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Thursday, July 26, 2012

"WEIRD AND CREEPY?"

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. 

6 comments:

Scott said...

Not to mention that the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was an obvious charlatan and fraud. His troubled relationship with the law due to lying to people about his wild treasure-hunting schemes, as well as his convenient "revelations" requiring men to go into "plural marriage" are telling.

In addition, the Mormon Church was an officially racist organization until 1978, when another "revelation" showed that God apparently changed his mind about Black people: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_people_and_The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints

Rob said...

I'm reading Strauss at the moment. I'm curious to know what you may find distasteful. I've read his On Tyranny, the famous persecution and the art of writing article and I've been listening to his lectures. He seems to be doing two main things. The most important thing is his idea that there is a core agreement between all the ancients that knowledge of the 'fundamental problems' is attainable only for some, and so it should be restricted as a matter of good policy (that seems to be the implication, and it is rather Platonic/totalitarian). And he does some other things, he is against 'positivists' and modern Machiaveilli and Hobbes', because of their power obsessed picture of human motivation (later recreated in a similar and more intense phsycological incarnation in Kojeve's reading of Hegel).
Anyway, I find him really quite interesting, although I don't know much about any cult associated with his name apart from various accusations thrown around when neo-cons were more powerful in the U.S. These to me, it seemed, were false simply because they were so far fetched, and because of my own understanding of what is possible or achieveable in politics.

formerly a wage slave said...

Are you sure Aristotle said there is no form of mud? So far as I know, when we speak about Plato and Aristotle in English, it is usual to say Aristotle believed in universals, Plato "forms".. I suspect you have mis- remembered a passage in the Parmenides, a passage which is frequently mis- interpreted. It is not that there are no forms for dirt, mud, and hair. On the contrary, the character of Socrates inclines in that direction, but the Stranger wants to suggest ( and so Plato wants to suggest) that a better reason is needed, that more systematic reasons are needed for making an ontological commitment. As I say, I do think people mis- understand this, but I write late at night/ early in the morning, and from memory.....( incidentally the point about forms versus universals matters because there are different metaphysical theories possible once nominalism is rejected, and the move to Platonism is not automatic --- a point I recently saw muddled by a "Platonist" of my acquaintance linked at the illustrious Leiter reports.......)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Boy, it is so many decades since I read the passage I am vaguely recalling that I suspect you are quite right. That is what happens when you toss in a throw-away line without a little fact checking. Thanks for keeping me honest.

formerly a wage slave said...

You're welcome.
Actually, after writing, I took a quick peak at the passage; so, I think my memory was more or less correct.
I also had the after-thought that Aristotle might have somewhere said something about this in his lost work "On the Ideas" because it contains lines of the sort: "The Platonists say that there are no forms of negations...". (A commentary on the lost work survives.)
Anyway, I think the "Parmenides" passage is significant insofar as there is a line of interpretation of Plato that says the Forms are objects of "value" or some such thing.....The Parm. passage is part of the body of evidence that shows he had something more subtle in mind (at least by the time of Parm.).....
(All of this should be read with a grain of salt as I'm not au courrant with the most recent scholarship....though it is surprising how little I've learned when I manage to find time to view a few things by active and prominent scholars. Many of the deepest confusions are purely philosophical and cannot be settled by philology or "careful reading".....

William Blattner said...

Professor, you in fact did find the correct William Blattner. And thank you for answering my question. Do you think the following would be a fair gloss on what you're trying to say:

(a) You find many of the beliefs in Mormon doctrine to be weird.

(b) You find some of the practices of the Mormon Church, esp. its institutional infrastructure, creepy.

(c) But you don't really want to insult individual Mormons, esp. not as a blanket act. I think it may be hard to avoid doing so, if you want to defend the weirdness and creepiness claims, but it's your blog. I myself think that it is not conducive to civil discourse and mutual understanding to do so. To quote John Dewey, "Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life. For everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life" ("Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us").

I hope not to sound too "sanctimonious," as I was accused of being in the prior thread. I address you in this way out of respect based on a lifetime of your achievement and insight.