All About Mormons

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have a curious relationship towards religion. They are not religious and enjoy mocking religion in their show, yet they deny being atheists and have been just as quick to make fun of the pretensions of Atheism and the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and they have admitted to having  a certain curiosity and respect for religious belief. In fact, a closer look at the South Park episodes which ridicule religion shows that they are really opposed to hypocrisy or bad actions justified by religious belief.

Parker and Stone have a particular liking for Mormonism. Growing up in Colorado, right next to the Mormon promised land of Utah, they knew many Mormons and have expressed an appreciation for their politeness and niceness, even while regarding the story of Joseph Smith and Mormon beliefs as ridiculous. Their feelings about Mormonism and religion in general are expressed in the seventh season episode, “All About Mormons“.

In this episode, a Mormon family, the Harrisons, moves to South Park and one of the boys, named Gary, is in the same class as the series regulars.  The Harrisons are nice and polite and eager to befriend everyone in South Park, particularly the Marshes and while they do not want to force their religious beliefs on anyone, they are more than willing to tell their neighbors the history and beliefs of the Mormon religion and it’s prophet Joseph Smith.

The Harrisons
The Harrisons

This history is told through a series of musical flashbacks.

Stan is not impressed with their account of Joseph Smith and points out the inconsistencies and logical fallacies that suggest that Joseph Smith was simply making up his stories about the golden plates and the Angel Moroni.

"All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!"
“All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”

The next day Gary confronts Stan at the bus stop and explains why he is a Mormon even if the stories are a little silly.

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

The sentiment expressed by Gary, and presumably shared by Parker and Stone is one that I would hope if widely adopted, might promote greater tolerance and civility between persons of different faiths, and with those with no faith. Still, it doesn’t satisfy me because it ignores the question that is most important to me. It is good if the religion you follow makes you a better person, but the question I think more important is, is the religion true? Can the assertions and claims made by this particular religion be shown to be true or false?

I do not mean the metaphysical claims made by nearly all religions concerning deities or the afterlife or anything of that sort. These matters cannot be shown to be true or false this side of eternity and properly matters of faith Nor do I expect that every word of the Book of Mormon or spoken by Joseph Smith to be literally and completely true. That is a burden that even my own mainstream Christianity couldn’t bear. I do think it is fair to ask whether, in a broad sense, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are what they claim to be. Is the Book of Mormon really a historical record of Jewish refugees who settled in the New World? Is Joseph Smith really a prophet of the Lord who translated this account?

The answer to both questions would seem to be no. Studies of the DNA of the Native Americans show that their ancestry is almost entirely from Northern Asia or Siberia. There is no indication of any ancestors of Semitic or Middle Eastern origin. There is no archeological evidence that any of the events described in the Book of Mormon ever took place Not a single city or country named in the Book of Mormon has ever been positively located or identified, nor do any individuals named in the Book of Mormon appear in any historical record outside the Book of Mormon. In contrast, many places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, can be located on a map and many people named in the Bible can be attested in other sources. It may well be that some of the accounts in the Bible are slanted, or even fictitious, but there is no question that there really were places like Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, or Babylon and that people like the kings and prophets of Israel, Jesus and his apostles really did exist.

As for Joseph Smith, he had something of a reputation as a con artist who practiced folk magic, specializing in money digging, or searching for lost treasure by occult means. It is possible that Smith reformed after the visions he claimed to have had, but Smith’s actions even after he founded the Mormon religion do not seem to be those of an honest man, still less a prophet.

Does it matter it there is any truth to the Book of Mormon or the story of Joseph Smith, so long as it improves people’s lives? Perhaps not, but it seems to me that a faith built on untruths is a faith built on sand rather than solid rock. I do not believe that such a faith can endure.

For my part, if it were shown that the claims of Christianity were false, I would be obliged to change religions. I could not take comfort in the idea that it does not matter whether the stories the gospels tell about Jesus are true so long as I follow the teachings in the gospels because Christianity is not based on the teachings of Jesus, or Paul, or anyone else. Buddhism could still exist even if it were shown that there was no such person as Gautama because his teachings about life and suffering stand on their own regardless whether he existed or not. The same could be true of Confucius or Socrates or many other sages. The teachings of Christ are not much different from the teachings of other sages and express the same truths common to the whole human race. The central message of Christianity is a historical one, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form who was crucified for our sins, who died and was resurrected, defeating sin and death. If Jesus were shown to have never existed or were shown to have been just an ordinary man, than I, and every other Christian, have been wasting our time. As Paul put it,

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Cor 15:12-19)

Is this true of Mormonism? I don’t know. The family values taught by the contemporary Mormon faith certainly have little to do with the polygamous Joseph Smith. It may be that the faith is better than its founder. And yet, the family values that Mormonism teaches are, or used to be, the mainstream within the Judeo-Christian tradition. If one can have the family values without the silly stories about Joseph Smith, why bother with the silly stories? If the Mormon religion gives life meaning but is shown to be based on falsehoods, than then meaning one derives from the faith is also based upon falsehoods. I think I would rather have a faith based on truth.

Reformed Egyptian

English: Joseph Smith translating the Book of ...
Hard at work
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, I talked with some Mormon missionaries who were working our neighborhood. Most people prefer to avoid proselytizers of any sort, but I find conversations with them to be interesting. It must have been an odd experience for the two missionaries, as I must have been one of the few non-Mormons they encountered who had actually read the Book of Mormon and knew something of Mormon theology. I had an interesting talk with these two young men.

If you talk with Mormon missionaries for any length of time, they will give you a copy of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is supposed to be a history of some Jewish emigrants to America led by a man named Lehi. This expedition began just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 587 BC. Various historians made records of their experiences and the last of these, one Moroni, collected these accounts that had been engraved on golden tablets and buried them around AD 421. In 1823, Moroni, now an angel, showed Joseph Smith these tablets and had him translate them using the “urim and thummim” or seer stone. After this task was done, Moroni took them back to Heaven.

The language that was engraved on these golden plates is supposed to have been “Reformed Egyptian“. The story of the golden plates written in reformed Egyptian makes the Book of Mormon unique among the sacred texts of the various religions. If I want to read the Bible in its original languages, I have only to study Koine Greek and Hebrew. These exist many old manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as many writings and inscriptions in both languages. If I want to read the Koran in its original language, I can study Arabic. It is true that the Arabic of the Koran is not the Arabic spoken in Cairo or Baghdad, and the language is difficult for even native speakers. It is also true that there are few inscriptions and writings from the first century of the Islamic Era, making the ancient Arabic more obscure. I could study it though. The same thing could be said of the Sanskrit of the Vedas, the ancient Chinese of Confucius and Lao Tse and many others. I cannot say the same of the Book of Mormon. There is not a single scrap of Reformed Egyptian to be found anywhere. There are no inscriptions, no fragments of parchment or papyrus, nothing. The golden tablets are gone. For this reason, most non-Mormons consider Reformed Egyptian to be a product of Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination.

It might be worth considering the matter, though. The hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt were a complicated system of symbols. These symbols included ideographs and phonetic symbols representing syllables or consonants. There were also symbols at the end of words which were mute but indicated grammar. The phonetic symbols worked a little like a rebus, a picture of an object was used to indicate the sound associated with that object. For instance, to indicate the word belief, I could draw a picture of a bee and a leaf. An eye could mean the pronoun I. This is, in fact, where the letters of our alphabet originated. The earliest versions of ABC were diagrams of objects that started with those sounds in the Phoenician language. The Egyptians never managed to take the step of creating a full syllabary or true alphabet.
Hieroglyphics were sacred writing, used mostly for inscriptions on stone. The Egyptians used two other systems, based on Hieroglyphics. Hieratic was a somewhat simplified version of Hieroglyphics used for writing on sheets of papyrus. It was invented about the same time as Hieroglyphics. It was used for many purposes, but gradually became associated with religious uses. Demotic was a variation of Hieratic invented around 660 BC. It was widely used for everyday purposes and became the script most familiar to Egyptians and foreigners.

Hebrew is, of course, written with a true alphabet (or abjad if we want to be pedantic). It worked fairly well for representing Hebrew  I am not sure why any speaker of Hebrew would use another system. The Book of Mormon explains it;

32 And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.

33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:32-33)

That really doesn’t work. I cannot imagine that any Egyptian script would be more concise than Hebrew. The Hebrew letters work just as well for modern Hebrew as for Biblical Hebrew and the Jews also used them to write in Yiddish, a dialect of German. Aramaic uses similar letters, as does Samaritan. For that matter, our own Latin alphabet, as well as the Greek alphabet derive from the same source. Since the various alphabets derived from the ancient Phoenicians can be used to represent many different languages, there is no reason why some modified form of the Hebrew alphabet couldn’t be used to represent the language of these American Jews, no matter how much their language evolved.

So, why Reformed Egyptian? Well, Joseph Smith could hardly claim to have translated Hebrew. Any skeptic could have simply produced a

English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Muse...
English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Français : La Pierre de Rosette, dans le British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

paper written in Hebrew and demand he translate it. It was safer to translate from a language no one could read. Knowledge of how to read the writing of Ancient Egypt had been lost many centuries ago. The Rosetta Stone had only been found in 1799 and Jean-François Champollion had just finished translating it in 1822. Even if anyone in the United States knew about his work, it was not likely they would possess a copy of his translation. Besides, being one of the oldest civilizations in history, Egypt was mysterious and exotic. Even the Greeks and Romans felt this attraction. Whatever his faults might have been, Joseph Smith was a good showman. Proposing that the Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Jews was exciting enough for potential converts. Adding in the splendor of Ancient Egypt was too much for him to resist.

Of course, Joseph Smith’s career lasted until his death in 1844 and sooner or later the knowledge of how to read Hieroglyphics was going to cross the ocean. There was always the danger that someone might ask Joseph Smith to translate a scroll or a wrapping off a mummy. In fact, someone did make such a request of Joseph Smith, providing him an opportunity to use his imagination once again. The results turned out to be very embarrassing for the Church of Latter Day Saints, thought the truth wasn’t known for over a century. That is a story for another time.