Sunday, November 16, 2008

An Atheist in the Land of Mormons, part 2

Breakfast today was a really bad dream come to life!

In the nine film festivals where we've shown our film, we had the pleasure of discovering that filmmakers are, as a group, one of the most congenial, open-minded group of people you'll ever meet. We became friends with filmmakers who made documentaries about Autism, Zen meditation, travel, war, about our veterans, about the environment, films showing the virtues of religions, exposing the abuses of religion, silly films, fun films, serious films, masterpieces, and awful films. But the common thread is that these are people who care, and even more important, people who are open minded and love to hear one another's ideas.

That's why I was really looking forward to the filmmaker's breakfast and awards ceremony this morning. We piled into our little RV, headed west from the beautiful Zion National Park, and enjoyed a lovely drive in the morning sun down to Virgin, Utah, where breakfast was to be served at the Buffalo Trails Trading Company. As we walked into the restaurant, I saw a table with an older couple, both dressed very nicely in their Sunday best. He looked like a man with some stories to tell, not the usual fire-breathing young filmmaker. So we sat down, introduced ourselves, and started asking questions.

What a mistake. First, his main claim to fame was that he produce a documentary about the Shroud of Turin. Not an objective documentary, but rather, the worst sort of pseudo-scientific religious BS. And even worse, the man was completely oblivious to his audience – he didn't even bother to ask us about our religious beliefs, but like a typical religious zealot, just assumed that his point of view is self-evident and shared by all. He was oblivious to the fact that I know a bit about the shroud's sordid history, that it has been thoroughly discredited, that no major church accepts its authenticity, and on and on. Once he got started, the man couldn't shut up, and started spewing the faux science that plagues real scientific progress. He went on and on about how many different ways they'd proved the shroud's authenticity, how its miraculous nature was irrefutable, how hundreds and hundreds of the worlds best scientists had confirmed its authenticity.

Within two minutes of him launching into this, my wife was squeezing my knee under the table with a clear message: Keep your mouth shut! But it wasn't necessary – arguing with this guy would have been a hopeless waste of time, and would have embarassed everyone. His claims were so outrageous I couldn't even look the guy in the eye, I had to stare at his hands, the wall, other people in the room, and deliberately ignore him. He went on – I kid you not – for forty five minutes nonstop, without even once asking us about our film.

But it gets worse! One of the finest films at the Red Rock Film Festival, which in fact won "Best Documentary," was David Lebrun's amazing film, Breaking the Maya Code, inspired by the book of the same name. Eleven years in the making, it documents the two hundred year battle to rediscover the meaning of the Mayan hieroglyphs, knowledge that was lost when the Catholic priest Landa (later Bishop Landa) carried out a one-man Inquisition in the Yucatan and destroyed all knowledge of Mayan writing (the subject of an upcoming blog).

Finally, to my great relief, the man's wife saw my discomfort, very abruptly interrupted her husband, and asked about our film. The man, having talked about his film for forty five minutes, gave my wife a full thirty seconds before he lost interest and changed the subject again to one of his other films. Then, another catastrophe: We asked if they'd seen Lebrun's Breaking the Maya Code. Alas, the man was a Mormon. We should have guessed, since we'd learned he was raised in Utah.

For those of you who don't know, the Book of the Mormon has a huge section describing how Jesus, after his resurrection, came to the New World and preached, and asserts that the Mayan hieroglyphic language is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and many other outrageous claims about the Americas.

Unfortunately, like all religious beliefs, the Book of the Mormon is believed by Mormons to be infallable, so rather than looking at all the scientific evidence objectively, the Mormons' only goal is to find scientific "proof" that confirm their preconceived notion of truth. It's anti-science.

We had to listen to another ten minutes of anti-science, all about how the archeologists and other scientists are proving that the Book of the Mormon's account of the New World is correct. Mercifully, the awards ceremony began, and put an end to the man's unpleasant and embarassing conversation. We didn't win an award at this festival, but I almost didn't care, just getting the man silenced was reward enough for me.

After we thanked the festival organizers and headed west across the beautiful Utah desert, my wife and I both agreed: One of the worst aspects of religion is that it forces its believers to reject rational thinking and accept as truth things that are plainly false. It requires believers to put faith over logic, to accept what they're taught rather than what they can see with their own eyes.

Once they're taught to ignore rational thinking, it seems to be impossible for them to distinguish real science from pseudo science. They're able to believe (contrary to all real science) that Jesus was wrapped in the Turin Shroud, and to believe that Jesus preached in the New World, and that (contrary to overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that the Mayan script is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.


  1. Once again, someone confuses the dumb populist version of Mormonism with the actual religion itself.

    The Book of Mormon nowhere asserts that Egyptian hieroglyphs form the basis of the Mayan language. That is simply a theory asserted by enterprising Mormons. The book itself if silent on the matter.

    Secondly, there is no doctrine of inerrancy in Mormon theology. In fact, passages in both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants refute the idea that the scriptures are inerrant (various prophetic writers admit there may be errors and mistakes in scripture).

    Don't think that just because you had the misfortune to get stuck in a dinner appointment with a guy with a bad case of ADHD, you've somehow been given a corner on sizing up a major faith tradition.

  2. Seth,

    Both of your "corrections" are attempts at obfuscation of the facts.

    First, there IS a doctrine of inerrancy. The average Mormon can't just decide which parts of the scriptures to obey and which to ignore. Only the prophets can alter the scriptures, and once they do, the new text is law. There have been something like 3,000 "corrections," but at any point in history, Mormons are expected to follow, not question, the written scriptures. It is God's own word, inspired through the prophets. That's the definition of inerrancy, and your assertion that there is no doctrin of inerrancy is simply false.

    Second, you're trying to hide the Mormon claim that Egyptians traveled across the Atlantic and settled in the Americas. While the Book of Mormon doesn't say anything about Mayan heiroglyphs, there has been a huge body of badly-done science, linguistics and science trying to tie the Mayan hieroglyphs to Egyptian hieroglyphs to "prove" the stories in the Book of Mormon. For brevity, the story in my blog glossed over this long history.

    Mormon claims about the Americas are among the most absurd, and provably false, claims in the entire body of religious scriptures.

  3. Yeah, and almost all of those corrections were for grammar. The few doctrinal ones were largely inconsequential.

    The theory that a small band of Middle Easterners could travel the oceans and wind up in Central America where they were promptly mixed in with and genetically swallowed up by existing indigenous peoples is hardly far-fetched.

    No more far-fetched than Viking colonies in North America.

    The Book of Mormon specifies IN ITS OWN TEXT a geographically limited area with a limited population. Once you stop believing in the traditional Mormon misconception of a continental geography model for the book, all the so-called "proofs" of the book's falsehood pretty much fail.

    The recent moronic DNA arguments, for instance, are rendered utterly worthless.

    And no, there is no Mormon doctrine of inerrancy. There may be a popular Mormon belief in inerrancy, but that's just bad theology (you're going to get dumb popular beliefs in ANY group of people). You actually read Mormon scripture, and you'll find that they REFUTE the idea pretty completely.

    It seems pretty apparent that you are taking your cues for criticizing the Book of Mormon from existing Evangelical critiques of Mormonism.

    You might want to rethink taking marching orders from a bunch of religious fruitcakes who still think all animal life on the planet can be traced back to a single boat, or who still think the world is less than 10,000 years old.

    Inerrancy is their particular brand of idiocy. Not ours.


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