Dawkins and Mormons (follow-up)

Looking over the comments from yesterday’s post, it seems that some people understood my point about Dawkins’ Mormon quote, and others didn’t. It’s an important point, though, so I want to follow up and try to make it clear for everyone.

The problem I see is not that Dr. Dawkins is impugning the sanity of people who would seriously consider voting for Mitt Romney. That’s fine, that’s fair game. Romney is a candidate for the US presidency, and it’s perfectly reasonable to discuss his expected behavior as president if he were elected. The problem is that the quote, as originally phrased, does not address Mitt Romney’s qualifications, it addresses the qualifications of “a Mormon.” Not any specific Mormon, but just “a Mormon”—and thus, by implication, any Mormon.

That may seem like a quibble, but it isn’t. There’s a hugely significant difference between saying you’d be crazy to vote for Mitt Romney because he makes important decisions based on irrational beliefs, on the one hand, versus saying you’d be crazy to vote for “a Mormon,” on the other. One is a specific assessment of a specific individual based on observed patterns in his behavior, and the other is prejudice against an entire class of people, based on religious affiliation, regardless of individual qualifications for the position. The former is fair game; the latter is prejudice based on religious affiliation.

Here’s the original quote again, for reference.

Yes, America STILL manages to reach Mars despite half the country preparing to elect a man who believes he’ll get a planet when he dies. It is all the more to the credit of the sane, rational half of America that it manages to achieve so much despite being positively held back by the other half, the half that believes the universe is 6,000 years old, the half that seriously contemplates voting for a Mormon.

The first sentence was sent via Twitter, and the rest is a comment posted by Dr. Dawkins in his discussion of the Curiosity landing, so it is an authentic quote. And I can understand what he’s saying: he’s commenting on the irony of America being able to achieve great scientific and technological advances despite the pervasive influence of irrational, superstitious and fundamentally anti-scientific beliefs, to the point that you’ve got a better shot at the White House if you’re a Mormon than if you’re an unbeliever.

All well and good, but the way he phrased it still came out all wrong. We don’t know whether “a Mormon” would be qualified for President of the US, because we don’t know what “a Mormon’s” beliefs really are or how they might affect his or her conduct in office. We can say “this specific Mormon” is unqualified if we know he has a pattern of irrational, religion-based decisions in his past behavior. Criticizing this specific Mormon, on the basis of specific observations we have made, is perfectly fine, zero bigotry. But we can’t make a blanket application of that same criticism to everyone who happens to be “a Mormon,” because that would be mere bigotry.

Like I said, it might seem like a quibble, but it’s an important point. I’d raise the same objection if someone said it would be crazy to vote for “an atheist,” not because atheists are special but because the principle’s the same regardless of which demographic is the target.



  1. Paul Murray says

    This is ridiculous. We know exactly what “A Mormon’s” beliefs are – or else that person isn’t really a mormon at all. Mr Romney either sincerely believes this stuff, or his religion is a sham. And my self-identifying as a Mormon, he has indicated that he does. Dawkins has simply done him the courtesy of taking him at his word.

    It’s like claiming that just because a person identifies as biologically male, we can’t really know that they have a Y chromosome. The one entails the other, or else the claim is a lie.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      We know exactly what “A Mormon’s” beliefs are – or else that person isn’t really a mormon at all.

      You’re assuming that “a Mormon” means a person who converted to Mormonism because they became convinced it was true. But what about the other Mormons—those who are Mormon because they were born to Mormon parents? Are you sure you know what they believe, given the kinds of rebellions, concessions, and compromises they likely went through when they were teenagers?

      Or consider Al. Al is an intellectual fellow, a scientist, a popular guy, and even an effective leader in his local professional organization. His wife happens to be a Mormon, and at her insistence he’s gone through the official procedures, got himself baptized, and is now himself one of the Latter Day Saints. But only because it’s important to his wife, not because he really believes that stuff or because he thinks magic underwear is going to save him from “fiery darts” from Satan or because he expects to be a god some day. Yes, he’s making himself something of a hypocrite for love’s sake, but is it really fair to say that the sane and rational half of the country would never seriously consider voting for him, regardless of his qualifications? He’s “a Mormon,” (albeit a hypothetical one), but does that automatically mean he’d be unqualified just on that basis?

      Or look at it another way. Suppose you were something of a financial opportunist, and you were looking for someone to manage a leveraged buyout that they could massage a bit and manage for a while and then turn around for a substantial profit. Surely no sane and rational financier would select a Mormon for such responsibility, right? No Mormon could possibly be successful at that kind of real-world responsibility, because their belief in silly Mormon doctrines proves they would be completely ineffective at concluding the deal in a profitable manner.

      You can make a case (a good case in fact) that Romney’s conduct at Bain was rapacious and unethical, but I don’t think you can make a convincing argument that his irrational beliefs ever interfered with his ability to manage worldly affairs to his own advantage. Yet in claiming that no sane person would consider voting for “a Mormon,” the implicit accusation is that such a person would be manifestly incompetent at his position due to an inability to deal effectively with reality. However satisfying such insinuations might be at a theoretical level, I think they fall short of focusing the appropriate attention on Romney’s real deficiencies.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Sorry, I don’t mean to single you out, you just happen to be the top comment, and I had a few things to add that weren’t worth a whole new post. 🙂

  2. Daniel Schealler says

    In the previous thread, Pteryxx pointed out that the quote appears to be a paraphrase of Dawkin’s paraphrase. Based on timestamps, you may not have known that at the time you wrote this and your previous post. Does it change your opinion at all? If so, why? If not, why? I’m interested in what you think about that new information either way.

    The former is fair game; the latter [‘a Mormon’] is prejudice based on religious affiliation.

    I’ve already discussed in the previous thread that the syntax and wording of that quote is problematic.

    But I disagree with the snippet I’ve quoted here.

    It’s one thing to say you wouldn’t vote for a Mormon simply because they’re Mormon. You’re right: That’s bigotry.

    But from Dawkins’ twitter feed, that’s not actually what he’s saying. Dawkins’ point is that you’d have to be barking mad to believe some the tenets of Mormonism.

    So consider instead the following:

    Yes, America STILL manages to reach Mars despite half the country preparing to elect a man who believes he’ll get a planet when he dies. It is all the more to the credit of the sane, rational half of America that it manages to achieve so much despite being positively held back by the other half, the half that believes the universe is 6,000 years old, the half that seriously contemplates voting for someone who is barking mad about reality.

    That’s a different kind of claim, because it is about a quality in a potential leader that is very relevant to the leadership position: Having a firm grasp on reality.

    If ‘a Mormon’ really does believe that the Creator of the Universe wrote egyptian hieroglyphs that were then interpreted by a convicted con-artist who put two stones in a hat, followed by his face, so that he could interpret them, and that one of the great insights of this Creator is that hot drinks are evil… Then yes, that’s barking mad, and I have a problem with a President of America who believes in barking mad things on no solid evidence at all, because it calls his judgement into severe question.

    Again: That doesn’t come through in the quote. But then again, the quote isn’t verbatim. If Pteryxx is right, then someone paraphrased it the way they did – probably because they thought it was punchy. The syntax in the paraphrase is definitely a problem: In the absence of context, your reading of it is a fair one.

    • Daniel Schealler says


      My kingdom for an edit function.

      In the previous thread, Pteryxx pointed out that the quote appears to be a paraphrase of Dawkin’s twitter feed.

      Some of my typos are seriously weird. Stupid brain.

    • Pteryxx says

      At the time *I* posted, I could only find the first sentence, i.e the one from Dawkins’ twitter feed. The rest comes from the Curiosity discussion linked above in the OP:


      Here’s the whole statement, which is Dawkins quoting his own twitter:

      An irony struck me concerning this achievement, and I tweeted the following response to the anti-American carpers:

      Yes, America STILL manages to reach Mars, despite half the country preparing to elect a man who believes he’ll get a planet when he dies

      Given more than 140 characters, I would have added that it is all the more to the credit of the sane, rational half of America that it manages to achieve so much despite being positively held back by the other half, the half that believes the universe is 6000 years old, the half that seriously contemplates voting for a Mormon.

      So it’s still a paraphrase, but of direct quotes put together by the speaker himself. More of a correction, really.

  3. Denis Robert says

    Considering that, in a recent internet poll of Mormons (I know, not scientific and all), 50% stated that they did not believe that we set foot on the Moon, all because one of their leaders in the early 60s said we would never do so, I think, it’s OK to have some level of prejudice against Mormons. A number of people agree with Harris (I don’t) that it’s OK to profile muslims because of the actions of 19 of them (out of 1 billion). But I think it’s fine to expect a Mormon to allow his irrational beliefs to twist his judgement; if there’s such a thing right now as a moderate Mormon, they represent a tiny fraction of one percent of the total.

    When your Church demands (extorts) a 10% cut of everything you make, there is no question about your commitment. I think that alone marks Mormonism as different from other religious denominations. It’s similar to the Church of Scientology in that respect.

    • Tom says

      Considering that, in a recent internet poll of Mormons (I know, not scientific and all), 50% stated that they did not believe that we set foot on the Moon, all because one of their leaders in the early 60s said we would never do so, I think, it’s OK to have some level of prejudice against Mormons.

      No it isn’t.
      “Twenty-five percent
      of respondents to a survey in the British magazine Engineering & Technology said they do not believe humans landed on the moon.” So would you avoid voting for a British engineer? (25% sheesh!, I despair sometimes!)

      I know what you are getting at, but what about the other 50%?

      How was the poll conducted, would it be 5% if run differently? Would that change you view?

      Judge the person.

      Frankly (and not for these candidates) I would vote for a religious, honest, competent candidate over a atheistic, venal, incompetent, wouldn’t you?

      • N. Nescio says

        So would you avoid voting for a British engineer? (25% sheesh!, I despair sometimes!)

        The thing does not follow.

  4. says

    It’s not prejudice, it’s an entirely reasonable precaution.

    All the available information about Mormonism shows that Mormons (1) hold beliefs which run counter to observed reality and (2) are, by sole virtue of their holding those beliefs, thoroughly unfit to hold public office.

    Would you say it was “prejudice” if a youth activities group refused to employ a self-confessed paedophile as a pot-holing instructor — a position which would entail them being in some remote, underground location with young people?

  5. Konradius says

    I would have stated this as:
    someone who believes mormonism is true
    in stead of ‘a mormon’.
    Sure, this looks pedantic, but the difference is that you distinguish between a belief and an identification. Using the last is discrimination, using the first is fair game.

    • Tom says

      I would go a bit further as “someone who believes Mormonism is true and cannot divorce those beliefs from their exercise of secular power”.

      Hardly “pithy” though.

    • Brian M says

      But Mormonism is not really an ethnic group, or a nationality, or a tribe, or anything else. “Mormonism” and “being a Mormon” is totally defined by a belief system.

      Of course, “Mormons”, like all human beings, hold mutually contradictory and compartmentalized beliefs, so I see your point to an extent.

    • says

      Except that “Mormon” and “person who believes Mormonism is true” are the same thing. This is in contrast to how “Jew” and “person who believes Judaism is true” are not necessarily the same thing, because of 6000 years spent conflating an ethnicity with a lifestyle choice.

  6. beccaturner says

    Dawkins original tweet makes sense to me… the explanation baffles me because the emphasis on “a mormon” makes it sound like he thinks they’re especially irrational in contrast with people of other religious persuasions. Like if the republicans had selected a main-line protestant that would some how have been ok, but a mormon, well, that’s a step too far.

    Sometimes it seems to me that many atheists who were raised largely christian, don’t quite feel, at the same visceral level, just how extremely weird christianity is.

  7. raymoscow says

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I am somewhat prejudiced against voting for any Mormon, Scientologist, Moonie, or really any overtly religious person. Since all available candidates are somewhat religious, I evaluate them based on many factors, but I certainly don’t exclude their profession of religious doctrines from the evaluation.

  8. kbonn says

    Firstly, you said “We don’t know whether “a Mormon” would be qualified for President of the US, because we don’t know what “a Mormon’s” beliefs really are or how they might affect his or her conduct in office.”

    Candidates who self identify with a religion are doing so because they either believe in several tenets of that religion, OR are saying so to help their electoral chances. Seeing as how Mormanism isn’t exactly a huge draw with the average american, One might be safe to say that any candidate who identifies as morman is doing so due to honest belief in that religion. Romney specifically is also rather high up in the Church.

    Certain decisions can be inferred due to these beliefs, the only real question is how seriously these beliefs are taken by the candidate. Romney’s position in the church would signify that he does take these beliefs very seriously.

    Secondly, just because you might not know enough about mormanism to comment, doesn’t mean others don’t either.

    Mormanism has some pretty out there beliefs, which certainly calls the rationality of the person into question. This can be applied to any very religious candidate. IE, Rick Santorum. His beliefs have certainly hurt his election chances.

  9. aziraphale says

    It seems to me that in most of the major religions there are people who, because of their religion, believe things that are crazy and even dangerous (e.g. that we needn’t do anything about global warming because it’s all in God’s plan). If I’m invited to vote for a believer in any of those religions I will certainly want to know what kind of believer they are.

    On the other hand, knowing that someone is an atheist does not give me any reason to think that they might have crazy or dangerous beliefs. Rather the reverse. Voting for an atheist (if available) is less problematic than voting for a religious person.

  10. says

    Seems that the argument, as some people have made, is that believing the actual tenets of Mormonism require a gross failure of critical, rational thinking, and that a person who claims such irrational beliefs is unfit to hold such power over other people as the presidency of the country.

    I’m sympathetic to this argument, I really am, but I can’t accept it. After all, I intend to vote for Obama (again), and his beliefs about supernatural deities are as grossly mistaken as Romney’s are. If we insist on entirely rational views toward supernatural religious claims in any candidate that we vote for, we’ll be doing very little voting indeed.

    What really jumps out at me is this: Implying that Mormonism, specifically, is a brand of belief far more irrational than the alternatives (any candidate with a snowball’s chance of being elected will be Christian in some way, whether Mormon or some more popular denomination), implies that it might be defensible to not vote for any Mormon, but hey, that Christianity is so much more reasonable, eh?

  11. says

    To me, this is like saying that it’s crazy for half of a country to be willing to vote for a white supremacist. Sure, there’s a spectrum of worse to better white supremacists (think teen who thinks it cool to have a swastika poster on his bedroom wall but who otherwise keeps his nasty opinions to himself vs. any number of mass shooters), but it *would* be bad to vote one–any one of them–in for public office.

    Not only are almost half of Americans willing to vote for someone who thinks he’ll get his own planet when he dies*, they are eager to do so.

    And you know, if you don’t want people judging you for being a white supremacist, don’t identify as one. Don’t go to their meetings. Don’t give their organisations a tonne of money. Don’t proclaim their doctrines as true beliefs. Don’t wear the magic underwear white hood.

    *hardly the worst tenet of Mormonism

  12. nothere says

    I will not vote for Romney. Not because he is mormon, but because he is republican. It’s nothing but simple, unmitigated prejudice. Hate them all, always will.

  13. says

    I’m conflicted. As constructed, the statement does express a prejudice about voting for Mormons, which is bothersome because it transgresses our values about religious liberty and not judging all individuals in a group without weighing the the merits of each. But who is in the category and what the category is being judged on is important; if it was true to say that 50% of people would not vote for a woman because she was a woman that would would be very problematic, but it is true that nearly 100% would not vote for an animal candidate because they were an animal, and that would be discrimination but not bigotry.

    I’m conflicted on the “vote for a Mormon” question whether to define it as a damaging bigoted statement because it is demonstrably true that religious politicians are causing real, lasting harm in the US. From the environment to inserting their Christian apocalyptic eschatology into foreign affairs to attempting to roll back reproductive freedom to frantically fighting LGBT rights their influence even just on things that derive directly from religion is frightening. As such, if there were viable alternatives it would be true that voting for them would be an act of international self harm. But many people, even those who are not particularly religious, refuse to see it this way. The political process has become so removed from rationality that it does not seem possible any longer to even sort out what is actually real, much less beneficial for the majority of the people (as far as who will actually do the good; I’m sure sane people could all name some goods that could be done).

  14. BKsea says

    I fundamentally disagree with you on this. Objecting to a presidential candidate on the basis of his affiliation with a certain organization is NOT bigotry. The white supremacist example above is a case in point. Now, just becuase that organization happens to be a religion does not give it special consideration and magically turn it into bigotry.

    You are certainly free to argue your belief that Mormoonism isn’t sufficiently “bad” to justify exclusion based on this group membership. However, there are others who find the fundamental tenets of Mormonism to be incompatible with governing the country. If Romney disagrees with those tenets, then he is not a Mormon and should quit the church or at least disavow those tenets.

  15. F says

    No, it isn’t a quibble, it’s a perfectly valid and rather central point.

    And as far as those who argue that this is a reasonable position, perhaps comparing it to someone who is a member of a white supremacist org, you would do better to compare it to someone who is a member of any other religion or org which has a basis in non-rational principles. Catholics. Lutherans. Whatever.

    Now, you may have this in mind when making your arguments, but you are not saying so. Note that this assumes that practically no one is fit for office by this criterion, and no one is a Mormon or whatever in name only, or easily has their religion compartmentalized from pretty much all other social interaction.

    I find that it is incredible to vote for nearly anyone who turns up as a political candidate anywhere, ever. But I still have to choose one.

    Upshot: There is no real point in singling out “Mormon” here. I’ll take it as a loose comment from Dawkins, who wasn’t writing some sort of manifesto when he said it. He was making a specific example from the candidates given. I understand how being a dedicated Mormon is a bit different from being a Christmas-only Episcopalian. But as the quote and defense of the concept therein stand, these are religious bigotry. Certainly, it is a factor to consider, but hardly the single definitive test of fitness for office.

  16. says

    I’d raise the same objection if someone said it would be crazy to vote for “an atheist,

    And I’d still disagree with you. I think it is perfectly rational and acceptable for an evangelical christian, say, who thinks political decisions should be based on the bible or a muslim who endorses shari’a law to refuse to vote for an atheist.

    I think political decisions should be made with the goal of supporting humanist values using reason and the most accurate data available. Anyone who calls themselves a Mormon either doesn’t share my values and morality and certainly doesn’t support humanist values. They also base their moral decisions upon nonsense rather than reason. Many political decisions are moral decisions given the impact, good or ill,they can have on people’s lives. I would never vote for a Mormon. I’m willing to vote for self professed christians of the cafeteria/vanilla variety because, unlike Mormons and evangelicals, their morality is usually based upon their empathy and reason rather than the bible…they just won’t admit it.

  17. says

    Basically the more Mormon you are, the farther out on the crazy scale, and Romney is really really Mormon. But not to neglect the crazy Christian extremism that is a subset of his Mormonism, however. Here’s an example: remember Bryan Fisher, who just made the news yesterday by saying there should be a “Christian Underground Railroad” that would kidnap children of gay parents? Romney fired one of his aides to please that guy.

  18. says

    If you do not like the heat, get out of the kitchen.

    If people born of Mormon parents, do not hold with the Mormon belief system, then they should leave or find ways to leave. By staying, though whatever reason, they are accepting and promoting the Mormon lifestyle. And that is not the responsibility of Dawkins to fix.

    Seems to me, what the OP is saying is “Stop hitting me” while punching himself in the face. Being religious is generally considered to be a bad thing, for humanity and personally, and just because one does not stop being religious for whatever reason, does not change the facts that religious belief is a harm for society. It is worse in Mittens case, when one could make the case that he realises that Mormonism is a bad idea for humanity, but he is willing to milk it for his short term personal gain.

    This is what I can never understand about the politically correct crowd, they will side with those who will seek to harm them, and then complain about the harm done to them. Religion must die in all it’s forms, or you must show us which is the correct one and why it it.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Prejudice and intolerance are just as harmful to society as religion is. Why would I oppose religion and not also oppose prejudice and intolerance? Plus prejudice and intolerance are as irrational as religion: there is no objective, rational consideration involved in the practice of attributing negative characteristics to a person on the basis of group membership alone. To be substantive, criticisms need to be based on the actual facts of the case at hand, but prejudice is more popular because you don’t have to go to all that trouble. That’s a shortcut that’s as wrong when we do it as it is when they do it.

  19. TheVirginian says

    I understand your problem with this, and I think Dawkins’ wording is problematic. But …
    Beliefs exist on a spectrum, from a little bit kooky but I can live with that, to if you call yourself (X) you need to explain what you mean by X, to just bat-guano crazy.
    I basically don’t care what a person calls him/herself, just what do you actually believe and how do you reach conclusions about life/politics/culture etc. But some names carry connotations. Extreme example: If you call yourself a Nazi, I’m going to assume you have a specific set of beliefs. Even if you tell me you are a liberal Nazi and reject all the racist and murderous stuff, I’m going to be highly suspicious.
    Likewise, if someone claims to be a conservative or evangelical Christian, I am going to assume the worst. Unless that person can satisfy me that they don’t hold to the theocratic views of many such people, I could not vote for that person.
    In Romney’s case, Mormonism holds some loony views, as well as having a racist and theocratic history. Romney needs to talk openly about what he actually believes and how he thinks, otherwise people have a right to assume he toes the theocratic line. It’s like the issue of his tax returns; it’s what we don’t know and have reason to fear that is the problem. Asking Romney to reveal his financial situation and explain his actual religious beliefs (and offer support for what he says) is not bigotry or irrational.
    I would never vote for a member of the Nazi Party, for example, but I can imagine a situation where someone was a white supremacist/Nazi in teens/early 20s and subsequently became a documented liberal anti-racist. Think of Sen. Robert Byrd, who was a KKK member in his early adulthood but later repudiated (or is it “refudiated”) his early bigotry and established a record of being a civil libertarian.
    So I think Dawkins’ point, even if poorly worded, is basically correct. Romney needs to prove he does not hold the extremist beliefs of quite a few Mormons and will make decisions on a rational basis. And, by the way, what exactly has he paid in taxes, put into tax shelters, how did his IRA get so enormous, etc. Without honest answers to these questions, it’s not bigotry to fear the worst.

  20. machintelligence says

    Sometimes Bayesian analysis is hard to distinguish from bigotry or prejudice.
    For example: White cabdrivers refuse to go into a predominantly black neighborhood for fear of being robbed because they are prejudiced. Black cab drivers also refuse to go into the same neighborhood because?

  21. sailor1031 says

    I agree that it is important that a POTUS should have a firm grip on reality and it’s well past time that we should such a president (thinking of such luminaries as Reagan, Nixon, Shrub), but are mormons the only candidates who don’t have a grip on reality? What about people who believe such patently absurd things as talking snakes, creation by a deity, a “firmament”, turning water into wine, a world-wide flood and rising from the dead? Shouldn’t their candidacies be just as suspect? Well yes! and they are by atheists, but the support for the losing presidential candidates in the Republican party indicates that many voters don’t have qualms about this. And what about a ‘christian/muslim’ president? Or a catholic vice-president? How solid a grip on reality do they have?

    We will have to establish a test to determine the Firm Grip On Reality (FGOR) quotient of each candidate. But who will define the standards? Who will set the questions? Who will grade the test results? I fear even some atheists couldn’t pass that test!

Leave a Reply to Deacon Duncan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *