Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: "Free Inquiry"

Excerpts of "Free Inquiry" (reviewed by Richard Packham), Association of Mormon Letters
*Free Inquiry* is one of the leading journals for readers interested in "secular humanism."  The issue reviewed here features a series of articles under the general heading "America's Peculiar Piety: Why Did Mormonism Grow? Why Does It Endure?" The magazine's front cover is the famous 1842 portrait of Joseph Smith - probably the best contemporary likeness of the church founder - altered to show that he has his fingers crossed.

The articles, although written from a non-Mormon perspective, are generally respectful, rational, and sincerely trying to answer the questions posed by the series

header and introductory article written by Free Inquiry's editor Tom Flynn.

In his introduction Flynn points out, as part of the reason for dealing with Mormonism, the amount of attention that Mormons are getting currently, to the point that some have even called this year "the Mormon moment". But Flynn also points out that today's Mormon church (at least its largest version - the one headquartered in Salt Lake City) bears little resemblance to the church founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. But if we can understand the draw and retaining power of Mormonism, based on a story of divinely furnished gold tablets that occurred in relatively recent times, then perhaps we can better understand the power of more ancient religions that have maintained their viability for centuries, based on events that seem just as far-fetched as the Mormon foundation stories.

The articles on Mormonism in this issue of Free Inquiry are wide-ranging both in subject matter and authorship. The first article is by Brian Dalton, a former Mormon (he refers to himself as a "Formon"), born and raised in the church. His article tells how he transitioned from a faithful young Mormon to atheism, and attributes it to the Mormon emphasis on intelligence and education. The breaking point came when he realized that the church was only giving lip service to the importance of evidence and facts, as he was told "You're thinking too much!" Like many others in that situation, he felt a deep sense of betrayal, only deepened when the church began excommunicating various scholars, feminists and intellectuals. He concludes that all religions are based on areas where humans lack information, and religions step right in to fill the vacuum.

Robert M. Price, professor of theology, titles his article "Joseph Smith: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?", echoing C. S. Lewis' famous trilemma about Jesus. Price tries to explain the phenomenon of Joseph Smith by looking at other similar historical figures who became larger than life, attracted devoted followers, and who kept those followers in spite of their own often flagrant violations of accepted morality and behavior. His comparisons do throw light on how it could have been. He calls upon Kierkegaard's "knight of faith," Mohammed, Nietzsche's "superman," Chögyam Trungpa (a tantric mystic), the scandalous Sufi sheik Abu Said ibn Abi'l-Khayr, and the 17th century "messiah" Sabbatai Sevi. (Most Mormons - like most religionists - are likely completely unfamiliar with any "prophet" or "messiah" but their own.) He concludes that although Joseph Smith may well have begun as a "trickster," he soon was overtaken by the "trickster archetype" (an archetype defined by Carl Jung), and perhaps even convinced himself that he was communicating with God and had discovered the true origin of the American Indians.

Tom Flynn also contributes an interesting biographical portrait of "Obadiah Dogberry," the pseudonym for Abner Cole, who was the publisher of the local newspaper in Palmyra during the time of the appearance of the Book of Mormon. Cole's paper was printed in the same print shop that was doing Smith's manuscript, and Cole had opportunity to see printed sheets of the new bible. He was soon including excerpts in his newspaper, as well as publishing a spoof of Smith's book, the "Book of Pukei." Cole thus became the first published critic of the new scripture and the new religion, the first "anti-Mormon."

Michael Nielsen, a professor of psychology, and Ryan T. Cragun, professor of sociology, co-author "The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism," asking whether there are some Mormons who do not wholeheartedly accept all of the church's teachings, why such Mormons remain, and the price they must pay (socially, emotionally, in self-censorship) to remain. They point to two methods used by the church to influence and hold members: informational and normative. The former uses statements by leaders and scriptural proof-texts; the latter uses peer pressure to further group goals. It is a well-established sociological fact, according to the authors, that groups which make stringent demands upon members tend to be stronger than groups which are more lax. And Mormonism is a demanding religion. Thus one reason for its strength.

The authors point out that many of Mormonism's practices tend to promote group cohesion: the belief in eternal family relationships, the requirement - if one wishes to participate fully - to express firm belief in the church's doctrines and faith in the current church president as a true prophet of God. Those who cannot "go all the way" in conforming are therefore excluded from full participation, even to the point of being excluded from a son's or daughter's wedding in the temple. And Mormons tend to identify themselves primarily as "Mormon" - that is, their personal identity is defined by the church.

For Mormons, the ultimate "proof" of church claims is the "burning in the bosom," a feeling of joy and exultation that Mormons identify as a message from the Holy Spirit, usually after extensive prayer and fasting, confirming them in their belief. Nielsen and Cragun point out that this phenomenon is called "elevation" by psychologists, and is not a valid evidence for factual claims. But for Mormons, it's all that's needed.

Those Mormons who cannot be fully committed, for whatever reason, often pay a severe price, which may be excommunication, break-up of a marriage and family, loss of friends, and, in some cases, loss of business or employment. Even so, the percentage of fully-involved members has probably been decreasing (although the church does not make such statistics public), and the church is searching for ways to hold on to those who are on the edge of leaving.

James Alcock, a professor of psychology, contributes "What Is So Strange about Believing as the Mormons Do?" and comes to the conclusion that Mormon beliefs are no stranger than the beliefs of many other religions. He compares strange beliefs from many religions, and points out that they are strange only to those who prefer their own strange beliefs. We are brought up to accept the weird beliefs of our own society, and even as adults we only give up the most unbelievable things we were taught as children (Santa Claus and his world-wide traveling sleigh, for example). For many people religion serves a necessary purpose, regardless of the content of the beliefs, providing a sense of stability and certainty.

The final article in the series is by C. L. Hanson. She is a former Mormon and author of the novel *Ex Mormon*. Her article, "Building on a Religious Background," describes how, as an atheist now, she can use her experience in Mormonism in a positive way. Rather than attacking Mormonism (or any religion) she sees herself as being able to help others on all sides - religious, Mormon, atheist - understand the viewpoints of others and what motivates them. She describes her extensive blogging community, and how it has helped to ease tensions.

Devout Mormons will be pleased that their beliefs are handled as kindly as in this magazine. But for them the answer to the basic questions posed at the beginning (why did Mormonism grow? why does it endure?) will be simply: "Because it's true!"

Title: Free Inquiry: Celebrating Reason and Humanity
October/November 2011 issue
Author: Various
Publisher: Council For Secular Humanism
Genre: Non-fiction, periodical on contemporary issues
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: N/A
Binding: Magazine
Price: $35 per year, $5.95 for single issue

Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters