The Mormon Test

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider’s Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it’s hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven’t been steeped in it.

Sometimes I’ve tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it’s easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God’s nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It’s also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier’s replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I’ve got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney’s first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you’re a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad “I Believe” from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream (“I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin”) but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America…

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn’t have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can’t take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn’t convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly (“I don’t understand how….” rather than “Bet you can’t explain…”) could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

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  • Sabio Lantz

    Fantastic post, Leah — but then you know I am a fan.
    But am I mistaken, but nowhere in this post do you let the readers know you are an ex-Mormon which I must say adds punch to the message!

    Also, I have to confess, to the shame of my Skeptic credentials, that I did not know what “Courtier’s Reply” meant. So I link an explanation here for other shamelessly unschooled skeptics. It appears to be a variant of the genetic fallacy. But the power of it, is it has a hint of truth in it.

    In discussing with theists, I sometimes am exacerbated because they it is obvious they don’t have enough science or math background to make the arguments meaningful. So alas, not all fallacies are 100% fallacies.

  • LeahAdmin

    Sabio, thanks for the link for people not familiar with the Courtier’s reply. As much as I’d like to take your compliment, I think you intend it for Leah Elliot, the ex-Mormon who blogs at The Whore of All the Earth. I’m atheist, born and bred.

  • Tim

    While I agree with your approach of asking any Christian to apply Outsider’s Test for Faith or to at least consider why they believe the faith they happen to be born into is the one true faith, Mormonism is not such a good comparison. It is so new and crazy, just not convincing.
    I tend to stick with Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, etc. Any long-established with huge numbers of followers, but with different myths of equal (in)validity.

  • Amy

    Leah, I’d love to know what you thought of the rest of the musical.
    FYI, we don’t actually believe most of the stuff in that song.

  • Leah @TheWhoreOfAllTheEarth

    Well, it is a great post, Leah. :-)

    I had an friend in high school who was Baptist. We debated religion a lot, each of us able to see the fallacies in the other’s faith, but not our own. It wasn’t until I left for two years and came back that I was able to have enough objectivity to realize that it couldn’t be true.

    Mormons definitely want to be seen as Christians, and because of this, they tend to downplay the differences between their faith and mainstream Christianity. I agree with Mary Valle though in her essay for Killing the Buddha Jesus in Space. Mormons, don’t downplay your message! It’s way cooler than what most of the rest of the world is selling!

  • spec

    (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion)

    While I agree, I think there is an oversimplistic picture haunting this line of reasoning. Growing religions do not gain converts with uniform distribution of traits among incoming people – the most suggestible and unreasonable who are exposed will be the first to get on board and ridicule won’t stop that form of growth. Nor will it prevent birth and children as a form of growth, nor will it prevent a religion from insulating its members from outside information sources (or convincing members they are superfluous) as well as with potential recruits. Religions tacitly fight all forms of dissenting voice, not just mockery.

    It’s also simplistic thinking to presume a one-form-fits-all kind of New Atheism methodology is optimal. If all atheists did was insult and chide, believers wouldn’t understand us, and no change would come about. If all atheists did was write and publish intellectual tracts, they wouldn’t be heard by the masses, the elite would rationalize against counter-apologetics, and no change would come about. If all atheists did was have gentle conversations with friends and family, I’d forecast small and fleeting change with no systemic result. You get the idea. Social problems are best solved by being tackled with multiple angles reinforcing each other.

  • Freak

    spec: Greta Christina discussed that in her “Good Cop, Bad Cop” post.

  • spec

    Hmm, I’ve barely read that blog, I’ll check it out.

  • Sabio Lantz

    LOL, my mistake!! Still a very good post. I wonder what Leah the Whore would think of this post.
    “Atheist Born and Bred” — you all are very different from us Atheist who have tasted the apple.

  • LeahAdmin

    @Spec: Your point about the different characteristics of converts is well taken. I’ve often wondered how much of Mormonism’s expansion is the simple consequence of how well organized and extensive their missionary efforts are. Are they uniquely compelling, or are they just reaching the low-hanging fruit first? I find it quite possible, especially given that the missionary pitch I’ve gotten was just to read the Book of Mormon and ask God for confirmation that it was true. It’s a much weaker pitch than the Catholic apologetics and arguments I’m usually barraged with, so it seems likely people have to be fairly susceptible already to succumb.

  • Erika

    I also wonder how much of the push back against compassion is due to the fact that people are inherently lazy, and it’s much easier to tear someone down than to treat them as a fellow human. People are very skilled at painting their lack of ability as a strength.

  • Rollingforest

    @Leah: From what I’ve heard, Mormon growth comes mainly from the fact that they have three or four more kids than the average person and they pressure their kids to get married as soon as possible after they hit adulthood. Their missionary efforts actually aren’t very successful. A normal Mormon missionary, in the field for 2 years, converts an average of 2 people. Of those, 50% leave the church within a year. Mormons claim to have 13 million members, but I’ve read that only 4 million of them go to church on a regular basis. Like Catholicism, Mormonism likes to publish membership numbers that treat non-practicing members (or even those who left the church) just the same as the most active.

    I think the success of Mormonism is tied to the reason that religion exists in the first place. Mormon faith is based entirely on a feeling, the “burning in the bosom”. You are told that you can be sure that Mormonism is the right faith because you will feel good when you read the Book of Mormon. I think that it is likely that the human brain is evolved to believe in God (because it provides comfort for us in tough times, brings communities together, and soothes the pain of losing a loved one to death) so if a person connects the good feeling they get when they think about the supernatural to the Book of Mormon they hold in their hand, they then become attached emotionally to Mormonism.

    That, however, can be a weak spot, as you pointed out. If there was only one religion, believes could always say that they had a “special” way of seeing reality. But with so many different types of religion, it is impossible for them to claim that prayer always leads one to the truth since no one can seem to agree on what that is. So in a way, religion is offering us a chance to destroy it.

  • Lukas

    “The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.”
    There is a are a couple of relevant differences (1) with Mormonism (and Islam) the prophet claimed that he had a special revelation from God. If a person tells you they heard from God, you can either believe it or disbelieve it, but you can’t verify it in the same way that you can verify that a man who was dead is now alive.
    (2) It has been demonstrated pretty conclusively, in my opinion, that Joseph Smith was a fraud. See this from Wikipedia:

    “The Book of Abraham is a purported translation made in 1835 by Joseph Smith, Jr. of a set of Egyptian papyri purchased from a traveling mummy exhibition. According to Smith, the book was “a translation of some ancient records….purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus”. Smith’s translation of the papyri describes a story of Abraham’s early life, including a vision of the cosmos.
    The work was canonized in 1880 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) as part of their Pearl of Great Price. Thus, it forms a doctrinal foundation for the LDS Church and Mormon fundamentalist denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement. It is not considered to be a religious text by the Community of Christ. Other sects in the Latter Day Saint movement have various opinions regarding the Book of Abraham, with some rejecting and some accepting the text as inspired scripture. The book contains several doctrines that are unique to Mormonism, such as the concept of God organzing eternal, pre-existing matter to create the universe instead of creating it ex nihilo.
    The Book of Abraham papyri were thought lost in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. However, in 1966 several fragments of the papyri were found in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in the LDS church archives. They are now referred to as the Joseph Smith Papyri. Upon examination by professional non-Mormon Egyptologists, the papyri were found to bear no resemblance to Joseph Smith’s interpretation, and were common Egyptian funerary texts, dating to about the first century BC. The Book of Abraham has, as a result, been the source of significant controversy, with Mormon apologists offering a variety of explanations as to the reason for the difference. Some apologists assert that the papyri discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are not, in fact, the records that Joseph Smith used. Others have stated that the rediscovered papyri do not contain all of the documents that Smith translated.”
    Sounds just about as close to a disproof of a religion as you’re going to find anywhere.


    Faith, is reason backed into a corner.

  • Tommykey

    One thing I have noticed in the last 4 years is that I am seeing the Book of Mormon more frequently in hotels and motels in drawers next to the Gideon Bible, even as far away as Hong Kong. I took a copy, though I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet.

  • Robert

    One thing I have noticed in the last 4 years is that I am seeing the Book of Mormon more frequently in hotels and motels in drawers next to the Gideon Bible…

    Would those hotels be Marriott, or one of its chains, by chance? JW Marriott is a Mormon, and it’s company policy to place the BoM in their hotel rooms.

  • Michael H

    I’d just like to reiterate, with Amy, that while some Mormons may believe the supposedly “absurdest” things mentioned in that song, they’re by no means universal, and sometimes are just wrong.

    Rollingforest, the LDS Church does have around a quarter million converts each year, and while we do emphasize the experience of feeling the Holy Ghost – as many (most?) other faiths do in their conversion process! – converts are supposed to understand important basic doctrines before they get baptized in an effort to winnow out those who may be insincere, ignorant or unprepared.

    I’m certain that to some degree we do find the “low-lying fruit” first, as Leah has said, but it doesn’t mean that we’re aiming for the lowest common denominator; indeed, we go for the opposite! However, a lay ministry greatly affects the emphases of the church: no one is paid to be a theologian or apologetic, so we naturally have a smaller literature (besides the fact that we’re a new faith). Besides, the point of the missionary work is not to train 19-year-olds in metaphysical arguments in order to convince expert theologians, but to prepare them to teach the basic doctrines of the Church so that people can live according to them. Further investigation is up to individual members. It’s wrong to judge the sophistication of a religion by the pitches its proselytizers make to potential converts. Looking a bit harder anyone would be able to find significant and high-quality LDS-authored scholarship on the LDS faith and beliefs.

  • Tommykey

    Hi Robert. We did stay at the Marriott Fallsview on the Canadian side and it had the Book of Mormon. In Hong Kong, we stayed at the Renaissance Harbourview. I think there was also one in a Holiday Inn Express in Pennsylvania.

  • LeahAdmin

    @Amy and Michael H: Thanks for commenting to clarify. I’ve heard some ex-Mormons corroborate the theology mentioned in the musical (though, as a sci-fi geek, I first heard about it when people were discussing the ways Battlestar Galactica drew on Mormon theology). How would I be able to determine which description of the theology is accurate?

  • Modusoperandi

    Tommykey “One thing I have noticed in the last 4 years is that I am seeing the Book of Mormon more frequently in hotels and motels in drawers next to the Gideon Bible, even as far away as Hong Kong. I took a copy, though I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet.”
    Spoiler Alert: Snape kills Dumbledore.

  • Tommykey

    Yeah, but does Voldemort kill Harry? And do Harry and Ginny Weasley lose their virginity together?

  • Rollingforest

    @Michael: I agree that Mormonism tries to teach its doctrine to converts, but if pressed, it seems like Mormons will always fall back on the “read the Book of Mormon and ask God if it is true” bit. And I agree that most every religion relies on the feeling of God in order to prove themselves, though I think Mormonism is more vocal about it. However, I think that this is perhaps THE fatal flaw in religion. People have the idea that if they feel like God exists, therefore he must exist. But it should be remembered that feelings do not always give us an accurate picture of the world. Suicidal people, for example, feel like their lives are hopeless even when they aren’t. As soon as a suicidal person is able to get over their depression, they are able to see that their views were clouded by the depression. Similarly, a religious person might have the feeling that there is “obviously” a God, but as soon as they give up their dogma, they see that this just isn’t so. The best way to keep our feelings from overpowering us is to focus on the objective world. If our beliefs are true, then we should be able to prove it using facts from the material world that can’t be used to support any other theory. Both suicidal people and religious people require that feelings take precedent and that the material world be molded to fit those feelings, which I think is dangerous.

    @Leah: I have never been a Mormon, but I have taken an academic interest in them and often read blogs where Mormons debate their faith with others. Two I would recommend are and (though this one has really slowed down recently on postings, which is unfortunate because I like her debating style even when I disagree with her). Both are geared around friendly debates between the Mormons and Evangelicals and allow practicing Mormons to speak for themselves. From what I can gather, most modern day Mormons do not believe that God or Jesus has his own planet, though that was the required Mormon believe in the nineteenth Century. Modern day Mormons do believe, however, that God the Father has a physical human body just like Jesus, thus suggesting that God was once a human, though this again is a nineteenth century belief that the church is wishy-washy about nowadays. The LDS church has also never denied that God or Jesus has his own planet so you can be a faithful Mormon and believe the old doctrine if you want.

    Thus there is some diversity in Mormon belief. The Church leadership is often vague on many issues, so each Mormon thinks they have the official teaching even if they disagree with other Mormons. However, be warned that if you ask a Mormon what the church teachings are, he or she will often direct you to , the official Church website. The problem with this is that the Church leadership is even more vague about their beliefs on that website than they are normally. That website is designed to make Mormonism seem as similar to mainstream Christianity as possible so as to gain more converts. It is the “milk before meat” strategy of only teaching the doctrines that most people would accept first and then moving on to doctrines that people would have a harder time swallowing only after a person is socially caught up in the group. Ebon was kind enough to write a post about my observations on this, which I link below:

  • LeahAdmin

    Thanks a lot for those links and the helpful explanation, Rollingforest!