As happens from time to time, Brian Leiter linked to my prediction that Obama will win the election, producing a spike in visits to this site and more than the usual number of comments. William Blattner, who is, unless Google has failed me, a member of the Georgetown University Philosophy Department, calls me out on the characterization of Mormonism as "weird and creepy," asking "Do you really want to insult an entire denomination, a worldview, a set of deep commitments held by a great many people? That does not seem consonant with the generally high tone of your blog." I think Professor Blattner deserves some sort of response.
First of all, let me say -- if I may borrow a phrase from the listings in Jobs in Philosophy -- that as an atheist I am an Equal Opportunity Offender. I would prefer not to go out of my way to be offensive, but I have no hesitation in saying that Jews, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Muslims [not to mention Scientologists -- don't get me started], decent, intelligent, and well-meaning though they may be, believe things that are patently absurd, and -- what is not exactly the same thing, pace Tertullian -- false.
Professor Blattner is correct that in calling Mormonism "weird and creepy" I was, in part, meaning to suggest compendiously that the tenets of Mormonism, if actually aired to a larger mostly Christian audience, would strike those folks as weird and creepy, a fact that would work against Romney's political ambitions. But I did also mean to own that characterization, so perhaps I should say a bit more about why I describe the Church of Latter Day Saints and its doctrines in this patently offensive fashion. Again, since I am an atheist, drawing invidious distinctions among doctrines all of which I consider manifestly false is something of a mug's game. It is a bit like trying to say which September swoon of the Red Sox is the most egregious. Nevertheless, I said it, so I had better defend it.
Weird first, then creepy. Mormonism is one of a number of nineteenth century offshoots of Christianity [Shakerism is another considerably more attractive instance] that begin with the teachings of traditional Christianity, and then spin off alternative theological doctrines, leading in some cases to variations that look very little like the original teaching [although from a distance -- say from India or Japan or China -- what strike me as dramatic differences may look like no more than minor and marginal deviations.] Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden was in the United States. They believe that there are many worlds, and that an especially devout and highly placed member of the Church of Latter Day Saints may, when he ascends to heaven, be put in charge of his own planet [clearly a rather impressive consolation prize for a Mormon presidential candidate who fails to get 270 Electoral Votes.] Compare the belief, fervently held apparently many scores of millions of Americans, that we are in the End Times, rapidly approaching the Rapture, at which moment, the saved will ascend bodily to heaven, leaving behind clothing, jewelry, fillings, dental bridges, and prosthetic limbs.
Now, I find those beliefs weird. Never mind false. False doesn't even come into it. Just weird. Clearly this is an aesthetic judgment, and though Kant claims that aesthetic judgments can achieve "subjective universality," there is, I admit, an element of personal taste at work here. I don't find weird, in quite the same way, the standard Christian belief that the Son sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, but if someone wanted to claim weirdness for that familiar teaching, I would be hard pressed to dispute her.
Creepy is a different thing altogether. It is useful to invoke the familiar distinction between church doctrine and church practice or organization. I find the doctrines of Mormonism to be weird, but I find the practices of the Church of Latter Day Saints to be creepy. How so? Well, by all accounts that I have read or have watched online, Mormons conduct themselves, like many American religious cults, in a secretive and controlling fashion, dominating the lives of communicants, drawing a sharp line between what can be shown to outsiders and what goes on within the church, banning or ostracizing deviant members of the church, interceding between members of a family and attempting to ban faithful family members from having anything to do with heretics, and so forth. Mormonism is, of course, not at all alone in behaving this way. Many cults exhibit the same behavior, including some sects of Born-Again Christians, not to mention [once again] the Scientologists. And I find this sort of behavior, wherever it appears, creepy. It makes my flesh crawl. I say "wherever it appears" advisedly, because I have the same reaction to the various political cults that wrap themselves in the name of Karl Marx or Leo Strauss.
Well, enough is enough. As Aristotle observes, mud does not have a form, so there is not much to say about it [except that he did not say "mud."] I hope Professor Blattner will forgive me my descent into subjectivity.