Sunday, January 06, 2008

Are Mormons any Funnier than Christians?

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.


Anonymous said...

I think there is an assumption (in culture, not in this post) that any member of a new religious movement must be taking all of its claims literally. I'm not sure how true that is. I would suspect, for example, that Romney is significantly less fundamentalist about the Book of Mormon than Huckabee is about the New Testament.

rantingnerd said...

I'd be shocked if Romney took the Book of Mormon literally. But I'm not so sure about Scientologists from the last 50 years or so. :-)

Bot said...

You might be surprised to learn that Mormons spend twice as much time studying the Bible as the Book of Mormon.

The church is founded on a view of Jesus Christ found in the New Testament. Its theology is much closer to Early Christianity than any other denomination. For example, the Bible Dictionary states that Trinitarianism is not to be found in the New Testament.

For more information, refer to:

Phaedrus said...

WHAT'S IN A NAME? Fundamentalist "Christians" and the Old Testament

I've said it before, and one of my mentors, the theologian Paul L. Holmer said it many times before me: There is nothing compelling in the scriptural narratives. The atheist can touch scripture and remain unscathed. He or she can read the Bible from cover to cover--Genesis to Maps--and remain an unbeliever.

Religion and spirituality are mostly psychology, just as Freud said. Ironically, many of Freud's critics argue that psychoanalysis is just a religion. Now there's a snarky bind!

I once recommended what I thought was an astonishingly beautiful essay to a friend, who read it thoughtfully, shrugged his shoulders, and tossed it back to me with a grunt. It didn't speak to him. He read it out of deference to me, and he may even have tried to figure out what I saw in it, but it didn't move him.

We're still friends. We still respect each other's intellects, and we still love each other. But there are certain essays, beloved to me, that I no longer recommend to him.

It's not his book, so to speak, and now he and I both know it. Curiously, people who are genuinely spiritual can often find solace and inspiration in the scriptural writings of other religions. This is the case for me, when I read the Old Testament or the Qur'an, and I've found much of interest, as well, when I've read in the Book of Mormon.

The Christian fundamentalist's relationship to the Old Testament, however, is something else altogether. More a fetish, really, and an unholy one at that. It's not their book and, as a result, they misinterpret it and misuse it, much of the time, to justify being harsh, exclusive, and judgmental.

It must be a terrible irony to the Jews--the true people of the Covenant--to see their scripture abused in this way and, in the most grotesque of tragedies, to see it turned against them.

My brethren, we Christians bleed for you and with you, because we are witnessing the demoralization of our spirituality and the perversion of our religion seemingly from within. The fundamentalists among us who call themselves Christians have elevated their mean and impoverished apprehension of the Old Testament over the primary themes of what, by rights, they should be claiming as their book, the New Testament. And what are these themes? Faith, hope, love, forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, and peace.

I think that the Christian theologian, Robert Roberts--yes, that's his real name--said it best. (This will be a poor paraphrase, since I can't, at the moment, locate the essay in question.)

Christianity, whatever else it may be, is a set of emotions--emotions written large upon the personality and born out of a particular relationship to God. And so it happens that if we are not contrite over our waywardness, if we are not quick to love and to accept, if we do not hunger for God's forgiveness and extend that forgiveness to others, and if our hearts never sing unbidden with the joy that is a life in God, then we are not Christian. Though we place the name of God on our lips and hug our Bibles to our hearts, if we are not in some measure repentant, loving, and forgiving, we are not Christian.

As a psychologist, I've looked into the eyes and listened to the words of many fundamentalists, and I see few Christians among them. As a Christian, I will welcome them home with open arms, whenever their own book begins to speak to them. Until that happens, I will pray for the will and the strength to forgive.