This piece was originally published on AlterNet. Please note the addendum at the end about my use of the word “crazy” in this piece.
Are less established religions really crazier than older mainstream ones? Or are mainstream religions just more familiar?
Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true. And yet, for some weird reason, we’re often asked to choose between them. Believers often accuse us of ignoring more moderate and progressive religions while we trash the low-hanging fruit of hard-line fundamentalism. We’re accused of disregarding sophisticated modern theology so we can zero in on the simplistic faiths held by the hoi polloi. (Neither accusation is fair; many atheists, including myself, have taken aim at both modern theology and progressive religion, and in any case fundamentalism and other widely-held religions are valid targets for critique — but that’s another rant.) Yet at the same time, many believers seek our approval for their particular beliefs. “Sure,” they’ll say, “a lot of those other religions are silly — but my religion makes sense! Don’t you agree? Don’t you? Huh?”
For the most part, it’s a game I don’t like to play. I think all religions are equally implausible, equally based on cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. But sometimes, the battiness of a particular religion is powerfully borne in on me, to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. And it forces me to consider the question: Is this religion really any more batty than any other? Or is it just less popular? Less familiar? Is it simply newer, and thus has had less time for the more wildly ragged edges of its wackiness to smooth out? Is this religion really as crazy as it seems — or are all religions equally crazy?
Magic Hats Versus Magic Snakes
First, just to be very clear: I’m not saying that all religious believers are crazy. I’m saying that religious beliefs are crazy. I’m criticizing the ideas, not the people. And when I say “crazy” (or “nutty” or “batshit” or “lunatic” or what have you), I don’t mean “literally, clinically mentally ill.” I mean “crazy” in the colloquial sense. I mean… well, I’ll get to that.
I was in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago giving a talk, and I took the opportunity to visit the Mormon Temple Square. If you’re not a Mormon, you can’t go inside the Mormon Temple itself; but Temple Square has all sorts of attractions for the non-Mormon visitor, including the tabernacle, the assembly hall… and two different visitors’ centers, specifically designed to explain Mormonism to the non-Mormon, and to make the religion seem inspiring, and to entice people into the faith.
I have no doubt that it has that effect on many people. Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet; there must be something about it that people like. But its effect on me… Well, it was inspiring, all right. It inspired me right into a rollercoaster ride of hilarity and horror. It inspired me, at one point, to out-loud laughter that I was literally, physically unable to control. It inspired me to get the hell off their property, take several deep breaths, and rant incoherently with my wife about what an appalling nightmare of indoctrination and brainwashing it was, before we plunged back in. It inspired me to work on my atheist activism ten times harder than I ever had. Its effect on me was not to entice me into the faith. Its effect was to make me think, even more strongly than I had before, “This religion is batshit crazy.”
But then I started thinking.
How much crazier is this, really, than any other religion?
Let’s not mince words. There is some profoundly crazy stuff in Mormonism. The magic underwear. The retroactive baptism of the dead. Getting to be a god on your own planet after you die. The Garden of Eden being in Missouri. The foundational story of Joseph Smith reading secret magical golden plates through a magic hat. The baptismal font sitting on the backs of twelve cows. (Okay, fine, oxen. Still.) The washings and anointings and veils and temple garments and secret handshakes and other highly ritualized pseudo-Masonic ceremonies. Lying for the Lord. (No, really. Look it up.) The casual shrugging-off of well-known, thoroughly documented facts of history and archaeology that contradict Church doctrine. The shameless, barefaced retroactive continuity, to the point of actually lying about the religion’s history. (“Polygamy is not a central tenet of Mormonism, and it never was. Racial bigotry is not a central tenet of Mormonism, and it never was. Stop looking at The Book of Mormon. No, stop it. We’ll tell you what our religion says, thank you very much.”) Mormonism loves to present a wholesome, clean-cut image of almost obsessive normality to the public… but when you scratch the surface, what you see is howling, chaotic lunacy. That assessment may seem harsh — but if these ideas were presented in any context other than a religious one, nobody would be debating it.
But then I started thinking:
How much crazier is this than any other religion?
How much crazier is this than talking snakes? People living inside giant fish? Boats that carry two of every living creature on the planet? Magic crackers that turn into the body of your god when you eat them? Magic fruit that ruins the lives of all your descendants? Virgins giving birth? Sprinkling magic water on babies so if they die they won’t burn forever in Hell? A planet that was created 6,000 years ago, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary from every relevant scientific field? A god who sacrifices himself to himself to save the world from the punishment he himself was planning to dole out?
And let’s not just pick on Christianity. How much crazier is this than ritual washing in a polluted magic river? Transferring your sins to a live chicken, waving it over your head, and having it slaughtered? Transferring your sins to a bundle of money, waving it over your head, and donating the money to charity, because the chicken thing is just too weird? The compulsory covering of women’s bodies from head to toe? The compulsory wearing of hats? A god who’s okay with you smoking weed, but doesn’t want you drinking alcohol? A god who’s okay with you drinking alcohol, but doesn’t want you smoking weed? A god who doesn’t want you to draw pictures of real things? A god who wants you to cut off your daughter’s clitoris? A god who wants you to cut off the tip of your baby boy’s penis?
Plenty of religions are loaded with crazy when you scratch the surface. You don’t even have to scratch very hard.
So why do these older, more mainstream religions seem less crazy?
A lot of it, I think, is popularity. If lots of people believe something, we’re more likely to give it credibility. This is a bias that all human brains are vulnerable to, and it’s largely unconscious. (Although many religious believers will make this argument consciously and overtly. Spend enough time in the atheist blogosphere, and I guarantee you’ll see it pop up: “How can you dismiss something that so many people believe in?”) We’re social animals, and we’re wired to think that if everyone else thinks something, it’s probably true. Or at the very least, that it’s not batshit insane on the face of it, and we ought to give it serious consideration.
From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, this bias makes sense. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check: if everyone in your tribe is screaming “Tiger!” and you don’t see one, it still makes sense to run. But it’s a confounding bias to contend with when you’re rigorously examining a truth claim. It makes it hard to voice unpopular perceptions… and indeed even to conceive of them. It’s very, very difficult to be the first person to say out loud, “The Emperor has no clothes.” It’s even more difficult to say it to ourselves.
Then adding to this de-crazification phenomenon, we have the power of time. In the earlier days of a religion, the battier elements are much more prominent. But with time, if a religion flourishes and becomes more mainstream, the rough edges get smoothed off. “Our Savior is returning within a generation” turns into “Our Savior is returning one of these days.” “You have to wear a ginormous hat all the time” turns into “It’d be nice if you wore a little hat in the temple.” “God created the entire universe out of nothing in six days” turns into “God created matter and energy and the laws of physics and let them unfold into life as we know it, and when we say ‘day’ we don’t mean a literal ‘day,’ and it’s absurd and unfair for you to think that we do.” The battier elements get abandoned entirely, or get hidden out of sight, or get shoved to the back burner as trivial and peripheral, or start being seen as metaphorical instead of literal. (45% of all U.S. Catholics don’t even know that, according to the doctrine of their own Catholic Church, the magic cracker literally becomes the body of their god when they eat it. They think it’s symbolic. They apparently weren’t paying attention in catechism class.)
The fascinating thing about Mormonism is that we can see this process happening in real time. As a religion founded within the last two centuries, during a time of good historical record-keeping, Mormonism is an intriguing case study of how a religion transforms from a despised fringe cult to a popular branch of mainstream modern faith. And part of that picture is the ways that the fringier elements have either been abandoned wholesale or kept out of the public eye. .. and indeed kept out of the eyes of its own adherents until they’ve already bought in. (Mormonism even has a “milk before meat” concept: teach the easy, non-controversial stuff about Mormonism first, and wait to teach the batty stuff until adherents are too deeply invested to leave.) The degree to which Mormonism has become mainstream is the degree to which the less digestible nuts have been eliminated from the fruitcake.
But most of this phenomenon, I think, is simple familiarity.
I didn’t learn about magic Mormon underwear until I was an adult. So when I did, the battiness of the belief smacked me in the face. I was like, “Really? Magic underwear? Really?” And the same was true for the magic hat, and the secret handshakes, and the Garden of Eden being in Missouri, and so on and so on. Every time I learn something new about Mormonism and Mormon history, it’s… well, it’s new. And I can see its craziness with fresh eyes.
But I’ve known about magic crackers and talking snakes since I was very young. So they just seemed normal. Part of the cultural landscape. I didn’t believe in them — but for years, I didn’t think about them very hard. And again, because these beliefs were widely held, when I did think about them I gave them more credit than they actually deserved.
So is it fair to think that Mormonism — or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Scientology, or any other relatively new religion — is really any crazier than more mainstream religions? Is it fair to think that it’s crazier than the mainstream varieties of Catholicism or Baptism, Hinduism or Buddhism, Judaism or Islam?
I spent my day at Temple Square going back and forth on this question. One minute, I’d be thinking, “Well, okay, this is pretty nuts… but it’s not really any crazier than magic crackers and magic snakes.” The next minute, I’d be confronted with some new form of wacko, and I’d be thinking, “No, this really is crazier.”
So which is it?
I think the answer depends on what exactly we mean by “crazy.”
Crazy Is as Crazy Does
Like I said earlier, when I say “crazy” here, I don’t mean “mentally ill.” I mean… well, what, exactly?
If by “crazy” we mean “out of step with cultural norms”… then yes, Mormonism really is crazier. Pretty much by definition. To some extent, battiness and reasonableness are defined by social norms. In the Victorian era, it was considered entirely normal for women to wear tightly-laced corsets, all day, every day of their adult lives, to the point where their physical functioning was seriously impaired and their internal organs were deformed. In modern society, doing this would generally be considered pretty damn freaky. Instead, many women in modern society wear high-heeled shoes that impair their functioning and deform their feet, all day, every day of their adult lives… and this is considered standard, non-crazy behavior. So yes, by this definition, the more mainstream a religion is, the less crazy it is. And so yes, by this definition, Mormonism is crazier than, say, Catholicism.
But if what you mean by “crazy” is “out of touch with reality”?
Then it’s all equally crazy.
Any belief in a supernatural world that affects the natural one is equally implausible, equally the product of cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence. Some religions contradict reality quite blatantly, flatly stating that well-established historical and scientific facts aren’t true. (Young-earth Creationism does this with basic facts of evolution; Mormonism does it with basic facts of human history.) Other religions do a better job of presenting a plausible face and shoehorning their beliefs around reality. (The standard progressive Christian belief in theistic evolution is Exhibit A. Theistic evolution is entirely inconsistent with even the most basic facts of evolution, but these believers can still convincingly tell themselves and others, “No, no, we think science is great, of course we accept evolution, we’re not out of touch with reality.”)
But all religions are out of touch with reality. All religions are implausible, based on cognitive biases, and unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. All of them ultimately rely on faith — i.e., an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it — as the core foundation of their belief. All of them contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.
And by that definition, all religions are equally crazy.
Some just hide their craziness better than others.
Note: I have read the comments criticizing my colloquial use of the word “crazy” in this piece, and am seriously considering them. I’m not sure I agree with them, and I’m a bit puzzled at the automatic assumption that I don’t have any experience myself with mental illness. (That’s not, in fact, the case. I’ve struggled with depression off and on for most of my adult life, and while I don’t currently consider myself as someone with mental illness, I am someone with a history of mental illness, and I have to carefully manage my life so as to minimize a chance of a recurrence.) But I have heard the criticisms, and I am taking them seriously. I’ve decided to go ahead and reprint this piece as originally written, with the original language, since I think it’s important that the stuff I write for AlterNet be archived here in more or less its original form. (Especially since the comment threads on AlterNet are so — how shall I put this? — challenging, and re-posting them here gives my readers a chance to discuss my pieces in a more welcoming forum.) But the message has been received, and I’ll be re-thinking this language in the future.