A Mormon and an Atheist Debate: Can the Debate Between Theism and Atheism Be Resolved?

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

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 whether the debate between theism and atheism can be resolved.

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Donna Carol Voss:

Since the debate between theism and atheism is not actually a debate, it cannot be resolved. A debate is “a formal discussion on a particular topic in which opposing arguments are put forward.”

Many, many atheists seem intent on proving to theists (or believers) that God does not in fact exist. Atheists who are most dedicated to this goal seem to be the most unpleasant, calling believers all sorts of names ranging from “ignorant” to “science denier” to “bigot.”

The atheist attempts to prove that God does not exist, a scientific impossibility since one cannot prove a negative. If believers were trying to argue the existence of God, they theoretically could prove he exists, but no one can ever prove definitively that he does not exist. Atheists are strenuously arguing something that can never be proven.

Believers, on the other hand, are not arguing anything. We know that we cannot prove the existence of God — to do so would obviate the need for faith. Since belief equals faith equals unprovable deity, we’re okay with that. If the atheist is looking for the believer to counter anti-God arguments with pro-God arguments, it’s no wonder the atheist is disappointed.

I can think of countless examples of circumstantial evidence that prove God exists, enough to win any court case that requires only a preponderance of evidence, but it doesn’t rise to the level of proof — i.e., winning the argument. For example, God is the best explanation for how rocks and minerals gave birth to flora and fauna — inanimate material became animate — but since it can’t be proven, we don’t argue the point.

Atheists may be trying to change our beliefs, and some of us may be attempting to change atheists’ beliefs, but it’s like trying to measure the weight of clouds — an impossible equation weighing something that has not weight, but exists.

The “debate” is essentially wishful thinking on both sides: atheists hope the facts of science mean unequivocally that there is no God, while believers hope their faith is in something real. Unknowable, unprovable, unresolvable.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

The debate between theism and atheism consists of uncountable casual discussions, formal arguments, vitriolic arguments, and other encounters between a colorful variety of individuals and beliefs. In religious circles, atheists are portrayed as unpleasant, aggressive, and often secretly misotheist rather than atheist. In atheist circles, the religious are portrayed as unpleasant, ignorant, and hypocritical.

These two in-groups fashion a totem of the other in such a manner as to be maximally infuriating, with little regard for reality. This is convenient for each narrative as the reality itself is too complicated to have a clear bad guy and good guy, or even to label either group with features consistent enough to be fairly generalized to individuals.

And what about the arguments? They could be resolved, easily in fact. Infinitely easily if the rumors of omnipotence are correct. However, if we assume gods don’t exist, no, it could not be resolved to a high degree of certainty. Under the assumption that gods don’t exist, people who believe they do would be unable to form convincing arguments, and people who believe they don’t exist would be unable to prove they don’t.

“We know that we cannot prove the existence of God — to do so would obviate the need for faith.”

Obviating the need for faith doesn’t mean you can’t prove the existence of gods, nor does having faith supply one with good reason to believe they do exist. Existence has no relation to faith. 

“I can think of countless examples of circumstantial evidence that proves God exists . . . For example, God is the best explanation for how rocks and minerals gave birth to flora and fauna”

Actually, Yahweh is not a coherent explanation for the genesis of biology, let alone a hypothesis, let alone the best hypothesis. “God did it” is how the “explanation” is usually put, and when pressed, “God did it with miracles (magic)”. Magic is not an explanation, and this doesn’t qualify as evidence. At most it’s conjecture, which is a far step from a sound argument and categorically different from evidence.

Speaking strategically, if I were a theist I would not defend a god of the gaps. From the sun and stars to lightning and volcanic eruptions to evolution and abiogenesis, the baseless insertion of gods into gaps in our knowledge has led to repeated losses.

“Atheists may be trying to change our beliefs, and some of us may be attempting to change atheists’ beliefs, but it’s like trying to measure the weight of clouds — an impossible equation weighing something that has not weight, but exists.”

I don’t say this to mock you, but because this small exchange makes a resounding analogy to the debate itself: clouds are mostly made of water molecules in gas form, gasses can be weighed, and so can clouds. You thought there was no evidence to refer to, but in fact reality always generates evidence in some way.

Gods are only “unknowable, unprovable, unresolvable” if they don’t in fact exist. If they do exist and are active in our universe, their actions and evidence would resolve the debate.


Donna Carol Voss:

Let’s start with where we agree. Theists and atheists both tend to dismiss one another, and the truth is there are good guys and bad guys on both sides of the debate.

You and I agree further that “if we assume gods don’t exist, no, it could not be resolved to a high degree of certainty. Under the assumption that gods don’t exist, people who believe they do would be unable to form convincing arguments, and people who believe they don’t exist would be unable to prove they don’t.”

That’s exactly what I’m saying, but without the flash of genius.

“Obviating the need for faith doesn’t mean you can’t prove the existence of gods, nor does having faith supply one with good reason to believe they do exist. Existence has no relation to faith.”

You say that existence has no relation to faith at all, but I say it is tied directly to faith as faith is the risk that existence is what we believe it to be, not what we can prove it to be. Existence to a believer encompasses more than the measurable world knowable only by the five senses.

You conceive a world where faith isn’t required to believe in God, nor is faith a good enough reason for believing in God. I cannot conceive a world where belief in God exists outside of faith, nor where there is any other reason apart from faith for believing in him.

In my world, God can exist whether or not someone has faith, and someone can have faith whether or not God exists. Either position is as provable (i.e., unprovable) as the position of someone who has faith in a God who actually exists. That’s why it’s called faith.

As far as the genesis of biology, we are talking apples and oranges because the atheist is looking for “coherent explanations,” “hypotheses,” and “evidence,” while the believer isn’t boxed in by what our mortal minds can understand.

There isn’t a single bit of science that challenges my faith in God, because I believe God is a God of order: he created the natural laws that permit science so we can better understand our physical world. God and science are not mutually exclusive — they are parent and offspring.

But God as the lawgiver cannot be reduced to only his laws. Christians believe in a rational God of order who is subject to his own laws, but we don’t presume that our thoughts are his thoughts and our ways are his ways.

He has given us science as a gift that he wants us to use to understand him and the world he created, but science is not God. No matter how advanced our knowledge of the physical world becomes, God is always beyond the reach of objective measurement.

What you call “conjecture,” I call “faith,” but we both agree it is “a far step from a sound argument and categorically different from evidence.” I feel like you are arguing that the debate is resolvable, while making point after point illustrating its inability to be resolved.

I’m even willing to consider that something other than God created the first spark of life, but you’ll have to give me something to consider. Unless and until we have a process we can replicate in a laboratory to create life, God is as good an explanation as any.

It’s only magic if we insist that his mind is no different than ours and that what our limited minds cannot conceive is impossible to him. God can do marvelous works and wonders that we cannot even begin to comprehend.

I stand corrected on the weight of clouds.

My point was conceptual rather than literal. I was attempting to make the point with physical examples we can agree on, but since you force my conceptual hand, let’s talk about the Spirit, or what some people call the Holy Ghost.

There is no instrument on earth, now or ever, that can measure its weight, temperature, texture, etc. Yet, almost every believer has had real, unmistakable, and very powerful impressions and experiences of the Spirit that have changed who they are as human beings.

How does science measure that transformation? How do you convince a believer the transformation was only a good night’s sleep or a healthy diet when we know (without being able to prove) that it is from God?

I think I understand the logic of your argument that if God doesn’t exist, of course we can’t prove he does. If he does exist, then why not prove it and resolve the debate?

My personal theology is that God does not want us to prove his existence. He wants us to struggle, ponder, pray, doubt, and wrestle with questions of his existence. It builds our spiritual muscles — which is the only reason we’re here on earth according to my faith.

It is in our best interest that God exist outside provability, because we are not truly free to choose our belief or doubt in him if we are compelled one way or the other by evidence.

Science wants to nail God down; God wants to elude science so that we are truly free to choose for ourselves what to believe.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

“Science wants to nail God down; God wants to elude science so that we are truly free to choose for ourselves what to believe.”

Neither science the body of knowledge nor science the method has intentions regarding gods. Scientists don’t produce any scientific work regarding gods either. What religious people claim on behalf of their god is another thing, and that does occasionally conflict with the function or results of science.

My perspective isn’t as narrow as testing Yahweh in a laboratory, though. It’s not like I expect to measure his wingspan with a ruler or weigh his hair on a scale. I haven’t brought up the word science because it brings to mind labs and samples and a controlled environment. When I say evidence I mean anything that is real and points to a certain conclusion. 

“ . . . let’s talk about the Spirit, or what some people call the Holy Ghost.

There is no instrument on earth, now or ever, that can measure its weight, temperature, texture, etc. Yet, almost every believer has had real, unmistakable, and very powerful impressions and experiences of the Spirit that have changed who they are as human beings.

How does science measure that transformation? . . . ?”

You don’t need to directly measure something to have evidence of it. We can’t see the photons reflecting off any exoplanets except very nearby ones, but we can discover their existence by observing the slight back-and-forth wobbling of a star being pulled by the planet’s gravity as it traces its annual orbit.

You’re saying we have good reason to believe in the existence of something called the Holy Ghost, because “almost every believer” had an experience where they got a very powerful impression of that entity and their lives were changed. I assume you mean almost every Christian, as most religious people are not Christians.

There are two notable mistakes with your statement and one overlooked point: first, not every Christian’s life has been changed by a spiritual experience. I would guess relatively few have experienced life changes that wouldn’t have happened anyway, no matter how many believe Yahweh made that bus swerve or presented that job opportunity.

A god who cherishes and cultivates gullibility is one who was invented by the gullible.

Second, not all spiritual experiences are similar. Getting a warm, calm sensation in church isn’t the same as experiencing Yahweh telling you to quit drinking, which isn’t the same as feeling one with Yahweh during prayer.

Most importantly, you overlook the undeniable fact about spiritual experiences: they happen because the individual believes, not because what they believe is true. Thousands of religions representing thousands of gods, with mutually exclusive dogmas, and every single one of them has believers who’ve had spiritual experiences confirming their specific religious dogma.

You can’t have a Muslim being told by Allah that Jesus was just a prophet and not the son of God while a Catholic is told by Yahweh that Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and himself are all sort of one thing, but also they’re like three different things, but they’re all god, but not three different gods . . . and so on.

If a form of evidence is constantly giving directly conflicting results it doesn’t mean all the results are true or that you can pick the result you like and say it’s true. It means the evidence is unreliable. 

“I cannot conceive a world where belief in God exists outside of faith, nor where there is any other reason apart from faith for believing in him.”

I can provide that concept for you; I’ll call it the Loving God. His name is Schmod and he’s all-powerful and benevolent. Schmod wants people to have a good life, a free life, and one devoid of gratuitous misery. Maybe he’ll overlook misery that serves a function, but if it’s unnecessary, it’s unpardonable to Schmod.

He doesn’t really care whether people believe he exists, because why would he? But he doesn’t bother to hide himself either, because why would he?

However the one thing Schmod will not abide is six million children dying from poverty. Anything like that is taken care of by direct intercession. Whenever someone is born with a broken body or fatal disease he takes care of it, and he hates when his creations start killing each other, so he steps in to prevent pointless wars. Some who were following and worshiping him began doing wrong things in his name, and he put a stop to it right away because he’s a decent guy — and omnipotence makes everything infinitely easy.

Everyone recognizes that Schmod exists because he obviously does, as all his actions and occasional presence clearly prove.

There you go, a god for whom belief does not require faith. And there’s plenty of reason to believe he exists apart from faith. This kind of god (which is to say, an existent god) would easily resolve the dispute between theism and atheism.

“It is in our best interest that God exist outside provability, because we are not truly free to choose our belief or doubt in him if we are compelled one way or the other by evidence.”

You’re no more or less free whether there’s evidence or not. Just as one can faithfully believe despite a lack of evidence, one can disbelieve despite the presence of evidence or believe despite evidence to the contrary. I don’t see why it matters anyway if faith is already turning belief into a game. A god who cherishes and cultivates gullibility is one who was invented by the gullible.


Donna Carol Voss:

Religions conflict only in a mortal mind. God speaks to groups of people in languages they understand — and, after all this debating, it’s still not resolved.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

If any gods existed, their frequent actions should have generated sufficient evidence to resolve the debate. If no gods exist, the debate is impregnable and inert.

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