Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Latest Excommunication

A Mormon named Grant Palmer is facing excommunication subsequent to publishing a book which basically denies the divine inspiration of the founding of the church.

Before everyone gets their panties in a wad over "censorship" and starts crying, "why, they're just excommunicating him for disagreeing with them," let me give you some background as to how the Church handles things like this.

First, it is very difficult to get yourself excommunicated. I knew one person who claimed that he was excommunicated because he threw up on a bishop's shoes at camp, but that would be impossible, because excommunication involves being brought up in front of the high council of your stake, and this person had not experienced that. More likely he had been so embarrassed that he never went back. Excommunication is a process, and it is the decision of a group rather than an individual.

Second, there are not a lot of excommunicable offenses, and some offenses are excommunicable only in certain subjectively-evaluated circumstances. For example, a man who commits adultery, even in violation of his temple covenants, may merely be disfellowshipped for a while, but a man who does the same act may be excommunicated instead if he is unrepentant and openly declares his intention to continue committing adultery. The Church takes intent for future acts into account. The Church doesn't generally excommunicate people for holding private beliefs, only for taking public action on those beliefs, and only if the actions are done with a certain intent.

It is this subjectivity that makes it difficult for the media to accurately report excommunications or potential excommunications. The proceedings are private, so the only statements you hear are from the excommunicatee (who usually sees himself as being persecuted because he can't have his cake and eat it too) and the official statement from the Church, which likely excludes details.

Third, excommunications are not always lifelong bans. A person who is excommunicated may be re-baptized and resume full membership in the Church, so long as they are repentant of whatever sin they committed to get themselves excommunicated in the first place. This was the case with some of the Church's original leaders and continues to happen today.

With all that as background, let's talk about Grant Palmer's case. I have not read his book, but I've watched events like this unfold time and again, and so my opinion is based on my experience.

Palmer's book is about the early history of the Church, and his basic premise (according to his own words) is that Joseph Smith lied about translating the Book of Mormon. He says that he still believes the Church is true and wants others to believe the same, and he says he wants Church members to have all the facts. But it would take an even greater leap of faith to presume that the Church is true anyway even if Joseph Smith made up the Book of Mormon, than it would to believe that Smith was divinely inspired.

Palmer puts a new face on the old anti-Mormon canard that Joseph Smith, a barely literate farm boy in upstate New York in the early 1800's, could somehow have written the Book of Mormon entirely from scratch based solely on his reading of [insert short finite list of period literature here] and/or the influence of [insert influential person(s) here]. Occam's razor would suggest that the simpler explanation, that Smith was divinely inspired, is the more likely scenario. There are other evidences as well-- study of the original manuscripts indicates they were dictated, and if you write a book you don't just dictate it from beginning to end without revision-- but if you want to read more about that line of argument, go to FAIR. This post is already going to be long enough. If Palmer wants what he says he wants, which is for you to consider all the evidence, then surely he wants you to consider this evidence too.

Palmer would like to be painted as merely a dissenting voice who's being silenced, but let's analyze his situation. First, he has not just come to this opinion for himself. He published a book. Now why one would one publish a book instead of just, say, writing in one's private journal? Publishing a book is not something you might trip into doing while walking down the street. You don't accidentally let slip a book when talking to your peers. People publish books because they want to convince others of what's in the book.

Second, the Church is not silencing him. They are not filing injunctions in court to prevent the publication of the book. They aren't suppressing media coverage of it. They are bringing him up before a Church tribunal for a hearing. They haven't even decided whether to excommunicate him yet. It may happen that they decide not to excommunicate him, based on his intentions. But the action of publishing a book which denies one of the basic tenets of our faith, coupled with the intention to continue affirming publicly that this tenet is false, is certainly an excommunicable offense. The Church is not a public institution. We are not required to offer membership to everyone and accept dissent like the public forum does. And lack of Church membership is not the social barrier many would have you believe. For instance, there is no rule prohibiting social interaction between excommunicatees and members. Palmer could keep his friends and his standing in the community if excommunicated, although whether his friends and community would want him to keep his standing is a totally different question, outside the purview of the Church.

Palmer's current position is a tenuous one. He wants to believe that the Church is true, but he doesn't want to accept the premises on which its truth is based. Sooner or later, logic will lead him to the conclusion from the premises he does accept, which is that the Church is not true. By excommunicating him now, the Church would be doing him a favor. Who wants to be a member of a church they believe is false, unless they think it gives them some political or social advantage? The Church does not want members who are only members for personal advantage, including the personal advantage of selling one's books. Palmer needs his Church membership to bolster his credibility as an author of this book and to persuade other Church members to read it. If he doesn't really believe the Church is true, then that becomes the only reason he needs his membership.

In addition, some of Palmer's critics believe that his argument that he should remain a member of the church despite his unbelief goes beyond illogical to disingenuous. Personally, I'm willing to give Palmer the benefit of the doubt. I don't think he realizes where his argument is headed, and I hope he gives it some serious thought before his hearing. It appears that Palmer has missed the entire point of the Joseph Smith story, which is that divine inspiration transcends logic and reason and produces life-affirming faith. If he insists on using only logic and reason as a basis for his religious beliefs, he will ultimately have to abandon them altogether, because it is the nature of religious beliefs to be grounded in faith. Beliefs grounded only in facts are scientific, not religious, and science tells us nothing about our purpose here on Earth. True religious beliefs can be supported by physical evidence, but non-contradiction by evidence is not proof of truth, nor is contradiction by flawed or inconclusive evidence proof of falsehood.

This case, like all excommunication cases, is much richer and, if you will, more "nuanced" than the media reports can ever transmit. I would urge my readers to get all the available information, and not to decide their religious beliefs solely based on what they think they know of this case.