On the one hand, I genially dismiss all religious dogmas which take the form of truth claims. Despite the manful efforts of gifted theologians and apologists throughout the centuries, faith (at least the portion represented by falsifiable statements about alleged real-world events) and reason continue to be mutually exclusive. I don't think any intelligent person genuinely believes in transubstantiation, for instance. In fact, I don't even think any intelligent person could even conceive of what it would be like to believe in transubstantiation.
The same goes for the various virgin births and miracles and the truth claims contained in the Jataka tales, Muhammed's night journey, Methuselah's age, etc. The more intelligent sort of religious person quietly acknowledges that these fables usefully inspire the simple-minded, but regards them as slightly embarrassing. They are like the 'miraculous' madonna figures in various cathedrals which are draped with lovingly hand-sewn (often kitschy) robes and jewelry. We discreetly walk past these, even though they are surrounded by throngs of believers, to admire some elegantly carved Gothic altar.
This is all by way of saying that I'm not singling Mormonism out. But boy howdy, Mormonism is strange. In America, it's considered poor form to mock someone's religious beliefs, no matter how odd they are. But the rules are different in Europe, so here goes. Mormonism's very origins are entertaining, as Laurie Winer's fine potted history of the religion (and its changing beliefs) shows:
In 1823, [founder of the church Joseph] Smith later reported, he was first visited by the angel Moroni, who revealed to him the existence of ancient golden plates, buried two miles from the Smith home, on which the true story of the gospel was written. Years later Smith, having “purified” himself, took possession of the plates. He kept them covered and advised friends and family that looking at them would mean instant death. Peering into a stovepipe hat and using a seer stone, Smith dictated what would become the Book of Mormon to different scribes. The plates told the story of mankind in a language called “reformed Egyptian.” Among the surprises: in 600 B.C., after being warned by God to flee Jerusalem, a Hebrew prophet named Lehi and his family built a ship and sailed to America.
Take that, Columbus! And here is the conception of the afterlife:
There are three heavens and one hell. The three heavens are ranked from most holy to least by their “degrees of glory." The celestial kingdom is the most desirable, and serves as the destination for all those who accept Jesus, are baptized within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whether before or after death), and remain faithful throughout their lives. People who die before the age of 8, when Mormons are baptized, also go to the celestial kingdom. The next most desirable heaven is called the terrestrial kingdom, which holds all those who don’t fully accept Jesus on Earth, but who are basically good people and accept him after death. The telestial kingdom is for those who never truly accept Jesus, and includes murderers, as well as “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie.” These unbelievers must first suffer for their sins, but eventually end up in a blissful place “surpassing the great understanding of men.”
Now, this isn't going to be one of those ZOMG-this-crazy-religion-makes-Romney-dangerous posts. Like most Americans, Mitt Romney is expert at keeping his religious beliefs and his wordly interests separate when they conflict. Romney's behavior shows a mixture of cunning greed (as his world-class tax fiddling shows), religious charity, and political prudence and moderation. He's already told us he won't let his religion influence his Presidential policies, and I believe him.
But really, the more you read about Mormonism, the more delightfully kooky it becomes. And the special bonus is that the world -- definitely including Europe -- is crawling with well-groomed young men who want induct you into their preposterous religion! Mitt Romney spent a couple years in France doing just that, surely to the bemusement of the French. They're easily recognizable by their white shirts, name tags, dark pants, and backpacks: