Impossible Faith Non-Parallel #2: Mormonism

Not surprisingly, Skeptical reaction to our item The Impossible Faith has consisted of some vague challenges. A recent Skeptical writer claimed, "The same could be said of all religions," and listed some -- as though by their mere listing he had proved his point.

But fair enough. One of the faiths this person listed was Mormonism, and since this is an area where I have some knowledge, and a resource for Mormon history (in this case, Latter Days by Coke Newell, the leading PR man in the LDS church), let's subject Mormonism to the "impossible faith" test.

I should note for fairness that our factors, even if few or none apply to another faith, obviously do not serve to disprove that faith's veracity -- the acid test here is negative and not positive. Mormonism or any religion could be entirely true and still meet none of these factors.

As a reminder: This article should only be read in light of and with knowledge of The Impossible Faith.

Factor #1 -- Who Would Buy One Crucified?

Shame and indignity! Mormonism had some associations we can point to here (whether justly or unjustly) and we will need to discuss those. Yet before we do, key caveats are in order.

As noted in The Impossible Faith, the grounding of this factor is not just that Jesus was subjected to a dishonorable and ignominious death, and re point 15, other instances of dishonor, but that he was subjected to these things in a society where honor was deeply valued.

Joseph Smith and Mormonism emerged in American society. We of course do not entirely dispense with honor, but it is by far a secondary or tertiary concern. Our first reaction to a man crucified (and of whom we have no previous knowledge) is not "What a dishonorable death, and what a dishonorable man" -- our first reaction is, "What did that poor man do that he was executed thusly?"

Our reaction to such things as individualists -- not collectivists, as were the ancients -- is sympathy with the oppressed. If we do not already dislike or despise the individual (based on their actions, say as criminals, or because of our own biases) we naturally sympathize with them, and if the man is unjustly executed, our sympathy increases manyfold. It is this turn of thought that marks the difference between a society like Iran and Iraq, that could throw millions of lives away in a war without a thought over 10 years, and a society like ours where a single death in Afghanistan warrants national newspaper and television coverage of the funeral and reactions from the family.

If you wonder why terrorists think it effective to strike 3,000 innocents, you need only remember that they are thinking collectively -- and that they suppose that what hurts a few, hurts all.

What, then, of shame and dishonor in Mormonism? The office of Joseph Smith as Prophet is roughly comparable to Jesus' headship of the church in terms of our discussion. Smith endured a number of dishonorable experiences -- he was tarred and feathered, jailed, beat up, and reviled. But this does not mean the same thing in a society where honor is not a primary value, and where the individual is valued over the collective. Smith had many enemies, but he also had many friends and allies who, even as they disagreed with his views, nevertheless gave him aid.

And to be fair, we should note that core of belief in what Smith preached was not integral to any dishonorable experience or act. Christianity was staked in the crucifixion and had to preach it. Mormonism has no stake in Smith's sufferings in the same way and could technically not mention them.

In sum, while Smith was subjected to dishonor on several occassions, this is moot in this context, because it did not mean the same thing in his day as it did in the ancient Mediterranean -- and if anything because of the nature of the dishonor (inflicted as it was most often by others) also drew him more friends and allies.

Factor #2 -- Neither Here Nor There: Or, A Man from Galilee??

The geography factor is a minor issue, perhaps. There were ample prejudices in America of the 19th century, but Smith was not affected by the most serious -- the racial factor.

Smith's roots in the state of New York as a poor and rural agriculturalist would have perhaps been off-putting to denizens of urban areas, and to those in the South. But as far as we can tell, Mormonism did not have to engage in this conflict to any serious extent. Indeed those who were more like Smith than not were in the far majority. Mormonism existed in a national (and to some extent international) hegemony unlike the Roman Empire with its various nations and prejudices.

Factor #3 -- Getting Physical! The Wrong "Resurrection"

Obviously this is a non-factor as it stands. Mormonism taught (and still teaches) resurrection in a society that had no problem with it.

Yet one could justly argue that some of Mormonism's doctrines played a similar role. We would then have to ask, "Which ones?" And are any of these as repulsive as resurrection would have been to the pagans and Romans? Is there a strong dichotomy between a Mormon doctrine and American society that matches the dichotomy of the ancients between matter and spirit?

In Mormonism, we have doctrines like pre-existence and salvation for the dead, which, while different than the norm, are far from socially unacceptable; indeed many would find these concepts positive. At worst we have doctrines like polygamy which were socially unacceptable -- and which Mormonism eventually gave up (under whatever inspiration) under serious military, political and social pressure.

This provides an intriguing match: As we noted, Christianity should have abandoned a physical resurrection in order to survive, and while Docetists did so (and did not survive!) mainstream Chistendom held its ground.

Interestingly, among Mormonism's original defenses of the polygamy doctrine were one typically American: "Whose business is it? Hands off here! Our belief is our own! We have a right to our opinion!" -- Newell, 108. But there is one more consideration: Many of Mormonism's doctrines were justified (not to say, mainly supported) using the Bible, which was already a recognized and respected authority. Christianity had no such option, except viably among Jews who accepted the OT. This factor has no application to Mormonism.

Factor #4 -- What's New? What's Not Good

Moderns do not view what is new with suspicion automatically -- unless it requires them to fork over some dough! We are a society that prides innovation and a frontier spirit, and we value the individual. Mormonism did not have to fight this battle to any real extent -- the claim that mainstream Christianity was apostate was bold, but also resonated well, in part because to an obvious extent it seemed to be true.

Factor #5 -- Don't Demand Behavior

Mormonism of course has a high ethical demand ratio -- but this is offset by the fact that its early converts were already "converted" to the Christian morality. There was not a matter of missing out on pagan orgies and the like, though of course one did have to abandon some commonplaces like alcohol. Nevertheless, it is true that this is not an insurmountable hurdle even for Christianity in the Roman world; but it was less difficult as a whole for Mormonism.

Factor #6 -- Tolerance is a Virtue

Mormonism made a bold claim, as noted, that mainstream Christendom was apostate. We have something of a parallel here, for this implies an arrogant and exclusive innovation.

Yet it is not wholly so. Mormonism was not a radical disposal of the accepted gods, but a fine tuning of the predominant God. It was not entirely innovative, merely innovative on certain points. It also did not upset the social order, as it accepted overall the same moral values (outside of the, er, polygamy "problem"). There is no parallel to the Roman conception that failing to pay homage to the proper gods (piety) would cause problems in other arenas, and given freedom of religious faith in America, no conflict with the political ideology.

Beyond that, as an individualistic society, America has a "live and let live" approach that would have been foreign to the ancients. Once Mormonism dropped polygamy, they were free to live in peace.

Factor #7 -- Stepping Into History

With this we have a very interesting parallel -- of sorts. And it is one that may make or break Mormonism as it steps into the mainstream.

Mormonism maintains a belief in an immense course of history in the Western Hemisphere. One is hard-pressed to find definitive statements, and much has been made of the lack of evidence for this alternate history.

But this controversy has taken place primarily in our century. At the time of Joseph Smith, the testing of such claims was almost completely inaccessible, and the events were separated by time and distance. There is not a match here for Christian claims to have encountered persons just around the corner or across the strait, in major positions of power or influence.

Mormon apologists are busily seeking verification for their history. In the meantime, the faithful await, mostly not concerned, in a society that has accepted the Bultmannian premise that faith doesn't need history to support it, and what's true for you may not be true for me. Many Mormons now dismiss the importance of Book of Mormon events, though far from all do.

One may also discuss Joseph Smith's accuracy as a prophet in this context, though that would be a secondary issue. The question: Will Mormonism have to change to survive, as scrutiny closes in? The answer is beyond our scope. But this factor remains in the air.

Factor #8 -- Do Martyrs Matter, and More?

Yes, martyrs do matter here. Joseph Smith was Mormonism's martyr par excellence, but far from the only one, and persecution was inflicted upon the Saints in every place they ventured. Mormons were shot at, killed, beaten, and hounded from place to place. Officials called for their removal or extermination. Armies pursued them even to Utah. Their homes were burned and their innocents murdered. This is overall a black spot on our history and cannot be downplayed.

But the Mormons had some advantages that the early Christians did not. Others were sympathetic and offered the Mormons temporary shelter and respite, which would not have been the case for the early Christians. Mormonism grew in a frontier society where there was ample land for expansion, and places to remove entire communities and heed the advice, "when they persecute you in one town, flee to another."

One may justly ask whether Mormonism today would be the same institution had it not had Nauvoo, and later Utah, to flee to, to regroup in -- and then, had it not eventually compromised (for whatever reason) on its most socially offensive doctrine (polygamy). On the other hand, early Christians eventually had no place to flee other than wilderness and the perhaps catacombs -- and could not count on any sympathetic allies. Would Mormonism have survived the tyranny and the injustice of the Roman Empire?

There is another matter, more poignant. Skeptics have said that "in every religion people die for their beliefs." They do, but in most cases the beliefs in question are not grounded in historical data. One who would readily die for the belief that there were three or five gods, or that the dead received salvation, or that one will receive a certain eternal reward, may not be so ready to die for a belief that Washington did (or did not) cross the Delaware.

With all of Mormonism's historical claims either inaccessible (Book of Mormon events) or rooted in private events (revelations to Smith and others), Mormonism was more like the former on this account than the latter.

One exception may be argued: The witnesses to the gold plates. On this point I would note that I have no doubts that Smith possessed some item or items which were purportedly gold plates. What they were is a matter beyond our scope. However, possession of such items is far less significant in scope than claiming observation of and extended interchange with a resurrected man.

Factor #9 -- Human vs. Divine: Never the Twain Shall Meet!

This is not a problem for Mormonism, since it emerged in a society where this was not an issue (but see above re other, social factors).

Factor #10 -- No Class!

Here again, Mormonism emerged in a society where this was not an issue, though perhaps the race dichotomy may have caused problems. Mormons were abolitionists, according to Newell [84], but this position was not unique to Mormonism and simply added to their problems on other grounds. The movement itself was at this stage mostly homogeneous and did not erase otherwise any class or social distinctions held by society.

Factor #11 -- Don't Rely on Women!

Factor #12 -- Don't Rely on Bumpkins, Either!

This could have been a factor only to the extent that Smith and a few others were recipients of revelation, and as such, were the ones upon whom others would rely for testimony. But when coupled with factor 2 above, we find this to be a non-problem.

Factor #13 -- You Can't Keep a Secret!

This factor does not come into play, since again, Mormonism is founded upon private revelations and what were at the time inaccessible historical claims. Critics of Smith of course slandered and persecuted him and the Mormons as a whole, but as noted above, this would not produce the same reaction in modern America as it did in the ancient Mediterranean.

Factor #14 -- An Ignorant Deity??

In a real sense Mormonism played a risk card when it blurred the accepted distinction between God and men. Yet this is not the same risk as identifying Jesus with an omniscient deity while also showing him to be ignorant. And Mormonism's idea arguably balanced the "demotion" of God with the promotion of man -- and still kept God in a superior position, never denying His omnipotence and attributes, but saying instead, rather appealingly, that we would get them.

Factor #15 -- A Prophet Without Honor

See factor #1 above.

I noted earlier that no comparison of this sort is likely to be valid unless it is made within the context of a collectivist, honor-concerned society like ancient Rome or modern Japan. Examples from individualist America or the West would be difficult to justify as parallels -- and we have seen why this is the case. Our thought-life is vastly different, and we have turned many ancient values upside down.

I must conclude therefore that Mormonism does not pass the test as an "impossible faith."