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Should Mormonism Matter?


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#1 cmk

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 10:17 AM

The conventional wisdom among most reasonable people is that Mitt Romney's religion should not be held against him. Some go so far as to say that those who feel otherwise are anti-LDS bigots. This article is the first one I've seen that tries to make a rational case that it does matter and that it should matter.

Some of the points I agree with, some I don't:

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According to the Book of Mormon, the so-called lost tribes of Israel emigrated to America in Old Testament times and founded a great civilization here – although no one knows exactly where. Jesus Christ later made a post-resurrection appearance in America to convert these displaced Israelites. Notwithstanding that visit from the Prince of Peace, the tribes warred with each other until only a remnant was left. Today’s Native Americans are purportedly descended from that remnant.

It’s a thumping good yarn, but it isn’t true. There is no reputable DNA evidence to support it, nor linguistic evidence nor archeological evidence – not so much as a pottery shard or a battered sword hilt. On the other hand, there is an impressive case for the proposition that Joseph Smith was a con man who plagiarized the Book of Mormon from an unpublished historical romance called Manuscript Found. For the details, see Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? by Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis and Arthur Vanick (Concordia Publishing House 2005).
Of course, this can also be said about every other religion as well. It's only because the LDS's mythology is so much more recent that it becomes easier to cast doubt on it because of a lack of evidence. To his credit, the author does does point this out:

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But does it matter if the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a myth? Why begrudge these nice, wholesome people their harmless fairy tale?

The real issue in his mind:

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Because the Mormon church as an institution is anything but harmless. It’s the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, and one of the wealthiest. It is one of the largest landowners in the nation; it markets its own line of food and consumer products and it owns a $16 billion insurance company and a chain of radio stations. It also holds significant corporate investments. Because the church is governed by a self-perpetuating oligarchy, it does not have to make full disclosure of its assets, but its wealth has been estimated at between $25 billion and $30 billion. The Mormon church is, in short, rich, powerful and secretive to a fault.
I'm not convinced that this, in and of itself, is valid reason for concern. Last time I checked, it was far from the only church that could be validly described as "rich, powerful and secretive to a fault". And IMO, the Roman Catholic Church has a lot more "faults" that actively harm society than the LDS.

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The church has not scrupled to turn its economic leverage into political leverage. Mormon support provided the crucial margin of victory in California’s hotly-contested Proposition 8, a 2008 state referendum to ban gay marriage. Church leaders called on members to devote their “means and time” to pass Prop 8, and Mormons responded by pouring millions into the campaign. The Mormon church was later fined for failing to report all the nonmonetary contributions it made in support of Prop 8.
THIS, however, I DO have a big problem with. I had always thought the LDS were a bit kooky but basically decent folks. As soon as they started pumping millions into anti-equality political campaigns, they lost my respect. It is one reason why I personally went from admiring the "works" of the LDS to being an opponent of the church.

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Mormonism has some dark chapters in its history. These include racism (blacks were denied the Mormon priesthood until 1978), polygamy, the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 and efforts to “cure” homosexuals through electroshock treatments and other now-discredited aversion therapy techniques.
So do all churches. This isn't compelling.

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Nor is the dark side of Mormonism entirely past. For example, there are theologians who would argue that some Mormon beliefs are so far outside the Christian mainstream that the Mormon church is not a Christian denomination at all. That doesn’t bother the Mormons, because they insist that theirs is the only “true” church. And yet in their proselytizing, they consistently stress those aspects of their religion that accord with mainstream Christianity, while concealing or minimizing those aspects that might shock or offend orthodox believers.
This is a valid argument for mainstream Christians. Not relevant to me personally, but that's because I find all Christianity to be different flavors of "make believe", but for non-Mormon Christians, this is an issue.

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The secrecy and evasiveness that persist in the Mormon church even today do not inspire confidence. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe for one moment that if a Mormon like Mitt Romney were elected president he would be a puppet controlled by the Mormon hierarchy. But even if he kept his faith completely private, the election of a Mormon president would, ipso facto, swathe Mormonism in a respectability that it has long coveted. Such respectability would aid the church in making converts, particularly among the less-educated people of the developing world, where Mormonism is winning most of its new adherents these days. Thus, to vote for a Mormon for president would be, however unwittingly or indirectly, to assist in the propagation of a religion which, whatever good works it may be doing along the way, is still disturbingly like a cult.
Again, a valid argument, except for the last word. The definition of what is and isn't a "cult" is entirely arbitrary. I don't see how Mormonism is really all that much more of a cult than Roman Catholicism or the more strident flavors of evangelical Christianity.
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#2 Rabiner

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 10:32 AM

One of those out of the box practices is baptizing holocaust victims as Mormons which is extremely insensitive to Jews and other faiths.
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#3 dsp

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 10:37 AM

My position is this: People should either leave it alone, or dig deep into Trinity United's flavor of Christianity too.

#4 cmk

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 10:41 AM

dsp said:

My position is this: People should either leave it alone, or dig deep into Trinity United's flavor of Christianity too.

But people DID "dig deep" into that issue. Some people have been at it for five years and show no signs of relenting.
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#5 ottovbvs

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 10:51 AM

It doesn't matter to me since all religions are a form of superstition but it probably matters to quite a lot of people who perceive Mormonism as a rather strange cult only a couple of notches up from Scientology or Jehovah's Witnesses. Would you be comfortable with a Scientologist as president is perhaps another way of framing the question.

#6 dsp

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 11:08 AM

cmk said:

But people DID "dig deep" into that issue. Some people have been at it for five years and show no signs of relenting.

I'm not so sure. They dug deep into Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright, and the emphasis during the digging was on a handful of controversial political statements that Wright made (some of which were simply statements of blunt truth that made many people uncomfortable -- "we were doing the same thing Al Qaeda was doing, and it came back into our own backyard; America's chickens are coming home to roost!" -- or something like that). There has been no serious examination of Trinty's theological positions, as opposed to the personal political views of its former head pastor.

#7 Terryf98

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 11:23 AM

dsp said:

cmk said:

But people DID "dig deep" into that issue. Some people have been at it for five years and show no signs of relenting.

I'm not so sure. They dug deep into Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright, and the emphasis during the digging was on a handful of controversial political statements that Wright made (some of which were simply statements of blunt truth that made many people uncomfortable -- "we were doing the same thing Al Qaeda was doing, and it came back into our own backyard; America's chickens are coming home to roost!" -- or something like that). There has been no serious examination of Trinty's theological positions, as opposed to the personal political views of its former head pastor.


Maybe that's because Trinity is a pretty standard black baptist type church. They have an emphasis on their African heritage. There is nothing outside the normal baptist tradition in their services or teachings as far as I can see from publicly available records.

#8 Sinan

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 11:37 AM

Mormons are nice people that believe in wacky things. Same can be said of all religions as far as I am concerned. The issue for most folks is of scale. Are the tenets of Mormonism so absurd that they automatically disqualify believers? Well, I know a lot more folks who think a young lady got pregnant without sex, a guy rose up from the dead and a dude got swallowed by a whale..
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#9 hisgirlfriday

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 11:46 AM

Theology matters.

My personal experiences with Mormons have not been bad. Once I was moving into an apartment shortly after graduating from college and some young male Mormon door-knockers just happened to be going door-to-door of my apartment complex at the same time and they wound up carrying my mattresses up a flight of stairs saving me and my father the trouble. I also have some second cousins who, while I only really hear of them at Christmas card time, are devout Mormons and they seem to lead happy, productive lives.

That said, theology is something I take into account when deciding who I would pick as a president. I would never under any circumstances ever choose a Scientologist or Moonie as an elected official, no matter partisan affiliation or political views or other candidate qualifications. What I know of Mormon theology sounds almost as nuts to me and would be a factor in the vote I would cast (Jesus and Satan are brothers... people with black skin were made that way to show they were not followers of Jesus... when we die we each get our own planets... baptism of the dead), the secrecy and Masonic rituals seem a bit creepy, at least how they are portrayed on YouTube, and I find the Mormon church generally offensive to me in its history of bigotry toward minorities/gays and mistreatment of women. The concentration of wealth in the church and influence in the business world is also somewhat unsettlingly outsized for the proportion of the population that subscribes to the Mormon faith. That Romney was a Bishop/Stake President and no one actually knows what he did during that time is kind of unsettling.

However, I also must recognize that simply sharing my affiliation with the United Methodist church is no guarantee of good leadership, as evident by the presidency of George W. Bush.

But even with his failure of a presidency I do worry that there is something lost by mainline non-Southern Baptist Protestantism falling completely away from positions of power and at least having a seat at the table in American politics any more. The United States Supreme Court is entirely Roman Catholic and Jewish. The Senate is controlled by a Mormon and the House controlled by a Roman Catholic.

As a Protestant it is simply hard for me to comprehend pledging any religious fealty to any earthly person in Salt Lake or Rome, and as much as I may respect the good works toward charity and acts of social justice of individual Mormons and Catholics, I can't help but find the leadership of those churches a bit unsavory and suspicious. It is actually that leadership that leads me to pass judgment upon a faith's adherents more than whether they agree with John Wesley's ideas about prevenient grace or the like, to be honest.

Also, as a side note, I would guess the reason no one delved that deeply into Trinity's theological positions is because the United Church of Christ is actually not as incendiary or controversial as the statements by Rev. Wright himself.

#10 Raskolnik

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 11:48 AM

cmk said:

Of course, this can also be said about every other religion as well. It's only because the LDS's mythology is so much more recent that it becomes easier to cast doubt on it because of a lack of evidence. To his credit, the author does does point this out:

Wait a second. I realize that it is easy to see all religious claims as fantastic, and that is fair to an extent. However there are categorical differences in Mormonism. The Israelites may or may not have wandered the desert for exactly 40 years, but a) no serious Biblical scholar takes nor has ever taken the Torah as literal history; b) there is no reason to doubt the broad outline of the history in the Hebrew Bible, e.g. that there was an Israelite kingdom founded around 1200 BCE and invaded around 500 BCE; c) in those rare instances where the archaeological record has cast doubt on the Biblical record neither the Jews nor mainstream Christians (Evangelicals/Pentacostals are not "mainstream" by my definition) have any problem siding with the archaeological over the Scriptural record. After all, Scripture is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, and one of the oldest Rabinnical exegetical traditions maintains that each word of the Hebrew Bible has at least 10 different meanings.

The point is, the mythological parts of Jewish and Christian scriptures (e.g. Genesis) are not meant to be taken literally, and in those parts where the Scriptures describe something resembling history (e.g. Kings, Samuel), the history they describe is broadly corroborated by the actual historical record: if there was a Jewish kingdom (and we know for a fact that there was, since there still exist the ruins of a Jewish kingdom) then there was a Jewish king, whether his name was David or not.

By contrast, there is nothing "mythological" about the pseudo-history put forward in the Book of Mormon. LDS has spent vast, undisclosed sums of money attempting to verify their pseudo-history. Mormons do not treat this book as mythology, they treat it as history, and this pseudo-history is full of things that are outright disproven by the historical record (contrast this to the inscriptions of Pharoah Rameses II, which record massive statuary built "by Semitic laborers"). There was no Mesoamerican Israelite civilization, the Native Americans are completely unrelated to the Israelites, and so on. I can understand the idea of not wanting to buy any religion because of not wanting to believe in any fairy tales, but I hope you can understand that this is a difference of kind and not merely of degree.

The fact of the matter is that Joseph Smith fabricated the story of the "Lamanites" (look it up) out of whole cloth, and his organization has been defending it as Gospel truth ever since. That is fundamentally different from the semi-historical legends or mythologized history of a bronze-age tribal society that we see in the Hebrew Bible, which does seem to record some actual history in much the same way that the Iliad does seem to record some actual ("mythologized") history. In fact the events described in the Iliad appear to have happened around the same time as much of the Hebrew Bible, and they were likely written down about the same time (ca. 900 BCE, although parts of the Hebrew Bible are much younger than that).

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I don't see how Mormonism is really all that much more of a cult than Roman Catholicism or the more strident flavors of evangelical Christianity.

Again, I understand why someone would feel this way, particularly a non-believer. It is difficult to express the problem or the difference to someone who does not accept transcendence or enlightenment. At the end of the day I think that the most powerful argument is the argument to be made from experience -- that the genuine experience of enlightenment, transcendence, whatever, is the ultimate arbiter -- which is unfortunately the least persuasive argument to use in a polemical context, since it assumes that you are already within a given tradition. A neutral, uncommitted observer might well look at the hysteria surrounding Medjugorje or the Shroud of Turin, to say nothing of the sex-abuse scandal, and come away with the idea that perhaps Catholics are not any less cultish than Mormons.

I will have to think more on this issue, in order to express the difference in some way that is more persuasive than "There is the genuine, Apostolic Church (NB while I include the Roman Catholic Church within the one holy catholic and Apostolic Church I do not believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the only such Church), and then there are false churches/cults; LDS is the latter."

Maybe it would make more sense if I put it this way. You see a lot of people leaving the Catholic Church these days, most of them because it doesn't do anything for them, some because of the sex-abuse scandal or other reasons. But even in the "bad old days" before Vatican II, I don't think there was a movement of Catholics with an axe to grind against the Church. In my experience, most Catholics who aren't Catholic any more don't have a specific axe to grind against the Church; they either fell away slowly, like anniemargaret, or they converted to some other religion that offered them more gratification in some sense (or they converted in order to marry a spouse of a different religion). But I have never heard of an "ex-Catholic support group" or anyone needing therapy from the process of leaving the Roman Catholic Church. And in fact most of the sexual abuse victims that I know/have heard of are still Catholics; their problem is (usually) with the trauma of the abuse, not with the Church itself. Now, you can call this some variation of Stockholm Syndrome, and you may have the general outlines of a point, however the fact remains that people generally tend to find it relatively painless to go from being a Catholic to no longer being a Catholic.

Contrast that to the searing testimonies of former Mormons. The Internet is awash in support for people who are desperately trying to leave LDS, but can't bring themselves to do it for either emotional or financial reasons. A search on Google for "ex-Catholic" yields: a forum ("EX-CATHOLIC and saved by grace") with 0 registered users; an "experience group" called "I Am An Angry Ex Catholic" that admits to having 23 members; an Evangelical resource page (http://www.excatholic.org); and a Yahoo! group with hardly any activity. I leave it in the hands of you, dear reader, to look into the testimonies of people who left LDS. But I will say this much, it is a very different animal from leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Personally I suggest at least taking a glance at The Mormon Curtain, as well as exmormon.org/stories. #125 at the latter site:

http://www.exmormon.org/whylft125.htm

Goes into the issue of the Native American DNA and the pseudo-history of the Book of Mormon and is a heartbreaking read. But if there is only one link that the curious reader chooses to follow, I respectfully request it to be the following one:

http://en.wikipedia....mbers_Committee

From the WikiPedia page:

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In response to this public discourse, the LDS Church spokesman Don LeFevre acknowledged the existence of the committee.[5] LeFevre said that the committee "receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that 'conceivably could do harm to the church'", then the committee will "pass the information along to the person's ecclesiastical leader."

Ex-Mormons will make no bones about the fact that the SCMC (as it is known) operates as a kind of Mormon secret police, monitoring former members and even non-members who have a public record of coming out against LDS.

#11 Raskolnik

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 11:59 AM

Sinan said:

Mormons are nice people that believe in wacky things. Same can be said of all religions as far as I am concerned. The issue for most folks is of scale. Are the tenets of Mormonism so absurd that they automatically disqualify believers? Well, I know a lot more folks who think a young lady got pregnant without sex, a guy rose up from the dead and a dude got swallowed by a whale..

OK sure, but

a) Virgin birth is almost universally found in world religions. Most Tibetans believe, like most Buddhists throughout history have believed, that the night the Buddha was conceived his mother dreamed of a white elephant entering her from the side, and the day the Buddha was born he exited his mother from the side of her arm, painlessly, and then a lotus blossom spontaneously manifested. One of the main sources for the Mesopotamian cult of the god-man was Mithra, whose mother was also a virgin (so the story goes). I get that this is all gobbledegook to the non-believer, but you have to look at this psycho-sexually: "virgin birth" as shorthand about purity of origin, and so on. Again, that doesn't mean that it didn't actually happen, as a Baptised and Confirmed Christian I have staked my eternal life on the proposition that the virgin birth was not merely psycho-sexual imagery. But that doesn't mean that I can't recognize the trope as common across many world cultures, any more than it prevents me from accepting, for example, that perhaps the Buddha did make lotus blossoms spontaneously appear with each of his first seven steps--even if I can recognize the numerological significance of the number 7.

b) Substitute "resurrection" for "virgin birth," above.

c) There are all sorts of ways to read the story of Jonah. Most of my personal spiritual advisors, who generally speaking have also been the most learned Scriptural authorities I have known, read the story as a divine comedy (so to speak). In fact the Jonah story would most likely have been considered to fall in something like what we would today think of as humor or comedy. Also, generally speaking it is a very bad idea to take anything in the Hebrew Bible too literally.

#12 Practical Girl

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:12 PM

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Would you be comfortable with a Scientologist as president is perhaps another way of framing the question.

And perhaps the best way to frame it. If I'm honest with myself, I have to say that would give me pause since I question the values of a person who would adopt science fiction as a "faith". If I dig further, however, I have to admit that I view nearly all religions and their practices as fiction designed to control large goups.

So my most intellectually honest answer to the question as you frame it has to be "yes", that I view a politician's religion only in terms of how it affects his policies. In that respect, I fear a fundamentalist Christian with a clear platform whose policies are built on a foundation of What Would Jesus Do (and form laws accordingly) far more than I would fear this particular Mormon who has a governmental record absent of anything that would indicate his intent to use the Angel of Moroni as the basis for his policies.

Deeper? I don't fear Romney's Mormonism as much as how he, as president looking for reelection, might pander the religious right to help them forget his chosen faith.
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#13 Tom

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:14 PM

Raskolnik said:

Also, generally speaking it is a very bad idea to take anything in religious texts too literally.

Fixed.

#14 Practical Girl

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:18 PM

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My personal experiences with Mormons have not been bad.

Mine have been quite positive, stretching back to a childhood friend whose family was like a second to me. I would even attend church with them sometimes, but NONE of it (not even my strictly Catholic upbringing in a community 90% Catholic) ever really moved me. Because of this, I've always welcomed the door knockers into my home for a hot or cold drink and a respite from the weather. The caveat, of course...Not going to convince me, but come on in and cool off/warm up. These are somebody's sons and my mom instincts kick in. My sister, however, had a different experience as a child and a very, very devout Catholic. Living in Salt Lake as a young woman, she used to greet the missionaries with a "I worship Satan. Let's compare." to make them go away.
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#15 Sinan

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:26 PM

Raskolnik said:

Sinan said:

Mormons are nice people that believe in wacky things. Same can be said of all religions as far as I am concerned. The issue for most folks is of scale. Are the tenets of Mormonism so absurd that they automatically disqualify believers? Well, I know a lot more folks who think a young lady got pregnant without sex, a guy rose up from the dead and a dude got swallowed by a whale..

OK sure, but

a) Virgin birth is almost universally found in world religions. Most Tibetans believe, like most Buddhists throughout history have believed, that the night the Buddha was conceived his mother dreamed of a white elephant entering her from the side, and the day the Buddha was born he exited his mother from the side of her arm, painlessly, and then a lotus blossom spontaneously manifested. One of the main sources for the Mesopotamian cult of the god-man was Mithra, whose mother was also a virgin (so the story goes). I get that this is all gobbledegook to the non-believer, but you have to look at this psycho-sexually: "virgin birth" as shorthand about purity of origin, and so on. Again, that doesn't mean that it didn't actually happen, as a Baptised and Confirmed Christian I have staked my eternal life on the proposition that the virgin birth was not merely psycho-sexual imagery. But that doesn't mean that I can't recognize the trope as common across many world cultures, any more than it prevents me from accepting, for example, that perhaps the Buddha did make lotus blossoms spontaneously appear with each of his first seven steps--even if I can recognize the numerological significance of the number 7.

b) Substitute "resurrection" for "virgin birth," above.

c) There are all sorts of ways to read the story of Jonah. Most of my personal spiritual advisors, who generally speaking have also been the most learned Scriptural authorities I have known, read the story as a divine comedy (so to speak). In fact the Jonah story would most likely have been considered to fall in something like what we would today think of as humor or comedy. Also, generally speaking it is a very bad idea to take anything in the Hebrew Bible too literally.

The biggest reason Christians do not think Mormonism is valid is that they believe that a guy could have a conversation with God or some Angel and create a new religion. What you say? Isn't that exactly what all the Prophets and players in the Bible said too? Exactly. Except that it is far easier to prove as you said that Joseph Smith was a con man than it is to prove that Jesus was too or any of the other prophets for that matter. One man's con job is another man's gospel.
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#16 Raskolnik

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:43 PM

I'm pretty sure you didn't just call Jesus a con man but I'm confused as to what you did actually say.

#17 Morrisminor

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:48 PM

Sort of reminds me of FOX's house "Atheist" Cupps, who in the same breath complained about how the media attacks Christians but doesn't attack TUCC enough.

#18 Sinan

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:50 PM

Actually I did say jesus was a con man at least as far as the church has created over the years. If Jesus did say that he was God or the son of God then that qualifies him as a con man in my book. If as I suspect is true that he never did say that and merely said he was the Son of Man, then perhaps I can let him slide. From my view, all that we know of Jesus was created by men that never met him or lived in his era given that the first four books were written by men several decades after his death and were not first person accounts. I view all religions as a form of con job, that is my perspective on it. I realize it will sound harsh to believers but the reaction they have to this idea should not prevent me from stating it. Believers do not seem compelled to tailor their remarks to my sensititivies so why should I unilaterally respect them when there is no reciprocation? Say I told a believer that my entire being believed that their belief in a faith doomed them to a life of constant pain, sorrow, despair and unfathomable misery. Why is that any more outrageous than the concept of hell, heaven and the rules in the 10 commandments?
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#19 Raskolnik

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 12:55 PM

I have taken great pains to distinguish between the fantastical claims of religion in general as opposed to the specifically fraudulent claims of Mormonism, if you can't understand the difference between psycho-sexual imagery/"mythologized" history and demonstrably fallacious empirical claims (such as that there was a Mesoamerican Israelite civilization that lasted for a thousand years, and that the Native Americans are actually Israelites)... perhaps there is nothing further to discuss.

#20 Sinan

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Posted 16 January 2012 - 01:01 PM

I understand that and agree completely with your critique of Mormonism. I just say that this style of critique is equally valid to the OT and NT in many respects. Your comments about the historical accuracy of the OT have merit but the OT is far more than a history of peoples. It is an announcement that a new God is all powerful and in control using both love, fear, death and vengeance as tools of his trade. So in my book the claims of God's power and existence in the OT is just as fantastic as Joseph Smith's accounts of the angel Moroni. I see no difference in them but for the points you laid out.
"anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."
Kenneth Boulding

"A person who reads books lives a thousand lives. A person who never reads lives only one"
George Martin

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Zappa

"and let not mankind bogart love"

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