(The planet Kobol, as imagined on Battlestar Galactica)
Mormons have some pretty wacky ideas. For example, they believe that some of the native peoples of North America were followers of Jesus Christ hundreds of years before he was actually born. Mormon scripture refers to a planet called Kolob that is, or is near, the physical throne of God -- a belief that was the inspiration for the planet "Kobol" in the sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica (the show's creator was a Mormon). Craziest of all: Mormons refuse to consume alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco.
But is Mormonism wackier than other religions? Is all religious belief equally plausible, or implausible? Or, does plausibility fall on a continuum – a line running from the completely absurd to the thoroughly reasonable?
It would seem that as a rule, most of us -- believers and atheists alike -- instinctively seem to accept that there is a continuum. For example, consider the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who in recent years has made a name for himself as the leader of a new group of aggressive atheists, a group that also includes Sam Harris, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Last month, Dawkins went on a long twitter rant accusing Mitt Romney (who in addition to being the Republican nominee for president was also a Mormon bishop) of being a “massively gullible fool.”
The focus of Dawkins’ attack was Romney’s adherence to the teachings of the Book of Mormon, which is the sacred text of the Latter Day Saints religion. While the book was published in 1830 by Joseph Smith, Mormons believe it contains the writings of prophets who lived in North America between 2200 BC and AD 421.
“Bible & Koran genuinely old, written in the language of their time. Book of Mormon written by 19thC charlatan. Romney too stupid to see it,” Dawkins tweeted. When he was challenged by readers who pointed out that president Barack Obama was also a believing Christian, Dawkins responded: “Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity, is substantially less ridiculous than Mormonism (and Obama, if he is Christian at all, is certainly not fundamentalist),” he explained. “The idea that Jesus visited America is preposterous, and the idea th[at] Adam and Eve did too is even worse (it is at least arguable that Jesus existed).”
Another example: many Canadians will remember when Stockwell Day, an evangelical Christian who believes that the Earth is somewhere between 6000 and 10000 years old, was leader of the Canadian Alliance. During the 2000 federal election, Liberal operator Warren Kinsella mocked Day’s beliefs by brandishing a Barney the purple dinosaur doll on television, claiming "this was the only dinosaur ever to be on Earth with humans."
What makes this interesting is that Kinsella himself is a self-declared practicing Catholic. Yet as
Kinsella's mockery of Day and the glee with which the "Flintstones" theme of his campaign was picked up by the media makes clear, there is a widespread sense that Catholics are less brainlessly
credulous than Young Earth evangelicals.
So the idea would seem to be that the more a religious belief accords with generally accepted scientific views of the world and the universe, the more credible it is. Let’s call this the Kinsella-Dawkins thesis.
According to this thesis, it is one thing to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent deity who, a few thousand years ago, impregnated a middle eastern woman named Mary with His only begotten Son, and then sacrificed that Son to atone for all the sins of Mankind (sins which were invented in the first place by said deity.) It is something else entirely to believe that 600 years before his son Jesus was born, that same deity led a people from Jerusalem to the Americas, where they grew and split into a pair of warring factions.
Or again: It is one thing to believe in the central doctrine of Christianity, namely, the literal resurrection of Jesus. It is something far stupider, though, to believe that the Earth is at most 10 000 years old, and that God put dinosaur bones and other artifacts in the historical record to test our faith (as many young-Earthers maintain.)
This thesis definitely has a lot of plausibility. It would help account for our folk hierarchy of belief, which seems to allow for degrees of respectability between childish fears of the supernatural, at one end, and the wisdom of millennia that we find in the more robust religious traditions, especially the monotheistic ones.
But for a committed atheist, the Dawkins-Kinsella thesis concedes too much. What it gives up in the name of superficial plausibility is the underlying principle at the heart of the atheistic worldview. To properly see why this is the case, it's useful to recall something that Dawkins himself wrote in his best book, the primer on evolutionary biology The Blind Watchmaker. As Dawkins points out, what we are trying to explain through religion is exactly how organized complexity came to exist in the universe. The theistic answer is: God created it.
The problem with this answer is that it presupposes exactly what we are trying to explain. Whatever else God may be, he is organized and complex. If we can simply posit organized complexity, then we haven't really explained anything.
That is why evolutionary theory is so unanswerably powerful. Only evolution by natural selection, or some similarly "blind" process, is capable of explaining how organized complexity came from disorganized chaos. Every explanation that relies on a consciousness, a higher power, or any sort of pre-existing organizing principle is simply assuming the problem away.
But if that's the game we're playing, then what difference is there between Catholicism and Mormonism, or Hinduism and Islam? It's all of a piece: an equally adolescent commitment to wishful thinking and to the supernatural. After all, once you have accepted that there are conscious, invisible and unknowable forces at work in the universe, does it really matter how many of them you buy into? If God can resurrect his son for a long weekend, surely he could also arrange things so that a 10000 year-old planet appears to be billions of years older. If there is an omniscient power in the universe, is it less plausible that he lives on a planet a few thousand light years away than that he resides in an unknowable realm where he hears our prayers and grants salvation according to whim?
Arguing over religous belief is like playing tennis without a net: almost any hit counts as good return. Under these circumstances, it is pointless to debate the question of who is the better player. The only
issue is why anyone finds it useful to play at all.