I had a meeting on Friday with 3 Mormon missionaries at a mission-house.
I had such a good time I almost feel guilty writing about it. Don't get me wrong, they had a good time as well, and they've asked me back next week (I'm going to try to make it). I mostly talked with 3 missionaries, but some elders walked by a few times and said, "that's a really good question!"
I definitely learned a few things from the encounter. First, I was impressed with the way that they tried to control the social pressure of the room. For example, I was hammering on how they thought that they could gain knowledge by faith. And after a while, they asked very solemnly, whether I would be willing to get down on my knees with them and pray to Heavenly Father to see if I would get an answer to my questions.
I knew that once we were going down that sideshow we weren't coming back. Another time, one of the missionaries was talking about how a friend of hers didn't go with some other friends of hers because the Holy Ghost was giving her a bad feeling about the trip. And then two of those friends ended up dying in a car crash that night. It was a very emotional story, and it was a delicate situation to explain why I wasn't compelled by that example. I essentially said that her friend did not have knowledge of a car accident, otherwise her friend would have called her other friends and warned them.
But the biggest breakthrough to me came from when we were circling back on arguments a few times because they were not understanding my objections to their faith as a way of knowing things.
It went something like this:
Me: I look at you Mormons, and you have a special book. And you tell me that when you read it you get a warm feeling inside. I listen to Muslims say the same thing about their book. I hear the same thing from Evangelicals, and so on. You could line up 10 people who each have a special warm feeling inside from reading their own speicial book and praying and asking if the book is God's word. Now, to a skeptic, this looks like there exist certain books that give people warm feelings inside. I believe you when you state your experience. I also believe all the other religious people as well. This suggests to me that this warm-feeling is not a very good truth detector if people can get it wrong so easily.
One way to test whether you do have a truth-detecting warm-feeling sense inside of you would be to test it out on questions that you don't know the answer to right now, but that we could find the answer to in a second via Google. And if your knowledge-generating truth-detecting warm-feeling never reliably gets the right answer to any question that you could ever check to see if it was right, you might have just discovered a new way of fooling yourself, not a new way of gaining knowledge.
Them: It does give verifiable knowledge to things that we don't know the answer to.
Me: All right, you choose the subject matter and I'll choose the question. Historical? What year was Mozart born? Mathematical? What is 1.20143^37 ? Personal? What is my license number?
Them: But are those questions really important to you? Why would you really care about the answer to those?
Me: The answers are not important. Not at all. If you could reliably answer the questions that I could come up with it would show that you have an utterly NEW WAY OF GAINING TRUE KNOWLEDGE! That is enormous. That is huge!
Them: But if we could answer those questions, would you then have faith?
Me: I'll put it this way. You start answering the questions that I'm asking correctly, we have made a huge first step. You have a chance of convincing me that you aren't just talking to yourself when you pray, which is what it looks like to me. Why? Because God never tells you anything that you don't already know.
Them: Yes he does, there was a guy in Africa once who...
Me: Look, I know you have your stories and anecdotes of people who gained knowledge somehow. I can't argue with a story. All I know is that there is a 100% failure rate for any person of faith to ever get an answer any of the questions I ever ask them. Every person of every single faith fails identically to the simplest challenge I can throw at them. You have to admit that from my viewpoint, it looks pretty bad.
Them: No. I totally get what you're saying and what you're having problems with...
I didn't realize before how important it was to emphasize the point that the questions that I ask to test whether their warm-feeling detector can give a right answer, is to check the detector!
Anyway, afterward they bought me a delicious lunch, and we parted ways with smiles all around.
Look forward to future Mormon Lunch meeting updates from me!