed with love and peace of mind. You break down crying. This is it! This is the answer from God you have been looking for. It is so powerful and wonderful. The young missionaries also feel overwhelmed and embrace you as you all cry together. You have never felt such a connection with another human being before. This is all so new and glorious; you wonder why it has taken you so long to find these young boys. As the meeting draws to a close, one of the young men asks you if you would like to be baptized into their church, where you will continue to feel this same sensation with more people who have also experienced it. Emphatically, you say, "Yes."

End scenario.

OK. This is more or less how Mormon missionaries wish things would occur. Myself and many others have had encounters with investigators similar to this one. So, let's examine what happened.

You, the investigator, meet some nice young men. You are drawn in with a message of faith and you pray about it. Eventually, you feel a sensation which you attribute to God. This seems consistent with what the missionaries told you would happen, so they must be telling the truth (well, it sounds lame when you say it like that).

Let's suppose that you really did feel this overwhelmingly wonderful sensation. Would you be justified in believing these missionaries? No. On some level, you are still taking their word for it. What justification do you have to say this feeling came from God, other than that these young boys said this was the case? They would have you believe it is a leap of faith; but ultimately it is an argument from ignorance. All the missionaries did was predict a feeling you wanted to experience, and asserted that it was God talking to you.

Did you notice the response you got when it didn't happen the first time? "You weren't sincere enough." What the missionaries are proposing is not a real test. It is a test which can only be confirmed, not denied. If you don't get an answer, well, the fault is on your end--not God's. They will continue to tell you to keep trying over and over again, until you eventually affirm their message. This is standard Mormon missionary procedure. I tried this test for over a decade and never received an answer. Yet, I always got the same response from church leadership: "Pray harder, read more, fast longer and try again." This is the same reply homosexuals get while going through church-sponsored reparative therapy (i.e. "pray away the gay").

In psychology there is a phenomenon called "Confirmation Bias," which is a fancy way of saying you see what you want to see (aka, wishful thinking). Confirmation Bias has been exposed and studied for many years and scientists know a great deal about it. Now, a person who prays and feels a sensation similar to the "burning in the bosom" described above is not necessarily a victim of Confirmation Bias, but how do you distinguish between the two? Which is more likely to occur? What if this technique confirms something demonstrably wrong or evil? How do you go from this seeming affirmation of faith to proclamations of knowledge of the supernatural?

One of the key phrases in verse 4 is having "real intent." This means you need a desire to believe, before you will receive an answer. In light of the possibility of confusing a genuine spiritual experience with Confirmation Bias, I say, "Well, isn't that convenient...?"

Some might say it takes a leap of faith, as shown in the video above. But why is faith of this kind a good thing? Why would a god who gave us our reasoning faculties make the most important questions only knowable through such a subjective experience? How is faith anything more than just throwing in the towel intellectually, and stubbornly holding on to your beliefs just because you want to? As Matt Dillahunty has said, "Faith is the excuse people give when they don't have a good reason for their beliefs." Hope, optimism, and empathy are all worth-while virtues; faith is a cop out.

Here is the Atheist Experience talking with a "Mormon Investigator:"

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