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Are All Religions Equally Crazy?

Are less established religions really crazier than older mainstream ones? Or are mainstream religions just more familiar?

Does any religion make more sense than any other?

Atheists, by definition, don't think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true. And yet, for some weird reason, we're often asked to choose between them. Believers often accuse us of ignoring more moderate and progressive religions while we trash the low-hanging fruit of hard-line fundamentalism. We're accused of disregarding sophisticated modern theology so we can zero in on the simplistic faiths held by the hoi polloi. (Neither accusation is fair; many atheists, including myself, have taken aim at both modern theology and progressive religion, and in any case fundamentalism and other widely held religions are valid targets for critique -- but that's another rant.) Yet at the same time, many believers seek our approval for their particular beliefs. "Sure," they'll say, "a lot of those other religions are silly -- but my religion makes sense! Don't you agree? Don't you? Huh?"

For the most part, it's a game I don't like to play. I think all religions are equally implausible, equally based on cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. But sometimes, the battiness of a particular religion is powerfully borne in on me, to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. And it forces me to consider the question: Is this religion really any more batty than any other? Or is it just less popular? Less familiar? Is it simply newer, and thus has had less time for the more wildly ragged edges of its wackiness to smooth out? Is this religion really as crazy as it seems -- or are all religions equally crazy?

Magic Hats Versus Magic Snakes

First, just to be very clear: I'm not saying all religious believers are crazy. I'm saying religious beliefs are crazy. I'm criticizing the ideas, not the people. And when I say "crazy" (or "nutty" or "batshit" or "lunatic" or what have you), I don't mean "literally, clinically mentally ill." I mean "crazy" in the colloquial sense -- radically out of step with cultural norms, or out of touch with reality.

I was in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago giving a talk, and I took the opportunity to visit the Mormon Temple Square. If you're not a Mormon, you can't go inside the Mormon Temple itself; but Temple Square has all sorts of attractions for the non-Mormon visitor, including the tabernacle, the assembly hall... and two different visitors' centers, specifically designed to explain Mormonism to the non-Mormon, and to make the religion seem inspiring, and to entice people into the faith.

I have no doubt that it has that effect on many people. Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet; there must be something about it that people like. But its effect on me... Well, it was inspiring, all right. It inspired me right into a roller-coaster ride of hilarity and horror. It inspired me, at one point, to out-loud laughter that I was literally, physically unable to control. It inspired me to get the hell off their property, take several deep breaths, and rant with my wife about what a nightmare of indoctrination and brainwashing it was, before we plunged back in. It inspired me to work on my atheist activism ten times harder than I ever had.

But then I started thinking.

How much crazier is this, really, than any other religion?

Let's not mince words. There is some profoundly crazy stuff in Mormonism. The magic underwear. The retroactive baptism of the dead. Getting to be a god on your own planet after you die. The Garden of Eden being in Missouri. The foundational story of Joseph Smith reading secret magical golden plates through a magic hat. The baptismal font sitting on the backs of 12 cows. (Okay, fine, oxen. Still.) The washings and anointings and veils and temple garments and secret handshakes and other highly ritualized pseudo-Masonic ceremonies. Lying for the Lord. (No, really. Look it up.) The casual shrugging-off of well-known, thoroughly documented facts of history and archaeology that contradict Church doctrine. The shameless, barefaced retroactive continuity, to the point of actually lying about the religion's history. ("Polygamy is not a central tenet of Mormonism, and it never was. Racial bigotry is not a central tenet of Mormonism, and it never was. Stop looking at the Book of Mormon. No, stop it. We'll tell you what our religion says, thank you very much.") Mormonism loves to present a wholesome, clean-cut image of almost obsessive normality to the public... but when you scratch the surface, what you see is howling, chaotic lunacy. That assessment may seem harsh -- but if these ideas were presented in any context other than a religious one, nobody would be debating it.

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