Mormonism documentary

June 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Christianity, is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, religious experiences)

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.



  1. susanne430 said,

    Interesting post! I read a book about Mormons and another about the FLDS last year so they are of interest to me. I’m glad you shared your thoughts. Miracles in other faiths don’t bother me so much. In the story of Moses even Pharoah’s magicians could replicate some of the miracles (turning the rod into snakes). I know Satan has power to do things. My faith isn’t in miracles. But I do see how the whole “revelation” thing IS a miracle so maybe my faith IS in miracles after all. I know I must be one of those crazies to you. But I know you still love me, right? 😉


  2. caraboska said,

    The Bible does tell us clearly that there will be counterfeit miracles, powerful delusions that attempt to lead people astray. So it is no surprise if things like this happen. Paul talks about the false teachers going into much detail about what they have seen. So that these reports of seeing angels in the Mormon temple windows would be, if anything, a red flag. For that matter, even the Torah warns us about false prophets, telling us that even if they do perform miracles, even if they make true predictions, that is still not enough. If they are telling us to worship foreign gods, then we are not to listen to them. This is why it is so important for the propositional content of religion to be true as well.

  3. Achelois said,

    “I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.”

    I agree with this 200%!

    Someone once asked me a long time ago if I could see similarities between Joseph Smith and Muhammad. I didn’t know (still don’t know) anything about Smith so I didn’t understand her question. But I have noticed more and more people compare them so it seems they were similar.

    I once read a wonderful comparison between Muhammad and the Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani (who claimed to be the Messiah and last prophet of Islam). Apparently, he used to go into trances like Muhammad when he received *revelations*. His most famous miracle and revelation was “revealed sermon.” I know about this so well because my great grandfather was in the crowd as his opponent (my family is strictly pro-madhab Hanafi) and I have heard so much about it since childhood.

    On Eid ul-Adha just like Muhammad after the last Hajj, Mirza “delivered an hour-long sermon extempore in Arabic expounding the meaning and philosophy of sacrifice.” (WIkipedia). It is believed to be a “revealed or inspired sermon” because Mirza was Indian and didn’t know spoken Arabic to talk in it for an hour. It is believed hsi voice changed and he went into a trance and Gabriel spoke through him just like he spoke through Muhammad sending the latter into trances. Then just like after the revelation of Surah Najam when the sermon ended Mirza fell into prostration and his audience followed it in awe and humility towards Allah.

    I think no religion rises out of a vacuum because all are created by men and so a lot of religious people who claim to be prophets of God base their doctrines on previous religions and follow the methods of preaching of earlier prophets either because of collective unconscious or because those methods were trialed and tested and seemed to have worked. Once they have the power of the crowd their interests seem to change and take more selfish form. I think this is what Smith did. And it worked!

    Very interesting post!

  4. susanne430 said,

    P.S. I’ve often been amazed at the similarities between Joseph Smith and Muhammad. In fact there is a nominal Mormon on another blog who has been saying “yet again how Islam is like Mormonism” and she doesn’t mean that as a compliment. It’s on an ongoing thread on a somewhat-popular Saudi blog. I just saw some of her comments last night so this post of yours was timely.

    It would be interesting to do a comparative study between Joe Smith and Muhammad sometime. By the way, I recently used Mormonism in a comment on my blog about why I don’t accept Islam so again, timely post for me!

  5. susanne430 said,

    Sarah, I know this is off topic so you can delete this comment after you read it, but did you have a really hard time with sura 33? I kind of remember that story being one you really struggled with. I read it yesterday and the post I wrote (still in drafts) reflects just how angry it made me. I don’t think I’ll publish it as is. I’ll have to edit it for niceness sake, but wanted to see if it were only me that found it very troublesome. Maybe I’ll e-mail it to you to see if you can relate or let me know if I’m over-the-top in thinking how I did. I do realize I’m not reading the Muslim commentary – just the Quran – but based on what I already know of the story and then reading that sura…I was just livid. No other sura has made me hate it like this one did.

    • Sarah said,

      Oh Susanne! I’m not surprised at all. That one made me very uncomfortable and anxious. Do feel free to send me what you’ve written. I got some help with that sura from some very clever rational Muslims which I’ll dig out and send you incase it’s helpful. But yes, it is problematic for me.

  6. Leyla said,

    I think believing in a creator is a completely separate thing to believing in a religion. A creator can be any kind of on-purpose / purposeful force and management system which led to the creation of the world for a purpose / reason / with intention and that this force is in some way a responsive force – responding to invocations, hearts, minds and so on…

    Believing in a religion is believing in an experience called Prophet hood, and the verbal communication between a creator and one selected male, in a specific time and place. Accepting religion is accepting that God does communicate with man, but only one man at a time, and that this one man must then communicate with the globe on God’s behalf.

    • mythicsushi said,

      “I think believing in a creator is a completely separate thing to believing in a religion. A creator can be any kind of on-purpose / purposeful force and management system which led to the creation of the world for a purpose / reason / with intention and that this force is in some way a responsive force – responding to invocations, hearts, minds and so on…” -Leyla
      I relate to this. If there is a way to know about God, it’s not through other human beings who have supposedly gained spiritual enlightenment. After all, that’s what religion is-a lot of people believing what one person or a small group of people decided was true.

      I take offense when disbelief in Christianity/The Bible is taken to mean disbelief in any God. It’s more like disbelief in the authors of the Bible.

      • Sarah said,

        I agree with you and with Leyla. At my Unitarian church many people believe in God but have quite a variety of different ideas or experiences about God. Some people just don’t fit in any religious “box”.

  7. Sarah said,

    Susanne & Caraboska – I’m quite surprised that Satan can perform miracles and produce such similar effects to God. Isn’t it difficult then to be sure of anything? How can you tell when it’s God or Satan? I guess you’re right, your faith can’t be in miracles if this is the case. Even if revelation is a miracle you can’t believe in it just because it’s a miracle.

    Achelois – I’m sure you’d enjoy this documentary. Smith came from a time when magic and Christianity were mixing, and this shows in his use of “seeing stones” and things. So yes, nothing comes out of a vacuum! Another thing was how important America was in Smith’s historical theology, reminded me of Muhammad and the importance of an Arabic scripture.
    “Once they have the power of the crowd their interests seem to change and take more selfish form.”
    Yes, that struck me too!

    Leyla – I agree with you. You sound like a Unitarian! Belief in a God outside of religion is much less vulnerable to being disputed based on difficulties with historical and other facts.

    • Leyla said,

      (delivered with humour) Would it be unfair then to say that Unitarians are agnostics in Church? ;0)

      • Sarah said,

        I’ve heard it described as a religion for people who’ve lost their religion. lol!

  8. Amber said,

    I try to remember, whenever I feel preachy about other religions, that every single one of them started out as a ‘cult’. ‘A religion is just a cult that grew up.’

    All faiths have aspects that require, well, faith. 🙂

    As for the miracles of other faiths. Well, and this is just my view on it, of course: I’m not entirely sold on all the miracles in *my* faith. Especially with Catholicism, you have ‘visions’ of Mary or Saints popping up here, there, everywhere. I know the power of the human mind. Our minds make patterns out of nothing. We see signs and wonders everywhere, if we want to. It’s what I like to call ‘reality matrixing’ – like seeing a face in a pattern, writ large.

    So I tend to take miracles, no matter which faith is claiming them, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Which is not to say that true miracles don’t happen. I just don’t believe every claim that comes by.

    As far as Satan being able to perform miracles. Anything with an unexplainable, supernatural-seeming cause can be called a ‘miracle’. It reminds me of the saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I once extended that to say that any sufficiently powerful supernatural being is indistinguishable from a god, as far as human comprehension is concerned.

    • Sarah said,

      Amber – that’s a good way of putting it – a religion is a cult that grew up. Some survive and thrive and some don’t. The ones that can adapt will do better… I think it helped Mormonism that it was able to adapt to external pressures for example in banning polygamy.

      “I know the power of the human mind. Our minds make patterns out of nothing.”

      Yep, that’s my thinking too. The human mind is more powerful than we often give it credit for! I find it harder to believe God created laws of physics only to have to step in and break them, I think it would have to be only very rarely that would happen.

  9. Achelois said,

    Sarah, I watched the documentary and read a little on Smith as well. Thank you so much for the link to the videos. It is very interesting.

    It appears that Smith said he had an angel come to him with revelations and he was given a perfect book (pre-existing in perfect form) as golden tablets to be translated into English. He turned American cities into holy lands claiming Jesus had preached the original religion there. He also told a young girl (12 years) that God gave him visions that he should marry her. He told his other wives that they will enjoy the comforts of heaven for being his wives. Apparently he even married women who were already married and claimed that God had given him exemptions/privileges for a “higher religious reason.” He also forbade his followers from drinking and eating pork. At one point he preached that the revelations were indeed from God because he was an illiterate son of a farmer who did not possess the skills to write such a perfect book on his own. Smith claimed to be the final prophet.

    Interestingly he once said “I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘the Koran or the Sword.’ So shall it eventually be with us!”

    I really liked what the English professor said in the clip “God doesn’t send golden tablets to farm boys” 🙂 And the other one who said that Smith started out as a fraud but was later consumed by what he had created. It’s true that we can’t remove the scandal from a religion without it collapsing completely.

    My father always used to say “you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” It seems some people can fool a whole lot of people. LOL.

    Excellent post! Thanks once again.

    • Sarah said,

      Cool, I’m glad you enjoyed the documentary! You must have done, to watch all of it 🙂 I was really hooked on it.

      I didn’t know he claimed to be a second Muhammad. That is interesting. I wonder how much of Muhammad’s life he knew, and how much he was inspired by him. These similarities between religions are just unbelievable!

      Yes, I thought it was interesting too that someone on the film said he started out as a fraud! I actually thought he might have been schizophrenic, granted the only things I know about schizophrenia basically are from “A Beautiful Mind”, but I saw some similarities there. Cracking a code to decipher hieroglyphics on ancient buried brass plates – reminded me of John Nash’s classified code-breaking imaginary project.

      You can’t change the scandalous origins of a religion, but you can move beyond it, and I think Mormonism has done that quite well. It is so mainstream now. This is probably because Smith taught that God speaks to everyone, and so the church was able to abandon practices following what they felt was God’s guidance. It’s hard to see this happening in Islam where Muhammad has such a monopoly on hearing the voice of God.

      It’s interesting to see how a religion’s founder’s spirit lives on through the religious culture, which seems to happen in different religions. In Mormonism the church seems quite autocratic and overly powerful, as was its founder. Also the doctrine of celestial marriage and families being eternal – that is still living on with such a big cultural emphasis on family.

      • Achelois said,

        Sarah, a lot of men claiming to be prophets are diagnosed with mental conditions. This is now when knowledge of psychiatry has advanced so much. In the past such men were mocked as being possessed or plain mad.

        But I think such men are very, very intelligent, innovative and creative. There are psychologists who think Smith had manic-depression or bipolar disorder. Rashad Khalifa, the self-proclaimed Rasul, had schizophrenia. Harun Yahya, a cult leader, has paranoid schizophrenia. Mirza Ahmed Qadhiani was delusional. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was suicidal. Emanuel Swedenborg had left lobe epilepsy.

        It is quite possible that Smith’s hallucinations were caused by either depression or even left lobe epilepsy because the latter cause hypersexuality, rapid or slurred speech, fits, and auditory or visual hallucinations which were all symptoms of Smith’s condition.

        • susanne430 said,

          I don’t know if I should admit this, but I had to grin because I’ve read the “Muhammad had epilepsy” thing many times as people tried to explain why he had these visions and revelations from a spirit. So funny to see you mention that in regards to J. Smith. 🙂

          • Sarah said,

            Having read Karen Armstrong’s description of Muhammad’s distressing revelation experiences, I can understand that (assuming she did her research). I am sceptical of miracles precisely because so many natural explanations for out-of-the-ordinary phenomena have turned up. The human mind especially is a very powerful thing and not even much understood yet. I don’t think we need to make recourse to demons and angels 😀

        • Sarah said,

          That makes sense. And these days if someone claims to be a prophet bringing a message from God, mental illness is probably our first thought. Yet we are often prepared to take self-proclaimed prophets of the past much more seriously. I suppose we take the age and size of the religion into account in thinking about this. Which means in some respect we are like sheep. 🙂 I mean I seriously considered the idea that Muhammad was a prophet, whereas if he was alive today I probably wouldn’t have. It’s quite interesting.

          I had no idea epilepsy could cause hypersexuality and hallucinations. I’ve learnt something today! 😀

  10. misschatterbox said,

    what an interesting, insightful post- and very true. I will come back later to read the equally insightful posts from s!ome of my favourite bloggers (Hi susanne, caraboska, achelois)
    and post a quick note here:

    I know a christian family who are ex-muslims AND ex-mormons!
    Amazing huh?
    They are saudi what’s more! The father, GK came to Christ from reading the Bible while in saudi. When he suffered persecution he had to flee, and although his wife and children were still muslim they decided to go with him to jordan.
    The only christians they knew then were from the US and they were mormons, so the family became mormons too. They late migrated to Australia, where they were faithful mormons and temple members, however they came to feel this was not the right path. Disallusioned they prayed for God to reveal the Truth, and soon after bumped into the egyptian pastor of an arabic congregation on the beach!!

    They gleefully say they are the only “ex-muslim ex-mormon christians” in the world! And they praise God that He led them out of not one, but two false religions and into the Truth 🙂

    • Sarah said,

      Hi misschatterbox,
      That’s an interesting story. I find conversions in general really interesting but especially when people go through multiple conversions! There was a blogger called Lisa who doesn’t blog any more but she was originally Christian and had been into Mormonism, Judaism and Islam! Then back and forth with Christianity and Islam for a while. It’s quite fascinating.

    • Achelois said,

      Hi Chatterbox! 😀

  11. Mona said,

    Hey! Me again. Just wanted to say, I very much disagree that faith in religion requires an uncritical approach. I think you have every right to want a religion’s claims to be substantiated. The Baha’i Faith encourages a critical, yet unbiased, approach to any truth-claim, especially regarding religion.

    “The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.” – Baha’u’llah, Words of Wisdom

    Check it out sometime!

    With love,

    • Sarah said,

      Hi Mona, thanks for your comments! I am aware that there are people who claim to believe in religion on purely rational grounds, but I think they are the minority, and there are plenty who would openly admit to faith needing an uncritical approach.
      Your blog looks interesting BTW, I will have a look there.

  12. Mona said,


    I guess for me I think we should be “critical” in terms of having discernment and giving a faith-claim rational consideration, but not be “critical” in the sense of being overtly skeptical and closed-minded. If we’re desiring to discern truth, we must seek it with an open heart and mind.

    “He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.” -Baha’u’llah, Book of Certitude

    Yeah, I must unfortunately agree that many people proudly espouse a faith without grounds of logic, due to imitation, and even act as though logic were beneath them!

    One might say that logic is one plane of reality – it has to be intact for a thing to be true; a true thing must be rationally acceptable. But with that rational basis in place, I do find that religious faith gains depth through the more subjective aspects of human experience. So while I should have the ability to rationally expound the fundamentals of my faith, I am aware that it won’t fully explain the degree of my individual consecration.

    • Sarah said,

      Interesting quote, Mona, promoting objective rationality!
      I understand what you mean in your last paragraph. I’m becoming more curious. Do Baha’is take anything on trust, or are you allowed to interrogate every doctrine and every scripture with your reason? My sticking point with religion has always been the requirement to submit to the authority of a scripture or a person… I can’t really see how it’s ever safe to do that!

      • Mona said,

        Hi Sarah,

        If by “interrogate” you mean, ask questions and seek to understand, then, of course! But to believe in a Messenger of God naturally denotes submission to an Authority, and finally to trust that authority with our lives. It’s quite a profound thing, to believe that a Revelation truly is of God. Especially a Revelation with such bold claims.

        “Whoso firmly believeth today in the rebirth of man and is fully conscious that God, the Most Exalted, wieldeth supreme ascendancy and absolute authority over this new creation, verily such a man is reckoned with them that are endued with insight in this most great Revelation. Unto this beareth witness every discerning believer.”

        I guess it’s pertinent to say that when a Personage appears bearing a Revelation from God, the whole point is that He speaks with authority. Otherwise he is no more than a person with an opinion or some wise words to share, in which case, why should he make all the extravagant claims to a Divine connection, and bear all of the suffering that comes along with it? And why should we even listen? If God is the ultimate authority, the One He sends is basically His Representative/Manifestation/Avatar (whatever word you prefer to use) on earth. So the requirement is that if one accepts the claim of Baha’u’llah, that includes submitting to His authority, trusting that His Message brings us something more than individual reason on its own could give us.

        So we have to use reason and our hearts to consider Baha’u’llah’s claim, and strive more fully to understand all of His teachings with our reason and our hearts as well, but if there’s a law or principle that I don’t understand or it goes against my personal opinion, as a Baha’i I must still uphold that Baha’u’llah is correct in all cases. If I found Baha’u’llah’s claim to be unconvincing, then naturally I would choose not to be a Baha’i, and I would stick to my own opinions and personal understanding. But I have often found that my personal understanding has been elevated and transformed through study of the Faith, obedience through trust, and putting Baha’u’llah’s teachings into action!

        In any case, everyone has perfect freedom to investigate the Faith and respond to it as they choose. 🙂

        • Sarah said,

          “if there’s a law or principle that I don’t understand or it goes against my personal opinion, as a Baha’i I must still uphold that Baha’u’llah is correct in all cases.”

          Ah… and this is where the irrational part comes in.
          I have never been able to justify that to myself.
          Thanks for introducing me to another religion. 🙂

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