There is an entire class of people who seem completely confused about how to think about Mormonism.
As a result, they go round in an intellectual fog, sometimes for years – or forever – never coming to any resolution. Interestingly, almost every single one of these types is absolutely convinced that their confusion is actually a sign of great cognitive sensitivity and power. Because of this, they constantly take swipes at others (who clearly have far better thinking skills), for what they call “black and white” thinking, and all kinds of other self-flattering nonsense. But in reality, an inability to think clearly about Mormonism is just that: inability – that is, poor critical thinking skills on this particular topic.
Anyone’s fog of confusion would be of no great concern to me, if I didn’t have to constantly hear these people yakking about their confusion, as if it was something to be proud of, rather than embarrassed of.
So, in the interests of leaving this world a better place, I should like to propose how to think about Mormonism.
I propose that there are two basic questions:
1.) Is Mormonism what it claims to be?;
2.) What good things or bad things does Mormonism gives to its members (or the world); and what are they? How do they sum up in the end?
Though this is a thought far too difficult for the confused people I mentioned above to grasp, there is absolutely no logical conflict between the answer to (1) being “no”, and the answer to (2) being, “Mormonism creates many good things, and is a net benefit to the human race” (saying that just for the sake of argument).
Mormons constantly assume that Mormonism producing benefits implies that “Joseph Smith always told the truth about his experiences”. This is so obviously a fallacy, that it is embarrassing to have to point it out. There is no organization, anywhere, secular or religious, which has not produced some benefit of some kind to someone. That includes the National Socialist Party and the Church of Satan. It includes everyone. Mormonism producing some good things means precisely nothing in terms of whether its founder was a reliable source of information about his experiences.
The confused people I mentioned above don’t really like Question 1. They think it’s too stark – not because there is anything in Mormon theology which contradicts that kind of thinking (by contrast, Mormon theology is 100% behind this question, and 100% black-and-white on the answer), but because they are dull-witted, and/or are emotionally dependent on maintaining belief in Mormonism, and wish not to think any thoughts which might dissolve that belief state. Why, even Gordon B. Hinckley trumpeted this question, stating in the April 2003 General Conference, “Each of us has to face the truth of the matter—either the church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground”.
That is, NO Mormon can justifiably ever take issue with the premise that Mormonism either is what it claims to be, or isn’t. And that, in fact, is the case: it either is God’s only true religion, with all of its foundational stories (about the Egyptian funerary document The Breathing Permit of Hor actually being an autobiography penned by an Israelite named Abraham 2000 years earlier, and Kolob, and magical translation spectacles for golden plates which were never used in the production of the Book of Mormon text, etc.) being true: OR…it is actually not what it claims.
My point here is only that the question of Mormonism being what it claims to be is distinct from the question of what utility Mormonism might have for any particular member, or for communities; and it helps keeps things clear to remember that, as we think about Mormonism.
I happen to know many people who fared very poorly once they ceased to believe in Mormonism. I believe – I know – they would have been far better off in life if they had kept on believing. Alas, they didn’t; and the positive things they had in life, which came from believing in a myth, and being a member of a tribe unified by belief in that myth, all vanished. The atheist claim that “religious poisons everything” is utterly absurd; at least as absurd as Mormon tales about upside-down Jaredite barges, and your local Navajos being the recent descendants of Israelites. Of course religion provides benefits – in some cases, lots of them – and Mormonism can do the same, at least for some folks.
This is not to say that it’s true. As can be demonstrated in many different ways, Joseph Smith was, shall we say, an unreliable source of information about his experiences. He did not tell the truth – about polygamy, about the Book of Mormon text, about the Book of Moses, etc. To what extent he came to believe his own tales is irrelevant; it is enough to know that they were not true, or at least, that they cannot be believed – not least because he contradicted himself so often. And of course, there *are* his brazen, outright lies – one just off the top of my head is him (as recorded in the OHC itself) publicly railing against those who accused him of having more than one wife, calling them “perjurers” and “false swearers”, when, by that time, he had had sex with at least two sets of his own teenage foster daughters, his sixteen year old housemaid, and the wives and daughters of several of his friends, all under pretense that they had become “married”. Joseph Smith knowingly bore false witness against others, in order to defame them – which at least means, he was very comfortable with lying (and breaking the odd commandment in order to get his way). That lie was, after all, a very bold, a very public, and very spectacular, lie. And of course, there were many more lies, all easily demonstrable, in public and private. What that means, unavoidably, is that he was not a reliable source of information about his experiences, so that we should not believe him, even if we did not know, from numerous other sources (molecular biology, astronomy, linguistics, botany, zoology, biological anthropology, etc.) that his other claims were just not true.
Believe if you want, my friends. Spend the rest of your lives telling yourselves that there’s some “middle ground” between Mormonism being what it claims, and *not* being what it claims; but that won’t make that absurd, nonsensical proposition any more true (in fact, it cannot strictly be “true”, because it is incoherent).
The fact will remain that Mormonism’s utility as a religion or social force will always be something which we can try to assess; but that utility, such as it may be, will never have anything to do with whether Mormonism is actually what it claims to be. And…it isn’t what it claims to be (sadly, for some of us).
It might help some to approach Mormonism in the way I’ve suggested; but whether it does or doesn’t, I hope the rest of us get a reprieve from the confused people yakking on about their “middle grounds” and stuff. It’s true or it isn’t – even Hinckley admitted that (as if anyone sane didn’t already know that); and further, it cannot possibly be what it claims, for all sorts of reasons, no matter how positive an influence it might be in anyone’s life.