What if religions were like species, evolving — mutating — to best survive in their surroundings? That was that topic for a piece I wrote recently in Nautil.us, a young, science-oriented publication. The piece was titled “How the Mormons Conquered America” (if I had input on the headline, I wouldn’t have picked this, but I am not a gifted headline writer).
It wasn’t strictly about the Mormons; I chose that religion, on the advice of religious scholars, because of its growth, its prominence in popular culture, and because we have a record for pretty much the entire history of the religion. We can see the doctrinal debates play out in a way we can only infer for a religion like Christianity. (What really was going on between Peter and James and Paul?) It gives me things to think about in the way I look at the events in the New Testament.
Drafts of the piece looked more at events in Christian history, including the Protestant Reformation. Those were cut.
I had at least one scholar tell me it was a bad question, and in a sense, he’s right: religions don’t have genomes. They don’t evolve in the biological sense. They do change (that is, mutate), sometimes quite rapidly. And they do adapt based on societal mores.
I didn’t know much about Mormons when I started this piece; some readers would argue I don’t know much about them now. I talked with several Mormons for the piece, and they were unfailingly respectful and seemed genuinely decent folk. It’s a religion that has always encouraged a focus on community and family; in some ways it seems like a reaction to the intensely personal aspects of 18th and 19th century American Protestantism. Some reader comments were antagonistic towards the Mormons because of their focus on community, which leads to exclusion and even shunning of those who disagree too loudly. Lots of organizations stifle free expression, notably companies (especially media companies). Whistleblowers and dissenters are everywhere under siege.
Joe Pitt, the Mormon cum pariah in Angels in America, is portrayed as outwardly decent, but completely lacking in sympathy for those not like him. I wrote a bit about the difference between Kushner’s portrayal of Mormonism and the portrayal of Mormons as eccentrics by the Book of Mormon: The Musical. This, too, was cut, likely because it probably has more to do with differences between Tony Kushner and Trey Parker than it does with our society now versus 20 years ago.
I am now thinking about writing on apostasy. We see people shunned in many contexts. I remember a CEO who professed belief in aliens, and was forced out of his company. Recently, another CEO lost his job for being against gay marriage. Athletes can be banned for life for various acts, from gambling on sports to steroid use. Hawthorne’s Scarlet A is not just a vestige of religious stigma, but it feels to me like religious shunning drives more anger. Does shunning perhaps act as a way of driving out bad chromosomes? Oops, there I go, being all materialistic with my metaphors.