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Under the banner of bullshit: A rant on Mormonism and religion in general

August 25, 2012

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Time to tackle one of those pithier issues I’ve been promising to talk about since I started this thing. Despite what the title may lead you to believe, this post was inspired not by the John Krakauer book Under the Banner of Heaven, but by NBC’s Rock Center which ran a story last Thursday evening called “Mormon in America.” If any of you have read Krakauer’s book or know of it, or if you haven’t been living under a rock your whole life, the dangers of religious fundamentalism should be pretty clear. But it’s not the fundamentalist that I want to talk about here, it’s the so-called religious “moderate.” Admittedly, I plan to focus on Mormonism in today’s blog. The reason for this should be obvious, given that we’re just about to nominate our first Mormon presidential candidate from a major political party. But let me be clear: I think all religions are pretty equally nuts, so don’t take my attack on Mormonism as some sort of indication that I think it is somehow worse than any of the other fairy tales. So, if you’ve got an open mind and want to read on, please do. If, on the other hand, you’re a delicate flower and want to keep your blinders on and your fairy tales alive and well, head for the hills.

One final disclaimer before I begin: I’m not pre-judging any person on the basis of his or her religion, I’m judging. There’s a difference. When we pre-judge, we make assumptions about what a person or group of people are like based on uniformed prejudices. These prejudices, often very superficial, may be based on physical observations, like how people may look, act, talk, etc., or they may be based on stereotypes, anecdotes and other sorts of generally uniformed perceptions. Judgement, on the other hand, comes from well informed study, careful reflection, and measured comments. This blog is the latter.

I also don’t pretend to know details about how any specific Mormon, including Mitt Romney, happens to live his life, or exactly how he thinks about things… And the same goes for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Scientologists, or anyone else for that matter. I can’t read minds and I’m not an expert on Mormonism, Joseph Smith, or any specific holy book. I also believe that while religion is ridiculous and harmful to society, the fact that life goes on and doesn’t regularly devolve into chaos means that most religious people are pretty rational and don’t buy into most of what their faith happens to teach. Let’s face it, dear reader, if you’re an atheist like me, you’re the minority! The reality is, most people, religious or atheist, go through their day pretty much the same. As the saying goes, we all put our pants on one leg at a time.

The problem that religion poses is that, despite its largely sane practitioners, its worldview is absolutely nuts. Honestly, what else would you expect from bronze-age ideas? And I know what you’re thinking: No sane person really believes those parts of the book anyway, right? So what’s the harm? The problem is some do, and unfortunately it’s the religious moderate who provides the smokescreen or shelter, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively, to the zealot. It’s these zealots, the true believers, who are the ones that bomb abortion clinics and fly planes into buildings, taking the most extreme cases. Remember, it’s not lack of education or poverty that caused 9-11, it was ideology. By now, the education level and wealth of the hijackers should be a well known fact to anyone who follows this stuff seriously.

Apart from the extreme cases mentioned above, there are much less obvious, yet far more common examples of how religion poisons the world. And the scary thing is, these examples involve plenty of so-called “moderates” who are by most accounts several degrees of craziness below the zealot. Except in the case of the Diest (who believes in a supernatural reason for our existence, but that this god or gods do not meddle in human affairs), like it or not, our beliefs about the supernatural influence how we lead our lives. These beliefs cause otherwise rational Catholics to support bans on birth control and limiting a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. They cause peaceful Muslims to believe that burkas are a pretty good idea. And they contribute to tribalism and deep rooted hatred that leads to decade- or even century-long conflicts in places like Northern Ireland and in the supposed “holy land” over in that middle eastern sandbox that seems too comfortably far away for most of us. And I’ve just picked the most contemporary examples here… As any student of world history knows, the list goes on and on.

In the specific case of Mormonism, here’s what the “moderate Mormon” supports. Note that the following are facts, which I’ve used to post-judge, not pre-judge the merits of the religion and the beliefs of those who subscribe to it:

  • Women are subordinate to men. They are prohibited from holding either of the two priesthoods. As children, boys and girls are separated during Sunday school classes. I have to say, makes me feel right at home with my Catholic upbringing!
  • Magical underpants, or “temple garments” as they are officially called, are very real. Lots of Mormons wear them under their clothing every day. The garments are supposed to serve as a reminder of the covenants made in temple ceremonies. Just like all religions, there are some Mormons who view the garments more figuratively, and some who take a more literal view, perceiving them as a barrier to evil spirits, but most do wear them. In the photo at the top of today’s post, you can see Mitt Romney wearing his. Thank God, or should I thank Joseph Smith, for breathable fabric! Now to be fair, all religions have their fair share magical clothing and charms too, so this doesn’t make Mormons particularly special; but I still question the sanity of anyone who puts special meaning in his undershorts. I know mine tend to have skid marks in them from time to time…Just sayin. (As a quick aside… As religious charms go, if only Jesus had been executed in the late twentieth century, maybe Christians would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses! Wouldn’t that be much cooler?)
  • Blacks have only been able to hold the priesthood since 1978. Before that, there is a rather long and somewhat contentious history in the Mormon religion with respect to the treatment of blacks. I’ll leave all of that aside, however. For me, waiting until 1978 to lift the ban on priesthood is damning enough. Besides, let’s remember that Mormons are Christians after all… And don’t all of those slavery guidelines that god gives in the Bible make you feel all warm and fuzzy? (Exodus 21:2-6 is my favorite slavery passage, what’s yours?)
  • Gays are not equal in the Mormon church, but hey, in what religion are they considered equal? At least this time I can point to my Catholic background with pride! That’s right, we repress our homosexuals and turn them into priests. Yippee!
  • Non-Mormons are not permitted to enter a Mormon temple. I understand that the temple is a holy place, very sacred, yada yada yada, but in my eyes, I interpret this as Mormon superiority. I’m sure some Mormons may disagree on this, but I see it as divisive and as a proclamation that Non-Mormons are inferior. Case in point, when Mitt and Ann Romney were married, Ann’s family was prohibited from attending the services inside the church. (And you thought the family dog had it bad!)

    Sure, there are some Mormons who disagree with some of these doctrines, but it’s not in dispute that these are well known, factual elements of the faith. And to me, anyone who buys-in to nonsense like this has an inferior morality to mine, and unless they’ve figured out a way to wall off a portion of their life to reason (which is disturbing in an of itself), they are also an inferior thinker. I don’t mean that I am smarter than all Mormons…in fact, far be it! Jet Blue, started by a Mormon, is the perfect example of my vast inferiority to a Mormon. I’m sure it goes without saying, but I’ve never started an airline, let alone one as awesome as Jet Blue. But how honest, thoughtful, or morally consistent –or perhaps how brainwashed can you be– if you accept a religion that in 2012 holds to the truths listed above?

    Now, I realize that it would be very easy to come up with a similar list to the one above for Christianity. Hell, I’ve probably created one before while debating friends about this stuff. But, for better or worse, it seems to me that most Christians are much less enthusiastic about their religion than most Mormons. And in his heart of hearts, I really do beleive that Barack Obama is either an atheist in beleif, or in practice. I actually think most Christians I’ve met, at least the non-fundamentalist ones, are also either closeted atheists or “atheists in practice.” Either that, or they are really bad Christians. What I mean by “atheist in practice” is that almost none of them have ever read the bible or have any idea what it says. They don’t know the commandments (there are over 600 of them, not 10), they don’t realize that the “golden rule” was not an invention of Christianity, and they aren’t aware of facts like the slavery one I mentioned above. Basically, they are good, reasonable people. In my experience, it seems like many followers of the older religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism with which I’m most familiar but perhaps Islam too, do it out of habit or tradition, not actual faith. Of course, if that’s the case, why bother to still call yourself a Christian? Here’s a little thought experiment for you: If you suddenly became God and had to judge someone who fits this description, would you let him or her into heaven? Seems to me like this type of person is sort of mailing it in. Maybe I’m biased, but I’d much rather welcome the atheist into my eternal living room, because at least he’s probably read my autobiography.

    So here’s where all of this leaves me… Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re Obama), all of this renders it impossible for me to vote for Mitt Romney. It’s really a shame too, because I think he and Obama will have an interesting and substantive debate on policy. But I want a president who is moral, intellectually honest, and believes in science. Specific issues like tax policy, health care, and everything else aside, can you trust someone with his finger on the button to make the right call when he has backward thinking like this?

    Issues are complex, and while I hold strong beliefs, I’m not an economist, a tax expert, or a job creator. I understand health care a bit, but more than people who have spent their entire lives working within the system trying to fix things? Probably not. The true scientist, mathematician, or basic intellectually honest person is truthful about the limitations of their knowledge. Generally, I beleive in less government and libertarian principles, but the world is complex, and those who oversimplify take shortcuts to the detriment of our society. Let’s not pretend we understand every issue, and let’s admit where we have no clue. I’ll start: I have no clue how to fix the economy, but I don’t think there are very many people who do. And I don’t think that either Mitt or Barack are in the group of those who know.

    I also think both candidates are good men, patriotic, well intentioned, and want the best for the country. Both surround themselves with experts. There are some issues that I agree with Mitt on, and some that I agree with Barack on. So for me, how I will differentiate is simple…who’s the better thinker? And let’s remember an important thing about how this country is governed: First and foremost, our president is commander in chief of the military. One of the few things a president is able to do without congressional support (which is adminittedly a bit of a bone of contention for many) is order military action that sends our young men and women into harms way. So, do I want the guy who killed Bin Laden and got us out of Iraq, or the guy who has made gaffe after gaffe while overseas, and seems to have a pretty shaky grasp on foreign policy? For me, the choice seems pretty clear.

    I apologize that this blog ended up being so long. It has really written itself, and I’m afraid it’s not a very good editor. Allow me to leave you all with one final plea: Give up the superstitious nonsense and spend whatever time you’re currently spending in church or in prayer doing something useful for the world. Take advantage of the one life that you know you have. If the world were lactose intolerant, it would be a fat kid and religion would be its ice cream. Pick any flavor your want, they’re all going to give you the runs. I suppose I don’t need to go this far. I could have asked all of you to believe what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt me or take away my rights. But really, who can name me one religion that hasn’t done at least some of that?

    By the way, my recommended beer to drink while pondering today’s blog is a nice Coffee Stout. Apart from being delicious, there’s also a delicious irony involved since our Mormon friends are prohibited from consuming alcohol or caffeine. Brooklyn Brewery and Lagunitas both make an excellent interpretation of this variety. (Lagunitas actually calls theirs an “Espresso Stout.”)

    Until next time, cheers and happy doubting!

    ~BLA

  • From → Weekly Blog

    5 Comments
    1. Aaron permalink

      Interesting article and great #2 time reading. Sorry, just being honest. Hey one little note. It’s difficult to win over readers when you spell our President’s first name wrong!! Put down the bible and pick up a dictionary, you beer swilling Jesus hater!! LOL

      Much love, and great blog,

      Aaron

      • Haha… Great point about misspelling Barack. Thanks for pointing it out, and rest assured that it has since been corrected. Oh, one other minor point: I hate Jesus about as much as you probably hate the tooth fairy. Hard to hate that which doesn’t exist.. . But I get that you were being funny, so well played. I have no retort on the beer swilling comment.

    2. Aaron permalink

      Everything in moderation…..remember that

      On that note, I tend to agree with a lot of your points regarding religion in that it has been the cause of a lot of pain, death, and violence in every society. In what i find to be an interesting parallel, I believe that your beloved beer can be blamed for some of the same “atrocities” in American society today.

      Alcoholism destroys households, relationships, lives, etc, and is widely responsible for many of the preventable deaths currently in American society. Whether it be DWI related car crashes, liver cancer, or alcohol related suicides, beer (among other alcohols) can be just as “devilish” as Satan himself.

      Of course, I’m sure you relate most of those “atrocities” to the Busch Light drinkers who can’t go through their day with anything under a .18 blood alcohol content and haven’t had a valid drivers license in 20 years. But saying that is like saying extremist Muslims are crazier than Christians; both are religions just like your beer and Busch are both alcohols. One is just the extreme example while the other is more “moderate.” But, your beloved beer, in an extreme sense, is just as dangerous. So if we are to “drink” our religion in moderation, I guess that would have to make it just as acceptable as your beer….

      Everything in moderation……

      Much love,

      Aaron

      • Well said, except here, I believe, is the important difference: The problems you cite are not with the beer, but it’s abuse and the alcoholism that often results. You wouldn’t, for example, say guns are inherently bad just because there are some people who go on murderous rampages. You are very correct, however, that alcoholism, binge drinking, drunk driving, etc. are extremely detrimental to our society….whether the person drinks Busch or Dogfish Head doesn’t matter. (Although I would also agree that they are much more likely to drink the former, simply out of economics, given that a 4-pack of Dogfish Head can cost you $10.) And further, with respect to the beer itself, one could actually argue that it has saved far more lives than it has taken. Before sewage systems, water treatment, etc. were as advanced as they are today, beer was one of the few safe beverages that could be consumed. There are no known pathogens that can live in beer. Many historians have even argued that the establishment of our country in the manner in which it happened is a direct result of the Pilgrims running out of beer and needing to head to shore. But that is a topic for a future blog. Thanks for the thoughtful comments! And remember, anything great in the world can be abused. My thesis is simply that there is nothing inherently “great” about religion, and in fact there is a whole lot wrong with it. Beer on the other hand, when properly consumed, is one of man’s most fantastic and life-saving inventions!

    3. And in case my response above was too verbose or unclear, let me reiterate an important point: I disagree that “drinking” religion in moderation makes it acceptable. I beleive it adds absolutely nothing, and only provides a smokescreen for the crazy zealots. Sure, moderately relgious folks are better than extremists, but I can’t find my way to how “moderate religion” is good for society. I do NOT beleive this same theme applies to craft beer. Craft beer drinkers, far from providing a smokescreen, are some of the most oputspoken opponents of alcohol abuse. I wish “moderate” religious folks would be more outspoken against the crazies. But they can’t be, because the crazies have actually read the holy book and are, for the most part, following the rules laid out within it! Again, see Exodus 21:2-6 for the very clearly laid out slavery rules in the bible.

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