On The Dangers Of Fideism


Last night, as I was home alone, the door bell rang. I opened the front door to greet the two young smartly-dressed gentlemen. They introduced themselves as missionaries from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormons). Interacting with Mormon missionaries is a rare treat for me. I’m currently abroad, working in Seattle, and Mormonism is far less prevalent in the U.K. than it is in the U.S. Imagine, then, their surprise when I invited them to join me in the living room to talk about their faith. Imagine their still further surprise when I reached for my Book of Mormon and Bible. We discussed a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on the nature of God and salvation. One of them, I learned, was a former Buddhist who had recently converted to Mormonism. The other was a life-long Mormon. Over the course of our conversation, I asked them, as I do with representatives of any alternative religion, why they believed their religion to be true. As an evidentialist, I explained, I was open to listening to what they had to say — but expected propositional truth-claims to be substantiated with arguments and evidence. After all, without such intellectual justification, is one’s choice of worldview not merely reduced to an arbitrary matter of taste?

Giving a few examples, I asked them whether it concerned them that archaeology has completely devastated any pretense of the Book of Mormon to any divine source. Whereas the Bible undeniably describes established geography and known historical figures and civilizations (regardless of what one thinks about its claimed divine inspiration), the Book of Mormon is almost entirely set in fantasy land, with no connection whatsoever to real geography or history. Unable to defend the Book of Mormon’s veracity on multiple fronts (historical or theological), they fell back on the typical Mormon rejoinder to serious intellectual challenge. If you pray and inquire of God about the truth of the Book of Mormon, you receive a burning in your bosom — and that’s how you know it’s true. Presumably, the implication is that if you don’t receive the promised burning-in-the-bosom experience, your faith simply wasn’t strong enough. On the other hand, a positive result in this experiment is probably a consequence of a well-documented natural phenomenon known as the placebo effect. With these problems, the “test” offered by my Mormon partners in discourse was hardly a compelling gauge for truth.

Nonetheless, this sequence of events has occurred routinely in all of my relatively few interactions with Mormons – every single one of them. When faced with mounting evidence against the truth of Mormonism, their fall-back is consistently their existential experience — an “evidence” that is not only subjective, but which conveniently cannot be objectively verified by independent investigators. By framing their worldview in this untestable — non-falsifiable — manner, they essentially remove it from the intellectual chopping block. What cannot be, even in principle, dis-confirmed by evidence, however, can hardly be confirmed by evidence.

My encounter with the Mormon missionaries raises a bigger question: Do we, as Christians, have more robust intellectual justification for belief than Mormons do? Or is our choice between them (and the numerous other available options) an election for the religion which makes us feel better?

All religions claim some kind of ‘spiritual experience’. While I certainly do not wish to downplay the importance of such ‘spiritual experiences’ (indeed, as a Christian, I think a genuine relationship with God is not only important but essential), I have grown increasingly skeptical of their use as a rationale for belief. After all, who is to objectively arbitrate between the claimed ‘spiritual experiences’ of the different religions? It seems to me that, when we do apologetics, we need to appeal to publicly available evidence that is objectively verifiable by independent parties. Although I would be inclined to count such experiences as part of the evidence, it also seems to me that emphasis should be placed on the objective over the subjective evidence.

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