A Review of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion Book One: The Mormons

This is a guest post by Rich Wilson.

***

I recently started reading The Book of Mormon and have found it a very tough slog, even compared to the KJV Bible. So you can imagine my relief when I took a break from that book and starting reading David Fitzgerald’s The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion Book One: The Mormons.

It is, to say the least, a much easier read.

The book is aimed at two audiences — and devout Mormons aren’t one of them. David acknowledges that if one is already “in,” this book probably won’t pull you out, nor is it intended to. Rather, The Mormons is aimed at most of the readers of this sort of blog as well as ex-Mormons (or perhaps Mormons who are having serious doubts). David expresses respect for the Mormons he’s known — and that’s why he’s compelled to point out where their beliefs fall short of being true. I share that sentiment, too. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known is a devout Mormon, and while I like to pretend he doesn’t really believe all that stuff, I know he does.

Full disclosure: Even though I’ve known Mormons personally, my background on Mormonism comes mostly from one South Park episode (which was hilarious, but way too short) and the PBS two-part documentary The Mormons (which was more extensive, but shied away from pointing out the crazy).

David starts with a thorough history of Joseph Smith‘s discovery and “translation” of the Book of Mormon, and writes about how the story evolved over time. There are numerous conflicting versions of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” and the way the story changes is fascinating. It’s also interesting to watch the various power struggles of the early days, and coming to understand how many of the players had to be “in” on the hoax.

The story documents some fascinating financial shenanigans as the church moves to Ohio and begins a bank called the Kirtland Safety Society Bank Company, later changed to the “anti-Banking Company to avoid following state regulations (you know, because putting “anti-Banking” on all your bank notes makes you totally not a bank, subject to any state rules). Chased out of Ohio, they landed in Missouri, where Joseph revealed that God had promised all the land to the Mormons — to take by force if necessary. (And they wondered why they weren’t popular in Missouri.) Unfortunately, the result would not be the last bloody story in Mormon history. Not by a long shot. The chronological history takes us through to the death of Joseph Smith, including what Fitzgerald says may have been the “most decent thing” Joseph Smith ever did: return home at the request of his wife Emma, even though he was ready to flee west. In his own words, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter.”

After Smith’s death, there were, of course, a number of people who claimed that Smith himself had appointed them leaders of the church. One in particular, James Strang, had his own book of ancient golden plates and received word (from angels!) that the new prophet would be able to translate the book of one King Rajah Manchou of Vorito. What more proof could one need?!

With the death of Joseph Smith and subsequent power struggles, Fitzgerald moves from generally chronological history to covering some of the major highlights — or lowlights — of the Mormons, including the many splinter churches. Polygamy receives the first crack, deservedly, since it has probably had the greatest impact on the church and the various directions and schisms it has taken. And while it’s amusing to read about characters such as Nancy Rigdon who rejected Smith loudly no matter how much he threatened her with God’s word, it’s also chilling to read about the reality of sexual abuse in groups living out Joseph Smith’s doctrine to this very day.

A close second to the embarrassment of polygamy is the no-less-sinister racial history of the church. Not much needs to be said, other than the fact that, to this day, there isn’t any good theological explanation for why 19th century bigotry still found a place in 20th century Mormonism, bigotry that (among other things) did not allow black people to become priests in the church. The apologetics are amusing, until you remember what they’re trying to explain away.

Oh, wait, did I forget to mention the different kinds of heaven, and the “sealing” and baptism of the dead, and the magic underwear, and the planet Kolob? (Or is it a star? Joseph Smith didn’t seem to know the difference.) Yeah, that’s all in there, too. As well as Joseph’s assured view that certain ancient documents were Reformed Egyptian dictionaries… only to be told that they were the Greek versions of Psalms.

And so it came to pass that David Fitzgerald did also write upon numerous problems with The Book of Mormon itself. Including its apparent reliance on other fictional sources, such as Shakespeare’s works, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the King James Bible. Interestingly, this “perfect book” dictated by God to an Angel contains the same errors that the 1769 edition of the KJV Bible (available to Smith at the time) had.

As if the obvious fan-fiction nature of the book wasn’t enough, we also take a quick tour of the problems of having no archaeological record of anything mentioned in the Book of Mormon anywhere in the Americas, including chariots, advanced metallurgy, horses, elephants, many crops, or cities with millions of people.

Of course, the Church has had to do some backpedaling over the years to cover things up and we get some great coverage of that as well. The Book of Mormon has undergone many edits, and a great many documents have disappeared for decades, only to show up and require new twisted apologetics to explain. Interestingly, many of the problems with the Book of Mormon, the church history, and general canon have been brought to light by the church’s own members… most of whom have since been either excommunicated or left on their own. And it’s in this chapter that we inevitably deal with what, perhaps even more than polygamy, the church wishes would just go away: the Mountain Meadows massacre. I’ve read (and Fitzgerald repeats it) that the massacre was the worst civilian atrocity in American history up until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. (The Rosewood massacre might contend, but in any case, they’re all horrific.)

We end by looking to the future, including Humanist Mormons, gay Mormons, and the effect of the Internet and open dialogue on Mormonism. David Fitzgerald contends the Internet is having the same effect on Mormonism that it’s having on all other religions: marking their end.

Well, not quite the end. David has some sage advice for anyone wanting to dialogue with Mormons. Briefly, you need to understand the way their religion is part of every facet of their lives. It’s not just a set of beliefs and something they do on Sundays, and simply pointing out that their prophet was a huckster probably isn’t going to go very far.

The book is a fascinating read on the whole, and I have no doubt that anyone, even ex-Mormons, will learn something new. There were only two sections that dragged slightly for me — one about famous people I didn’t know had connections to Mormonism and one about the Mormon basis for Battlestar Galactica. These are minor quibbles to be sure, and I wholeheartedly recommend the book whether you plan to invite in the next missionaries to ring your doorbell or you just want a little more insight into what Mormons actually believe.

***

Rich Wilson concluded that he was wrong about Santa when he was four and has been trying to challenge his own beliefs ever since, with varying degrees of success. His biggest hope is that his son will be better than he is at figuring out what isn’t true.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • koseighty

    Kindle Edition: $6.66

    priceless !!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Parker/715075139 Michael Parker

      Sadly that’s the only ebook version I can find…no ePub, no Kobo, no mobi. :(

  • ORAXX

    I don’t know if the internet will spell the end of religion or not, but it sure isn’t helping advance it. Atheists are inclined to do their own thinking are not, as a rule, herd animals. One of the great things about the internet is the way it has helped all manner of non believers to realize they are not as alone as they once thought they were.

  • Smiles

    “And so it came to pass…”
    Nice touch…I LOL’ed.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      In 1 Nephi, Joseph Smith, er, I mean Nephi, says that he won’t be covering genealogy, so as to save space for important stuff like bringing people to the God of Abraham.

      Who knows, maybe there’s a Reformed Egyptian shorthand for “And so it came to pass”. But is sure seems like an odd waste if your space is limited.

      • JohnH2

        There are multiple language families in which “And so it came to pass” is a single small word (or even a modifier to a word).

        • josh

          In English it’s pronounced ‘then’.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            Which is still probably longer than the Reformed Egyptian version :-)

  • Cylon

    “David acknowledges that if one is already “in,” this book probably won’t pull you out, nor is it intended to.”

    You might be surprised. Sure, most Mormons will write stuff like this off as “deceptions of Satan,” but learning all of these historical details was exactly what got me out of the Mormon church. It’s hard to overstate just how much our own history is whitewashed in Sunday School and the like. Once I started down that rabbit hole of learning what really happened, though, it was all over.

    • Quintin van Zuijlen

      And above all, few devoutly religious people suddenly decide “well, I guess I was wrong all along then, now let’s stay in bed for sunday”. The path to atheism is rarely short. To say that something will definitely not “pull you out” if you’re already “in” seems premature in any case.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      (love the handle :-) )

      There is an incident Peter Boghossian speaks about, where a Brother just about to go on Mission presented him with essentially the first cause argument, and Peter said “Maybe the Universe has always been here?” And the Brother was flabbergasted, because he’d never examined his own beliefs before. From there everything unraveled.

      I think we’ll never know what might make a difference to someone else. We might present what we consider the best argument ever, and it will fall on deaf ears. Or we may toss of some rhetorical question we haven’t really thought about, and strike to the heart of something.

      • JohnH2

        um. Mormons do believe that the Universe has always been here, at least according to the D&C. Also, according to the D&C (and other scripture) the First Cause argument falls completely apart in multiple ways.

        I suppose such things being found in scripture doesn’t say anything about understanding the implications or even being aware of it being in the scripture. Depending on when this occurred, the prospective missionary may not have ever read the Book of Mormon or Bible in their entirely (let alone the D&C) and so would have no clue as to what was in them and how they relate to first cause arguments.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          I can only point to Peter’s re-telling of it. Not sure if it was the Mormon or Peter (or me here) or what combination are/were off the doctrine.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VBPw0jjjfs&t=26m

          • JohnH2

            The Mormon.

            Also, Peter way over estimates the knowledge (and conviction) of prospective missionaries.

        • Randay

          Not to worry. Mr. Deity is a former Mormon and has does done a couple of episodes on them. Here’s one:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0U17Qs5nyRo

    • JET

      Very surprised. Many young Mormons I know were unaware of the planet Kolob thing as they’ve not actually read the book. The LDS church downplays it and they discovered this “secret” on the internet. They thought the Scientologists were rather wacky and then… oh, shit!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.potter.73 Matt Potter

    My wife and I grew up in LDS homes. We both have many generations of family in the church and my side isn’t shy to note our ancestry goes back to the beginnings of the church in Nauvoo. We are happy to say that we left the church 4 years ago this month. We actually resigned our membership, which is an official process that legally removes our names from church records. Of course that process wouldn’t be needed if the church didn’t feel the need to process you as a number and more importantly they weren’t forced to do so from a 1980′s lawsuit. Our beginning of an exit from the LDS faith began with studying early church history so books like this will certainly help many people. In fact, the overwhelming majority of ex-mormons I know left the church because they studied their way out. Just don’t ask my parents why we left because 1) anyone that leaves the ‘one true church’ does so to sin and 2) my mom asked her bishop ( think LDS clergy) about us not being mormon and he told he not to worry because we’ll always be mormon. That doesn’t sound like a cult at all, right?

    • Anna

      Sounds a lot like the Catholic church! They’ve got the same “once a member, always a member” mentality, and they don’t let people leave at all. Even if you manage to get yourself excommunicated, you’re still officially a Catholic, just a damned one.

    • Robster

      They treat you as a number because that’s what you are, a source of revenue. My partner’s son became a Mormon for a short while, his pay went into a church account from his secular employer from which the church paid him, minus the required 10%. How people can agree to such a thing is beyond me and why it fails to alert those afflicted with Mormonism to the greed and money focus of their church is just flabbergasting. I know it costs lots of money to build the wedding cake like temple thingies but 10%? Not a chance.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        10% of gross, not net.

        • http://www.facebook.com/matt.potter.73 Matt Potter

          There is really not an exact answer from church headquarters on the gross/net question. Tithing settlement, an annual meeting between a member and their bishop, does not require the member to show tax information. The member is presented with the figures of how much they gave in tithing and is then asked if they are a full tithe payer. Being a full tithe member is an important for members because if they are not they can be denied a temple recommend. In the 70′s the first presidency of the church released this statement on tithing;

          “For your
          guidance in this matter, please be advised that we have
          uniformly replied that the simplest statement we know
          of is that statement of the Lord himself that the members
          of the Church should pay one-tenth of all their interest
          annually, which is understood to mean income. No
          one is justified in making any other statement than this.
          We feel that every member of the Church should be entitled
          to make his own decision as to what he thinks
          he owes the Lord, and to make payment accordingly.”

          As you can see, the church is very vague on what the actual requirement is and largely leaves the interpretation to members and the bishops. Here’s a really good link with lots of information.
          http://www.i4m.com/think/intro/mormon-tithing.htm

          • Doc Holliday

            “Yet the law requires or enjoins a consecration of the overplus, after reserving for himself and family to carry on his business.” The Joseph Smith Papers, Volume 2-The Histories.

            “If it requires all a man can earn to support himself and his family, he is not tithed at all. The celestial law does not take the mother’s and children’s bread, neither ought else which they really need for their comfort. The poor that have not of this world’s goods to spare, but serve and honor God according to the best of their abilities in every other way, shall have a celestial crown in the Eternal Kingdom of our Father.” Orson Hyde (Millennial Star, vol. 9, no. 1 [1 Jan. 1847], p. 12.)

            If a man has not the means to pay tithing and would if he could, I can fellowship him just as well as if he did.

            Yet the law requires or enjoins a consecration of the overplus, after reserving for himself and family to carry on his business.” Bringham Young (Office Journal: Book D [2006], p. 54.)

            All original dissertations about tithing said, “surplus” or that which have after your meet your families need. Neither says ‘Tithe or you’re going to the outer darkness’–the closest place the LDS believe in to ‘hell.’

            Modern tithing policy:

            “If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing.” (Aaron L. West, Sacred Transformations, December 2012 Ensign)

            Given a choice, I would think it requires 10% of net.

  • Meg Leader

    You might enjoy exploring “Recovery from Mormonism” http://www.exmormon.org/

  • JET

    Definitely downloading this book to my Kindle.

    My dad was Mormon. Even though I was baptized, communed, and confirmed Catholic at the insistence of my mom’s family, I spent more time in my dad’s church as my mom was one of those “don’t give a shit” Catholics. I’ve always found a couple of things about the LDS church very interesting and I hope these are explored in this book.

    Looking at the way Mormonism became an accepted religion gives a lot of insight to the way all religions were probably derived from their cultish beginnings. With Mormonism, we have the advantage of seeing the whole process documented. Scientology shows this process as well but there aren’t as many followers and they’re seen as a lot kookier.

    I’ve always felt that Mormonism is primarily a way of life, and only secondarily a religion. The religious part of it actually takes a back seat to the more important political, fiscal, and social aspects. Mormons are looking for and actively pursuing political control of government. They’ve achieved this in Utah and are now reaching out. Hello Mitt Romney and Glen Beck. The LDS church is a tremendously wealthy corporation and because of their protection as a church, we really don’t know how wealthy they are. They have amassed vast amounts of stock, land and buildings, and have infiltrated all areas of the economy. Socially, they’ve isolated themselves while pretending to do just the opposite. Every Mormon I’ve ever met has both a private and a public persona and they are very different. They’re very secretive but would have you believe they’re quite open. The missionary factory in Provo specifically trains them what to say but more importantly what not to say.

    There are many Mormons (my dad included) who don’t believe the whole planet Kolob thing. But this is never talked about within the church anyway, so it’s easy for the cultural Mormon to accept the teachings that are talked about, which are basically the political, fiscal and social power the church is seeking. There are many more cultural Mormons than religious Mormons. They are experts at seeing which way the winds are blowing, and the Prophet (president) has revelations accordingly. Polygamy was outlawed by revelation and blacks were admitted by revelation. As soon as it becomes politically, economically and socially advantageous for them to (or disadvantageous for them not to) give women full rights in the church or become openly accepting of gays, the Prophet will most certainly have another revelation.

    Lastly, I distinctly remember (50 years ago) being taught that Jesus Christ was NOT the son of God, but rather the greatest of all prophets. My dad taught me that they aligned more with Jews in this regard and that gentile religions were wrong. Easter was not a big deal in the Mormon church and I spent Easter at RC mass. They seem to have evolved into Christians, probably for those same political, economic and social reasons.

    Oh, and you don’t have to wait to be posthumously baptized. My dad eventually told me that he secretly had my mom and all of us kids baptized without our knowledge. Because he’s a man and the head of the household and he can do that. Had my mother been the Mormon, she would not have had this authority.

    • JohnH2

      “Mormons are looking for and actively pursuing political control of government.”

      … yeah so not so much. Though there are Mormons that believe this, so I can see how you would think it.

      “protection as a church”

      … yeah, not so much. All of the corporate holdings of the church are not protected by the standing of “church” but by the standard of “holding company”. The LDS church had to divest it self through sale or restructuring of nearly all of its corporate assets in the 80′s-90′s and even before then its experience of being dis-incorporated as a church by the federal government during the 1880′s has meant that all intellectual and other assets are split up in to separate corporations, which are not protected as part of the the church but as being corporations.

      “what not to say.”

      Yeah, not so much. This is precisely what is given the missionaries, you are free to look at it: http://www.lds.org/languages/additionalmanuals/preachgospel/PreachMyGospel___00_00_Complete__36617_eng_.pdf

      ” the whole planet Kolob”

      Don’t believe what about it? There really isn’t much to believe, I am fairly certain that your father if active at all likes the hymn “If you could hie to Kolob” which pretty much contains the entire extent of what is known on the subject.

      “They have amassed vast amounts of stock, land and buildings, and have infiltrated all areas of the economy. Socially, they’ve isolated
      themselves while pretending to do just the opposite.”

      So what is the equivalent term to Antisemitic in terms of Mormonism? because this could have been ripped straight out of statements about Jews not all that long ago.

      ” Jesus Christ was NOT the son of God”

      No such thing. This has never been taught in the church and considering that the stated purpose of the Book of Mormon is to teach people that Jesus Christ is the Son of God then I don’t know where you are even possibly getting this. I mean seriously the most common complaint that Evangelicals throw at me is that Jesus and Satan are brothers and both sons of God. The very first article of Faith, which has been scripture for well over 100 years (let alone what I mention in regards to the BoM) has that Jesus is the Son of God: http://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/a-of-f/1.1?lang=eng

      “he secretly had my mom and all of us kids baptized without our knowledge”

      Then your dad wasn’t a very good Mormon because he would have had to put a death date on the form, meaning he lied to the church rather than his actions being approved by the church (given the rest of what you say, I have to wonder how much of what you say is based on truth at all) .

      ” primarily a way of life, and only secondarily a religion”

      Here you almost had a point, Orthopraxy is much more important than Orthodoxy in Mormonism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harrison/23417637 Michael Harrison

    Two things. One: I have no issues with Mormonism and polygamy, but rather with their favoring of polygyny over polyandry. I see sexual abuse as a completely separate problem. Two: to claim that the Internet marks the end of many religions is to dangerously misunderstand the nature of the Internet. Yes, it’s a major tool for information exchange, but it’s also a major tool for misinformation exchange. While the Internet no doubt does harm mainstream religion, it benefits more radical groups.

  • Barefoot Bree

    I clicked over to Amazon to add the book to my wish list, and changed my mind and immediately bought it. How could I resist? The Kindle edition is…. (wait for it…..)

    $6.66!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.potter.73 Matt Potter

    Perhaps ‘The Friendly Atheist’ blog isn’t the best venue for your post. We’re sorta big of reason and logic, and your post is absent of both. Happy trolling though.

  • Sinfanti

    A relationship between Mormonism and Battlestar Galactica? I might have to get the book just to check that out.

    I can almost hear Lorne Greene “Fleeing from the secular tyranny, the newest cult, Mormonism, leads a rag-tag fugitive caravan on a lonely quest… a shining land known as Utah.”

  • Doc Holliday

    I am not a mormon. I am a Ph.D. historian, writing a book about the church. I don’t believe in fairytales, but I find it does no good to use lies or misconceptions when discussing mormon history and quasi-theology and cosmology.

    Your problem with getting through the BoM isn’t uncommon. There is a joke about a missionary who had a copy of the BoM in his chest pocket, when he was shot. The bullet hit the BoM and he wasn’t injured. Afterward, they looked and saw the bullet had stopped at 2 Nephi. The missionaries agreed this showed the truth behind the saying, “Nobody can get passed 2 Nephi.” (Yes, missionaries are victims of violent crimes; and they sometimes kill each other.)

    Confronting someone and telling them their religion is a ‘hoax’ pretty much shuts down just about any rational conversation down. I prefer to discuss it with them, using information from their own religion, provided by the LDS.

    The Kirtland Safety Society started with that name. Due to the impossibility of getting a charter, they changed it to Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company. Things went downhill, fast and a large number of ‘saints’ left the church after it failed in the largest apostasy in church history…

    It is unclear whether Smith actually said, “Like a Lamb to Slaughter,” although it is a cornerstone or mormon mythology. Smith, once imprisoned at the Carthage jail, started a gun fight in an effort to escape and one of the guards was killed. Others were wounded. Smith was injured in the gun fight and jumped out of a window into a mob surrounding the jail. Smith was not a martyr until the church made him one.

    Nancy Rigdon refused to become one of Smith’s plural wives. She was the wife of Sidney Rigdon. Many historians believe, and I agree, that Sidney Rigdon was the author of the Book of Mormon.

    Most mormons are unaware, or choose to ignore, that Smith was a polygamist and a polyandrist (One wife, more than one husband–He married other men’s wives when they were still married to their first husbands, lived in their homes, etc.)

    The point of the Mountain Meadow Massacre was genocide–kill all people who weren’t mormons. In the respect of genocide, it compares more to the genocide committed in Rwanda, although much smaller in scale.

    BTW, the star ‘Kolob’ nor it’s surrounding solar system have ever been identified by astronomers. It’s imaginary.


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