I just passed a couple of Mormon missionaries on the way back from King Soopers. We had a very pleasant conversation for ten minutes or so, which I’ll summarize here.
They asked me if I’d ever talked with a Mormon missionary. I said yes, and I don’t believe a word of it. We quickly established that I don’t believe in God and therefore regard every religion as false.
I suggested that in the coming years they allow themselves to seriously question the underpinnings of their religion. I pointed out that the community ties of Mormonism, a strength of the religion in many ways, also bears the danger that many Mormons adhere to their beliefs largely because of social pressure. We talked about the fact that, around the world, people tend to follow the religious beliefs with which they were raised.
One of the missionaries said that he listens to the Holy Spirit, which guided him in working through his doubts about the religion. I pointed out that such an approach is circular. By assuming the Holy Spirit exists, you’re assuming the entire supernaturalist framework. To evaluate a religion at a fundamental level, it is precisely supernaturalism that must be questioned. I added that, what he sees as guidance from the Holy Spirit, I regard as self-talk; he’s basically working through a problem mentally, and when he comes to persuade himself on some point, he mistakes this as guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Regarding the general issue of faith, I replied that one should base beliefs on reason rooted in the evidence of the senses, not resort to faith. After all, I argued, if faith is the reason to accept Mormonism, then why not accept on faith any other religion, such as Catholicism or Islam?
One fellow replied with two prongs of the faith line. First, he argued that the scriptures contain some verifiable wisdom. I replied that, to be sustainable as a religion, any religion must adopt a certain amount of common-sense wisdom, which by its nature is not inherently religious. (Scripture also contains a lot of bad advice, I added.) For example, I accept the view common among religions (but not inherently religious) that murder and adultery are wrong. So the fact that scripture might contain some truth does not justify a belief in the religion. Next, the fellow argued that, while we can go a long way on reason, finally we must resort to faith. I said that “punting” to faith is no way to ground beliefs, nor is it compatible ultimately with being honest with one’s self.
Mormon missionaries tend to be young (one of the ones I talked with, a nineteen year old, nevertheless bears the title, “Elder”), which is why I tried to emphasize that they seriously question their beliefs over the next few years. I certainly don’t think people have some sort of responsibility to try to persuade Mormon missionaries that their religion is false, and they are trained to handle discussions (in pairs, in something like a “good cop, bad cop” relationship). But I was up for it, and I thought that if they want me to consider their ideas, they might as well consider mine.
They asked me if I wanted a Book of Mormon. I said I already have a copy. I said that I’m on my way to read Atlas Shrugged in preparation for a reading group. I suggested that they read it, too.