Last year there were a bunch of books analyzing Trump, the Big Lie, Jan. 6, and so forth, typically by journalists (academics take longer to analyze and publish). How did this happen? Where is this going? Now we’re getting books that look at post-Trump conservative politics in the same way, trying to understand how it happened and what the future holds. One I read last week: Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind, by Robert Draper (Penguin Press, 2022). Worth a read if you can find it.

Of course, one man’s delusion is another man’s belief or conviction. It’s easy to label another person’s belief a delusion if you don’t share it. But we live in a tolerant and diverse society. Most of us acknowledge that the beliefs of others, whether political or scientific or religious, can differ from ours without at the same time thinking they are nuts or delusional. It has to be a belief for which there is little or no evidence, or even a bunch of contrary evidence, to get the label. Conspiracy theories, usually held by a small fringe element, generally qualify. What makes The Big Lie so unusual and so compelling is that it is widely held. The Big Lie has shown us an ugly truth about our present-day world: Just because a belief is widely held doesn’t mean it isn’t delusional. A sobering thought. Millions of Russians think Ukraine and NATO are the aggressors against Russia, despite the fact that neither NATO nor Ukraine conducted any aggression against Russia over the last seventy years. Millions of Muslims think Muhammad flew a winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem. Millions of Mormons think … think what?

Let’s call the religious form of a widely held but delusional belief a doctrine of mass delusion. This would be a widely held religous belief for which there is insufficient evidence or no evidence or even contrary evidence. It’s easy to make a list for someone else’s religion or denomination, tougher for your own. But self-criticism is worthwhile. Someone else can look at Catholic or Muslim or Hindu delusions (beliefs to believers, delusions to outsiders). This is a Mormon blog. We’ll look at Mormon delusions.

There are plenty of defensible and worthwhile Mormon beliefs. The idea of Zion, a town where everyone is nice to everyone else, is a fine ideal and probably motivates some Mormons to be better people. Fasting doesn’t do any harm (unless you have a medical condition that warns against fasting) and kicking in a few bucks to help those in need seems like a good thing. You can think of others. Maybe a way to get at delusions is to think of what an outsider would roll their eyes at. If you gave a sheet of paper to a reasonable non-LDS person who knew a thing or two about Mormonism and said “write down the widely held Mormon beliefs you think are just crazy,” what would be on their list? And why are they widely held despite lacking evidence?

Here are a couple of candidates.

Golden Plates. Eight men hefted a heavy box (in which Joseph said there were plates). Three men had some sort of visionary experience (in which they said an angel showed them visionary plates). Emma riffed the edges of something under a sheet. Then an angel conveniently retrieved the plates so they are gone. (But left the seer stones now acknowledged and displayed by the Church.) It seems no one but Joseph actually saw, or even claimed to see, real-world plates as they are described in current LDS discourse and believed by millions of Mormons.

Organizational Revelation. I’m not going to talk about the whole broad topic of revelation, just the narrower 21st-century belief most Mormons seem to hold that all leadership decisions, all across the significance spectrum, are deeply inspired by God. From two-hour church to dropping the term “Mormon” to the latest directive to make sure you say a prayer at the beginning of Sunday School — these aren’t just good ideas or needed tweaks to the system, they are Revelation. The boss says “let’s limit our Friday meeting to 30 minutes,” it’s a good idea. The bishop says “let’s limit Ward Council to 30 minutes,” it’s inspired. The President says “let’s limit church on Sunday to two hours,” it’s Revelation. Even in cases where a noticeable change is made, then a few years later the change is reversed — most Mormons are happy to think *both* changes are revelation! I can see why leaders are happy to push this view. It’s not so clear why millions of Mormons accept it and repeat it with little or no reflection.

Now remember — this is self-criticism, a good thing. Think a bit and see what you can add.

  • Any other candidates for Mormon doctrines of mass delusion?
  • Are such beliefs harmless or harmful?
  • One might think that, in the long run, mass delusions, in religion or elsewhere, would decline in our post-Enlightenment world. Right now, in 2023, I’m not so sure. The problem seems to be getting worse.
  • Have you ever discarded from your own personal psyche a mass delusion? How did you accomplish this feat?
  • Do you still hold a belief that others might consdier a mass delusion, whether doctrinal or otherwise?
  • Can a religion, any religion, survive without at least one or two doctrines of mass delusion?
  • Can the average person get by in life without at least a few personal or mass delusions? If you truly stare into the abyss and it stares back at you, where does that leave you?