“Answering New Atheism and Seeking a Sure Knowledge of God”

“Answering New Atheism and Seeking a Sure Knowledge of God” January 11, 2023


Cornell U. today
On the campus of Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York
(Wikimedia CC image by Stilfehler at wikivoyage)


Up today on the website of the Interpreter Foundation:  “Conference Talks: Answering New Atheism and Seeking a Sure Knowledge of God,” given by Amy L. Williams

In these remarks, which were delivered in 2013, Dr. Williams describes and counters the arguments of the “New Atheism,” a loose movement that some have characterized as espousing the belief that religion should be actively countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument. She also describes the role of faith and verifiability in scientific inquiry and in Latter-day Saint theology.




I recently read a book by a Protestant evangelist named Richard Sigmund, who died permanently in 2010:  Richard Sigmund, My Time in Heaven (New Kensington, PA: Whittaker House, 2004).  It’s the kind of book on near-death experiences that I don’t like because I can’t trust it.  It’s simply too much.  Too neat.  Too full.  The narrative is too long and too detailed.  And there’s too obviously a potential for self-aggrandizement in it.  (I never read Betty Eadie’s phenomenally successful Embraced by the Light for pretty much that reason, despite spending time with her and a few others in a mutual friend’s house on the very weekend that her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.)  There were, though, some elements in it that I liked.  Here are a few quotations:

I can’t explain it.  I can only tell you what I saw.  And language fails.  It really is indescribable: the sights, the sounds, the sizes, the colors, the smells.  How can on describe a place called heaven?

I remember knowing things there that I can’t remember now — or am not supposed to remember.  I was allowed to see many things, but there was much more that I was not allowed to see.

Many others have had similar experiences of heaven, and some of the things they saw were the same as what I saw.  Others were not.  And if you were shown a place call heaven, you would see different things, too.  Everybody who has an experience like this is going to see it differently.  Many of the things that I saw and witnessed would probably not be the things that another person would see because we are each individuals, and God deals with us in individual ways.  (13)

So far so good.  What Sigmund writes in the passage above seems plausible to me, and familiar from what others have reported.  (Learning things during the experience that he cannot later recall [as above, and at 31, 36, 63, 64, 86, 104]But I’m not sure that he himself really had the experience that he claims.  (I notice that the frequency with which I mark passages in his book decreases as I go further into it, and as my skepticism increases.)

I had been driving down the road in my van, but all of a sudden, I was in a veil.  It was like a thick cloud. . . .

Behind me, I could hear people talking.  They were only a few inches away.  There were sirens.  Lots of noise.  And I heard the words, “He’s dead.”

A force was drawing me through a glory cloud, and on the other side of the cloud I could hear people singing.  There was laughter with great joy, and I was in total peace.  (16)

Again, his account sounds believable to me.  So does this, which reminds me rather curiously of the Latter-day Saint temple experience:

The veil extended as far to the left and right as I could see.  I had the impression that it was hundreds of miles long in each direction.  And every few feet, there was a path leading into heaven.  Everyone who came through the veil had a path unique for him or her.  And I had a path — the path was for me.  (20)

The idea that children who die in infancy will remain infants, to be raised by their mothers in the next world (18), is reminiscent of the teaching of Joseph Smith.

Sigmund’s claim that nobody arrives in heaven alone (19)) is something upon which the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross insisted.

His references to foliage of indescribable colors and astonishing vitality (e.g., at 22-23, 124) resonate with similar references in scores of other accounts.

He speaks of “travel at the speed of thought” (26; compare 84), as Brigham Young (who had his own near-death experience) also did.

He also speaks of great enhanced sensory perception (e.g., at 62), which is fairly commonly reported in other near-death accounts.

And he claims to have seen God the Father in enormous but clearly anthropomorphic form.  (I’m currently reading a book by the Catholic biblical scholar Mark Smith — How Human is God? — who specifically discusses the enormous “cosmic body” of God reported by some biblical writers and mystics.

I liked this part of his description of “the other place” (clearly, Hell), which accords nicely with Latter-day Saint views:

There was no one there who was not old enough to know what sin was.  There were no babies.  (117)

So I’m left wondering whether Sigmund really had the experience that he describes (which I doubt), whether he made it up based upon the accounts of others, or whether, perhaps, a real core experience undergirds the book — but one that he greatly embroidered for publication.  I simply don’t trust the book, and would never build anything substantial solely on the basis of what Sigmund says.




Some of you might find this of interest:  “The War in Ukraine and the Book of Mormon: If President Zelenskyy sought guidance from a sacred text, would Ukraine capitulate or continue the fight?”




In yesterday’s blog entry, I quoted a 2016 article from Fox News according to which  “[John] Dehlin calls himself a liberal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are collectively referred to as Mormons.”  I’m being criticized, though, for closing that blog entry with a passing and oblique reference to the Mr. Dehlin of 2016 as a “purported Latter-day Saint.”  I’m alleged to be engaging in the contemptible practice, which is alleged to be common among still-believing members of my Church, of denigrating, demeaning, defaming, and dismissing people who have left the Church, of retrojecting their loss of faith into their past and falsely claiming that they were never really believers in the first place.

But this is not the situation with regard to my comment about John Dehlin, and I’m more than happy to call the attention of any readers that I might have here to documentation that will serve to flesh out what I meant.  I was aware of this material already in early 2012, and it was made fully available to the general public in 2017:

“Gregory L. Smith’s Review of “Mormon Stories””

I dunno.  It seems to me that somebody who publicly declares that there is probably no God, who is publicly agnostic as to even the mere historical existence of an actual Jesus of Nazareth, who publicly asserts that the concept of a redeeming divine atonement is nonsense (to choose just three illustrative items) may, arguably, not be a believer.  And if that person has also been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as, in fact, John Dehlin was in 2015) it seems pretty accurate to describe him as being (in 2016) a “purported Latter-day Saint.”  Mr. Dehlin was no longer “a liberal member of the Church” in 2016.  In fact, even calling him a “nominal Latter-day Saint” during that period simply wouldn’t have been accurate.


ETA:  The Fox News article that I cite above is dated very specifically to “April 8, 2016 6:32pm EDT.”  But it was apparently published originally in 2011.  That obviously doesn’t affect my “three illustrative items” at all, which are sufficient in and of themselves to make my point.  The article describing Mr. Dehlin as “a liberal member of the Church”did, in fact, appear (though evidently not for the first time) in 2016.




Finally, here are a couple of stories that I’ve drawn from the Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File©:

“Church Donates Mammography Digitizer to Fight Breast Cancer in Uruguay”

“Mother and Son Experience ‘True Joy’ Fostering Self-Reliance in African Refugee Camp: “We loved God, and we loved our neighbor,” said Charity Ramos”

I hope that they provide some delicious and much-needed horror for those among my readers who live to be outraged by theists and Latter-day Saints and by theism more broadly.



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