While there are moral truths that all religions tend to share (don’t kill, don’t steal, be nice to people, etc.), religions also include “bizarre” differentiators to distinguish each religious community (often in food prohibitions, clothing choices, or supernatural beliefs). These “bizarre” elements hedge up the community and create borders between the religious group and those not in the religion. Without these “fences,” a church would cease to be a community. But a negative byproduct of these “bizarre” elements is that they are indefensible on grounds of logic or “truth.” So, what elements of Mormonism are “true” and which ones are merely “bizarre”?All religions contain elements that are “bizarre” or unique to them. These elements often contain a built-in justification or a way for members to explain why this bizarre or unique element is best. Some elements in other religions that might be viewed as “bizarre” to outsiders:
- Growing out “forelocks” as Hasidic Jews do.
- Eschewing technology as the Amish do.
- 7th Day Adventists considering Saturday as the Sabbath.
- Celibacy among priests and nuns of the Catholic faith.
- Jews not eating shellfish or pork.
- Muslim women wearing the hajib or burka.
- Scientology – where do I start? (not technically a religion, but you get the point)
It’s easy to distinguish the “bizarre” from the “true” when considering other faiths because we tend to think that the things we have in common are “true” but the ones we don’t are “bizarre” and can be dismissed. The same holds true when Mormonism is viewed from someone on the outside, unfamiliar with our practices. Consider how the following things look to outsiders: Word of Wisdom, garments, fasting monthly, paying 10% in tithing, the temple, not seeing R-rated movies, polygamy, and Sabbath day observance. Which of these are “true” and which are “bizarre”?
Generally, a practice is justified using one of the following means:
- There is an underlying principle that drives the practice. This can be tricky, though, and different people may accept different underlying principles. Consider the following possible justifications for the Word of Wisdom:
- A health code. Tobacco has been shown to be unhealthy, so one could say that the Word of Wisdom is a health code. However, alcohol, tea and coffee have not been shown to be unhealthy (users of these substances don’t have significantly shorter life spans, for example), so it could be difficult to convince outsiders that this is a “true” principle on the grounds of being a heavenly health code. Also, the WoW does not outlaw some more clearcut unhealthy practices like eating too much fatty fried foods.
- Addiction Avoidance. The principle could be that there should be moderation in all things and because some people become addicted to these substances, this is how to preserve one’s ability to choose. But because this is not true of all people, it’s kind of a shotgun principle that results in abstinence for all that only benefits a few.
- Spiritual enlightenment. As RSR pointed out, JS’s view of the WoW was that it would foster spiritual enlightenment. Of course, since it was not widely adopted until much later, this calls the practice into question.
- Secret or revealed knowledge. One justification for unique practices is that it’s touted as “secret” or “restored” or “revealed” knowledge. The “we don’t know” defense might fall into this category if the assumption is that the practice was revealed, but God’s ways are too mysterious for our limited human understanding. In the latter case, the “defense” of the practice is really just an assertion and may sound illogical to outsiders not prone to believe in revelation.
- Symbolic meaning. Some justifications for unique practices are that they have a symbolic meaning intended to teach adherents through allegory. Sometimes this is used in conjunction with a “revelation” defense to bolster a difficult to explain justification. While no one would dispute that circumcision has a “symbolic” purpose, early adult convert Christians were naturally reluctant to adopt this Jewish symbolic practice, which created a big division in the early Christian church.
- Proof. There is generally an underlying assumption that the unique element is ultimately “provable,” or at least so adherents believe. IOW, adherents would believe that ultimately the “truth” of the practice will be revealed, either in this life (born out by science, for example) or the one to come (when God says, “Yep, that was my idea!”).
OTOH, a practice might also serve a purpose to create sociological benefit by defining the community or making “a peculiar people.” If these elements are more “bizarre” or unique to create boundaries between groups and not necessarily based in truth, they may exist primarily for sociological reasons:
- To identify who is in and who is out of the group.
- To control the weak members of the organization and keep them in line. This makes the group more easily identifiable for admirable traits and aids missionary efforts.
- To discourage intermarriage outside the group.
- To provide an Abrahamic test of faith to new adherents and to foster loyalty through arbitrary requirements.
The tricky thing is that it’s not always cut & dried whether a unique practice is based in truth or is just there to reinforce group boundaries. Here are some possible classifications for unique practices.
- Justifiable / truth-based. There is a clear, easily explained justification for the practice that is based in true, verifiable events.
- Rule of thumb: If you explain the practice, you find your logic convincing.
- Partially justifiable / principle-linked. There is a justification or a link to a principle that can be used to explain the practice, but it is not self-evident and probably sounds a little weird to outsiders. Others might consider the justification unconvincing or weak.
- Ergo: You find the logic of the practice partly convincing, but partly weak. You have to make up what is lacking in logic in faith or suspension of disbelief or only accept the practice partially.
- Bizarre / unjustifiable / faith-based. There’s really no justification or explanation that makes any kind of logical sense to non-adherents or non-believers. Trying to explain the practice leaves one tongue-tied and feeling a bit silly.
- IOW: You neither have a convincing explanation for the practice, nor do you buy the ones you’ve heard. You may suspect the practice primarily exists for sociological reasons, to make us a “peculiar” people.
Of course the other difficulty is that someone may have what they feel is a good explanation for a practice, but another adherent may not buy it or believe it or may find it weak, so there’s a good deal of subjectivity. And subjectivity means it’s a perfect time for a poll! For each of the below unique Mormon practices, please choose whether you think it is True, Partially Justifiable or merely Bizarre. Be honest! (I apologize in advance if my descriptions of what might constitute a true, partially justifiable or bizarre reason don’t work for you individually – as I said, lots of subjectivity involved here!)
So, what do you think are some of the difficult to justify practices, from your perspective? Are there some I didn’t include here? Do you see value in this kind of boundary definition or do you think all religious practices should have logical justification or be discarded? Does your lack of justification for an individual practice make you less committed to the practice? Does it impact your religious devotion overall? Were you surprised by some of your answers? Discuss.