Not Simply a Mass Delusion

University of Utah Professor Gregory A. Clark wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune attacking organized religion generally and the Catholic Church’s decision to elevate Mother Theresa to Sainthood. Reading his anti-religious screed brought back memories of arguments that I once embraced as an atheist. In particular, Professor Clark argues that God either does not exist or he is a cruel being not worthy of worship.

“Apparently, Mother Teresa hates amputees. Either that, or God does. He’ll routinely regrow limbs for salamanders. But for people? Meh. Not so much.

Primitive superstitious beliefs are not reason to rejoice. Mass self-delusion is not reason to rejoice. Rejecting reality is not reason to rejoice.

They are reason to mourn.”

The problem of theodicy or the existence of evil continues to confront and challenge religion. It is difficult to explain how God can allow human suffering—and even worse, this suffering is selective and inconsistent. Prayers seem to be arbitrarily answered or ignored.

But I wish Professor Clark could open his heart to the teachings of the restored Gospel. So many of the doctrines of the restoration address these very same concerns. In light of our knowledge of the plan of salvation, the love of God can be reconciled with the suffering that we witness in this life.

In particular, one of the great insights of the restoration is the image of the God who weeps that Mormon writers such as Terryl Givens have poignantly pointed to. Knowing that God truly cares and weeps as he witnesses our suffering is a game changer.

But more significant than an ancient vision of the God who weeps is that we are fully able to come to know him and his love personally.. The truth is that he is open and accessible to us. If we seek him, we will find him. He sent his son in order to perfectly empathize with and understand us. He can bind up our wounds and heal us. And he will do so –lovingly and with great compassion.

Of equal significance is the understanding of God’s plan and the role that this life plays in that plan. As President Packer frequently described, this life is like a three act play. We are in the middle of the second act. And that act is often the act with the greatest amount of suffering and drama. If we only see the second act, then things will seem arbitrary or unfair. But in God’s plan, this life is like a play within a play –it is merely a small part of a greater and more expansive scheme,

We can’t understand in every instance why some suffer and others do not. We cannot know why some prayers seem to go unanswered. But we can know that ultimately God is just because all of that suffering and pain is swallowed up in the grant scheme of things. Pain, suffering, and tears will be washed away. Those experiences will be building blocks of eternity. And because God loves us, he will do everything that he can to help us become perfected and exalted.

I once saw religious belief as self delusion as Professor Clerk does. I hope that one day he will come to know that these things are not a delusion. They are a reality that we can know as deeply as we can know anything else that we know in this life.



21 thoughts on “Not Simply a Mass Delusion

  1. Insisting that God can’t exist because our mortal means of measurement can’t find Him makes no sense to me. If I want to control the direction my car is traveling, I use the steering wheel and would never think that stomping the gas pedal will make me go left. There is no cause-effect relationship between the two. Even signaling a left turn with the blinker won’t work as it simply points out potential desire but isn’t intent put into action. In like fashion, trying to use logic, reason or scientific evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God will never work because the rules by which He operates are so far beyond our understanding that you might as well try to explain quantum physics to a newborn. There is nothing in the Newtonian or quantum rules of the mortal realm that can lead us to an understanding of the immortal world. The reverse is clearly not true as immortal law contains and transcends all of mortal law.

    The Father has provided clear, concise instructions on how He is to be found and the tools that are to be used. Faith, obedience, study and prayer are how we learn who He is. As Alma states in the Book of Mormon, if you exercise faith, you will see the seed sprout and start to grow. There is a cause-effect linkage. Because it is the type of linkage that most atheists refuse to try, they and the good professor keep stomping on the gas while wondering why their direction doesn’t change. Because they cannot see light coming through the veil, they insist that there is none.

    All the studies on the psychology of combat and survival indicate that faith is a significant force multiplier, but it has to be the right kind of faith. The data indicate that faith in a cotton candy and lollipops kind of God, precisely the one that the professor mocks, often gets you killed faster than if you had no faith at all. Faith in a God who may not necessarily solve your problems but will see you through in the long run is the kind of faith that keeps you going. Based on stories that I’ve heard in the media, I think that many atheists started with the cotton candy God and when He failed to deliver at some point in their lives, they turned their collective backs on Him. For some reason, they can’t seem to stop trying to push Him out of everyone else’s life though.

    I once observed while living in Germany that the German people had a tendency to obsess about efficiency to a degree that they frequently became inefficient. I think a lot of atheists have a penchant for pushing logic to the point that it winds up on the far side of illogic.

  2. “I once saw religious belief as self delusion as Professor Clerk does.”

    Daniel O., is there a post in the past that goes deeper into this and describes your conversion?

  3. Once upon a time my daughter believed powerfully in the power of God to make anything happen. At that time, she wished that I would become reunited with her father.

    I asked her if God could perform all miracles. She answered yes.

    I sent a silent plea to God to help me explain why this desire for reunion that my daughter had might not be fulfilled without destroying her faith in God’s omnipotence (useful for things like Salvation).

    What came out of my mouth was the question, “Do you think God could make a dirty diaper go away?” Her faithful answer was, “Yes!”

    “Then why can’t I just pray and make your dirty diaper go away?” She answered, “I don’t know.”

    “Do you think,” I continued, “that we would ever get potty trained if our diapers magically went away?” Much giggling ensued. But the point was made. In this life we are exposed to consequences so that we can learn what causes consequences. Without exposure to consequences, we would never grow to embrace the behaviors that yield peace and prosperity.

    The “first act” was a time to desire all that God is and has. This “second act” is a time to be mortal and learn the wisdom of Gods. The “third act” will be time when those willing to covenant with God can share all that we knew was powerful and desirable in our first act. For those unwilling to be wise and humble, they will be given a nice place where they can no longer hurt others.

    Professor Clark (if we Mormons are right) will have a period of time to marvel at the fact of a post-mortal existence, along with lots of suasion to accept the gospel he disdained in life. We’ll see if he gets to be among the wise and humble, or if he chooses to be one who is kept from harming others.

  4. I’m not sure you can argue most atheists out of their belief system. The openness to another paradigm usually comes from unexpected experiences, not logical arguments. For those of us who have had these experiences, it is a wonderful thing, an experience akin to discovering a sixth sense. All I try to do is describe my experience and hope that others have similar experiences.

  5. Geoff I think that’s true of all deep beliefs that are almost paradigms in how they function. This is also why I’m skeptical that it’s controversial history that drives some out of the church. I’m sure they have an effect but there are so many who know the same facts who don’t leave. It suggests something different emotionally and cognitively going on.

  6. I have become a direct recipient of suffering and can therefore speak first hand on the topic, not in the blaming of God but in the fact that God showed himself to me in the only way you can know anything in this life, while I was suffering. I wont trade it for the world because I know my calling and election are sure as a consequence of that suffering. My salvation was dependent on my reaction to that suffering.

    Such as death, among other things, the fear of the horrible prevents us from entering into God’s presence. I for one embrace it having learned more in that trial than I could have learned in a lifetime of sermons.

    Too bad that professor holds such a common and misconceived view of what suffering actually is.

  7. That poor guy. There’s so often such deep disappointment and existential fear percolating in those overly precious New Atheist posturings that when I read them I hear sadness rather than sense. I’m aware that this will sound pompous and regret that. I don’t want to be pompous. I think it’s better for us believers to hear what is shared with such unbelievers (worry and anxiety and occasional feelings of betrayal or inconstancy, a yearning for something better) than to see rhetorical outbursts as an assault. It’s difficult not to feel a little gall in the back of the throat when there’s such a hard edge to it, but I’m working to hear and even honor their sadness. (And to acknowledge my failings as a believer, which almost certainly have contributed to some of the sadness and anger.)

    (On an historical note, you have to sort of love the perhaps accidental resonance with the old salamander letter trope in his comparison of limb regeneration.)

  8. It’s interesting that self-described “scientific” atheists don’t allow the possibility that God is “hiding” in one or more of the higher dimensions described by some advanced theories of physics.


    “One notable feature of string theories is that these theories require extra dimensions of spacetime for their mathematical consistency. In bosonic string theory, spacetime is 26-dimensional, while superstring theory is 10-dimensional and supergravity theory 11-dimensional. In order to describe real physical phenomena using string theory, one must therefore imagine scenarios in which these extra dimensions would not be observed in experiments.” (Emphasis mine.)

    So….. String theory physicists can imagine unobserved scenarios, but apparantly atheists can’t.

  9. Carl Sagan teaches how to imagine a 4th physical dimension here:

    Soooo…. What if Heavenly Father (ie, exalted beings) is a four-dimensional being, or a 3 dimensional being who can access higher dimensions?

    If there are 10 or 11 or 26 dimensions of space-time, are any of them dimensions of _time_ as opposed to a spacial dimension? Anyway, a being who encompasses, or accesses those “upper” dimensions would appear to be omni-present and infinitely multi-tasking to beings who are limited to lower dimensions of space and time.

    We should thank string-theorists and M-theorists. They have given us a scientific tool that gives us a new manner to contemplate and possibly better understand our God.

    Carl Sagan actually helped me understand Moses’ vision where he saw every particle of the Earth and all the people at once.

  10. Book, I have been thinking a lot lately about how to fit what we read in the scriptures and Church history into the idea that other beings exist on other dimensions, and I can’t completely wrap my mind around it, but it seems to become increasingly plausible.

  11. If there’s anything we need to condemn, it’s people who spend their lives helping others, but who do it for mistaken reasons. There’s just nothing worse than “delusional” charity that demonstrably makes thousands of peoples lives better.

  12. Jimbob: but they say Christians are evil, because Crusades, and because slavery/racism. All the while neglecting the approx 10 million, 20 million, and 30 million killed by atheists Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, respectively.

    In regards to modern western atheists, i recommend reading, Thought Prison, by Dr Bruce Charlton. Available low cost at Amazon, and for free at

    Geoff: after watching Sagan’s Flatland video, I then sort of understood, or could sort-of envision a scenario, in which Moses “stepped up” to the fourth physical/spacial dimension and could “look down” and see all the particles of the 3d earth at once.

    If one could “step up” to the 2nd dimension of time and then “look down” on the one-dimensional time-time, one could theoretically see both the past and the future at once.

    Einstein said that time is merely the fourth dimension of space. So “space-time” might actually replace our concept of time and space being separate things. By “going up” two dimensions at once, such a vantage point might then give both: a) the picture of past and future as all one “now”, and b) the ability to see “inside” 3d objects as we now see “inside” a 2 dimensional boundary by looking down at a map on a table.

    Einstein and quantum physicists really make a good case for Mormon cosmology, in my opinion.

  13. Bookslinger I think the atheist’s main point isn’t that God couldn’t exist but that they think he doesn’t exist given the evidence they see around. This is why religious experience is so important to ground our beliefs in God.

  14. I would characterize the New Atheists as demanding God come down to their level to prove Himself, when His plan is for them to come up to His level of their own free will and choice.

    (I should make clear my understanding of what a New Atheist is. I have several friends who characterize themselves as atheists, but most, if pressed, will acknowledge that they’re more like agnostics who are fond of Occam’s Razor. While some actively disagree with religious teachings, they aren’t actually hostile to religion per se. The New Atheists are the other kind.)

  15. Clark, what you describe is an agnostic, not an atheist. An agnostic may say they are not convinced, but the atheist is convinced. He has already made up his mind and come to a conclusion.

  16. When the idea that “there cannot be a God or He wouldn’t let bad things happen” is postulated, I start thinking about what we understand about God. As Latter-day Saints, we believe He desires us to become like Him. Well, we often hear that eternally, we will be relieved of pain and suffering. I am trying to understand what this really means. Much of pain and suffering can be caused by our relationships with those we care about. I have a difficult time imagining that even as an eternal being, I wouldn’t feel sorrow at the pain and bad decisions of those I love. And indeed, we believe in a “God who weeps.” It makes one wonder if part of our experience here on earth is to learn how to be strong enough to deal with these pains and to become more like our “God who weeps.” Those of us who are parents know that it is an experience that comes with it’s share of sorrows. A Heavenly Father who loves His children also experiences sorrows. But, how is this so if He is in a perfect existence? I believe that in allowing pains to come to us, it affirms there is a God who wants us to become like Him.

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