Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mormonism and Christian Apologetics

I just finished Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven which tells the true story of a fundamentalist Mormon in 1984 who believed that he had received a revelation from God instructing him to kill his brother’s wife and baby daughter. Apparently, the fundamentalist’s wife had not responded favorably when he decided that he should start practicing polygamy and his sister-in-law had encouraged his wife to take the children and leave him. The fundamentalist was assisted by another brother who was convinced of the validity of the revelation. The story is set against the backdrop of the strange history of the Mormon church going back to Joseph Smith’s first encounter with the Angel Moroni in Palmyra, New York in the 1820’s.

The history of the Mormon church provides an interesting test case for many of the arguments that Christian apologists make.

If Jesus hadn’t actually been raised from the dead, the Romans or the Jews would have produced his body and that would have nipped Christianity in the bud.

There has never been any shortage of people to point out the absurdity of the Joseph Smith’s claim that the American Indians are descended from tribes of Israelites who migrated to the New World hundreds of years prior to the birth of Christ. Nevertheless, there has never been any shortage of Mormons who would happily dismiss such criticisms as deceptions of the devil. The notion that religious enthusiasms are subject to logical refutation is not supported by the evidence.

The rapid spread of Christianity couldn't have happened if it's historical claims had simply been invented.

It has taken less than two centuries for Mormonism to grow to almost 14,000,000 adherents. Although we do not have accurate figures for Christianity's growth its first 200 years, it is hard to believe that Mormonism compares unfavorably.

Nobody knowingly dies for a lie. Early Christians would not have willingly endured persecution if the resurrection was a hoax.

Early Mormons followed Joseph Smith from New York to Ohio to Missouri. In Missouri, the governor called out the militia to exterminate the Mormons or drive them from the state. Vigilantes killed many Mormons and the Mormons moved to Navoo, Illinois where Smith was arrested and lynched. Nevertheless, many Mormons willingly endured great hardships to follow Brigham Young. If willingness to endure hardship and risk persecution is proof of a religion's claims, then it is reasonable to believe that the Garden of Eden really was somewhere in Missouri.

We have no record of any of Christianity's early critics disputing that Jesus was a real person or that his tomb was empty.

If we only had the records preserved by the Mormons, we would have a much different picture of the Church's history than we have today. For example, when the Mormons slaughtered 120 settlers in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, the official LDS position was that the Paiute Indians were responsible. If not for independent investigations establishing Mormon responsibility, the church would have continued to deny it. If we only had Mormon sources, we would believe that the LDS had abandoned polygamy completely in 1890 when in fact its leaders continued to take multiple wives for many years thereafter. Since the earliest records of Christianity are the ones that the Catholic Church chose to preserve, we cannot take much comfort from the fact that we lack records of people who challenged orthodox beliefs.


  1. First, your comments about dying for a lie are inapposite, because there's no reason to think that Smith and Young's followers knew it to be a hoax.

    Second, your whole argument here, at least as I understand it, rests on the assumption that Mormonism is factually false and that something can be deduced from its falsehood being incompatible with the cited claims. This makes me wonder who your target audience is. If it's Christian apologists, I wonder why you think that logical incompatibility or facts would be relevant. None of the other logical incompatibilities or falsehoods of Christianity pose them a problem.

  2. The question is whether we can infer that the early Mormons had solid evidence for their beliefs from their willingness to risk great hardship and death. That seems to me to be the gist of the "nobody would die for a lie" argument.

    I think my argument rests on the assumption that Christian apologists believe that Mormonism is factually false while their religion is factually true. However, the kind of evidence from which they try to infer the truth of Christianity could be also be used to support Mormonism.

  3. Christian apologists believe that Mormonism is factually false while their religion is factually true.

    And that's what I'm quibbling with. It seems to me that the condition of believing Christianity doesn't entail thinking it's factually true. You've said as much yourself about Paul's Christianity in particular; his theology was independent of a tangible Jesus who in fact preached and was killed.

    Perhaps I'm being naive in thinking that current-day Christians much also make this distinction, since there doesn't seem to be any degree to which Christianity is factually more true than Mormanism.

    (By way, we've been using "Christanity" in opposition to "Mormonism", but Mormons claim to be Christians. I'm curious as to your opinion of that claim.)

  4. I think that one can believe in Christianity without believing that everything in the Bible is factually true, however, there are many conservative Christians who do not share that view.

  5. Well, sure, you can take any or all of the scriptures as non-factual. But the whole religion is based on belief in the undead^H^H^H^H^H^Hresurrection.