Tag Archives: Mormonism

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.

donnie_darko-frank

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Mormon History Machinations

Over at Slate, David Haglund has posted a fascinating piece on the life and travails of Mormon historian Michael Quinn. Trained as an academic historian, Quinn obtained his PhD from Yale in 1976. When he applied for a faculty position at BYU, his credentials (and interest in early Mormon history) were viewed with suspicion. The church leader assigned to interview Quinn was Boyd Packer. Packer was less than enthused:

Packer said, “I have a hard time with historians, because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting.” That’s according to Quinn—my request to speak with Packer, whose health has badly deteriorated in recent years, was declined. But Packer certainly said similar things before larger audiences. In 1981, he gave an address to church educators called “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” which was organized around four “cautions.” The second of them is this: “There is a temptation for the writer or teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

While Packer may have been a dissembler, he wasn’t dumb. In fact, if I didn’t know better I’d think he had been reading Nietzsche (Beyond Good & Evil 39):

Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree.  Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure–or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.

As Quinn discovered during the course of his research and writing life, too much truth about Mormon history can be dangerous. Though I was not familiar with Quinn until now, I just ordered one his books. Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1998) looks superb, as this blurb suggests:

In this ground-breaking book, D. Michael Quinn masterfully reconstructs an earlier age, finding ample evidence for folk magic in nineteenth-century New England, as he does in Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s upbringing. Quinn discovers that Smith’s world was inhabited by supernatural creatures whose existence could be both symbolic and real. He explains that the Smith family’s treasure digging was not unusual for the times and is vital to understanding how early Mormons interpreted developments in their history in ways that differ from modern perceptions. Quinn’s impressive research provides a much-needed background for the environment that produced Mormonism. This thoroughly researched examination into occult traditions surrounding Smith, his family, and other founding Mormons cannot be understated. Among the practices no longer a part of Mormonism are the use of divining rods for revelation, astrology to determine the best times to conceive children and plant crops, the study of skull contours to understand personality traits, magic formulae utilized to discover lost property, and the wearing of protective talismans.

Mormonism is not, of course, unique in being magical. All religions are magical, with that which is orthodox within any tradition being deemed “not magic.”

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Hitting & Missing

After a week at the beach I’ve been catching up on blog relevant readings and thought I’d share. There are more hits than misses.

In this curiously flat review, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel assesses theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Nagel takes at least some of Plantinga’s ideas seriously and gives him a fair reading. Though I haven’t looked, I’m betting that Jerry Coyne has also read Plantinga’s book and scorned it appropriately.

Nagel, by the way, has his own new book with an eyebrow raising title — Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Ever since Nagel first wondered what it would be like to be a bat, he’s been fascinated by the irreducibility of consciousness and mind-body problem. I suspect he is on to something and some of his ideas may overlap with those of complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman. While at the beach I read Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, a book which has me thinking about “religion” as an emergent phenomena.

In this delightful piece, philosopher Simon Critchley takes New Yorkers to task for their blithe anti-Mormonism. While I won’t go so far as Critchley and declare love for Mormonism, I have recently confessed a grudging admiration for the faith. After reading Critchley’s nuanced account of Mormonism’s audaciously immanent theology, I’ll give them even higher marks than I did here. At the very least, it seems more appealing and alive than the frozen in time or historically static theology of other faiths.

At the New Yorker, Anthony Gottlieb gives evolutionary psychologists another skewering so richly deserved. It seems to have been prompted by David Barash’s slapdash book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature. When it comes to evolutionary religious storytelling, Gottlieb is skeptical:

Going by what Barash has to say about religion, Darwinian thinking isn’t likely to transform our understanding of it anytime soon. We do not even know why we are relatively hairless or why we walk on two legs, so finding the origin of religious belief is a tall order. Undaunted, Barash explores various ways in which religion might have been advantageous for early man, or a consequence of some other advantageous trait. It might, for example, have been a by-product of our curiosity about the causes of natural phenomena, or of our desire for social connection. Or maybe religious beliefs and practices helped people coördinate with others and become less selfish, or less lonely and more fulfilled. Although he does not endorse any of these ideas—how could he, given that there’s no possible way to know after all this time?—Barash concludes that it is “highly likely” that religion owes its origin to natural selection. (He does not explain why; this conclusion seems to be an article of faith.) He also thinks that natural selection is probably responsible for religion’s “perseverance,” which suggests that his knowledge of the subject is a century out of date. Historians and social scientists have found quite a lot to say about why faith thrives in some places and periods but not in others—why, for the first time in human history, there are now hundreds of millions of unbelievers, and why religion is little more than vestigial in countries like Denmark and Sweden. It is hard to see what could be added to these accounts by evolutionary stories, even if they were known to be true.

While I don’t share Gottlieb’s skepticism about the value of evolutionary history, I empathize with the idea that simple adaptive or byproduct stories about the evolution of religion aren’t very enlightening (and can be seriously distorting).

Over at The Guardian, Andrew Brown correctly observes that you can’t dance to atheism and that ideologies which serve as societal glue are much like religions. His first point riffs Nietzsche, who famously commented: “I would believe only in a God who knows how to dance.” All similarities to Nietzsche end there. Brown is smitten by the Durkheimian and group level selectionist idea that religions function as transcendent social glue. While it may have this function, especially in post-Neolithic societies, religion isn’t required to bind small-scale societies together. For that, language and extended or fictive kinship will do just fine.

In this depressing miss, we learn that African elephants are being slaughtered in record numbers. Why? In part because there is a booming trade in ivory icons, which are deemed by some (especially Filipino Catholics and Asian Buddhists) to be especially sacred. They call it ivory worship. I call it soulless.

For an in-depth look at the papyrus fragment igniting Jesus marriage debates in the contentious Christian world, Ariel Sabar’s Smithsonian story can’t be beat.

Finally, I have no idea what this book by a Georgia pastor is about but the cover art may be unintentionally subversive:

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Gopnik, Lamanite

Insofar as I can tell, the only positive in this presidential campaign is all the light being shed on one candidate’s curious religion. For understandable reasons, it’s not something this candidate wants to discuss. Anything that attracts the attention of his dogmatic base to these blasphemous beliefs is unwelcome. For the rest of us, it is fascinating.

As I noted in Mormonism as Evolutionary Exemplar, we’ve recently seen three superb articles covering different aspects of this peculiarly American faith. To these articles we can now add a fourth. It is the best of the bunch. In I, Nephi — Mormonism and Its Meanings, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik hits on all cylinders. For reasons that surely have something to do with Romney’s religion, Gopnik has just read these four books:

For reasons that surely have something to do with Romney’s religion, all these books have been (or will be) published this year. Mormonism and moneymaking make for good bedfellows. Authors and publishers have obviously taken note.

While Gopnik’s cruise through these books probably won’t please Mormons, the course he charts is an impressive passage. It is some of the best thinking and writing I’ve encountered in a while. Read it.

After digesting Gopnik’s buffet, you can chew on additional morsels from Russ Douthat. In Romney’s Mormon Story, he contends that Romney is hamstrung by his faith and American (mostly evangelical) hostility towards it. What should be his greatest strength is a weakness because it must remain hidden, downplayed for the base (which truly is base). But this isn’t the only problem. For the more tolerant among us, and perhaps even the admiring, there is this:

Of course, a visit to Mormon country also provides reminders of why Romney has been wary of talking about his religious background. There’s the Mormon Temple, whose interior can be viewed in scale-model form but not actually entered; the defensiveness that surfaces around issues like polygamy and race; the fine line Mormon society walks between a healthy solidarity and an unhealthy conformism — and hanging over everything, the burden of defending Joseph Smith’s revelation, which offers not only bold metaphysical claims (as all religions do) but an entire counterhistory of the Americas, which no archaeologist has yet managed to confirm.

Though I don’t know the details, I understand that archaeologists and historians at BYU once spent a great deal of time and spurious effort attempting to prove the Lamanite myth true. As Mormonism has matured, these efforts have diminished and the myths are now constructed, as so many religious stories are, metaphorically. What does this mean for Gopnik? He might just be a Lamanite.

“Nephi [Bearing Uncanny Resemblance to Romney] Subdues His Brothers” by Arnold Frieberg

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Mormonism as Evolutionary Exemplar

While teaching this past week, a curious thing happened: without having given it much thought, I found myself using Mormonism to illustrate all kinds of evolutionary theories regarding religion. Call it putting Mormon flesh on theoretical bones. For instance, we were examining this passage from Richard Sosis’ and Candace Alcorta’s article on costly signaling and religious behavior:

Religious behaviors often entail significant proximate costs, such as time, energetic, and material costs, as well as physical and psychological pain, that appear to be greater than any derived benefits. Consequently, religious behavior poses a genuine challenge for those who employ optimization, rational choice, or other egoistic based models to explain human behavioral variation. Researchers have sought to unravel this dilemma by positing somatic, reproductive, and psychological benefits conferred by religious behaviors on their practitioners that could outweigh these costs. Realized benefits include improved health, survivorship, economic opportunities, sense of community, psychological well-being, assistance during crises, mating opportunities, and fertility (see Reynolds and Tanner for a review).

The Reynolds and Tanner reference is to their book, The Social Ecology of Religion, in which they examine the various ways in which religions shape the human life cycle. As they put it:

“Religions, the world over, are concerned with human physical existence, human bodies, what they may and may not do, when they may and may not do it, how they should be conceived, born, fed, cleaned, dressed, and buried. [W]e take as our baseline the life cycle of ordinary people; we see this as consisting of a number of transitions, the points marked by van Gennep’s “rites of passage”; and we look at the ways they are managed by religions in all parts of the world.”

Reynolds and Tanner are interested in how religions function and structure lives on a daily and generational basis. Drawing their examples mostly from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, they assess how these “world” religions address pan-human issues: conception and contraception, infanticide and abortion, birth and childhood, adolescence, marriage and divorce, middle and old age, and death.

Any post-Neolithic or modern religion that doesn’t have something to say about these issues is probably extinct, or at least not very successful. Those religions that intuitively understand the importance of these issues, and explicitly address them, stand a much greater chance of surviving and being successful.

While Reynolds and Tanner occasionally mention Mormons, the references are brief and usually in the context of pointing out that non-smoking and non-drinking Mormons enjoy better health than most Americans. They also note that the Mormon emphasis on fertility results in higher birth rates. While not trivial, this barely scratches the surface of the myriad ways in which Mormonism inserts itself into rites of passage and life cycles. In doing so, it confers on its members — all of whom are required to engage in costly signaling — the benefits mentioned by Sosis and Alcorta: improved health, survivorship, economic opportunities, sense of community, psychological
well-being, assistance during crises, mating opportunities, and fertility.

So why was I drawing on Mormonism to illustrate these issues? I suspect it has something to do with a series of recent articles, each of which addresses some aspect of Mormonism that was new to me:

After reading these articles, it’s not hard to understand the success of Mormonism or why it might appeal to some.

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Adaptive Mormon Revelations

One of my favorite books on Mormon history, much despised by Mormons, is Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. Brodie writes with considerable panache about things Mormons would like to forget. Despite Smith’s many foibles and  frauds, he comes off surprisingly well: it’s hard not to admire his audacious exuberance and resilience in the face of disasters. I couldn’t help but think that Smith would have been a fine drinking buddy, if only he drank.

Another thing I couldn’t help but think was that some of his ideas, subsequently enshrined as Mormon doctrine, were patently ludicrous. For instance, the megalomaniacal notion that prophets abound and routinely channel God through ongoing revelations. To an outsider, this seems absurd and it’s easy to ridicule. But I just read something in The Economist that makes sense of it:

In the early days of Mormonism, the pioneer evangelists of the young faith saw considerable successes arguing the absurdity of the idea that for millenia God used prophet after prophet to make plain his will to man and then, suddenly, became mute, abandoning his favoured creatures to tease out with our meagre minds the meanings of the old prophecies and their application to present circumstances. That there is another scripture, that prophets roam among us still, should surprise only those ready to accept the outrageous notion that a once demanding and garrulous God has retreated from his children in silence, having nothing more to say.

The idea of an ongoing prophetic relationship to God has not only proven an effective selling point for proselytising Mormons, it has built into Mormonism a potent adaptive flexibility. In the face of potentially ruinous religious persecution from Congress, church president (and putative prophet) Wilford Woodruff in 1890 disavowed plural marriage in “The Manifesto”, which has been canonised and is believed by mainstream Mormons to reflect divine revelation. In 1978, after decades of pressure from the civil-rights movement, and facing the problem of expanding the church’s membership in countries with large mixed-race populations, church president (and putative prophet) Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation making blacks eligible for the Mormon priesthood.

If you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, the first point is a good one: Why was God so busy revealing himself to prophets only between 1800 BCE (Abraham) and 630 CE (Muhammad)? If God is active in the world and speaks through prophets, an ancient burst of activity followed by doctrinal fixing and stasis is more than a bit puzzling. I’m down with the Mormon idea that (if such a God existed), there should be prophets every generation and ongoing revelations. It not only makes sense but sounds like more fun.

Why only in the past -- Why not now?

The second point is equally good: If you are going to create a religion in an age of skeptical inquiry, mass communication, and majority prejudice, the ability to pivot doctrine on a dime is essential. When things go badly or change is needed, prophets simply issue adaptive revelations. This aspect of Mormonism, which I had previously considered disingenuous and amusing, now seems less absurd.

There is a rationality (living prophets) and pragmatism (convenient revelations) here which I hadn’t previously considered. No wonder Mormonism is giving the hoary Abrahamic religions a run for their money.

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Anti-Mormonism as Bigotry

Following hard on the heels of a prominent Texas pastor’s Rick Perry supporting declaration that Mormonism is a cult, James Fallows over at The Atlantic was compelled to issue his own declaration: “To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry.” Not to be outdone by a liberal, conservatives declared that anti-Mormonism is itself a cult.

Tossing around the word “cult” advances these issues not a whit. It signifies nothing other than one’s opposition to other or outsider beliefs. But what about Fallow’s assertion of bigotry? Casting aspersions of this sort requires substantial justification. If someone wouldn’t vote for Romney because he is Mormon, is that person a bigot?

Merriam-Webster defines a bigot as: “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

Fallows justifies his claim that being against Romney because of his religion is bigotry by asserting, as if it were self evident, that it also would be bigoted “to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity.”

For Fallows’ bigotry conclusion to follow from his premise, race, gender and ethnicity must occupy the same conceptual space as religion. They must be the same or roughly equivalent. They aren’t.

What is called “race” is a social construction; it is not a biological classification. This social construction is built around variation in skin color. People are born with more or less pigmentation in their skin. Being prejudiced against someone because of skin pigmentation is irrational and bigoted. Skin pigmentation says nothing about a person’s thinking.

Likewise, people are born gendered. Being prejudiced against someone because they are male or female is irrational and bigoted. Gender says nothing about a person’s thinking.

Though less clear (because “ethnicity” is often jumbled and socially constructed), people are perceived as being ethnic simply by being born in a particular place. Being prejudiced against someone because of “ethnicity” is irrational and bigoted. Ethnicity says nothing about a person’s thinking.

But what about religion? People aren’t born religious. Religion is a choice (even if that choice is never exercised). Because religion can be chosen, it can be changed. Religion says something about a person’s thinking.

Religion is not like “race” or gender or “ethnicity”: none of these are matters of choice. They can’t be changed in the way that religion can be changed. Another way of saying this is that “race,” gender, and “ethnicity” are (largely) immutable characteristics; religion is a mutable choice.

With these distinctions in mind, we can ask whether it is bigoted to be against Romney (or any other political candidate) because of his or her religion. I suppose if the answer comes from inside religion — you wouldn’t vote for Romney because you have particular religious beliefs and Romney has different beliefs — a case for bigotry can be made. But if the answer comes from outside religion — you wouldn’t vote for Romney because he believes in the fantastic and absurd — it isn’t bigotry.

In 2006, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg laid out the non-bigoted case for refusing to vote for Romney (or any other candidate) because of religion:

Not applying a religious test for public office, means that people of all faiths are allowed to run—not that views about God, creation, and the moral order are inadmissible for political debate. In George W. Bush’s case, the public paid far too little attention to the role of religion in his thinking. Many voters failed to appreciate that while Bush’s religious beliefs may be moderate Methodist ones, he was someone who relied on his faith immoderately, as an alternative to rational understanding of complex issues. Nor is it chauvinistic to say that certain religious views should be deal breakers in and of themselves.

There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu.

Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

By the same token, I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded.

If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man.

Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.

Weisberg and those who think as he does aren’t bigots.

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