“The more I think about it, the more I come to realize that trinitarians are closet atheists because God doesn't exist in any real way for them. It's just an abstraction.” BCSpace, Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board, 5 Aug. 2011.
“An ‘immaterial’ non-existant God who doesn’t have a body is the very definition of Athieism.” Zakuska, Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board, 22 Sept. 2011.
Are these opinions isolated to a couple of extremists, or are they representative of a significant tradition of Mormon criticism of orthodox Christianity? The latter is in fact the case.
The roots of this line of argument against orthodox Christianity are in Joseph Smith’s teaching. In an undated statement, probably from about 1842 or 1843, Joseph Smith is reported to have said, “That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 2007, 42). Notice that the recent Teachings manual, published by the LDS Church as a curriculum, includes this statement.
Although Joseph Smith did not label orthodox Christians as atheists, his statement did imply that they worship nothing. Very soon thereafter Mormons would expand on Joseph’s criticism and argue that orthodox Christianity is a form of atheism. In 1845, the year after Joseph’s death, the LDS publication Prophet published an article, which B. H. Roberts later attributed to its editor, LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt:
“O sectarianism! O atheism! O annihilation!!! Who can perceive the nice shades of difference between the one and the other? They seem alike all but in name. The atheist has no God. The sectarian has a God without body or parts. Who can define the difference? for our part we do not perceive a difference of a single hair; they both claim to be the negative of all things which exist—and both are equally powerless and unknown.” Quoted in B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity (1903; reprint, Bountiful, UT: Horizon, n.d.), 255.
Later that same year a Mormon letter to the editor of Times and Seasons quoted with approval the following statement from Thomas Jefferson:
“To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothing. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is not God, no angels, no soul.” Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, quoted in Times and Seasons, 15 July 1845.
The editorial comment that followed the letter affirmed the legitimacy of Jefferson’s criticism of orthodox Christianity:
“So it seems that the immortal (Thomas Jefferson) was so much of a Saint or Mormon, that God knew he was a (wise man), and raised him up on purpose to prepare the way for breaking to pieces Nebuchadnezzar's image of governments, priests, misrule, confusion and false religion!”
The most influential and in-depth articulation of this criticism came just four years later from LDS apostle Orson Pratt, Parley’s brother. It is a central claim in his 1849 pamphlet, Absurdities of Immaterialism:
There are two classes of Atheists in the world. One class denies the existence of God in the most positive language: the other denies his existence in duration or space. One says, ‘There is no God;’ the other says, ‘God is not here or there, any more than he exists now and then.’ The infidel says, God does not exist anywhere. The Immaterialist says, ‘He exists nowhere.’ The infidel says, There is no such substance as God. The Immaterialist says, There is such a substance as God, but it is ‘without parts.’ The atheist says, There is no such substance as Spirit. The Immaterialist says, ‘A spirit, though he lives and acts, occupies no room, and fills no space, in the same way and in the same manner as matter, not even so much as does the minutest grain of sand.’ The Atheist does not seek to hide his infidelity: but the Immaterialist, whose declared belief amounts to the same thing as the Atheist’s, endeavors to hide his infidelity under the shallow covering of a few words.
…Nothing, and nothing only, is a representative of that which has no relation to space or time—that is, unextended, indivisible, and without parts. Therefore, the Immaterialist is a religious Atheist; he only differs from the other class of Atheists, by clothing an indivisible unextended NOTHING with the powers of a god. One class believes in no God; the other believes that NOTHING is god, and worships it as such. There is no twisting away from this. The most profound philosopher in all the ranks of modern Christianity, cannot extricate the Immaterialists from atheism. He cannot show the least difference between the idea represented by the word nothing, and the idea represented by that which is unextended, indivisible, and without parts, having no relation to space or time. All the philosophers of the universe could not give a better or more correct definition of Nothing. And yet this is the god worshipped by the Church of England—the Methodists—and millions of other atheistical idolators, according to their own definitions, as recorded in their respective articles of faith. An open Atheist is not so dangerous as the Atheist who couches his atheistical doctrines under the head of ‘ARTICLES OF RELIGION.’ The first stands out with open colours, and boldly avows his infidelity; the latter, under the sacred garb of religion, draws into his yawning vortex, the unhappy millions who are persuaded to believe in, and worship an unextended indivisible nothing without parts, deified into a god. A pious Atheist is much more serviceable in building up the kingdom of darkness than one who openly, and without any deception, avows his infidelity….
There is no more absurdity in calling Nothing a substance, and clothing it with Almighty powers, than there is in making a substance out of that which is precisely like nothing, and imagining it to have Almighty powers. Therefore, an immaterial god is a deified Nothing, and all his worshippers are atheistic idolaters.
Orson Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism (Liverpool, 1849), 11-12.
A lengthy quotation from the above section of Pratt’s pamphlet was included in James E. Talmage’s extremely popular and influential book The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1899), originally as appendix 2:9 (see, e.g., the 1924 ed., 465). Talmage quoted Pratt in support of Talmage’s own statement:
“We affirm that to deny the materiality of God’s person is to deny God; for a thing without parts has no whole, and an immaterial body cannot exist” (1924 ed., 48).
Talmage’s The Articles of Faith, published by the LDS Church, was commissioned by the LDS Church as a doctrinal curriculum. It was therefore indisputably an official publication of the LDS Church, and remained so for nearly a century (see David J. Whittaker, “Articles of Faith,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, Macmillan, 1992, 69). Pratt’s assessment of orthodox Christians as religious atheists, then, endorsed by Talmage in a book commissioned and published by the LDS Church as a basic doctrinal curriculum textbook, rose to the level of an official doctrinal teaching of the LDS Church, at least for most of the twentieth century. The influence of Talmage’s book and of the specific quotation from Pratt is exemplified in the following Mormon blogger’s article from 2006:
“And although it is not politically correct to point it out, traditional Christianity is a form of atheism for much the same reason. If they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God literally, they also do not believe that God exists literally. Rather he is an incorporeal God. This point was driven home to me by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost when I was first investigating the Mormon faith during my junior year of high school in 1962. I was profoundly enlightened while reading The Articles of Faith, by James E. Talmage, when I came across this teaching of Orson Pratt in the footnotes to the chapter on the nature of the God-head. To this day, it is one of the most important paragraphs of written English I have ever read…. [gives quotation from Pratt as found in Talmage] Of course, there is little difference between believing there is no God, and believing in a God that is nothing. Do traditional Christians really believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Well… not really. They believe it only in a figurative or poetic sense. Do they really believe that there is a God? Well… not really. They believe in an incorporeal God, or in other words, a God that does not really exist in any meaningful sense of that word. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God only in literary or poetic sense. And they believe in the existence of God only in a mystical, incomprehensible sense.” John W. Redelfs, “There are two classes of atheists in this world,” 19 April 2006.
B. H. Roberts was another influential LDS leader contemporary with Talmage who shared Pratt’s view, as the following quotation demonstrates:
“To assert the immateriality of God as substance, is not only to deny his personality, but his very existence; for an immaterial substance cannot exist. It can have no relation to time or space, no form, no extension, no parts. An immaterial substance is simply no substance at all; it is a contradiction of terms to say a substance is immaterial—it is the description of an infinite vacuum; and the difference between the atheist and the orthodox Christian is one of terms, not of fact; the former says, ‘There is no God;’ the latter in his creed says, ‘God is nothing.’” B. H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History: A Textbook (1893; Classics in Mormon Literature, Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1979), 192. (Roberts then quotes Pratt with approval, 194.)
Twentieth-century Mormon leaders echoed these criticisms of orthodox Christianity. For example, Heber C. Iverson made the following statement at General Conference in 1920:
“....Thomas Jefferson expressed himself in a letter to his distinguished friend, John Adams, in this wise, ‘When we speak of an immaterial existence, we speak of nothing; when we say that God, angels, and the human soul are immaterial, we say there is no God, no angels, no human soul.’ I cannot reason otherwise. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism or veiled atheism crept in, I do not know, but heresy it truly is.”—Heber C. Iverson, Conference Report, April 1920, 84.
Iverson’s statement has been quoted recently, for example, by Kerry A. Shirts in his online article, “There Is No Immaterial God in the Bible nor Mormonism” (which also quotes Roberts on the same point with approval).
Bruce R. McConkie, in the now sometimes maligned, sometimes respected reference work Mormon Doctrine, expressed the same opinion:
“…those who profess belief in the sectarian God are in a position at least akin to atheism for their God is defined in effect as an immaterial nothing.” Bruce R. McConkie, “Atheism,” in Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Bookcraft, 1966), 59.
McConkie goes on to quote Orson Pratt’s statement above with approval.
The evidence surveyed here proves that Mormons throughout LDS Church history, beginning a year after Joseph Smith’s death, have repeatedly asserted that the orthodox Christian view of God as immaterial spirit is a form of atheism or tantamount to atheism. The Pratt brothers, Roberts, and Talmage made this a standard, even (through Talmage’s Articles of Faith) official, view of the LDS Church through at least most of the twentieth century.
Edited by Rob Bowman, 22 September 2011 - 09:53 AM.