What happens when journalists don theology hats?

You get arguments like Lane Williams’s in the MormonTimes this morning. Williams begins by lamenting the fact that atheists occasionally receive media attention:

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

Of course, he then has to claim that the media coverage is actually biased in favor of atheism and against religion:

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

At this point, Williams plays his first card – “the victim card.” Poor Mormons are so often “reviled” in the media; the coverage is so unfair. And if you don’t believe them, just ask them – they’ll tell you, using wholly unscientific measures. (Of course, when actual scientists sample the media for bias, they find none.)

He then says that it’s okay for journalists to discuss atheism because, well, they have to, and he almost even suggests that they should do so in a balanced way:

As disappointing as it is to say this, reporters may not be able to do much better than provide a balanced conduit for atheists in the modern world we live in. Journalism is a secular enterprise that reports both sides of a prominent issue. So as atheism becomes more prominent, journalism will write more about it. Journalism will therefore become a conduit for atheistic arguments as well as religious ones, I presume. To be sure, if atheism gains increased public interest, then a news reporter, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should write about atheism in a fair way and allow its adherents a voice. I expect nothing less in journalisms coverage of religion. I cant have a different standard for the less religious among us.

But if you read closely, what he’s really saying is, “We’re going to have to talk about these atheists occasionally. We don’t want to, and we’ll feign objectivity, but here at MormonTimes.com, you all know we won’t be objective. But we’re going to say we are, which, in the minds of our readers, is sufficient.”

(Note: I’d be remiss to not also mention the “both sides” idea, which is also so much bullsh*t. There aren’t always “two sides” to stories; journalists need to get that through their heads. Sometimes there is the side with all the evidence and then there is the side with no evidence. That does not mean the side with evidence should get to say anything. They should get to say nothing! h/t Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Steven Novella)

He then pulls back the curtain on MormonTimes:

So my point today, really, isnt so much about reporters; my point is to use the opinion format of this blog to take a public stand because so few news reporters can or do so.

You heard it here, folks, MormonTimes is a venue for pro-Mormon bias. Okay, that’s not a surprise. But the fact that he’s admitting it is kind of a surprise. MormonTimes.com is the Mormon Church’s attempt at pseudo-objectivity while simultaneously spewing pro-Mormon propaganda.

But the best is yet to come. Williams now dons his “theologian” hat and tries to claim “evidence” for god, as though this journalism professor from BYU-Idaho has better arguments for the existence of god than the legions of theologians over the millenia. What are his arguments?

1) Call into question the idea that there is a uniform understanding of the scientific enterprise:

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

Mr. Williams, how do “other” people understand it?

2) Call into question what qualifies as “evidence”:

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

This is where the article falls apartcompletely. His first claimed evidence – “order” and “diversity” in nature (a.k.a. the teleological argument):

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

Of course, science explains diversity in nature. And science explains the seeming order as well, but does not claim that “nature” is some how “designed,” like objects that are created by man. Ergo, this is not evidence for the existence of god but rather evidence for the existence of nature, which is a tautology – nature exists is an assumption of science. (See more rebuttals here.)

He gives another example of finding beauty in nature as evidence of the existence of god, but then gives his second piece of “evidence” – human creativity:

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

This is also not evidence of god’s existence but of the remarkable feats of evolution. Humans are capable of what they are capable because of evolution. That is awe-inspiring, but does not provide evidence of god’s existence.

His coup de grace, the Holy Ghost a la Moroni’s promise:

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

Williams goes so far as to label this an “experiment”:

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

In science, if an experiment is unreliable, meaning it does not turn out the same way every time, we consider it a failure. In the case of “praying to god” for the truthfulness of Mormonism (or for his existence, which, of course, requires a priori faith in that god that he does exist, else why pray to him?), this is a remarkably unreliable “experiment.” Millions have failed to arrive at the same conclusion as Williams. So, Williams is correct when he says “it is absurd to call this experiment a science.” Bingo! It’s not. What’s more, it’s not evidence. But Williams doesn’t seem to get that:

That our Mormon evidence for God doesnt emerge in a laboratory under full human control doesnt make it any less of an evidence. Indeed, it is the most compelling evidence of anything I have ever known.Millions of Mormons, including me, would say that God answers prayers because of their own experiences with the Holy Ghost and prayer. Therein lies our evidence that God lives. I assume other religious believers feel much the same way.

Mr. Williams, that it doesn’t emerge in laboratory conditions does make it “less of an evidence.” In fact, it makes it “no evidence at all.” Yes, you had some emotional experience. But that emotional experience cannot be replicated with other people reliably and there are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for the experience you had that have to do with brain chemistry and emotional states. So, I don’t deny an experience, but claiming that your experience provides “evidence” for the existence of a completely nonsensical deity is absurd.

Finally, I have to point out that major failure on Mr. Williams’s part to understand his own beliefs. He claims, at the end of the article, to “know” that god exists. He doesn’t. He believes god exists. In fact, he has faith that god exists. And if Mr. Williams really understood what that meant – believing in things that are hoped for but not seen – he would also realize that he has no evidence for this whatsoever. If he did, he wouldn’t have faith. He would have knowledge of god’s existence. But he doesn’t.

Mr. Williams, if I may make a suggestion… Stick to your subjective reporting on all things Mormon and stay away from theology. You don’t have the bona fides to pull this off.

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profxm

I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

69 thoughts on “What happens when journalists don theology hats?

  1. Right. It’s a fact about the social system, not the deity.

    And the penny is a fact about the penny, not a person.

    And the feelings are facts about the feelings, not a god.

    It’s important to keep track of what means what.

  2. re 51

    Daniel, that reminds me…

    I haven’t TOTALLY been keeping up with the penny analogy (other than to say that I agree that is it “evidence,” but not strong evidence, and certainly not proof for any conclusion [say, “a person”] — this is probably as much of a “trite” or “trivial” position as kuri probably thinks the atheism thing is: everything is evidence. The question is: what for? And here, people’s interpretations gets all over the place. “A tree is evidence for god” “no, it’s evidence of a tree.”)

    BUT…I was just reminded of the argument about counterfeit money. Just because there are counterfeit $20s doesn’t mean there aren’t real $20s.”

    …but there isn’t such a thing as a real $20 to begin with. What we call a “real $20” is backed by fiat — it is a social fact based on our relationship to a government and our trust in that government’s ability to blah blah blah.

    Yeah, I don’t know where I’m going with this but yeah, I wanted to say that.

  3. So does that mean that all $20 bills are counterfeit and therefore counterfeit bills are real?… Where were we going with this? :)

    This thread has added evidence to my perceptual framework that Sam Harris was right when he said that atheism is a problematic concept to build a movement on.

    Seth,

    I see the fact that profxm is so put out by the nature of the evidence as merely being due to him not getting what religion is about in the first place.

    Please, oh! great swami, please enlighten me about what religion is really about.

  4. Kullervo 47

    When you say, “Mr. Williams’s experience of God at a waterfall, and the similar experience of bajillions of other people, is most definitely evidence,” exactly what is it evidence of?

  5. @Kullervo

    Ok, maybe you can help me sort this out. Thanks for your patience.

    The reason why I object is because I know what a penny is. You know what a penny is. I realize that reality might not be reality but at least we agree on what a penny is. So it seems that there is some level of objectivity even if reality is some kind of an elaborate subjective conspiracy or something. We can “experience” a penny in more ways than one.

    The same can’t be said of a supposed personal revelation from a supposed God. If I had an intense feeling after praying, what standard do I use to distinguish an authentic God-induced revelation from a non-God-induced one?

    Am I off?

  6. When you say, Mr. Williamss experience of God at a waterfall, and the similar experience of bajillions of other people, is most definitely evidence, exactly what is it evidence of?

    That’s really the question, isn’t it? Is it evidence of God, or is it evidence that lots of people experience something that they’ve been taught to call “God”? Answer the question one way and you’re a believer; answer it another and you’re not. (Or, maybe, if you’re a believer you’ll answer it one way; if you’re not, you’ll answer it another.)

  7. I completely agree, Kuri. Human beings have been having profound, transformative experiences forever. But then some joker comes along and calls it “God(s)” and piles on the stinky pile of non-sequiturs we call religion.

  8. @kullervo, I suppose I didn’t read your comment thoroughly because I kept going off on the penny part of the analogy.

    Youre attempting to draw a line between evidence and non-evidence based on frame of reference, but thats just not a dispositive distinction. The question is whether or not the evidence is relevant, i.e. whether or not it has anything to do with the thing being asserted. And subjective spiritual experiences are relevant. The lack of frame of reference just makes us weigh them as relatively unreliable evidence.

    I’m still confused as to how an interpretation of a personal revelation is just relatively unreliable and just not at all reliable. What makes an interpretation/recollection of a personal revelation at all worthy of consideration if we can’t even begin to formulate even a subjective standard by which to distinguish God-induced revelation form non-God-induced revelation?

  9. In anticipation, I realize that many do attempt to create subjective standards for what constitutes an authentic God-induced personal revelation…. but I would ask where that standard came from. Don’t we use objective data for the subjective standards that we commonly rely on?

  10. Dictionary Atheists. Boy, I really do hate these guys. You’ve got a discussion going, talking about why you’re an atheist, or what atheism should mean to the community, or some such topic that is dealing with our ideas and society, and some smug wanker comes along and announces that “Atheism means you lack a belief in gods. Nothing more. Quit trying to add meaning to the term.” As if atheism can only be some platonic ideal floating in virtual space with no connections to anything else; as if atheists are people who have attained a zen-like ideal, their minds a void, containing nothing but atheism, which itself is nothing. Dumbasses.”

  11. Same link as the broken one above:

    ‘The “I believe in no gods/I lack belief in gods” debate. I have heard this so often, the hair-splitting grammatical distinctions some atheists think so seriously important in defining themselves. All you’re doing is defining yourselves as anal retentive freaks, people! Get over it. Either way, you’re an atheist and that goes for the over-philosophized fussbudgets who insist that they’re agnostics, not atheists, because they aren’t 100% positive there aren’t any gods, only 99 44/100ths positive. Atheism is such a general club, and it’s so easy to fall into the definition, that it’s silly to sit around arguing about how close to the fence you’re sitting.’

  12. PZ is becoming increasingly untethered from science and sound reasoning. Just because he’s tired of that discussion doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve a purpose.

  13. The discussion is fine when that’s what the discussion is, when people are talking about atheism qua atheism. But when people are talking about real-life atheism, what atheism means to people or society, and somebody brings in that “atheism is nothing” shit, well, I pretty much agree with PZ.

  14. kuri,

    but that’s a point in itself

    “atheism qua atheism” is nothing, and only “real life atheism” gets substance.

    “mormonism qua mormonism” already is something (notwithstanding the fact that “real life mormonism” often turns out to be something else.

  15. Well, yeah. But that’s my point — when people are talking about “substance,” it’s annoying to have other people start talking about “nothing.”

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