I just watched “The Mormons“, a long and informative documentary which I found through Staring at the View. It was really quite interesting both to learn about a faith that I knew very little about, and also because of how well it illustrated the various different sides of religious belief in general. I found myself facepalming an awful lot, but also occasionally feeling happy for the comfort beliefs can give people. That is the paradox of religion.
The last couple of minutes of this clip was particularly interesting. Here are two quotes from 9:08 onwards that talk of the collision between faith and reason due to the historical claims of religion:
“History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that’s a reality that we just can’t flee away from.”
“All religion, western and eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what would eventually be Judaism; the origins of Christianity; the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation, all revelation is supernatural; if you wish to be a hard-rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”
It really is much easier to dispute religious claims when you are not in the religion, and when the religion is comparatively new. Somehow we seem to think that because something happened a long time ago, it has more veracity – maybe because religions become such stable systems that are much bigger and more “complete” than they started out. But as these people are saying, the historical origins of all religions involve highly improbable things, things that you would never believe if you didn’t have some other emotional kind of motivation for believing. The critical comments on the Book of Mormon – its textual style and the lack of any evidence to support its content – certainly felt familiar from my own critical responses to religious texts. I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.
Joseph Smith came off to me like an eccentric cult leader that somehow created a movement that went big. He reminded me of other cults where the leader has absolute power and can even get away with sleeping with other men’s wives. He also reminded me of Muhammad (who had more than his fair share of women too) with a very similar mode of revelation, bringing a new holy text, creating a theocracy, aggravating the existing communities where they settled and even engaging in military conflict, and making a “hijrah” of sorts.
The reports of a pentecost-like period when the first temple was constructed were so fascinating. Many people reported seeing angels going through its windows and all sorts of things like that. This stuff really fascinates me. The fact that it happens in different and mutually exclusive religions would have to mean that at least some of the time it is just people’s collective imagination, which is easy for me to accept but I wonder how Christians for example feel about these reports from the Mormons. I think when I was into Christianity, miracle claims from other faiths really worried me because what if those miracles are real, and even if they’re not, how do I know the miracles reported in my own faith were real?
Just like Islam, Mormonism has evolved past its origins and become mainstream, and has had to wrestle with some of its darker sides such as the polygamy and the exclusion of black people. I found it very interesting how the leaders described feeling led by God to revise doctrines such as the latter. Of course I don’t think it was divine guidance, I think it was that they allowed themselves to follow their conscience, and then ascribed it to God. But it gives me hope that if only people allow themselves to break with the rigid tenets of tradition and follow their conscience, things do get better.