A study in Nature magazine reported that the number of scientists who believe in a personal God has diminished over recent decades. In a new book, Duke University philosophy professor Owen Flanagan (2002) has stated the atheistic conclusion rather expansively: “There simply are no good arguments—theological, philosophical, humanistic or scientific—for beliefs in divine beings, miracles or heavenly afterlives.”
Those of us who have been around for some decades are dismayed to find God dragged before another earthly tribunal. Each generation poses the question of God afresh and each answers it according to its own sensibilities and assumptions. Some day it will be clear how presumptuous our provincial questions and minimizing pronouncements have been.
In the meantime, it seems fair to observe that our standard scientific processes for taking God’s measure are limited and biased. When we set up the rules of inquiry, we also foreordain the outcome. The dullest attorney knows the importance of controlling what evidence is entered in a court of law. Control the evidence and you control the conclusion. Likewise in the philosophical court of theology. When we decide what we will accept as evidence, we decide what our conclusion will be.
There is an interesting assumption in skepticism, an assumption that God, if He existed and wanted to be acknowledged, would want to be discovered by scientific methods. Let’s reflect on that assumption. Is it likely that our Heavenly Father wants to be approached through the scientific method? The assumption has merit if we believe that God’s primary concern is cultivating systematic inquiry—if we believe that God’s highest priority is rewarding cognitive complexity.
If, however, God’s primary interest is in cultivating compassion, humility, and faith, the trail of clues that lead to God are likely to be found on a very different path. If God is real, He will choose to be found on His own terms, which terms will be based on the qualities He wants to cultivate.
Rather than see the lack of scientific evidence about God’s existence as supporting a contention that He does not exist, I see any dearth of clues on the mortal crime scene as evidence of His profound regard for agency. The God who created the world chooses not to leave obvious evidence lying around in a manner that cannot be ignored. He wants us to be able to choose to believe or disbelieve without any intimidation or heavy-handedness.
In contrast, consider Saddam Hussein. I have not been to Iraq but, judging from media images, it appears that (before the invasion of Iraq in 2003), a picture could not be taken of the landscape anywhere in the country without getting a billboard, poster, statue, or bust of Saddam Hussein in it. His commanding image was ubiquitous. He retained armies and police to assure social order—as he defined it. And, when free and open elections were held, he was the only candidate.
The One who reigns over eternity is very different from Saddam. His divine imprint is subtly displayed in the visages of friends and family who are being transformed by Him. God employs no police but He has always provided an inner voice and official inviters—priesthood messengers—who beckon us to enjoy the blessings of obedience. In the elections of daily life, our ballots are littered with options, from secular humanism to atheism, from Buddhism to Shintoism, from Catholicism to Christian Science, from indifference to extremism.
God is not an insecure and demanding autocrat who insists on being obeyed. He is a Father who deigns to bless, teach, and enlarge us (see D&C 38:18 and 124:42). He knows that He honors our agency and ministers to our growth when He invites us to use our own agency and discernment.
Glenn Tinder has stated the case for human intellectual modesty much more eloquently than I can:
Perhaps discussions of religion would be more fruitful if we could rid ourselves of the assumption, common among Christians and practically universal among non-Christians, that God (if God exists) is simple-minded. We readily grant that a great writer such as Joyce or Proust is infinitely subtle and resourceful in fashioning a novel; but we assume that in fashioning human history God will be heavy-handed and obvious. Accordingly, some believers conclude that they know exactly what God has in mind and, vested with high office, could provide him with some much needed help. . . . In a parallel way unbelievers conclude that they know what God would do if he existed, and that since those things are not being done, he does not exist (The Atlantic, 265(3), March 1990, p.12).
Many of us find intriguing hints and harmonies in areas of science that suggest that the force behind the world is wise, good, and effective. When I took an astronomy class as a physics student, I felt that I saw the face of God on the elegant universe He created. More recently I have been amazed that, as our science in the realm of human relationships has improved, the conclusions have gotten closer and closer to the observations and recommendations of scripture. But it is not in the realms of science that I seek assurance of His reality.
For those of us who have chosen to seek him primarily on non-scientific paths and who feel that we have discovered encouraging signs of His existence and well being, the productive question is, “What can I do that will make my seeking more productive?” I think the first principles and ordinances of the gospel provide the guides. Those first principles seem also to be the second, third, and fourth principles of progress. They guide us from childhood to the end of mortality.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ comes first. It is the gift from our souls to him that testifies that we yearn for a relationship with the divine. God will not come and club us into submission. He will not compel us with a mountain of scientific data. He invites us. Ultimately we decide to try the personal experiment of trust or to resist it. If we are too proud or too independent to want a relationship with Him, we will not have one. He honors our choice while continuing to reach for us. His hand is stretched out still.
William James, the famous Harvard psychologist, observed that, “just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn—so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance” (Fosdick, 1918, p. 9).
God asks that we enter into the spiritual experiment by trusting him—by showing faith. Even in that fundamental requirement He accepts baby steps, even good intentions—even a desire to believe—as an authentic first step in the journey of faith (Alma 32:27).
The fruits of faith are repentance. Having taken steps toward His way of thinking, we agree to test His way of living. We must do His will if we want to know the truth of the doctrine (John 7:17). Progressively we give His will and His purposes greater place in our lives. Having offered our minds to Him, we next bring our acts. Repentance is the evidence that we are serious about our spiritual investigations.
In our standard list of the principles and ordinances of the gospel, baptism and confirmation come next. Those washing and cleansing functions are marks of the transformation, the indescribable change that replaces the worldly in us with the divine. That spiritual process that makes us gentler and kinder may be mistaken for the effects of aging to those who are uninformed or uninitiated. For those who have felt that distinctive (and welcome!) change, it is much more than aging. It is the most serene of God’s miracles. It is a process that is repeated thousands of times as we progressively rid ourselves of the natural man to make room within us for the disciple.
As part of the vision of the tree of life, Nephi was quizzed by an angel: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi gave a wise and inspired reply: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16–17). Even in our finest, most inspired moments we cannot comprehend God’s incalculable condescension. But we may sense that it is sure testimony of His love for us. He descended below all things that He might lift us above all things. The evidence of His good will contract is the subtle expanding of our souls. That subtle change of heart is hard to weigh in an earthly balance. It cannot be used to compel belief in others. Yet it is a welcome whisper of eternal hope for any who have felt it.
Joseph Smith, that remarkable messenger of heaven, observed that “good doctrine . . . tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you. They are given to me by the revelations of Jesus Christ; . . . You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 355).
Science rightly holds an honored place in this world. It helps us discover the regularities that are woven into natural law. It helps us live more comfortable lives. Yet a scientific orientation might reduce any statement about the sweetness of honey to a chemical and biological formula. Science cannot adequately describe (or create) the subtle growing process of the soul that God directs. That process is as subtle as a breeze and as elusive as a neutrino.
In the laboratory of life, those who have followed His lab instructions and have tasted His love know that it is sweet beyond any description. They know He is real and, more important, He is good.
Harry Emerson Fosdick (1918). The meaning of faith. NY: Association Press. [Recommended]
Owen Flanagan (2002). The problem of the soul: Two visions of mind and how to reconcile them. New York: Basic Books. [Not necessarily recommended.]