Are faith and reason incompatible?
In the past few months, I have noticed a regular circulation of Mormon missionaries throughout the student residences surrounding our campus. Often split into pairs, they will approach larger groups of students with the desire of sharing the message of the Latter-day Saints. As a former evangelist myself, I was intrigued to learn more about their beliefs. Most importantly, I wanted to discover the reasons why they held the claims of their theology to be true. With this goal in mind, it soon became apparent that the rhetoric they employed could never convince a reasonable person.
But what does it mean to be reasonable? Quite simply, it means to value reasoned argumentation, applied to demonstrable evidence in support of claims about the nature of reality. Preserving the integrity of an open and honest discussion of ideas requires that this criterion be established and maintained. With that in mind, taking a look at the three most common “arguments” I have heard provided by missionaries will explain why their tactics have been largely unsuccessful on campus.
First, in the way of evidence, the missionaries I have spoken with provide examples of personal revelations from God. Besides arguments from personal revelation, demonstrable evidence is never provided; only assertions are made about the truth of their message. Powerful as revelation may be for the person who experiences it, it cannot be counted as evidence for others since there is no way for us to independently access the subjective experiences of individuals. This is a weak foundation for us to build our discourse upon and it only gets worse from here.
Second, in the way of fallacy, I have yet to converse with a missionary who has not interjected all of their “reasons” for believing with the presupposition that God exists and the Book of Mormon is his word. Outsiders, new to the faith, are asked to discover these same revelations by praying to God, with an open heart and a desire to know the truths of their holy text. In essence, this amounts to a pernicious kind of circular reasoning: in order to know that God is real and we know his word, you must first accept out of hand that God is real and this is his holy book.
Third, in the way of goals, as much as I’ve tried to reach common ground with several missionaries, there is a fundamental difference in what we are trying to achieve from our discussions. Initially, we always agree to desire the same thing: the truth, whether it be comforting or not. Very soon thereafter, appeals to faith are made and this completely negates any serious discourse about the truth.
The faith they appeal to is synonymous with a rejection to being reasonable. Faith is not a reason to believe something is true since having faith can only change my question from “why do you believe?” to “why do you have faith?” The only difference here is that “evidence” has been removed from the list of possible answers. This appeal to faith in our discussions has meant simply to believe that something is true because they want it to be true. That is neither intellectually honest nor is it a good basis for making real world decisions.
These three common themes in my talks with Mormon missionaries have invariably led to a couple responses that should be addressed. Immediately, I am reminded that they know the Book of Mormon is true. In that case it’s similar to faith — they equate a strong “feeling” about something with knowledge. When I raise concerns with historical inaccuracies or even seemingly racist passages in the Book of Mormon, I am reminded that they do not have all the answers.
By far the most frustrating non-answer I have been given: that they are not trying to convince me of anything. At first I was left speechless by the absurdity of it: they are meant to spend at least two years of their lives spreading the message of their Church and even give out free literature to nonbelievers and we are supposed to believe this is being done for some other purpose than to convince us that their beliefs are true?
So where does this stalemate, this difference of beliefs and values leave us? I can’t help but feel frustration in what I see as wasted years on the part of these youths, but I place the fault on a virulent belief system that was imposed upon them from childhood, not the missionaries themselves. My own background as a former evangelical and “winner of lost souls” and subsequent rejection of religion is a story for another day, but it adds a personally tragic dimension to my view of this situation.
I am an atheist, not because I hate God or want to sin, but because my desire to be a better missionary led me to similar challenges of my faith. That faith was replaced with doubt and that’s the only reasonable position I can take, if I want to remain intellectually honest. My atheism is nothing more than the noises I make as a reasonable person in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
Unless the Mormons change their strategy to address these serious concerns I have raised, they will consistently fail to convince reasonable people of their claims.