More on Mormonism and Christianity

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?

Updating religion

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?

Recap

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.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    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.

    If God is omniscient, then he would have known about the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887:

    The act disincorporated both the LDS Church and the Perpetual Emigration Fund on the grounds that they fostered polygamy. The act prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine of from $500 to $800 and imprisonment of up to five years. It dissolved the corporation of the church and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties valued over a limit of $50,000.

    It appears LDS President Wilford Woodruff was responding more to political realities than to the voice of God.

  • http://physicalism.wordpress.com/ Physicalist

    Question from ignorance: Why were/are people so opposed to polygamy? I mean, I’m opposed to it b/c I see it being intrinsically tied to the subjugation of women, but I’m guessing that wasn’t the motivation in the 19th century when women weren’t allowed to vote or own property.

    It doesn’t seem they could be opposed to it on biblical grounds (unless there’s some New Testament thing I’ve forgotten). Did Western society just develop a “yuck” factor towards it in earlier centuries?

    • lesliegriffiths

      I see nothing wrong with polygamy in principle – but in practice I agree with you, that polygamy means one man multiple wives in most cases. And there is a long history in Mormonism of old men taking VERY young brides.

      Just finished (last night in fact) Jon Krakauer’s book, Under The Banner Of Heaven

      (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Under-Banner-Heaven-Story-Violent/dp/0330419129/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338968059&sr=8-1)

      Well worth a read – one passage describes evangelical christians picketing a mormon event (“Your religion is the wrong one”, “it’s all just made up”, “you are heretics”)

      Just this one passage to me encapsulates how inane religion really is.

    • plutosdad

      Just because someone thinks adult women are silly and shouldn’t be trusted to vote or lead, doesn’t mean they think enslavement of teenage girls is OK. There is no real contradiction there.

      Since that’s what polygamy is. Not consenting adults, not even subjugation of adult women, but forcing teen girls to marry old men.

      • FredBloggs

        That seems to be a common practice amongst polygamists, but obviously isn’t the definition of polygamy.

        • pjlandis

          Polygamy also gives rise to a number of practical problems involving inheritance, parental rights, and a number of issues. Marriage is kind of a contract, giving your partner familial rights like any other family member.

          From a legal standpoint, I think giving legal recognition to polygamy causes more problems than it solves. And I believe it’s generally allowed as a religious practice as long as no attempt is made to have more than one spouse legally recognized; on the flip side, this create problems with welfare and social services departments.

          Anyway, even if you have no moral objection to polygamy (practiced by consenting adults), there are good reasons why it’s illegal beyond religious objections.

    • johnhodges

      Polygamy, besides commonly involving the exploitation of young girls, often leads to the exile of young boys from the polygamist community. This has happened with Warren Jeff’s community, and others. More generally, it means that rich and powerful men have lots of wives, and poor men have none. This can lead to serious discontent and “social instability”, i.e. the poor men get tired of it and slaughter the rich.

  • Rabidtreeweasel

    @Physicalist
    Former Mormon here. From what I could tell when I looked into it the anti polygamy laws were designed specifically to counter the growth of the LES church. Granted at the time I looked into it the sources I used were primarily Church sources. There’s likely Another Side floating around out there somewhere. If it was solely a knee jerk reaction, a matter of banning something the other guy was doing because Jesus, then it was a violation of church and state. It is of course taboo in our culture now, but the lack of protections doesn’t stop people from living in unions in multi family households.

    • pjlandis

      I can believe they passed polygamy laws to stem the tide of Mormonism, or stifle Utah’s statehood, but polygamy as a social taboo was imported form Europe long before the US was even a country. At the very least, the severe prohibition on polygamous marriage has long roots in the English common law.

  • furtivezoog

    Oddly, I find the idea that God was once a man a much better and more convincing fit to the very human, very imperfect deity described in the Bible than an omniscient, perfect deity every was or could be. The petty, limited, tribal war god–not unlike many all-too-human Greek gods, or just about any gods except the modern interpretation of the Abrahamic god–comes with, it seems to me, far fewer theological pitfalls: “Why is there suffering? Why are things ‘designed’ poorly? Why did he need to rest and why would he care about praise and offerings?” The answer to all of these could then be that he was human once and still is entirely too human in his limitations, pettiness, and imperfections. (Not that I would be any more inclined to worship this deity…)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1468751142 Kevin

    Just a little advice.

    The LDS church is pretty small — only about 14 million (claimed) members versus 226 million Christians overall.

    That means you’ll have 212 million people chuckle and go “those aren’t Christians — so this guy’s argument fails.”

    It’s the No True Scotsman fallacy, of course, but you should be careful not to feed it.

    Not saying you shouldn’t go after the Morons, just don’t assume that debunking their claims does anything for the larger Christian audience.

    “Of course Joseph Smith was a fraud, but Jesus driving demons out of a sick person into a herd of swine — totally real!”

    • BKsea

      Kevin:

      Just a little advice.

      Go back and read the post.

      This is a scathing critique of Christianity. It just uses the obvious debunking of Mormonism to show that the same logic can be used to debunk Christianity. As the post concludes:

      “Now understand that the way Mormonism looks to most Christians is pretty much how mainstream Christianity looks to me.”

  • eric

    Re: the title of the post, IMO its worth giving some kudos to the mormons for how they have interacted with the scientific establishment (at least recently) on archaeology. They fund a lot of new world archaeology out of religious motivation, but in general they ‘play by the rules,’ i.e., accept the findings of mainstream science on archaeological conclusions. At worst, they practice an archaeology-of-the-gaps, preserving their religious belief against real findings by saying we just haven’t found the settlement they’re talking about yet.

    This is in stark contrast to mainstream christianity’s creationists, who twist science and lie about its findings. AFAIK, mormons don’t have an analog to flood geologists, i.e. mormons who claim that Incan ruin X was really Israelite and mainstream science is supressing this fact. Or if they have such factions, they’re a lot less vocal or popular than YECism is in mainline catholicism and protestantism.

    Its unlikely that crazy-religious-history believers are going to disappear overnight. As long as they’re a part of society, I’ll take mormons over creationists any day of the week. They, at least, teach their kids not to alter the methods of science to suit their religious beliefs.

    • cory

      This is in stark contrast to mainstream christianity’s creationists, who twist science and lie about its findings

      This is true but not relevant. The fact that most professional Mormon archeologists are good at their job isn’t any more unusual that most religious biologists being good at their job. It is usually people not active in the field who do the hack work, and there are a bunch of Mormon apologetic hacks, so that your average Mormon will look at, for instance, Chichen Itza and think it is a BoM site, even though most of the buildings were from hundreds of years later (BoM ends about 400, most Chichen Itza buildings were from after 750).

      So the New World Archeology Foundation does good work, but it hasn’t stopped most Mormons from being massively misinformed about archeology.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Quite frankly, I think that the whole story of Native Americans being descended from Israelites comes from a need to “validate” Native Americans within the context of a deeply racist religion in a deeply racist society. The Mor[m]ons wanted to make a place for the Indians in their theology, probably to encourage them to convert, and the only way they could get the white rank-and-file to go along was to assert that Indians were actually descended from God’s Chosen People. That way they could pretend they cared about Indians, without having to accept any radical notions of racial equality.

    Evidence had nothing to do with the doctrinal tweak, so it’s useless to talk about how there’s no evidence that any Jews ever built ships that could sail across the Atlantic at a time when even the Roman navy didn’t have that ability.

  • jody

    What’s fascinating is that even with all of the available historical evidence, the LDS faith was / is able to thrive, grow, gain influence and be considered legitimate by many, many people, both within the faith and those tolerant of faiths.

    Too, we can see all the influences that went in to making the religion. We can see what was happening both politically and socially in the US in the 1800s that made an impact on Smith and the faith he grew. Off the top of my head, those things included an “all things Egypt” craze that was influencing what amounted to pop culture of that time to the both the denigration and respect for the Native Americans that many settlers were wrestling with.

    The thing that I’m most thankful for the Mormons for? Battlestar Galactica. Two entire generations of wacky-sci-fi goodness based on the wacky-sci-fi nuttiness of their faith. Thank you, Joseph Smith!*

    *And Glen Larson.

  • Sqrat

    Aaah, Joseph Smith. Obviously he was not a believer in the particular brand of nonsense that he was peddling. But was he a “believer” at all? Did he believe in the existence of God or gods?

    If he didn’t, would that mean that the founder of Mormonism was, not a Mormon, but an atheist?

  • mikespeir

    I was reading some William Dever a few months ago, and he was pointing out that we have excavated the site of Kadesh-Barnea. That’s where the Children of Israel supposedly camped out for 38 years after the debacle of believing the majority report of the 12 men who spied out the land of Canaan. This lack of faith disqualified the Israelites from inhabiting the land, and God decided they would have to wait until the next generation to have it.

    One thing struck me immediately as absurd. Considering the 600,000 men, not counting women and children, for those 38 years Kadesh-Barnea would have been by far the biggest city on the planet, and probably by several times over. (We’re talking 1200 to 1500 BC here.) Archeologists dug down at the site until there was nothing more to dig up. What did they find at the lowest level? An Egyptian fortress from the 10th century BC–centuries too late for the Exodus. And yet, believers in the historicity of the OT still won’t give up. That’s the kind of concreted absurdity we’re having to deal with here.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    what Jewish and Christian apologists of said

    Typo alert.

    • iszsb

      There’s plenty more than that. There are grammatical errors too. I wish Chris would proof read his posts.
      That said, the context of the post is spot on. :)


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