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Mormonism: The Control Group For Christianity, Part II [Sep. 28th, 2012|03:53 pm]
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The Mormonism post spawned a really good comment thread, which had the misfortune to cross into another argument I wanted to analyze:
And finally, the [Book of Mormon] talks about long past events the witnesses weren't involved in. The Apostles on the other hand left a tradition that makes their pre-resurrection behavior look petty and stupid. If they had been making the main part of the story up, they would have sanitized their own part too.

This is a common apologist argument. The Bible often makes the Apostles seem dubious or cowardly. For example, Thomas doubts Jesus' resurrection until he observes it personally, Peter denies Jesus three times to avoid getting in trouble with the Romans (plus when he tries to mimic the walk-on-water feat he sinks like a stone), Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, et cetera. These sound like the sort of things that might really happen; people are very often dubious or cowardly in real life. But if the whole thing were made up, wouldn't it try to make its fictional heroes a bit more...heroic?

I would spend more time gathering examples of this argument except that I think most people are probably familiar with it.

[EDIT: Gwern points out Criterion of embarrassment]

I find this argument relatively unconvincing. For one thing, most of the successful preaching I hear involves a reference to the sinfulness (usually past sinfulness) of the preacher - from the street preacher who talks about his life of sin and drug use and fornication before he "saw the light", all the way to C.S. Lewis talking about how he used to be an atheist.

The same thing happens on the atheist side: atheist writers like Luke Muehlhauser who can convincingly tell the story of how they used to be religious but later saw through it are much more convincing than people like myself who don't have anything to go on but occasionally going to temple as a kid. If I wanted to be an atheist celebrity, and I was totally unconstrained by honesty, I would give myself a backstory where I had once been very religious and later grown out of (actually, if I was totally unconstrained by honesty, my backstory would be that I used to be Pope. Why go halfway?).

Relatability sells. The customers aren't infinitely virtuous, and therefore the salesman shouldn't be infinitely virtuous either. This is especially true if you're pitching to people raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where "prophet disobeys God's laws, then gets chided and gets better" is practically a trope. Aaron constructed the idolatrous Golden Calf. Moses hit that rock and so was prevented from entering Israel. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh and had to get eaten by a whale. These people are confronted by actual voice-from-the-heavens-God and they still disobey; if the disciples never disobeyed Jesus, it would be pretty suspicious.

But don't take my word for it. This, too, can be "experimented" with by treating Mormonism as the "control group". One of the very first times the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, he commanded Smith to tell his father about the revelation. According to Smith's own testimony, relayed through his mother:
The messenger whom he saw the previous night, visited him again, and the first thing he said was, ‘why did you not tell your father that which I commanded you to tell him?’ Joseph replied, ‘I was afraid my father would not believe me.’ The angel rejoined, ‘He will believe every word you say to him’"

So Smith totally drops the ball by disobeying the angel's first commandment to him. Meanwhile, the angel forgives him and tells him where to find the golden plates. He goes out looking for them:
According to Smith's followers, Smith said he took the plates from the box, put them on the ground, and covered the box with the stone to protect the other treasures it contained. Nevertheless, the accounts say, when Smith looked back at the ground after closing the box, the plates had once again disappeared into it. According to two non-believing Palmyra residents, when Smith once again raised the stone and attempted to retrieve the plates, Smith saw something in the box like a toad that grew larger and struck him to the ground. Although Smith's followers do not mention a toad-like creature, they agree with several non-believers that Smith said he was stricken by a supernatural force that hurled him to the ground as many as three times.

Disconcerted by his inability to obtain the plates, Smith said he briefly wondered whether his experience had been a "dreem of Vision" [sic]. Concluding that it was not, he said he prayed asking why he had been barred from taking the plates.

In response to his question, Smith said the angel appeared and told him he could not receive the plates because he "had been tempted of the advisary (sic) and saught (sic) the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandments that I should have". According to Smith's followers, Smith had also broken the angel's commandment "not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands",[63] and according to a non-believer, Smith said "I had forgotten to give thanks to God" as required by the angel.

Sooo...Smith breaks the angel's rules, gets driven by greed, gets magic-toad-punished (as one does), and then starts doubting the whole thing ever happened. Pretty embarrassing. And apparently he still doesn't learn his lesson, because later on (note: this may actually be an alternative description of the same incident; I'm having trouble keeping my Mormon chronology straight. But I think it's supposed to happen a few years after the toad-event):
After his marriage and return from Pennsylvania, he became so awfully impressed with the high destiny that awaited him, that he communicated the secret to his father and family. The money-digging propensity of the old man operated so powerfully, that he insisted upon it that they should go and see if the chest was there — not with any view to remove it till the appointed time, but merely to satisfy themselves.

Accordingly they went forth in the stillness of night with their spades and mattocks to the spot where slumbered this sacred deposit. They had proceeded but a little while in the work of excavation, before the mysterious chest appeared; but lo! instantly it moved and glided along out of their sight. Directed, however, by the clairvoyance of Jo, they again penetrated to the spot where it stood and succeeded un gaining a partial view of its dimensions.

But while they were pressing forward to gaze at it, the thunder of the Almighty shook the spot and made the earth to tremble — a sheet of vivid lightning swept along over the side of the hill, and burnt terribly around the spot where the excavation was going on, and again with a rumbling noise the chest moved off out of their sight. They were all terrified, and fled towards their home. Jo took his course silently along by himself. On his way homeward, being alone, in the woods, the angel of the Lord met him clad in terror and wrath. He spoke in a voice of thunder, and forked lightnings shot through the trees and ran along the ground. The terror which the appearance of the divine messenger awakened, instantly struck Smith to the earth, and he felt his whole frame convulsed with agony, as though he were stamped upon by the iron hoofs of death himself. In language most terrific did the angel upbraid him for his disobedience, and then disappeared. Smith went home trembling and full of terror.

Along with getting in trouble for being too willing to seek the treasure, Smith gets in trouble for not being willing enough:
Smith said that he visited the hill "at the end of each year" for four years after the first visit in 1823,[70] but there is no record of him being in the vicinity of Palmyra between January 1826 and January 1827 when he returned to New York from Pennsylvania with his new wife. In January 1827, Smith visited the hill and then told his parents that the angel had severely chastised him for not being "engaged enough in the work of the Lord", which may have meant that he had missed his annual visit to the hill in 1826.

Another potential control group is Islam: atheists and Christians alike agree that the Quran is not genuine revelation. There are far fewer examples of poor conduct by Mohammed in Islam than there are of poor conduct by Smith in Mormonism, but the Quran does have Allah critique Mohammed a few times. For example, in Sura 80 the text talks about...okay, to be honest I have a lot of trouble reading and understanding the Quran, but the commentary on Sura 80 makes it clear that it tells the story of Mohammed turning away a poor blind man who comes to him because he prefers to preach to the rich and prestigious. Allah then upbraids him and tells him that even the blind man can learn Islam and is important to talk to, and so Mohammed is being unnecessarily judgmental. Again, if Mohammed fabricated the Quran, that means he's basically making up the story of the time God yelled at him for being mean to blind people.

So we have two control groups. In one of them, we have Joseph Smith, who starts out by disobeying an angel. Then he gets blinded by greed and would have stolen divine artifacts against God's will if not scared away by some kind of magic toad. Then he tries the whole "steal divine artifacts" plan again, and gets very nearly struck by lightning. Then he misses an appointment with an angel and is only allowed to retrieve his golden plates on the last possible try. And in the other, we have Mohammed being so judgmental towards social outcasts that God has to devote an entire chapter of the Quran to a smackdown.

I think this pretty conclusively disproves the "people who make up religious stories always cast themselves in the best possible light" hypothesis.

[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-28 11:48 pm (UTC)
You're Pope *now*. Everyone is. Carry on.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-09-28 11:51 pm (UTC)
Was Achilles real? Was Odysseus?

The Iliad and Odyssey and Aeneid are full of flawed, powerfully drawn characters that seem almost real. They resonate. And who would *make up* a guy with a bed made out of a tree? Somebody *must* have done that, right?

Ancient writers and storytellers were not stupid. They were as capable of fictional depth as we are (maybe more so.) They didn't all write boring, one-note propaganda tracts. It's just a sign of our temporal provincialism that we expect the Bible to be a propaganda tract and are surprised that there are human, breathing, flawed characters in it. Siegfried and Signy seemed "real" too. Myth has a way of ringing true.

Then again, there's historical evidence of an actual Jesus; AFAIK he really was a preacher who was crucified. If my beloved friend and teacher were tortured to death by the government, you can bet I'd be telling people about him and trying to live up to his message. I'm sure the grief was real.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-29 01:02 pm (UTC)
I suspect that Achilles and Odysseus, and indeed most of the characters in the Iliad and Odyssey, were based on real personages. During a Dark Age, oral epics are the best available source of any history before the lives of grandfathers-of-grandfathers.

The Aenid, however, is deliberate historical fiction, or epic fanfic. It was written as a conscious act of fiction by a man (Virgil) who lived in a time when the rich and educated had access to copious records, and hence the epic oral tradition of the Classical Dark Age had long-since perished. However ...

... it may well have been well-researched fiction, in that Virgil may have had access to sources now long since lost, including Etruscan ones. While the Romans lost all their official written records in the Gallic attack of 390 BC, there may have been unofficial written records not lost, and official written records which survived in other cities. And while the Rome of the earliest kings was almost certainly illiterate, and even more so the Latium of earlier times, oral traditions may have survived long enough to have been written down.

I would provisionally accept the reality of Numa, Romulus etc. and the possible reality of Aeneas. There actually is some archaeological evidence that some of the ancestors of the Etruscans and allied peoples came from Asia Minor, and since we know that Troy was real ...

... though, sadly, the story of Aeneas and Dido has to be either false or a conflation with some other true event, because the chronology doesn't match. Trojan War was late 12th or early 11th century BC; Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC, and Rome in the 8th century BC. A survivor of the fall of Troy could not possibly have encountered an extant city of Carthage: if he did meet people in a city in North Africa, they could not have been Carthaginians even if they lived in the same area, just as Moses or Joshua could never have met a Roman and for the same reasons.
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[User Picture]From: gwern branwen
2012-09-29 12:31 am (UTC)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criterion_of_embarrassment for those interested in the topic.

Also, as far as Islam goes - the satanic verses are an embarrassing story, and as child marriage has gone out of fashion, that became another embarrassing story.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-29 01:00 am (UTC)
I was trying to remember that criterion name!
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-29 01:05 pm (UTC)
The child marriage is almost certainly a true story, too -- it was not particularly exceptional in most pre-industrial cultures. For that matter, our whole concept of setting the statutory age of consent at late (rather than early) adolescence is historically very recent: the relevant laws are rarely more than 100-200 years old; and in most pre-industrial cultures there is no formal "age of consent" -- it's just assumed that men aren't much interested in sex with pre-adolescent children. Which is as a general rule quite true, though there are of course exceptions.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-29 01:17 pm (UTC)
Oh, by the way: onset of menstruation is usually timed by intake of protein. In pre-industrial societies, aristocratic girls, who had high-protein diets, often started menstruating around the same time that girls do today (10-14); peasant children, who had low-protein diets, might not start menstruating until later (14-18). Aisha bint Abu Bakr


would definitely have enjoyed a high-protein diet, and it's quite plausible that Muhammed chose to consumnate the marriage after her first menses (which signifies "womanhood" in many pre-industrial societies). According to the Quran she was 6 or 7 at the time of the marriage and 9 or 10 at the time the marriage was actually consumnated.

It is unreasonable to expect Muhammed to have looked ahead to American or British laws on age-of-consent and managed his marital life on this basis. There is also no particular reason to assume that Aisha was particularly offended by her treatment, as it was normal for her society, she had been incredibly lucky in the identity of her husband, she showed numerous signs later on of extreme loyalty to him, and one of the good things about Muhammed was his treatment of women (the really extreme misogyny entered Islam after Muhammed's death). She wasn't looking ahead to our laws on age-of-consent either, and hence would not have felt "abused" unless he actually abused her, and there's no evidence that he did.

And yes, I believe that Muhammed and the other figures from his life were all real until proven otherwise. Though not the angels and stuff: these were Muhammed's delusions.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-29 07:07 pm (UTC)
> She wasn't looking ahead to our laws on age-of-consent either, and hence would not have felt "abused" unless he actually abused her, and there's no evidence that he did.

That doesn't sound right. In general, it's possible for people to be hurt by normal things: of course if you're a man and your people lose a war you get killed, that's how war works and war is glorious and necessary. You're still dead.

And if it is correct in that case, then our age of consent laws are stupid. Raped kids are horribly traumatized, we spend a lot on catching and imprisoning child molesters, who get beat up and raped by other inmates, and pedophiles have to wrestle with sexual frustration all their lives. If we can get rid of all of these by teaching a few generations that sex with tweens is normal, why aren't we doing that?
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-30 02:01 am (UTC)
Our age-of-consent laws are stupid. We treat sexual relations with adolescent minors as being exactly the same thing as sexual relations with pre-adolescent minor children, and that as exactly the same thing as having sex with babies; we pay little attention under the law to the minor's consent or lack of consent; and in consequence we often not only punish some perpetrators too severely and other too leniently (since we must apply the same law to lover, seducer and rapist alike). What's worse, we often apply the law in ways which hurts the victim (who in some cases is only a nominal "victim") far worse than the perpetrator (who may or may not have actually done something bad. Even worse than that, our incredibly corrupt and inept child protection system may wind up handing said victim over to people who actually will beat and rape her (or him, sometimes) and may also wind up handing her siblings over to such abusers in foster families.

We imagine that the statutory-rape ahd child molestation laws were set up to protect children. They were not. They were actually set up, during the 19th century, to allow the parents of adolescent girls to have boyfriends of whom the parents disapproved threatened with, or actually subjected to, imprisonment to increase the degree of parental control over said adolescents. Originally, nobody but the parents would have reported the "statutory rapist" or "molester" in the case, and in cases where good feelings existed between parents and boyfriend, these "crimes" of course went unreported.

Then, when the government became more intrusive in the lives of individuals (late 19th to early 20th century), the government began seeking out anyone who violated these laws. In most cases the level of injustice was still fairly low, because early age-of-consent laws usually set the age of consent around 14-16 years old.

Then, starting in the late 1940's, when the mood moved toward overprotection of teenagers in response to the problem of "juvenile delinquency" and increasingly open teenage sexuality), municipalities and states everywhere began moving the age of consent up to 18 -- almost in lockstep with a reduction of the average age at which girls were actually losing their virginity.

Today we have a system so insane that almost everywhere in the United States the age of consent is 18, despite the fact that girls are actually losing their virginity on the average at around 14-16. What's more, human nature being what it is and girls being attracted mostly to older men (by which I mean late teens / early twenties), this means that there is massive violation of age-of-consent laws in fact: depending on the particular State's law, there may or may not be an exception for boys who are only slightly older than the girls (yes, there are areas where it is technically illegal for an 18 year old to have sex with a 17 year old!).

Consider what happens to a girl who falls in love with an older boy, marries him and is financially dependent on him before she is "rescued" by the State authorities. She is "helped" by the State by her husband being put in prison on a felony charge which -- if he survives -- will make it difficult to impossible for him to get a legitimate job. What's even worse, the girl doesn't have to be a minor at the time of the arrest -- there have been cases where such arrests were made after the girl had attained the age of majority.

There was one case I remember where anti-child-pornography statutes destroyed the lives of a couple even though both were minors at the time the "pornography" was made. A 17-year-old girl had her picture taken naked by her (also 17-year-old) finacee, as a romantic gesture. They turned 18, were married, and made the mistake of letting the existence of the photo be known. The husband was convicted on charges of producing child pornography, and wound up with a felony record, destroying his career and their future. Who the HELL was the State protecting here?

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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-09-30 10:22 am (UTC)
"almost everywhere in the United States the age of consent is 18"

If by "almost everywhere" you mean "in 12 states".

Granted it has two of the biggest states, while the nine age 17 states have Texas, Illinois, and New York; I lack the interest to add up population figures and see how many people live under the three regimes.

AIUI exemptions for being close in age are common, as is a blanket exemption for being married. Of course, you need parental permission to marry underage.

California is unusually strict and punitive.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-30 04:33 pm (UTC)
You're right: I didn't research that, I just assumed, having spent most of my life in "age-of-consent = 18" states. These states however include New York and California, which are among the most important centers of the American media, which only reinforces the American assumption that there is something special about age 18 and that sex with anyone younger than 18 is morally "pedophiliac." (Which is incidentally a misuse of the psychological term, as "pedophilia" refers to sexual attraction to prepubescents rather than adolescents).
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[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-09-30 04:41 pm (UTC)
"These states however include New York and California"

No, the age of consent in New York is *17*. Still high, but not 18. It's right there in the comment you're replying to!

I'm baffled that you've had a long-time interest in this topic without ever looking up what the laws actually were.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-30 02:02 am (UTC)

In Defense of Muhammed

In any case, while Muhammed was a rotten bastard and a scourge to the human race in general, there is absoulutely no reason to believe that Aisha was hurt by her marriage to him, or by her early sexual relations with him. Ths situation was absolutely normal in her culture, and he seems to have treated her well. In this case, I am willing to defend Muhammed -- not against the charge of marrying and (a few years later) consumnating his marriage with his child bride, but against the claim that by doing so he "abused" her.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-30 02:10 am (UTC)
If we can get rid of all of these by teaching a few generations that sex with tweens is normal, why aren't we doing that?

I didn't say that "sex with tweens is normal." What I do say is that, biologically, both boys and girls are primed to seek out sexual contact with members of the opposite sex as soon as they hit puberty. What's more, there is a very strong tendency for girls to seek out higher-status males for such contact (because they have to be more careful about the possible biological and social consequences of sex), which means that by and large girls are attracted to older boys.

We can make any rules or laws that we want, and we have to limit human sexuality in certain ways to avoid all sorts of social problems, but if we actively deny reality where human biology is concerned, we are risking all sorts of other social problems: not the least of which are the consequences of criminalizing behavior which is often common, consenusal, and non-harmful to the participants. I could show you long lists of people whose lives were ruined because they fell afoul of the age-of-consent laws: this list would not be limited to the "perpetrators," but would also include many of the supposed "victims," who found the State destroying them as well.

When it comes to another culture which operated under very different technological limitations than do we, it is especially absurd for us to try to impose the American age-of-consent of 18 years old (!!!) and then assume that anyone who failed to obey this future foreign mandate. It is historically normal for the daughters of pre-industrial aristocrats or rich merchants (who start menstruating around 10-14) to marry around 12-16 and consumnate their marriages by 14-16. By our standards, almost all males from such families were "pedophiles" -- which shows the absurdity of these standards.
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[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-09-29 02:00 am (UTC)
I believe people also use this same idea to argue that the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt must be historical.
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[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-09-29 01:07 pm (UTC)
It might very well be true: there is archaeological evidence for the presence of a Hebrew minority in Egypt during and after the presumed time of Joseph. What's more, they would have come in under the Hyksos, and hence might have for obvious reasons been resented by the resurgent Egyptian nation come the New Kingdom -- the part of the history that the Bible studiously ignores.
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-09-29 08:54 pm (UTC)
Really? The consensus from people who were specifically sent out to prove it was "never happened".
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[User Picture]From: reddragdiva
2012-09-29 08:51 pm (UTC)

Richard Carrier conclusively demolishes the ridiculous Criterion of Embarrassment in Proving History (which I think everyone should read). Durant definitely nodded when he came up with that one.
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