Kishkumen wrote:I agree completely that religion is a problematic category, by the way. I use it primarily for the sake of convenience. What other term should I use?
I don't know. I don't mean to suggest we need another term or that we should avoid the category, only that it conditions the questions to some degree and obscures (or at least can obscure) the answers.
For example, with Scientology, already putting in the same category as both Mormonism and Christianity is going to color our answer to the question "how can people believe claim X" because Scientology isn't going to meet certain cultural expectations of what constitutes a reasonable religious claim (which is one way of rephrasing the argument that Mormonism's narrative has a certain advantage in a Christian culture). But to me that we won't really get to a sufficient answer to the question. Compared to something like Mormonism, Scientology is more of a sub-elite philosophical movement or even more analogous to Buddhism, another complex of religious belief and practice that often doesn't really seem to be a religion, at least in certain forms (e.g. Zen or the Westernized variants). It isn't the narrative power of Thetan cosmology that persuades people but something else. There is another explanation for whatever success Scientology has had that stems from de-Christianization of the culture, so therefore its difference from Christianity is actually a benefit.
With Mormonism, examining the question "how do people believe this" purely as a religious claim likewise will obscure what happened in the past and what is happening now. It was certainly to its advantage that Mormonism mapped relatively well onto the religious landscape in terms of practice and even belief system, but that wasn't always about the power of its narrative. The narratives that someone like Physics Guy find so incredible were primarily vehicles for doctrines, and it is the doctrines that people found either compelling or repellent. Doctrine was very important in the 1830s to the early 1900s in a way that it isn't today. Few people care about infant baptism, for example, and while Mormons take the wrongness of infant baptism for granted, I doubt they argue with many non-Mormons today about it, if they could even find people interested enough in the practice to argue with in the first place. Judging from the kinds of publications (Millennial Star
in England, for instance, or Prophwyd y Jubili
in Wales) doctrine was a big driver of overseas conversion until the early 20th century, as well as the opportunities of immigration in general, which has nothing to do with religion but which features prominently even in many issues of the Millennial Star
. In that context, the incentive was to maximize the Christianity of Mormonism and it was effective at least in getting people to Utah. But what happened when they were there? I think it is very easy to overestimate the extent to which Mormon converts bought into, if they even knew about, some of the less mainstream claims of Mormonism. I think this is a topic that Mormon historians have hardly even thought about but lots of Mormons drifted away pretty quickly and went to California or somewhere else. Some even formed separate towns (e.g. Spring Glen in Carbon County) that were later brought back into the Mormon orbit, especially after polygamy. And the fact is that correlation began as a way to corral the many different kinds of people that came into the Church into a single kind of Mormonism in both practice and belief because of administrative and accounting difficulties. It is at that point that the narrative gained more importance and thus started to become subject to more scrutiny. That is why, about mid 20th century, the Book of Mormon became a central text and not a background detail, as it had been practically since its publication in 1830, and also why you start getting the apologetic strain starting with Hugh Nibley (earlier apologetics had been doctrinal—e.g. Widtsoe—or responses to perceived slander of Mormon people—e.g. B. H. Roberts—but not defenses of the historical claims of Mormon myths, which is what most people here perceive as Mormon apologetics). Doctrine has been receding into the background at the same time; what people used to care about was the doctrinal cargo carried by the weird narratives, but now they only see the weird narratives.
The prominence of the narrative was not always there. A lot of people in this forum grew up on a narrative that many people born before 1960 had only the slightest acquaintance with, or at least it had a different, less central place in their Mormonism (see, e.g. Roger Hendrix). The Church became more committed to certain of its myths alongside (and maybe because of) the Correlation project that was an administrative response by the upper echelons of the Church to managing the diffuse kinds of Mormonism that existed inside the Church. That to me, is not really a religious problem, though it has had consequences in how Mormons practice their religion and what they have been taught to believe. Much of the social life that constituted Mormonism for probably most Mormons has not survived, with and the result is that the narrative has a bloated importance. I have argued several times here that the narrative has become the glue holding Mormonism together, which was not always the case, with the result that Unfortunately for the Correlationists, the technologies of mass media have grown much more quickly than the Church has been able to handle, so they are stuck with this narrative and have resorted to the kinds of tactics we all find stupid and embarrassing. Worse still for them, the country has quite rapidly moved away from traditional Christianity, so therefore the similarity with traditional Christianity, such as it is, can be a hindrance, paired with a weird, Google-able narrative.
So, I guess my answer to the question "how can people believe X vs. Y" has more to do with forces that have less to do with religious claims and more to do with the historical contexts in which those religious claims are made.
"As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them."
—B. Redd McConkie