We had the pleasure of seeing The Book of Mormon last week which is a wonderful satire of religion in the form of a Broadway musical. The evolution of the relations between the Mormons and the Ugandans gives some nice insights into “human development” and what can be thought of as “white privilege”. The Mormons will go back to a safe place while the Ugandans remain in a country terrorised by religious and tribal warlords. The stakes are much higher for the Ugandans in relation to any affiliations they choose, while the Mormons have a return ticket to Salt Lake City.
There are some good insights into the foundations of religion, at least at the sociological and historical level. How best to meet human beings spiritual needs is a very different question to enquiring into the motivations of the founders and the spiritual / ideological foundations of organised religions. The foundational periods of the world religions are so far back in time and so shrouded in myth it is difficult to clearly see them at the moment of their formation. An additional question is what documents survived to tell us about the foundation moment – were critical documents destroyed, were “fake news” propaganda documents written down much later, etc.?
This is why I love Mormonism and Scientology – the foundation moment is so recent that there are plenty of observers out there who were and are able to provide real time commentary on the character and beliefs of the founders and on the subsequent institutional evolution of the “church” founded in their name. It is all very well to say of religion that it provides community and welfare for its adherents but if these positive features are built on a gimcrack fantasy set of beliefs is this a fair trade off – modest psychological security in exchange for blind obedience to potentially dangerous and anti-scientific beliefs? Perhaps we can look back at Galileo and Darwin and think – that was a long time ago, – but the conservative religious are those most easily duped into believing global warming does not exist. Jesus F. Christ you people.
Mormon theology is essentially built on a Third Testament given by Jesus in the period while he was allegedly entombed for three days in Jerusalem after the crucifixion prior to the resurrection. Jesus was magicked to upstate New York where his teachings to a couple of stray Jewish tribes were written down on golden plates, along with the subsequent history of these stray Jewish, presumably now Christian, tribes up until their war to the death some time later. (This could be a bit wrong, but the gist is right-ish.) In the 1820s Joseph Smith dug up these golden tablets and transcribed the teachings into what became the Book of Mormon. Joseph had some magic glasses which enabled him to read the ancient middle eastern script the book was written in. The tablets then vanished from view after being transcribed and no-one after Joseph and possibly a small number of family and friends ever saw the golden tablets. Modern Mormon scholars describe the story of the plates as “troublesome”.
Like many another (all ?) charismatic preacher Joe Smith had heard the Lord tell him that polygamy was a grand thing for the founders of the religion as what better way to build a base of support than to breed a base of support. “Oh well, Lord, if you say so I guess I’ll have to go and sleep with lots of attractive young women. It’s my spiritual duty to spread the word and the sperm.” (Tough gig.)
Oh, and since I’ve started a great new religion for y’all – did I mention tithing? It’s important for my spiritual growth and the growth of the church that you give me a percentage of your earnings. Bless you, and may the Lord rain down his benefits on you, possibly in the next life!
One on the spot account was written by Rev Henry Caswall, Among the Mormons: My Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842. I particularly liked the story about Holy Joe, drunk at the tavern, informing people “I am a P.R.O.F.I.T.”, and also that the local Indians called him Tshe-wal-lis-ke, which means rascal. Indeed!
The writers of the play the Book of Mormon were initially famous for South Park and one of the most famous episodes of South Park was the one that had Tom Cruise and the Scientologists. Elron Hubbard has always been fairly famous for his near quote about making a million bucks by starting a religion. So much the better if you get Hollywood celebrities on board and are able to coerce their continued loyalty through the threat of blackmail. The South Park episode just quoted some of the daft C grade 50s sci fi that passes for their theology – Xenu! Xenu! and the billions of souls destroyed in nuclear conflagrations aiming to get clear through to advanced Thetan state by paying them lotsamoney for magic boxes. Great stuff – probably horribly wrong about what they believe, but if you are prepared to believe some of that bullshit you obviously have some issues with how you process information. I read a great book on Elron in the 90s with the best title – “Bare Faced Messiah.” This has obviously been superseded by the recent films which I can’t say I’ve seen yet. Tony Ortega is the guy to go for updates on Elron’s scam religion. He’s been covering it for more than 20 years.
Back in the 70s if you felt like some exotic spiritual wisdom you had the option of T. Lobsang Rampa, “an unemployed surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, seeking to support himself as a ghostwriter” about a Tibetan Monk. ( Love the slag a prole comment. ) Rampa seems to be, as Douglas Adams would have it, “mostly harmless”, and in fact seems to have inspired many people to read up on Tibetan Buddhism. For his sins against scholarship he took himself and his royalty cheques into Canadian exile.
A second option was Carlos Castenada and the location of spiritual enlightenment in this case was reputedly in the Mexican desert where one could ingest peyote and partake of traditional Indian wisdom. Castenada was studying anthropology in Los Angeles at the time and many wondered how much time he could have devoted to his field trips given the amount of time he spent in the rare books section of the library. Additionally, experts in their fields questioned Castenada’s lack of knowledge of Indian words for plants and animals, his descriptions of the climate in the Sonora desert, and the fact that no-one else had ever heard of the shaman, Don Juan.
Late in his life Castenada appears to have come increasingly under the sway of a group of women, described as his witches, and attempts were made to capitalise on popularity of his books. “Castaneda had built himself up as a prophet through the Don Juan books,” said anthropologist Courtney Jay Fikes. “The bible, so to speak, was written; but there was no ritual, so it was necessary to invent one.”
Whatever the merits of Castenada’s spiritual teachings it seems that his home was hastily departed by those living there within hours of his death and the $20+M estate vanished as well. The Mike Sager article is a long read but is quite fascinating.
We can’t know very much about Moses, Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed through the fog of the centuries. It is certainly interesting to watch the birth or failure of modern religions in real time. Rampa seems to have been a benign literary hoaxster and the early Castenada may have been as well. In later life Castenada and his cohorts seem to have decided to extort as much as they could from his followers prior to his death. It seems unlikely that there will be a subsequent history of “Castenadism”.
Scientology looks and acts so much like a scam that you wouldn’t be surprised if they had a bank account in Lagos they wanted us to send money to.
Mormonism is a conservative sort of Christian church that has swept many of the more disreputable aspects of its foundation under the carpet and set itself up as a dominant institution in Utah. Utah’s accession as a state of the USA was delayed until after polygamy was abolished and this was a very heated debate in the late 19th century. In the end the pull of Mammon was worth more to Utah than strict adherence to Holy Joe’s precepts. In recent times they’ve let beer into the state and collectively held their nostrils while voting for Trump.
Go see Book of Mormon – it’s great fun.