Next in the series after this post.
When archaeology shows religion is wrong
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. Moroni also supposedly 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 anymore 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 we’re 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, some time 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.
Goofiness and the Garden of Eden
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, LDS.org. 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.
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?
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 much of it, including the talking snake thing, strikes me as 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 demand I respect their beliefs, any more than they respect the Mormon belief that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri.