"It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing
invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity's great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact."
--Christopher Hitchens ("god is Not Great")
Recently I have been listening to a great YouTube series called "An Atheist Reads" in which the host, Steve Shives, reads and analyzes from his atheistic perspective various Christian books meant to convert atheists to Christianity. With titles like "The Reason for God", "I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist", "Reasonable Faith", "You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think", "The Case for Christ", and the highly lauded "Mere Christianity" by C.S Lewis, one would think that if these books contained any compelling arguments or evidence for Christianity then Mr. Shives would be a most outspoken Christian by now. Yet, he continues to doubt. Interesting.
At any rate, I have been toying with the idea of doing a similar series of posts on this blog of the Book of Mormon. For those who do not know, the Mormon church holds that in the early 1800s, the boy-prophet Joseph Smith ascertained an ancient record of the Native Americans on some gold plates from an angel, was given a divine means to translate the record into English, and that this translation is the Book of Mormon. This is the church's primary scriptural text--their holy book. It would seem that most new religions have one.
So, let's give it a go, shall we?
The Book of Mormon begins with a Jewish man named Nephi recounting the story of his family living in Jerusalem before the Babylonian take-over (1 Nephi 1), approximately 600 B.C. This will become very important in coming chapters, especially when dealing with the proposed chronology of events in the book relative to citations to the Bible contained therein.
In this chapter--the very first chapter in the Book of Mormon--we have the Patriarch of Nephi's family, Lehi, acting in much the same way Noah did before the Great Flood; which is to say, he travels around Jerusalem warning people about the impending Babylonian siege should the people of the city not repent of their wickedness (This strikes me as an attempt to get the reader to begin associating the Book of Mormon prophets with those of the Bible, as though such a parallel would indicate authenticity.). Verse 4 implies that this practice of soap-box evangelism was common place at this time. But is having an elderly man preach repentance and destruction to a crowd really the most effective way to deter people from sinning and cause them to change their ways? I doubt very many people have been convinced through such a method except out of fear and ignorance.
And what kind of message is it to say that god will destroy the entire city should the people not follow his orders? This is a threat of violence on par with a mob boss giving an offer which cannot be refused ("That's a lovely city you got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it..."). Such hucksterism, as shameful as it may be, is also quite common in Christianity with threats of hell-fire and eternal damnation and torment, especially during Joseph Smith's life when big-tent revivals were fairly common. Joseph admits to attending several such revivals as a boy. And how did he determine which preacher was correct and inspired by god? God told him in person they were all wrong and abominations in his sight. God seems to arbitrarily determine who is worthy of not having to take such extraordinary claims on faith. Instead of offering such a firm answer to us regular folks, god apparently prefers that the vast majority of his believers follow second-hand accounts without any verification of their own--at least not the kind of verification that could actually be said to verify anything definitively or in the same way as seeing god in person.
In verses 5-14, Nephi describes a vision which his father Lehi uses to base his prophetic claims of destruction. The vision itself has a ring of modernity to it as Nephi describes angels surrounding god and his throne. In one passage Lehi reads from a book which describes what happens to those who do not repent, which is followed by a most peculiar bit about god not allowing those who do come unto him to perish: "thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!" As we know through historical records (rather than religious texts) the whole city was taken over, and those who were not killed in the onslaught were made slaves. This indicates to me that no one was spared, not even children. As unlikely as it may seem that not a single person would have made it out unscathed, this level of severity and barbarism as a consequence from god is very much in line with several accounts in the Old Testament, although this should hardly be seen as an excuse for god. Bad behavior, however consistent it may be, is still bad.
It is interesting to me that Nephi takes Lehi's account of this vision, and the interpretations and implications of it, at face value. Nephi never questions his father. He never asks how Lehi knows it was a vision inspired by god, rather than a dream of his own mind's making. This trend of taking prophecies at face value continues throughout much of the Book of Mormon, often describing doubters in a negative light. This is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate the reader to shove aside their own doubts, or to feel guilty for asking questions.
In verse 17 we have a reference to metal plates being used to keep records. While the practice is not entirely unheard of in the ancient world, Mormon apologists will often try to paint the practice as common. This is, of course, simply their attempt to lend credence to the idea that Joseph Smith finding plates of gold with a historical record to be feasible. But even if we did not know that ancient record keeping was more often done with papyrus, the common use of metal for such records would not lend any credence to the proposed divine origin of the Book of Mormon. Not to mention that according to archaeologists and anthropologists Native Americans did not have the technological capacity to make such metal plates.
As before, in verse 18 Nephi (or Joseph Smith) expects the reader to take Lehi's prophecies at face value, without offering any way to verify that Lehi's warnings are truly god-sent. And those who did not simply adhere to the pronouncements of a shouting old man on a street corner, verses 19-20 describe them as "mocking" Lehi and being "angry" with him to the point of seeking to kill him. The implication here is that the people knew that Lehi was speaking the truth about "their wickedness and their abominations", and they would rather get rid of Lehi than repent, again, drawing parallels to the Biblical prophets.
To recap: god expects readers to take at face value assertions made by self-proclaimed prophets without any evidence or verification, and will punish those who do not accept their message with unfathomable destruction, captivity and death. There's a good god.