Adventures With Mormonism
NOTE: This is being updated a little late from California.
Travelling the world, living the dream of Americana, feeling the brilliance and beauty in the people of this planet and generally living enviably leads me to some strange places. One of those places was Utah. It is a massive state of great diversity, wonderful natural beauty. Deserts, forests, canyons and mountains all await the Utah tourist.
But something lives below the steep shadows of the mountains. Dust swirls in the basins. Salt fills the lakes.
And strange peoples inhabit the cities.
Utah is the home – nay, the Mecca, the New Jerusalem if you will – of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But please, call them Mormons, after their Holy Book, the Book of Mormon. Mormonism is the faith founded by American Joseph Smith and now has about fourteen million adherents across the planet. It is a faith with celestial philosophy, interesting interpretations of marriage and wacky rituals involving those too dead to hear the true word of the Prophets.
I spent a week in Utah with one goal in mind: to learn about Mormons, figure out their ways and feel the madness all by myself. I have come to several conclusions about Mormonism that I would like to share with you. I’ll try to be original about this and not repeat the stuff previously written about Mormons in other places and give you my own personal thoughts and twists on the matter for your delight and amusement. This is probably going to be a long essay like the last post, but I’ll break it down into digestible factoids for those raised on modern technology like myself. Sorry for those raised on television. This may be hard.
NOTE: If you’re somewhat unsure as to what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints actually believe, then look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormonism
Or from the horse’s mouth: http://mormon.org/mormonorg/eng/
And the Book of Mormon itself: http://mormon.org/mormonorg/eng/basic-beliefs/the-restoration-of-truth/the-book-of-mormon
A Brief Framing Before We Begin: It’s not that I’m totally against the idea of God (though it is somewhat philosophically disagreeable and highly unlikely), it’s just that I think it’s completely unnecessary to my understanding of the universe and I can function rather well without it and all the silliness that comes with it. Go ahead and believe if you think it adds to your existence and understanding of life on this planet, I don’t mean to take that away from you, but I would like to share my belief and you are free to accept or reject it as you see fit. It’s just like balls, really: don’t shove it down my throat and I won’t shove it down yours.
Conclusion One: Mormonism is not that different from the rest of the major religions and is painted with the same streaks of crazy to be found elsewhere in the world
Mormonism is the same brand of nut flavoured Christian yoghurt with a sprinkling of American pioneer ideology on top of its European colonial culture. It is Modern Christianity tailored and personalised for 1800’s America. Joseph Smith – a charismatic leader, liar and conman – just modified Christianity to the New World, replacing the exodus of the Jews to Israel with an exodus to the Americas, placing the great characters and actions in America and thus giving their new land a divine, Christian God-approved home. Smith’s followers felt safe that their lives here were now sanctioned by the grace of God, that America was a heavenly gift to them, the Chosen Pioneers of the New World. For an ignorant peasant in the early colonies and then in the settlements on the outskirts of a harsh and unknown continent, this would be an enticing proposition. One thing I approve of is that Smith added in some science fiction of sorts (pre-dating Jules Verne and HG Wells by quite some time), claiming that heaven was a tangible location out in the distant galaxy called Kolob – which is funny because it sounds like ‘bollock’ backward and is even funnier because bollocks is precisely what astronomers think of Kolob.
To put it succinctly, Smith just took the original concepts of Christianity and the Bible and then correlated, connected and knitted them all together into a bespoke suite of Christiana Americana. It’s like bad Christian fan fiction where people on the internets write exciting new stories of your favourite characters – but instead of writing of Boba Fett/Gandalf/Pikachu/Sailor Moon/Gordon Freeman and their wacky adventures, it’s about Jesus/Hezekiah/Moroni. It’s like Hercules in New York with Arnold Schwarzenegger except this time it’s Jesus in Ancient New York. It’s like when Hollywood remakes an awesome foreign film (The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, Infernal Affairs and The Departed, Death at a Funeral and Death at a Funeral or Le Dîner de Cons and Dinner for Schmucks along with a load of other great films ruined) and then modifies the great original for American audiences. Critics almost unanimously regard the remake as inferior, sterilised, unnecessary, crap or totally pointless (except for The Departed, which is awesome). Well, that’s what Joseph Smith did: he succeeded in a pointless Hollywood remake of the Bible.
Conclusion Two: Mormonism is just part of a trend and no more deserving of mockery than other form of faith-based belief
One of Christianity’s greatest abilities is its flexibility. Most of the modern rituals of Christianity are concessions to indigenous beliefs of the Romans, the Greeks, the Celts, the Germans, the Angles, the Dacians, the Scandinavians and a multitude of other tribes across the world. In Mexico, Christianity is blended with the old Aztec beliefs and you thus have an amalgamation of Jesus and Tezcatlipoca in the form of Black Jesus. Eastern Orthodox is Chirstianity tailored for Eastern Europeans and Greeks and some of the rituals and date of festivals differ because of that slight cultural, pre-Christian difference. Easter is based on old pagan European fertility rites. Christmas represents the rebirth of agriculture and, thus, life in the middle of winter by celebrating the birth of Jesus and the New Year. Christianity just tends to come along to the party and say: “Oi, hold on! We’re not actually celebrating the Feast of the Goddess of the Dawn Eostre, but actually the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! You’ve got it all wrong. Oh, by all means keep on celebrating and making merry, but don’t forget who you’re really worshipping: us!”
And eventually people did forget that they were celebrating Eostre and started celebrating Easter but dedicating it to the Christian God and the stories of Jesus.
Christianity is the most successful philosophy of indoctrination the world has ever seen.
I am of the opinion that Christianity is predominantly an umbrella religion, covering the same ground as the old religions attempted to. It solves the same basic human woes about mortality, our innate fear of the unknown and our desire to impress some form of order on what is an otherwise chaotic, indefinable mess of a reality. Mormonism is a natural evolution of this. It is the Christian umbrella of the American pioneer lifestyle, forming a newer, shinier, more culturally-specific religion like Martin Luther did to 16th century Germany with what became known as Lutheranism, like Jean Calvin did to Geneva with Calvinism, like Henry VIII did to Britain with Anglicanism – there’s little difference in them. They purport to cure the same things, alleviate the same fears with a slightly different answer that is more appealing to the mind and heart of the target audience. It’s pretty much just a rebranding of religion, so in my opinion this makes Mormon beliefs mostly a marketing decision.
Conclusion Three: Promising the unknown and unknowable is dangerous and immoral
I make fun of all wacky belief. This conclusion really applies to all religion. The guy telling me that I must turn to Jesus or his invisible friend in the clouds will threaten me with eternal damnation deserves to be ignored just as much as the guy telling me that aliens are responsible for all natural disasters and only when we capitulate with them will the earthquakes and flight-depriving volcanic eruptions stop. Neither should be listened to with anything other than complete scepticism, but threatening me with infinite pain after death is a particularly odious technique of compliance, just as promising eternal life is. It’s dangerous to play with people’s natural fear of death like that. Since we have life, and it is temporary in all cases, we have always wondered what happens after death. To play with this is dangerous.
The Mormon missionaries frequently promised me eternal life. Immortality. They straight up said that if I join the Mormon Church I would live forever… after I died. I thought this disagreeable. To toy with my human gripes of mortality like that, to promise me eternal life if I give up my free, rational thought in the present is a prospect that fills me with disgust. Promises of immortality I take with with a pinch of salt, a slice of lemon and a shot of tequila. Then I worry about the people who are open to the idea and thus the influence of such a promise falling for it and getting tied up with all the baggage that goes with it. Morality is something you should find out for yourself. Personally, I prefer ethics and the modern theories of justice and righteous actions based in logic to moral principles. The ideas of religion, the teachings of the books and elders, I take, how we shall we say, under consideration.
I’ve got many hours worth of ideas and concepts that provide my alternative viewpoint, but here is not the place to explain them. Just know that I live in a reality dominated by factual observations rather than fanciful dreams and stories. It’s kind of fun, but it certainly doesn’t suti everyone.
Conclusion Three: The Book of Mormon is obviously moronic
Seriously, it’s nonsense. Utter nonsense. The Book of Mormon is such a bad imitation of the King James Bible, that there can be no doubt that it’s the main source, disproving the claim that it was written 1600 years ago. There are translational errors in the Book of Mormon that are also in the King James Bible. There are sections shamelessly ripped from its pages. “And it came to pass” appears 999 times (the Old Testament has the phrase some 334 times).
The whole story of how Joseph Smith read the tablets from the hat is so full of obvious deceit and lies that to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. It’s utter fabrication straight from the conniving, dishonest mind of Joebbels Smith. The claim is that Joey Smith found some golden tablets on a hill placed by the angel Moroni, son of Mormon, describing the tales of the Israelites and Jesus in the New World. Then he translated the tablets with some Seer Stones and gets so many things wrong it’s funny. It’s full of anachronisms, errors in geography, errors in biology, horticulture and agriculture and the DNA evidence about the Native Americans’ origin. The consensus outside the Mormon community is that the archaeological, physical and sensible evidence does not correlate to reality. It’s all so demonstrably false, it’s embarrassing. There is no evidence for it. None whatsoever.
This is the problem most people have with the Book of Mormon. Unlike the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, it has the misfortune of being written in a time where writing and contemporary reporting was pretty solid. If the Book of Mormon had been written a thousand years ago, the Mormons would all be dead, burned as heretics. If it had been written two thousand years ago, then who knows how popular it would be? It’s biggest failure is that is was brought into this world after the great scientific enlightenment, in a time when people rationally considered the evidence before them and occasionally demanded proof for fancy tales of epic wars and divine actions. It also means the contemporary account pertaining to the history of the early LDS is pretty reliable. Which is bad for people like Joeainttellingthetruth Smith and Brigham “Bring ‘Em” Young who thrive on their ability to bullshit charismatically, because the voices of those opposed to them do not get ignored and choked out like those against Christianity in its early days have been.
Mormons are unlucky that we can categorically disprove most of their claims of what happened in the US. Since the other big books of faith were written so long ago, the physical evidence equally isn’t there most of the time but it doesn’t matter because it happened in a distant past that we just ignore that part. We have little or no historical evidence for Jesus other than the Bible, the first reference to Christ doesn’t come for some 80 years after he was supposed to live. But that doesn’t matter to most people – what matters is that the Bible says the Bible is true and the lack of physical evidence is unsurprising considering the ancient nature of the event. We don’t know if Job, Moses, Abraham or any of the other antediluvians existed because they were supposed to live some five thousand years ago. Their tales were then passed down orally, written, translated, edited, retranslated, re-edited, rewritten ad infinitum into the form we know today. This makes it hard to judge them on anything other than their literary merits rather than their factual basis because we don’t have any other sources to compare them to. The Book of Mormon cannot take such an easy alley to duck down and suffers more than other books of faith as a result.
If you have an unfounded belief in unicorns, don’t mock those who have an unfounded belief in leprechauns.
This is why it seems odd to me that Catholics, Protestants, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, Pentecostalists, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Reformed Baptist Church of God (reformation of 1915), Reformed Baptist Church of God (reformation of 1879) or any of the other slight deviations of the original Roman Catholics would consider their faith superior, more sensible and more valid than the Church of Jesus Chirst of Latter-Day Saints. It’s like a cashew mocking a pistachio for being a nut.
Personally, I think they’re all nuts.
Conclusion Five: The stories are compelling and how to write your own world-changing book in three easy steps!
One advantage science will never have over religion is the stories. One offers facts, evidence and reasoning. The other offers stories, characters, decisions and their interplay. That’s pretty much the distinction as I can see it. This has always caused difficulty. The Book of Mormon offers a compelling story for American audiences. It may be complete bollocks and complete fiction, but so are the works of Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Dickens, Thoreau, Faulkner and McCarthy – these are all works that have enhanced our lives, greatly adding to humanity’s progress on this wondrous and immense planet. These are works of fiction and at least they have the courage to admit it. What makes me want to lose my lunch is when people – cough Joseph Smith, Muhammed, all those hundreds of bearded dudes behind the Bible cough – who have clearly written works of fiction combined with a self-help book and some narrative history claim that it is divinely inspired and that people should follow it and everything in it on pain of eternal torment. They’ve got some great stories in there that’s for sure. But they’ve also got some pretty crap ones in there too (The entire Book of Genesis, for one). And some stories that shouldn’t be followed at all (most of the Book of Leviticus). And their advice is questionable, their wisdom outdated, their legal wishes impractical (again, Leviticus, Psalms, Proverbs). I see no reason why we should set our lives around an anthology of ancient texts that have little relation to our lives in this modern, 21st century world.
I’d love to one day do an experiment. This experiment would be to take a bunch of short stories, guides, basic history books, self-help books and the mad ravings of an apocalyptic prophet and put them all together and claim that, let’s say, some intergalactic omniscient intelligence called Dog wrote it.
Step 1: So we form our Book of the following: Deepak Chopra’s various books on wisdom, Donald Trump’s Think Big and Kick Ass, some short stories by Chuck Palahniuk, a bit of Hunter S. Thompson, a couple of morality tales from popular authors like Khalid Hosseini detailing hard lives, some history from Niall Ferguson and Tom Holland, throw in Stephen J. Gould and Daniel Dennett’s philosophical musings. Since most of these people disagree and conflict with each other, you’ll have millions of possible interpretations to chose from. this means that none of the interpretations are wrong and none of them are right because the text doesn’t assign a value judgement to any of them, nor does it have a built-in companion to walk you through the difficult parts. This is important because people will just take the parts they like and ignore the rest based on their personal confirmation biases (this is important because if there’s a schism, the split will still have people believing in about 40% or more of your religion rather than making up a new one so you can still claim the credit). For bonus points and longevity, in between the loud advice and wisdom, put in some ambiguous phrases of questionable judgement to slow down the scholars and ensure they spend hours on moot points rather than rationally critiquing the whole thing.
Step 2: Now just add in some circular logic: everything in this Book is true because this book says that it’s true (can’t argue with that can you?! What was that Bertrand Russell the famous logician? I kant hear you over my own infallible logic!). Also, don’t forget to warn people that if they do not heed the peaceful, loving, compassionate, emancipating joy of this Book then they’ll suffer for a very very long time, in fact for all time, in a purple pool of oblivion, suffering the constant pain of Dire Straits Greatest Hits and the unbearable odour of goat faeces cooked with a Thai curry. This will make sure they stay loyal because eternity is a really long time – especially the boring middle part of it and the slow part towards the end. Constantly threaten people with a fate worse than death (maybe use a sword to prove it) and they will fall to their knees, hold their hands up high and beg for mercy – which is convenient because now you just have to say: “pray and worship me!” and they’re already in the right pose. Edit in a story of someone who didn’t believe in the Book (this may not work for the first edition) and make it explicit what a terrible fate was visited upon them for not heeding the advice contained in its hallowed pages. This threat won’t work on everyone, but thankfully most people have enough obnoxious friends who’ll constantly try to save their souls and remind them how great the Book is.
Step 3: Then you tie it all together with a very compelling, inspiring tale of some righteous, humanity-dedicated, charitable, peace-loving hippy-haired linen-aficionado called Allen Ginsberg, or Holy Ginsberg, or the Anointed Ginsberg Prophet of Peace and Defeater of War (note: it doesn’t matter if any of the stuff you put in there didn’t actually happen to Holy Ginsberg or doesn’t resemble the real Ginsberg in the slightest, just amalgamate some of the life stories and deep anecdotes of his contemporaries and claim it was Holy Ginsberg all along). Make sure the story is specific enough that people have a pretty good idea of how to live their lives but vague enough that they think that the lessons learned apply to them (which they don’t). Also, it is imperative to make the goals completely unattainable so that people will always strive for them and never achieve them, thus reserving the impossible for Holy Ginsberg only and every subsequent Ginsberg-esque person will be measured against the original but will never surpass Him because it’s impossible.
There, you’ve written a new Book! Give it a thousand years and a few thousand priests and BOOM! A new religion has been formed. Let’s call it Ginsbergality. If the stories are compelling enough, like they are in the Book of Mormon, they’ll capture billions of gullible saps desperate for a new vision of order in their world of frustrating confusion. Make sure that nobody dares to update the stories to fit with the discoveries of the time. This is important because stories, unlike facts, never change. A good story is the same on Thursday as it at the Weekend – regardless of what happened on Friday night.
The scientific methods are the opposite of this. The story on Saturday is entirely reliant on what happened on Friday. This is a superior method because it is flexible and based on real, rational processes.
Maybe one day the two will be reconciled. Stories are great, but I’m as likely to base my life on The Lord of the Rings as I am to base it on the Book of Mormon. Both are works of epic fiction, but only one has an awesome film trilogy and the other claims to be the divine word of a non-existent deity.
The Wise Old Man With A Beard And The Beginning Of The Lie
I’m guessing it went something like this a few thousand years ago:
A fellow had just seen someone die. He wondered where this soul, this life that was there moments ago had gone. He can’t quite fathom the thought that someone who was breathing and had the bright eyes of life was now an empty body, devoid of concious movement. He went to the only person he knew who could answer that question, the Wise Old Man With A Beard. The Wise Old Man With A Beard had held death and emptiness at the gates longer than anyone else he knew and he must know some things about it. Indeed, the Wise Old Man With A Beard knew no more than the young fellow did, because he was, tragically, still alive and thus knew nothing of death. But the Wise Old Man With A Beard couldn’t bear to see this young fellow in such a state of troubled confusion. So the Wise Old Man With A Beard came up with an answer. He didn’t know anything true or verifiable, but that didn’t matter. He has some ideas but no way to test them. He had some hunches, but they were not based in fact, but in his dreams, that mid-point of life and death we all visit nightly.
So the Wise Old Man With A Beard told a lie. It was a powerful lie, a lie that not only filled the absence of knowledge in the young fellow’s mind. The young fellow felt calmer. He smiled and brightened. But, and this was something the Wise Old Man With A Beard didn’t quite expect, it also altered his behaviour by virtue of giving the young fellow something to think about for the rest of his life until he could experience death for himself. The young fellow’s disposition had changed. He still feared death, but had the feeling that he now knew what it was that he feared better than before. He looked upon the Wise Old Man With A Beard with awe and wonder in his eyes. The young fellow told everyone he knew. Then they went to the Wise Old Man With A Beard and the Wise Old Man With A Beard told them the same thing he told the young fellow and they looked at him with the same awe and wonder.
The Wise Old Man With A Beard saw this and began to think. Since people were ignorant of death, by limitation of their being alive, he could tell them whatever he wanted about death and they wouldn’t know the true answer because the only time they could experience the truth for themselves would be when they’re dead and then they can’t tell anyone about it. The Wise Old Man With A Beard knew that to stare into the infinite void would only bring insanity down on those who dare. The people needed an answer to stop them from doing that, lest they suffer and wither away their life worrying about endless oblivion. So he told more lies that could never be proved until people were dead.
Realising that he now had power over the people he had told his tales to, the Wise Old Man With A Beard threw some other things in there; he told them they must do certain things, live a certain way and listen to his words of wisdom and beardliness otherwise they would not have the pleasant experience of death that he promised them. People capitulated, not wanting to risk their deaths being uncomfortable when it comes. The people listened to everything the Wise Old Man With A Beard said and called those who didn’t listen to the Wise Old Man With A Beard crazy.
And so it came to pass that the Wise Old Man With A Beard started religion by making up a load of mortality-easing stories in place of saying that he flat out didn’t know and people believed him because their better instincts are overridden by their desire to at least know something, anything rather than live in ignorance of the second most important event in their lives after their birth: their death.