Extreme Religion – Dangerous or Just Dumb?

Last night I finished Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, an examination of the violent extremes to which Mormons have gone to defend themselves and their religion. In Krakauer’s telling, this violence has often come as Mormons attempt to extend or maintain the institution of polygamy, which is still practiced by some thousands of “fundamentalist” Mormons in the American Southwest, Canada, and Mexico. This story, both lurid and integral to American history, raises several questions about the proper place of religion in American civic life, questions which are especially germane to the contemporary American political scene, where the religiously-charged populism of the Tea Party is apparently an ascendant force.

Krakauer structures the book around a heinous 1984 murder by Ron and Dan Lafferty, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers, of their sister-in-law and and her baby – murders which the brothers believed had been mandated by God as being necessary to inaugurate the end time. The book has two threads. The first concerns the complicated social, political, and religious context in which the Lafferty brothers grew up, first within mainstream Mormonism (such as it is) and later within a virulent sect of fundamentalism. The second thread offers a history of Mormonism from its inception in early 19th-century New York State until the middle of the 20th century, emphasizing the way that violence – between individuals, between coreligionists, between Mormons and “Gentiles,” between the church and the federal government – shaped the development of the faith right up to the point at which the Lafferty brothers adopted the delusion that only they could usher in the restoration of true Mormonism – that is, Mormonism (re)centered on polygamy and utter disdain for any but “God’s laws.”

All of this was fascinating on its face. Krakauer’s a good writer, and here smoothly wove together everything from Mormons’ roles in the Indian wars to psychotherapeutic approaches to unusual religious belief. Given the story that Krakauer’s dedicated to telling (one suggested by the book’s subtitle), Mormonism as a faith does not come off well.

Krakauer only briefly draws explicit links between the sheer craziness of the Lafferty brothers (both still in prison) and the interesting question of whether all religious belief is crazy. Of course, he then dodges that question, though much of the evidence in the book goes to show that religious belief is a form of lunacy – whether banal (a virgin birth, an elephant god, a prophet riding to heaven on a horse, a dead man coming back to life) or extraordinary (punitive amputations, mortification of the flesh, slaughter of children).

If nowhere else, that lunacy comes to the fore in the way that certain kinds of religious belief in the United States actually work to prevent the acquisition of knowledge that is somehow worldly, or even common-sensical. Though there’s no end of examples of religiously-grounded anti-intellectualism – just look at the continuing controversy over evolution and “intelligent design” – the U.S. in 2010 seems to be especially plagued by it.

As I read Krakauer’s accounts of ludicrous Mormon beliefs, my mind immediately turned to the spectacle of openly religious “Tea Party” candidates espousing ridiculous ideas (Joe Miller, the Republican candidate for senator in Alaska, suggesting that the U.S. follow East Germany’s model for closing the borders) or for seeming proud to have little knowledge (Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for senator in Delaware, being unable to name key Constitutional amendments). Krakauer’s book, like other critical examinations of religious fundamentalisms, suggests that there is a kind of zero-sum relationship between extreme religious beliefs and everyday knowledge, a dynamic in which the impractical certainties of religious faith (even lunatic ones like the Lafferty brothers’) push against the useful uncertainties of everyday life. With extreme religiosity seemingly on the rise in the United States today, this is a distressing idea.

4 thoughts on “Extreme Religion – Dangerous or Just Dumb?”

  1. Nicely put. I hadn’t heard anything about this book, but I appreciate the way you went broad with your response. Distressing might be an understatement.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but your (intelligent) analysis/summary suggests a common problem: generalization from a limited set of examples. The act of two psychopathic Mormon brothers is hardly adequate evidence that all the religiously fervent, or even the religiously extreme, are murderous people. Religious extremism worries me too, about as much as anything short of my flight to Phoenix going down, but it’s a big step from professed belief and antisocial action.

  3. I just finished reading Karkauer’s book, in two days! (to my own surprise).
    Could talk about it on many levels – biography, crime, psychology/psychaitry, American history,
    and – also to my surprise – on its relationship to Islam (especially the shared sexual commonality),
    even if Krakauer doesn’t see as important a relatioship as I do.
    But I’ll just note, despite this good write-up,
    why the zero-sum title? Why not treat religious extremism as both (incredibly) dangerous AND
    mindbogglingly) dumb? Doesn’t each quality exponentially reinforce the other?
    Ron Thompson

  4. Thanks for the reply, Ron. I’m glad you enjoyed the book as much as I did. I was trying to be nice with my blog title – there are clearly lots of examples of extreme religion being both dangerous and dumb, whether at murderous extremes (the Mormon brothers or al-Qaeda – violently dangerous) or plain goofy ones (“intelligent design,” dangerous in a different way).

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