In my life, I tend to be a simplifier on the order of (I like to think) Occam’s razor. Why have a complicated explanation when a simple one will do? Sometimes, because of this, I miss the boat, but mostly it works pretty well for me. I bring this up because I am currently reading, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave. It is a series of essays about whether or not we can believe the empty tomb story in the gospels, whether there are possible natural explanations for the resurrection story and so on.
Even though these essays are skeptical they still start from the assumption that something must have happened, even if the gospels don’t contain the whole truth. Jesus’s body could have been stolen, buried twice (the second time in a mass grave), he could have not died on the cross, and many other hypotheses and speculations. The background assumption of all of this is that something must have happened to make the early Christians believe as they did. I have a slightly different theory.
Someone around the first century BCE pulled Christianity right out of his ass. Might have been Jesus, maybe Peter and almost certainly independently by Paul.
Now, you can call it a visitation from god, a hallucination sincerely believed in, an honest delusion or conscious fraud, but either which way you want to see it, it all started inside someone’s head. At one time in my life I believed that something amazing must have happened in first century Palestine to get all those people to believe. Then I moved to Arizona.
I lived in Arizona from 1976 until 1983 and it was there I ran into a kind of creature I had never encountered before: Mormons. Nicest people you would ever want to meet. If you judge the validity of a religion by the behavior of its adherents, Mormonism looks pretty darn good. High marriage rates, low divorce rates, very low alcoholism and drug usage rates. Mormons are known for being squeaky clean, almost annoyingly so.
But when you look at their beliefs and the history of the church, things start to get a bit strange. My other contact with them was through doing genealogy, which they are champions of because of their belief that people can be brought into the church after they have died. Long after they have died. And then there is Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni, the golden tablets and other oddities.
The story of the founding of the church is colorful, to say the least.
Joseph Smith, who in other circumstances might be described as a bit of a grifter, is visited by the angel Moroni, who eventually leads Smith to some golden tablets, which tell the story of the risen Jesus, who came to America to visit the native Americans, who are really a lost tribe of Israel. Smith keeps the tablets hidden, at one point in a barrell of beans. Apparently Smith didn’t read or write so well, so he enlisted some help in “translating” the tablets. Of course he didn’t have have the tablets in front of him, he had two special “seer” stones which he held in front of his eyes while he buried his face in a hat and “read” out the text line by line. One version has it that Smith and his stenographer were separated by a curtain while this went on.
Unfortunately, after dictating 116 pages this way, Smith allowed his stenographer to take the papers home, where they were promptly lost. So, Smith started the process all over again, but not before having a “special vision” that redoing this “translation” process would not result in exactly the same text as the one that was lost. You know, just in case the pages were later found. When he was done “translating” the angel returned and collected up the tablets, which have never been seen again. Eleven people attested to seeing the tablets, but it is unclear whether they actually saw them or had visions of them.
After finishing the book, Smith started preaching his new religion and did not receive an exactly rousing reception and was run out of town, the first time in New York state. He started moving west, preaching and getting run out of town, getting himself and his brother killed in the process. Finally the new church reached Utah, where there was no one to run them out of town. They set up shop and pretty much took over the state. They were so dominant in Utah that when the state is admitted to the union, the Mormons are forced to renounce one of their main teachings (polygamy) in exchange for statehood. This will not be the last time they are forced to renounce a tenant of their religion publicly due to secular pressure.
Keep in mind that all of this happened in the 1800s, in the United States, not in some obscure backwater of the world before newspapers had been invented. Apparently many people were killed in this western trek and there is quite a bit of debate of who did the killing and why. It was in a lot of papers, but none of that seems to matter. I doubt many people who, after meeting the nice young men in their starched white shirts go look up news reports from the 1830s. Any more than Christian converts did in the second century to see if there was a death certificate for Jesus.
None of this stopped people from joining the Mormon church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints is now the fourth largest church by membership in the US. It is considered to be one of the fastest growing churches in the country, with its membership having tripled since 1982. As it approaches its third century of existence, they certainly have more believers than Christianity did after two centuries. I realize that is somewhat of an unfair comparison, but still.
Many apologists for Christianity say things like “it must be true otherwise no one would believe anything so outlandish.” Really? Resurrection was just too bizarre a belief for first century Jews to latch on to. And so on. If you really believe that, explain Mormonism to me and why it isn’t just as true.
Now you might say that based on what we know, that Joseph Smith might not be the most reliable person. But then again he claimed to do no more than Muhammud did, and that prophet has 1.6 billion followers.
And as for the bible: the only biblical author we know for sure is Paul, who seems a bit of a nutjob, first persecuting people for what they believe and then telling them what to believe–flip sides of the same coin. And Paul says that he saw the risen Jesus in a vision, one that consisted of light and a voice. Not very convincing. As for the rest of the New Testament, we have no idea who wrote it and why they lied about who they are.
I think most rational people, even those who believe in the supernatural, would see the Mormon story as, to say the least, a bit ridiculous. But I don’t really see any evidence that any of the holy books were written with any greater care or authority. Logically you either have to accept them all or reject them all. I choose the latter.