Mormon Media Observer: A take on the atheism debate

Published: Monday, Jan. 24 2011 4:30 a.m. MST

At the end of the Golden Globe Awards last week, host Ricky Gervais thanked various people for helping complete the program successfully, and he then concluded by thanking God for “making me an atheist.”

Gervais, the creator of the British television show, “The Office” and a creator of its American spin-off, has been in the news lately for his public atheism.

The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog ran an essay from Gervais before Christmas wherein he discussed his atheism, a blog that generated significant comment and discussion there.

Gervais says there is no “scientific evidence” for God. He also suggests that science “doesn’t hold onto medieval traditions because they are tradition.”

Gervais joins a growing list of people making their atheism known publicly. There is the renowned Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins who wrote of “The God Delusion,” as he called it. There is the glib, well-spoken intellectual Christopher Hitchens who made hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, by printing his tome, “God is not Great.”

Reporters have provided a great deal of attention to these atheists, stoking the controversy over the existence of God. Even if reporters had no purpose to question religious faith, doubts have become more mainstream, or so it seems to me.

While I have not undertaken a detailed analysis of the coverage of atheism in the news media, I did once look for a few days in 2007 at the news coverage of Rep. Pete Stark’s decision to become the first American politician to admit publicly that he was an atheist. My unscientific set of observations suggested that coverage of Stark’s beliefs was favorable toward his “coming out.” The decision was framed as a stand for free speech. One typical article in a Bay area started this way: “Rep. Pete Stark believes in democracy and free speech — but not in God.”

It seemed a far more favorable framing than I see of most religion coverage, frankly.

As disappointing as it is to say this, reporters may not be able to do much better than provide a balanced conduit for atheists in the modern world we live in. Journalism is a secular enterprise that reports “both sides” of a prominent issue. So as atheism becomes more prominent, journalism will write more about it. Journalism will therefore become a conduit for atheistic arguments as well as religious ones, I presume.

To be sure, if atheism gains increased public interest, then a news reporter, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should write about atheism in a fair way and allow its adherents a voice. I expect nothing less in journalism’s coverage of religion. I can’t have a different standard for the less religious among us.

So my point today, really, isn’t so much about reporters; my point is to use the opinion format of this blog to take a public stand because so few news reporters can or do so.

I can’t and don’t speak for Mormonism, but one of the things I love most about my faith is that my testimony, my knowledge of God, is independent of any other person. So, let me add my little piece to this discussion.

I would draw attention to Gervais’ phrase that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. I concede his point that science, as some people understand it, does not, indeed cannot, provide complete evidence for God.

But in drawing attention to his adjective, “scientific,” we miss the noun, “evidence.” Mormons believe there is evidence for the existence God for those willing to “experiment” upon the word of God. The beating heart of Mormonism is that evidence.

Like Brigham Young, I find the unique combination of order and diversity in nature compelling. While I can immediately tell that an aspen tree is an aspen tree, I also know that no two aspen trees are alike. This order amid uniqueness impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this sense of order is not Mormonism’s last evidence.

When I walk to Terraced Falls in Yellowstone, I feel a profound sense of beauty and peace, that I am not alone in the universe, and this sense impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this is not Mormonism’s last evidence.

When I experience great art and great architecture and the creativity of the human spirit, this experience impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this is not Mormonism’s last evidence.

Mormonism’s last evidence sits in the power of the Holy Ghost that comes to the hearts and minds of those who seek God through earnest, submissive prayer and faithful action. It is an "experiment" successfully repeated millions of times around the world.

Those who have done so know what they have experienced, and as they nurture that spirit, genuine joy grows. So, faith, to Mormons, is not a willy-nilly belief in whimsy, but a belief in only those things that are true and only in those things that, over time, pass the evidence test through the Holy Ghost. It is about growing certainty and knowledge, not just belief.

Faith and prayer would be science because scriptures provide a pattern to follow — they provide an experiment, if you will. As with science, this pattern has repeated and replicated itself for many people in many circumstances. Indeed, this faith and prayer might qualify as a partial science were we mortals the scientists in charge of the parameters through which answers to prayers come. We are not, so it is absurd to call this experiment a science.

Gervais’ demand that the existence of God be proven through science means that God must be subservient to mortal means and methods. Such sits in opposition to God as the builder and the scientist and the gardener of our souls.

God uses his agency to faithfully answer our prayers — when it is best for us and as we exercise faith — in his way. It goes without saying that such timing and method cannot be replicated nor measured in a laboratory.

That our Mormon evidence for God doesn’t emerge in a laboratory under full human control doesn’t make it any less of an evidence. Indeed, it is the most compelling evidence of anything I have ever known.

Millions of Mormons, including me, would say that God answers prayers because of their own experiences with the Holy Ghost and prayer. Therein lies our evidence that God lives. I assume other religious believers feel much the same way.

I have wandered in awe through some of the most beautiful buildings and parks in the world, and I am grateful for those experiences, but when I enter into the Mormon temples and then experience the contrasting, unusual, startling peace that surpasses understanding, I know.

I study great symphonies and have attended stirring concerts, but when I hear “Ye Elders of Israel” sung loudly in an awkward key in priesthood meeting and feel something deeper than Beethoven, I know.

I study Shakespeare and have many books that have inspired me for years, but when I read the Book of Mormon for the 30th time or so and experience a deep, almost mysterious reassurance no other book has come close to giving me amid trial, I know.

I have experienced many joys of human interaction at holidays and in evening activities, but when I experience the quiet, soul power of priesthood blessing called down on a dark night, I know.

I am only one flawed journalist, but in the midst of the atheism debate that Gervais and others continue in our public space, I must say something. I know.

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