Friday, June 22, 2012

Faith, Reason, and Mormons

In National Review Online, Daniel Prager writes, 
Commentators on both the right and left, and both secular and religious, note with disdain that Mormons (Latter-day Saints, as Mormons refer to themselves) have irrational practices and beliefs. The former, we are told, include the wearing of sacred undergarments and posthumous baptism, and the latter include the claims by the Mormon prophet to have found and deciphered engraved golden plates in New York State.
I read and hear these dismissals of Mormonism with some amusement — because everyone who makes these charges holds beliefs or practices (or both) that outsiders consider equally irrational.

There doesn’t exist a religion without such beliefs. I say this as a believing and practicing (non-Orthodox) Jew, so I’ll begin with my own religion.

I believe the Torah is a divine book. I believe that God took the Jews out of Egypt and that He gave the Ten Commandments Moses on Mount Sinai. To atheists and secularists, these are not necessarily rational beliefs. And they are certainly not scientifically provable. As for practices that many would consider irrational, traditional Judaism has quite a few. Just to cite one: Orthodox Jews believe that they are not permitted to drink wine or grape juice poured by a non-Jew.

Concerning Mormon undergarments, it is worth noting that Jews have worn a “sacred undergarment” for thousands of years. Those who belittle Mormon undergarments might as well belittle the “fringes” (tzitzit) that observant Jewish men wear inside or outside their clothing. Yet, neither the Jewish nor the Mormon practice is in any way irrational. Wearing a garment to remind oneself to always act in a morally elevated manner hardly constitutes unthinking behavior.

As for Christianity, non-Christians cannot be expected to find a basis in reason for the belief that God has a son who was born of a virgin. (If they do find this belief rational, they are probably Christian.) Nor do outsiders consider rational the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that the wafer and wine consumed during Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ.
As for Muslims, the belief that an angel dictated the Koran to an illiterate man (Islam holds that Muhammad was illiterate) is surely not rational to a non-Muslim. Nor are myriad post-Koranic beliefs, such as the requirement that women wear a veil.
Prager is right that condemnations of Mormonism for such trivial things as underwear is silly.   However, he is incorrect in his assertion that the teachings of a particular religion must seem irrational to those not of that faith.  The Islamic teaching that an angel dictated a holy book through an illiterate man is not opposed to reason.  It is opposed to the normal order of things, which is why it is called a miracle, but it is in and of itself no more irrational than the belief that Jesus cured blindness.  The question of whether or not Mormonism or Islam are based on irrational premises is a topic for another day, but those who believe in those premises are not irrational to hold to the teachings that arise from them.

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