Monday, August 22, 2011

book club

I just read an awesome book about the history of Mormonism and the modern fundamentalists (the latter are really crazy! There are pockets of thousands of fundamentalists living in essentially totalitarian communities, like, right now! In the US!). Somehow I have managed to survive in complete ignorance of everything Mormon through high school (thank you, GDS american history!) and college (well that was my fault I only took one history class...fuck), and despite the fact that Mormons used to live in my basement. In my defense, they moved out when I was five (?) on account of having too many babies.

Of the many aspects of Mormonism that make it so incredibly fascinating is the fact that it was gettin' started recently enough that there's such a rich record of its origins, which, unfortunately for Mormons, this don't make for the most flattering picture. It also makes various claims in the Book of Mormon eminently falsifiable, like the fact that all Native Americans are descended from the Israelites (DNA sequencing has shown their last common ancestor to be much older).

The book's anti-religious argument (which is subtle, but I think, pervasive) goes further. In one of the book's most poignant scenes, two psychologists duel it out on the witness stand, giving conflicting testimony over whether the defendant in a murder trial should be considered insane for claiming to have received revelations directly from God—in this case, revelations ordering the murder itself. The prosecution witness makes the obvious point that religious people claiming to communicate directly with God are all over the place; in addition, people of every religious denomination subscribe to beliefs that can hardly be justified based on evidence; should we consider all of them crazy? But if we don't think the murderer in this case is insane, does that mean we allow for normal, functioning sane people to have consistently detailed delusions?

The whole book makes a great argument against religious faith by inconsistent revelations; throughout the book there are dozens of people claiming to be the one true Mormon prophet, communicating regularly and directly with God, and even willing to stake their lives on their prophethood. But their revelations are all wildly inconsistent, flatly contradictory, and in too many instances, crazy illegal. In the end it's an argument about human nature: we are quick to put faith in ourselves and our own delusions.

Interestingly a lot of people on Amazon seem to take issue with the book's message, which is to say they accuse it of anti-Mormon bias. Of course I'm not historian, so I don't really know whether the book is biased or not, but I think these people are confusing argument with bias. No, the book doesn't paint a flattering picture of Mormonism or religion, but I think that's kinda the point.

Another big theme of the book is polygamy and its role (which is a big fat one) in the LDS and fundamentalist LDS churches past and present, especially leading up to the murders mentioned above. I mean some people really get carried away with the polygamy thing. Krakauer fails to mention and investigate an obvious mathematical consequence of fundamentalist mormons' practice of polygamy (actually polygyny): unmarried, sexually frustrated men. No wonder these communities tend to fracture often! I assume that "plural marriage" is in practice a luxury reserved only for the well-connected and powerful in these fundamentalist communities. Still, it doesn't take too many men with 20 wives in a small community of 5,000 or so to really screw with gender ratios. It's no surprise that the powerful men end up taking younger and younger women as wives, because these communities must be continuously short for eligible women. Krakauer argues, by implication, that polygamy leads to pedophilia through a general lack of respect for women and their choices, but the connection is in fact much more direct.


  1. That point about determining the arbitrary line between religious experience and delusion is so relevant to my psychiatry rotation right now! My rule-of-thumb interpretation (in my 7 whole days of psychiatry) is that anything that comes along with frank hallucinations (hearing the voice of God or whatever) is probably pathological. I imagine it gets very, very complicated with a religious delusion in someone who otherwise can "reality test" appropriately. In the same way that people with psychiatric problems have to be bothered by them or have some interference with normal functioning in order to qualify for a diagnosis, I'd hope that any religious belief that led a person to do obviously socially unacceptable things like murder people would automatically be considered pathological too.

  2. well but doesn't the latter put you in a bit of a catch-22 in terms of prosecuting religious fanatics? you're under the boundary for crazy up until the point where you've murdered someone, but then at that threshold you're insane and can't be held accountable? or are you using the word pathological in a different sense

  3. I know absolutely nothing about how any of this works legally, but in terms of "is someone a candidate for treatment of psychiatric disease up to and including antipsychotic drugs," the person's subjective assessment of themselves gets a lot of the final say in terms of whether to make a diagnosis, UNLESS that person is presenting an imminent physical threat either to themselves or to others.

    I should add that in my (again very, very, very limited) experience, figuring out how to get someone to recognize their psychotic delusions as pathological can be difficult, BUT it's almost always pretty obvious from the non-patient side. In other words, there aren't a lot of ambiguously psychotic deeply religious people around. People are either psychotic or not and the difference is generally kind of obvious. (ie even very radical religious people will probably not endorse literally hearing the voice of God in their ears).