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.)