Not So Different, part 2

Part 1.

Now all of this is been pretty abstract. So to drive the point I’ve been making home, I’m going to give you a little lesson in Mormonism 101. I decided to pick Mormonism as my main example in this chapter because of a combination of factors. On the one hand, Mormonism (also known as the Church of Latter Day Saints) is a religion that many people don’t want to dismiss out of hand. It’s an offshoot of Christianity, and shares many superficial features of Christianity. There are also a lot of Mormons around. It’s not some tiny sect—in fact we’ve got a Mormon running for president.

On the other hand, most people still don’t know very much about Mormonism. That means that when they learn a bit about the details of Mormonism’s history and doctrines, it isn’t hard for them to notice some of the strange and embarrassing features of Mormonism. They are stopped by familiarity. So let’s talk about Mormonism.

Mormonism was founded in the early 19th century by a man named Joseph Smith. When Smith was a young man living in New York, he claimed that an angel named Moroni directed him to a hill where he dug up some golden plates with ancient writing on them. Smith claimed that along with the plates, he found the biblical “Urim and Thummim,” which in his version were stones that allowed him to supernaturally translate the writing on the plates. From the historical records we have of the time, it appears that Smith kept what he claimed were the plates wrapped in cloth and generally wouldn’t let other people see the unwrapped plates.

Smith dictated his “translation” to a friend of his named Martin Harris. Harris wanted to show the manuscript they were working on to his wife, and Smith didn’t want to at first, but eventually he said okay. This led to the manuscript getting lost. At this point Smith got a new scribe, a man named Oliver Cowdery. For what happened next, I’m going to quote from a Mormon biographer of Smith named Richard Bushman:

By May 1829, Jospeh and Cowdery had not yet translated what are now the opening books of the Book of Mormon. After the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph did not begin again at the beginning. Joseph and Emma took up the translation where Joseph and Harris had broken off the previous June, that is, around the first part of the Book of Mosiah in the reign of King Benjamin. Joseph and Cowdery kept on in sequence. Sooner or later, Joseph had to decide what to do about the loss of the previous manuscript, containing the first four hundred years of the Book of Mormon narrative. In May he received a revelation telling him not to retranslate. Were he to bring out a new translation contradicting the first version, the people who had stolen the manuscript would say that “he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift,” and claim “that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted your words.” Another component of the record, the plates of Nephi, the revelation said, covered the same period. Joseph was to translate them instead and publish them as the record of Nephi. In late May or June, probably after the rest of the book was done, he and Cowdery began work on I Nephi (p. 74).

This is the point in the story of Joseph Smith where every non-Mormon who hears the story thinks “What the hell? If Joseph Smith was really translating these plates supernaturally, why didn’t he retranslate what he already translated, so that the consistency of the two translations would verify his claims?” The fact that Mormons don’t see it this way is a pretty good example of how far people can go in ignoring signs that their religious beliefs are a bunch of hooey.

This isn’t the only strong clue that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Later on, he got access to some Egyptian papyri (papyrus is a primitive form of paper), which he “translated” to produce the Book of Abraham, which the Mormon church claims as scripture to this day. But Egyptologists who’ve examined the papyri that Smith supposedly translated the Book of Abraham from have repeatedly declared Smith’s interpretation bogus.

I should note that here we have an important way in which Mormonism isn’t an exact parallel for other major religions. The thing about Mormonism is that we have so much better historical records of its founding. You could never write as good of a biography for Moses or Jesus or Mohammed or the Buddha as you can for Joseph Smith. That’s why we have these embarrassing details about Smith’s life. We don’t have similar embarrassing details for those other founders, but that’s not because we have detailed historical records which never once cast doubt on the claims of the religions they founded. Rather, we don’t have good historical records of any kind. Cases like Mormonism makes you wonder what we would know if we did have such records, though.

Still, the parallels between what Mormons say in defense of Mormonism and what members of other religions say in defense of those religions is striking. For example, it’s popular among evangelical Christians in the US to claim that the resurrection of Jesus can be proven with historical evidence. And sometimes, when Christian apologists are trying to defend this claim and they find themselves backed into a bit of a corner, the argument they’ll pull out is that “well, the Bible says Jesus rose from the dead, and skeptics can’t provide any evidence that he didn’t rise from the dead, so the objective historian must accept that Jesus rose from the dead.”

In a similar vein, Bushman argues, “Since the people who knew Joseph the best treat the plates as fact, a skeptical analysis lacks evidence. A series of surmises replaces a documented narrative” (p. 58). This is an argument that everyone who is not a Mormon can tell is completely ridiculous. And it’s just as convincing as the argument that Christians sometimes use about the resurrection of Jesus.

Or, in spite of the obviously suspicious circumstances around of the “discovery” of the Book of Mormon, Smith somehow managed to get Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and a third man, David Whitmer, despite a statement saying that an angel appeared to them to verify the truth of everything that Smith was telling them about the plates and his “translation” of them. Smith also got eight other men to sign a statement verifying that the plates existed. This is way better evidence than we have for any miracle associated with the founder of any other major religion, but of course this isn’t evidence that non-Mormons find very convincing, nor should they. Maybe Smith coerced those men into lying, who knows? And if you can understand that, you should have no trouble understanding why atheists don’t find the “evidence” for the miracles of the founder of your religion convincing.

Then there’s the argument that holy book X could not possibly have been written without divine guidance. Here’s Bushman’s version of it. Bushman says that the idea that Joseph Smith made up the book of Mormon…

…is at odds with the Joseph Smith of the historical record. The accounts of the neighbors picture an unambitious, uneducated, treasure-seeking Joseph, who had never written anything and is not known to have read anything but the Bible and perhaps the newspaper… To account for the disjuncture between the Book of Mormon’s complexity and Joseph’s history as an uneducated rural visionary, the composition theory calls for a precocious genius of extraordinary powers who was voraciously consuming information without anyone knowing it (p. 72).

Once again (and I apologize if this is getting repetitious), this isn’t an argument that will convince non-Mormons. Many non-Mormons who’ve read the Book of Mormon say it reads like a bad imitation of the King James Bible—exactly what you would expect if it was written by someone who’d never read anything but the Bible.

I haven’t even mentioned the most conclusive evidence against the truth of Mormonism. You see, the Book of Mormon—we’re talking about the most important piece of Mormon Scripture here–tells the story of a group of ancient Israelites who supposedly set sail for the Americas and colonized the Americas and had lots of adventures there. Supposedly, Jesus visited them at one point after his resurrection, and the whole fantastic story was written down by a series of prophets, similar to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The last of these prophets was named Moroni, who buried the record of the whole story in the place where Joseph Smith later supposedly found it, and Moroni became the angel who directed Smith to the plates.

The problem is that this whole story is at odds with everything we know about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. For one thing, a number of lines of evidence, including genetics, tell us that the first Americans came to the Americas from Siberia over a land bridge to Alaska, whereas many Mormons have concluded from reading the book of Mormon that the ancient Israelites were the main ancestors of Native Americans.

Without boring you with too many details, it shouldn’t surprise you that Mormon apologists have tried to deal with this problem, and their solutions are totally unconvincing to non-Mormons. I’ll just mention one: sometimes, it’s proposed that the reason we can’t find any evidence of any of the things described in the Book of Mormon is that it all happened in a tiny region of either Central or South America. But if that’s right, how the hell did the Book of Mormon get buried in New York? Having raised that question, I’m not going to say any more about it, because that’s all the Mormon apologetics I can stomach—Mormon apologetics is a joke to anyone who isn’t a Mormon.

Now Christian apologists love this. They think the problems archaeology creates for Mormonism show that Christianity has an advantage over Mormonism. Unfortunately, there are equally conclusive arguments against the historicity of a central part of the Bible.

A little background: the first five books of the Bible are known as the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Torah is the most important part of the Bible for Jews, and it’s pretty important for Christians to. The problems with Genesis are well-known, and I’ll say a bit about them in a later chapter, but for now let’s look at the other four books. What they do is tell the story of how the ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and how God, through his prophet Moses, brought them out of slavery, gave them laws, and made them wander around the Sinai desert for 40 years (they don’t get to enter the Promised Land until later books of the Bible).

This is every bit as at odds with modern archaeology as the Book of Mormon. Very simply, a miraculously-aided slave revolt should’ve left a big mark in Egyptian historical records. No such record exists. Also, Exodus 12:37-38 gives a ridiculous number for the number of Israelites involved in this event: 600,000 Israelite men, with an untold number of women, children, and livestock. It’s safe to assume were talking well over 1 million people. The Sinai desert probably couldn’t have supported that many people for 40 years, and even if it could have, they should’ve left a ton of archaeological evidence, which we also don’t have. And you know what? I’m not even going to bother with what Jewish and Christian apologists of said about this problem. Instead, I’m just going to ask, if you wouldn’t give Mormon defenses of the historicity of their holy book the time of day, why should I treat the Exodus story any differently?

Moving away from issues of historical evidence, there’s also the fact that Mormonism, like all religions, has changed over time. For example, Joseph Smith taught that God wanted Mormons to practice polygamy. Then, in 1890, nearly 50 years after Smith’s death, the president of the Mormon Church claimed he’d received a revelation from God telling him to end the practice of polygamy. Similarly, the Mormon Church used to bar African-Americans from a Mormon priesthood. In 1978, sometime after the civil rights movement, this was finally changed. Once again, the president of the Mormon Church claimed to have received a revelation from God telling him to change things.

Non-Mormons, of course, don’t think the presidents of the Mormon Church have really been receiving revelations from God. For most non-Mormons who know about these changes, it’s obvious that what really happened was that Mormon leaders realized they couldn’t afford to be out of sync with the nation as a whole on those issues, so they caved in to pressure from society at large to change.

Leaders of other religions are often more cautious about claiming they’ve received messages from God, but they still like to claim that any changes in their religion are the result of becoming truer to the true message of that religion. Just think of the liberal Christians who are so insistent that the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality. They tend to not take it well if you tell them that’s nonsense—it doesn’t even seem to occur to them that to an outsider, it might seem totally obvious that they’re just updating their religion in response to social pressure, and that this has nothing to do with “true Christianity.” Yet that’s how it looks to me. The same goes for just about any other example you can think of of religions becoming more liberal with time.

Historical evidence, racism, homosexuality—I’ve been talking about some fairly serious stuff. But I started off mentioning that many people just find Mormonism goofy, so let’s talk about that. Ex-Mormon C. L. Hanson summed up this issue well:

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that a single claim can seem either obviously crazy or perfectly reasonable, depending on how you have been exposed to it. Consider the Mormon belief that God was once human and that humans can become gods. As a teenager, it was an epiphany for me to encounter Christians who scorned and ridiculed this belief—not because they considered it a deadly heresy but because they regarded it as obviously absurd. Meanwhile, these same Christians believed in an omnipotent three-in-one god with no beginning who loves his children and promises them an eternity of unchanging subservience (best-case scenario) or an eternity of torture. I’d been exposed (at least tangentially) to mainstream Christian beliefs my whole life, so their theology didn’t really shock me. Bu I was shocked by their crazy belief that Mormon theology was somehow objectively more crazy than their own theology. (C. L. Hanson, “Building on a Religious Background” Free Inquiry Vol. 31 No. 6 October/November 2001 pp. 40-41).

The belief that humans can become gods is hardly the only Mormon belief that strikes non-Mormons as, well, crazy. There’s also, for example, the belief that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri. I’ve seen online discussions were Mormons try to downplay these beliefs, suggests they aren’t really a part of Mormonism, but you can find confirmation that they’re a part of Mormon teaching right on the official Mormon website, And similarly… well, you can fill in the general thought about other religions.

But speaking of the Garden of Eden, how can anyone read the original story and not see that it’s mythology? For those who don’t know the story, the Bible says that originally, God created just two people, named Adam and Eve, and put them in this beautiful garden and said “all this, it’s yours, except you can eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or you’ll die.”

Then a snake comes along and tells Eve no, you won’t die if you eat the fruit from that tree, instead you’ll be like God, knowing good and evil. So Eve eats the fruit, and then she gets Adam to eat the fruit, and then Adam and Eve are suddenly very self-conscious about being naked. God gets mad and throws them out of the garden, and says childbirth is going to be painful now and to get food the humans will have to work hard farming. He also says that snakes are now going crawl around on their bellies (apparently they had legs, originally) and that snakes and humans are going to be enemies now.

You may be a bit confused by the summary I just given. You may be wondering, “what about Satan, and what about original sin?” The answer is that the idea that the snake was Satan, and the idea of original sin, are later Christian interpretations of the story. The phrase “original sin” actually refers to a specific idea developed by Augustine.

So if you’re a rational person, when you read this story, your reaction should go something like this: “This story obviously didn’t happen. For one thing, snakes don’t talk. I don’t know why people came up with this crazy story, but the reasons were probably similar to the reasons the Greeks came up with stories like the story of Pandora’s Box and the story of stealing fire from Mount Olympus. Maybe it was originally intended to be nothing more than a silly story to relieve boredom, or maybe some Bronze Age nutter had too much wine one night, got to thinking about where snakes came from, and decided this was the only possible explanation. But the idea that this story actually happened—that’s right out. And the people who first told the story, there’s no way they intended any of the interpretations Christians would come up with centuries later, like the doctrine of original sin.”

However, Christians who are serious about their faith but not too literal-minded will insist that the Garden of Eden story is actually a brilliant, in fact divinely inspired, allegory of something or other, and what I just said about this story shows I’m ignorant or not intellectually serious or something. To which I say: give me a break. If we don’t think the Greek myths are brilliant, divinely inspired allegories, why should we treat this story any different? And how could saying “this happened in Missouri” be the one thing that makes a story about a talking snake ridiculous?

So to review what we’ve got so far: most Christians, when they take a good look at Mormonism, aren’t impressed by the fact that a few people said an angel appeared to them. They need more evidence than that before their going to accept the genuine supernatural event. They can recognize when a story is seriously at odds with modern archaeology, and they don’t waste much time considering the excuses Mormon apologists make on this point. They can recognize when a religion has changed not due to genuine revelation, but due to outside social pressure. And some Mormon beliefs strike them is just plain crazy.

Now understand that the way Mormonism looks to most Christians is pretty much how mainstream Christianity looks to me. I’m not impressed by the “evidence” that some apologists like to trot out. I think some parts of Christianity are at odds with modern science. I think many of the excuses apologists make aren’t worth my time. I don’t think the nice, liberal version of Christianity some Christians promote is “true Christianity.” And the whole talking snake thing is just goofy.

I think that if Christians were consistent, they’d realize I’m right about all of this. But if they’re not going to be consistent, there’s not much I can do about that. However, I do think I can ask that they be a bit more understanding of my position, and not get upset and to demand I respect their beliefs, any more than they respect the Mormon belief that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri.

I’ve got one more part of this chapter left, which I’ll post on Monday. (Edit: posted!) Trying to blog through last weekend made me realize I really need my weekends to recharge and plan out next week’s posts. See you all then.

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