An Atheist and a Mormon Debate: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?

The second installment in a debate series between a young atheist and devout Mormon.

It doesn’t get much different than a Mormon and an atheist — so that’s precisely who we have engaging in a monthly debate on matters of spirituality.

Donna Carol Voss is a Berkley grad, stay-at-home mom, former pagan and devout Mormon. W Cassity-Guilliom grew up with interfaith parents and landed as an irreligious apatheist, which evolved into atheism and skepticism with education.

In this installment, the two debate the question of what is the nature of faith.

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W Cassity-Guilliom:

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary” — Thomas Aquinas

“You just gotta have faith” is a phrase I’ve heard many times, often signaling the end of a discussion about why a religious person believes certain dogmas. This is apparently the bedrock of religious beliefs.

Faith is a word like any other — a vibration generated by vocal folds in the throat and hurled through the air toward primed eardrums, accompanied by a written symbol denoting identical meaning. Its intended meaning is determined by the one who speaks/writes it. Unfortunately, not having access to direct mind-information transfer, we can’t say with absolute certainty what the intended meaning is, but we can get very close, deducing the meaning of each utterance of the word by analyzing each use.

“You just gotta have faith.” As the last rejoinder in a lost debate. Having run dry of evidence and reasoning, pull out faith. In this use faith seems intended as the reason itself to believe something is true.

“Be more faithful.” Given as advice to a fellow believer with doubts. In this use it’s presented as a virtuous trait, but also a magnet drawing the doubtful believer back to the religious doctrines in lieu of reasons to believe they’re true.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In this use it means certainty in beliefs we would prefer to be true and certainty in beliefs that are not evidently true.

Given this spread of comparable meanings, I have a description of faith that’s synonymous with all of them: selective gullibility. Gullible because they have unwisely lowered their evidence threshold far below what is reasonable, and selective because they have only done this to a few specific claims, despite having encountered other similar claims.

Donna Carol Voss:

“Selective gullibility” is as good a way to put it as any other. To be gullible is to be so trusting that one can be easily tricked. Faith is, at best, a hope, a guess that what we understand to be true within our spiritual selves is actually true. The catch is, none of us will know in this lifetime. All are guesses: whether God exists; what kind of God he, she, or it is; whether there is an afterlife; whether there is a heaven and/or a hell.

The substance of faith is woven inextricably with doubt. Every intellectually honest believer acknowledges doubts from time to time, occasionally wrenching ones. (As an aside, and purely as a note of interest, the intellectually honest atheist admits no doubt; by definition, atheists insist there is no God, because to allow the possibility would make them agnostic.)

One of the greatest believers of all time, a saint no less, suffered from terrible doubts. From Mother Teresa’s private diary:

Where is my faith? — even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. — My God — how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. — I have no faith. — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me — I am afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God, — please forgive me.

Doubt is not a simple matter. Mother Teresa even had doubt about her doubts: “If there be God, — please forgive me.”

Faith is possible only in the face of immense gullibility, the willingness to risk so much trust that one is laid bare. And it is only in the nakedness of this vulnerability that the greatest faith is found. In this sense, I must agree with Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.”

I happen to agree that telling anyone to “Be more faithful” is weak. President Uchtdorf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once said, “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” That seems reasonable to me. All believers have an ever-changing proportion of each; by all means, acknowledge your doubts, but give more credit to your faith.

I always ask myself, “Who benefits the most if I doubt and let my doubt push me away from God?” To the believer there is only one answer, an answer which to an atheist is the most ludicrous belief of all: the devil, or as he is frequently known, the Adversary.

I used to be one of those who disdained believers, especially the ones superstitious enough to believe in a devil. A Catholic friend of mine once took a long look at me and said, “You know the biggest trick the devil has ever pulled on the world is to convince it that he doesn’t exist. No one guards against something that isn’t there.” I thought about that for a long time, and it’s one of the logical reasons I now believe there is a force trying to inflame my doubts for the very purpose of driving a wedge between me and my Heavenly Father.

Every believer is at a unique step of the spiritual journey, and it is not a straight line. What distinguishes most believers from nonbelievers is the desire to believe, the willingness to fight against doubts.

When a desperate father brought his ill son before Jesus, Christ responded that only with the father’s faith could his son be healed. The father cried out the universal longing for faith mixed with the universal opposition of doubt: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

W Cassity-Guilliom:

As an aside, and purely as a note of interest, the intellectually honest atheist admits no doubt; by definition, atheists insist there is no God, because to allow the possibility would make them agnostic.

Au contraire; by definition atheist is Greek for nonbeliever. A- being the Greek prefix for not/without, theist the Greek word for one who believes that a god or gods exist. Also, by definition agnostic means one without knowledge, gnostic is Greek for knowledge, though there’s also an early Christian cult with the same name, and a- second verse same as the first. Knowledge being a subset of belief characterized, at least, by a very high degree of certainty.

Theist and atheist form a true dichotomy as they’re logically X and Not X, leaving no space for other options. They form a dichotomy about belief in the existence of gods, while gnostic and agnostic form a dichotomy about knowledge (often in theology implicitly referring to knowledge about the existence of gods). One can therefore be an agnostic atheist, gnostic atheist, agnostic theist, or gnostic theist.

Faith is possible only in the face of immense gullibility . . . What distinguishes most believers from nonbelievers is the desire to believe.

We agree on the definition of faith then, but diverge when judging it. I believe gullibility is a flaw, and I think you do, too — except when it comes to the religion you grew up surrounded by. Not having grown up around people of strong faith somewhat distances me from it, but that gives me a clearer perception: it’s what you get when honesty rots into fantasy.

You got close when you said “faith is, at best, a hope.” I would add that faith is the self-deception of looking at the thing you hope to be true and pretending it actually is true. It’s making oneself believe. It’s literally make-believe . . . what children do. There’s no justification for adults to make-believe. To quote 1 Corinthians, “When I was a child I talked like a child, understood like a child, thought like a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Donna Carol Voss:

I have to laugh at your “honesty rots into fantasy.” I have no difference with it or intent to refute it; I simply enjoy it as a particularly unique and amusing turn of phrase. Well done.

Your academic destruction and explanation of atheist and agnostic is impressive. Leaving aside agnostic for the moment, atheist is, according to you, someone without the belief that god or gods exist. I remember being in my mother’s bedroom once as a teenager, and I must have said something similar to her. She said, “Even non-belief is a belief.”

I’ve pondered that many times over the years and take it to mean that it is not necessary to believe in god or gods, but it is impossible to operate without belief. If we don’t believe God created the cosmos, we believe something else did. If we don’t believe God guides us, we might believe intuition does. Human beings cannot order their existence without some kind of belief about it.

What I notice throughout your writings is that you are not wrong as much as free from a lived experience that would challenge your beliefs. If you have never felt the spirit (which is impossible to describe but also impossible to misinterpret), everything I say looks like honesty rotting into fantasy.

I do think that believers and non-believers can debate on tangible points, but from the point at which one of us has had a spiritual experience and one of us has not, we will be at odds on every view thereafter.

It’s a little like having children. There is no way under the sun to describe what it’s really like to be a parent until you are one. An example is this little bon mot, which, in the hundreds of times I’ve said to parents, never fails to elicit a half-hearty, half-rueful laugh: “You don’t know what happiness is until you have kids. And then it’s too late.”

I actually did not grow up around strong religious believers. I don’t want to impugn the Protestant religion of my childhood, but let’s just say it was hard pews and very dry explication of scripture. I would argue that I am the one with clearer perception simply because I have been in your shoes and believed as you believe. Then I had experiences that exposed me to a dimension of life that was possible only if God exists.

In the interest of intellectual honesty, and with the wisdom I have accrued through life, I acknowledge that what either one of us believes today may change with additional life experience. In 10 years, you may be the believer and I the atheist. Belief as opposed to knowledge is always subject to change.

W Cassity-Guilliom:

Faith is selective gullibility; a virus, every drop of which contaminates reason and honesty with the comfortable poison of self-deception.

Donna Carol Voss:

Faith is the willingness to take the risk that something beyond our five senses exists; that what we have experienced beyond our five senses is real.

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