Mormonism and the Fallacy of Religious Bigotry

Al Sharpton has come under fire for criticizing Mormonism. He denies he criticized the faith (he says he was misinterpreted), but let’s assume for the moment that he did. His detractors say that because he did this he is a “bigot.” To be specific, they say he is engaging in “religious bigotry.” Right-wing blowhard Glenn Beck has made the biggest deal out Sharpton’s remarks.

But is there such a thing as “religious bigotry”? I’m an atheist. I criticize organized religion, as well as belief in the supernatural. I don’t think it’s merely silly to believe in the supernatural and to engage in religious rituals; I know it is harmful to society. Does this make me a bigot? If this were true, then I would be a bigot for criticizing belief in hobbits and trolls or the Easter bunny. Under such a loose definition, anybody who criticizes belief based on error or faith is guilty of bigotry. This is giving religion a status it doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s even more absurd to accuse a believer of religious bigotry. Sharpton is a Christian. Since when must Christians tolerate the beliefs of Mormons? Christians don’t accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of Jehovah. For them, Mormonism is a false doctrine. It’s a disagreement over dogma, not an exercise in bigotry. Criticizing Christians for such a thing is the same as criticizing Jews for not believing Jesus was the son of Yahweh. Does disbelief in Jesus as God among most Jews make them bigots? Of course not.

As if the attack of Sharpton’s statements for religious bigotry were not enough, there is this: Mormonism is one of the most virulently racist dogmas that has ever existed. We now entered the realm of irony. According to Mormon doctrine, the physical appearance of Africans is the result of God’s curse placed upon Cain for killing Abel. God gave Africans “flat noses” and “black skin,” according to church leaders, as punishment for his sin. The curse runs deep. Blacks are spiritually inferior to whites. For this reason, until recently, blacks have been excluded from the priesthood. What caused the change of heart? The US government threatened to take away the church’s tax free status (which should be removed from all churches anyway) unless it changed its bigoteddoctrine. Sharpton, a black Christian, is a bigot for criticizing Mormonism, an anti-black religion?

Let’s get our concepts straight: One can be bigoted against a racial or ethnic group, but one cannot be bigoted against a religion. Religion is foremost an arbitrary system of ideas with no basis in reason or fact. The claim that a person who criticizes religion is a “bigot” is analogous to the claim that a person who criticizes white supremacy is a bigot. Being anti-religious is analogous to being anti-racist! Moreover, to accept the claim that it is bigotry to oppose a candidate for president because he believes in Mormonism would mean that I cannot publicly oppose a candidate for president because believes in Satanism, lest I be a bigot.

I will criticize any candidate for public office who believes in the supernatural. And because some religions are worse than others, I may actually prefer a candidate whose religious views I judge to be less harmful to society. History records JFK’s candidacy as a great trump of civil rights because the nation looked past his Catholicism. But voting against JFK for his Catholicism is not analogous to voting against a presidential candidate because he is black or because she is a woman. And if one day the Supreme Court is dominated by Catholics, we will be justified in worrying about the fate of Roe v. Wade. For unlike skin color, religion has a substance.

A point of clarification is necessary. If we are defining bigotry in its traditional sense as intolerant and obstinate devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices, then bigotry is not something for which one can be too harshly criticized. Such strident devotion is to be expected in religion. A Pentecostal is going to be intolerant and obstinately devoted to his own opinions and prejudices when it comes to religion. That’s what it means to be a devout Pentecostal. However, I am using bigotry here in the sense of racial bigotry or racism. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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