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From M E R I D I A N    M A G A Z I N E (2/3/10) www.ldsmag.com

Atheists: Reachable?
By Gary C. Lawrence (Gary Lawrence (B.A., BYU; Ph.D., Stanford) is a California-based pollster and the author of gHow Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image.h He welcomes comments at [email protected].) 

If there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, neither are they found in rest homes.

Patrick McManus, a favorite humorist among hunters, relates a yarn of his youth when he finally persuaded a town character to let him borrow an old rifle – a single-shot that gkicks a bit.h 

I rushed home lugging the monstrous firearm, pinned a target to a fence post backed by a sandbank, paced off a hundred yards, drew a bead on the target, and gently squeezed the trigger.  Later I heard that all the livestock within a mile radius sprang two feet into the air and went darting about in all directions at that altitude.  Apples rained down out of the trees in the orchards.  Three lumberjacks swore off drink, and two atheists were converted to religion.1

He went on to say that his second shot was a little better because his first shot had moved his nose safely out of the way into the vacant area above his right eyebrow. 

Itfs an entertaining tactic to exaggerate the impact of an action by saying it caused atheists to become religious.  The literary ploy works because people seem willing to believe that atheists are the most immoveable of creatures.

But are they?

Not Born That Way

We know these two facts from scriptures:

All of Heavenly Fatherfs children come into mortality carrying the spark of Christ in their being:  gFor behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evilc.h2 
  
Evidence of God is abundant:  gAll things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.h3 

This means it is impossible to be born an atheist and difficult to ignore denoting evidence of Godfs existence.  (Conclusive evidence is another matter; otherwise there is no test of faith.)  Atheism is not natural; it is, rather, an acquired mentality.  This in turn suggests there must be many paths to that self-described state. 

Understand the journey of the atheist, and you may well find him more reachable than you thought.

 

Not a Monolithic Bloc

Many taxonomies have been used to categorize atheists, most of them based on the degree of belief or non-belief:  iconoclasts, pragmatists, deists, absolutists, strong, weak, etc.  But instead of where a person is, categories based on how he got there are more useful, and motives are easy to spot. 

Consider a few:

Rebel atheists – offended by something in their upbringing, they grow to hate all religions.  They seek revenge.  Lenin and Stalin are prime examples; both studied for the Russian Orthodox priesthood before turning against their homeland religion.

Intellectual atheists – motivated by pride in their intellectual prowess, they worship the human mind as the highest power in the universe and seek recognition of cognition.  They canft stand the thought that there is Someone beyond competing with – Someone more intelligent than all of us, as God explained to Abraham.4  Here we find people such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, authors and apologists cashing in on a resurgence of atheism.  Noting how homosexuals took over the word gay, Dawkins has suggested:  gPeople reluctant to use the word atheist might be happy to come out as bright.h5  Howfs that for pride?

Fashionable atheists – motivated by a thirst for attention, they may not be as rigorous in their sophistry as the intellectual atheist, but seek the praise of the world by posturing themselves as cool, unique, and with-it non-believers.  Visualize the mob in the great and spacious building mocking the believers holding to the rod of iron. 

Hide-behind atheists – driven by lusts, they are opportunists who embrace atheism to dampen their conscience.  Paraphrasing a famous line by Carol Burnett about orphans in the movie Annie, why would anyone want to be an atheist?  Simple: it makes it easier to live an immoral life.

Tragedy atheists – not understanding Godfs purposes, they argue that if God existed He would not let innocent people suffer in wars, earthquakes, famines, etc.  They donft realize that earth life was intentionally designed so things would go wrong.

Searching atheists – sort of super-agnostics parked temporarily in atheism while looking for a more satisfying explanation about life, they use atheism as a shield to ward off pressure.  There is much hope for this segment as they have already rejected the religious doctrines of men.

Lazy atheists – turned off by the effort any serious religion requires of its followers, they use atheism as an excuse not to study, pray, attend worship services, and the like.  Often found at the beach on Sundays.

I donft know how many of each type we have in America today, or even how many types there are.  Even the total number of atheists is disputed, ranging from two million hard-core to over 50 million, or about one in six.  However many there may be, and their numbers are said to be growing, remember that every one of them arrived here with the spark of Christ within them, and in all but the blackest of cases itfs still there.

 

Atheist Extraordinaire

The quintessential atheist in the Book of Mormon is Korihor, and a multi-motive one at that. 

First, Korihor was a rebel so opposed to Christianity that Mormon abridging the record refers to him as gthis Anti-Christch6 

Second, he was an intellectual caught up with the five senses and the reasoning powers of the mind.  Intellectuals are competitors – they display their mental abilities in comparison with others.  They prove their standing in this game by demonstrating their own mental megahertz or by demeaning the minds of others. True to script, Korihor attacked the minds of believers:  gBut behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.h7  He further stacked the deck in his favor by saying that gman fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his geniusch,8 no doubt applying that label to himself.

Third, he sought the attention and praise of the world by preaching against authority.  He was obviously successful as Alma refers to his glying and flattering wordsh and his gleading away the hearts of this people.h9  There is no such thing as a humble flatterer.

Fourth, he endorsed lust by teaching that gwhatsoever a man did was no crime.h10  After being struck dumb, he admitted:  gAnd I have taught [the devilfs] words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind c even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were truec.h11  Can someone so preach and not himself imbibe?

An analysis of Korihorfs arguments, and Almafs counters, could fill several of these columns (you cannot know what you havenft seen, show me a sign, foolish and silly traditions, you oppress the people and glut on their labors), but the point here is that even as hard-bitten as Korihor appeared to be, he knew the truth deep inside and finally confessed:  gYea, and I always knew there was a God.h12

Korihorfs story is in the Book of Mormon for a reason.

 

Talk With Your Favorite Atheist  

All of this tells me that many atheists are reachable if we take enough time to understand their journey – to understand what led them from innocent child to claimed atheism.

For the rebel, it may be finding the burr in his saddle blanket and helping him realize that he has nurtured it out of proportion over the years.  Then gently suggest it may be time to let go of grudges.

For the intellectual, it may be explaining that there is a deeper level to a personfs mind, and that belief and intellect are not enemies.  Explain that our belief system rests on a deeper level of intellectualism, an advanced intellectual spiritual mind, if you will, that recognizes patterns and truths that cannot be explained with our shallow vocabulary, but must be experienced.  And itfs far more rigorous and exciting than the drivel that passes for intellectual substance among skeptics.

The famous agnostic/atheist Bertrand Russell said that if he is wrong and God does exist, that he would defend himself by saying, gGod, you gave us insufficient evidence.h  I have wondered whether Godfs response might be, gThe evidence was always there; you even lived within it 24 hours a day.  But you let your superficial intellect get in the way of your deeper discerning spirit.

For a third, it may be explaining the plan of salvation and providing previously unheard answers to the basic questions of whence, why and whither. 

And for a fourth, it may be musing that the flesh loses its luster.  The hide-behind atheists will know what youfre saying.  They sense that sooner or later they must turn from illicit pleasures if they are to find peace.

It is safe to assume that deep down in their spiritual DNA, all atheists know God exists.  Truth be told, many would like to believe, and many are quietly searching.  They think deeply about it or they wouldnft be so vocal.  I believe further that many would like to be proven wrong, in an intellectually acceptable way of course.  They would like the comfort of knowing therefs more to life than this frail existence.

We are better positioned than any other religion to have fruitful conversations with atheists because we can tell them the fullness of Godfs plan for us, our happiness, our salvation.  And do it with authority. 

Some of our best future converts may well come from their ranks.

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Gary Lawrence welcomes comments at [email protected]


Notes

1 Patrick F. McManus, gThey Shoot Canoes. Donft They?h, p. 39

2 Moroni 7:16

3 Alma 30:44

4 Abraham 3:19

5 Quoted in The Globe and Mail, July 2, 2003

6 Alma 30:12

7 Alma 30:16

8 Alma 30:17

9 Alma 30:47,45

10 Alma 30:17

11 Alma 30:53

12 Alma 30:52

 

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