Today's New York Times Magazine has an article about Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and politics. The the article doesn't really add much to my knowledge or understanding of Mormons and politics, but then again I'm a political junkie, and live in Massachusetts, where Mitt Romney was governor (and where he lived for 30 years, raised his kids, and now slags on as part of his protean campaign for the Republican nomination).
The article does include one paragraph I found very thought-provoking:
Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism's tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God's revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh's changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith's revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.
I've wondered about this aspect of religion-in-public-life before. Is there any rational (as opposed to merely rationalized) basis for mocking the Mormon or Scientologist religious stories (or, for that matter, those of Heaven's Gate or other cults) but not those of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on?
Full disclosure time: I'm an atheist. I find the supernatural/theological content of most religions to be bunk. (Aram says I worship the top quark, which is metaphorically true -- I suppose this makes me a Unitarian physicist.) I was raised in a fairly standard mainstream Protestant Christian (Presbyterian, to be exact) household, and to complete the stereotype, I am a preacher's kid.
I do feel an urge to give a something of a pass to older religions, at least to the followers thereof who don't take their founding texts literally. The question is: is this merely familiarity? Antiquity giving a patina of respectability? Or is it the actual content? Or something more meta?
It might be the content. Both Mormon and Scientologist "history" make some fairly silly factual/historical claims (with L. Ron beating Joseph Smith on the silliness meter, but he had the advantage of being a science fiction writer). The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are actually much less miraculous than the stories of Genesis. Don't get me wrong -- the Christian Gospels are full of miracles, but they're all relatively small in scale. Raising the dead is pretty amazing, but it was one guy, not millions. Walking on water is cool, but it's again, one guy. Loaves and fishes and water into wine? Both one-time, one-gathering things. And even the Resurrection? One guy, one-time event. Compared to Moses (parting the Red Sea, Ten Commandments [all various versions], plagues, etc.), Jesus' miracles are pretty darn local. ("Think globally, miracle locally"?) If you take away the miracles (or take them as metaphor, or whatever), though, there's actually a fair amount of story left.
Aside: one of the things I find weirdest about fundamentalist/literalist Christians is how much (i.e. basically all) of their issues (e.g. with evolution) are from the Old Testament. As Lewis Black put it, "it's not their book!".
So maybe it's not the content specifically -- Jesus visiting the lost tribes of Israel over in North America after the Resurrection, or Thetans visiting Earth in DC-9-resembling spaceships parked in volcanoes, aren't all that much crazier than Great Floods or Red Seas Parting, or the whole Garden of Eden thing. Maybe it's the literalism. I find Christian Biblical Literalism to be ludicrous in the abstract and scary in the concrete, and I have similar responses to both Mormonism and Scientology. (By the way, I do not consider it coincidental that Romney is running for President fairly soon after Tom Cruise jumped the couch. There's nothing like a newer cult/religion to legitimize a slightly older one by contrast.)
But I think it's more than just literalism vs. metaphor here. I think it really comes under the heading of presentism. I guess I consider anything after the Enlightenment to be part of the modern "now", and wonder how anyone in the modern era could ever take something like the literal claims of Mormonism or Scientology seriously. And I'm willing to give a pass to older established religions because People Back Then were ignorant and superstitious, lacking Our Modern Perspective.
The only wiggle room I see for getting out of my self-diagnosed Presentism is to say that since we don't actually know with good documentary evidence how most of the well-established religions started, People Back Then might not have taken things as literally as we assume, while we know a lot about the start of Mormonism and Scientology, because they're within modern historical (and in the case of Scientology, living) memory. But I think that's a pretty weak wiggle.
And since I find literalist adherents of older established religions to be as silly as literalist Mormons or Scientologists, I guess that settles it for my position: all religions are full of historical claims that are deeply sily and at odds with the evidence of the world. Anyone who takes those claims literally is choosing willful falsehood over evidence-based science. That's their choice. It's not what I'd want for myself, and it's certainly not what I want in a President.