What Is It About Mormonism?

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Writing on Mormonism in this Sunday's Times Magazine, Noah Feldman becomes about the eighteen thousandth writer to explain that non-Mormon Christians only find the LDS faith weird and implausible because its revelation is so recent. Even though "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," Feldman writes, for most people "antiquity breeds authenticity," because "events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time."

To which Alan Jacobs retorts:

But this only makes sense under the assumption that the only reason people disbelieve Mormonism is its recency. It seems not to occur to Feldman to ask whether all propositions of all religions are equally plausible or implausible. Is “antiquity” really the only factor at work here? If only a handful were attracted to the teachings of David Koresh, is the recency of those teachings a sufficient explanation? Such an assumption is simplistic at best. Let me be clear: I do not mean to say that Mormon beliefs are anything like the crackpot tenets of Koresh; I am just claiming that if you want to understand why certain beliefs are not widely respected or admired, you might want to know something besides how old they are. You might want to inquire into the actual content of those beliefs.

Moreover, if the Average Joe takes Judaism seriously than Mormonism — a proposition that may or may not be true — “antiquity” isn’t the reason. If that were the case, then the Average Joe would find the worship of Ashteroth, Baal, and Isis and Osiris as plausible as that of Yahweh. Insofar as people-in-general concede respect to Judaism, that’s not because of Judaism’s “antiquity” but because of its continuity. If we ever have Mormons who have been saying the same prayers to the same God for three thousand years or so, then those Mormons will almost certainly get a hell of a lot more respect than today’s Latter-Day Saints do.

Well said. I don't want to dismiss the "antiquity equals plausibility" argument, since it obviously contains an element of truth, but it tends to function as a conversation-stopper in intellectual discourse these days - as an easy out for secular writers who assume that all religions are equally implausible, or at least equally beyond rational examination, and who don't want to wade into the weeds of history, archaeology and comparative theology to see whether it might be otherwise. In reality, though, the major plausibility issue facing Mormonism isn't when and where and how long ago the events crucial to the religion are supposed to have taken place, but whether the Mormon account of those events feels persuasive as a historical narrative. This is an issue that faces every major religion that claims God intervenes in history; Mormonism's problem - and a major reason why its tenets are often "dismissed as ridiculous" (as Feldman puts it) by mainstream Christians - is that the Book of Mormon doesn't seem to stack up nearly as well in this regard as, say, the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

Obviously, this historical-plausibility question doesn't matter to every believer, but it does matter (as it should) to an awful lot of people, which is why so much ink has been spilled by foes of Christian orthodoxy, from Elaine Pagels to Dan Brown, arguing from the historical record (as they see it) that the events of the Gospels didn't happen the way the Gospels said they did. The idea that it should be otherwise - that it's "indefensible," as Feldman puts it, to suggest that Roman Catholicism is more likely to be true than Mormonism because Saint Peter really existed whereas the Nephites probably didn't - only makes sense if you assume the premises of a materialistic (or fideistic) worldview. Which seems like a bad way to set about analyzing the beliefs of people who don't assume that worldview, which is what Feldman's essay is supposed to be doing.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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