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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The silliness of Mormonism

Well, since there is a (fortunately slight) chance that the US will have a Mormon President in 2009, this is as good a time as ever to discuss some of the silliness of this religion. I’m not trying to pick on Mormons in particular, just using them as an example of the general silliness of religions. I’m an equal opportunity offender.

An interesting occasion to discuss Mormonism in particular has come recently because of a slight change in the Introduction to the Book of Mormons that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has just released. The new Introduction features an additional word to the canonical text: “among.” As in “After thousands of years all [ancient Israeli tribes] were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” You see, the previous version simply said “are” the ancestors.

The big deal is that apparently this is a (small) concession by Mormons to modern science. As the Church itself explains it in an article in the New York Times, “the scientific issues relating to DNA are numerous and complex.” Indeed, like the fact that American Indians have no direct relation whatsoever to any Israeli tribe, no matter what the good Book claims. Then again, said Book also claims that Jesus (of whose historical existence in Palestine we are not even sure, though it’s probable) came to America. The first time I heard a Mormon asking me if I was aware of this “fact” I thought he was joking.

Turns out he wasn’t, because Mormons believe that their Book is factually correct, in the same way, of course, in which many other Christians regard the Old and New Testaments as factual. But if it is about facts revealed by God, how can the Book change over time? Indeed, the Introduction itself only dates to 1981 (while the main body is much older: 1830). No problem, says former editor of the Mormon Dialogue, Bob Rees. You see, “'God speaks of the (Mormon) church as being a living church and if it is, that means it's not static, there's an opportunity for change. ... The history of science is the history of revising axioms. The things that we know and were certain of 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 10 years ago, we now have to say, 'Wow, we didn't know.''”

Well, Bob, the difference is that science is supposed to change because it is a human quest for knowledge about the universe, knowledge that ought to be revisable in the face of new evidence. But for a religion to be “living” in this sense, it must mean that God changed His mind about things. Could it be that when God talked to 19th century Mormons about the (alleged) relationship between the Lamanites and the American Indians he didn’t know about DNA evidence? Oops.

That’s what happens whenever any religion takes its “sacred” books literally. It sets itself on an automatic collision course with science, which will eventually show that God’s factual truths aren’t so factual after all. Why ask for trouble? Why not interpret scriptures metaphorically? On this, post-modernists have it right: if you declare the death of the author, and the fact that there is no right way to interpret a text, then you are automatically exempt from any critical analysis of whatever you say about said text. Of course, the price to pay for that trick is called relativism. Oh well, you can’t have your God and eat it too.


  1. That last sentence can't be right. As Hume pointed out, the Catholics still appear to have their God after eating him repeatedly for many centuries.

  2. "Oh well, you can’t have your God and eat it too."

    The Catholics vehemently disagree.

  3. We live in community that has a lot of Mormons. No one appreciates more than I that many of the women are great wives and mothers to their famlies. But it is a shame that they are doing much of their good works so that they can go to "paradise" with their husbands and be eternally pregnant. ??? So if one just felt like making up something totally (self serving to women instead of men) ridiculous, why not that our husbands get to go to paradise if we say so, and they get to be eternally pregnant???

    Heh heh ;), why not?
    Certainly, as you said, one view would be just as silly as the other.

    Fortunately more than a few former Mormons have started to come to our church (not that it is about our church) and have become like average people. I can think of some who are really disgusted at the Mormon Church now and can't believe that they were lied to for so long.

    And lastly in defense of the standard interpretation of the most commonly accepted biblical manuscripts,
    there is not a thing, in the plain reading of the ten commandments that is on a collision course with science.

    Oh, but some might say, except the one that says "God (the creator) is first".

    That's the one that hurts.
    you know who I am.. ;)

  4. No, Cal, we don't really know who you are.

    From the little I've heard, the book of Morons (oops) is just an older Scientology-like type of thing thing. But I don't really know (or care).

    But I think I know what they're up to! They are soviet-style "history" revisionists. OK, you can't call religious texts real history, but you get my drift. So they want to get a President so they can rewrite the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers texts... Mind you, lots of people would love that.

  5. Cal

    You're a Buddhist at heart.

    You want to boil the whole Bible down to the ten Commandments Sutra.

  6. Your reasoning is persuasive but nevertheless flawed. The error of Mormonism is not in taking Scripture literally but in taking the Book of Mormon for Scripture. Taking the Book of Mormon alone much of what you write stands up, i.e. there is absolutely no evidence for the claims Mormonism makes for the Book of Mormon. Indeed there is much reason to dismiss the book as a 19th century hoax.

    However, there is evidence for many of the claims Christians make for the Bible. Contrary to your opinion, there is more than sufficient evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and more, and scholars find bizzare the fond notion held by relativists that there might be any doubt. Dream on, of course, if it gives you comfort.

    The difference of approach between Mormons and those Christians who prefer to think about their faith (there are those too I assure you) is that thinking Christians understand the difference between literal and literalistic. For the latter, everything in the Bible is "literally" true. For the former "truth" is expressed in many ways, e.g. history, allegory, homily, parable, poetry, proverb, even myth, dream and vision. Behind such things there remain eternal truths.

    These truths may be understood differently by different people in different generations and cultures. A good example of this is the question of creation. Some see a literal six day creation and a young earth, while others see in science good reason to see symbolism in the story, but both would agree on the underlying "truth" that God created everything, and for a purpose.

    We see through a glass darkly but we see. The Christian would argue that we see because God shows us.

    He shows us in religion:

    "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe" (Hebrews 1:1,2)

    He shows us in science:

    Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20)

    The journey is one of discovery that begins at the end and proceeds to its conclusion.

  7. Mike Tea, your claim that the Bible can be demonstrated true is nonsense. All you have done is reach for the Bible and assert it is correct, with no independent verification.

  8. For the former "truth" is expressed in many ways, e.g. history, allegory, homily, parable, poetry, proverb, even myth, dream and vision. Behind such things there remain eternal truths.

    Do you believe in the Virgin Birth, Mike?

  9. I am starting to see the Book of Mormon in motel drawers with greater frequency. I even found one in the Renaissance Harbour View hotel in Hong Kong. I took that one home with me to read and critique eventually. The one I found in my motel outside of Chicago last summer I tossed in the trash can.

  10. "Mike Tea, your claim that the Bible can be demonstrated true is nonsense. All you have done is reach for the Bible and assert it is correct, with no independent verification."

    Forgive me Kimpatsu but you have just done what you accused me of doing, i.e. asserted something with no independent verification. I might say that you made a statement of faith in that case.

    You have also assumed a great deal it seems to me. I suspect you assume I have naively accepted something "by faith" without thinking it through. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Which brings me to a question. What do you mean by "true"?

    I can show evidence that Jesus of Nazareth lived when the Bible says he did. I can show evidence that he was crucified as the Bible says he was. I can show that he was tried by a procurator named Pontius Pilate and even give you some details about what sort of man Pilate was. I can point out the places where these events happened and verify the existence of the culture in which they happened. All this without once appealing to what I suspect you would call "blind faith".

    How you interpret these events is open for discussion, but whether these people existed and whether these events occured is beyond question, therefore, they are "true".

    Indeed, to doubt them because you are an atheist, relativist or any other kind of "ist" is, itself, a leap of faith because you would be believing something in spite of the evidence.

    Yes, Paul01, I do believe in the virgin birth.

  11. Mike Tea,

    That there is some true historical content in the Bible, that a man named Jesus of Nazareth may indeed have existed, is not doubted by all or even a majority of atheists. Even if there is sufficient evidence for this, it does not come close to demonstrating the divinity of Jesus Christ.

    And what evidence do you have for this man being born a virgin? That the Bible says so? Anything else?

    Apparently there is some scholarly dispute as to whether Jesus actually existed, a question I have no interest in myself.

  12. "And what evidence do you have for this man being born a virgin? That the Bible says so? Anything else? "

    If Jesus was the "first cause" why could he not also cause the first breath of his own material existence?
    (Since there cannot be an infinite regress of events, there must be some Uncaused Cause.) -T Aquinas

    We all accept the fact that
    ALL BABIES come from somewhere.

    We also agree that the two parents alone are NOT the only reason that a baby can exist. (
    Everything that we observe is an effect of some previous cause.)- T Aquinas

    Right now, women routinely have babies without the actual physical intervention of of a guy. Someone who has little understanding of the in vitro fertl. process may actually claim that it not only appears but a woman who is impregnated actually still could be a virgin. So in some instances we see that "virgin" is all just a matter of semantics, isn't it. But in such cases, restructure your semantics and your understanding of science and you still have a true and actual VIRGIN.

    So what's the problem, Sheldon?

    Guess the Virgin Mary was so LIKE 21 century, wasn't she.


  13. Really Cal, There is "male intervention" at some level in all births (as opposed to cloning's etc), whether it be directly or indirectly. And to insinuate that in vitro fertilization existed in the time of your Jesus' birth serves only to make your argument even more preposterous.

  14. "And what evidence do you have for this man being born a virgin? That the Bible says so? Anything else?"

    The virgin birth is easy to believe, as Anonymous has pointed out. Anyway, it was not really a virgin birth but a virgin conception. The rest of Mary's pregnancy, confinement and delivery was natural. The Bible text actually states:

    "The virgin will be with child" (Matthew 1:23, c.f. Isaiah 7:14)

    The term "virgin birth" is not recorded in Scripture, although I think we all know what it means.

    "Apparently there is some scholarly dispute as to whether Jesus actually existed, a question I have no interest in myself."

    I see you are one of those "drive by's" who drop a remark into a conversation but refuse to stop long enough to be held to account when someone with authority comes along. Your choice but a pity.

    Yes, there are those who "doubt" Jesus' existence but then there are doubters on every subject and I find that the motives of a doubter can be very elightening. The existence of a doubter is not good enough reason to doubt.

    I have noticed that if it suits me to believe someone because of my preconceptions I am greatly tempted to go no further in testing their claims, but can proclaim their genius for stating what I, after all, "knew" all along.

    If, on the other hand, I disagree I note that I can find time and energy enough to prove him wrong. The trick is to put as much energy into the former as you would the latter. That is how one arrives at the truth - just in case your interested.

    Most people who criticise the Bible have never read it, and have no notion of the scholarly works that show why it should be taken more seriously than it is. This is sad because the Bible was once regarded as a sound basis for a classical education.

  15. If you can show the evidence you claim, Mike, it will be revolutionary because no one else has such evidence in their possession. By all means, please post it here for us to evaluate.
    You are wrong in your assertion about me making a leap of faith however; you offered no independent evidence with your original post; you merely quoted scripture. That does not constitute evidence, as I said.
    Anyway, I'm looking forward to your earth-shattering evidence. Please don't keep us waiting too long.

  16. Cal,
    Ok, so are you arguing that Jesus was concieved from some process of in-vitro fertilization? Any evidence there was any technology like that 2,000 years ago? Although you do seem to be arguing there was nothing supernatural about JC's conception/birth. Fine, we agree.

    Mike Tea,
    Actually, I did a drive by mention of some arguing that Jesus did not exist more out of annoyance with religious skeptics who use it as an argument against Christianity. Annoyance because I think it is mostly an irrelevant issue. I am willing to concede that some guy Jesus probably did exist. So what? Lots of historical figures have existed and have made claims to being divine.

    I have actually read the Bible. I am actually quite thankful that I do have some knowledge of the Bible. Now about that "virgin conception". Why should we believe it. Because the Bible says it happened?

  17. And what evidence do you have for this man being born a virgin?

    Sheldon... everyone is born a virgin... Just pulling your leg! Like Mike Tea.

    By the way, Mike Tea, you haven't said anything useful yet. Are you just hot air? Nice prose to cover the hollow interior? As Kimpatsu said above, spill the beans.

    Your little patronizing tone just helps in giving the impression you're a fraud. If you actually do know what you are talking about, then you must be lying here. You should have notice that the average atheist reads and discusses and knows much more about religionS (and not just your curious desert cult, by the way) than the average believer. At least that's what many people comment, and is my personal experience in talking to people from all parts of the spectrum. You know, the ones who got brainwashed into a certain belief/ideology from the cradle are almost always on YOUR side of the fence -- and they then spend the rest of their lives trying to fit everything in the real world to their mythology.

    Talking about reading the Bible (mostly bad literature, by the way): I have been told by at least 4 atheists, in person, that they decided the Bible was just fiction when they finally read it.

    So, are you going to give us what you don't have? The proofs you mention? Or are you waiting to get a Templeton Prize first?


  18. Templeton prize? I won't deny that the money would be nice but, on balance, I take my religion more seriously than that.

    There are so many conceptual errors in some of the comments I hardly know where to begin. J seems to assume that "religious" people are, "the ones who got brainwashed into a certain belief/ideology from the cradle are almost always on YOUR side of the fence -- and they then spend the rest of their lives trying to fit everything in the real world to their mythology."

    Everyone is born into a certain belief/ideology and is, in that sense, brain-washed. I recently met a young woman who was raised in an atheist household and "brainwashed" into believing that Christians were nothing more than an historical phenomenon and that you probably wouldn't see them around today. On going to university, she met the Christian Union and had to reconsider her understanding. She became a Christian.

    There will, I am sure, be those who will say, "shame what the Christians did to a good atheist girl when they got their hands on her". But look how ignorant she was in the house of her miltantly atheist parents!

    I can't get passed the question of "evidence". What would satisfy you? If you want "proof" what do you mean by "proof"? I must say, I am not happy with being characterised as someone who has blindly, unthinkingly accepted a crutch called religion. If that was me then I wouldn't be here. What standards of evidence do you apply to what you believe?

    Did Jesus exist? Yes and you would have to be an idiot to deny it. That celebrated idiot and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, wrote, "Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if he did we don't know anything about him".

    The only way he could say that would be to ignore the evidence of Roman writers and Jewish leaders of the day, not to mention the New Testament documents themselves, which are better respected as ancient historical documents than some would admit. (FF Bruce, The Books and the Parchments; The New Testament Documents, are they Reliable?)

    If you want to question the claims made by him and for him then you move into the realms of the spiritual and the question of whether you believe in it or not and, if not, why not? What questions exactly are we addressing here, and why are you so confident in making the claims you make? Or is it, as in the case of Russell, more like a convenient cynicism?

  19. I realize I'm coming late to the party here, but it's probably never to late to add a reasonable thought to a skeptical blog involving faith and/or silliness.

    Therefore, in regards to the "Virgin Birth"...

    At one time, an unmarried female who had not passed a reasonable age (by which she might then be considered to be pretty much left to wither on the shelf) would have been called a "virgin". You were young and not yet married? Virgin. The actual physical virginity was ***assumed*** because it was expected of them.

    Whether they had ever engaged in sexual congress or not was figured out *after* they married. Unless, of course, they turned out to be pregnant beforehand, in which case it was all pretty much self-explanatory.

    "Virgin" is as much literary poetry as medical terminology. Therefore, the notion of Jesus coming from a "Virgin" birth (or that Mary was found to be with child while yet a "virgin" and "unmarried") isn't at all shocking when you put it in ordinary historical context.

    And then again, there's that pesky parallel mythology what with Mithras being born of a Virgin and all that.

    Let's try to ignore the fact it happened 2000 years before Jesus.

    Just a coincidence.

    -- the cat

  20. You are in denial. The primary pre-Columbian Y lineage group of Native Americans is known as Q. Modern Jews share this DNA; 5% of Ashkenazi Jews, 5% of Iraqi Jews and 15% of Yemenite Jews belong to the Q lineage group; the same lineage group as most Native Americans. Q is more common in Europe than East Asia and its closest relative is R; the primary lineage group of Europe.


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