Mormonism Beats Christianity—Or Does It?

Mormonism Beats Christianity—Or Does It? March 31, 2017

The Christian world has plenty of people eager to predict the future. Hal Lindsey published several predictions of the End. Harold Camping hilariously predicted the end of the world in 2011 (I wrote about that herehere, and here).

These are just a few in the long line of end-of-the-world predictors, and they all make two mistakes. First, they delude themselves that they can predict the future. Second, they’re too specific! That’s why Nostradamus’s nonsense is still popular but Hal Lindsay’s breathlessly titled books The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon or Planet Earth: The Final Chapter aren’t. Nostradamus is ambiguous, so it can be interpreted (always in hindsight!) to mean something profound. Specific, short-term predictions tend to explode in your face when they don’t happen.

The importance of that lesson will be apparent shortly.

Mormonism beats Christianity

I wrote a post with this thought experiment: imagine the most convincing historical record of a religion. What could it possibly say to convince you to sign up?

Mormonism almost has the perfect historical record of that imaginary situation. It certainly beats conventional Christianity.

  • Number of documents. The Christian apologist may say that the New Testament story is supported by the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and other outsiders. But Mormons point to newspaper articles, diaries, letters, and even court records documenting the early fathers of the church, a far broader record than that of the New Testament. Some of these accounts of the events in the early Mormon church were written days or even hours after the events.
  • Quality of copies. The apologist will talk about the tens of thousands of New Testament manuscript copies and the antiquity of some of the oldest manuscripts, the most voluminous record of any book, but the Mormon record beats this again. The books of Mormonism were written after the modern printing press, and we have many early, identical copies. There is no centuries-long dark period separating originals from our earliest copies and no worry that scribes “improved” manuscripts as they copied them.
  • Cultural gap. The Jesus story is from a culture long ago and far away, and the gospels document the Christian tradition within Greek culture, already one culture removed from the Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus. In Mormonism, we can read the accounts of the participants in our own language.
  • Oral history gap. The apologist will talk about how little time elapsed between the events and the documentation of those events—perhaps 40 to 70 years for the gospels. Not bad, but Mormonism spent basically no time in the limbo of oral tradition. Its holy books were committed to paper immediately.
  • Provenance. The New Testament books were written by ordinary people, not by God himself or even angels. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was told by an angel about the golden plates, from which the Book of Mormon was written. Yes, Smith’s translation process was fallible, but he wasn’t writing from memory. That his source document was vetted by an angel says a lot about the quality of what he started with.
  • Eyewitness accounts. The four gospels don’t claim to be eyewitness accounts. We don’t even know who wrote them. Within Mormonism, 12 men saw the golden plates. Testimony from those men is at the beginning of the Book of Mormon.
  • Who would die for a lie? Christian apologists ask this question and then point to the martyred disciples of Jesus. In the first place, this argument crumbles on investigation. In the second, Mormonism matches it. The Mormon inner circle put themselves through much hardship, including death in at least the case of founder Joseph Smith. If Christian apologists claim that this is strong evidence for Christianity, must it be for Mormonism as well?
  • Naysayer hypothesis. Christian apologists say that if the Jesus story were false, naysayers of the time would’ve snuffed it out. A false story wouldn’t have survived to be popular today. In the first place, this argument is ridiculous. In the second, Mormonism matches it. If the story were false, those in the inner circle would’ve shut it down, right?

But there’s another side to the story: part 2.

If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; 
if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. 
— Mark Twain

 (This is an update of a post that originally appeared 11/14/13.)

Image credit: Michael Whiffen, flickr, CC

 

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  • eric

    I’m convinced. Dibs on Mars.

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    • Joe

      Nobody wants Uranus, for some reason?

  • GubbaBumpkin

    The Christian apologist may say that the New Testament story is
    supported by the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and other outsiders. But
    Mormons point to newspaper articles, diaries, letters, and even court
    records documenting the early fathers of the church, a far broader
    record than that of the New Testament. Some of these accounts of the
    events in the early Mormon church were written days or even hours after
    the events.

    One needs to draw a distinction here between events at the time of Joseph Smith and events at the time of the books of Nephi, Moroni, and Ether.

    • The Eh’theist

      Actually, it’s exactly the same as Jesus using the Jewish Scriptures, such as Jesus mentioning the story of Jonah. There’s the timeframe of the current narrative (the story of Jesus talking about Jonah), and the timeframe described in the scriptural narrative (the story of Jonah).

      In the case of the Mormons, the Joseph Smith stories are the current narrative, and the stories you mention are the narratives of the scripture he used.

      • Michael Neville

        Incidentally the Book of Mormon is almost unreadable. Joseph Smith wrote (or dictated) it in conscious imitation of the King James Bible. Unfortunately Smith was a poor writer and didn’t understand Jacobean English grammar. The King James Bible is a masterpiece of English literature. The Book of Mormon was described by Mark Twain as “chloroform in print.”

        For those who want to read it and are fluent in another language I recommend reading the Book of Mormon in that language. I’m fluent in French and the French translation of the Book of Mormon is in modern Parisian French. It’s still a boring book but it doesn’t suffer from being ungrammatical.

        • The Eh’theist

          That’s a neat idea,reading it in another language. I had been attending Pentecostal churches before I ever read the BoM, so I was used to “prophecies” in bad KJV English. When I read the BoM it was actually amusing to see that all the errors had been captured in print. The “prophecies” could at least have their rough edges filed off as people remembered them.

        • If I were to tackle that project, I think I’d opt for the Cliff Notes version.

        • Greg G.

          I’m waiting for the expurgated version of the Cliff Notes.

        • TheNuszAbides

          “the one without the gannet!”

        • Do they consider the translations authoritative, as Christians (usually) would? Or is it like the Koran, where only the original Arabic is considered authoritative?

        • Michael Neville

          I think that translations are acceptable. The Mormons put such a great effort into missionary work that they’d have to accept translations because most adults have difficulty learning a new language.

        • Kevin K

          I tried once in a moment of boredom while staying at a Marriott hotel (which are all outfitted with BoMs). Couldn’t get past the first page. It just didn’t make any sense at all.

  • Michael Neville

    I particularly like how Joseph Smith would get revelations dictated to him personally by “Heavenly Father”. These revelations, given in a separate book called Doctrine and Covenants, include the one where Heavenly Father told Joe to have as many wives as he wanted. Joe, ever obedient to Heavenly Father, married something like 26 wives (the exact number isn’t certain), some as young as 15 and some already married to someone else.

    • I suppose the craziest thing is for him to tell one of the guys in his church, “Hey, bro, God told me that you need to give me your wife. Sorry to lay that on you, but I’m just the messenger, y’know.”

      But it apparently included petty things as well, like pocket watches or other stuff that belonged to other people. Ballsy, I suppose. And weird that the other guys just rolled over.

      • bbeck

        At least 3 time I’ve heard christians tell me – “…God told me to tell you….”

        • epeeist

          At least 3 time I’ve heard christians tell me – “…God told me to tell you….”

          Why do we only ever get the monkey, never the organ grinder.

        • Phil Rimmer

          Organ grinder? G-d can’t even manage a simple briss without help…

          er, coat, I think.

        • Rick Hoselton

          My stock reply is that I get contradictory messages from different people, all claiming to be from God. I ask them to tell God for me that if he can’t be bothered to tell me directly, I don’t care to listen.

        • Kevin K

          “Have him call me. He knows my cell number.”

      • Chuck Johnson

        Cults operate this way, the Charlie Manson one, too.

        Let me live ‘neath your spell,
        Do do that voodoo that you do so well !

  • Chuck Johnson

    This is an “argument from an abundance of evidence”.

    There is plenty of evidence to prove that Mormonism is the true word of God.
    There is plenty of evidence to prove that the whole foundation of Mormonism is a fraud.

    There’s even enough left-over evidence to make a very successful Broadway musical satire.

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    • RichardSRussell

      And we know which one, too, don’t we? Thank you, Trey and Matt!

  • Even as a Christian I was skeptical of the extravagant claims made for prophecy in the Bible. But what convinced me most that the claims were wrong was seeing an analysis of amazing Mormon prophecies (in particular, the prophecy of the American civil war). And if you look at defences of Mormon prophecies, you can see that they apply many of the same justifications for them being partially fulfilled or deferred to be fulfilled later as Christians do.

    That experience also started me comparing with other religions more generally, not just taking Christianity in a vacuum. And the original source was “Why I believed”, by Ken Daniels, a book I highly recommend.

    • RichardSRussell

      With regard to claims for prophecy fulfillment, I am always stunned that the Xmas story in the very first chapter of the very first book in the New Testament always gets read aloud from every Protestant pulpit in America every year, and it always ends the same way, and nobody even blinks:

      (23) Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name IMMANU-EL, which being interpreted is, God with us. …

      (25) and … she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

      The Bible even capitalizes the names! The human capacity for cognitive dissonance is truly stunning!

      • A great example, though I assume they read it as “Jesus is ‘God with us'”.

        Now, I look through the lists of fulfilled prophecies in the New Testament, and see nothing more than unsubstantiated assertions by NT authors that this or that OT verse really meant something completely different. Even if the original didn’t appear to be a prophecy.

        Matthew seems particularly culpable. My favourites are “Out of Egypt I called my son” (you couldn’t tear it much better out of context if you tried), and the picture of Jesus riding two donkeys at once because Matthew didn’t understand parallelism properly.

  • Marja Erwin

    If Iesus had several new books of kings, then challenges to these books, suggestions that they fit 1st-century Jewish perceptions of the past better than they fit archaeological evidence, suggestions that they fit the Malay peninsula (!) better than they fit southwest Asia, etc. would be challenges to Christianity.

  • Charlie Johnson

    Studying Mormom apologetics and realizing their similarity to evidentialist Christian apologetics were key steps in my deconversion. No matter how ridiculous or patently untrue a claim, it is still possible for people to believe it sincerely and write books asserting it.

    • Pofarmer

      Actually, according to Eric Hoffer in “The True Believers” the more ridiculous and harder to believe something is the more important it is to believe it. It’s a test of faith.

      • Chuck Johnson

        By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to
        make people believe that heaven is hell — and hell heaven. The greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed.

      • RichardSRussell

        For my money, The True Believer should be required reading in every high-school world-history class ever.

        • Pofarmer

          It’s really the first book that I ever read that explained how and why people will believe things in spite of the truth value of the things they believe. The cool thing is, is that the formula works as well for the Tea Party as it does for March on Wall Street.

    • Chuck Johnson

      Cherry picking (confirmation bias) will provide an abundance of evidence for ridiculous claims.

      We are immersed in a culture full of evidence pro and con just about everything. Developing a good quality-of-evidence filter is essential to getting to the truth.

  • Greg G.

    The Difference Between Eastern and Western Religion in a Nutshell (the appropriate receptacle)

    SMBC

  • Frank G Turner

    Where did that photo of a church/castle in wintertime come from? It looks pretty awesome (regardless of any affiliation).

    • Greg G.

      The mouseover says it’s the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

      • Frank G Turner

        Was looking at it on a mobile. He gave the credit though for which I am thankful, I just didn’t know where to look.

    • I always put the photo credit at the bottom.

      As an aside, that reminds me of an LDS temple outside of Washington DC. As you’re driving on the highway, you see the temple in the distance with (nearer) a bridge crossing. On the side of the bridge, someone had spray painted “Surrender Dorothy!”

      http://images.dailykos.com/images/213127/story_image/surrender_Dorothy_copy.jpg

      • Philmonomer
        • Brilliant! I saw this in about 1981.

          Did you see this yourself, or are you just handy with photo searching tools??

        • Philmonomer

          Nope, I can’t say I saw it myself (although I’m familiar with it). I just used “Google Images”

        • Greg G.

          I was in Baltimore for work for a couple of weeks so one of the other guys and I decided to visit DC on the weekend. Curiosity got the better of us so we exited the highway to see the joint close up. I’ve been thrown out of better places than that before.

        • Michael Neville

          I’ve been thrown out of better places than that before.

          I’m not surprised.

      • Frank G Turner

        I know the temple that you are talking about.

    • Pofarmer

      Can’t imagine how much money was wasted on it.

      • Frank G Turner

        Its still a pretty awesome photo. You are right though, probably a waste of money.

  • A number of the other early Mormons were also killed in Missouri.

  • TheNuszAbides

    we can read the accounts of the participants in our own language.

    or at least in the participants’ hamfisted mimicry of King James English.

    That his source document was vetted by an angel says a lot about the quality of what he started with.

    oh, well played, sir.

  • LastManOnEarth

    May I suggest the Lego version from the renowned author/illustrator of the Brick Bible, Elbe Spurling?

    http://thebrickbookofmormon.com

  • Kevin K

    If you ask a Christian of a certain stripe why the OT food laws are not followed, why we don’t keep slaves from other countries, and why we don’t stone adulterers to death, you’re liable to be given the “progressive revelation” talk.

    Whenever that happens to me, I bring up Joseph Smith. That usually ends the use of that excuse then and there.

  • RichardSRussell

    Who would die for a lie?

    I got a pitch somewhat similar to this back in the 1960s after sitting thru 6 hour-long sessions with a pair of young Mormon missionaries who I’m sure thot that I was a hot prospect, because I was respectful, paid close attention, and asked pertinent questions.

    At the end of the lesson plan, they asked if I was ready to make a commitment to Mormonism, and I told them no way, I’m still as solid an atheist as I ever was, but now I’m a better informed one. The elder elder (they call them all “elders”, even tho most of them have barely started shaving) got all teary-eyed and asked me how I could possibly turn down the generous offer of Joseph Smith, who “gave his heart’s blood” for what he believed in.

    I was too uncomfortable at the time to come up with anything more than a mumbled response that I was sorry for his sacrifice but still wasn’t convinced of his religion. Subsequently I thot I should have replied that dying for what you believe in (or pretend to believe in) may be a sign of sincerity (or sheer bad luck), but it’s in no way an indicator of truth or accuracy, as dead guys from Michael Servetus to Jim Jones to Adolf Hitler would indicate.