Is Mormonism Ridiculous?

In The Book of Mormon Broadway musical, the central character Elder Price sings, “I Believe…” followed by a mixed series of benign and ridiculous claims. The genius of the song is that it so perfectly performs widespread American perceptions about Mormonism in the early 21st century.  Elder Price, and Mormons in general, are presented as harboring some naive and strange ideas, but in the end being good people with good intentions who might actually be able to help people.

Mitt Romney’s upcoming nomination as the Republican candidate for President seems to confirm how Mormons generally have come to be understood.  Even Evangelical Republican voters have largely overcome some hesitancy about Mormonism, perhaps accepting it the way viewers of The Book of Mormon musical come to accept Mormons. Romney may hold some wacky religious ideas, but he is a good person who may actually help some people.

Like Elder Price and Mitt Romney, Mormons are praised for certain characteristics: being nice, having good families, valuing industry, thrift, or for being good citizens in the community. These are indeed genuine compliments that any community should be proud of.  What is missing from this list of positive attributes is praise for Mormonism as having any important religious ideas.  In fact, praises of Mormons as people often include the caveat that Mormon ideas and beliefs about angels, golden plates, and Kolob are strange, weird, ridiculous, and sometimes even dangerous.

The common response to the idea of Mormonism’s weirdness is to insist that all religions are weird to some extent.  Mormons and non-Mormons alike utilize this response.  Stephen Colbert said it best when he quipped, “Mormons believe Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel on a hill, when everybody knows that Moses got stone tablets from a burning bush on a mountain!”  Jon Stewart similarly evaluated the angst about Mormonism as a kind of arbitrary stigmatizing that can apply to any religion. There is something compelling about familiarizing Mormonism by way of defamiliarizing accepted religious stories, yet this also remains unsatisfying to explain why anyone would believe incredulous things.

The trotting out of apparently ridiculous Mormon ideas is evidence of just how little Americans really understand religion.  Religious people of all stripes should be concerned with the way Mormonism is portrayed because it reveals the inability of people to ask the right kind of questions about religion and to discern how religious people construct their worlds.  Discussion of Mormonism in the media tends to reveal the fundamentally unethical way that Americans think about religion, engaging in reductionism, decontextualization, and stereotyping.  It is not enough to suggest that all religious are equally silly (a point Bill Maher’s Religulous makes not in defense of religion, but against it).  This perspective represents a failure to understand religion at all.

Such shallow explanations of Mormonism tend to decontextualize certain details that are embedded within larger narratives in a way that renders them humorous or bizarre, but unintelligible as meaningful religious ideas. It would be like saying that Christianity is about the belief that three Zoroastrian magi followed a star to a house in Bethlehem or Islam is about the idea that Mohammed flew on a horse to Jerusalem.  These may be accurate details, but shorn from the broader context they reveal essentially nothing about Christianity or Islam.  Bullet lists of strange ideas hardly explain what people find compelling about the Christian or Islamic narratives and does little to illuminate the meaning of these religions to billions of adherents.

How then should we think about religions that avoids reducing them to a few salacious ideas?  Iconic scholar of religion J.Z. Smith has suggested that in the way we speak about religion, there is “a tension between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.” (Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], xii.)  In other words, we are often tempted to treat religion as something strange and exotic rather than as a normal way of engaging with the world.  When we engage with the religious ideas of others, we owe them the respect of an explanation of what may be intellectually compelling about them.  What kinds of problems are they seeking to solve?  How do they make sense of the situation around them?

Like most religious traditions, Mormonism emerged to resolve some kind of spiritual or intellectual problems its early adherents saw in the competing options available to them.  In order for Mormonism to survive, it has had to continue to be relevant, to address something that people find compelling.  As the discussion of Mormonism continues in the public sphere, it may be useful to understand what people find compelling about Mormonism, and even why so many apparently smart and capable thinkers remain committed to its teachings.

There is no doubt that public discussions of Mormonism will remain interested in difficult issues from its past, including polygamy and its history of excluding people of African descent from priesthood leadership; and its present, including excluding women from priesthood ordination and its teachings about homosexuality. These discussions are important, and will hopefully be conducted responsibly and fairly. Rather than focus solely on these more problematic and controversial aspects, we might practice an attentiveness toward Mormonism as a paradigm for thinking about religion more broadly, to articulate Mormonism as offering a persuasive evaluation (for some) of human situations. The questions that we should be asking, and Mormons should be answering: How does Mormonism handle the big questions?  What is the meaning of life, of death, of the terrible and the good in the world?  How do Mormon notions about the cosmos affect ethical decisions toward others?  What do Mormon narratives about the past and the present offer their adherents?  These are not simple questions, and the answers are not simple either.  To discuss them at all is a serious endeavor.  While we may laugh (and I think we should) about religion, we can only do so ethically if we learn to think with religion as well.

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  • Lilian Weimer

    The article and many of the comments seem to be trying terribly hard to be , what we in England call, ‘worthy’ and yet inevitably seem only to be able to be ‘wordy’. So many of the comments , as well as the general thread in the article , ignore one very fundamental fact of life which is that the vast majority of human beings are beset with bigotry and prejudices. They do not want to give them up and they will not give them up for anything so flimsy and personally unrewarding as the facts, or a well turned argument for reason to prevail . Are you all nuts? I could care less what religious beliefs a person holds , I could care less what they might think of the ones I hold . Let’s just leave it at that and stop trying to read mental illness or evil motivation into it all eh ?

  • Andrés Valgarðsson

    As with any religion, the most salient question you can ask about it, what really matters about it is ultimately only “Is it true?”

    When an outside observer evaluates whether or not Mormonism describes reality as it is, they don’t care about whether or not it says nice things about life, death or family, anyone can do that without a religious framework. They don’t care what sort of social or historical situation they arose in.

    The only question that matters is, as I said. “Is it true?”

    And Mormonism, when viewed without the sort of bias that comes from being raised in it, does not seem like it could score much higher than “Almost certainly not”.

    I’m going to disagree with the stance of the article and say that the best thing about Mormonism, is that at least it’s not really any more unlikely than Christianity, Judaism or Islam, but I’ll still say that it’s easier to criticize because it’s founding is closer to us in time, it’s easier to pick apart the life of Joseph Smith for inconsistencies or embarrassments than it is to pick apart the life of say, Jesus Christ or Moses. So it comes at something of a disadvantage when compared to ‘similar religions.

    But hey, at least it’s not Scientology, right?

  • Robert M

    “I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people”

    lol…one of the best lines in the song and says it all.

  • Martin

    While I haven’t read through all of these comments yet, I just have to say that I’m impressed. All the comments so far, along the entire spectrum from mormon apologetic, to indifferent, to extremely critical, has ben remarkably civil. I’ve never seen this kind of universal civility and calm reasoned arguments on a comment stream this long about mormonism.

    Thank you. I feel like this discussion can actually lead to a better understanding of each others views, and cause people of any opinion to ponder questions they haven’t thought of before.

    Good article too, and not exclusively for its position, but because it gave everyone something of substance to chew on.

  • Shawn

    Its true and no one can make me deny it! I do not care how intelligent one sounds in their argument, I do not rely on others opinions. I have done my studying and research and have sincerely prayed and received an answer. Yeah, I cant show you evidence of this, but I have seen it in my life. I do not need nor care about what others say about my beliefs because to me, I know they are real and true. Say what you will, I love you either way. Stereotype me as a crazy religious person, that is fine by me, because all this is is text on a computer that you attack like wolves. It is easy to be so rude to one another because you are simply sitting in front of a computer. If we want true peace and understanding, we should communicate in a more tolerant, less hateful way. Just because the person is a half a world away does not give us the right to degrade each others beliefs or lack of belief. It is easy to point fingers at one another no mater what end of the spectrum you may be on, assumptions and lies are why we have so many wars and fighting going on. As for me, I will not participate in conversation where everyone tries to one up the other, I will defend attacks on anyone, whether they have the same beliefs as me or not. We need not hold ourselves as right in every manner and take offense when we disagree. Lets talk as genuine seekers of truth and agree to disagree in a kind manner.

  • Filosopher

    The Elvis analogy (btw argument by analogy is falacious to the extent salient features differ from what you are analogizing) is ridiculously bad because Elvis is generally accepted as dead. Religious beliefs– e.g., miracles–on the other hand, are generally accepted as real in the U.S. 8 out of 10 Americans “believe that miracles still occur today as [they did] in ancient times,” and, while not a majority, “a third of those surveyed said they had ‘experienced or witnessed a divine healing.’” (see U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices: Diverse and Politically Relevant (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, June 2008), 34, 54, NOT SO SURE the same proportion of Americans believe Elvis is alive. My point is, your argument severely, and slyly attempts to downplay the importance of religious claims relative to it’s true relevance in at least American culture.

    You say:
    “Summarized from Christopher Hitchens: Claims which are made without evidence can be rejected without evidence.
    Summarized from Carl Sagan: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    A few points:
    Even if these authorities were the very best in their fields, these arguments by authority fail in several ways.
    1) These authorities are offered up as having authority on subject matter a, for a debate in subject matter b. They are not even offered up as purported authorities in epistemology (how you KNOW something is true–the whole debate), but purported authorities in the development of scientific
    2) Hitchens’ claim is made WITHOUT EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE. Therefore, his claim can be rejected without evidence by his own argument.
    3) Let’s help your use of Hitchens out: An “empirical theory” without purported empirical support, by definition is not a theory, just a hypothesis (scientific theories require empirical justification by definition). It can therefore be rejected as a “theory” because it doesn’t meet the criteria for being considered a theory (not because it’s a bad theory).

    Now, to extend that for you, into the realm of reasoning/logic (not emperical data analysis) you would say this: similarly, an argument with a conclusion but no premises, is not an argument, just a stand-alone proposition (to use the logical term). That would be the proper way to extend Hitchens argument into logic (where arguments are fashioned, not theories, by virtue of reasons, not empiricism). NOTE: this is an A PRIORI reasoning claim, not an A POSTERIORI claim (which goes far beyond your critique paradigm).

    To apply this argument to Mormonism, you have to be saying: nobody has ever put forth an argument for Mormonism (not even a bad one); therefore, there is no argument on its behalf to consider; therefore, disregard Mormonism outright.

    I think no rational person would agree that no argument has ever been put forth in favor of Mormonism’s being true though (if you do, read on). It would take serious ignorance or being disingenuous to claim such a thing. Therefore, such a claim should be as thoughtfully dismissed as someone’s saying Elvis is alive–i think you can more properly invoke Elvis there.

    So, the Testimony of Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, the change for the better in other peoples’ lives, the miracles people report in their own lives, above average happy marriages, etc. could all be interpreted as EVIDENCE that the tenets of the LDS faith are true. Certainly evidence has been provided, whether or not one considers it evidence is another matter.

    You end up claiming throughout your posts that the scientific method is the one and only way to truth. Question: how did you arrive at that belief? Via the scientific method? Nay. That’s an assumption anyone using the scientific method has to make requiring some inductive argument. That belief is not / cannot possibly be justified by an empirical study. Go home and think about that–it’s what defeated the logical positivism movement in the 20s.

    On that topic, consider this: evidence of absence is not absence of evidence. Even if you were 100% assured you had never experienced the kind of assurance necessary to count as evidence for the LDS faith being true, that simply means there is an absence of evidence for you, and that is all you can be certain of. It DOES NOT mean there is NO EVIDENCE–just that your mechanisms for gathering evidence have failed to yield anything for you yet.

    BUT, let’s go a step further. Let’s say YOU WERE CERTAIN there was no way you could ever have any evidence presented to you on whether LDS tenets are true. That is STILL is an assertion on your part. For instance: God could very will manifest himself to someone else, and not to you. Or, he could manifest Himself to you, and you just can’t tell. I’m not saying it’s wacky for you to assert that, just that it doesn’t follow logically. From your vantage point, you, at best are leveraging an inductive argument from a sample size of ONE person (namely you)…in an attempt to extend it to millions of sincere people who say they have experienced otherwise. Given the above, throwing out that you categorically disrespect religious beliefs and that it is “nonsense” manifests a bit of hubris in my view–but you’re entitled to your opinion.

    As for Sagan’s quote, pretty sure Mormon’s whole-heartedly agree (same for Hitchen’s quote, understood properly.) . Many seemingly rational–believe it or not–members of the Church hold claim to extraordinary evidence for their beliefs (to say nothing of how many give their lives, literally, and in total devotion in various self-denying ways for their convictions!)–evidence better than the non-evidential inductive assumptions required to consider the scientific method the holy grail for gathering absolute truth. HINT: people might not share sacred experiences to someone who declares they will reject evidence offered for any such claims outright, and “disrespect” their beliefs.

    Now back to logic talk. REMEMBER: Even if there were no present evidence of God’s existence, it would not mean that He does not exist. The claim He does not exist requires extraordinary evidence . (you later claim “there is no evidence”). So, for an atheist to make the claim “God absolutely does not exist” and be logically warranted in making such a claim–what would the argument offered in support of it look like? I think something like this: I, from my frail vantage point as a human being, have excised the universe for every last vestige of evidence, and alas, have confirmed indisputably, not only that no Creator is to be found, but that it is KNOWN/THERE IS EVIDENCE that there is no God whatsoever. Persuaded? Yet that’s the kind of argument an atheist has to make from an empirical standpoint, unless they want to unscrupulously and unscientifically fall back on some inductive claim (e.g., the one you put forth from Hitchens). At best, arguments for atheism are inductive. Invalidating the proposition “God exists” , logically gets you to: I cannot say he exists, NOT, he DOES NOT exist.