Monday, June 14, 2010

Why I am not a Mormon: Introduction

It may seem strange to some people that I would bother explaining why I am not a Mormon. Most of us are familiar with the Mormon “elders” – generally a pair of teen-age looking boys with fresh, earnest faces and good intentions. Most of us don't really feel a need to explain to them exactly why we think they're mistaken – and it seems nearly heartless to explain it all to sweet, earnest youths who are so sure they're doing the right thing. And there's a risk in explaining it to them: I've met people on-line who are ex Mormons. After coming to the conclusion that Mormonism was all a big lie, some are so bitter and disillusioned that now they have given up faith in God and anything “religious” altogether. That may seem like an overreaction, but overreactions are part of human nature.

I have no interest in bashing Mormons. The Mormons I've known personally have mostly been hard-working and kind, good neighbors and good parents. And anyone with even the faintest interest in genealogy can appreciate the contribution the Mormon church has made in that area. Mormons generally lead clean and healthy lifestyles precisely because they're Mormons. I'm not sure whether they have a longer life-span than average, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did. You have to acknowledge that level of uprightness – and the fact that their church takes their moral authority seriously enough that they can help their people, when these day so many churches completely abdicate their moral responsibility to their members for fear of offending them.

So if Mormonism is a good influence morally and can be credited with creating a whole population noted for its healthy lifestyle, why write a piece disagreeing with it? Religion is a complicated thing. A religion can have a good ethical teaching and a good moral influence, and that does not necessarily mean it is on solid ground in what it teaches about history or the nature of God. Yoga has some good effects, but that does not by itself make the Hindu faith to be true. The Muslims have strong teachings on sexual morality that lead to praiseworthy, low rates of HIV infection in many Muslim lands, but again that does not by itself make their faith true. These good effects are evidence that certain teachings and practices have real-life benefits, but those particular teachings and practices are not the key beliefs of each group. So the real-life benefits that arise from good morals and good practices do not mean that their other beliefs are true.

The key claim of the Mormon church is, at the most basic, that the Book of Mormon is on the same level as the Bible. Because so much has already been written on the topic, I'd like to take a different approach. I will look at just one of the existing controversies about the Book of Mormon, not so much in order to answer the question behind the controversy, but to compare the kinds of tools we could use to resolve the controversy. As we will see at the end, it will lead us to a different kind of question. But here I will begin with one of the typical questions that arises about the Book of Mormon. It's a small question in itself, but it illustrates vital differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

Why I am not a Mormon: An impasse?

Here's the question: The Book of Mormon mentions “coins”. Critics have claimed that, because the New World cultures did not have any coins before the Europeans arrived, that the reference to “coins” in the Book of Mormon is evidence that the Book of Mormon was made up by someone without good historical knowledge of the ancient New World, rather than actually being a product of the ancient New World. Mormons have responded by saying that the “coins” are referenced only in titles or headings added later after the original translation, and that the “pieces” of precious metals referenced in the original translated text of the Book of Mormon are measured out by weight and are not truly coins. In this way, the complete absence of archaeological evidence for coins would no longer be a conspicuous embarrassment to the Mormon community's claim that the Book of Mormon is the product of the ancient New World rather than the product of Joseph Smith's imagination.

That looks like an impasse, doesn't it? Two sides have made claims and counter claims, and there is no way to research it further. Each side has made its claim; each side has its own beliefs. How can we know any more than that? Each will believe what they will – won't they?

This is where the more interesting questions come into play. (To be continued.)


Scott Morizot said...

Interesting. I can hardly claim to have paid a great deal of attention to Mormonism and didn't know about the "coins" issue at all. However, it seems to me that the most significant problem with the Book of Mormon is its claim that the native populations here were descended in whole or in part from ancient Hebrews. From both modern samples and samples from remains prior to European settlement, we know with as close to absolute certainty as you can know such things that the native peoples of the Americas are of Northeast Asian descent with nary a trace of Semitic descent.

My father and aunt are geneticists so I have as solid an understanding of how the science works as anyone who isn't a geneticist themselves could. And it's pretty rock solid evidence. It seems to me that's more central to the credibility of the Book of Mormon than an issue about the use of coins.

Scott Morizot said...

Oh, I looked at the title again. That doesn't really have much to do with why I'm not a Mormon. I'm not a Mormon because I've never found their take on the nature of mankind, God (or gods as the case may be), and reality particularly interesting or compelling. As such, the credibility or lack thereof of the Book of Mormon hasn't really ever mattered to me. I've believed and practiced a lot of different things over the course of my life. I wouldn't say that sacred writings have ever provided the primary reason for me to be anything, including Christian.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Interesting. Esp because my daughter is currently in the process of moving to Salt Lake City. But her friends there are decidedly not Mormon.

We visited there quite a few years ago and went to the downtown Mormon sites to tour. Very interesting. A friend, who said he had become Mormon (probably with a wink, just to fit in with the locals) told us what would be LEFT OUT in the history presented at the interpretive center. We listened so carefully that one of the guys took us aside to talk to use later. They told us about some things in the Bible that we hadn't noticed before. And their pitch was that one should ask the Holy Spirit for guidance before reading the Book of Mormon.

The "fact" about the coins is interesting, but anyone could find a number of inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible that could be used to discredit the Bible as "fact." Then throw in the different ways that people take the Bible literally, especially when not realizing that they are reading a translation....well, you have a conundrum. [Example, many of the literalists don't take "this is the body..." literally. Well you know this stuff already.

I don't know if the Mormons take the book of Mormon as "fact" or if they look at it as a living document that speaks to us in various ways at various times, as the people I know do when looking at the Bible. I guess that view is "wishy washy" and covers all inconsistencies, doesn't it?

Weekend Fisher said...

LOL. I know, this is a topic that can generate much interest. And if I'd been raised in a family with geneticists rather than mathematicians and programmers, I'd probably come in from that angle. (And yes, I have to second what Mark Twain wrote about the Book of Mormon: "chloroform in writing".)

But the reason I bother writing from this angle is not so much the Mormons who are less plentiful around here, but the "agnostics" who try to use the Book of Mormon as a smoke-screen for their indecision. "Well, if you take the Bible seriously, why don't you take the Qu'ran seriously?" (I do, I just may not agree that that means deciding that Mohammed was a prophet.) "Er, oh, so why not the Book of Mormon?"

So this post is just setting up the background of the issues that I do think are interesting.

PS - moving to SLC? Interesting. Some of my clients at work are in the SLC area. I steer clear of religious conversations ... no idea whether or not they're Mormons. But what in the world are they leaving out of the history books? I'd be curious. I wonder if there's a special Utah edition of history books? Hm. Might be worth a look.

I'm still waiting for the drive-by spammers. They seem to show up fairly reliably if you have a defensive group in the title of your post. We'll see. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Randy said...

I grew up in a cult. A cult, by my definition, is a religious group whose whose theology is interpreted by one man (or woman, if you please). In Mormonism, it was Joseph Smith; the Branch Davidians, David Koresh; in my case, Herbert W. Armstrong.

Cults can be very small or very large, but you will rarely, if ever find a cult whose theology doesn't center on the teachings of a singular "prophet." I suppose that you could, at least by my definition, classify Islam as a cult, one centered on the teachings of Mohammad.

In Christianity, there is a diversity of texts by a multitude of authors all agreeing on one God and one Messiah. These texts span the entirety of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. In addition to that, there is another two millenia of theologians who, although they may disagree on "non-essentials", back up the basic texts of the Bible.

Having seen firsthand the damage done by "false prophets", I would never entertain becoming part of such a group, no matter how clean their lifestyle or how appealing their theology. I feel deeply for those lost souls, primarily second or third generation members who leave such groups, who have such great difficulty in trusting in any religion or any God, after realizing how badly they were misled. It took me many years to become comfortable in "normal" Christianity after my exit from such a group.

I hadn't heard of the "coins", but I've read enough about the history of Joseph Smith and the book of Mormon to make a decidedly negative judgment call on his book.

With that said, I tend to think that there will be a goodly number of Mormons in heaven, along with a great many of other followers of such Christian cult leaders. Mormons aren't bad people, they're just misled. In my mind they are no worse than a goodly percentage of Christian "Fundamentalists." The problems come when they cannot provide intelligent answers to their children about apparent discrepancies in what they are teaching and what is obvious from the "real world." Then their children tend to walk away from faith altogether. I've seen it happen hundreds of times.

Weekend Fisher said...

I had to go wiki that, for who was HW Armstrong. The wikipedia article tried to be balanced, but the unhealthy signs showed through, particularly demonizing the out-group. (Which is why the political parties risk becoming personality cults ... but I digress.)

I'm sorry you went through that, & glad that you're breathing easier now.

Likewise, it bothers me when people cannot articulate why they believe what they believe. It seems to me like the sign of just believing what someone told them to believe, without actually owning the belief themselves.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I am friends with some people who were in the Armstrong group, or at least came out of that tradition. They told me that some in the group started understand grace and reformed the group from within. There used to be a camp near here where the Armstrong kids from all over the US would come in the summer. It dissolved several years ago. The man I know attends a baptist church now and the camp manager was Lutheran for awhile, but has his "own" church now, but it meets in the Lutheran Church building.