In part 1, we saw that Mormonism spanks Christianity in the evidence department. It has far more voluminous, recent, and reliable information. The Christian apologists’ arguments work against them since they apply even more strongly to Mormonism.
The other side of the story
Still, I’m not quite ready to convert. Mormonism has its own problems.
- The populating of America. The Book of Mormon (BoM) says that the Americas were populated by immigrants from the Ancient Near East, beginning in about 2500 BCE, in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel. Anthropologists say that, no, the first immigrants actually came from Siberia at least 10,000 years ago.
- Connection between early Americans and ANE? If modern American Indians were the descendants of these immigrants, we should see a genetic and (to a lesser extent) a linguistic connection between American Indians and cultures of the ancient Near East. We don’t.
- Anachronisms. The BoM refers to things that didn’t exist in the Americas at that time. For example: “They became exceedingly rich—having all manner of fruit, and of grain, and of silks, and of fine linen, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things; and also all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep, and of swine, and of goats, and also many other kinds of animals which were useful for the food of man. And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants.” (Ether 9:16–19). The italicized items were not present in the Americas at this time. Other anachronisms include barley, wheat, steel, chariots, the compass, and glass windows.
- Plagiarism. The BoM appears to have been plagiarized in part from several contemporary books, the King James Bible, and the Apocrypha. The idea that God would choose to give his message to founder Joseph Smith in King James English rather than contemporary English also suggests that the story is fiction.
- Bogus translation. The Book of Abraham, a “translation” from an Egyptian papyrus, has been shown by modern experts to be fraudulent. Though historians don’t have the golden plates, they do have much of the original papyrus, and it’s not at all what Smith claimed it to be.
It gets worse
Using “seer stones,” magical stones that would become transparent to reveal some truth, to find treasure was popular in his day, and Smith was an enthusiastic participant. He used seer stones in a hat to find treasure, the same technique he would later use to translate the BoM. For this, he was brought into court at age 20 (it’s unclear whether the charge was divination or fraud).
Close to 4000 changes have been made to the BoM since its original publication in 1830. Many are trivial, but some change the theology. For example, the original BoM used the phrase “white and delightsome” to refer to the skin of good people and said that God darkened the skin of bad people (see 2 Nephi 5:21 and 30:6). When that was no longer PC, the language was softened.
When the church’s teaching of polygamy became an obstacle to statehood, the church president received a “divine revelation” that declared that their unchanging god had changed his mind. That’s quite a comedown for a book that Joseph Smith declared to be “the most correct of any book on earth.”
The obvious explanation besides the official Mormon one is that Joseph Smith was a treasure hunter caught up in the religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening. He applied his interest in divination to his interest in Christianity, and a new religion was born. In those fervent times, his religion found fertile soil.
What have we learned from Mormonism? Rule #1.
If you want to start a new religion, the basics apply. Don’t tell your friends, as L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, did: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” Don’t publicly use a particular divination technique, as Joseph Smith did, and then later say that an angel told you how to learn divine information … coincidentally using your favorite technique.
I’ve already written about the surprising benefits of ambiguity to a religion’s longevity (“How to Invent a Plausible God”).
Finally, let’s return to the observation we began with: that predicting the end of the world precisely and unambiguously is embarrassing when that date passes without catastrophe. Conclusion: don’t be precise.
That’s the problem with the elaborate history of Mormonism. It makes too many specific claims. Joseph Smith was able to get away with most of them, but references to steel, silk, horses, and other anachronisms make the church’s history easily debunked.
(Do Mormon apologists have snappy answers for most of these? Sure, but they don’t convince non-Mormons. Similarly, Christian apologists have elaborate arguments and snappy rebuttals of their own, but they also don’t convince skeptics. New Christians rarely convert because of good intellectual arguments.)
Note how much better Christianity does. It wins because it’s vague and untestable. Its lack of evidence becomes an advantage.
Mormon claims can be tested (and they’re found wanting), but Christianity’s claims can’t even be tested. Neither is a solid basis for a belief system.
The book [of Mormon] is a curiosity to me.
It is such a pretentious affair and yet so slow, so sleepy,
such an insipid mess of inspiration.
It is chloroform in print.
— Mark Twain
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