Why I Am Not a Believer

My ex-wife recently called me to try to convince me to return to the LDS faith. I don’t know what prompted that call, but I stopped believing in any sort of god 23 years ago. I tried to explain then, and I tried to explain again to her on the phone, why I could not believe. Here is a more detailed explanation.

Honesty

I grew up with a father who drilled into me the importance of honesty. I heard how my grandfather was known as a man of integrity, and as a child people trusted my father to pay his debts just on the strength of my grandfather’s reputation. I heard how my great-grandfather retired from politics (he was a state legislator) because “there is no longer any place in politics for an honest man.”

I do not think a man can be honest with others unless he is honest with himself — self-deception leads to deception of others. And what does it mean to be honest with yourself? An honest man does not pick his beliefs first and then search for arguments to support them. He cherishes the truth, and so lets his beliefs follow where evidence and logic lead them. An honest man does not have two standards of evidence, one lenient and forgiving for his own cherished beliefs, the other rigorous and critical for opposing viewpoints or matters of lesser emotional importance. He applies the same critical standards across the board.

I stopped believing when I realized that in protecting my religious beliefs I was not being an honest man.

I stopped believing when I realized that faith — believing, regardless of the evidence, what you desire to believe, or what you think you should believe, or what others say you must believe — is a fundamentally dishonest way of thinking.

Here are some specific issues that make an honest belief in LDS doctrine (or in some cases, Christian doctrine in general) impossible for me.

Adam and Eve

LDS doctrine is very clear on these points: (1) Adam and Eve were the first human beings, the progenitors of all humanity, and (2) there was no death of any kind on this earth until the “Fall of Adam.”

According to LDS scripture (D&C 77:6-7), the Earth’s “continuance, or its temporal existence” spans (will span?) seven thousand years, placing the “Fall of Adam” no more than 7000 years ago. Accounting for the presumed yet-to-come Millennium places the “Fall of Adam” at no more than 6000 years ago. The chronology in the Bible also places Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden at about 6000 years ago.

This scenario is biologically unbelievable. if all of humanity were the descendants of a single man and woman who lived 6000 years ago — or 10,000 years ago — or 30,000 years ago — there would be essentially no genetic diversity in the human race. We would all look as alike as twins… and this is definitely not what we observe. Furthermore, a species must have what is called a minimum viable breeding population — generally measured in the thousands — to have any reasonable chance of surviving. With a small population it’s too easy for some accident of nature, or a single disease microorganism or parasite, to wipe out the entire populace. (The genetic diversity of a larger population helps ensure that there will always be some who are not vulnerable to the parasite or disease.)

Furthermore, the Adam and Eve hypothesis is clearly contradicted by the fossil record, which shows that anatomically modern humans have been around for nearly 200,000 years, and by the massive evidence for the process of evolution, and by the fossil record of precursors to Homo Sapiens that date back 2.3 million years to Homo Habilis and beyond.

Now consider point (2), the claim that there was no death on this world before 6,000 years ago. We have massive amounts of fossil evidence of organisms that died millions, tens of millions, even as far back as 650 million years ago — over 100,000 times as old as what LDS doctrine claims for the beginning of death in this world! It is hard to imagine a claim being more thorough refuted.

The Flood

LDS doctrine affirms the reality of the Great Flood as described in Genesis; it affirms this in the teachings of church leaders and in every one of standard works regarded as scripture by the church. Yet the Flood story falls to pieces no matter how you approach it.

According to the Flood story, the human race was wiped out except for 8 people, and so we are all descended from those 8, who, by Biblical chronology, lived about 4500 years ago. This has the same problems as the Adam and Eve story — all humans would be nearly genetically identical, and lack of genetic diversity would have led to quick extinction of the human race. Furthermore, the Flood story claims that all land animals are descended from at most 7 breeding pairs per species that lived 4500 years ago; so not just humans, but all land animal species should be populations of nearly identical individuals.

Where did the water come from, and where did it go? According to the Flood story, the tallest mountains were covered. Doing this would require an additional 4.5 billion cubic kilometers of water to cover the whole Earth up to the top of Mount Everest, or nearly 3-1/2 times the current total volume of the world’s oceans. The best geological evidence says that the Himalayas are about 50 million years old, so Everest was definitely around a mere 4500 years ago.

Then there’s the problem of fresh water versus salt water. Either the Flood waters were fresh, in which case all the salt-water aquatic species should have died, or the flood waters were salty, in which case all the fresh-water aquatic species should have died, or they were of intermediate salinity, in which case both the fresh-water and salt-water species should have died.

Next, where are all the bones? If the Flood occurred, there should be ubiquitous evidence of the massive deaths of humans and all other land animal species, massive quantities of scattered bones dating to one specific time circa 2500 B.C. These are not found.

And what of the Bronze Age civilizations? As the purported Flood occurred in the middle of the Bronze Age, archaeologists should be seeing evidence of all known Bronze Age civilizations (including Egyptian civilization) suddenly disappearing around 2500 B.C. They do not.

The Tower of Babel

LDS scripture — specifically, the Book of Mormon — affirms the reality of the story of the Tower of Babel, which claims that all of humanity spoke a common language until about 2200 B.C., at which time God made everyone have their own separate language, and confusion ensued.

The archaeological record says otherwise. The Sumerians developed writing sometime between 3500 and 3000 B.C., the Egyptians before about 3150 B.C. — both at least 1000 years before the supposed Tower of Babel incident — and it is clear that the Sumerians and Egyptians did not speak the same language.

The Book of Abraham

Joseph Smith claimed that he translated the Book of Abraham from ancient Egyptian papyrus scripts the church purchased. Egyptologists have looked at the facsimiles contained in The Pearl of Great Price, that are purported to be some of the material from which the Book of Abraham was translated, as well as the original papyrus scripts, large portions of which were rediscovered in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1966. They have found the purported source material for the Book of Abraham to be nothing but a common Egyptian funerary text for a deceased man named “Hor” who died in the 1st century, and they have found Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the facsimiles to be completely wrong.

Exodus

19th-century archaeologist pored over Egypt expecting to find evidence of the events of Exodus; they were disappointed. There is no archaeological evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt. There is no archaeological evidence for the great kingdoms of David and Solomon. The only evidence for David points to a minor king who ruled a small region in Canaan and was a vassal of Egypt.

The Book of Mormon

Ancestry of the American Indians

LDS doctrine, based on the Book of Mormon, has been that the American Indians are of Israelite origin, having come to the Americas around 600 B.C. Despite recent efforts to back away from this claim, Joseph Smith and church leaders until recently were very clear on this point:

  • Joseph Smith–History 1:34 says that the Book of Mormon gives “an account of the former inhabitants of this content.”
  • In the Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith wrote that “We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ…  The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.” (Emphasis added.)
  • The “Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint,” published in April 1845, states that “the the ‘Indians’ (so called) of North and South America are a remnant of the tribes of Israel; as is now made manifest by the discovery and revelation of their ancient oracles and records.”
  • Doctrine & Covenants 28:9, 28:14, 32:2, and 54:8 all refer to the American Indians as Lamanites.

Both archaeological and DNA evidence have definitively disproven this LDS doctrine. The archaeological evidence indicates that there were several waves of migration from Asia via Beringia, a land bridge that connected Asia and North America during the ice ages (it is now the Bering Strait). Analysis of American Indian DNA confirms that the ancestors of the American Indians came from Siberia. Both archaeological and DNA evidence place these migrations as having occurred over 10,000 years ago — not a mere 2,600 years ago.

Archaeological Evidence Contradicts the Book of Mormon

Here are just a few of the areas in which archaeological evidence contradicts the claims made in the Book of Mormon:

  • Horses. Many verses in the Book of Mormon speak of horses in the Americas: 1 Nephi 18:25, 2 Ne. 12: 7, Enos 1:21, Alma 18:9-12, Alma 20:6, 3 Nephi 3:22, 3 Nephi 4:4, 3 Nephi 6:1, and Ether 9:19. In fact, 2 Nephi 12:7 says that “their land is also full of horses” and Enos 1:21 says “the people of Nephi did… raise… many horses.” Yet horses were extinct in the Americas from about 10,000 B.C. until Columbus — not a horse bone or tooth of any sort from that period of time has ever been found, nor do we find any depiction of horses among the many depictions of animals in ancient Mesoamerican art.
  • The Wheel. Several verses in the Book of Mormon speak of chariots: 2 Nephi 12:7, Alma 18:9-12, Alma 20:6, and 3 Nephi 3:22. We read in 2 Nephi 12:7 that “neither is there any end of their chariots,” indicating that chariots were not a rarity. Yet no evidence of chariots, nor of any use of wheels for transportation, has ever been found in the pre-Columbian archaeological record. (A few wheeled toys have been found in an ancient cemetery at Tenenepanco, Mexico, but researchers suspect that even these were introduced into the tombs after the arrival of Europeans.)
  • The Battles at Cumorah. According to the Book of Mormon, there were massive battles at the Hill Cumorah in 600 B.C. and 420 A.D.: about 2 million killed in the earlier battle, and 230,000 killed in the later one. To get a feel for the scale of this, all the battles of the American Civil War together had a combined death toll of 620,000. So where are the steel swords, armor, bones in abundance, chariots, etc. witnessing to these events? No evidence of these cataclysmic battles is found at Cumorah nor elsewhere in the Americas. For comparison, a battle that occurred in Germany in the 3rd Century A.D. involving about 1000 Roman soldiers (and a similar number of Germans?) left behind over 600 artifacts for archaeologists to find.
  • No evidence of BofM civilizations. Archaeologists have yet to find any trace of the large, populous (millions of people) civilizations described in the Book of Mormon.
    • The National Geographic Society stated in 1998, “Archaeologists and other scholars have long probed the hemisphere’s past and the society does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon.” (link)
    • Michael Coe, one of the best known authorities on archaeology of the New World, wrote this: “The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1973, pp. 41, 42 & 46.)
    • There is no trace of any Semitic influence on the American Indian languages, nothing that would indicate that Hebrew or any similar language had ever been spoken in pre-Columbian America.

We have unequivocal archaeological evidence of the Norse incursion into North America 1000 years ago, despite the small size of their settlements and the historical brevity of their stay. Yet the two Book of Mormon civilizations, with populations numbering in the millions and enduring 1600 and 1000 years respectively, vanish from history without leaving a trace in the archaeological record?

The Existence of Psychopaths

According to LDS doctrine, every human being is endowed with the Light of Christ, which tells them right from wrong, and gives them a conscience. A person may become desensitized to the Light of Christ through their actions, but all are born with a conscience.

That’s a very strong, specific claim — that has been disproven. Perhaps 1% of the population are psychopaths who have never known the twinge of conscience, have never — not even as a child — experienced the emotions of guilt or shame, nor known what it is to feel empathy for another human being. Furthermore, neuroscientists have discovered that psychopathy is linked to specific structural abnormalities in the brain. Which brings us to…

Minds, Brains, and Spirits

LDS doctrine teaches that the core of a human being’s personality, the part that is actually thinking and deciding, their actual mind, is something called a spirit. This spirit can exist entirely independently of a human body, entering the body at birth and leaving the body at death. Let’s call this hypothesis S, short for “minds are spirits.”

The alternative hypothesis, favored by neuroscientists, is that minds are processes that occur in brains, and do not exist independently of brains. Let’s call this hypothesis B, short for “minds are brain processes.”

So what does the evidence say?

We know that motor control of the body is carried out by nerve impulses originating in the brain. This is to be expected under hypothesis B. Under hypothesis S, this only makes sense if the brain is some sort of communication gateway between the spirit and body. If so, then spirits must be capable of having an actual, measurable, physical influence on the material world, at least to the extent of generating neural signals. Scientists should thus be able to indirectly detect the existence of spirits through their effects on neurons; they should see the spontaneous appearance of neural signals that lack any known physical cause. But they do not.

It’s been known since ancient times that injuries to the head can damage one’s ability to think and reason. This is expected under hypothesis B — minds are brain processes, so brain damage should of course alter or damage the mind. There’s no reason to expect such a thing under hypothesis S. In fact, hypothesis S strongly suggests that brain damage should have no effect whatsoever on one’s mind — after all, death and the resultant decomposition of all body tissues, including the brain, is an extreme form of brain damage, and hypothesis S says that the mind survives destruction of the body entirely intact.

Furthermore, it is well documented that brain injuries can not only diminish one’s cognitive abilities, but actually cause radical changes to personality.

  • We have the famous case of Phineas Gage, who survived a metal rod piercing the prefrontal lobe of his brain; his personality changed so radically that those who knew him said that he was “no longer Gage.” Before the accident we was known as hard-working, responsible, “the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ,” someone who “possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.” Afterwards, he was described as “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.”
  • In 2002, neurologists Russell Swerdlow and Jeffrey Burns reported the case of a 40-year-old man who suddenly became a pedophile — then lost the urge once an egg-sized tumor was removed from his head. 
  • In 1993, Anson and Kuhlman reported the case of a young woman who had part of her midbrain destroyed during a brain surgery to stop seizures. She appeared to lose the ability to feel fear and disgust. As a result, she developed a habit of stuffing herself with food until she got sick, and was frequently found sexually propositioning family members.

This kind of radical personality change — including deviant and immoral behavior — occurring after a brain injury is not at all surprising under hypothesis B; but according to hypothesis S, it simply should not happen. According to hypothesis S, it is the spirit that is in control, the spirit wherein resides ones character, and this spirit survives intact even the complete destruction of the brain. So we may consider hypothesis S to have been utterly disproven.

Spiritual Witness

The usual response to observations such as these is for the believer to declare, “I have received a spiritual witness of the truth of the Gospel.” So to the believer I say, how do you know that “spiritual witness” is a reliable guide to truth? We have pretty strong evidence that it isn’t, you know. You may say that you have received a “spiritual witness” of the truth of LDS doctrine, but there are far, far more people who have received a “spiritual witness” that

  • the Catholic Church is true and the Pope is God’s chosen mouthpiece;
  • or that evangelical Christianity is the truth;
  • or that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet;
  • or that the Vedas are God’s word;
  • and so on.

Logically, spiritual witness must be an extremely unreliable method of getting at the truth, as these contradictory beliefs cannot all be true. Ironically, for there to be any significant probability that LDS doctrine is true and that the LDS church is divinely inspired and led, spiritual witness must give the wrong answer nearly 100% of the time, as spiritual witnesses to the correctness of LDS beliefs are a very small fraction of all spiritual witnesses received.

Conclusion

I haven’t even touched upon the numerous internal inconsistencies of the New Testament, nor the ways in which it contradicts the secular historical record. What I have written has, I hope, made it clear that LDS doctrine (and, more generally, Christian doctrine) has testable consequences. Each species of land animal, including humans, should consist of near-clones. We should find no fossil remains of creatures that died prior to about 6,000 years ago. We should find massive numbers of skeletons of humans and other creatures that perished in the Flood. Egyptologists should concur with Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the papyrus scrolls he claimed were the source of the Book of Abraham. We should see clear evidence of hundreds of years of Hebrew presence in Egypt. DNA evidence and linguistic evidence should suggest a Semitic origin for the American Indians. Archaeologists should have found Zarahemla by now. There should be no such thing as a psychopath. Brain injuries should have no effect on a person’s character or intelligence. Spiritual witness should yield consistent results, affirming the truth of only one set of religious beliefs and denying the truth of alternative beliefs.

None of these expected consequences has been born out. What we observe repeatedly contradicts what the doctrine would lead us to expect. And that is why I cannot believe.

6 thoughts on “Why I Am Not a Believer

  1. Nelsen Michaelson

    Hi, Kevin.

    This write-up was intriguing. I have studied religion and other philosophy and read many articles that pit science against religious beliefs. I have come to the conclusion that neither scientists or religionists can prove or disprove most things that we argue about. As such, I have chosen to live the principles that I was taught because they help me be a better person. I look forward to the day when all truth is revealed, no matter how it is revealed, so that we can stop arguing and work together to make this world a better place for every inhabitant. In the meantime, I exercise faith in God knowing that I can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Events that have transpired in my life lead me to believe that there is a God and that he is watching out for me. I have hope in a life after this mortal existence, which keeps me from behaving like an animal.

    Would love to chat with you at some point. Take care! Nelsen

    Reply
  2. Dan Nuffer

    Nice post Kevin! It’s a funny coincidence, I had a similar experience just a few days ago. An old friend of mine heard I had left the church, and so he called me up and we talked about why I don’t believe. I brought up many of the same points you made here.

    Reply
  3. Kip

    TLDR

    Religion is B.S.

    But atheism just highlights the mysteriousness and absurdity of life. Why are we here? Why is life the way it is? Why are our bodies the way they are? We have so many limbs, so many fingers, we live for so longer, we desire certain things, then we die, for what? This about the space of possible life experiences across all conceptually possible organisms. Why this experience? Who knows?

    Reply
  4. Valerie Opoulos

    Belief in the unproven is an act of courage. Humanity does not come from logic but the illogical extension of one’s grace to another. That as a human family we would dare to hope others had gone before us and overcome the worst in our behavior and have become glorious enough that in comparison they would embody godliness is a hope that transcends every race and culture. If as humans we are only organic computers than it is better we blink into existence and blink out; a 0 and a 1.

    Reply
    1. Dan Nuffer

      Valerie, wow that’s some nice hyperbole. Or do you really think humanity were better to not exist at all if there were no supernatural? If so, have you thought about the morality of such a stance?

      Reading your comment was juxtaposed with reading another blog post http://multiverseaccordingtoben.blogspot.com/. Ben Goertzel is attempting to describe part of the underlying reasons humans delude themselves and explore some of the possibilities that could happen if we ever are able to actually stop deluding ourselves.

      Reply
    2. kevin@ksvanhorn.com Post author

      What, specifically, makes “belief in the unproven” an act of courage rather than an act of folly? Your statement strikes me as something crafted to appear profound rather than to actually be true. Is it an act of courage to believe in Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or Ahura Mazda? Is it an act of courage to believe that UFOs are extraterrestrial space craft? Is it an act of courage to believe in leprechauns? Or in Santa Claus?

      You see the problem, right? How do you know what to believe in to begin with?

      If you say that you know by the Spirit, then you have a problem: as discussed in my essay, it’s clear that spiritual witness must give the wrong answer most of the time, and if you think the LDS church is true, then spiritual witness must almost always give the wrong answer. See also this blog post of mine.

      What I find striking about your comment, though, is that my essay didn’t even bring up the lack of evidence supporting LDS doctrine; it focused only on the other side of the equation, the massive amounts of evidence contradicting LDS beliefs. So this isn’t even about belief in the unproven — it’s belief in the thoroughly and utterly disproven.

      Reply

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