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