Mormons show Joseph Smith’s “Seer Stone”

The Church of Latter-Day Saints – the Mormons – published photos of the “seer stone” that allegedly helped Joseph Smith translate sacred scriptures that now form the basis of that church.

LDS seer stone

“Seer stone” used by Joseph Smith

As a teenager, Joseph Smith made various attempts to develop his religion. A talking salamander didn’t prove a popular explanation for the origin of his writings… an angel showed him gold plates with Ancient Egyptian writing… he used his Seer Stone to help him translate works into English…

However, as summarized in Wikipedia, some of these translations such as The Book of Abraham have failed the test of time: “The Book of Abraham papyri were thought lost in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. However, in 1966 several fragments of the papyri were found in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and in the LDS Church archives. They are now referred to as the Joseph Smith Papyri. Upon examination by professional Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists, these fragments were found to bear no resemblance to Smith’s interpretation, and were identified as common Egyptian funerary texts, dating to about the first century BC. As a result, the Book of Abraham has been the source of significant controversy, with Mormon apologists having presented a number of theories in defense of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.”

Oh well.

To teenage Joseph Smith
An angel showed gold plates
On which he read ‘Jesus Was Here’ –
It got him lots of dates.

Justifying false expectations

Every successful religion evolves its statements of belief into greater complexity and self-contradiction, so that no matter what is under discussion, any position can be advocated, any outcome can be forecast, any alternative outcome can be explained, and any change of position can be justified – all from the same collection of text.

End-of-the-world predictions from Jesus (“This generation shall not pass away until all these things be fulfilled”) to the Millerites to Harold Camping are the best-known examples. But every unheralded event or result has to be justified as God’s Will, part of the Divine Plan, and a further reason to give more money to the Church.

And that’s how religions develop and grow.

Scientologists and Mormons in the news

On the one hand, Scientologist Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes split up. On the other, Mormon Mitt Romney heads for the Republican nomination for President. Money shows up in both stories (and as it does in all organized religions), but there are vast differences.

The Mormons have taken their beehive symbol to heart, work hard, and have a centralized bureaucratic government. They tax their people 10%. Mr Romney is in the news for hiding a lot of his fortune in tax-avoidance jurisdictions overseas (Bermuda, the Caymans, etc). Hm. I wonder if he pays his religious tax the way his church wants…?

The other ones, the Scientologists, were established by Science Fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard a couple of years after he famously said that there was no money in writing SF – the way to make money was to start your own religion. Scientologists suck their adherents dry of their entire wealth, and do it on the basis of the most preposterous “bad SF” cosmology that you can imagine, involving an evil overlord from the Andromeda Galaxy imprisoning his people in volcanoes on Earth and blowing them up with Hydrogen Bombs.

(Somewhat in connection with this, Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley has just published a paper showing that Nigerian email scammers make deliberately ludicrous propositions to their targets, as a way of quickly identifying the most stupid and gullible people.)

But the real reason that Katie Holmes is leaving Tom Cruise may have less to do with money than with the upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter Suri. Suri is now reaching the age when she starts getting “security-checked” by the Scientologists. This is their method of simultaneous indoctrination of the child and spying on her family. It is so unsavory that even that unscrupulous media mogul Rupert Murdoch is outspoken about it.

Rupert Murdoch tweets about Scientology

 

You can read some of his tweets here. And not only about Scientology. He was also asked about Mormons, and gave an answer that – from the ones I’ve met – I have to agree with:  “Mormonism a mystery to me, but Mormons certainly not evil.”

As for how much sense there is either of these religions compared with longer-established ones… or compared with a modern scientific view of the universe… well, that can be either a very long discussion, or a very short one. But many people find it endlessly fascinating.

Mormon Archaeology – good luck with that!

The Mormon story is that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel didn’t simply assimilate into other populations under the enslavements and dispersals of the great empires of ancient times (which is what most historians, Jewish and non-Jewish, believe). Instead, they made their way east to the Americas and created a civilization that Jesus teleported to after he had come back from the dead, before he rose up into the sky.

Jesus teleported over to talk with the Jewish tribes of America (say what?)

This had the advantage of prepping North America to house the United States as God’s Chosen Country, personally blessed by Jesus.

But there is a problem: no archaeological remains from the civilization detailed in the Book of Mormon.

However an interesting website shows how dedicated believers can use the power of the human brain to construct fantasies of contorted logic to meet their predetermined objectives. This page of RestoredIsrael.org appears to outline the following argument:

  1. There is a discrepancy between Scientific timelines and Biblical timelines, regarding prehistorical events.
  2. The Bible is correct, of course.
  3. The Scientific sequence is correct, but the timelines have to be adjusted to fit within the Biblical 7,000 years.
  4. We have virtually no archaeological evidence from 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, and none from the Americas.
  5. That equates to the Biblical period of 2400 BC to 2200 BC.
  6. Therefore we should not be surprised that we can find no evidence of the Ten Lost Tribes’ activities in the Americas from the Biblical period of 2400 to 2200 BC.

Do I understand this correctly? I am open to correction. I may not have grasped all the intricacies, but this looks clear enough: Mormon archaeology is pure fantasy. And that’s logical, as it’s based on a book which is pure fantasy.

What kind of “new religion”? Mormons and Christians

Religions never spring to life fully-formed and without any connection to the religious and cultural ideas around them. (Scientology is the nearest to an exception I can think of, but it claims not to be a religion. It is heavily indebted to 1950s science fiction, anyway.)

Sometimes a “new religion” is like the Lutherans, more of a family squabble about reform than a whole new religion. “The Bible should be translated into the local language so everyone can read it.” “No, it should stay in Latin, because we’re Romans, remember?” And so on.

The angel "Moroni" giving Joseph Smith the "golden plates" in "Reformed Egyptian"

But sometimes you get a kid with a streak of the con artist, writing screeds of bad fantasy in an imitative style…

Joseph Smith’s impoverished farming parents tried to make extra money by treasure-digging, and the teenage Joseph claimed he could use “seer stones” for this. He would put a special stone in a white stovepipe hat, and then see the information he needed in the reflections inside the hat. (At age 20 he was tried in New York state on the charge of “glass-looking,” or pretending to find lost treasure.)

In his teens he claimed to have been visited at night by an angel named Moroni, who revealed the location of a buried book of golden plates as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of silver spectacles with lenses composed of seer stones, which had been hidden in a hill near his home.  Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning but was unsuccessful because the angel prevented him.

A couple of years later he got hold of the golden plates, which the angel told him not to show to anyone, but to translate from the “Reformed Egyptian” and publish. They told the story of the Lost Tribes of Israel coming to North America and having all sorts of pseudo-Biblical events in pseudo-Biblical language, full of anachronisms like elephants, steel and silk; and then of Jesus appearing to these North Americans and essentially preparing for Americans (at least the believing ones) to be God’s Chosen People.

He subsequently translated other pages of Egyptian hieroglyphics (which no one else could in the 1840s) and determined that they were all about sacrifices and God and Abraham and so on. Unfortunately the pages have since resurfaced, and real translation shows them to be about embalming and funerary rites and Osiris. There is a Christian critique of the issue here.

So this “new religion” is not a simple reform like Lutheranism. This is one individual’s fantasy, springboarding off the Bible into whatever sounds good and will win converts. It’s not surprising that regular Christian sects don’t have much use for Mormonism – and that’s even before we get into Joseph Smith’s 34 wives, and the issue of everybody being able to evolve through several Heavens into becoming a God of their own planet, and all that jazz.

The irony is that from the point of view of Judaism, Jesus looks like a kind of argumentative reformist Luther… but St Paul’s Christianity, the Christianity that we have today, looks a hell of a lot more like Joseph Smith’s made-up Mormonism.