Someone recently asked me why I consider the possibility that there is no God. Here is my answer;
I consider the possibility that there is no God because I do not believe He has ever spoken to me. I suppose a little background information is in order. I had an experience that taught me an important lesson in discerning spirits...at least I thought that's what the lesson was. When I was 18 years old I was extremely devout. I was working framing houses to earn money for my mission. I prayed every night and routinely sought answers to my prayers. I would spend much time on my knees pouring out my heart to God. As everyone experiences, I'm sure, I struggled with trying to come up with new things to say to God and trying to not get in any ruts. Of course, as hard as I tried, I still failed at this. However, I had learned to take time after I finished my prayers and really listen for what God wanted me to know. When I didn't really get anything clear that I could count as an answer, I started just speaking what I thought God would be saying to me if He were answering my prayers. I figured it was like being the voice in a priesthood blessing, where if you just start speaking, the Lord would fill me with what needed to be said/heard. I became pretty adept at thinking of all these answers that God was giving me, through my created thoughts of words in my mind. Usually the words came through as messages of love and support and reminders about how special I was. Then I might receive some counsel or instruction on something that was weighing on my mind. Usually these answers were pretty ambiguous and didn't really mean much (it seems God had a problem with avoiding the ruts in coming up with things to tell me as well). These answers really made me feel better about myself and the time that I had spent on my knees.
Well, one time I was going through the usual routine of saying my prayers and just beginning to start speaking the words I thought God wanted me to hear in my mind, when I really desired to know something that I didn't already know. I wanted to test out this ability of mine to hear the words the Lord had for me and receive an unambiguous confirmation that these words were coming from an outside source that was not just my imagination. Then the answer came. The revelation I received on one night in particular was something that I did not already know that was pretty definitely true or not true. The answer I got was that the living president of the LDS church (Ezra Taft Benson at the time) had passed away that evening. It was pretty common knowledge that he was getting pretty old and frail, but this was special knowledge given just to me. I went on to enjoy the most spiritual experience as I thought that the Spirit went on to elaborate for me how the prophet had a special message to me from him (Ezra) and the Lord. I was told that I was being given this information because of my faithfulness and because I truly desired to know. I felt like the prophet spoke directly to me that night and even though it was a sad event, I was very comforted by the touching gesture of communicating directly to me and I felt very special and it was a very moving and emotional experience for me.
Well, I'm sure you can probably guess what happened. The next day I was riding with my boss to work and I asked him if he had heard anything about the prophet recently passing away (my boss was LDS as well). He said he hadn't heard anything but would turn on the news to see if any announcement was made (usually the passing of the leader of the LDS church is pretty newsworthy - even in Oregon). Then he inquired of me why I asked. I went on to tell him that I had a very special experience the night before wherein I was comforted after I was made aware the prophet had recently passed away.
Just to be clear, this experience was like every other session after my prayers wherein I truly believed I was getting answers from my Father in Heaven about things that were important and that I believed I needed to hear and was receiving from the Spirit directly from Him to me.
Days passed and still no word on the prophet's passing. I think it was almost a year and a half later before President Benson actually did pass away. He spoke in at least a few general conferences after I had that experience.
Needless to say, I was very concerned about this experience that I had. I asked God what was up and I never really did receive a clear answer. The best I could come up with was that sometimes God tests us for possibly unknown reasons or that, like some have said, sometimes the devil can come to us as an angel of light and deceive us. The problems I had with both of those explanations (which have now become absolutely clear to me) is that in the first case God deliberately deceived me and if the second explanation is correct, then God allowed me to be deceived by the adversary (and not just through tempting thoughts, but directly through communication I believed I was having with God). Neither conclusion is at all comforting.
Anyway, reflecting on that experience was one of the straws that broke the camels back as far as my belief in God is concerned (at least that he actually answers my prayers or endeavors to speak to me. However, that realization did not come until 20 years after it happened).
Another reason I don't believe in God is really pretty simple. I can't relate to Him. I just don't understand how a God who we are taught loves us and is mindful of all of his children allows so much pain and suffering in this world. We are very fortunate to live in a country with so much prosperity and modern convenience, but much of the world is not so lucky. In Africa there are routine raids of tribal villages wherein the inhabitants are subject to having their hands cut off, women raped and children abducted to be drafted into the invading militia’s army. They teach these young boys to wield guns and actually brutally kill others while getting them addicted to drugs and alcohol and whatever.
How can God stand for this? I'll tell you what, if I were God, I'd be constantly causing those that committed such atrocities to always have their vehicles breaking down or getting sick with weird diseases or something....anything to prevent such atrocious behavior. However, God doesn't stop it. Apparently He is racking up all their bad deeds (which are mostly committed by those that just go along with what they know to get along in the world and survive) so that at some point He can take great pleasure in casting them into some pit where the sun doesn’t shine. Meanwhile, those people that are the victims continue to suffer and, in some cases, starve because they can't even produce enough food to survive.
Not only that, but, how can 19 hijackers actually believe that they are doing God's will when they fly commercial airliners into buildings? Their persistence in believing that they are truly doing the will of God causes me to wonder how people can become so divided (enough to be willing to take their own lives along with as many others as possible) over such a question. I'll tell you how. It's because the question of the reality of God's existence is not a trivial one. Many people are willing to base their entire life's work on the answer to the question of God's existence. There are many people who are so convinced that they have found the correct answer to that question and they are so convinced that they are right and everyone else (outside of their view) is wrong. They sincerely believe that God has called them to manifest His "truth" to the world through the sacrifice of their lives. Radical Islam does this through strapping bombs to themselves and blowing themselves up in populated areas and we in the US do this (at least many in the LDS church) by working our tails off for the "building up of the kingdom of God on the earth and the establishment of Zion.", paying our tithing and going to church. I do not think that we are really so different, them and us.
We profess the truthfulness of our beliefs and emphasize it with much zeal and gusto every chance we get as, I'm sure, do the terrorists with equal zeal and gusto. Is one side right and one wrong? It apparently depends on who you ask. If you ask many in the LDS church they will tell you they definitely have "all" the truth and all the other religions in the world are lacking in some way or another. If you ask that question of a Muslim they will tell you exactly the same thing. They will tell you that they have "all" the truth and all the other religions are lacking in some way or another. Have both studied both sides of the question and believe that they are honestly right? You betcha! The only difference is one party is ready and willing (and feels the need) to die for their religious views (on behalf of God) and the other feels it necessary to wear out their life in the service of their God.
So, if we could objectively ask, which is actually right? What would we come up with? Well, I suppose we could start looking for indicators. We might look for miracles, scriptures, prophecies, growth, the number of adherents or whatever else. All of which occur plentifully on both sides. If we ask God about the matter, everyone only seems to hold to their previous predominant religious persuasion. God seems to give people the answer they are most "comfortable" with. He continues to tell the Muslim he is right and the Mormon that they are right. The Mormons believe that if they could only just have an audience with the Muslim they could get them to convert to Mormonism (because, after all, we have the "fullness" of the gospel and it is the only true and living gospel/church on the face of the planet) and the Muslim believes exactly the same thing of their teaching. They just might resort to killing you first if God wills it to be so. The problem is, in my mind, there really is no objectivity. There is no possible way to get any objectivity because as long as we all have lived on this planet there have been people divided on the question of God and religion.
I just don't understand how God could be the genuine author of such confusion. I don’t understand it, especially when that author appears to not really have any serious regard for the value of human life.
I have considered the possibility that maybe human life isn't really that important to God. Especially since, if there is an afterlife with Him, we are all going to return to him no matter what happens here. So it is possible that He just doesn't see things the way we do. But if that is the case, why not be more clear in the 10 commandments and say something like, "Thou shalt not kill...unless I tell you it's OK...because I do that when I feel like it...and it is not really a big deal to me when people die...but it should be a big deal to you because I can't have you killing each other off since that would frustrate my work a little."
Anyway, the lack of clarity has gotten a little maddening for me because I wonder things like, "if this life is really NOT that important to God, should it be important for me? Why is it important? What is the purpose of life anyway?" I know LDS feel they have all the answers to these questions, but do they really? The traditional LDS response to my last question is that the purpose of life is to get a body. Is that it? No, also to be tried and tested to see if we will do all things whatsoever the Lord commands us.
So what will it be like when I am hanging out in the afterlife mingling with all the souls there and chatting about earth life? I'll likely run into some people that lived long, productive, fulfilling and happy lives. That got married, had kids, had grandkids and even got to see some of their great grandkids before they passed on. Life was obviously a blessing to that person. They learned much, experienced much joy and really got something out of it. As for the test of obedience, they might have done really well (Like if mortality is given an SAT score, they got near the top of the curve).
Then, as I wander around and encounter another soul hanging out there in the afterlife, I find out that this person feels kind of jipped. They were still-born. They don't even remember their mortal experience, but, hey, they got a body and they get an automatic ticket to the celestial kingdom and they may even get a chance to experience some alternate mortality somehow to kind of make up for the fact that they weren't really tested at all while they lived for 2 seconds on earth. Not seeing the whole picture to explain the reasons behind all these different experiences, I obviously don't know what the whole grand design is. But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe there isn't a grand design. Maybe it is all just random and our being is completely up to chance.
Of course, I naturally object to this because the one thing I cannot deny is that I am me and I am not anyone else. Why am I me and not anyone else? This question I cannot adequately answer. However, deep down I believe that there is some significance to my being who I am and I truly hope that there is more to this life than what I experience while mortal, but I just don't have enough information to make an informed judgment on that question. I can only wait and see what happens. In the meantime, I believe I should do the best I can with the information that I’ve got in front of me that seems the most important or will bring me the most happiness.
However, I don't believe that when it is all said and done that, if there is a God in heaven that presides over the universe that I meet in the afterlife, that He is going to interview me and then judge me on how well I lived my religion. I don't even think there will necessarily be an interview. What would be the purpose of the interview? To share stuff He already knows? To issue my grade and assign me to my kingdom? Will there be a division between the possible kingdoms we are assigned to? Joseph Smith taught that there is. Families are going to be split up in that day because the believing family members will go to a high kingdom and the non-believing "black sheep" will go to a lower kingdom. The bad family members get a shack (relatively speaking) and the good ones get a mansion. If I don't make it and don’t earn eternity with my wife she will be "given" to another man to make eternal babies with while I remain single in my shack. Sure she can come visit me, but why would she? She'll have some stud husband god who takes way better care of her than I ever could and I'm sure she'll be wayyy more happy without me in her life. Is that something I can honestly look forward to with joy and happiness? I’m not so sure.
So, if God is truly come to divide father and mother and child and brother and sister, why do I want to pursue that? If the end result is happiness for some and eternal torment and misery for others (who are members of the same family) how can anyone take comfort in that? I guess I could put on blinders and say that I’ll just be happier and provided for in the eternities and I don’t need to concern myself with such questions, but I just can’t help myself (besides, aren’t I kind of already in that place at this point?).
I guess it is also possible that we will have another veil passed over our minds so we can’t remember this life. That is one possible way to explain being able to deal with an assignment to a lower kingdom, we just won’t know why we are where we are or that there was a better one we missed out on. But, if that is true, it doesn’t really matter what we actually do in this life because it will all be wiped from our mind anyway. I can’t believe that God is playing a game like that with something as lasting as our eternal existence and path to Godhood. How could we be a god if we couldn’t remember something anyway? That just seems contradictory. Are we supposed to forever suppress some knowledge, that we have, from everyone that could ever possibly find out something that could make us less than god in the presence of others?…If so, could we truly be a god while keeping something important from those that honor us as a god (i.e. our spirit children)?
I guess the answer to that question is a big perhaps. However, I just don’t think speculating on the circumstances we will all find ourselves in during an afterlife and progression to godhood is really a worthwhile activity since there is so much I do not know (and cannot know with any certainty while living now) about the question.
Your answers to my questions can carry just as much weight as ones that I make up. We could both be right, sorta, and/or we could both be totally wrong. The problem I see is, should we endeavor to earnestly answer a question we cannot reliably get a solid, objective answer to while we are here? At this point in my life, I am inclined to say no.
I think attempting to answer questions that have universal implications (meaning that they are questions of monumental significance and truth to the entire population of the earth) need some pretty extraordinary evidence to maintain credibility and stand up to scrutiny. Because, I believe, we must scrutinize such questions. We need to scrutinize questions of adherence to prescribed religious behaviors to avoid being deceived by any one party who has some ulterior motive of exercising control over the population or promoting a personal agenda. We need to thoroughly scrutinize such questions (and the answers provided) to avoid the blood shed that is the result of the inevitable adherence that is demanded by those claiming to have the answers to the questions we inwardly crave an answer to and can pretty easily be convinced of.
The funny thing is, we humans are pretty unsteady creatures. We desire someone to give us answers to questions we didn’t really know we had (or were not that important to us previously) and tell us what we need to do about it. We like being told what to do. Things are so much easier for us when that happens. When people give us answers, we don’t have to think and we would really rather not think if we don’t have to. I think we are inherently lazy unless we are motivated by the demands of others that we desire to provide us all the answers we seek (or have become convinced we should find important).
I could be dead wrong on all of this and I will be the first to admit that. The problem is, the more I think about these things the more I realize that it is OK to not be completely preoccupied with the answers I have been given, let alone the truthfulness or untruthfulness of them. Unfortunately, I believe that is what those in the LDS church are encouraged to do. Members are constantly reminded of the importance of holding to the rod or enduring to the end, in spite of any doubts that may be had, and are further encouraged to bear their testimony and pronounce the truthfulness of things they really don’t know that much about (with objective or absolute certainty, that is). I believe that is self delusional behavior.
I believe being encouraged to say “I know…” when there really is no way to obtain knowledge (that is objective) of such things in this life is not healthy. After all, what do we know? We know what we have objective evidence of and that’s about it. Spiritual knowledge that is claimed is not really knowledge in an objective sense, it is completely subjective. It is individual and that is all. Well, in my opinion, if something is personal, perhaps it should remain that way unless you can point to something that the entire world can agree on as something to aspire to (based on truly objective evidence) because we have, and can point to, actual experience concerning the goodness or rightness of the principle being advocated. Unless one can provide such objective evidence, you may as well be an Islamic fundamentalist telling me to strap a bomb to my chest…because it is the will of Allah.
I think that there ARE things like this that exist, though. I think the promotion of life and punishment for killing innocents is something just about everybody in the world could get behind. Rights to have clean water to drink and enough food to survive and not be subject to continual violence are other things I think the world could get behind as universal principles of rightness. The continual struggle, however, is that self-interest always gets in the way. People who think they can make a buck off of the suffering of others will always be around and are ready to take advantage of those who desire to sincerely help those in need. So we put checks and balances in place and make things as transparent as possible to avoid such things, knowing that they will still happen, but, as long as we learn from the pitfalls and graft that occurs, we can make things better for everyone.
I honestly don’t think religion is doing enough to get us there. If anything, religion has been a stumbling block to that kind of progress by its continual insistence on being right rather than being just plain good. (I realize not all churches are like that, but my views are tainted by my experience, what can I say?) Why do we advertise which church we belong to? Why don’t people just say, “I go to a worship service in my community where the betterment of human kind is preached and our sole devotion is to furthering that end”? It shouldn’t matter what sect one belongs to, it should matter that we are all attempting to continually reconcile our differences and work toward a common, unifying goal which will help us all enjoy more on this planet in the long run.
We should be encouraged to be devoted to figuring out how to aid people in those parts of the world that don’t enjoy clean water or enough food to survive or are racked with conflict, not how much better the afterlife will be for us than all those “other” sinners that God will take delight in punishing for not keeping his commandments. We should be preoccupied with the question of proper utilization of our planet’s natural resources to achieve that goal rather than preoccupied about whether or not I did my home or visiting teaching last month. I think religion causes us to focus on the trees of our eternal self interest and lose sight of the forest of humanity.
Of course, we can only do what we can do within our sphere of influence. I really don’t have the means to be out traveling the world like a super hero fighting injustice wherever it is found, but I can certainly teach my children how to live a happy and productive life (as much as I know about doing so anyway…which could always stand room for improvement, by the way) and try to instill the vision of this in them as much as I am able. Doesn’t mean they will agree with me, but I can make my case and hope for the best. Above all, I hope my children find their best kind of happiness. I want for them to find the joy that brings them the most fulfillment's possible. I think this is what we should all stand up for and promote…as long as that happiness doesn’t result in the taking away of anothers' happiness, we should all be entitled.
Another thing I am mindful of is that I think (and I may be somewhat presumptuous on this point) I am somewhat mature in my conclusions. I realize that we, as a society, recognize the importance of icons in our upbringing and maturity continuum. We use tales of wonder (which are indeed fictional) to illustrate certain character traits that we desire to instill in our children or lessons we hope they learn. We tell them that Santa Claus is real, not because we desire, and intend, to deceive, but because we want to instill in our children a love of giving to others. We have created a character that epitomizes the spirit of giving that we blame for the giving of presents to them on Christmas that we might impart to them the joy and wonder of giving by passing that tradition on to their children. Levels of maturity in children determine when parents feel children are ready to learn the “truth” of Santa Claus.
I think it is also true of religion. Some people may never be prepared to learn the truth of the question of God’s existence. Many, many people never can or will accept the possibility that there is no God in this life (at least not the one that is preached by most religions). But that’s OK. Most God fearing people do what they think is right within their sphere of influence and, for the most part, do a wonderful job of it.
I think it is unfortunate, on the other hand, that many people are taken advantage of because of their hope and faith in the existence of God as interpreted through their religious tradition. People can waste so much valuable time, effort and money attempting to seek something that may never be truly found by giving all of it to their religious organization only to find out that the preacher was taking advantage of them the whole time for the preacher's personal benefit. Again, hopefully wiser heads prevail on this and these sorts of things can be exorcised through checks and balances and transparency as we learn from our mistakes in this regard.
The frustrating thing is, however, that many people do not seem to learn from the mistakes of others. The D&C says that we have learned from sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of all men that when they get a little authority they think they are wise and begin to seek for their own personal gain. I am paraphrasing here, but I think Joseph Smith was actually on to something with this idea. He was trying to tell us to watch out. It is inherent in man’s nature to seek out their own personal gain at every opportunity. You have to somehow temper this with reminders that it is more important to be devoted to the cause and the greater well being of the whole to counteract this tendency towards self interest. And, when it becomes clear that this is not working, you have to resort to more severe measures. In the case of the LDS church, I am not sure what this means. What I am clear of, though, is that the leaders of the LDS church have violated the trust of their members in many areas.
One area of concern is disclosure of income and expenses for the church. Why does the president of the church feel it is necessary to withhold certain vital pieces of information, related to the financial decisions made by the church, from the body of the church? This is a lack of transparency that only invites corruption. I am not accusing the leaders of the LDS church of being corrupt, however, I am saying that the practice of withholding disclosure demonstrates a lack of accountability that is arrogant and could potentially be an invitation to corrupt influences down the road.
Another area of concern is accuracy in conveying the historicity of the events surrounding the founding of the church. So what if there is much to possibly be embarrassed about regarding the actions of early leaders of the church? Why not put it all out there and let the chips fall where they may? If it is truly God’s church on the earth, God will tell people it is right (as it teaches people that He will) regardless of what the founders did, right? Why are leaders not so confident of this? I propose it is because the church is attempting to pursue what is in its own self interest. That is, withholding certain damaging pieces of information surrounding the behavior of the founders of the church makes it all the more likely that people will join the church and start paying tithing and serving, whereas, if the information were fully disclosed up front, the church may not enjoy such benefits.
This is my perspective and the only way I was able to enjoy it is by studying my way out of the church and coming to the realization that the church may not be all that it claims to be. Since the day I came to that realization, a whole new world has opened up for me. I am in a new world where I am allowed to seek out and learn whatever I want without fear that certain subjects or information will cause damnation to my soul. I now have permission to think for myself and make decisions that are right for me and for me alone and not because some old white guy says so (no matter how much I am told how important obedience is, this is not a message appropriate for me as a thinking individual.). Obedience to parents is the message I give my children, but only until they are able to understand the reasons I am asking them to obey. Once they can understand why I ask them to do what is asked of them, I don’t have to focus on the principle of obedience as much as the reasons – in my best estimation – why it is in their best interest to obey. The church seems to do the opposite. When people crave real answers and the reasons to be obedient to commandments and all they get in response is, “because I said so” or “because God says so”, I think people feel empty and long for more. People can only survive on milk for so long before they just have to have some meat.
What it all boils down to is that, for me, God may actually exist, but the question is an unimportant one. I’m pretty sure that if God does exist He is way different than many of us are taught that He is and the afterlife, while possibly being a place for all of us to re-unite and regale our earthly experiences is not a known. Besides some common Near Death Experiences we can use to somewhat piece together the possible events that might occur for us when we die, we don’t know much else (at least not objectively, anyway).
This is where I am at now. Obviously my whole outlook could change due to the discovery of some important piece of information that I have not yet encountered or adequately considered, but that is what the journey is for. Discovery of truth, I believe, is a lifelong journey that I hope does not end at death, but very likely could and, honestly, I am OK with that possibility. Ignorance may be bliss, and may even be longed for, but knowledgeable contentment with oneself is priceless.