Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mormons Just Believe?

At a recent lunch where the topic of religion came up, my coworker made a joke about a religious believer "enjoying the sunshine of her blind faith." Similarly, the refrain from a song in the Book of Mormon musical says that "Mormons just believe" even as each point of doctrine recited in the song becomes more esoteric or absurd. Does religion require blind faith-- that is, belief without supporting evidence?

It dawned on me that religion may actually requires less faith of its adherents than most other belief systems. Religious people's moral beliefs are linked to certain factual events, e.g., the resurrection of Christ, Mohammad's revelations, Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon. Believers can't independently verify these events occurred as reported, but they can review and evaluate the record and the credibility of the witnesses. Like jurors in a he-said she-said legal case, believers may never know for sure what really happened, but they can know enough to render an evidence-based verdict.

Mormonism lends itself particularly well to factual investigation. Besides Joseph Smith's say-so, we have a book that claims to be a record of the ancient Americas translated from golden plates, which can be evaluated. We also have numerous first- or second-hand accounts of many of the miracles from Mormonism's founding from corroborating witnesses. The three witnesses claimed to have had an angel show them the Book of Mormon.The eight witnesses claimed to have seen the golden plates, too. Oliver Cowdery was reportedly present when the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were restored by angels. Sidney Rigdon was present for the restoration of the sealing power by Elijah and for the revelation in D&C 76. There are many, many ways to attack or bolster Mormonism's factual claims.

Of course, nonbelievers may reject a religion's factual underpinning. They may review the evidence and reject it--or more likely, reject it out of hand. But I don't think it's fair to say that religious people just believe. As Eugene Volokh points out in these posts, even nonreligious peoples' morality is based on a moral axiom that cannot be proved but requires belief. At least religious claims rest on factual assertions that can be evaluated, which is more than can be said for nonreligious belief systems.


Brett said...

This is in the same vein as our previous faith/evidence discussion, in which I think we're mostly on the same page.

Previously I took the stance that scientific or legal evidence was really of no consequence to the religious person, that a testimony at its core was purely a matter of faith. I still think faith is the lynch pin, but I do see a role evidence in the development of one's faith. We're told that "faith precedes the miracle" and that "signs follows those who believe."

If we first have faith, we can expect evidence to follow, which leads to greater faith. So evidence surely builds faith, but choosing faith while lacking certainty is also integral to the process.

I've had discussions regarding belief in the axioms which underpin math and science (not to mention morality) with a friend of mine who teaches math. He's more or less an atheist, but he'll readily admit that belief in the axioms is an act of faith. He just feels more comfortable taking that leap of faith than one that requires a belief in God.

I've also heard Sean Carroll, cosmologist, author, and ardent atheist, concede that the axioms are subjective, but he'll add that they are not arbitrary (by which he means that they can be tested against scientific evidence). It's an inherent feature of the scientific method that nothing can ever be proven outright (statistically, you can never have a p-value of zero), but you can still be quite confident that a dropped rock will fall to the earth.

Which I guess brings me to my remaining question regarding faith, testimony, and evidence. It seems to me that what distinguishes the religious person from the secular is that the religious person chooses to accept spiritual evidence in addition to physical evidence whereas the secular person would say that spiritual manifestations are not evidence at all.

It seems contrary to the aims of God's plans to reveal enough physical evidence to prove his existence to the secularist. Acceptance of spiritual evidence will always be a salient feature of a testimony, though physical evidence can also play a part.

Ryan said...

"I've also heard Sean Carroll, cosmologist, author, and ardent atheist, concede that the axioms are subjective, but he'll add that they are not arbitrary (by which he means that they can be tested against scientific evidence)."

I would like to know more about what that means, and more about scientific and mathematical axioms generally.

I do understand secular tendency to discount faith. It raises the question, why is faith a virtue, and why does God reward those who believe in him without incontrovertible evidence?

Peter Kreeft makes the argument that the evidence is not so obvious that a person is hit over the head with it, but there for the genuine seeker to find.

Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens argue that the evidence is balanced in such a way that the evidence does not compel one conclusion on religious matters, presenting the potential believer with a moral choice.

Brett said...
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Brett said...

An axiom (aka postulate) is an unprovable premise that is taken as given.

The most famous in mathematics are probably Euclid's from which pretty much all of geometry can be derived.

An example in science would be the two postulates from which Einstein's theory of Special Relativity was derived (i.e. the Principle of Relativity and the invariance of the speed of light). Einstein did not have proof that those two things were correct, he just felt they should be. Then he proceeded to derive implications from those two simple (albeit radical) assumptions which include time dilation, length contraction, and E=mc^2. Those predictions being confirmed, we conclude that the assumptions must have been on the right track.

Carroll's point, I would assume, is that while these axioms are not provable, if they led to spurious (or useless) predictions then they would have been discarded. The fact that they persist in the face of scientific scrutiny is evidence of their merit, as opposed to some arbitrary unprovable statement that someone claims to be true.

"why is faith a virtue, and why does God reward those who believe in him without incontrovertible evidence?"

That's a very interesting that I had never considered. My hunch is that it has to do with choice as Bushman and Givens posit. Granted one can still have choice in the face of incontrovertible evidence, but the choice doesn't require much (if any) moral character.

Brett said...

See Euclid's postulates here -