So, after all my jealous whining every time Kazim has a story to tell about religious types knocking at his door, yesterday evening I got a visit from a couple of Mormon missionaries. You know, the young guys riding around on bicycles in white shirts, black slacks and ties and calling themselves "Elder" although they're all of 20 or 21, if that.
No, I didn't bite their heads off and drink the blood from their spurting neck stumps. These were a couple of nice guys, and I thought, we'll, here's a chance to pin them down on their beliefs and see how they respond to a tough question now and again. I told them up front I was an atheist, affiliated with a local atheist organization, co-host of a TV show and moderator of a blog, both on atheism. They were like, Oh, okay, and asked me a couple of questions about the difference between agnosticism and atheism.
So, to the highlights. I kept the tone entirely pleasant all the way, just in case they were worried. I suspect that these guys put up with a lot of "No thanks" and slammed doors, but generally aren't accustomed to dealing with someone who both openly identifies as atheist and then eagerly proceeds to engage them. (And one of the guys later on said as much.) My main question was one right from the AETV playbook: Exactly what do you guys believe and why do you believe it?
It is always interesting to question believers like that, because right there, in that most basic of all approaches to religious discussion, you will see just how differently theists and atheists approach thinking about religion and its claims. They essentially told me about their belief in God as a loving father figure, etc., and instead of giving me a solid "why" for what they believed, they merely asserted the strength of their belief as some kind of validation for it. The thing is, I don't think they were playing dodgeball. Cognitively, this is just how a lot of theists are. Passion equals proof, more or less. I think they thought they were giving me a very solid why, without understanding why "I know it in my heart" or whatever descriptive phrase they call into play does not, in fact, answer, why. I could have hammered the point home, demanding to know why they knew it in their hearts so strongly, but I know that for an answer I'd have ended up on a rhetorical merry-go-round.
Where the conversation got interesting — to keep this post short — was when I asked them why they believed Christ's sacrifice was necessary. It all went back to original sin, as in mainstream Christianity, though where Mormons split from mainstream Christians is in rejecting the Trinity (at least, that's what they told me). Jesus, in their belief system, is the Son of God, but was not God in the flesh. Anyway, this led to my asking about sin, and why God would allow such a drastic flaw in his creation in the first place, thus necessitating Christ's sacrifice years later. Their answer was interesting. Apparently, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were perfectly innocent, like "three year olds." They didn't reproduce because, in their innocence, they didn't know how, poor things. But here's the strange part. God apparently realized that this childlike, innocent bliss was stifling, stultifying. He introduced sin, they told me, so mankind could be happy. Certainly, introducing evil into the world brought with it much strife, but it also brought humanity the ability to exercise their free will to choose happiness over evil.
I had to admit this was a new take on the theology to me, but it still didn't really pass the smell test. For one thing, I told them I couldn't figure out why a perfect being like God, what with being omniscient and all, couldn't have come up with a better and more consistent business plan. Wouldn't God have know how to get it right from the start, without wasting so much time by first creating a world of innocent, developmentally arrested and hopelessly boring children romping around a meadow doing nothing in particular, only to think to himself "Nah, this ain't working" and change the rules? God here resembles those artists who are said to be such great masters at their craft that they introduce deliberate flaws into their work simply so they themselves don't get bored with it. But even those artists aren't all-powerful and all-knowing, so why wouldn't a perfect being have simply done the job to his satisfaction the first time?
The discussion went back to the whole free will thing, which led me to ask if there was free will in Heaven. After all, Heaven is supposed to be a place of eternal bliss. Why, if the Earth was such a drag in that condition, should Heaven then be a place we aspire to? Do people in Heaven have free will? Yes, they told me. So, if that's true, then is it possible for people to do evil in Heaven? Yes, they said, only in Heaven, well, it's such a great place that up there, you just wouldn't want to.
Okay, hang on, I said (thoroughly enjoying myself by now). Why can't Earth simply be that kind of place, one where you can choose to be evil, but are so content with your life that you don't? Because, if that's the definition of Heaven, I'd have to say I'm already there. I choose not to do evil, because I see too many reasons not to, and even more reasons to be good, plus, I simply have no impetus towards evil acts. It seemed that the more these guys described Heaven to me, the less it seemed like there was any notable difference between it and Earth. (And besides, I had to point out that Lucifer chose evil while in Heaven and rebelled against God, which kind of threw cold water on their assumption that no one would want to.)
Well, you might be able to see where this is leading: they finally admitted (I'm big on body language, so I couldn't help noticing one of the guys take a big step back as he gave me this answer) that in the end, it boils down to faith. Well, of course it does, and if I'd bet myself a ten-spot we'd eventually end up at this point, then...well, I'd have a ten-spot. I was encouraged to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon and study it, but — and here's the kicker — check those hard questions and skeptical thoughts of mine at the door, and just allow the message to wash over me. Now, without shifting from my Mr. Nice Atheist persona, I couldn't let them off the hook with this one. I told them I simply couldn't do that. Whatever I read, I think about it, and if there are hard questions to ask, then goshdarnit, I ask them. You have to. Indeed, the more important the issue at hand, the more there is at stake (and if the claims of Christianity are true, then there is quite a lot at stake), the harder your questions have to be. What they didn't realize was that by insisting I had to treat their holy book different from anything else I might read — simply choosing to exercise little to no critical thinking in the reading of it — they were all but admitting that their holy book could not stand up to such intellectual scrutiny. And that's hardly the way an all-powerful, all-knowing being would go about his business in spreading his Word, wouldn't you say?
Anyway, there are more details about the conversation I could go into, but those were the highlights. We parted cordially, I told them it was nice to meet them and good luck in their efforts, and I hope I left them with some food for thought. If nothing else, I suspect that they'll be telling their fellow missionaries at the church on Sunday about the atheist guy they talked to. I hope they come back.