My piece on the Mormons has generated a huge response, both public and private. I intend to write more myself today or tomorrow, but I think it important that the other side, as it were, have its opportunity to make its case. Below I am reprinting, with the author’s permission, a thoughtful letter I received—one of many. It is rather longer than a normal blog post, but for obvious reasons, I did not want to constrain the writer in any way.
I read with interest your recent post at The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding Mormons and politics. I hope it isn’t too presumptuous, but I wanted to give you my thoughts. I am both a believing, practicing Mormon and an academic. I teach law, and my research focuses on legal theory and legal history, including Mormon legal history. Hence, you may wish to ignore my remarks for the double disqualifications of being a Latter-day Saint and being a lawyer. That said, here goes:
If I understand your unease with Mormons correctly it goes something like this:
“While I can tolerate the religious beliefs of others and in some cases may even be able to sympathize with them, I find Mormon beliefs and Mormon history so strange that I believe the mere fact of belief on the part of a Latter-day Saint reveals some basic character flaw or intellectual disability, a failing that legitimately would count as a reason for voting against someone for public office.”
I’ll leave aside the political issue of how religion may or may not qualify one to be president, and focus on the more fundamental intuition that belief in Mormonism constitutes evidence of some kind of moral and/or intellectual failure. The easiest way of testing this intuition, it seems to me, would be to observe intelligent, high-functioning Latter-day Saints and see if one can detect the intellectual and/or character failings that you fear. In other words, if you are using belief in Mormonism as a proxy for a lack of critical or analytic abilities, fanatical mendacity, or the like, then you do not have to rely on the proxy. You can simply try to observe the primary phenomenon that you are interested in. What you will find is that there are many Latter-day Saints who in fact engage with the world critically and are not pursuing brutal or illiberal theocratic political agendas. To be sure, you will find some Mormons who are stupid, dogmatic, ignorant, and politically reactionary. You may even find that the distribution between the two groups in the Mormon population is different than the population as a whole, but so long as the primary phenomenon is itself observable, there is no need to rely on the proxy of belief in Mormonism to determine whether any particular Latter-day Saint suffers from critical or moral deficits.
This doesn’t imply, of course, that one cannot regard Mormonism as false and Mormon believers as mistaken. On the other hand, the mere fact of holding false beliefs is generally not taken as evidence of intellectual or moral failure. Lots of smart, thoughtful, critical, and morally decent people hold mistaken beliefs. Indeed, I suspect that they all do. The question then remains as to whether the mistaken belief represented by Mormonism is somehow different. It could be different in one of two ways. First, it might be that the mistake represented by Mormonism is qualitatively different in some way such that it really does provide some important piece of information about a person’s critical and moral apparatus. Second, it may be that given that one can identify believing Mormons who nevertheless display critical and moral competence, the persistence of their belief in Mormonism is itself sufficiently surprising—considering the “weirdness” of Mormon beliefs—to be a phenomenon demanding an explanation.
Consider the first possible way that Mormonism is different. Perhaps belief in Mormonism is so intellectually and morally repellant that it represents a kind of catastrophic failure such that the believing Mormon cannot redeem him or herself from this failure. I take it that you would regard belief in Nazism to represent such a catastrophic failure. My own intuitions go the same way. I tend to think that the believing Nazi really has forfeited intellectual and moral respectability in some basic way. It is not clear to me, however, precisely what it is about belief in Nazism that makes this so. It’s not that I cannot identify the falsities and moral evils of Nazism, only that I am unsure how to articulate what it is about those falsities and moral evils that makes them qualitatively different than other mistaken beliefs. In other words, what is the criterion for a mistaken belief that would constitute such a catastrophic failure?
Obviously, I do not think that belief in Mormonism is fundamentally mistaken, but I can certainly see why someone would regard some Mormon beliefs as false. Putting myself in the position of the non-Mormon, however, I would not regard mistaken belief in Mormonism as a catastrophic failure. My intuition is no doubt driven in part by my own prior religious beliefs, and I take it that your intuition may be different, namely that belief in Mormonism is a kind of catastrophic intellectual and/or moral failure. It seems to me, however, that to really judge between such differing intuitions we would need some criterion as to the sorts of beliefs that constitute catastrophic failures.
Another possibility for why Mormon beliefs may be different, I suppose, is that we don’t actually think that those Mormons who function at a high level both critically and ethically really are as they seem to be. Hence, we might assume that they probably don’t REALLY believe in Mormonism, which accounts for their apparent intellectual and/or moral competence. Alternatively, we might believe that they aren’t REALLY intellectually and/or morally competent, but rather are like sleeper agents that will reveal their true colors at some moment in the future. Ultimately, of course, this is an empirical question, but it is worth noting that this line of reasoning pushes one towards a kind of conspiratorial vision. Generally speaking, I think that in the absence of especially compelling evidence such conspiratorial explanations should to be disfavored as running afoul of Ockam’s Razor. That said, as an empirical matter I think that the conspiratorial/sleeper agent theory is false. I also think that as an empirical matter there are in fact many Latter-day Saints whose critical and moral faculties function just fine. I have strong personal biases at work here. On the other hand I have lifelong experience with lots and lots of actual Mormons.
That leaves us with the final puzzle of how it is that apparently intellectually and/or morally competent people can nevertheless believe in Mormonism. What about the golden plates, the magic underwear, and so on?!? I think that there are three basic answers to this puzzle.
First, some of the things that you have heard about Mormonism may be false. You may think that Mormons believe many things that they do not in fact believe. As you obliquely noted with the Sherlock Holmes reference in your original post, sensationalized and often inaccurate accounts of Mormon beliefs and practices have circulated since its founding. (A Study in Scarlet is not a reliable guide to Mormonism, even in the 19th century.) That said, we do have all sorts of “weird” beliefs so that I suspect that some version of much of what you have heard about Mormon beliefs is more or less true.
Second, when thinking about the “weirdness” of Mormon beliefs, those beliefs are almost always plucked out of the various historical, narrative, and theological contexts that give them their meaning. The effect is to accentuate the apparent implausibility of the belief and in many cases its apparent silliness and/or meaninglessness.
Here’s an analogy. Suppose that I reject the idea of evolution (for the record I do not), and I wish to explain why I regard evolution as false and absurd. I might say, “Those who subscribe to evolution believe that if one leaves foul smelling slime unattended in the right conditions for a while that the slime will organize itself into Mozart and an orchestra to play his Jupiter Symphony. This is strange, absurd, and implausible!” Note, those who subscribe to evolution do in fact believe something very like the belief attributed to them by the skeptic. Note also that stated in isolation the belief is in fact strange and implausible. What is missing, of course, is the intellectual context that gives the claim about slime and symphonies its meaning and plausibility for the person who subscribes to evolution. Something very much like this is happening when a few Mormon beliefs or practices are taken in isolation and then held up as evidence of the absurdity of the belief system.
A third answer to the puzzle is to realize that Mormonism is a religion rather than simply a belief system. Beliefs are an important part of religion, but they are by no means its only—or often even its central—element. Mormonism also represents a community, a set of social practices, a set of moral strictures, a set of aesthetic responses, a sense of historical identity, a set of friendships, a series of covenants or commitments, in many cases a set of family relationships, a liturgy, an institutional structure, a set of overlapping intellectual discourses, and so on. A Latter-day Saint’s commitment to Mormonism is based on far more than beliefs regarding individual points of theology. Rather, the Mormon’s commitment will be a reaction to the totality of the human experience that constitutes Mormonism. This means that often the “weird” beliefs that might concern you do not have the salience for Mormons that non-Mormons imagine them to have. In other cases, the meaning of salient beliefs is quite different than that which outsiders might imagine. It also means that that one may be a committed, faithful Latter-day Saint while entertaining doubts or heterodox beliefs regarding all sorts of particular points of Mormon theology. I know many, many Mormons who consider themselves fully observant Latter-day Saints while struggling with aspects of the Mormon past or with various Mormon teachings. For many this struggle is articulate and loquacious, but for many it is much more private and subdued.
None of this is meant as a set of reasons justifying belief in Mormon teachings or a criticism of those who find Mormon beliefs to be false or implausible. I do think, however, that one’s conclusion that Mormon beliefs are false or implausible may convey rather less than you might assume about the intellectual and/or moral capacities of Mormon believers or the intellectual and/or moral respectability of Mormonism.
My apologies for writing at such length. Your remarks got me thinking, and I decided that you were as plausible a victim for those thoughts as anyone else.
Nathan B. Oman
William & Mary Law School
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187
“We lived in the hope that, if we survived and were good, God would
allow us to become pirates.” –Mark Twain
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