What does this have to do with religion? First, a number of people have compared the gullibility of the many who fell for the video hoax to the alleged gullibility of those who believe in God and any form of religion. Second, I think a more interesting issue for LDS people is how things might have played out if the mastermind behind the video was not just selling shoes, but trying to launch a new religion with impressive evidences. Take a look at the videos, if you haven't seen them, and then let's talk below.
OK, yes, humans are gullible and believe in some crazy things. I'm not just talking about Keynesian economics, fad diets, or the Higgs boson (which may exist, who knows?). Gullibility extends into all spheres of human thought, including religion. There's a lot of intellectual quicksand out there, so tread carefully or you'll sink, magic shoes and all. All of us must recognize that there are many things about our knowledge that may be imperfect or quite wrong, and even things that we have really experienced and may truly know can be misinterpreted. This is one reason why were are told to seek, study, and learn constantly, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and to not trust in our own often errant wisdom and understanding. Right, no easy answers here. Endure, press forward, study, and one day we'll get the answers we're anxious to have now.
Now to the second issue. What if Hi-Tec's head of marketing, Simon Bonham, had been out to create a religion? What if his team were all to be new apostles in the Church of the Magic Walk-on-Water Shoes of Liquid Mountaineering Saints (LMS for short)? The team, of course, would be in on the fraud, but through generous stock options and stringent confidentiality agreements, they would have strong incentives to keep the fraud secret and advance the cause of the LMS faith, faith that would go viral with its dramatic video evidence of supernatural power that had been given to the faithful who could literally walk on water.
The church could offer a business model in which faithfulness was measured by the ability to do supernatural water walking. First, members would have to buy the magic shoes, but that's just one step. They would also need magic underwear in the form of Hi-Tec body suits, available only to those who advanced the cause and donated lots of money. Then the magic could only happen at approved holy sites, requiring additional investment. The whole thing could be a vast fraud, a conspiracy to exploit gullible members and take their money. Well, not gullible in the sense of people who believe in the unseen with mere faith, but gullible in the sense of more intelligent people who insisted on tangible, visible evidence, amply provided in video form and with public demonstrations at holy water-walking sites.
The religion could certainly make an initial splash, but where would it go? Even with stock options, bonuses, secrecy agreements and physical threats, what would happen if the group of conspiring "apostles" had a falling out with the head of the church? What would happen if they were excommunicated and cast out of the church? When legal battles erupted, when the church was discredited and despised by the world, when speaking against it and telling your story could land you a spot on 60 Minutes, Letterman, or even Oprah and bring lucrative book deals, how many apostles would remain quiet?
Now a really ridiculous question: how many of the initial gang of conspirators, after having broken away from the lead con man, would go to their graves, long after his death, insisting that it was all real and that they had really walked on water with supernatural power? It would be beyond belief that any would.
That's the contrast, gullible readers, between the imaginary LMS church based on fraud and the group of many credible witnesses of the gold plates and the Book of Mormon. Yes, one can imagine that it was all a fraud, but after having studied the lives and statements of the many witnesses of the Book of Mormon, it becomes hard to rationalize their actions with the idea of a sustained fraud. All of them, every one of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses and others who became witnesses of the physical reality of the gold plates and other elements of the Book of Mormon, went to their graves being true to their witness. They never denied it, in spite of some having been excommunicated by Joseph and having good reason to feel anger toward him. When time, distance, and lack of church affiliation stood between them and their original testimony, the easy way out of claiming pressure or delusion or hypnotism or deception was never a question. They knew what they had seen and experienced and could not deny it.
They didn't think Joseph ever walked on water, but they knew had received the gold plates through the aid of an angel and that they were translated with the power of God. The hypothetical LMS church with its impressive video evidence was a fraud that took in many educated people, including some who were too intelligent to ever believe in something as crazy as God. The LDS story, on the other hand, is one in which the primary fruit for Joseph Smith's call as a prophet, the Book of Mormon, becomes more interesting and impressive with time rather than falling apart within moments of going viral because the witnesses to the fraud couldn't all be kept silent.
Disclaimer, Sept. 11, 2010: One reader felt that I was claiming that the LDS Church must be true because one of its founding events was not likely to be a fraudulent conspiracy. No, that's not my point. My point is simply that it is highly unlikely that the origins of the Book of Mormon are due to a conspiracy of fraud among, say, all or some of the Three Witnesses and Joseph Smith, as some have suggested. Not being a deliberate fraudulent conspiracy is DIFFERENT than being "proven true and from God." I would like to disclaim any such implication in my post. In fact, I disclaim any alleged implication from any of my writings that the Church or the Book of Mormon has been "proven" true. I said that the Book of Mormon becomes "more interesting" with time, but that doesn't mean "proven true." I did say, however, that the witnesses "knew" that Joseph had received the plates through the aid of an angel. OK, that's what they said and experienced, but to be more clear, I acknowledge that what one person sincerely "knows" may be wrong or incomplete for a number of reasons. They may have been deceived or delusional, though they insisted that they were not. The angel Moroni and the gold plates may have been a result of hypnotism, a hallucinogen, an actor in angel robes hired by Joseph Smith to fool his brethren, a Satanic ministration, an alien named Zordak just playing with human minds while visiting earth on vacation, etc. Sky's the limit. Bizarre and seemingly delusional events have happened with groups before. So maybe Joseph was the lone fraudster, or maybe even he was delusional and sincere, and then through a series of successfully pulled-off delusion-inducing events, he convinced every witness of the gold plates that it was all real and divine. You'll have to wade through the possibilities yourself.
I would also point out that even if the Book of Mormon is truly divine, as I believe it is, this does not of itself mean that the Church is true or that other actions and policies from Joseph and subsequent leaders were necessarily correct. The history is complex and there are all sorts of possibilities to consider. Faith is going to be needed for any aspect of even true religion, so I'm never going to say that any event or apparent evidence "proves" anything about God and the truthfulness of the Church. It may strengthen the case for plausibility, it may increase confidence, it may stimulate thinking, but during this mortal journey, I don't expect absolute proof for anything that involves the divine.
But I can't accept the notion that Joseph, like a VP of marketing, and a group of co-conspirators/marketers were deliberately making up stories to fool others for gain. That conspiracy would have come unraveled quickly and not endured intact throughout the lifespan of each conspirator.