Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Church of the Magic Walk-on-Water Shoes of Liquid Mountaineering Saints

Millions of people have seen the amazing "liquid mountaineering" video that featured athletic men who were able to apparently run on water for a few steps without sinking by using special water-repelling shoes and advanced techniques. Their video that went viral is well done, dramatic, and created many believers who tried to do the same thing. I believe it also created a temporary surge in sales for the Hi-Tec brand of shoes, the magic shoes needed for walking on water. After becoming an Internet sensation, the company finally came clean and explained that the video was a hoax with the men just running on walkway submerged a couple inches below the surface of the water. Here is the original video followed by the video on its making in which we are told that they "just wanted to change the way people think." Right, they did that. Now when people think about that brand, many will think, "Hey, those are the people that fooled me about their product before?" But it was a fascinating classic stunt.

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.

20 comments:

openminded said...

Haha, no. People will believe in things when fraud is thrown in their face (Scientology, at the very least).

It's a standards game, and some peoples standards are just too tough for Mormonism, Christianity, Islam, whatever else. How so? They don't allow for spirituality to be a way to discern fact from fiction. When spirituality is set strongly in place, who cares about facts?

Facts will "work themselves out."

Have at it though, I don't think we'll ever see a Mormon starting an international burn the Quran day.

Stan said...

I think this is a poor example for the point you're trying to make. By this reasoning, any religion with fervent, self sacrificing founders, making a claim to truth, is the one true religion.

The example doesn't account for the possibility of self delusion, which is quite common amongst us mortals. What if the founders of the LMS truly believed they were running on water? What if one founder perpetrated a fraud and convinced his fellow founders of the "truth" and then, due to his success in gaining followers, wishful thinking or any number of self deceptive practices, came to be a true believer in the LMS himself? Don't kid yourself into thinking this level of self delusion is not common.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly certain that Jeff was not claiming that other explanations (such as self-delusion) were not possible. Only that given *zero* incentive, it would be *highly* unlikely for individuals who were under no delusions to continue to testify of something they did not believe was true. Also take into consideration many of these men had reputations of integrity. Is it possible they were delusional? I suppose, but it is just as likely, and probably more so, that they were not. I say this because it is easy for one person to have a given delusion, but for multiple individuals to have this same delusion? Now what hypothesis sounds more like grasping at straws, eh?

Stan said...

Anon, sorry I din't mean to be so testy. This particular defense of the Church is particularly annoying because it is so easily dispelled. There are so many religious and mystical movements that are founded on events that we, by definition, believe to be incorrect, nonexistent and thus fraudulent. To say that our particular mystical founding events are true because it is unlikely a fraud could be perpetrated and believed by so many, then turn around and declare similar events in other religions as fraudulent is just ridiculous. Jeff has built a straw man and I'm calling him on it. The founding events of our church, or any other church, are far too complex and intricate. Since we believe all other religions to be false religions, we have no grounds to defend our own beliefs based on the difficulty of pulling off a fraud when we claim so many others have done so.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Stan, am not saying that our church is true because of the difficulty of sustaining a deliberate fraud. I am saying that the evidence from the witnesses argues strongly against a deliberate fraud. I find it untenable that the 3 witnesses were part of a conspiracy aimed at duping others for gain, sitting around laughing about what they were pulling off as in the second Hi-Tec video. Accusations of deliberate fraud from a group of men, as some have suggested, don't stand up, IMO. That said, yes, it is poossible that the reported experiences of seeing an angel, holding gold plates, etc., were delusional. It happens. Providing evidence that something probably was not an an organized fraud is different than than proving a divine miracle actually happened, and I don't think I made or implied such a claim. But I'll add a disclaimer since it's obviously possible to misinterpret my point.

ecep said...

Jeff:

To the contrary, I think the first issue is very interesting in an LDS context. For example, consider that, instead of men running on water with special shoes, the commercial could have easily been a realistic depiction of a fleet of submarine-like wooden barges, illuminated from within by glowing stones, travelling at speed across the high seas despite having no detectable means of propulsion. In both cases, a realistic visual depiction doesn't make it more believable.

Anon:

"Only that given *zero* incentive, it would be *highly* unlikely for individuals who were under no delusions to continue to testify of something they did not believe was true. Also take into consideration many of these men had reputations of integrity."

The second sentence in this quote refutes the first. A reputation for integrity provides strong incentives for it's own maintenance, even if that maintenance requires affirming an unfalsifiable story from one's past.

Anonymous said...

Providing evidence that something probably was not an an organized fraud is different than proving a divine miracle actually happened, etc.

Well, sure, Jeff. On the other hand, it seems clear that the larger purpose of your post is apologetic. You're trying to clear away what for some people might be an obstacle to LDS faith. You're right that some of the commenters here are responding to arguments that you did not explicitly make in this post. But what provokes those responses is the larger project of which your post is a part.

Suppose some big guy has walked up to you and rolled up his sleeve. Then, when he makes a fist, and you say "Don't hit me!" he says "I'm just making a fist! Why do say I'm going to hit you? Making a fist is different than actually hitting someone." Yeah, right. People interpret signs in terms of recognizable patterns and contexts. People don't make fists just for the heck of it. And people don't make arguments about the BOM witnesses just for the heck of it, either. They do so because they have designs upon their readers. Which is fine--just don't be surprised when people respond accordingly.

openminded said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
openminded said...

Does anybody know the history of Jehova's Witness? All I remember is a group of people getting together to revise the bible. 

Was their story too different from the one we're discussing? I imagine they either knew they were deluding people or they felt like they were on to something. 

Either way, it's turned into a fairly successful religion in terms of numbers, like Mormonism.

It even has an extremely falsifiable history, with plenty of false prophecies (from what I've heard). The members still stay on board, generally, but I really wonder how many parallels there are between the founders of JW and of Mormonism. 

Carey Foushee said...

A quote from Oscar Wilde I like a lot that summarizes this debate for me, "Even things that are true can be proven". To me it means that you can prove something true that isn't true, and something false that is true. That's why I can't rely on history/logic/scriptures/etc... alone when it comes to my acceptance of the restored Gospel, in the end I have to walk on the water, and to do that I need faith.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Ecep said: The second sentence in this quote refutes the first. A reputation for integrity provides strong incentives for it's own maintenance, even if that maintenance requires affirming an unfalsifiable story from one's past.

Bonus points for creativity! I have to admire your attempt here. With this line of reasoning, the integrity of the 3 witnesses is actually a reason to doubt their testimony. Somehow they would be more credible if they had been known to be crooks and liars instead of honest men (which was long the line of reasoning offered to disregard their testimony, until scholarship presented the evidence for their trustworthiness and integrity in the other aspects of their lives). This is exactly the kind of creative reasoning that the anti-Mormon world needs to beef up sales of their generally lackluster books. I look forward to further insights.

openminded said...

Jeff, I think the question remains.
If I were to put trust in their testimony over the BoM, why not over their testimony of Joseph Smith?

And if I'm not supposed to trust their testimony of Joseph Smith, why should I trust their testimony of the BoM?

Yet to mention a variety of their other testimonies to various things and religions.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Anon @ 9:37, I hope it's no secret that I'm LDS and take a pro-LDS viewpoint. The larger purpose of the post, though, if you really knew what was in my heart, was entertainment rather than apologetics. I looked for some excuse to share the hilarious story of Hi-Tec walking on water, and after I started writing, came up with the parallels to the witnesses. Yes, of course I think the story of the witnesses is important. But I have throughout my website and this blog repeated that this is not about proof, but about strengthening understanding and, when possible, removing barriers to belief. Sure, if someone has been told that the witnesses were all part of a conspiracy and should be disregarded from the getgo, then I hope that they would consider the implausibility of that attack and look into the detailed scholarship about their lives which makes a knowing fraud and conspiracy on their part highly unlikely and certainly out of character. That argument is not meant to prove that something is true, but to remove an errant stumbling block for those interested in the Church. My goal is to educate, entertain, and remove some stumbling blocks. That's my approach to apologetics. It's not a wink-wink-see-it's-really-proven-true approach similar to the big guy making a physical threat. Refuting attacks and showing interesting insights to help those who already believe is much different than what you imply. And when I roll up my intellectual sleeves to show my massive muscles, you can bet that's when we come to the entertainment part I mentioned--just for a few self-deprecating laughs.

Anonymous said...

Jeff said:

"
Bonus points for creativity! I have to admire your attempt here. With this line of reasoning, the integrity of the 3 witnesses is actually a reason to doubt their testimony. Somehow they would be more credible if they had been known to be crooks and liars instead of honest men (which was long the line of reasoning offered to disregard their testimony, until scholarship presented the evidence for their trustworthiness and integrity in the other aspects of their lives"

Thanks for the remark. I went crosseyed looking at the comment on my remarks, and was genuinely confused at such a line of reasoning as well;) I then suddenly had the distinct impression I was in a used car lot...imagine my suprise when I looked up and I was still just sitting in my living room!

ecep said...

(Sigh)

Anon, you suggested that there was zero incentive to testify in something that they may or may not have believed in.

Then you said that they were men with reputation of integrity.

A reputation of integrity is valuable and would be lost if one admitted to a big lie.

Therefore, there would be, in the scenario you described, a nonzero, positive incentive to continue testifying.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

OK, Ecep, I'll admit I was having a little too much fun with the interesting concept of a credibility burden for the witnesses. Yes, of course there are people who will perpetuate a lie rather than coming clean. But even if we drop the notion that these were men of integrity and just treat them as deceptive men who wanted to preserve a good reputation, there was plenty of writing on the wall before the Book of Mormon was published that being witnesses for the insane "gold Bible" was more likely to get them tarred and feathered or killed rather than enhance their ratings with the public. So what was that motivation that would get them to jump into the fire in the first place, and then stay true to their testimony all the way to the grave even when they could have made life much easier for them and been more acceptable to the public by saying that they had been pressured, deceived, or hypnotized? That testimony was the one thing that threatened their reputations. Why cling to it when it could do them no good? Why go out of their way to repeat it and affirm it instead of just letting it remain in the quiet background of their lives?

They were men of integrity, not just in image, and their resolute affirmations cannot be discounted as perpetuating a vile fraud for decades for an utterly futile attempt to preserve their reputations when it was their most serious flaw in the eye of the public.

Anonymous said...

(Double Sigh)

ecep said

"(Sigh)

Anon, you suggested that there was zero incentive to testify in something that they may or may not have believed in.

Then you said that they were men with reputation of integrity.

A reputation of integrity is valuable and would be lost if one admitted to a big lie.

Therefore, there would be, in the scenario you described, a nonzero, positive incentive to continue testifying."

That's assuming that their witness is assumed to be adding to their reputation of integrity. Amongst members, perhaps, but the world at large, as Jeff has mentioned, would disagree. But then they left the only people who would view their continued witness as a positive for their integrity, and continued to maintain their witness with individuals who still could not, nor would not believe it was the truth. So the only thing they could really assume was that this was either a mark on his integrity or sanity.

I honestly can't believe you would persist, but have at it.

Matthew said...

Nice post. I remember seeing this ad a while back and thought it was pretty hilarious.

I guess it doesn't really bear repeating as many have pointed it out already but sincerity in one's beliefs doesn't rule out them being completely deluded or incorrect. (I'm not saying I have any certainty that they were wrong or deluded. Merely stating that it's possible.)

Also what if the scenario were this; several children make a video of a UFO landing using a glow in the dark frisbee and the reflection it casts on a window. They post the video to youtube with the help of their dad and then they all forget about it. Months later the father realizes that the video has a huge following of people claiming it's absolute certainty and how it's the "best" example of evidence for extra terrestrial encounters. Others go extremely in depth analyzing the sort of technology that the UFO is employing. The father explains that his children made the video and explains how they did it. He is rather vehmently opposed by it's believers as being just some jerk trying to make them look stupid.

I had read about this some months ago (I greatly apologize for lacking a link to the article. I tried to find it but it's been a long time and I really can't remember exactly where I read it from. I'm wanting to say it was Wired magazine but I could be wrong) and it struck me as really interesting.

I don't know what really happened with the creation of the church. I've met plenty of people in my life though that are absolutely convinced of things that simply didn't happen. I remember scaring my mom one night as she was getting out of her car and all sorts of vivid details of the experience differ from what actually happened. I don't doubt that this sort of thing can (and often does) happen with claims of the paranormal. Add on top of this the fact that nobody likes to be played for a sucker and you have a situation where even if the truth was revealed, most people won't accept it. Were science capable of creating a time machine and going back and proving that Joseph was deluded, or deceptive, that vast majority of members would not accept it. Any number of apologetics would be thought up and it would only add another layer of mental gymnastics to the act of being a believer of LDS theology.

Matthew said...

Just because it's interesting and relates to the above faked UFO sighting:

http://videosift.com/video/Make-some-fake-UFO-photos-with-your-kids-for-fun-profit

Interesting stuff. You'd think that someone wouldn't be able to fall for it, but I think we all (on some level) want to witness the miraculous. It seems easy to take advantage of.

Anonymous said...

"was more likely to get them tarred and feathered or killed rather than enhance their ratings with the public."

I just don't agree with this statement factually. These men were treasure hunters. Their individual credibility and future income depended on their spiritual eyes seeing treasure. Their public rating would improve.

The case of the witnesses is just not convincing, and I've read a lot about them. They were all related, they were all treasure hunters, they all had a stake in the game.

Religion and shoes are very different things.