The Weird and Sinister Beliefs of Mormonism

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Christopher Hitchens, the belligerent and loquacious atheist author and social commentator, doesn’t like Mormonism very much. Granted, he doesn’t care much for religion at all, as is evidenced by his exceptionally distasteful book god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But Mr. Hitchens seems to have a special place in his heart for disliking Mormonism. In his aforementioned 2007 screed, Hitchens devoted several error-riddled pages towards exposing Joseph Smith as a con man and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a racist, sexist, anti-intellectualist Orwellian hell of a cult. Shortly thereafter, Hitchens turned his aim towards Mitt Romney, the Mormon presidential candidate who has faced considerable opposition on account of his faith. Unsurprisingly, Hitchens had next to nothing complimentary to say about Mormonism. And most recently in his 2011 anthology of essays, Hitchens further makes several gratuitous cheap-shots at Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.[1] It seems as though it is impossible for Mr. Hitchens to say or write the words “Mormon” or “Joseph Smith” without adding a plethora of pithy insults and disdainful remarks. His efforts are entertaining to observe, as Hitchens presses on in his anti-religious crusade and rails against the poor, benighted Mormons with a Quixotic gusto and indomitable zeal.

Ever faithful to Hugh Nibley’s 17th rule of anti-Mormonism, Hitchens’s comments on Mormonism are bereft of facts but saturated with rhetoric and sarcasm.[2] While some anti-Mormon writers prefer the graceful rapier to dice Mormonism into little cubes, Hitchens goes after the Church of Jesus Christ with a meat cleaver. Although he has rightfully been lauded for his literary prowess, Hitchens does not deliver the elegant subtleties of, say, Fawn Brodie (whom Hitchens erroneously refers to as “Dr.”) and her 1945 biography/novel hybrid No Man Knows My History. This lamentable state of affairs has been dutifully noted by Professors Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin in their reviews of Hitchens’s anti-religious propaganda. What Hitchens lacks in fact, he more than makes up for with blunt sarcasm, empty rhetoric, and demonstrably false claims.[3]

Mr. Hitchens’s most recent offering on Slate.com unsurprisingly attacks Mitt Romney for holding “weird and sinister beliefs.” What, pray, is so “weird and sinister” about Mormonism? Hitchens offers us an answer in eight paragraphs. Let us explore Mr. Hitchens’s reasoning and see if his assertions can withstand the inscrutible gaze of the facts.

Hitchens begins his piece by pondering “whether Pastor Robert Jeffress is correct in referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more colloquially known as the Mormons, as ‘a cult.’” (Hitchens himself has already answered this question, as in the opening chapter on Mormonism in god is Not Great he referred to the Church as a “ridiculous cult”.) According to Hitchens, Mormonism does exhibit cult-like behavior:

The Mormons have a supreme leader, known as the prophet or the president, whose word is allegedly supreme. They can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding. They have distinctive little practices, such as the famous underwear, to mark them off from other mortals, and they are said to be highly disciplined and continent when it comes to sex, booze, nicotine, and coffee. Word is that the church can be harder to leave than it was to join. Hefty donations and tithes are apparently appreciated from the membership.

Two things. First, the President of the Church, (who, incidentally, is never referred to as the “supreme leader” within the Church), while venerated as a prophet, seer, and revelator, is hardly “supreme” in Mormonism. That right belongs solely to the Godhead: God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. In May 2007, the Church released the following:

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.

So much for Hitchens’s assertion that the sole word of the prophet is “supreme”. But what of Hitchens’s claim that Mormons “can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding”? Has President Thomas S. Monson been known as an austere autocrat who has compelled his peons to shun the unbeliever? Far from it! Here is President Monson’s recent words of counsel for how members of the Church should interact with less-active or struggling members:

My dear brothers and sisters, ours is the responsibility, even the solemn duty, to reach out to all of those whose lives we have been called to touch. Our duty is to guide them to the celestial kingdom of God. May we ever remember that the mantle of leadership is not the cloak of comfort but rather the robe of responsibility. May we reach out to rescue those who need our help and our love.

This has been a common refrain throughout President Monson’s administration in the Church: reach out in love to those who have, to borrow Hitchens phrase, shown “any signs of backsliding”.[4]

Secondly, how does living a morally clean life qualify one as belonging to a cult? So what if Mormons are counseled by their leaders to abstain from pre or extra-marital sex, alcohol, tobacco, etc.? How on earth does Hitchens convert that into behavior that resembles cultishness?

Moving on, we get to the meat of Hitchens’ concerns. “What interests me more,” says Hitchens, “is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS, discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry.” Right out of the gates Hitchens attacks Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjurer well known to the authorities of upstate New York.” Presumably Hitchens has in mind the 1826 Bainbridge, New York trial, wherein a young Joseph Smith was brought before a court hearing on the grounds that he was a “disorderly person” for engaging in “glass looking”. However, what Hitchens doesn’t seem to be aware of is that Joseph Smith was not found guilty at this court proceeding. I am no legal expert, but I am sure that being brought before a judge does not automatically make one guilty of an offense.[5]

Perhaps we can forgive Hitchens for this and other mistakes he commits throughout his article. After all, his only exposure to Mormon history seems to come from the work of Fawn Brodie, who wrote over half a century ago. Had he bothered to take time to read up on more current literature, he might have stumbled across Richard L. Bushman’s magnificent award-winning biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which has replaced Brodie’s antique as the definitive biography of Joseph Smith.[6] He may also have avoided making preposterous claims such as this:

Smith also announced that he wanted to be known as the Prophet Muhammad of North America, with the fearsome slogan: “Either al- Koran or the Sword.” He levied war against his fellow citizens, and against the federal government.[7]

Undeterred by the facts, Hitchens presses on:

Saddling itself with some pro-slavery views at the time of the Civil War, and also with a “bible” of its own that referred to black people as a special but inferior creation, the Mormon Church did not admit black Americans to the priesthood until 1978, which is late enough—in point of the sincerity of the “revelation” they had to undergo—to cast serious doubt on the sincerity of their change of heart.

Unfortunately for Hitchens’s credibility, the Church never actually “saddl[ed] itself” with pro-slavery views,[8] and the Book of Mormon never speaks of black people as “a special but inferior creation”. Hitchens is simply repeating (with some embellishment) a common trope that blurs the more nuanced and complex nature of the Church’s past views on race.[9] Why is he doing so? I suspect it is to score polemical points, not to engage in serious scholarship.

Besides historical errors,[10] Hitchens also egregiously misunderstands LDS theology. Consider his description of the LDS practice of baptism for the dead:

More recently, and very weirdly, the Mormons have been caught amassing great archives of the dead, and regularly “praying them in” as adherents of the LDS, so as to retrospectively “baptize” everybody as a convert.

Hitchens bemoans this practice as “a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.” Notwithstanding this degenerate slur, when we turn to LDS.org to give a succinct explanation of this practice, we read the following:

Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5). Many people, however, have died without being baptized. Others were baptized without proper authority. Because God is merciful, He has prepared a way for all people to receive the blessings of baptism. By performing proxy baptisms in behalf of those who have died, Church members offer these blessings to deceased ancestors. Individuals can then choose to accept or reject what has been done in their behalf.

Lest there be any lingering confusion, the article goes on to explain:

Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church.

But Hitchens need not rely only on the explanation given by the Church. Given his penchant for deep scholarly investigation, I am sure Hitchens would be more than willing to pursue the voluminous writings of Latter-day Saint doctrinal authors and historians on this subject.[11] Or, if he is feeling especially bold, he could even go right to the primary sources themselves that clarify this practice and the attending LDS belief of preaching the Gospel to the dead in the spirit world (Doctrine and Covenants 127, 128, 138). Hitchens might even discover that this practice is not recent (it has been around since 1840) and is not, as he profanely puts it, “a crass attempt at mass identity theft from the deceased.”

More could be said concerning this dreadfully uninformed article by Christopher Hitchens. However, whenever I am confronted with the unenviable task of reading and responding to the highly suspect opinions of Christopher Hitchens, I am reminded of the wise words of the Preacher:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?… The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 9-10).

Indeed, nothing has changed with regard to Christopher Hitchens’s self-assured bigotry. He continues to spout the same nonsense under the same self-assumed, holier-than-thou authority that is a hallmark of his career as a commentator on religious topics. What Professor William J. Hamblin has said with regards to Hitchens’s knowledge of the Bible is also true with regard to his knowledge of Mormonism:

Hitchens’s understanding of [Mormonism] is at the level of a confused undergraduate. His musings on such matters should not be taken seriously, and should certainly not be seen as reasonable grounds for rejecting belief in God.[12]

Notes:

[1]: Christopher Hitchens, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (New York, NY: Twelve, 2011), 41, 415, 502, 694-695.

[2]: See Hugh Nibley, “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book (A Handbook for Beginners)”, in Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, ed. David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 495-499.

[3]: Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens”, FARMS Review19/2 (2007), xi-xlvi; William J. Hamblin, “The Most Misunderstood Book: christopher hitchens on the Bible”, FARMS Review 21/2 (2009), 47-95.

[4]: A cursory glance through President Monson’s recent biography should show how, contrary to what Hitchens would like us to believe, the “supreme leader” of Mormonism has long been emphasizing the importance of reaching out to struggling members in charity, patience, and understanding. See Heidi S. Swinton, To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), passim.

[5]: On this matter, see Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting”, BYU Studies 30/2 (1990), 91-108. See also the handy FAIR Wiki article on this subject.

[6]: Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

[7]: Hitchens is fond of putting words in Joseph Smith’s mouth, including the infamous “al-Koran or the sword” quote. For more on this, pursue the following link.

[8]: In fact, Joseph Smith ran for the presidency of the United States on an explicate anti-slavery platform. See Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 515-517.

[9]: For starters, consult the following link.

[10]: Hitchens’s detailing of Ezra Taft Benson’s involvement with the John Birch Society and the Church’s attitude towards such is highly garbled. On this subject, consult Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2005), 279-357.

[11]: For a mere sampling of such, see H. David Burton, “Baptism for the Dead”, in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1992), 1:95-97; Susan Easton Black, “‘A Voice of Gladness for the Living and the Dead’ (D&C 128:19),” in The Religious Educator 3/2 (2002), 137–149; Leland Gentry, “Redemption for the Dead (D&C 2),” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Craig K. Manscill (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 92–102; Matthew McBride, A House for the Most High: The Story of the Original Nauvoo Temple (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 28-34, 112-114; Kendal J. Christensen, David L. Paulsen, and Martin Pulido, “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority”, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20/1 (2011), 27-51. Many more examples of LDS scholarly writings on the subject of baptism for the dead could be furnished, but the above should suffice for our present purpose.

[12]: Hamblin, “The Most Misunderstood Book”, 95.

23 thoughts on “The Weird and Sinister Beliefs of Mormonism

  1. Maelstromleaguer

    All compliments of Christopher Hitchens’ writing abilities aside, his piece is simply one more in a long series of poses, –attitudes if you will; an uninterrupted line of snarky gestures, unfettered by the unpleasant taste of facts or truth. He really ought to do due diligence to his atheism by researching his targets objectively and unemotionally before surgically dispatching them. But, instead he forfeits the respect of all except those ignorant of the facts by, as the reviewer mentions, painting with a broad brush or using a meat cleaver. His is criticism without nuance or substance. Not unlike a spoiled child yelling “Nyah nyah! You’re stupid!”, followed by the obligatory sticking out of the tongue.

    He would do well to get a clue and listen to his brother, Peter Hitchens, before booking another trip on the crazy train.

  2. Shelama

    Hitchens either missed it entirely, or only indirectly alluded to it, but the most weird Mormon belief of all is not sinister (although it is foundational): …the belief that the Bible is the word of God.

    Other than through childhood inculcation and indoctrination, how does an otherwise educated, informed, honest, critically thinking adult come to hold that belief?

    Comparing Mormon accounts of “testimony” to the accounts by Evangelicals and Pentacostals and others, they all seem to reduce to common varieties of psycho-emotional religious experiences. Whether called “witness of the Holy Spirit,” or “baptism by the Holy Ghost,” “called by God,” “saved,” “Testimony” or whatever.

    Appears to me they were all told by an authority figure that such feelings and emotions should be interpreted as a Ghost bearing witness of truth and knowledge. And they all believed it and proceeded to do just exactly that. Why? Weird.

    Interesting, though, that the specific form of witness and communication from this Ghost is pretty much determined by the cultural-religious expectations, and vary greatly from one group to another. Some “know” the Mormon church is the only true church, while others “know” with their baptism in the Holy Ghost that the Mormons are a Hell bound cult. The witness of the Holy Spirit convicts them in those beliefs.

    Recently the SLTribune carried a piece by a Mormon insisting that honest, critical-thinking Mormon intellectualism was not a joke. Yet the foundation of Mormonism is the uncritical acceptance of the anti-intellectual propositions that the Bible is both the word of God and reliable history. From Gardens to Floods to talking snakes & donkeys, to the Sun standing still, to virgin births to empty tombs. And that the NT honestly and accurately interprets Hebrew scripture (the OT), including it’s “salvation” and messianism, as it applies them to Jesus. And that Jesus, the NT, and Christianity are, indeed, a true continuation and “fulfillment” of the Old.

    Now that’s weird. But I have to admit: …this was not among Hitchens’ better efforts.

  3. Stephen Smoot Post author

    Hello Shelama,

    Thank you for your contribution to this discussion. I ultimately disagree with you that a religious individual cannot critically look at his or her faith and retain said faith. I know plenty of individuals who have seriously, critically, and thoughtfully examined their faith not only in the Bible but also in the claims of Joseph Smith concerning the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and maintain their belief. I know converts to the LDS Church who studiously investigated the claims of Mormonism before accepting its claims.

    I myself like to believe that I have looked critically at my own faith. I have wavered in my faith at times as I ask myself the tough questions of why I believe what I believe and whether my faith is misplaced or naive. Ultimately I do take it on faith that the subjective feelings I have felt confirming the truthfulness of Mormonism are in fact from the Holy Ghost, and not myself. I can only vouch for what I have experienced, and thus cannot comment authoritatively on the religious experiences of others.

    However, I have felt my faith bolstered with confidence as I have explored the Book of Mormon and the other scriptures of the Restoration and found faith-affirming evidence for their authenticity. So for me it ultimately boils down to this:

    1. I have faith that I have received a witness from God that the Book of Mormon is true (with its attending implications).
    2. I have felt my faith bolstered as I have examined my faith as objectively and critically as possible. While I do not presume to have answers to all of my questions or to all of the issues raised by skeptics and critics, I feel confident enough in what I have discovered to continue in exercising my faith.

    As for believing in the historicity of the biblical stories, all I have to say is that one does not necessarily need to believe the Bible is 100 % accurate history in order to believe that it 1) contains God’s word to His children and 2) can bring happiness and contentment into the lives of those who sincerely apply the principles taught within its pages. I myself have some questions as to the extent of the historical accuracy of some of the events recorded in the Bible, but that is besides the point since I draw strength from the principles I can learn from it.

    Sorry if my rambling is more than you wanted to read. Again, thanks for participating in this discussion.

    Best wishes.

  4. Shelama

    Your response to confirms not only the weird belief in Bible as the word of a God, but also the uncritical acceptance of an authority figure’s claim that there is this ghost, and that common varieties of religious experience should be interpreted as that ghost witnessing truth and knowledge. I can’t see an escape from that circle of weird, uncritical beliefs.

    Of course, nobody said anything about a believer not being able to critically examine their faith in the Bible (“as objectively and critically as possible”) and still retain it, so there wasn’t really anything to disagree with. Or anything about the specific claims of Mormonism (I don’t consider the BOM particularly relevant). The point was how a Mormon comes to believe the Bible is the word of God and [substantially] literal history in the first place. You cannot, even among BYU staff or within FAIR, for instance, find anyone who converted to that BELIEF from UNBELIEF because of the conclusions of critical, honest, informed Bible study. No question a person who already has an emotional investment and psychological commitment to their faith, who already holds that belief, can engage in what they consider to be critical study as an apologetic exercise and still remain faithful. And even still be a true, legitimate Bible scholar (Raymond Brown, for instance). But how and why do they come to hold that uncritical, anti-intellectual, weird belief in the first place?

    I’m assuming the converts that you personally know investigated the Hebrew scripture (your “Old Testament”) only in Christian translation, with only Christian interpretation? And probably from a Christian missionary whose own experience with Hebrew scripture was the same? In other words, I’m sure we both agree, in profound ignorance of Hebrew scripture.

    I’m aware there are Mormon non-literalists who drop belief in relatively minor points of the story (talking snakes & donkeys, for instance). But why would anyone ever come to believe the Bible is the word of God in the first place? Or in virgin births (especially based on Isa 7), or empty tombs? Or, if Tanakh were the word of God, that the NT is an honest and factual continuation and fulfillment of its theology, and concepts of messiah, sin, atonement and salvation, etc?

    That a belief brings happiness and improves a persons life, family, community and death renders it irrelevant whether it’s true or not. It just doesn’t matter. You are to be congratulated, and with those benefits I wouldn’t argue you shouldn’t continue your faith.

    Again, other than through childhood inculcation and indoctrination, how does an otherwise educated, informed, honest, critically thinking adult come to hold the weird belief that the Bible is the word of God? Or accept the weird belief that common forms of religious experience are a ghost witnessing truth and knowledge?

    Also, in follow-up, what distinguishes the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” of the Pentacostal, from the Mormon “testimony from the Holy Ghost,” from the Evangelical “born-again witness of the Holy Spirit”? Not conceptually or theologically or by assertion, but, simply, how do they feel differently to the persons experiencing them? How does these feelings (burning bosom, goosebumps, warm fuzzy, numinous or luminous feelings of peace or presence or certainty or calling, etc.) distinguis them, and to what significance? What makes one truly true?

    Still, I agree, Hitchen’s piece was not his best.

    Best wishes.

  5. David Richards

    “I’m assuming the converts that you personally know investigated the Hebrew scripture (your “Old Testament”) only in Christian translation, with only Christian interpretation? And probably from a Christian missionary whose own experience with Hebrew scripture was the same? In other words, I’m sure we both agree, in profound ignorance of Hebrew scripture.”

    I don’t agree, because such a position is only the case if one holds a priori that the Christian interpretation is not correct. Indeed, your post seems very committed to certain assumptions – hence your repeated labelling of certain beliefs as “weird”, which you contrast with supposed “critical, honest” study.

    However, I suspect part of the problem lies with this: “I don’t consider the BOM particularly relevant” – since so many conversions (both from within and to the Church) cite the Book of Mormon. That’s certainly true in my case.

    “Also, in follow-up, what distinguishes the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” of the Pentacostal, from the Mormon “testimony from the Holy Ghost,” from the Evangelical “born-again witness of the Holy Spirit”? Not conceptually or theologically or by assertion, but, simply, how do they feel differently to the persons experiencing them? How does these feelings (burning bosom, goosebumps, warm fuzzy, numinous or luminous feelings of peace or presence or certainty or calling, etc.) distinguis them, and to what significance? What makes one truly true?”

    How would anyone know, unless they had them all – how could any be described to you, unless you had had them too? I’ll point out though that in my experiences, feeling the spirit was not a matter of mere feeling (and certainly not just “goosebumps” or “warm fuzzy”), but has had and continue to have specific content. One might as well ask how one could learn anything at school just from hearing the teacher emit a noise.

  6. S Goodman

    Shelama,
    You have made a number of generalizations and unsupported assertions.

    You wrote:
    “…they were all told by an…” “they all believed…” ” You cannot…find anyone who”

    When one generalizes, using “all” and “anyone”, these statement are easily refuted by citing just a single contradictory example.

    You also made several unsupported assertions, the most glaring in my eyes is the one already cited “find anyone who converted to that BELIEF from UNBELIEF”.

    I’m a Jew. I was not raised in any Christian tradition. I had no “emotional investment” or “psychological commitment”. I was converted in 1982 to the weird belief that the Bible was the word of God and I started that process as an educated, informed, honest, critically thinking adult with my eyes open.

    It might help you to realize that approximately 60% of the active, adult Latter-day Saints are converts; many coming from some other Christian tradition but some from no religion at all and a surprising number come from entirely different cultures and backgrounds. Keeping that in mind might help you to avoid generalizing such a vast population based on your own personal points of view.

    The very beginnings of critical thought is the understanding that competent, educated and informed individuals can, in good faith, reach different and opposing points of view based on the same body of information. Yours is never the only valid perspective.

  7. Shelama

    David Richards and S Goodman,

    I would not argue that you did not have transcendental, luminous, or numinous religious experiences, whether warm fuzzies, burning bosom, goosebumps, or continuing specific content, etc. But why did you interpret them to be from a ghost? Where did you get that idea? Is a ghost the only possible explanation? Did either of you have a personal, visual and audible experience with a male ghost? Anything in the experience that REQUIRES the ghost as the only possible explanation? How does the experience of this ghost differ, for instance, from a psycho-emotional self-generated neuro-biological release of, say, dopamine or endorphins, etc in a certain mental-state, for instance? How does one distinguish between the two?
    __________

    David Richards: Concerning correct interpretation, I was actually thinking more along the lines of usage and application. For instance (one of many): I have an 11 y.o. niece. She is a virgin. Someday they will conceive and bear a son. Do/will they fulfill Isa 7:14? Why or why not? Better yet, my great-great-great grandmother was a virgin. She conceived and bore a son, and she actually did (unlike the Mary, the mother of Jesus) call him by the name Emmanuel. Did they fulfill Isa 7:14? Why or why not? (Please note, I obviously agree that the ‘almah was, indeed, a virgin when Isaiah referred to her in discussion with Ahaz.)

    Re: religious experiences, if one studies reports and characterizations of religious conversion/ born again/ calling experiences (including thru direct discussions and interviews with BA evangelicals or Pentacostals, etc.), they seem identical to the range of Mormon ‘testimony’ experiences. And all of them lead the person to say that they “know,” through the “witness of the Holy Spirit,” or “the Baptism by the Holy Ghost,” or being “convicted by the Spirit of God or Holy Ghost,” etc. A Mormon who “knows” can only conclude that the others don’t really “know” things that contradict what he “knows,” and vice versa. (Unless it’s possible to “know” something that’s not true?) That was the basis for my question. Like you, I’ve not experienced them all nor can I, but as I study them, I can’t find anything to distinguish between them. It seems to me that ALL such experiences confirming or revealing religious “truth and knowledge” are equally valid and must be given equal credence. You, yourself, for instance, appear not able to provide any guideline or insight as to what distinguishes an genuine witness from the Holy Ghost from a counterfeit witness. Which witness, of course, for some Christians include the “knowledge” that Mormons are a Hell-bound cult. If you don’t know how they differ, how do you know yours was not the counterfeit?
    __________

    S Goodman: The way you selectively truncated the quote leaves me unsure if you read or understood what I actually said. Meanwhile, if you can find or refer me to a single person, either by personal acquaintance, knowledge or report, who ever converted to BELIEF in the Bible from UNBELIEF specifically BASED ON THE CONCLUSIONS of honest, critical, educated informed study, in all seriousness, please let me know. It would be extremely useful to my studies. Meanwhile, I stand by my claim and invite you (and all of FAIR/FARMS/BYU) to provide the single contradictory example. (I know that’s not how it really works, and I admit to not having asked all 2.1+ billion Christians on earth, nor read every account in history. But I am looking hard for that single example. Thanks.)

    Also, please, an example of someone who, without any knowledge of Christianity or the Bible, had a transcendent religious experience and just spontaneously attributed it to the Christian Holy Ghost. Or help me understand in theory or concept how or why anyone would attribute it to this ghost without having been previously taught it by someone else. Thanks. Certainly, all who convert to Mormonism based on the promise of Moroni have been taught about the Holy Ghost and have been taught to interpret their subsequent experience as coming from it.

    S Goodman, in your critical, educated, honest, informed studies of the Bible, what was your reasoning that allowed you to dismiss the Documentary Hypothesis? I’m not arguing that it’s true, but any truly honest, critical, informed, pre-conversion studies would have required you to study it and form some judgement about it. Also, you seem clear that you, as an adult, did not start such study of the Bible until AFTER your conversion. So I’m not sure what point you’re making.

    As a Jew, I assume you came from a background which included Tanakh as the word of God, and were not introduced to the concept or content of the Bible only when you came across Mormonism. Or are you saying that you were steeped in and already knowledgeable of Tanakh and Hebraica? Or, are you admitting that even as a Jew, that you were profoundly ignorant of Tanakh, whether in the Hebrew or in English translation? The 60% converts to whom you refer, I still maintain, were profoundly ignorant of Hebrew scripture, even if they had memorized by heart the entire KJV Old Testament and were thoroughly versed in Christian sectarian apologetics. I maintain that, just like you, not a single one of them converted to Christianity based on the conclusions of honest, critical, educated, informed study of the Bible. I maintain that virtually none of them even know about the Documentary Hypothesis, for instance; or anything about the textual and translation history of the Hebrew scriptures; or were familiar with the times, places, cultures and comparative religions in which the Hebrew/Jewish Bible arose. The explosive Mormon growth in the Sogere region of western Papua, New Guinea, for instance. Or other areas of the poor, developing world to where Mormon missionary emphasis has been shifted.

    Perhaps we have different concepts of “honest, educated, critical, informed” study of the Bible. Or what it means to be converted based on the conclusions of such study. Or what constitutes “weird.”

    Cordially, Shelama

  8. Shelama

    S Goodman Says: “The very beginnings of critical thought is the understanding that competent, educated and informed individuals can, in good faith, reach different and opposing points of view based on the same body of information. Yours is never the only valid perspective.”

    I would hold that, excepting only the transcendent witness from the ghost, that everyone has the exact same body of information. I would hold that, whatever the significance, NONE of the people who believe the Christian Bible to be both the word of God and (substantially) reliable history history came to that belief based on the conclusions of honest, informed, educated, critical study of that same body of information.

    Likewise concerning a common body of information, I hold that the ONLY people who find the scholarship and apologetics of FAIR/FARMS/BYU to be convincing in support of Mormon truth & divinity claims (BOM, Joseph Smith, Book of Abraham, etc.) are people who have a profound emotional investment in and psychological commitment to Mormonism. Or are on the cusp of making that leap.

    That doesn’t make either the Bible as the Word of God, or Mormonism, either true or false, but it is interesting. It seems to me that if that common body of evidence really stood by itself as convincing that at least one honest person, somewhere, would convert based simply on educated, critical, informed study.

    If the answer is that ultimately it all depends on the ghost, why does any body believe in the ghost to begin with? Why would or should they interpret a religious experience as a manifestation of a ghost? Why not Vishnu? Childhood indoctrination? Adult ignorance? Premonition or intuition? The “Light of Christ”? Simply, without logic or reason, believing what somebody else said?

    Cordially, Shelama

  9. Shelama

    S Goodman: “I was converted in 1982 to the weird belief that the Bible was the word of God and I started that process as an educated, informed, honest, critically thinking adult with my eyes open.”

    I apologize. I misread this in my earlier comment. I understand now that you started the process of open-eyed, educated, informed, honest, critical study of the Bible BEFORE you actually converted.

    Would you say that you converted to believing that the Bible was the Word of God, and (substantially) reliable history, based on the conclusions of that study? What exactly about the Bible, gleaned from those critical studies, convinced you that it was both of divine origin and reliable history, as opposed to purely man-made?

    Sincerely, Shelama

  10. S Goodman

    Shelama,
    I selectively truncated your quotes to highlight the words “all” and “anyone”. I don’t believe I missed your meaning and I wasn’t concerned about preserving context.

    I have several things that come to mind concerning your posts.

    1. “the Christian Bible to be both the word of God and (substantially) reliable history”

    Just to be clear, I do believe both that the Bible is the word of God and that it is historical. I don’t believe in biblical inerrency and I recognize that the Bible is very suspect on many historical points. I’m fine with that. It was never intended (by it’s various authors) to be an historical treatise.

    2. “find anyone who converted to that BELIEF from UNBELIEF because of the conclusions of critical, honest, informed Bible study.”

    This phraseology is repeated numerous times in your various posts. I agree with you that nobody (now I’m making unsupported generalizations, too) dicovers a faith in God merely through study and critical reasoning…but we study anyway, just as nobody attains salvation through good works, but we work at it anyway.

    3. I’m happy to share some of my own experience with you. I was raised in a typical jewish household, attended yeshiva, but, though I prepared for Bar Mitzvah I refused it. I had already decided that I was completely Humanist and Agnostic.

    As an adult I encountered mormon missionairies. They were woefully unprepared to debate religion with me and though I took some pleasure in showing them their inadequacies the sport soon grew tiresome.

    When I stopped debating and honestly listened to them I discovered a theology that differed from all the others I had explored. There were no internal inconsistencies. There were no obvious logical fallacies. By no means was I convinced that their ‘Gospel’ was true but I had to recognise that, if true, one could actually run the universe this way. It was a workable model.

    I studied and read a great deal both with the missionairies and on my own and put Moroni’s promise (Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:3-5, pray and ask of God to know the truth) to the test and got no results. I got a lot more out of Alma 32. I meditated on that chapter and, while doing so, recieved a powerful manifestation of the spirit.

    You may notice that, especially in the last paragraph, I use predominately mormon vocabulary. Yes, I learned that from the mormons. Having been instructed by God to accept their teachings, I naturally accepted their vocabulary as well.

    4. You asked how a Sihk can say that he knows the will of Allah and how a mormon can say he knows the truth of his church. I see no problem with that. Discounting all those who are kidding themselves (mormons and Sihks, alike) it doesn’t bother me that God would tell a mormon “the Book of Mormon is true” while whispering in the ear of a Muslim “Follow Islam with all your heart, till I tell you to do otherwise.”

  11. Mike Parker

    Sidenote:

    “You asked how a Sihk can say that he knows the will of Allah…”

    Sihks don’t worship Allah; Muslims do. In Sikhism God is known as Vāhigurū.

  12. Logophile

    Shalama,

    You wrote,

    It seems to me that if that common body of evidence really stood by itself as convincing that at least one honest person, somewhere, would convert based simply on educated, critical, informed study.

    However, honest people do become converted as a result of “educated, critical, informed study” rather than some kind of extraordinary spiritual manifestation.

    That should not be surprising. According to Doctrine and Covenants Section 43,

    13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

    14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

    You also wrote,

    I would hold that, excepting only the transcendent witness from the ghost, [sic] that everyone has the exact same body of information.

    That one exception is an enormous one, don’t you think?

    Jospeh Smith once said, “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”

    That suggests to me that all the honest, informed, educated, and critical study of a lifetime (or many lifetimes) is less informative that one good revelation.

  13. Shelama

    Logophile, some of that may or may not be true. On the other hand, FAIR is kinda dedicated to critical, intellectual thinking about a common body of evidence. Just as that Mormon commentary in the SLTribune extolled critical-thinking, Mormon intellectualism.

    Richard Smoot ‘s post on this FAIR blog specifically raised the issues of “serious scholarship” and “deep scholarly investigation” while he was comfortable dismissing “nonsense” in the context of weird beliefs. And he did it complete with the hallmark of critical-thinking intellectualism and scholarship: an annotated bibliography.

    Nothing you say impacts at all on the observation that Mormonism, like all of Christianity, is based on the uncritical acceptance of anti-intellectual propositions: the Bible is the word of God; that it represents substantially reliable history (including Gardens, Floods, Towers, virgin birth, walking on water, empty tombs, post-resurrection appearances, etc); and that common varieties of religious experience should be interpreted as a ghost bearing truth and knowledge. Your post confirms the same.

    Actually, the only meaningful, honest and necessary Mormon response is: “Yes it is, I agree, but so what? Why, even in a forum dedicated to Mormon intellectualism and scholarship, should that be considered either curious or ironic?”

    Apparently, that ghost is ‘evidence and an enormous exception’ if you believe it is. Indeed, sometimes that ghost tells people that Mormonism is the only true church, and other times it tells other people (with one good revelation worth more than reading everything ever written), that Mormonism is a Hell-bound cult. A small reason why critical thinking might enter the picture for Biblical religionists prone to bear witness or testimony.

    Admitting the fact of “spiritual” religious experiences, a reasonable question is: why would anyone attribute those common religious experiences to a ghost in the first place? Unless somebody just told them to and, without logic or reason, they just decided to believe it? And why, especially, would anyone do it here with Mr. Smoot’s post? Or anywhere on FAIR, where the self-conscious intent is honest, critical thinking, serious scholarship and deep scholarly investigation?

    _________

    logophile: “However, honest people do become converted as a result of “educated, critical, informed study” rather than some kind of extraordinary spiritual manifestation.”

    Actually, no they don’t. Regarding the Bible as the word of a god, or as substantially reliable history, or the ghost as the explanation for common religious experiences, no, they don’t.

    Sincerely and Shabbat Shalom,
    Shelama

  14. Logophile

    Shelama, you wrote,

    Logophile, some of that may or may not be true.

    That seems a safe bet.

    Nothing you say impacts at all on the observation that Mormonism, like all of Christianity, is based on the uncritical acceptance of anti-intellectual propositions . . . .

    Anti-intellectual? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Webster’s defines anti-intellectual as “opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.” An intellectual approach includes the exercise of reason and an inclination toward “study, reflection, and speculation” and “the creative use of the intellect.”

    I see little opposition or hostility towards reason, study, reflection, speculation, or creativity here at FAIR, or among most Mormons I know.

    Admitting the fact of “spiritual” religious experiences, a reasonable question is: why would anyone attribute those common religious experiences to a ghost [sic] in the first place? Unless somebody just told them to and, without logic or reason, they just decided to believe it?

    Without logic or reason? I think you misunderstand the process.

    But let me ask you a question. Suppose someone studies the Book of Mormon, prays about it, and receives some kind of extraordinary spiritual manifestation that it is indeed true. Would it be logical or reasonable for that person to pretend that no such manifestation occurred?

  15. Shelama

    Logophile, I’m guessing that all of the following questions regarding Non-Anti-Intellectual (NAI) belief (and which also tie into your question about the BOM) might ultimately reduce or be related to the first one:

    
1. On what NAI basis would one believe that an “extraordinary spiritual manifestation” is anything other than a self-generated, cultural-religious psychoemotional-neurophysiological phenomenon? And that it necessarily came from a Ghost bearing truth instead?

    2. On what NAI basis does one conclude that the Christian Bible is the word of a god (or of God) and not purely man-made?


    3. On what NAI basis would one conclude that the Christian Bible is substantially reliable history? Including a Garden, a Tower, a burning bush, parting of the Red Sea, talking snakes & donkeys, a virgin birth of Jesus, walking on water, and raising the dead?


    4. Is it reasonable, rational, & logical to conclude from critical study that the Bible is purely man-made? That the Gospels were not written by personal eye-witnesses? That the NT use of Hebrew scripture represents hopeful, good-faith distortions and out-of-context use to further a belief and an end? That OT verses were used by the authors of the Gospels long after Jesus was dead to both invent theology and to cue fictional “fulfillment” stories that they then retrojected back into their lives of Jesus? Are those reasonable and reflective NAI conclusions?

    5. Is it possible to rationally, reasonably & logically conclude from critical study of Tanakh (whether or not one actually “BELIEVES” it), that neither Yahweh, the god of Israel, nor mankind that he created, have any need, use or interest in an atoning sin-sacrifice of a Son-of-God messiah to reconcile his creation to him? And that no such thing is actually prophesied in Hebrew scripture? In essence, that Christian theology is not honestly rooted in the text or context of Hebrew scripture or prophesy? And that there was no empty tomb or literal, bodily post-resurrection appearances? Are those reasonable and logical NAI conclusions for both Jews and for secular people interested in the Bible?


    6. While it’s reasonable to assume that Paul believed his own theology (and his exegesis of Jewish scripture, and that he had actually experienced an ophthe/appearance of Jesus), on what NAI basis would anybody else?

    Sincerely, Shelama

  16. Shelama

    Is there anything in the responses here, or in the aptly-titled article below or any of its site references, or anywhere else in Mormon apologetics, that deals honestly, substantively and intellectually with Mormonism’s underlying foundation on the uncritical acceptance of the anti-intellectual ideas that: 1) the Bible is the word of a god (or God); 2) that the Bible is substantially reliable, literal history; 3) that common forms of religious or spiritual experiences should be attributed to a ghost (or Ghost) bearing truth and knowledge.

    Is it perhaps true that the only meaningful, honest and necessary Mormon response is: “Yes it is, but so what? Why, even in a forum dedicated to Mormon intellectualism and scholarship, should that be considered either curious or ironic?”

    If not within FAIR or the world of Bro. Bergera, where in Mormonism can one go for Mormon engagement of these issues? And with how and under what conditions Mormons come to hold these beliefs in the first place?

    Salt Lake Tribune

    LDS intellectualism is no joke

    First published Sep 24 2011 01:01AM
    Updated Sep 24, 2011 08:59PM

    By Gary James Bergera

    Mormon intellectualism is sometimes half-humorously dismissed as an oxymoron. Nothing could be farther from the truth… Mormonism has always championed critical thinking…

    …independent scholarly oriented organizations like the Mormon History Association and the Sunstone Foundation, as well as periodicals like Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Journal of Mormon History, Sunstone and Mormon Historical Studies, have showcased the contributions of the church’s intellectuals…

    …proliferation of Internet-based discussion boards, blogs and forums have introduced new generations of Mormons to the life of the mind. Sites such as bycommonconsent.com, juvenileinstructor.org, keepapitchinin.org, mormondiscussions.com, newordermormon.org, and timesandseasons.org, to name a few, feature some of the most provocative Mormon-related discussions taking place today. Add to this, the wave of books being released by some of the top academic publishers, including Harvard and Oxford university presses…

    …Mormon intellectualism is no joke, but an invigorating enterprise that actively engages Mormonism’s best minds…

  17. Jeff Cunningham

    Shelama, You seem to be seeking some truth, but obscuring what you’re really after- the meaning of it all. Might I suggest some further background reading? This book gives a very good overall treatment of the “cosmos- view”, if you will, of those the world calls Mormons. If you cannot find a hard copy it can be found on Google Books. It is ” A Rational Theology As Taught By The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints” by John A. Widstoe.

  18. Shelama

    Gregory L. Smith via email has provided answers that I suspect are as good as any that exist within Mormonism. Widtsoe’s book (via Google/eBooks) has an entirely different focus. Thanks.

  19. Shelama

    Yes, I’ve read the BoM, and I don’t agree with Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mark Twain, perhaps.

    I don’t see where the BoM makes any difference to major issues concerning the Bible and Bible apologetics.

    I can never get far from the feeling that I’m reading someone trying hard to sound Biblical. But, then, I also can’t find a good reason to believe that the Bible is the word of a god (or God); or that it is substantially reliable history (and that includes much of the Gospels and Acts almost as it does Genesis); I can’t find a reason to believe the Bible is anything but man-made. From Hebrew scripture and messianism, I can’t make Jesus out to be a Jewish messiah, and I find the Gospel attempts to paint him as a messiah & fulfillment by using those Hebrew scriptures to be strained, artificial and contrived. Seems clear to me that the Gospels were never written as literal history but, rather, after-the-fact story to transform a failed/false Jewish messiah into a successful Christian messiah, largely through the brilliant and creative use of Hebrew scripture. We have to assume that Paul believed his own theology as we have it in authentic Pauline letters, but Paul provides virtual no history about Jesus.

    If I did believe the Tanakh were the “word of Yahweh Elohim” and substantially reliable history, I would have to reject the NT and Christianity as a synthetic, derivative invention to interpret the Jewish life and Roman death of Jesus. And it worked for Greco-Roman pagans ignorant of Hebrew scripture and messianism. I can’t find a good reason to believe a Jerusalem community of original Jesus Jews ever bought into Paul’s gospel, or to even have a strong feeling for what they believed and taught. Although not Jewish, I believe Jews and Judaism have been correct for 2000 years about Jesus and the NT and Christianity. Can’t find a good reason to believe otherwise.

    It seems that before Jesus was killed somebody probably believed and hoped that he was the messiah, possibly even Jesus himself. It seems that after he was killed that some of his followers and, later, Paul, believed they had in some sense experienced Jesus as somehow alive, perhaps a visionary experience. I can’t find a good reason to believe that it had anything to do with an empty tomb or a literal, physical, bodily appearances of a resurrected Jesus to anyone. Seems the belief and hope that Jesus was messiah, combined with the belief that Jesus had been “resurrected” were necessary and sufficient to begin the process.

    I don’t see where the Book of Mormon helps any of that. I don’t think the BoM helps the Christian claim that Yahweh Elohim or his creation (or the OT) had any need, use, or interest in bloody, human Jesus sacrifice to reconcile his creation to him or for the forgive of sin. I believe that by accepting the fundamentals of Christian and NT claims, and accepting much of both OT and NT as reliable history, the BoM rules itself out. As a small example, Isa 7:14 and a virgin birth in the BOM, for Mormons, is confirmation of both the OT and the NT. But better informed Mormons can understand how for other people it’s a huge red flag concerning Joseph Smith and the BOM.

    Moroni 10:4-5 seems a stroke of psychological genius by Joseph Smith: either you get a witness of the truth or it’s your own fault for lack of basic, personal, spiritual worthiness: …lack of a sincere heart, no real intent, not having enough faith. But I can’t find a good reason to attribute common forms of religious experience to a ghost (or Ghost) witnessing truth.

    Although I’m in total agreement with him, I’m always a little puzzled when Mormons take pride in Harold Bloom’s characterization of Joseph Smith as an “authentic religious genius.”

    So, yes, I’ve read the BoM. I’ve also read the Bible, the Koran, and the Gita. I can’t find a good reason to believe them or to pray to anybody about them. All of them, equally, seem more to be understood than believed.

    It does seem that FAIR does a very good job of doing what it’s supposed to do. That’s both good and necessary for Mormonism and they deserve congratulations. But FAIR, as far as I can see, adds nothing to a Biblical apologetic that I find totally unconvincing. To help keep things topical: I find the belief that the Bible, as magnificent and important as it is, is both the “word of God” (whether or not translated correctly), and reliable history, to be weird.

    (The better informed members of FAIR will recognize that none of my beliefs about the Bible or Jesus or Christianity are unique or original to me: they’ve been around in one form or another for centuries.)

    That’s the short answer :)

    Cordially, Shelama

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