Helium and the Great Debate: Theism vs. Atheism


The Great Debate: Atheism vs. Theism

On the website Quora the other day, I was asked to answer a question about who would win a debate between a deist (a “type” of theist) and an atheist. Here is a link to my full answer. (Throughout this post, I won’t differentiate between deists and theists, as the distinction is irrelevant to my topic.)

In summary, I answered that “the Deist hasn’t seen God, so he’s basing his premise of the existence of God on something other than what the atheist would consider to be objective, empirical evidence. The atheist can’t prove the negative premise of God’s non-existence.”

In comments to my answer, some people pointed to a principle of debate that I had heard before, though I have never formally participated in debate: that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. In other words, the atheist is at an advantage in the debate, because he doesn’t have to prove anything; it is the deist that has to prove that God exists, not the atheist that has to prove that God doesn’t exist. The assumption is that unless the presenter of the claim can produce compelling, objective evidence, the claim is unreliable or false.

This, of course, puts the theist at a disadvantage, because, as I mentioned, there isn’t what many would consider to be objective, scientific evidence for the existence of God.

But does that mean that the atheist is right?

I think that a possible answer lies in recognizing the inherent limits of science, as illustrated in the story of the discovery of the element Helium.

The Discovery of Helium


During the recent excitement over the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017, I learned of the discovery of Helium. Helium appeared as a previously unwitnessed, yellow line in a spectral reading of the sun’s light taken during a total eclipse in 1868. Read more about it here. Having been discovered in observation of the sun, the previously unknown element was named after Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology.

Does Helium exist? Any atheist who accepts common, scientific knowledge would debate that it does. There is a preponderance of objective, scientific evidence … now.

But in 1867, who would have won a debate over the question of whether an element with the chemical constitution of Helium existed upon earth?

The skeptic.

It wasn’t because Helium didn’t exist. It was simply because it wasn’t part of the body of scientific knowledge at that time. Dimitri Meldeleev didn’t even begin work on the periodic table of elements until 1869. The positive claimant would have lost because of the absence of objective, scientific proof for the existence of Helium.

Helium did exist. After its initial appearance in the spectral analysis, not only did subsequent experiments prove that Helium was a previously undiscovered element, but that it was also present on earth, and is the second-most abundant element in the universe, second only to Hydrogen.

So why would the 1867 debaters have come to the “wrong” conclusion?

The Limits of Human Knowledge

Is there an inherent problem with debate that the claim that the burden of proof rests upon the claimant?

No. For the sake of debate, it’s a pretty good rule that, for the most part, puts the debaters on an even playing field.

But just because someone would win a debate about a point doesn’t make that point true, even setting aside the variable skill differences between the debaters, and the consideration that the non-existence of God is an unprovable claim in and of itself.

Debate between humans is limited to the collective knowledge of the time. Human knowledge will always be limited, even scientific knowledge, which actively expands the gamut of the body of human knowledge. May it ever continue to expand. But despite its growth, it will still be continually changing and limited.

My Testimony

I believe that God lives. My evidence is not scientific, but I cannot ignore it in honesty. I feel as the prophet, Joseph Smith, did:

… who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny … I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it …

(Joseph Smith-History, 1:25)

Regardless of whether or not I could win a debate about it with an atheist in the eyes of the world, it doesn’t mean that my testimony is not true.


Countering the Cain Effect: Repentance as the Antidote for Self Deception

……………   Cain and Abel   …………


The Bible begins with the story of the first (dysfunctional) family, including Adam, Eve, Abel, and … the star of this show: Cain.

Why Cain?

Because there’s a little bit of Cain in all of us.

Recognizing that and dealing with it appropriately helps us to avoid turning to the dark side as he did.

This episode of Bryan’s thoughts focuses on what I like to call the Cain Effect, commonly known as self deception, and its antithesis, repentance.

The Cain Effect, Explained

Cognitive Dissonance

The Cain Effect is a fancy term for self deception. Self deception is a technique that we use to resolve cognitive dissonance (“thinking noise”). Another term for cognitive dissonance is inner conflict. Inner conflict results from recognizing that our beliefs and our actions are in conflict with one another or with our perception of reality.

We humans hate cognitive dissonance. It makes life miserable. We do many things to make it go away.


Some of the things that we do to resolve cognitive dissonance are constructive and positive. We may call that repentance. An important aspect of repentance is reconciling our behavior with our beliefs. Repentance requires honesty and humility, recognizing that we can be and often are wrong, and that (hopefully to an increasingly smaller degree) we will continue to find things within ourselves that are broken and require improvement.

Usually this reconciliation involves changing our behavior to match our beliefs. Sometimes, however, we recognize that our beliefs are incorrect, and repentance requires changing our beliefs.

Don’t think of repentance in this sense as a strictly religious action, though repentance is an integral part of religion. Anyone may repent in this way, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Self Deception

Some ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance are destructive to our souls. We may call them self deception. Self deception is a common, yet less-effective way of resolving cognitive dissonance.

Self deception is the inversion of repentance. As the term suggests, it involves lying to ourselves. It consists of changing our correct beliefs to match our incorrect behavior.

We self deceive because it does resolve a measure of cognitive dissonance. It narrows the gap between our beliefs and our behavior.

But self deception has two fatal flaws.

First, we don’t really believe it. Deep down, we still know what is really true. So in order to keep the noise down, we must continue lying to ourselves, trying to convince ourselves that we really believe what we want to believe.

One example of this process is the confession of Korihor, an anti-Christ:

But behold, the devil hath deceived me … and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success; insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth … (Alma 30:53)

We are no more honest with others than we are with ourselves, and we use the convincing of others as a tool to try to convince ourselves. As we deceive ourselves and subsequently destroy our own souls, we destroy others in the process.

Second, it just plain doesn’t work. When we try to become a law unto ourselves, controlling our environment, including the people around us, attempting to turn reality into something that it is not, reality eventually comes back around to bite us. We reap what we sow, and no amount of self deception can avoid that.

Cain: The Father of Satan’s Lies

His Story

Now let’s see how this applies to Cain. Cain … this … is your life!

(The LDS canon of scripture contains two, detailed accounts of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. The first is in the book of Genesis. The second is in an alternate version of a portion of Genesis, called the Book of Moses, which the prophet, Joseph Smith, received by revelation. Because of details important to the premise of this post, I have chosen to use the account from Moses).

And … Eve … bare Cain, and said: I have gotten a man from the Lord; wherefore he may not reject his words. But behold, Cain hearkened not, saying: Who is the Lord that I should know him?

And … Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And Cain loved Satan more than God. And Satan commanded him, saying: Make an offering unto the Lord.

And … Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel, and to his offering;

But unto Cain, and to his offering, he had not respect. Now Satan knew this, and it pleased him. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

And the Lord said unto Cain: Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen?

If thou doest well, thou shalt be accepted. And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and Satan desireth to have thee; and except thou shalt hearken unto my commandments, I will deliver thee up, and it shall be unto thee according to his desire …

For from this time forth thou shalt be the father of his lies; thou shalt be called Perdition; for thou wast also before the world.

And it shall be said in time to come—That these abominations were had from Cain; for he rejected the greater counsel which was had from God; and this is a cursing which I will put upon thee, except thou repent.

And Cain was wroth, and listened not any more to the voice of the Lord, neither to Abel, his brother, who walked in holiness before the Lord …

And Satan said unto Cain: Swear unto me by thy throat, and if thou tell it thou shalt die … and this that thy father may not know it; and this day I will deliver thy brother Abel into thine hands …

And … Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him.

And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free …

And the Lord said unto Cain: Where is Abel, thy brother? And he said: I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?

And the Lord said: What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground …

And Cain said unto the Lord … I was wroth … for his offering thou didst accept and not mine …

And Cain was shut out from the presence of the Lord …

(Moses 5:1-41)

An Analysis of the Self Deception: The Original Cain Effect in Action

Cain loved Satan more than God. One of his first, recorded lies to himself is “Who is the Lord that I should know him?”

Cain knew very well who the Lord was. His father and mother had taught him. As Eve said, “I have gotten a man from the Lord; wherefore he may not reject his words.” In the course of his story as shown above, before he killed Abel, the Lord corrected him. Cain killed Abel in full rebellion against the Lord.

Satan knew Cain. He knew that Cain was rebellious and that he did not desire to offer an acceptable offering. So, ironically, he commanded Cain to make an offering unto the Lord.

Satan can’t command the righteous because they reject his authority. As Moses later explained,

… Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me.

And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?

… Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory.

(Moses 1:12-13, 20)

Moses’ declaration to Satan, “Who art thou?” carries echoes of Cain’s declaration, “Who is the Lord?” but contrasts Moses’ faithful attitude with Cain’s self deception.

Cain made the offering. The Lord rejected Cain’s half-hearted, disobedience-laden offering of the fruit of the ground. Offerings were, by the Lord’s instruction, as Abel’s offering: “of the firstlings of [the] flock, and of the fat thereof.”

So Cain had a choice to make. He could repent, or he could rebel. He chose rebellion, becoming, according to the declaration of the Lord, the father of Satan’s lies.

Speaking of lies, let’s look at the next round of them in Cain’s murder of Abel:

And Satan said unto Cain: Swear unto me by thy throat, and if thou tell it thou shalt die … and this that thy father may not know it; and this day I will deliver thy brother Abel into thine hands …

And … Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him.

And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free …

And the Lord said unto Cain: Where is Abel, thy brother? And he said: I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?

And the Lord said: What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground …

“And this that thy father may not know it.”

Did Cain’s father discover the murder? Um, yes. And so did the Lord, because “the voice of [Abel]’s blood crie[d] unto [Him] from the ground.”

And so did the rest of the world. Abel’s murder is arguably the most famous murder in the history of the world.

That one failed miserably, didn’t it, Cain? That’s what happens when you believe the serpent whose original lie instigated the fall of mankind. Satan is self deception’s partner in crime.

Did Satan know that Adam would discover Cain’s crime? Perhaps. After all, he is a liar.

But it’s also possible that he did not. Moses also makes it clear that Satan “knew not the mind of God” when deceiving Eve. (Moses 4:6)

“I am free”

This statement lies at the heart of the Cain Effect.

Free from what?

Cain’s “confession” to the Lord holds the key: “I was wroth … for his offering thou didst accept and not mine …”

He wanted to be free from having to look at that stupid, goody-two-shoes brother of his that always reminded him that he wasn’t good enough. 

Abel was a carrier of cognitive dissonance for Cain. He had to do something about it. True to form, Cain chose rebellion over repentance, believing the falsehood that removing the reminder of his failure would bring him peace.

And for a very short time, he may have actually felt free … if you discount the searing heat of what was left of his conscience.

But quenching deafening cognitive dissonance by lying to himself, and subsequently others, was a way of life for Cain at this point, so much so that when asked “Where is Abel, thy brother?” he was able to lie to the Lord: “I know not.”

Cain didn’t know the mind of the Lord, either. How else could he have supposed that the Lord wouldn’t know what had happened to Abel and that he could lie to him? It was the same kind of vain, self deception that allowed Cain’s master, Satan, to rebel against God before the foundation of the world.

“And Cain was shut out from the presence of the Lord.”

How’s that for freedom?

Take it from the story of Cain: self deception doesn’t work.

The Cain in Each of Us

I think that we all deal with the Cain Effect to some degree. Not all of us kill someone so that we don’t have to look at them, but we do avoid reality and deceive ourselves and others in the process. We

  • run
  • hide
  • demean
  • ostracize
  • ridicule
  • ignore
  • avoid
  • coerce
  • control
  • abuse
  • etc.

Insecurity is the root of many evils. We introduce insecurity into our lives by building upon the sandy foundation of self deception. Self deception isn’t the only cause for insecurity, but it is a super-PAC-level contributor.

The Antidote

The antidote to self deception is repentance: recognizing where we are wrong, and correcting our behavior and/or beliefs appropriately – in accordance to truth.

When we can’t recognize where we are self deceiving, it helps to involve trusted friends and, if necessary, inspired mentors, leaders, and/or professionals.

And don’t forget to pray. God can inspire us to see what beliefs and behaviors cause the cognitive dissonance, guilt, and insecurity that destroy our peace.

Satan would convince us that humility is synonymous with weakness, that appearing right is more important than becoming right, and that saving face is an acceptable alternative to course correction.

Remember that Satan is a liar and that the fruits of his self deception didn’t work out for him any more than they did for Cain or for his other followers.

Jesus Christ, the only being who was ever strong enough to resist temptation for the duration of his entire mortal life, invited

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

(Matt 11:28-30)

If He that bore the weight of the sins of the world can say this his burden is light, then He must understand what it takes to quiet the storm of our cognitive dissonance. I suggest that we take Him at his word.

Now that’s freedom 🙂