The Likelihood of Religion Being True

Michael Meyerson

Mormonism is a sect of Christianity that has expanded to include even more incredible stories than those found in standard Christianity. In addition to believing in the absurdities of the Old and New Testaments, Mormons need to believe in the absurdities of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price as well as the sayings of a never-ending stream of prophets. Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris makes the point that however unlikely it is that Christianity is true, it is nevertheless more likely to be true than Mormonism, because there are fewer unlikely phenomena posited by mainstream Christianity than by Mormonism. I’m sure non-Mormon Christians would agree. Certainly the Mormon tradition offers a great wealth of absurdities.

Consider some examples: Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, their first prophet, was directed by an angel, Moroni, to find buried gold plates that were inscribed in “reformed Egyptian” with the religious history of an ancient people. Smith translated these writings into English using “seers” consisting of two stones—Urim and Thummim. Smith then returned the gold plates to Moroni, making them unavailable for others to inspect. The “translation” was published as the Book of Mormon in 1830.

The book describes how in ca. 2400 bc God instructed the Jaredites, a tribe living in Mesopotamia, to build boats according to his design. The boats were to be small and light, leakproof and air-tight, because they were to be buried time and again by mountainous waves on a journey across the ocean. They were to take flocks and herds with enough food supplies for a year. Eight such boats were built, each with a tight-fitting door. Once construction was complete, the brother of Jared (the Book of Mormon does not disclose his name) explained to God that the design had not allowed for air and light and that without them they would be unable to breathe or see in the vessels. God advised them to make a hole in the top and another hole in the bottom of each boat so that when they needed air in the rolling vessels they could open whichever hatch happened to be on top. God also provided a solution for the lack of light by touching several stones that then shone in the darkness.

Devout Mormons believe this story and are unconcerned about its improbabilities. How could a few primitive men using basic tools build wooden submarines capable of transporting people and animals and a huge stock of food and water for an ocean trip of 344 days? How would they keep the food from spoiling, and how would they deal with the human and animal waste? Water in troughs for the animals would be flung around the vessels.

The Book of Mormon tells us that in around 600 bc the Jaredites were joined by three tribes of Israelites who had also crossed the ocean to the Americas; these four tribes from the Near East were the original settlers of the American continent. Mormons hold to this belief in defiance of historical, archaeological, and scientific evidence that concludes that the original settlers of the Americas were not Semitic and from the Near East but Mongoloid people, who crossed the Bering bridge during the most recent Ice Age to become the ancestors of today’s Indigenous American population.

The Book of Mormon is mainly concerned with the Nephite and Lamanite tribes. Mormons believe that soon after the death and ascension of Jesus, he appeared in the Americas to visit the Nephites and Lamanites. Impressed by his visit, the tribes became Christian, but in 300–400 ad the Lamanites turned away from Christianity. God responded by punishing the Lamanites. He caused their skins to turn black so that they would become “loathsome” and cursed the offspring of unions between the newly black Americans and white Americans (2 Nephi 5:21–23). The tribes engaged in centuries of warfare, which finally ended after a great battle in upstate New York on the hill of Cumorah in 385 AD. The Nephites were vanquished and disappeared from “history.” According to the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites became the American Indians.

Like other Christians, Mormons believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. In addition, they believe that God the Father used to live on Earth as a human and is married. God also has a father who also has a father and so on. There are several other gods in whom Mormons also believe. In fact, Smith taught that in the beginning it was a council of gods that planned the creation of the world and its inhabitants.

Brigham Young, the prophet who succeeded Joseph Smith, taught that the moon and sun are inhabited.

Mormons take part in an endowment ceremony at which they are given special underwear embroidered with Masonic symbols (Smith was a Freemason). The garments provide symbolic protection from temptation and evil. Some also believe that the underwear has supernatural powers providing protection from physical dangers. At the same ceremony, participants are taught gestures and passwords that, following death, enable them to pass angels guarding the way to heaven.

But we needn’t dissect ridiculous Mormon doctrines in detail; there’s a more fundamental way to critique them. We need only extrapolate backward from Mormonism to consider Christianity and Judaism.

Christianity evolved from Judaism. Christianity has added to the Judaic Old Testament a further book of incredible stories—the New Testament. In addition to supernatural Old Testament phenomena such as the parting of the sea, a widow’s son being raised from the dead, or a river turned to blood, Christians must also believe in several New Testament impossibilities such as a man walking on water, turning water into wine, and a virgin birth.

Consider only the creation story found in the first book of the Old Testament—Genesis. Here we read that the world was created by God in six days (approximately six thousand years ago). God made the first person, Adam, and from one of his ribs he made Eve. God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat fruit from a certain tree. A talking snake tempted Eve to eat from the tree. She did this and gave some fruit to Adam to eat. When God found out that they had eaten the forbidden fruit, he cursed the snake, the Earth, and Eve and banished the couple from the Garden of Eden. This infantile and absurd explanation of how the world and life came about has no further significance for Judaism.

The same cannot be said for Christianity. Christianity has grafted onto this Old Testament creation story a new sin, a new punishment, a new place of torture, and new supernatural entities. The new sin is that because of Adam’s misdemeanor in having eaten the forbidden fruit, all subsequent humans are sinners from birth (original sin). The new punishment for the new sin is that all humans are destined to spend eternity in a new place of torture, a fiery furnace called “Hell.” The new punishment is immeasurably worse than any punishments described in the Old Testament, which mercifully ended with the death of the transgressor(s).

According to Christianity, this state of affairs remained unchanged for about four thousand years until God, in an attempt to rectify this now very complicated situation, further compounded the matter. God sent a subdivision of himself, a ghost, to visit Earth and impregnate a betrothed Palestinian virgin, Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is the son of God and is also God—and is therefore his own father. God/Jesus arranged to have Jesus sacrificed so that by his death Jesus could atone on behalf of mankind for the sin that none of us committed. Jesus’s sacrifice meant that we could all be saved eternal punishment. There is, however, a catch—only those who accept Jesus and believe this story are excused their original sin and saved from eternity in Hell. The introduction of multiple supernatural entities into Christianity not only adds more unlikely phenomena to the belief system but further complicates matters because Christianity insists on holding to the Judaic belief in only one god. Christianity addresses this issue by consolidating God and the new supernatural entities, Jesus and the ghost, into a fourth supernatural entity called the Trinity. Judaism is vanishingly unlikely to be true, but, to extend Harris’s argument, whatever probability you assign to Judaism being true, the increased number of unlikely supernatural phenomena in Christianity means that you have to assign a lesser probability to Christianity being true. Jews would agree.

Harris is correct. The more unlikely phenomena within a belief system, the less likely it is that the belief system can be true. Go back further in time and it should be clear that the sun being divine is more likely to be true than any subsequent religion’s beliefs. It makes sense that those in need of a religion should revert to sun worship. The world would also be a much better place if they did so.

Michael Meyerson

Michael Meyerson is a radiologist, skeptic, tennis hacker, and writer.

Mormonism is a sect of Christianity that has expanded to include even more incredible stories than those found in standard Christianity. In addition to believing in the absurdities of the Old and New Testaments, Mormons need to believe in the absurdities of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great …

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