Last night, two Mormon missionaries knocked on my door, and I talked to them for about half an hour.
Their take-home message: read their book. It’s really good. And if you listen with an open heart, God will tell you whether it is true or not. That’s how they became Mormons, and that’s how I can become one as well.
Unfortunately, at UCLA in April, I got the same message from a Muslim-born Pakistani: read my book. It’s really good. . . .
So how, I wonder, could I possibly decide between the Pakistani and my new Mormon acquaintances—and at the same time know that I had picked correctly?
Anyway, my retort to the two 20-something Mormon missionaries was not by way of recounting to them my encounter with a Muslim who had told me the same thing. Instead, I took a different tack. I asked them about something that I’m quite sure neither of them had been quizzed about before.
I brought up the Holocaust.
To discover God’s existence, what if I exposed myself with an open heart to a very different experience? Instead of reading the Book of Mormon, what if I went on a tour of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and, after exposing myself to these places, I came away quite convinced that God does not exist? Would that, I asked, be a valid method for arriving at an intuitive and visceral certainty concerning the question—something I could then base my life upon?
At first, both missionaries seemed genuinely stumped, then one said this:
Actually, I used to read diaries of the Holocaust. And I noticed that people could still go through the Holocaust and continue to believe in God.
In response, I said:
So what you’re saying to me is that no amount of reality testing can undermine your faith; in other words, there is nothing that can happen in the world that could falsify what you believe?
And both of them agreed that is correct.
By this point I was bewildered, and couldn’t help but ask them a simple follow-up question:
Do you ever doubt your faith?
To which they both replied, “No.”
Now, as an agnostic, I doubt things all the time. I don’t know what it would be like to experience a life, especially surrounding so opaque a topic as God’s existence, free of doubt. But they said that they never really doubt the truth of their religion, and I take them at their word. But I also wanted to see if I could get them to doubt their faith (at least a bit). I thus asked them to tell me the story of how the Book of Mormon came to exist in the first place (which I already knew). They dutifully told me about Joseph Smith, and how, in the 1820s, an angel had directed him to buried golden plates with Egyptian hieroglyphs on them. Joseph Smith translated these into English.
Then, of course, Joseph Smith surely must have been very careful to preserve these golden plates as evidence of the truth of his new religion, and to this day they must be kept in a very special place inside your chief temple in Salt Lake City, yes?
But the answer—surprise!—was no.
Alas, I was informed by the two innocents at my door that, in fact, the plates were taken back to heaven. The missionaries seemed genuinely embarrassed, even ashamed, to have to tell me this, but—seeing my incredulity and boldly meeting it—they put on a brave face and insisted that, yes, nevertheless they still believed, even absent so crucial a piece of minimal confirmatory evidence.
“But where,” I asked, “did Joseph Smith learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphics?”
“Joseph Smith,” they informed me, “only received a fifth grade education. He couldn’t read hieroglyphics. But he was humble, and God chose him for the task, performing a miracle through him.”
“But why,” I asked, “if God needed no help from Joseph Smith in translating the golden plates, did he not simply give Joseph Smith an English translation of them straight-off?”
“You mean,” asked one of them, “why didn’t the angel Moroni just leave a copy of the Book of Mormon on the ground in front of Joseph Smith, and be done with it?”
“Yes,” I said. “If you are going to believe in miracles, all bets are off. Anything is possible. And so, if you require a miracle to get the Book of Mormon into the world, then why not just flash it into existence out of nothing? Why take the long way around through Joseph Smith?”
That seemed absurd to them, nearly laughable! Of course, God would not do it that way! He picks (male) prophets to speak through. That’s just the way God does things.
And so, alas, we went around: I, the skeptic; they, the earnest believers with an inner religious experience accompanied by appeals to authority that trump all reason. Their lithe (and unironic) responses were a reminder to me of just how nimble and impervious religion can be to critical thinking and requests for evidence, and how readily attuned it is to ad hoc rationalization.
I think that Dostoevsky, via his Grand Inquisitor, was right. Human beings really are slavish animals. And when push comes to shove, faith in one’s private gnostic experience—not empirical doubt—is religion’s chief virtue, and the Joker in the deck to which, when one plays it, everyone else is expected to stop all additional reasoning and say:
I respect your faith, and what you surrender your freedom to. I don’t share your faith, but I admire how you have arrived at your truth—by listening to your heart. That’s, ultimately, how I have arrived at what I believe as well.
Critical thinking and evidence, in other words, be damned. It is Abraham, hearing God’s call, and resisting all appeals to reason and common sense, walking Isaac up Mount Moriah.
Ah, America! Ah, humanity!
The traditional site of the original Mount Moriah, of course, is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but here’s an image from another Mount Moriah (in South Dakota, from 1888, overlooking Deadwood):