As surprising as it might seem, one of the reasons I am not an atheist is exactly the same as one of the reasons I am not a Mormon: neither atheism nor Mormon theology are compatible with the knowledge of God which is available through the use of reason. As it turns out, the philosophical defense of the knowledge of God’s existence from the criticisms of atheism also rules out the possibility of Mormon theology.
One of the most common retorts that the materialist atheist offers to Christian arguments for God is, “Well, then, where did God come from?” This is offered in response to the theistic argument that the material universe needs an explanation. “But if the universe needs an explanation, doesn’t God need an explanation too?” is the counterargument. However, the atheist retort misses the mark, at least when aimed at classical theists, because it misconceives the nature of God and the nature of the Christian claim that the universe needs an explanation.
In short, the universe needs an explanation not simply because it exists, but rather because it exists without the properties of a self-existent being. Although a full explication of the argument would take more than a blog post, briefly, the classical argument runs thus: the universe is not the kind of thing that can explain itself. We know this because it does not possess the properties that a necessary (self-existent) being must have. However, we know that there must be a necessary being, because reality does in fact exist around us. The universe is not a necessary being, so there must be a necessary being on which the universe depends. This being we call God.
God is a being whose essence and existence are identical, whereas for everything else existence and essence are distinct. That is to say, God does not depend on his existence, as we do and the universe does. Instead, God is existence. As the ultimate reality, God must be radically different than the universe. The universe is contingent, God is not. The universe is complex, God is simple. The universe changes, God is impassable. The universe depends on God in order to be; God depends on nothing. (Read more about this argument here and here. Also, apropos, note that this does not rule out God’s existence as Personal — or Trinitarian– being nor does it rule out the truth that He has a Fatherly relationship towards us, communicated through revelation.)
Mormon theology, however, has a radically different conception of God than that found in classical theism or traditional Christianity. Here’s what the LDS website has to say about God and creation, for instance:
Under the direction of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ created the heavens and the earth (see Mosiah 3:8; Moses 2:1). From scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, we know that in the work of the Creation, the Lord organized elements that had already existed (see Abraham 3:24). He did not create the world “out of nothing,” as some people believe.
Mormons do indeed identify God as the “Supreme Creator,” but they mean this differently than Catholics do. Where Catholics view God as the absolute Being Who creates both by calling and holding absolutely everything else in existence, the Mormon view holds that God is another existing thing himself, embedded, so to speak, in a higher reality on which he, like us, depends. Though he serves as the “Creator” in the sense that he shapes and forms reality around him, He is not the source of existence itself, as in classical theism.
Interestingly, while Mormonism rejects as “intrusion of Greek philosophical categories” the philosophical arguments that are natural to Catholic thought, Mormon doctrine is actually ontologically closer to ancient Greek polytheistic theology than it is to traditional Christian monotheistic theology. Rather than the radical monotheism and absolute transcendentalism of God as conceived in Judaism and historical Christianity, Mormons envision a God who is literally of the same order of being as man – indeed, a God who, like us, exists as flesh and bone within a larger reality, a universe both he and we are part of.
Likewise, there is an ontological affinity between Mormonism and materialist atheism when both are compared to classical theism. Classical theism insists that whatever the ultimate reality is, it must be ultimately simple in its essence, and not dependent or contingent upon anything else at all. Ultimate reality is thus God. Both Mormon theology and atheism, however, posit that a complex and contingent reality of space, matter, time, and living beings just exists as the ultimate reality. Where materialist atheism just accepts a universe composed of energy, matter, space, time, and the laws that govern them as given, Mormonism similarly just accepts a given reality composed of spirits, time, space, matter, and so forth.
In the end, then, both Mormon theology and atheism have this common element: both view ultimate reality as a complex of many things that just exist without explanation, whereas Catholicism views ultimate reality as being grounded in one simple, transcendent necessary being — God.
Atheists of course reject the classical reason-based arguments, often in favor of a philosophy of scientism. Mormons reject them as well, adopting a form of what Catholics would identify as fideism. Catholicism, on the other hand, recognizes reason as a proper gift of God, and believes that the ultimate truths of God’s revelation — even when they go beyond reason — are wholly compatible with reason, and do not contradict it.
(As I know there are Mormon readers of this blog, please feel welcome to comment if you feel so inclined — especially if you would like to clarify any LDS doctrines I have mentioned. This post is offered in a spirit of respectful recognition of real differences. I’m also interested in how Mormons respond to the atheist argument presented at the beginning of the post.)