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Debating Mormonism: Why and How
WRITTEN BY LIZ EMERY, AAI NEWS TEAM
Atheists long enjoyed watching Christopher Hitchens “slap” believers, especially during formal public debates. But debaters accepting Hitch’s baton must likewise prepare diligently or get “slapped” themselves during debates. In the following article, Liz Emery offers valuable insider’s advice to atheists intent on debating Mormons. Raised and homeschooled by Mormon parents in Utah, Liz served in multiple Church leadership roles and was accepted to study at Bringham Young University. She instead attended Utah State University, where she wrote a weekly column for the university’s newspaper. Today she lives in Chicago, but continues to study the Mormon Church.
The recent debate between biblical literalist Ken Hamm and scientist Bill Nye has raised an old question: Is it useful for atheists to debate believers, or do debates give unnecessary validity to irrational arguments? Religious arguments rest solely on faith, not scientific evidence, and debate formats do not allow secularists to conduct a course on epistemology. Victor Stenger has argued convincingly that debates favor Christian apologists who regularly perform in front of audiences and that atheists face a formidable task in preparing properly.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that hosting a debate to inform and persuade an audience can be both productive and useful—particularly if the religion in question is an up-and-coming entity with an aggressive marketing campaign that seeks to cover its disturbingly cultish teachings under the guise of family-friendly salvation for all. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the “LDS Church” or the “Mormon Church”) is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world; according to its own reporting, over 15 million members makes it the fourth largest religious body in the United States.
As Mormonism seeks to become more mainstream, and as prominent members of the faith publicly own their religion (Mitt Romney is an obvious example, but Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the music group The Killers, and fiction writer Orson Scott Card are Mormons as well), it becomes increasingly important for interested parties to know the glaring doctrinal inconsistencies, social injustices, and immorality inherent in Mormon culture and history as modern Mormon teaching conveniently circumvents these issues. Indeed, Mormon doctrine disregards “enemies of the faith,” and members are taught that any literature questioning the validity of the Church must be avoided at all costs. But in order to truly integrate themselves with mainstream America, Mormons can’t help but participate in conversations about the validity of their faith.
In a recent debate held at this year’s American Atheist Convention (in Salt Lake City, of all places), David Silverman, president of the association, debated a couple of LDS men who are experts in their religion’s history (you can watch the debate on YouTube, although you’ll probably fall asleep fifteen minutes in). Unfortunately Silverman had not thoroughly educated himself on Mormonism before the debate. Maybe with some sects you can get away with that, but with the Mormons, you must be prepared. Generally, Mormons are smart, educated, mostly kindhearted people who are thoroughly convinced of the ultimate truth of their religion. Ultimately, this can work in your favor in a debate, but it means there are some things you absolutely need to know before going in.
Perhaps the most important thing to know is that you are not going to change the Mormons’ mind. You can’t. You are there to educate your audience. It is therefore critical that you remain emotionally separate from the argument. Mormons are renowned for their impeccable friendliness; a well-educated, faith-filled Mormon is not going to even flinch at your arguments. Give yourself that same confidence and demeanor; remain respectful, and avoid confrontational language or a snarky attitude.
You should expect your Mormon opponents to really know their stuff. In past debates and conversations doctrinal apologists and BYU professors have represented the Church. These guys have heard it all, and they’ll have their responses prepared, even if they only rely on faith or scripture. It is therefore critical that you have a thorough understanding of Mormon history, doctrine, and scripture (as much as possible: I’m not advocating a full reading of the Book of Mormon to anyone who doesn’t have hours to waste). No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie is an easy-reading examination of Joseph Smith’s behavior and motives in founding Mormonism. Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman is another great biography of Smith; written by a Mormon, it’s much longer than Brodie’s work, but is candidly written and therefore useful. Read the Church’s website, Mormon.org. Talk to Mormons you know. Do your research on the various Mormon sects that exist now, and have existed, and known when, where, and why Mormons have made important doctrinal changes.
At the start of a debate, it’s wise to focus on early Mormon doctrine. An audience should know the differences between the Church’s spin on its origins and its true history. This knowledge will provide a foundation for your later criticisms of the Church. Specifically, you should focus on:
- Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones and a hat to interpret the Book of Mormon from the golden plates he supposedly received from the Angel Moroni. Know how he used them and how he changed his explanation of how these plates supposedly worked. Know Smith’s response when a major part of the book was stolen, and which parts of the story Mormon proselytizers use to persuade potential converts—and which they leave out.
- Smith’s well-documented predilection for fraudulent behavior before, and during, his creation of Mormonism. An effective approach is to ask the audience: Which is more likely: that Smith, a poor, uneducated teenager with a tendency to use magic to defraud others, was actually visited by Jesus Christ and instructed to be the sole vessel for God’s revelation; or, that he wrote the Book of Mormon with the self-admitted intention to sell it, and then made the rest of it up?
- Learn how Mormon doctrine “evolved” over time. Smith’s account of the First Vision—the critical revelation in which he spoke with God and Jesus Christ—didn’t surface until years after it supposedly occurred. The subsequent “revelations” he dictated to members (including to his unsettled wife on the subject of polygamy) are clearly fictional. Know key doctrinal shifts—including shifts on polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, blood sacrificial rituals, increasingly liberal attitudes toward the LGBT community, and advocates of women rights—and the motives for each shift.
- Understand the general religious fervor and mindset of eastern Americans in the early 19th century. For example, the belief that American Indians descended from Middle Easterners, a major plot theme in the Book of Mormon, was typical in Joseph Smith’s day. This mindset and fervor provided fertile ground for Smith.
- Know which of the important early Mormons left the Church and why. Understand the historical context of the Mormon trek west, as well as the Mormon War.
Once you familiarize your audience with early Mormon history, the most important question you can ask is this: Regardless of whether the Mormon doctrine is true, is it a force for good? Does it promote ethical practices that we should condone? Do you want someone to elect a Mormon as President of the United States, or even as mayor? Among the points to touch:
- Mormonism as a business. Church members donate 10% of their income. According to the Church’s website, over the last 20 years, over $1 billion has been donated in various forms of humanitarian aid. However, considering that experts estimate that the Church collects over $8 billion annually in tithing alone, is the member tithe put to good use? Was the $1.5 billion the Church spent in the last few years building the enormous shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City a good use of Church funds? Contrast Mormon practices with recent statements by Pope Francis and his insistence that priests practice their vow of poverty. You might also raise the question of financial transparency; Mormon spending is completely secret. As a primer, consider reading an excellent article in Business Week about how the Mormon Church makes money.
- Is the Mormon Church’s recent attempts to totally distance itself from fundamentalist polygamous sects really honest? Given that the doctrine of polygamy is still maintained as part of Mormon scripture, is it ethical that the Mormon Church accepts no responsibility for teachings that allow so many youth to be abused in polygamist sects?
- Is the patriarchal society—strong enough to recently excommunicate a woman who vocalized the desire for equality among men and women—a good thing? Is the rampant cover-up of sex abuse in the Mormon Church, and the enormous settlements paid out by the Church and the Boy Scouts of America, conducive to improving our society?
- Do you want, as a leader of your country, or even your local municipality, someone who believes that men hold God’s Priesthood Power, but a woman’s “power” is found only in motherhood? Someone who believes that homosexuals must necessarily be alone forever because they cannot morally have a partner? Someone who believes that, in the afterlife, men must hold multiple wives in order to achieve the highest form of exaltation?
- Considering that experts estimate only 4-5 million out of the Church’s officially claimed 15 million are actually active members, are the Church’s membership claims dishonest? Why do they claim such an exorbitant number? What are their retention rates?
- It is good to send 18-year-old men straight from high school to “serve” a Mormon mission during two of the most formative (and important for college education) years of their life?
- Why is a disproportionately large number of homeless youth in Utah LGBT? Does Mormonism encourage a family culture in which child abandonment is acceptable?
As you do your research, you will undoubtedly discover other issues worthy of debate. Ask the questions, and let the audience draw its own conclusions.
As one last aside—don’t debate whether Mormonism is true Christianity. This topic is the center of many Mormon debates, but it presupposes the doctrine of either fundamental Christianity or Mormonism is worth debating. It isn’t, so leave that question to the believers. If a debater wants to use Mormon scripture to support his argument, let him; the Book of Mormon, and all of its sister scriptures, is easily disproven as a source of divine revelation, and a Mormon’s reliance on it will say much more about the validity of his argument than yours.