Mormonism in the Mainstream?

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The recent claim of the discovery of an alleged Coptic text that may mention both a wife for Jesus and the suggestion of a woman disciple stirred claims and counterclaims about the early days of Christianity in both the archaeological and theological communities.  Clearly any claim of new insight into the fundamental texts relevant to one of the world’s major religions is significant.

The Provenance of the world’s major religions is clearly of generic interest, but the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon has reasonably raised interest among the general populace about the tenets and background of that religion in particular.  As the first Mormon presidential candidate for a major party, he has broken new ground, and as one of the elders in that church, hotel magnate J.W. Marriott. has said, Romney’s candidacy—he has been, after all, a Bishop in the church—is bringing Mormonism into the mainstream

For a religion coming into the mainstream, it is surprising to me how little its general origins and tenets are openly discussed in popular media.  Many do know, and remain dubious about, the claims that Joseph Smith actually discovered Golden plates buried under a tree in upstate New York which an angel of God helped him translate, that Jesus visited North America, or that a lost tribe of Israel actually settled the Americas in the absence of any direct archaeological evidence.

However, as difficult as it may be for a skeptical outsider to buy into these claims, it must be admitted that they are no more fantastical than the scriptural tales in the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.  Nor are they any more falsifiable. 

Other doctrines of the church have been added through “Revelations” over the years, and recently I wrote about the interesting claim that good Mormons can, after death, ascend to a higher plane of existence, and approach Godlike characters that may shepherd civilizations on other worlds either in our plane of existence or another. Following the publication of that piece, a group of ex-Mormons, including two ex-bishops, contacted me, asking to meet and clarify and correct some of the details of my discussion.  While the gods and other planets claim is more subtle than I argued, based on statements by Spencer Kimball, a former Latter-day Saints president, the publicly available information they led me to was much more surprising, and in the end, more damning. 

We cannot claim that Joseph Smith fraudulently created the Book of Mormon because we have no access to the original source, the golden PLATES.  However there is another scriptural text revered in the Mormon faith—the book of Abraham. This text came to Joseph Smith not through an angel, but via an Irishman named Michael Chandler, who brought it, or rather a series of Egyptian papyri to Kirtland, Ohio, then the home of the Mormons, in 1835.  Smith examined them and quickly discovered that one of the scrolls was written by the biblical prophet Abraham, and another by Joseph of Egypt. The members of the church pooled their resources and bought the papyri and four mummies for $2,400.  Over the next seven years, Joseph Smith translated the first book, but was killed before he could translate the second.

For Smith and the Mormon Church, not only were facsimiles of the scrolls made and kept for posterity, but some of the actual scrolls themselves were discovered to exist in 1966 in the vault room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Equally unfortunate for them, but fortunate for the rest of the world, in the 1830s unbeknownst to Smith, translations of the Rosetta Stone were published, providing a definitive method for translating Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek, allowing scholars to decipher many ancient scrolls.  

Egyptologists who have examined both the facsimiles, and the original documents, including scholars from the MET in New York and from the University of Chicago, agree on one thing. The book of Abraham has nothing to do with Abraham, was written 2,000 years after he purportedly lived, and describes burial rituals and chants to be recited by the spirit of the corpse after burial.  Every single aspect of Joseph Smith’s translation was fabricated. According to the experts, Smiths’s grasp of Egyptian Hieroglyphics themselves was flawed, as his reconstructed facsimiles of the Papyri confused such things as the head of a jackal with the head of Abraham, and even at least one later Mormon Scholar admitted that Smith clearly had no skill in Hieroglyphics.

This doesn’t prove that Joseph Smith didn’t have mysterious golden tablets that later disappeared, or that an Angel of God didn’t appear to him and help him translate them. IT does raise a question of whether he deliberately fabricated or deluded himself into believing that he was correctly translating one of the fundamental scriptures of the Mormon religion.  

While all the world’s religions rely on dubious claims in writings of uncertain provenance, only those of the Mormon religion involve ones that are manifestly falsifiable, and in the case of the Book of Abraham, apparently manifestly false.  So singling out Mormonism for special attention as it “comes into the mainstream,” is appropriate.

Beyond the original scriptures the Mormon Church relies on ‘Revelations’ from Church leaders to determine doctrine.  There is one such more modern Revelation that is sufficiently relevant to the current Presidential Campaign that I would love for Mr. Romney to address it.

Black people were traditionally denied membership in the church at the level of priests from its inception until a revelation in 1978.  That awkward and racist practice is now over, but it is interesting to note that the basis of the church’s leadership’s decision at the time does not appear, from the writings of its President at least, to have involved human rights, but rather expediency

The exclusion of blacks was justified by the church on the basis of the claim that their skin color represented the “mark of Cain,”.  Therefore they could not be accepted into the priesthood until a Revelation revealed that God was ready to forgive them.  In 1978, that apparently occurred.  But the church President in his written report of his revelation never repudiated the notion that their skin color did reflect such original sin. It would be worth hearing Romney’s perspective on this now. 

When viewed under the harsh light of modern reality, perhaps Mormonism has more to lose by being brought into the mainstream than it has to gain.   

Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.  His most recent book is A Universe from Nothing.

Written By: Lawrence Krauss
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10 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, never heard of Dawkins until I saw him presenting illogical arguments on youtube (attacking Brandon Flowers with silliness). Then I saw that he was voted most thoughtful person or something???? : ) That is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a while… Dawkins repeatedly claims the Book of Mormon is an obvious fake. Then Krauss tells us that, after talking to some anti-Mormons (who clarified things for him, about Mormons), he learned that we can’t really prove much about the Book of Mormon (so it’s not an obvious fake), then he continues to give us misinformation on several topics, and justifies hating on Mormons with: “the world’s religions rely on dubious claims…only those of the Mormon religion involve ones that are manifestly falsifiable…So singling out Mormonism for special attention as it “comes into the mainstream,” is appropriate.” So apparently he thinks Mormons are quite as easy of a mark as far as the Book of Mormon goes, but it’s still ok to attack because the anti-Mormons told him so… ???

  2. Mr. Romney has said that Mormonism, as well as other religions, requires a “leap of faith” for acceptance. Apparently, these people are so desperate for a supernatural crutch they are able to disregard any requirement of evidence to support their so-called beliefs. (I say so-called because I can’t believe they believe this stuff) Imagine if the rest of society operated on this level. Just start with the court system, and go on from there.
    Babu

  3. Mr. Romney has said that Mormonism, as well as other religions, requires a “leap of faith” for acceptance. Apparently, these people are so desperate for a supernatural crutch they are able to disregard any requirement of evidence to support their so-called beliefs. (I say so-called because I can’t believe they believe this stuff) Imagine if the rest of society operated on this level. Just start with the court system, and go on from there.

    Babu

    • In reply to #3 by babu:

      Mr. Romney has said that Mormonism, as well as other religions, requires a “leap of faith” for acceptance. Apparently, these people are so desperate for a supernatural crutch they are able to disregard any requirement of evidence to support their so-called beliefs.

      I sometimes speculate that rd.net may actually be more than just a web site, it may in fact be a portal to an alternative reality. Because from what I read here many of you don’t live in the same world that I do. Babu for example seems to live in a world where most people make day to day choices based on reason. That sounds like a nice place and one I would like to visit but it sure isn’t like anywhere I’ve ever been.

      In the world I experience people (and that includes me) make most of their decisions based on emotions, preconceived ideas, prejudices, etc. The behavior of religious people in this regard isn’t exceptional it’s the norm.

      And as to whether they really believe it, read Robert Trivers book The Folly of Fools. There are some flat out con men but for the most part as Trivers describes so amazingly well humans are incredibly capable of deceiving ourselves into believing things for reasons that have nothing to do with the rationalizations we make up after the fact. But the important point is that even we believe our own rationalizations. There are even precedents for similar kinds of self deception in other animals and evolutionary analysis of why (contrary to common sense) self deception can actually make sense from an evolutionary standpoint.

      • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #3 by babu:

        Mr. Romney has said that Mormonism, as well as other religions, requires a “leap of faith” for acceptance. Apparently, these people are so desperate for a supernatural crutch they are able to disregard any requirement of evidence to support their so-called beliefs.

        Red Dog may be right, but let’s work towards that alternate reality. I hate to think we’re stuck with planes flying into skyscrapers and presidents starting wars because their gods told them to. Babu

        • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

          Red Dog may be right, but let’s work towards that alternate reality. I hate to think we’re stuck with planes flying into skyscrapers and presidents starting wars because their gods told them to. Babu

        • In reply to #5 by babu:

          Red Dog may be right, but let’s work towards that alternate reality. I hate to think we’re stuck with planes flying into skyscrapers and presidents starting wars because their gods told them to.

          I agree we need to work towards that alternate reality. However, the way I think to work for it is probably different than what you or many of the commenters here have in mind. IMO thinking that any group has exclusive rights to claim that reason drives their arguments where as the other side is totally irrational is essentially still not really understanding some key ideas about bias in humans.

          I don’t assume that someone is irrational or stupid just because they happen to believe in religion. I know for a fact that there are lots of smart and good people who are theists. So looking at the state of the world and thinking the proper response is to start promulgating manuals for converting people to atheism, pretending that belief in religion is some terrible mental illness that it’s our duty to cure people of, to me that is just the same kind of narrow mindedness that distinguishes religious fundamentalists. It’s not quite as bad because I happen to think the religious fundamentalists are all wrong and the atheists are mostly right. But the point is even if you are right on one issue that doesn’t give you exclusive access to the truth on everything else nor does it make people who disagree with you automatically wrong on everything else.

          I have a lot more respect for a Christian or Muslim who wants to do something about climate change than I do for an Ayn Rand loving atheist who thinks climate change is a scientific hoax.

  4. IMO thinking that any group has exclusive rights to claim that reason drives their arguments where as the other side is totally irrational is essentially still not really understanding some key ideas about bias in humans.

    Did you infer from babu’s comment that he thinks atheists have exclusive rights to claim that reason drives their arguments? I understood him to be saying that the religious are able to disregard any requirement for evidence regarding their religious beliefs. I doubt any commenters here believe that people, religious or not, can function day to day if they are totally irrational.

    It’s not quite as bad because I happen to think the religious fundamentalists are all wrong and the atheists are mostly right.

    And did you come to that conclusion based on emotions, preconceived ideas, prejudices, etc? Do you think a Christian coming to the opposite conclusion can claim so based on evidence?

    I have a lot more respect for a Christian or Muslim who wants to do something about climate change than I do for an Ayn Rand loving atheist who thinks climate change is a scientific hoax.

    Do you think a disproportionate number of atheists think climate change is a scientific hoax? I’ve not seen any data, but my preconceived idea is that this is unlikely. I wouldn’t go as far as Rush Limbaugh though.

    In reply to #7 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #5 by babu:

    Red Dog may be right, but let’s work towards that alternate reality. I hate to think we’re stuck with planes flying into skyscrapers and presidents starting wars because their gods told them to.

    I agree we need to work towards that alternate reality. However, the way I thin…

    • In reply to #8 by Marktony:

      Did you infer from babu’s comment that he thinks atheists have exclusive rights to claim that reason drives their arguments? I understood him to be saying that the religious are able to disregard any requirement for evidence regarding their religious beliefs. I doubt any commenters here believe that people, religious or not, can function day to day if they are totally irrational.

      I was careful to state that “the way I think to work for it is probably different than what you… have in mind.” because I didn’t know what Babu thought. However, I think just making a blanket statement that religious people are all irrational is too strong. I’ve had discussions with plenty of religious people who are still rational. They believe in evolution and they don’t literally believein things like Hell but for various reasons they still hold to some religious beliefs. While I never agree with their reasoning I don’t go into discussions assuming they are just irrational. Sometimes they will say things like “I just believe it because I want to” or “it’s just my tradition”. I guess you can say that’s irrational, it’s clearly wrong IMO but my point is that if you actually want to have an honest discussion with someone you shouldn’t make preconceptions on their rationality which I thought I detected in Babu’s comment but I was clear that I could be wrong.

      I doubt any commenters here believe that people, religious or not, can function day to day if they are totally irrational.

      I disagree. People have said things to me on this site that show they do believe that. People have told me that being religious is the equivalent of mental illness and that all religious people should be on medication or in psych hospitals. People have argued with me that religious people don’t deserve basic freedoms such as the freedom of speech because what they say is so wrong and harmful. I’m not claiming Babu has those ideas but I am claiming that people on this site have them and in fact those ideas almost seem mainstream here at times. I regularly try to ignore all the lame jokes about theists because it would be boring for me to endlessly comment on them.

      Do you think a disproportionate number of atheists think climate change is a scientific hoax?

      No. I think most climate deniers are not atheists. But there are exceptions. I’ve seen people here who claim to be atheists and don’t believe in climate change. That’s the only point I’m making is that religion shouldn’t be a litmus test that we hold people to and automatically assume someone is rational or moral if they are an atheist and not if they aren’t and I definitely see people here who do that here.

  5. Whether you are Atheist or Mormon, I know that you would like your arguments to be based on fact. For this reason, I recently released a short book in response to falsehoods that are publicized about Mormons. Part of this book addresses the claim, used in this article, that the Book of Abraham was proven to be the Book of Breathings. I will provide an excerpt here, as well as a link:

    [excerpt]

    The Pearl of Great Price: This book contains Joseph Smith’s revisions of the Bible book of Genesis, the 24th chapter of Matthew, and Smith’s personal history. It also has Smith’s translation of a papyrus he purchased in 1835. He declared it to be Abraham’s own writing that told how an angel saved him when a priest tried to sacrifice him on an altar. The papyrus was relocated in 1967 and examined by a number of Egyptologists. They found, said one report, that “not a single word of Joseph Smith’s alleged translation bore any resemblance to the contents of this document.” It turned out to be the Book of Breathings, an Egyptian funeral document buried with the dead. Smith’s original manuscript shows that he used 136 English words to translate the Egyptian hieroglyph for “lake.”

    This flimsy Book of Breathings accusation can be easily addressed, if the accusers will only listen. Let’s start with whether or not the papyrus found in the 1960′s was that used by Joseph Smith to obtain the Book of Abraham. The Prophet described the papyrus he used in translation in these words:

    The record … found with the mummies, is beautifully written on papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation.”3

    According to Michael D. Rhodes, researcher in ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University, the Book of Breathings papyrus does not match this description:

    The Book of Breathings papyrus has no writing in red ink and is in an extremely poor state of preservation.4

    As for the clumsy heiroglyph accusation, I refer you to a professional:

    In his edition of the Book of Breathings Pap. Louvre N. 3279, J. C. Goyon warns the student that the vignettes [Heiroglyphic illustrations] that accompany the text “have often only a very remote connection with the substance…of the writing.” For example, Tableau ii of this Breathings text actually belongs “to the illustrations of the Chapters of the Gates of Hades, in the Book of the Dead,” and it is only “as an exception” that “the title of the text [under Tableau iv] corresponds to the drawing that adorns it. …”5

    Common Egyptian practice was to attach vignettes to unassociated texts. Although the Abraham papyrus was found to have been attached to a Book of Breathing, there has been no association found between the two.
    [/excerpt]

    Link to this section of the book:
    http://religion.lightandlearning.org/nost/jw11.php

    Link to the Index:
    http://religion.lightandlearning.org/nost

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