Why Mormons are probably atheists

Posted on 02/22/12 104 Comments

davidstarlingm has asked how the definitions that I provided for “God” and “theism” would relate to Mormonism:

“where do the various flavors of polytheism, including Mormonism, fall into your definition? The Mormon Elohim is not the ultimate agent cause of everything that exists, as he is both contingent on a higher entity (the creator of Kolob, I think) and was not actually responsible for the creation of the universe itself.”

To recap, these are the definitions:

Theism is minimally the position that the ultimate cause of everything that contingently exists is an agent cause. 

God is minimally the ultimate agent cause of everything that contingently exists.

It should be clear that these definitions spell trouble for Mormonism. As Lorenzo Snow, the head prophet of the LDS Church from 1898-1901 declared, “As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be.” This tidy axiom summarizes the core message of Mormon theology: the Christian God was once a human who evolved to become a divine being, and we too can follow that same path.

It is important that we get our heads around the fact that this entity that is the object of Mormon pious devotion entered the scene a finite time ago and evolved into his exalted status. Moreover, an infinite number of entities had evolved into divine status before the entity of Mormon devotion appeared on the scene. All of this begs the question: where did this whole infinite regress of evolving entities come from? What holds it all in being? Mormonism provides no answer, at least none of which I am aware.

This means that Mormonism is plausibly not a form of theism at all. There is one alternative however. Mormons could go on to affirm an additional agent that exists necessarily and wills the existence of this infinite regress of finite evolving entities. But if they decide to take that route, then why are Mormons now wasting their time worshipping the finite created being they piously call “Heavenly Father”? Why don’t they direct their devotional energies toward the one real divine being that stands behind all things and upholds all things?

The answer is clear: they don’t believe any creator of the whole process exists. They only believe there is this infinite regress of finite evolving entities including their Heavenly Father.

And if that is true then according to our definitions Mormons are in fact atheists.

Does this seem counterintuitive? It shouldn’t. Imagine that super intelligent aliens came to earth who had evolved a finite time ago on another planet and now had super intelligent technology. Some people would probably start worshipping them, but it certainly wouldn’t be proper to call those people theists in virtue of their worshipping those aliens. Nor is it plausible to call Mormons theists in virtue of their worshipping their Yahweh which is a finite creature that evolved in the middle of an infinite series of finite evolving creatures.

All this has a really interesting payoff that should interest us all for its delicious irony: Americans may end up electing the first atheist president sooner than anybody thought!

Share
  • pete

    “As Lorenzo Snow, the head prophet of the LDS Church from 1898-1901 declared, “As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be.” This tidy axiom summarizes the core message of Mormon theology: the Christian God was once a human who evolved to become a divine being, and we too can follow that same path.”

    I seem to recall another “authority” teaching humans the same thing about “an apple”…

    Genesis 3:5

    “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    Satan meet Lorenzo Snow…. Lorenzo Snow meet Satan

    • davidstarlingm

      I’ve found that practically every false ideology can be cast in one way or another as an expansion of that particular set of lies. Some are just a great deal more obvious than others.

      • pete

        I guess there is alot of truth to “that set of lies” having a universal influence upon human beings.

        Almost like Genesis 3 is telling us alot about ourselves.

  • Jerry Rivard

    “To recap, these are the definitions:
      Theism is minimally the position that the ultimate cause of everything that contingently exists is an agent cause. 
      God is minimally the ultimate agent cause of everything that contingently exists.”

    Is polytheism theism? If so, would your god definition need to be amended to something like “an ultimate agent cause of something that contingently exists”? If not, what is polytheism?

    • randal

      David asked about polytheism as well but I thought I’d leave that off of the discussion of Mormonism for simplicity sake. But since you asked…

      First, most forms of polytheism you are likely to encounter (Greek, Mormon) are atheistic.

      Second, is it possible to believe in personal agents that are together the cause (perhaps the overdetermining cause) of all that exists? Sure. In that case a person would be a polytheist.

      In that case the definitions might be minimally tweaked. (Please note that I included “minimally” in the definitions to allow for this kind of expansion for complex polytheistic views.)

      Here is a revision for polytheism:

      Theism is minimally the position that the ultimate cause of everything that contingently exists is (or are) an agent cause(s).

      God is (or are) minimally the ultimate agent cause(s) of everything that contingently exists.

      Third, is it possible to have, say, two beings, both that are agents which exist necessarily and one which is the creator of all things? On this view the other could have created as well but opted not to. Sure, that is possible.

      The definitions would require further tweaking of the definition, but it is too idiosyncratic to bother.

      Finally, it is possible for a person to affirm that there is (or are) necessary agent(s) that exist as well as non-agent reality (e.g. the universe) and that both the agent and non-agent reality exist necessarily. This would be not theism but rather dualism.

      So to sum up, your basic options are atheism, theism and dualism, and of the theist views there are polytheistic and monotheistic, but polytheistic views are quite different from the Joe-Six pack polytheisms which, by the definition I provided, are usually atheistic (though in some cases they are henotheistic; I noted that Mormonism could go in this direction if it posited a deistic creator of the infinite regress).

  • Katie

    Randal, I don’t think your definition of theism is successful if it causes Mormons to be considered atheists. I’ve never met anyone else who would consider Mormons to be atheists, and I don’t find definitions to be helpful when they involve drastically redefining terms from their normal usage.

    Incidentally, I personally think the problem is with metaphysics rather than with Mormons or your definitions. I don’t think there is any actual entity that is “Theism,” in which case the concept that is meant by the word is necessarily somewhat vague and hence impossible to strictly define in a non-circular manner.

    I think, by the way, it is your definition of god that needs tweaking (and I left that lowercase on purpose, since I believe you are trying to define the concept of a god rather than the particular one worshiped by Christians). I’ve probably said this before, but it seems especially futile to try to define what exactly is meant by the term “god,” since only one being actually exists which belongs in that category. But we use the term all the time to refer to what Mormons or polytheists worship, so any attempt at a definition of “god” ought to accommodate such beings. (And, furthermore, the term atheism as normally used implies a rejection of Mormonism and polytheism as well as those types of theism that do fit your definition.)

    • davidstarlingm

      Here’s a definition.

      (A) god(s): any agent(s) capable of imposing moral and ethical imperatives upon human beings.

      In other words, we are our own and only gods.

      • pete

        And Genesis 3 strikes again

    • randal

      “Randal, I don’t think your definition of theism is successful if it causes Mormons to be considered atheists. I’ve never met anyone else who would consider Mormons to be atheists, and I don’t find definitions to be helpful when they involve drastically redefining terms from their normal usage.”

      Sorry, this isn’t a very persuasive response. Mom has sliced up a tomato and celery and placed it in front of little Billy. “Eat your vegetables!” Mom snarls. Unfortunately for Mom, and the many other people who think of the tomato as a vegetable it is actually a fruit.

      The world is full of examples where common definition has gone wrong.

      Of course I addressed this in the article and would like you to respond to the example given there. If people started worshipping aliens that came to earth, would that make those people theists?

      • David Hart

        There are two definitions of ‘fruit’ in common operation. There is the botanical one, which is something like ‘seed-bearing part of the plant’, and there is the culinary one of ‘edible part of a plant, whose flavour is predominantly sweet (or, in the case of lemons/limes, whose flavour is predominantly citrussy)’.
        ‘Vegetable’ is far too vague to even have a useful botanical definition, and its culinary definition would go something like ‘edible part of a plant, whose flavour is predominantly savoury’.

        Most things are in the same group no matter which definition you use; tomatos are one of the items that find themselves in a different group depending on which definition you are using. But each definition is valid; which one is appropriate to use will depend on whether you are preparing a meal or studying biology.

        But your idiosyncratic definition of ‘atheistic’ that includes Mormons really is unusual, and unlike any commonly used definition of the word ‘atheistic’.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          What’s idiosyncratic is not Randal’s definition, but the use of “atheism” to apply to a much wider range of beliefs than mere theism simpliciter.

          Belief in a contingent deity is as different from belief in a non-contingent deity as belief in no deity at all.

        • Katie

          “The world is full of examples where common definition has gone wrong.”

          Part of my point was that you can’t really have a right definition because ideas like “theism” or “vegetable” are impossible to define precisely. The point of a definition is to clarify what we actually mean by a word, not to determine what a word “really” means (which doesn’t make sense at all to me since words like “theism” don’t refer to anything real, only to an artificial concept).

          Of course I don’t think worshiping aliens constitutes theism. But I do think that Mormonism and polytheism can properly be called theism. In my mind there is a difference between an intelligent being that is simply from elsewhere and a being that is fundamentally different from humans in terms of moral or ontological or hierarchical status.

          The vast majority of people I’ve ever met would agree with my classification rather than yours. How is your definition helpful if it does not reflect how most people actually use the word?

          • randal

            My interest is not simply descriptive, i.e. chronicling the many confused and mutually contradictory ways that a WORD like “God” is used in popular parlance. The interest, rather, is in articulating the CONCEPT of “God” through careful conceptual reflection. That’s what philosophers do. Your project is more suited for the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary. (However, if you are in a company of philosophical theologians something like what I presented as a definition IS commonly accepted.)

            Part of my argument for my concept is to show that some of the popular ways that the word “God” is used have very counterintuitive consequences such as that super-intelligent aliens would qualify as gods.

          • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

            “I do think that Mormonism and polytheism can properly be called theism. In my mind there is a difference between an intelligent being that is simply from elsewhere and a being that is fundamentally different from humans in terms of moral or ontological or hierarchical status.”

            That’s just it. The plural gods of Mormonism are not different from humans in moral or ontological or hierarchical status. The Mormon Elohim was a man who moved through the same ontological and hierarchical stages that we ourselves have open to us. He did not create our immortal souls. He is of the same substance as we ourselves.

            • Katie

              Randal-
              “The interest, rather, is in articulating the CONCEPT of “God” through careful conceptual reflection. ”

              Perhaps I have not been clear enough- I am saying that there is not a single concept of what makes a thing a god (which this whole conversation has demonstrated). I don’t see how it profits anyone to arbitrarily restrict the concept to include only the gods of certain religions.

              David-
              My understanding is that the Mormon Elohim is at a higher “stage” than humans and thus different in some fundamental way, at least for the moment. But I’m not concerned if my concept of a god turns out to be a bit inconsistent, because I don’t think there is any perfectly clear-cut and consistent concept (alliteration unintended :) ).

              • randal

                Anselm argued that the concept of God is properly understood to be the concept of the most perfect being possible. In ten years of teaching at seminary and explaining this concept to more than 200 seminarians I have never had a single one who disagreed with it. Sure you can say Anselm is wrong and that he hasn’t properly articulated the concept of a God. But I think Anselm is right in this and the bulk of the Christian tradition agrees (rather emphatically) with him.

                • Katie

                  I don’t have a problem with this description of the Christian God. But this is not what people mean when they use the word “god.” I don’t see the point of insisting that the God of Mormonism or the Greek gods are not actually gods. Perhaps these gods don’t fit your idea of what ought to be worshiped or what the real God is actually like, but that doesn’t mean people are mistaken when they call Zeus a god.

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    Perhaps they are all gods, but simply not in a theistic sense.

                    • Katie

                      I have no idea what that means, especially since the definition of theism always includes the concept of a god.

                    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                      The definition of theism always includes the concept of a god; the concept of a god does not always imply theism. There is certainly no theism implied when someone says that Jimi Hendrix is a guitar god, and an otherwise atheistic native tribe would not because theistic just because they called a man with a 9mm a god.

                      To go back to the original analogy: the a-autoist insists that he rejects autoism, and that autoism is belief in anything with an engine. When it is pointed out that trains, planes, spaceships, and F1-adenosine triphosphatase all have engines but are not autos, the a-autoist insists that the first three be grouped as autos because they have engines, and that F1-adenosine triphosphatase doesn’t really have an engine because it doesn’t use metal parts.

                      (Analogy translation: the atheist insists that he rejects theism, and that theism is belief in any sort of god. When it is pointed out that Mormonism, Greek polytheism, and ETI-worship all have gods but aren’t theistic, the atheist insists that the first two be grouped as theism because they mention gods, and that ETI-worship doesn’t really have gods because ETIs aren’t supernatural enough.)

                    • Katie

                      “The definition of theism always includes the concept of a god; the concept of a god does not always imply theism.”

                      You’re right – it occurred to me right after I posted that comment. :P

                      I think what I would say in light of your observation is that we would be better off with more categories than the simple dichotomy atheism/theism, because some religions with gods may not seem to fall into a narrow definition of theism, but this does not make them atheist.

                    • davidstarlingm

                      I couldn’t agree more.

                      Of course, I can’t help pointing out that this removes the nice convenient “us vs them” position held by militant neoatheism.

              • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                Yay unintentional alliterations. :)

                In Mormonism, the difference between Elohim and humans is fundamentally the same as the difference between adults and children, albeit at a much larger scale. So….yeah.

                My concern is not really with what definition is “right” — I’m only interested in affirming the existence of one particular being anyway. What concerns me is the portrayal of “atheism” as a simple, unassuming skepticism toward a single coherent concept when it is actually a huge mishmash of varied levels of skepticism and philosophical posturing.

                It’s the same frustration that you no doubt feel when a Bible Belt fundamentalist Christian insists, “We Christians just love Jesus.” That’s all very well and good, but when they object to reproductive rights, want to ban alcohol, block minority voting rights, and insist that Democrats are going to hell, all under the label of Christianity, you start to question the simple and unassuming nature of their definition.

                • Katie

                  Sounds like we’re about on the same page, then. Concepts are complex and oversimplifying them can be bad. How’s that for a trivial statement :)

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    Trivial but useful! :)

  • davidstarlingm

    What I particularly like about these last two posts is that they demonstrate the bankruptcy of the “Atheism is really simple; I just believe in one fewer God than you do” idea.

    Atheists would like to take the epistemological high ground as the ultimate skeptics, thus avoiding any potential burden of proof and playing the “rationality” card. This is most easily accomplished by categorically denying the existence of “any gods” without bothering to look too closely at what that category comprises.

    These last two posts show that theism simpliciter is only a very limited subset of the many beliefs which self-proclaimed atheists would deny. It becomes much more difficult to stay on top of the Hill of Epistemological Supremacy by way of skepticism when there is suddenly more than one area in which rigorous skepticism must be asserted.

    A “true atheist” like Dawkins and those who would follow in his footsteps has a great many responsibilities. He must deny theism simpliciter, scoff at atheistic polytheism, express extreme skepticism about the probability of paranormal activity, reject the possibility of immortal soulhood, and categorically denounce any form of pantheistic dualism, all while maintaining a skeptical but open-minded view in the areas of extraterrestrial intelligence, panspermia, immortality-by-machine, and cosmic wonder cults. He must also explain that if he turns out to be wrong on any point, it cannot by any means alter the moral or ethical responsibilities of humanity.

    And all this must be done based on one consistent overarching principle that is somehow labeled “atheism”.

    The only principle I can think of that will consistently yield such a position is this:

    Real atheism: The belief that human beings are the only legitimate source of moral and ethical obligation.

    But such an affirmative statement is rather far removed from the sugar-coated Hill of Epistemological Supremacy. It suddenly requires an affirmative standard of proof. Eww.

    • Ian

      “What I particularly like about these last two posts is that they demonstrate the bankruptcy of the “Atheism is really simple; I just believe in one fewer God than you do” idea.”

      What Rauser is doing is giving “theism” a stipulative definition which doesn’t comport with the way the word is actually used by most people or defined in dictionaries. As Katie pointed out, if his definition classifies Mormons as atheists, that probably means there’s something wrong with his definition.

      “Atheists would like to take the epistemological high ground as the ultimate skeptics, thus avoiding any potential burden of proof and playing the “rationality” card.”

      No–you seem to be assuming that the only circumstance in which a person must meet a burden of proof is when making a positive claim. This is not the case; a skeptic is only excused from the obligation to argue for his position if there are no arguments whatsoever for the claim he doubts. If there are arguments for a positive claim, the skeptic must answer them–and we do!

      As for all of the claims we’re supposedly responsible for denying, the only claim atheists are responsible for denying is that some god or gods exist. That’s it.

      As for a consistent principle by which one might doubt the rest, how about, “Beliefs must be justified by evidence.”

      • randal

        “As Katie pointed out, if his definition classifies Mormons as atheists, that probably means there’s something wrong with his definition.”

        As I pointed out, in popular parlance most people in popular parlance are wrong about tomatoes.

        • David Hart

          I have rebutted this above – but are you really suggesting that most people are wrong about the definition of the word ‘atheist’ and that your definition which includes Mormons is right? Words are legitimised by use, and if you are using a word in a way that is at odds with the meaning everyone else has for it, then it is your definition that is wrong, no matter how much more logically sound than the generally accepted definition you think it is.

          • randal

            David, do you realize that most people have been (and are) wrong in their understanding when they use familiar words? Widespread error due to vagueness and/or ambiguity is much more common than you seem to recognize. Here are some other examples: “free action”, “person”, “love”, “matter”. In each of these cases professional philosophers and scientists differ markedly in their understanding of these words from the common lay usage of them.

            • http://themidwestatheist.blogspot.com/ Leo

              Sure. Add “theory” to that list. However, first, the fact that there are words that “differ markedly” does not mean that your word, “God,” is one of those words. I hope we can agree on that. (I am not saying it isn’t one of those words.) Second, you yourself defined atheism as “believing no God exists.” That is an incorrect definition, which gives me this suspicious feeling that you are conveniently using the “professional” definitions and the lay definitions interchangeably. As for that “professional” definition of “God,” it also appears that you are using the definition from a particular profession, particularly Christian (or Abrahamic) theology. I suspect the “professional” meaning of “God” differs from yours if you were to, say, ask a Buddhist theologian.

              • randal

                The definition I gave of “atheism” is the historic definition. Look up “atheism” and “agnosticism” in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. I am aware that some people have started calling agnosticism “weak atheism” in recent years, but that is a confusing innovation on conventional usage.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        “As Katie pointed out, if his definition classifies Mormons as atheists, that probably means there’s something wrong with his definition.

        “As for a consistent principle by which one might doubt the rest, how about, ‘Beliefs must be justified by evidence.'”

        Great job. You’ve just defined me as an atheist. Oops.

        “As for all of the claims we’re supposedly responsible for denying, the only claim atheists are responsible for denying is that some god or gods exist. That’s it.”

        And that’s the problem, plain and simple. What are gods? The word “god” can be used in reference to incredible varieties of entities, only a limited subset of which are denied by your version of atheism. What is the criteria whereby certain gods are objected to and others are embraced?

        And don’t say “things that can be proven”, because that’s neither accurate nor diligent.

        The only gods that atheists seem to object to are non-human entities that would impose moral obligations on humans.

    • randal

      Your definition of “real atheism” doesn’t work. To take one example, an atheist could be a platonist who believed there is an abstract good that is the universal ground of all moral obligation. Believing in platonism may exclude that person from being a naturalist (depending on one’s definition of naturalism) but they’d still be an atheist and yet they would not conform to your defintion.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        Isn’t that verging on pantheism?

        Let me rephrase it, then.

        Actual atheism: The belief that human beings are the only beings capable of dictating moral and ethical obligation.

  • Beetle

    Randal, the definition you give for theism sounds like deism to me. Can you make a distinction between those two?

    As Katie and Ian pointed out, the consequence of your definition identifying Mormons and polytheism as atheists should have been a red flag for you, but no, you just double down on a bad idea!

    It is not hard to find self-identified atheists who will admit that goddidit is a more intuitive and appealing model over contemporary physics. I deconverted because I could not find compelling reason to believe that gods have done anything since the big bang and that there are no compelling reasons to believe that all religions are anything but man-made. The universe as we know it is a spectacular place that is full of wonder. It seems plain to me that theism (pick your denotative or connotative meaning) is, at best, a distraction when it comes to gaining real insight to the world.

    • randal

      The definition of theism is consistent with that God being non-interventionist (i.e. deism) or being interventionist (e.g. Christian theism).

  • David Hart

    Of course Mormons are not atheists. Your definition of ‘god’ has been formulated to arbitrarily exclude the sort of god that Mormons believe in.

    No one seriously thinks that being the ultimate cause of everything that exists is part of the necessary definition of a god. All you need is that it be a supernatural, self-aware entity (supernatural in the sense of not being made up of ordinary matters, and not bound by the ordinary laws of physics) which is capable of influencing the universe of ordinary matter, and which is sufficiently powerful to be considered ‘in charge’ of some aspect of reality, or otherwise worth worshipping.

    Of course, this definition starts to get a bit blurry around the edges (are fairies, leprechauns and djinns ‘gods’? -probably not) but by any everyday understanding of the word, Allah, Apollo, Baal, Huitzilopochtli, Jesus, Vishnu, Wotan, Yahweh and Zeus are all gods.

    To claim otherwise is a bit like those Christians who say that Christianity is ‘not a religion’. You’re allowed to make that claim, but only if you accept that you’re operating under a definition of ‘religion’ that is wildly at variance with its ordinary, everyday usage.

    • randal

      David, your definition is consistent with the retrograde ancient Greek view of deity. It is rightly recognized as a primitive notion and has since been abandoned. It includes no reference to moral perfection leaving it possible that I’m a better moral exemplar than this being. By your definition a morally reprobate creature that lives on Jupiter who spends his days making the red spot turn, eating boogers, and torturing the several dozen people he abducted from an Iowa farm house in the seventies would be defined as a god.

      And you think my definition is bad!

      • David Hart

        Well, yes he would – provided he was not merely an extraterrestrial. But he would presumably be considered an evil god. There have been plenty of those. Even Christianity, in most of its current forms, contains an evil god, usually by the name of Satan.
        It’s like I said, you are welcome to define moral perfection as a necessary part of your definition of ‘god’, as long as you accept that you are making up your own definition of the word, that is a much narrower definition that the normal scope of what is meant by the word.

        Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the name of the main god of Christianity is God – like keeping a black cat called Cat, you are able to say that black fur is a necessary property of Cat, but only as long as you are clear that it’s only your specific cat that you are talking about, and the everyday definition of ‘cat’ includes, white, tortoiseshell, tabby etc.

        • randal

          How do you distinguish between a god and an ETI with super-advanced technology? Michio Kaku has defined type 3 civilizations as those able to create their own universes. Would you consider those gods?

          You call Satan an “evil God” and chastise me for my idiosyncratic definition? The irony deepens.

          • David Hart

            Of course Satan is an evil god, just like Loki or Huitzilopochtli. He is a powerful supernatural entity by any rational analysis. You only find that ironic because you have stipulated goodness as a necessary part of your definition of God. It is not necessary to the concept of ‘god’ as broadly understood, it is only necessary to those religions, such as Christianity, that have made it a necessary part of their definition.

            Which is the gist of my whole argument – you can’t expect everyone’s definition of the word ‘god’ to comform to the definition of the god called ‘God’ in Christian mythology.

            • David Hart

              Oh, and about the extraterrestrials. I agree that it might be hard in practice to draw the distinction. But in principle it is not – we need only state that the extraterrestrials have come to exist by processes entirely consistent with the laws of physics (presumably an evolutionary process along the same lines as has operated on Earth), and that they are restricted in their capabilities by the ordinary laws of physics (although their understanding of those laws will presumably be more advanced than ours, which is why the distinction may be hard in practice). If they are do not meet either of those criteria, i.e. if they are supernatural beings, then we can call them gods.

              • randal

                David, the irony is now as deep as an ocean. By your new stipulation the Mormon object of religious devotion is an ETI rather than a god. Well done!

                • David Hart

                  As I note elsewhere, just because the Mormons think that their god came into being by the ordinary laws of physics, does not mean they are right about that. So by your lights a Mormon would have to call themself an atheist, but no one else would be obliged to think that the Mormon god was consistent with the ordinary laws of physics. If you can give good reasons to believe that the Mormons are correct about their claim that the entity they worship does not violate any of the normal laws of physics, then you win. If you can’t, then all you will have done is forced the Mormons to accept your idiosyncratic definition of ‘atheist'; you still haven’t given any non-mormon any reason to accept your definition.

              • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                “Their understanding of those laws will presumably be more advanced than ours, which is why the distinction may be hard in practice.”

                Under Mormonism, the various gods are all functioning within the normal physical laws of the universe at large, albeit with a much more complete understanding than we have. To quote BYU professor David Paulson: “God does not have absolute power….but rather the power to maximally utilize natural laws to bring about His purposes.” So yeah, you agree with Randal that Mormons are atheists.

                To quote Mormon author Leon Skousen:

                “Through modern revelation we learn that the universe is filled with vast numbers of intelligences, and we further learn that Elohim is God simply because all of these intelligences honor and sustain Him as such…since God ‘acquired’ the honor and sustaining influence of ‘all things’ it follows as a corollary that if He should ever do anything to violate the confidence or ‘sense of justice’ of these intelligences, they would promptly withdraw their support, and the ‘power’ of God would disintegrate…He would cease to be God.”

            • randal

              David, who is better equipped to classify a tomato properly (i.e. as a fruit or vegetable), a soccer mom (who thinks it is a vegetable) or a botanist (who thinks it is a fruit)? Your use of the term “god” is equivalent to the soccer mom’s use of the term “tomato”. Aquaint yourself with the last two millennia of philosophical theology and get back to me.

              • David Hart

                Obviously the botanist is better equipped to classify a tomato properly as a seed-bearing part of the plant, but if he or she is a lousy cook, the soccer mom may well be better to classify it as a savoury edible part of a plant. You seem to be trying to force the word ‘fruit’ to have only one definition, when in fact there are clearly two definitions in common use, one of which includes ‘tomato’ and one of which doesn’t.

                Just as you seem to be trying to force the word ‘god’ to have only one meaning, namely, ‘a being who has the properties of the God of Christianity’, when in fact it has much broader definitions in common use.

                And don’t try to pull the Apologist’s Turnstyle on me. Unless you require people who join your religion to study two thousand years’ worth of theology before they are allowed to call themselves Christians, you have no right to demand that others study two thousand years’ worth of theology before they are allowed to criticise it.

                • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                  “You seem to be trying to force the word ‘god’ to have only one meaning, namely, ‘a being who has the properties of the God of Christianity’, when in fact it has much broader definitions in common use.”

                  If Randal was trying to define “theism” as “believing in a being with the properties of the God of Christianity”, he would have needed to have included a lot more than just “non-contingent creator”.

                  Obviously words have multiple meanings. But if discourse is to be preserved from complete disintegration, we have to be precise with our definitions. Randal’s definition illustrates the very significant difference between classical theism and the variegated uses of “god” in ordinary conversation.

                • randal

                  “Just as you seem to be trying to force the word ‘god’ to have only one meaning, namely, ‘a being who has the properties of the God of Christianity’, when in fact it has much broader definitions in common use.”

                  David, the concept of God as understood by philosophical theologians differs markedly from the popular concept in the same way that the other terms I pointed out differ. If the soccer mom wants to call tomatoes a vegetable she’s more than welcome to. If you want to call finite creatures gods you’re more than welcome to. I have no intention of taking that confusion away from you.

                  “you have no right to demand that others study two thousand years’ worth of theology before they are allowed to criticise it.”

                  I can demand whatever I want. And you are free to flout that demand. Of course I didn’t demand anything like that. Nonetheless, a little study would inform your criticism with facts and that is generally speaking a good thing.

                  • David Hart

                    “If you want to call finite creatures gods you’re more than welcome to. I have no intention of taking that confusion away from you. ”

                    I’m not sure why you’re calling it confusion. I, like most people, am happy with a definition of God that is broad enough to encompass the infinte god of the mainstream Abrahamic religions and also the limited-jurisdiction gods of things like Greek polytheism. There’s nothing confusing about it at all – you’r merely insisting that your definition of God, restricted to beings which have all the transcendent properties you describe, is right, while everyone else’s definition, which includes things like the Greek gods, is wrong.

                    I suppose, if you insist, that I might even be prepared to broaden my definition of gods to include extraterrestrials if need be (albeit with some discomfort) – because, weird as this result would be, it is still less weird than a result whereby Mormons are classified as atheists. It is very obvious that this whole discussion is pushing the blurry edges of the word anyway. But, like I said elsewhere, I still must insist that you come up with some compelling reason to believe that the Mormons are correct in their assertion that God was once merely an ordinary human before I concede that point.

                    As regards theology, you must realise that everyone else that is not religious views the field as being something akin to astrology (or alchemy, or possibly cryptozoology etc) – i.e. it is the detailed study of an imaginary phenomenon. Theology will be worth taking seriously once it produces compelling evidence that God actually exists, and is not merely imaginary, just as astrology will be worth taking seriously once it produces compelling evidence that the relative positions of the planets and stars actually have an influence over the course of human lives. You don’t need to have studied astrology to degree level to see that unless it can demonstrate the existence of the phenomenon it is talking about, its basic premise is bogus. Likewise theology.

                    At any point, you will at least concede that the Apologist’s Turnstyle – the claim that people are not qualified to criticise a religion until they have studied its esoteric scholarship to a far higher degree than would be demanded of someone wanting to join that religion – is not a valid move? Because it sounded like that was the move you were making.

                    • davidstarlingm

                      “You’re merely insisting that your definition of God, restricted to beings which have all the transcendent properties you describe, is right, while everyone else’s definition, which includes things like the Greek gods, is wrong.

                      “I suppose, if you insist, that I might even be prepared to broaden my definition of gods to include extraterrestrials if need be (albeit with some discomfort) – because, weird as this result would be, it is still less weird than a result whereby Mormons are classified as atheists.”

                      The point Randal is making is fairly simple. A universe in which a single necessary non-contingent agent is the source of all contingent existence is fundamentally different from a universe in which various contingent beings with various powers and intelligences occupy various tiers.

                      Belief in a transcendent non-contingent creator is widespread and deeply rooted. It’s important to have a means of defining this belief so that it can be compared to other beliefs. Even if all religious belief is false, its existence still has very real effects.

                      Randal has defined the concept of such a god by way of description, following the accepted definition of theism. You are free to insist that godship ought to be defined by relationship to lower beings (thus including Greek gods, Mormon gods, ETIs, and soldiers in cargo cults), but it’s silly to insist that such a relational definition must be the one used in theism.

                      “As regards theology, you must realise that everyone else that is not religious views the field as being something akin to astrology (or alchemy, or possibly cryptozoology etc) – i.e. it is the detailed study of an imaginary phenomenon. Theology will be worth taking seriously once it produces compelling evidence that God actually exists, and is not merely imaginary.”

                      It doesn’t speak well for an ideology if its adherents are incapable of studying or classifying beliefs unless they have already been convinced of those beliefs themselves.

                      To use your astrology example: despite knowing astrology to be entirely hogwash, I nonetheless concede the significant difference between a person who believes that stars actually have intelligences and guide human existence and a person who believes that cultural expectations and customs cause individuals born at different times to have particular traits. The latter belief is fundamentally different from the former; I don’t need it to be proven true before I can understand the implications of the difference.

            • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

              And now you’ve defined “god” as “powerful supernatural entity”. Nice. So anyone with unexplained powers is provisionally declared to be a god?

              Randal has not defined goodness as an essential attribute of a theistic deity. A theist can certainly believe in an evil god, as long as that god is non-contingent and the ultimate cause of reality.

              • David Hart

                “God does not have absolute power….but rather the power to maximally utilize natural laws to bring about His purposes.”
                Well this is where the Mormons do admittedly reveal themselves to be less like mainstream Christians than they would like to admit (assuming that what Paulson says is actually an accurate reflection of what the average Mormon in the pew actually believes). But they are still worshipping an entity who almost certainly does not exist, which has powers which would be considered supernatural under most people’s definition. We may never get to the bottom of what is or isn’t possible under the ordinary laws of physics, but given that Mormons believe in the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon thus their god is still one who is capable of doing things like prophesying the future, incarnating himself in human form, coming back from the dead and spiriting himself off to a parallel dimension, most people would consider that supernatural – and therefore we can say that is is reasonable to say that the Mormons are mistaken about what the ordinary laws of physics are if they think that the god who does all of the miracles in the Old and New Testament is following them.

                I suppose what it boils down to is if you could persuade a Mormon to accept Randal’s definition of ‘atheist’ then they would agree that they were one, but that still doesn’t provide any reason why anyone else should take it seriously.

                “So anyone with unexplained powers is provisionally declared to be a god?”

                Of course not, but anyone who could be proven to be able to violate the ordinary laws of physics would have a reasonable claim to calling themselves a god of some sort. No serious Christian who believes in the Devil contends that his powers are merely unexplained, rather his powers are … well, supernatural, in that he is able to override the ordinary laws of physics.

                Also…

                You said “Randal has not defined goodness as an essential attribute of a theistic deity.”

                Randal said:

                “this is precisely why the theistic definition of “GOD” over and above Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, must include goodness in its definition.”

                In fairness, I don’t know whether that pre- or postdated your post, but I take it you will withdraw that claim.

                • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                  “But they are still worshipping an entity who almost certainly does not exist, which has powers which would be considered supernatural under most people’s definition.”

                  Not to be petty, but are you implying that “almost certainly does not exist” is part of your definition of a god? Because that begins to make atheism a little tautological. It’s like a Christian saying “I believe in the truth.”

                  “their god is still one who is capable of doing things like prophesying the future, incarnating himself in human form, coming back from the dead and spiriting himself off to a parallel dimension, most people would consider that supernatural….”

                  I can prophesy the future: you will read the end of this sentence. See, I was right! The Mormon Elohim can only make self-fulfilling prophecies; his control over matter just makes these rather far-reaching. The Mormon Elohim already has human form, so he needn’t bother “incarnating” anything. I can bring someone back from the dead by using my magical Automated External Defibrillator. And we are capable of sending people off into another dimension on huge chariots of fire that lift people across the firmament to live in the heavens.

                  Sure, the Mormons are mistaken about the laws of physics (not to mention a great many other things). But the fact remains that their concept of god(s) has nothing in common with classically defined theism, and so your atheism is much less simple than a mere rejection of properly defined theism.

                  “Anyone who could be proven to be able to violate the ordinary laws of physics would have a reasonable claim to calling themselves a god of some sort.”

                  The problem with this is that the ordinary laws of physics change on a daily basis. Under this definition, a person with a 9mm handgun visiting a previously undiscovered Amazon tribe would literally be a god to them….not in appearance, but in actuality. That’s why classical theism has always included transcendence, omnipotence, and/or non-contingency as essential attributes of a theistic god.

                  “Randal said:

                  ‘this is precisely why the theistic definition of “GOD” over and above Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, must include goodness in its definition.'”

                  Actually, I think that was Pete.

                  • David Hart

                    “that was Pete”

                    Sorry, my mistake; I didn’t spot that someone else had entered that sub-dingdong. Though in fairness Randal is trying to raise what looks suspiciously like the Ontological Argument elsewhere, so I think we would be as well to ask him directly. Randal, if you’re checking this – do you or do you not consider goodness to be a necessary characteristic of a god?

                    “are you implying that “almost certainly does not exist” is part of your definition of a god?”

                    No, but I am saying that the almost-certain non-existence of the Mormon god makes it massively less likely that the Mormon god is an entity that came to exist through entirely naturalistic processes – obviously, if you never came to exist at all, then you by definition never came to exist through naturalistic processes.

                    Though for what it’s worth, for all practical purposes, almost-certain non-existence is a property of all the gods that are currently taken seriously by mainstream religions (though of course, no religion includes it in its own definition of its god or gods). Or more accurately, ‘no good evidence for its existence’ is a quality common to all the gods taken seriously by religions. What I mean is, if there were compelling evidence that a being both a) existed and b) was a god, it would totally turn our understanding of reality upside down; the people who believed in this god would not even be doing religion any more; you could even say they were doing science; there would be no reason for anyone to talk of faith any more, and we could start to study this being in empirically testable ways; to reference my post further upstream, theology would then be vindicated as a genuine field of rational inquiry, rather than the mere splitting hairs over the logical consequences of holding certain superstitions.

                    “I can prophesy the future: you will read the end of this sentence.”

                    Okay, fine. Prophesy the future non-trivially. Bring people back from being brain dead. Etc. You know what I meant. And you also know that our ability to send space probes to distant planets depends on our ability to understand the laws of physics, not to repeal them. Space travel is impressive, rather than miraculous.

                    So you must either concede that the god of Mormonism is supernatural or miraculous, and does transcend the laws of physics, in which case the Mormons are clearly bracketed in the same category as non-Mormon Christians and not in the same category as atheists, or you must show that the Mormon god actually exists and actually is a being created by naturalistic processes, in which case not only would the Mormons be atheists, but pretty much any atheist who looked into the matter rationally would come to consider themself a Mormon – i.e. Mormonism would effectively be a branch of science.

                    “concept of god(s) has nothing in common with classically defined theism”

                    Maybe so, but then classically defined theism is simply not broad enough to cover everything that ‘theism’ is meant to mean. The fact is that Mormonism has far more in common with non-Mormon Christianity than it does with atheism as populartly understood. Mormons worship God, in the form of Jesus Christ, believe that they have souls which this god is capable of ‘redeeming’ somehow, they go to services on Sundays to pray, and sing hymns. They have a political agenda that matches up fairly well with the Christian right wing agenda, and scarcely at all with the secularist movement. The things that Mormons do with their lives in relation to the being they call god are far more like what mainstream Christians, Muslims and Jews do than what people who call themselves atheists do in relation to any beings they would mean when they talk of gods. Also – and this is important – you never hear Mormons claiming that Mormons are atheists, and you never here atheists claiming that Mormons are atheists. So even if we do accept Randal’s definition, all he will have done is made the term ‘atheist’ less useful (since there is no practical need for a term that encompasses everyone who currently considers themself an atheist, plus Mormons but not non-Mormon Christians) and also have just had a bit of a nasty dig at the Mormons. So even if we accept Randal’s term, we will just need to come up with a new term that differrentiates Mormons, non-Mormon Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, other polytheists etc on the one hand, from people who do not believe in any gods, transcendent beings etc – anything superhuman that one might rationally propose to venerate or worship. Can I hear your suggestions for what such a word might be if we are obliged to share the word ‘atheist’ with the Mormons?

                    • davidstarlingm

                      “The almost-certain non-existence of the Mormon god makes it massively less likely that the Mormon god is an entity that came to exist through entirely naturalistic processes – obviously, if you never came to exist at all, then you by definition never came to exist through naturalistic processes.”

                      I don’t see how this makes the Mormon god any more theistic in nature. The almost-certain nonexistence of the Loch Ness monster makes it massively less likely that the Loch Ness monster came to exist through entirely naturalistic processes, but that doesn’t make believers in the Loch Ness monster de facto theists.

                      “If there were compelling evidence that a being both a) existed and b) was a god, it would totally turn our understanding of reality upside down; the people who believed in this god would not even be doing religion any more; you could even say they were doing science; there would be no reason for anyone to talk of faith any more, and we could start to study this being in empirically testable ways….”

                      I’m glad that you listed a) and b) separately, because they are very much independent fields of inquiry. We can evaluate one (does a given being exist) without depending on the other (does a given being qualify as a theistic god) and vice versa.

                      Just an aside: rigorous Christianity deals with faith in much the same way as most atheists do. Faith in something for which you lack evidence is considered foolish. When we speak of “faith in God”, we are describing future expectations based on past performance, not a reason for holding a belief in God’s existence. So we’re on your side with that one. Just saying.

                      But I must take exception on one point: just because we might obtain good evidence for a godlike being doesn’t mean that being would become empirically testable. Let’s say that a group of ETIs landed in Central Park tomorrow. We would of course have them on video and they would be seen by millions of people, but unless they submitted to laboratory testing we would not be able to say that they were empirically testable. We have good evidence for a lot of stuff that isn’t empirically testable….the Holocaust, for instance.

                      “Okay, fine. Prophesy the future non-trivially. Bring people back from being brain dead. Etc. You know what I meant.”

                      Of course I knew what you meant….but Mormons simply believe their god is doing all the same things I just did, except on a more thorough scale. That’s the point I was making.

                      “You must show that the Mormon god actually exists and actually is a being created by naturalistic processes.”</em

                      Why? I don't have to show that Carroway's aliens actually exist to know that they don't qualify as theistic deities.

                      “Classically defined theism is simply not broad enough to cover everything that ‘theism’ is meant to mean.”

                      Who meant theism and what did they mean it to mean? When we get the the point that we are debating what words “ought” to mean then clearly something is mixed up.

                      Theism can be used in its original sense to refer to belief in a transcendent non-contingent creator, or it can be used in a general sense to refer to belief in anything that an ill-defined subset of the population considers to be divine. But if you are defining yourself by opposition to theism (i.e. atheism), then it would help to have a concrete definition of exactly what you don’t believe in.

                      “The things that Mormons do with their lives in relation to the being they call god are far more like what mainstream Christians, Muslims and Jews do than what people who call themselves atheists do.”

                      I do a lot of things that atheists do. I have a degree in physics, I spend time in a laboratory, I enjoy studying the complexities of nature, I despise superstition, I support expansive human rights, I reject anything I cannot find good evidence for, and I disagree with the war in Iraq. But the sum of all those similarities doesn’t make me an atheist.

                      “If we do accept Randal’s definition, all he will have done is made the term ‘atheist’ less useful (since there is no practical need for a term that encompasses everyone who currently considers themself an atheist, plus Mormons but not non-Mormon Christians) and also have just had a bit of a nasty dig at the Mormons.”

                      Randal really just provided a rigorous definition for theism, and given that atheism is defined by theism, the rest of the work was already done. Theists can’t help it if people who call themselves atheists reject more than mere theism.

                      “We will need to come up with a new term that differrentiates Mormons, non-Mormon Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, other polytheists etc on the one hand, from people who do not believe in any gods, transcendent beings etc – anything superhuman that one might rationally propose to venerate or worship. Can I hear your suggestions for what such a word might be if we are obliged to share the word ‘atheist’ with the Mormons?”

                      Atheistic materialist humanism.

  • Walter

    If a Mormon believes in a deistic creator of the infinite regress than he is no atheist just because he is directing worship at a lower god. The Mormon could conclude that the supreme creator is so transcendent as to be indifferent to the concerns of a bunch of talking apes on one planet, while the lower god aka Heavenly Father is concerned with human affairs and deserving of worship.

    • randal

      Correct, that Mormon would indeed be a deist. (You could call him a henotheist too if you like, but I think that confuses things.) But then they really ought to redirect their worship to that other deity.

      Enter Paul on Mars Hill saying he came to proclaim the unknown God to them…

      • Walter

        But then they really ought to redirect their worship to that other deity.

        Why should they if the ultimate deity is unconcerned about them?

        • pete

          Walter: Why do you think the Ultimate Deity is not concerned with them?

          David Hart: As 2 + 2 will always = 4, what are your thoughts on the neccesity of a greatest possible being?

          Since I hope we all think it is more admirable to be good than evil, this is precisely why the theistic definition of “GOD” over and above Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, must include goodness in its definition.

        • randal

          That is the glaring reason why deism has no gas in the tank to sustain religious devotion.

  • Walter

    The Romans accused early Christians of being atheists. Thomas Jefferson accused Calvinists of being atheists, and Randal accuses Mormons of being atheists. Everyone is an atheist depending on how you define God. A Muslim could consider a trinitarin Christian to be an atheist since a Muslim would believe that the Christian concept of God is deficient.

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      Actually, Muslims consider Christians to be polytheists. This notion is reflected throughout the Koran. Of course, part of this was Muhammad’s misguided conviction that the Christian trinity comprises YHWH, Jesus, and Mary….which sheds a little doubt on the inspiredness of the little book.

      It’s not about a concept of God being “deficient”; it’s about a concept of God being accurate. Non-contingent ultimate cause is a high standard, but it’s not a very complicated one.

    • Katie

      Which all just goes to show that there is no true definition of the word “god” or “theism,” so we should try to define them in a way that best represents the way most people use the words.

      • randal

        Do you believe that philosophers should restrict themselves to popular definitions when they discuss the nature of free will or personhood?

        • Katie

          Discussing the nature of things is an entirely different matter from discussing what is meant by a term/concept. If we need a new concept to discuss something, then I would rather create a new concept than redefine a word from how it’s normally used. I realize this is often a practical impossibility in philosophy, but it seems unnecessary to try to change the meaning of a very common and non-technical term like theism.

          • Katie

            This reminds me of the Republic. Plato goes on a long and convoluted journey because he assumes the somewhat vague term “justice” must refer to something precise and specific. But in the end the notion of justice he comes out with has absolutely nothing to do with what anyone means when they use the word.

          • randal

            Words are always changing their meaning. And within Christian theology the word “God” has meant (among other things) “greatest possible being” for at least a millennium. I offer no novelty here but only an introduction to what professionals mean by their terms. You seem to think that the theologian should give up their careful conceptual reflection and restrict themselves to the confused popular use of terms. And I wonder, if you do that here do you apply it elsewhere in philosophy and science? Should Joe Six-Pack be the one informing the evolutionary biologist on what a “species” is? Should Fred who pumps gas tell the astronomer how to define a “star”? Should Grandma Edith tell the bioethicist what a person is?

            • Katie

              I’m very glad that within disciplines there are more rigorous and precise concepts of things (that’s the whole point of science and philosophy, after all). But you are insisting that Grandma Edith is simply wrong when she talks about a person or a Mormon is simply wrong when they talk about their gods. If you are making a specific theological argument, then it is perfectly suitable to define what you mean by God in that context. But it seems entirely unwarranted to insist that Mormons are just not theists, period. You do not seem to be clarifying or explaining anything – you’re just redefining a word for no reason. To go back to tomatoes, it’s great for biologists to specify what they mean by a fruit, but that doesn’t mean that mom is confused when she refers to a tomato as a vegetable, and nothing seems to be gained by correcting her.

              • randal

                “But you are insisting that Grandma Edith is simply wrong when she talks about a person or a Mormon is simply wrong when they talk about their gods.”

                So what? It is common for Christians to think that prayer changes God’s mind. If the theologians are right and God is necessarily omniscient then those Christians are wrong to think otherwise. What’s the big deal? That’s why we have professionals, to set the rest of us straight on our confusions.

                I would add that a person can have a profound knowledge of acquaintance of God and get all sorts of theological doctrines wonky.

                “But it seems entirely unwarranted to insist that Mormons are just not theists, period.”

                Not if the definition I provided is warranted which it is. Broadly speaking, what I presented is what theologians in classical theism mean by God.

                • Katie

                  I don’t follow the point of the first part of your comment.

                  “Not if the definition I provided is warranted which it is. Broadly speaking, what I presented is what theologians in classical theism mean by God.”

                  But why should everyone adopt the technical terminology of classical theologians, especially when the resulting definition of atheism is very different from its meaning in common parlance? That’s like insisting that everyone stop referring to strawberries and raspberries as berries, since they technically aren’t berries in scientific classification. For scientific purposes it’s necessary to be more “correct,” but for everyday speaking trying to change word usage would just result in confusion and loss of clarity.

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    “But why should everyone adopt the technical terminology of classical theologians, especially when the resulting definition of atheism is very different from its meaning in common parlance?”

                    Because atheism is clearly so very much more than just “not-theism”. This whole discussion started as an attempt to define atheism by what it is rather than by what it isn’t. If you don’t like a definition of atheism that includes belief in the supernatural, specify further!

                    • Katie

                      I’m not sure what you’re looking for. Atheism seems to involve the rejection of theism, religion, and the supernatural.

                    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                      Rejecting theism? Okay, cool. We can define that pretty concisely.

                      But religion and the supernatural? Those are both really complicated. Religion can’t be defined without reference to the supernatural (otherwise football becomes a religion, at least here in Alabama). There isn’t any good way to define “supernatural” in such a way that it includes the Mormon deities and excludes extraterrestrial intelligences.

                      The only simple definition for atheism that I can see is the rejection of any beings that could impose moral obligations on humanity. Would you agree with that?

                    • davidstarlingm

                      While we’re at it — rejection of theism, religion, and the supernatural sounds like atheistic humanistic naturalism.

                    • Katie

                      I don’t claim to have good definitions – I just like to criticize everyone else’s. :P

                      “The only simple definition for atheism that I can see is the rejection of any beings that could impose moral obligations on humanity.”

                      I don’t think any simple definition is a complete one. The easy objection to your definition is that there might be a god that is a creator but doesn’t impose moral standards (deism, or even the Greek gods in a sense).

                      “While we’re at it — rejection of theism, religion, and the supernatural sounds like atheistic humanistic naturalism.”

                      Which is pretty much what “atheism” seems to mean these days…

                    • davidstarlingm

                      Even a deistic god or one of the Greek gods still could be a source of moral obligations, whether by fiat, example, or contrast.

                      But I see where you’re coming from.

                      One underlying principle I keep noticing in atheist rhetoric is the position that even if a god or gods existed, they would not have the right to impose moral obligations on humanity. So I was trying to accommodate that.

          • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

            If we need a new concept to discuss something, then I would rather create a new concept than redefine a word from how it’s normally used.”

            The term “god” is too polysemic to be used in a definition of atheism, and so it is more useful (and more syntactically efficient) to define atheism with respect to theism. Non-contingency has always been a fundamental characteristic of rigorous discussions of theism; insisting that theism ought to include contingent noneternal demigods just to make the definition of atheism simpler is really sloppy.

            • Katie

              You have a good point. I guess I consider Mormons theists by default because that seems to be what they would consider themselves. Again, I’m not all that concerned with what is the best definition of atheism or theism, because I don’t think there is a single good definition. If I was making a specific argument about some brand of theism, rather than just speaking about it generally, I would be a lot more concerned with clarity.

              • randal

                “I consider Mormons theists by default because that seems to be what they would consider themselves.”

                Most people consider themselves to be smarter than the general population. That hardly means that we should have as a default that the average person is smarter than the general population.

                • Katie

                  Yes, but the way we classify religions is inherently a lot less concrete than the way we classify intelligence. Intelligence to some extent can be quantified, whereas classification of religious belief is almost entirely arbitrary.

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    It’s no more arbitrary than any other sort of philosophy. Religious belief can very easily be categorized and defined, as long as sufficiently precise definitions are used.

                    • Katie

                      Sure – I have no problem with categorizing things. I just get nervous when someone starts trying to apply a standard term to a category other than the one it typically refers to (as Randal seems to be doing with “atheism”), since this just leads to confusion. Categorization ought to elucidate, not obfuscate! (I couldn’t resist that last sentence)

              • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                “I’m not all that concerned with what is the best definition of atheism or theism, because I don’t think there is a single good definition.”

                Hmm. Most atheists seem to think that there is a single good definition of atheism. Atheism’s asserted simplicity is usually one of its selling points. If atheists will stop asserting that atheism is a simple, easily-warranted position requiring very little caveat or explanation, then this discussion wouldn’t be necessary.

                • David Hart

                  I’m replying to this because we’ve run out of reply spaces on our earlier sub-thread.

                  So…
                  “I don’t see how this makes the Mormon god any more theistic in nature.”

                  Its imaginariness leaves space for it to be supernatural. If it actually existed, we could, in principle, determine for itself whether it had supernatural powers or origins.

                  “I do a lot of things that atheists do.”

                  Of course you do. But if you are any sort of mainstream Christian, the things you do in relation to God are far more like the kinds of things Mormons do in relation to God than the kinds of things atheists do in relation to God. You both (presumably) believe he exists, pray to him, meet with like-minded people in a special building to worship him etc.

                  My point is, whatever the subtle distinctions between the god of Mormonism and the god of non-Mormon Christianity, the way Mormons and non-Mormon Christians behave and organise their lives in relation to God are so much more similar to each other than either is to the way atheists behave that for all practical, everyday conversational purposes, the word ‘atheist’ is far more useful if it excludes both Mormons and non-Mormon Christians than if it includes the former while excluding the latter.

                  Randal is welcome to use ‘atheist’ as a specialized jargon word which excludes Mormons, but he should not try to claim that his highly specific use trumps invalidates the ordinary, everyday use – just as a mathematician is welcome to use the word ‘line’ to mean the shortest distance between two points, a geometrical concept which has zero thickness and is by definition perfectly straight, a definition under which something like ‘a thick, wavy line’ is an incoherent concept, but they are not welcome to say that people who use the word ‘line’ in its normal, everyday sense are wrong to do so.

                  Which brings me to…

                  “Atheistic materialist humanism.”

                  Good summation. But it’s a bit cumbersome. I think, given how much more useful a word which divides [self-identified atheists] from [Mormons and non-Mormon Christians] is than a word which divides [non-Mormon Christians] from [Mormons and self-identified atheists], and, given that the word ‘atheist’ already does this in everyday speech, that we would be better giving Randal the jargon words. May I propose that what he is calling theism, which includes non-Mormon Christians and, presumably, Jews and Muslims, but not Mormons or Greek Polytheists, we call ‘transcendental theism’ or something like that, while the kind of religious beliefs that Mormons and Greek Polytheists have, but that self-identified atheists don’t, we could call ‘non-transcendental theism’. Atheism can thus retain its normal, everyday use, while Randal gets to have words to describe his subtle distinction (and, for what it’s worth, the normal everyday understanding of ‘deism’ can remain unchanged as well). Is that something you could get behind?

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    “Its imaginariness leaves space for it to be supernatural. If it actually existed, we could, in principle, determine for itself whether it had supernatural powers or origins.”

                    I’m sorry; I really don’t understand. If it’s imaginary, then it can’t be supernatural, because it wouldn’t exist. If it did exist as they define it, then it wouldn’t be supernatural. Are you saying that the Loch Ness monster ought to be classified as a deity simply because it is imaginary and therefore could potentially be supernatural?

                    “The things you do in relation to God are far more like the kinds of things Mormons do in relation to God than the kinds of things atheists do in relation to God.”

                    Actually, the things I do in relation to most gods are exactly the same as the things that atheists do in relation to most gods. But I get your point. Even so, as Randal pointed out: “If Arroway joined a community of like-minded alien worshippers who had their own temples, missionaries, sacred writings, and a world famous tabernacle choir it might make it seem more plausible to call her a theist. But it would be just as wrong to do so.”

                    “Atheism can thus retain its normal, everyday use, while Randal gets to have words to describe his subtle distinction. Is that something you could get behind?”

                    Well, that depends. Should Buddhists be considered atheists? Should someone who believes in ghosts be welcomed into the atheist fold? What about Samkhya and Mimamsa Hindus? Popular atheism would reject all of these groups, which is why I included “materialist humanism” in my definition.

                    People who call themselves atheists usually tend to be more anti-religion than anything else. And the position that no religion has a net positive impact on humanity is far different from the position that non-contingent agents don’t exist.

  • Steve Schuler

    Hey Randall!

    I’m going to venture a guess that Mitt Romney is probably not your first choice for next president of the United States. I’ve got to admit that this is the first time that I have encountered the notion that Mormons may in fact be atheists rather than merely misguided cultic heretics. Hopefully, for Mitt’s sake, this notion won’t spread. If it does his chance of securing the Republican nomination is doomed.

    • randal

      Wow, if “cultic heretic” is a better moniker than “atheist” then the latter need to hire a new PR coach. As for Mitt, my concern about his candidacy comes back to my doubts that he is human. His irrepressible awkwardness — most recently complimenting Michigan for the height of its trees — leads me to suspect that “Mitt” really is an example of artifical intelligence. It could be that Mitt really is an experiment launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the MIT-Tool or MIT-Thingamabob. That would explain the whole reference to tree height as a technical glitch.

      • Walter

        Wow, if “cultic heretic” is a better moniker than “atheist” then the latter need to hire a new PR coach.

        People equate atheism with moral relativism. Most people would probably rather elect a Moonie than an atheist because they believe the atheist will screw them over without a second thought, seeing as how the atheist supposedly has no moral framework to guide them.

        Here in Alabama an atheist is considered to be just a smidge lower than the Taliban.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          The conflation of atheism with moral relativism is unfortunate, and is almost solely the fault of uneducated extremist Bible-belters.

          What part of Alabama are you in? Because I totally get you. I’m leaving AL permanently on Saturday.

          • Walter

            Huntsville/Decatur area.

            • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

              I’m in Florence; I drive through Huntsville regularly.

      • Steve Schuler

        Have you heard about the form-shifting extraterrestrial reptilian overlords and their bastard hybrid offspring that are secretly dominating humanity? Well, almost secretly as it seems now their secret is out. I’m not sayin’ it’s so, but it could be that Mitt Hisself is one such a creature. His apparent bepuzzlement over the height of the trees in Michigan certainly lends some credence to this notion, that I’m sure you’ve got to admit. Now, keep this under your hat as it would doubly doom his chances of securing the nomination should this possibility become common knowledge.

        • randal

          Sounds like the classic Rowdy Roddy Piper film “They Live”.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Gee, and when we talked about my definition of religion, you said it was wrong because it might classify Colin McGinn as a theist, and that was silly.

    But your definition might have unconventional or unexpected results, and that’s okay. :)

  • Tranny

    This is my conversation with a fellow mormon doubting their faith
    http://mybeliefs10.blogspot.com/2013/08/july-22-1126am-me-hey-just-wanted-to.html

  • Pingback: One man’s theist is another man’s atheist()