Saturday, March 6, 2010

I read the Book of Mormon, so you don't have to.

My foray into the world of Mormon theology is pretty much over. I've read their holy book, we've had multiple conversations, and I think they've given up on me in frustration.

They really pulled out all of the stops on their last visit. They even brought visual aids in the form of small cutouts used to symbolize the stages of a person's life, before, during and after our lifetime.

So, here's the basic rundown of what the Book of Mormon has to say.

God calls an Israelite named Lehi to take his family and leave on a boat. Eventually, they end up in what is now modern day United States. There, they undergo half a millennium of wars and religious angst between the different tribes formed mainly by the descendants of the oldest and youngest sons, Laman and Nephi.

The Lamanites are the bad guys for most of the book. The Nephites are the good guys.

While all of this is going on, the last few books of the Old Testament, and eventually the New Testament events occur. Mormons may have their own book, but they believe in a literal interpretation of the King James Version (and only the King James Version) of the Bible as well.

Eventually, the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs, but instead of going to heaven straight from Jerusalem, he takes a layover in the Americas for a while and preaches to the Nephites and the Lamanites.

After he leaves, everything goes bad again, women cannibalize their husbands, children cannibalize their fathers. Things become terrible and everyone forgets about the teachings of Jesus. Also, they're the Native Americans.

Fortunately, all of these events were recorded on golden plates, and buried near Palmyra, New York. In the 1800s, Joseph Smith was led to these plates by an angel named Moroni, who is also one of the human characters in the later half of the book (he became an angel later). Joseph Smith is also led to a magical crystal ball, that allows him to translate these golden plates from reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics into a version of English that is a bad ripoff of the language in the KJV of the Bible.

That's the basic outline that most people know already, and it is all spelled out straightforward, if rather dryly, in the Book of Mormon.

Now, let's look at the problems with the Book of Mormon.

I see two basic objections to the claims in the BoM. First, the ethics of the god put forward are clearly immoral. Second, the historical claims are demonstrably false.

I. The ethics of the god in the BoM are not the ethics of any deity I would choose to worship.

While this critique alone does not attest to the truth value of the claim of authenticity put forward by those in the Mormon faith, it does create some problems for them. I'll expand upon those problems once I've made my argument.

A. Skin color is a punishment from god. This is explicitly stated multiple times. The Lamanites are cursed with dark skin for turning away from god. Jesus, and his mother Mary, are both white skinned. Anyone in the book who is considered good and holy is portrayed as white. Anyone bad is portrayed as dark.

This isn't implied, like in many works of fiction. The Lord of the Rings is a book that comes to mind as one that has been accused of pitting the good white people against the evil and backward dark people. In the BoM, it comes out and explicitly states this racism. Not only that, but it has occasions where the skin color of characters change in their lifetimes based on the evil actions they take.

B. There is the same maniacal obsession of chastity and virginity that occurs in the Bible. There's a reason why the Mormon church actually has lessons on how not to masturbate. Why sexual desires are a sin is never explained any more in the BoM than it is in the Bible. It is just assumed that since it pisses god off, it must be bad.

C. Mixed messages on slavery. In some parts of the book it says not to enslave your brethren, much like in the Bible. In other areas, it seems to be fine with slavery, much like in the Bible.

So, what are the implications of these ethical problems in the BoM? It seems to me that a book written by an all-loving and perfect god (like that posited by the Mormons) wouldn't be a racist asshole, obsessed with what people do in their bedrooms, or ambiguous on one person owning another as property.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that a racist white man writing a book he intends to use to convince a bunch of other racist white people to follow his new religion might claim that dark skin is a curse from god and that the Native Americans are pure evil cannibals. It also makes sense that a man coming out of the Puritanical society of northeastern United States in the 1800s might have some hangups over sex and masturbation, or that he might have mixed views about slavery. It seems reasonable that a perfect and loving god would have none of these problems.

II. The historical problems with the BoM

A. Multiple times does the BoM mention steel, swords in particular. This simply didn't exist. The Native Americans never developed steel. They didn't have it when the Europeans arrived, and there is absolutely zero archeological evidence that they ever had it prior and lost it.

B. The Native Americans are not Hebrew. We know where the Native Americans came from. There were multiple migrations into the Americas from Asia by land bridge. This can by established through both archeology and (especially) by genetics. The claim that Native Americans are a lost tribe that came here by boat is demonstrably false.

C. Silk in "abundance" is mentioned. Silk never entered the Americans until 1619. There is a reason why the United States went to nylon during WWII. Native Americans did not have silk, especially not in abundance. The only apologetic I can think of to answer this would be that the families that came here originally brought it with them, but the "abundance" lines appear hundreds of years later in the story, and besides, a few small families aren't going to be carrying enough silk over in a boat to make a whole nation consider themselves abundant in it.

D. Horses. Really? Horses? Yes, horses existed alongside humans in the Americas at one point, but they went extinct thousands of years before the events depicted in the BoM. There was no domestication of the horse in the Americas prior to their reintroduction by Europeans. For an interesting discussion of the possibility as to why the horse went extinct and was never domesticated in the Americas, I point you to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

E. Chariots. Even better than horses is chariots. Not only did the Native Americans NOT have chariots, or the horses to draw them, there is scant evidence that they even developed the wheel for drawn or otherwise.

All of these points are problems for the historicity of the BoM. There are plenty of others in my notes, these are just the most obvious ones. I'm sure that there are extensive apologetics out there attempting to reconcile these concerns. Feel free to link them if you want. It'll give me an excuse to make another post.

As far as I'm concerned, the BoM is even less historically accurate than the Bible. At least the Bible talks about peoples that really existed (mostly). The BoM attempts to rewrite settled history, and fails at every level.

Safe to suffice, the claim by the missionaries that if I read the BoM I'll get a feeling in my heart that shows me to truth of its claims didn't happen. The guys were rather disappointed and confused when I told them that I didn't feel anything special reading their text.