South Park, the other night, poked savage fun at Mormonism in general and Joseph Smith Jr. in particular, portraying him as a cynical conman (the narrative was bookended by a Greek chorus intoning Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb). Now, I know little about Mormonism, beyond wishing the buggers would stay home and stop bothering people, so I had a rummage online for info about Smith, and I think cynical conman is a tad too generous – deranged fruitcake being more apt. With, almost certainly, a corrupt form of genius at work there too.
As regular readers will know, I’m an atheist – have been since childhood, and think that all religions are wrong-headed to a greater or lesser degree – and having had a canter through Smith’s biog, and the Book of Mormon, I’m staggered. Smith, throughout, is quite clearly a nutter, and his colleague Martin Harris seemed to come to the conclusion too, as the first 116 pages of Smith’s translation of his probably imaginary “Golden Plates” mysteriously vanished while in Harris’s care.
That merely slowed Smith down a tad, but didn’t stop him eventually turning out the The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi.
Interestingly, Wikipedia covers Smith’s story at length as if it were 24-carat fact, not a single alleged or claimed anywhere – I find that odd.
Here’s something to dwell on though – people who “experience” religious visions or visitations often suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy. Did Smith? Quite possibly, I think, but was he a conman too? Oh, come on, have you read his biog?
I even had a read of parts of the Book, as translated by Smith, and it’s utterly deranged – it makes the bible (which, in part at least, is an historical document, something the BoM can’t lay claim to), look eminently sensible – well, as long as you stay away from Genesis and Leviticus anyway. The scary thing, though, is how many people have been sucked into the whole thing (though Islam has similar unverifiable “one man visited by an angel” origins, and look what happened there).
But really, though, is it so surprising that so many swallowed it whole? After all, look how many people, over the centuries, have accepted the bible as – erm – gospel… The majority of people seem to be hard-wired to believe any old nonsense, as long as it involves a deity at some point (or in the case of Hinduism, a whole wagon-load of deities).
That hard-wiring probably stems from mankind’s earliest days, trying to make sense of a world that was mysterious, frequently hostile and much bigger than they’d ever thought – after all, the history of mankind is studded with deities of varying degrees of savagery, and it’s always fascinated me that in the “old world” they eventually settled on a supreme god called, with a severe failure of imagination, God, while on the other side of the world the Native Americans of the North-eastern US and adjoining parts of Canada around the Great Lakes (though in popular fiction it has been applied to all Native Americans, particularly the plains tribes), called their supreme spirit Gitche Manitou – which, with similar imagination breakdown, means Great Spirit, though it did provide missionaries with a ready-made hook on which to hang their blather – Gitche Manitou and God being effectively synonymous.
But I digress. Mankind’s propensity for latching on to any old mystical or pseudo-mystical bollocks is well established, but a blind man could see that Smith was making this up as he went along – it’s a long stretch from imagining a god in your cave-mouth fire 40 or 50 millennia ago, to believing in mystical golden plates that no-one has ever seen and are almost certainly imaginary (if they ever existed, they weren’t what Smith claimed, that’s for sure), “translated” by a probable fruitcake and accepted wholesale by people who really should have known better.
OK, out in the West in the 19th century, you pretty much had to make your own entertainment, but hell’s bells, fabricating an entire religion on the entirely unverified ramblings of an almost certainly mentally ill and/or deeply cynical man is a bit much, don’t you think?
Mind you, it’s not without precedent, is it vicar? Or rabbi, mullah, priest, or – well, the list goes on… Many religions are based on writings with origins as dubious as The Book of Mormon.