Saturday, January 21, 2012

Do Rational People Believe in Mormonism?

It has long been observed that Latter-day Saint theology and scriptures include many distinctive beliefs, beliefs that are quite different from those of majority Christianity. But in the minds of a lot of people, unfortunately, "different" means "strange," even "weird." The cheap shotgun overview of LDS theology that The Book of Mormon musical springs onto people without context or explanation lends itself to this sort of interpretation; I am sure that I am not the only Saint who has had a long-time friend say, after viewing a number from the musical, that "You believe some weird" things.

The current U.S. presidential campaign is going to bring much more public attention to distinctive LDS beliefs, such as our beliefs about the origin of the Book of Mormon (the real-life scripture, not the musical); Joseph Smith's visionary experiences; the doctrine of exaltation; the premortal existence; the three postmortal degrees of glory, and so forth -- hey, these days even the practice of tithing is getting scrutiny in the media. I could go into the historical and theological foundations for belief in each of these items of doctrine, and perhaps in future posts I shall. For now, however, I'd like to consider something a bit more emotional, the sort of knee-jerk reaction that I'm hearing more of lately: "How the heck can rational people even believe stuff like this?"

This was brought to mind by a reader's response to a piece I wrote recently for the Yahoo Contributor's Network regarding why evangelical Christians oppose the LDS faith. One reader responded:

Never mind talking about whether or nor they [i.e., the LDS] are Christians. Ask them about Jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites in North America between 1000 BC and 400 AD. It is the most bizarre histroriography imaginable. As the late columist Bob Novak once rhetorically asked "How can any rational person believe this?"

We'll return to the matter of Book of Mormon historiography on another occasion. As it happens, the late Robert Novak, political columnist, had not actually asked this question himself. In reference to the run-up to Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Novak had mentioned that there was a big difference between the opposition to Romney the Mormon in 2008 and the opposition to John Kennedy the Roman Catholic in 1960, when a number of conservative Protestants voiced concerns that a Catholic President would take orders from the Vatican. As Novak put it:

Nobody is suggesting that Mitt Romney as president of the United States would be taking orders from the president of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. The Republican whispering campaign against Mormons is broader-based on ridicule of the church's doctrine. I have heard Republicans who have read the Book of Mormon express astonishment that any rational person could believe that fanciful stuff. [Emphasis added.]

Here is how I responded to my reader, and how I would like to have responded in 2006 to Novak's unnamed sources (edited, and links added):

Consider this. The fact is that many people, including many esteemed in their professions, believe LDS theology and claims about the Book of Mormon.

Let's consider just a few of my personal acquaintances. Here in New York, I've known four top biomedical researchers at the prestigious Rockefeller University who are faithful, believing, and practicing LDS -- two of whom served as my bishop, and the third of whom was in my stake presidency. My friend Rob Comstock, at the top of the game of the fashion industry, appears in one of the "I'm a Mormon" spots. Another friend of mine, Admiral Paul Yost (Ret.), commanded the U.S. Coast Guard. (For that matter, I myself am an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, a distinction of note.)

Beyond my own acquaintances, two of today's best-selling fiction authors, Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame, and Orson Scott Card of the Ender books, are practicing Latter-day Saints, as is nonfiction business and lifestyle author Stephen "7 Habits" Covey. I could go on for pages mentioning physicians, medical researchers, creative arts professionals, university academics, attorneys, financial professionals, business leaders, and so forth, all practicing Latter-day Saints.

The point: You don't get to these sorts of positions by being irrational. The evidence clearly shows that huge numbers of rational people believe LDS theology. This does not prove it true, but it does prove that Novak's unnamed sources were foolish. People who would actually like to learn about the LDS faith held by some of our more scholarly Saints might find it beneficial to consult Susan Easton Black's edited book, Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars, or Henry Eyring's Faith of a Scientist.

 Yes, rational people believe in Mormon doctrine. Latter-day Saints need to be aware of what is apparently a widespread prejudice regarding our rationality. Beyond that, as my late mother, brought up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan would have put it, "you need to straighten them out." Indeed.

Of course, all of this raises the question of how rational people came to believe in the Book of Mormon. But that is a topic for another post.

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[The reproduction above of Rodin's The Thinker was obtained through Wikipedia and is in the public domain.]

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