February 25, 2015

Mormon paganism: Downplaying the concept of sin

EDIT: I'm editing the intro section in this first of two posts on sin, in order to clarify the distinction being drawn here.

In this first post, the matter is whether man's inclination toward sin is fundamentally a bad thing (the Stoic, Buddhist, Second Temple Israelite, and Christian view), or a blessing in disguise of a curse (the Mormon view). Another post on sin will explore the difference between an emphasis on inner nature vs. outward acts, which is a separate way in which Mormonism eschews the Axial Age concept of sin.

Uniquely among religions that are at all common in the West, Mormonism views the Fall of Man as not such a bad thing, indeed it's actually a good thing when you look at it the right way. The reasons are twofold: the Fall made procreation possible, and it allowed mortal beings to better learn to choose good and avoid evil.

First, in the Mormon view, immortal beings like Adam and Eve before the Fall could not produce mortal children. So, remaining in their immortal Edenic existence would have prevented them from obeying God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Torn between two seemingly contradictory commandments, they chose to disobey the commandment not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thereby becoming mortal yet now able to fulfill the more important commandment of populating the world.

"Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy." So reads the Book of Mormon's narrative about the Garden of Eden (2 Nephi: 25). See the footnote for a fuller context. *

Mormonism is certainly unique in forcing a contradiction between God's two commandments to not know good and evil and to be fruitful and multiply. Adam and Eve could have continued innocent of sin, and so produced offspring that were like themselves -- immortal and innocent. Mormonism, however, finds that naive Edenic state incompatible with its concept of the "eternal progression" from naive spirit children, to mortal beings who experience good and evil, to post-mortal "exalted" beings whose learning is completed and who will no longer choose evil. Hence the need for there to be a contradiction between God's two commandments, and the knowledge of good and evil being the lesser of two evils, so to speak.

Remember that the end goal of Mormonism is for a family to become united in the post-mortal stage of the eternal progression, when they hope to be exalted beings -- immortal bodies of flesh and bone, bound as "families forever." Since these exalted beings must first pass through the mortal stage of existence, Mormonism holds the populating of the world by the original mortal parents to be more important than Adam and Eve remaining free of sin.

Indeed, they downplay the notion of Original Sin more than any other existing strain of Western religion that includes the Garden of Eden narrative in its sacred texts. For centuries, the mainstream Christian view has been that Original Sin altered the inner nature of mankind, inclining it toward sinful acts -- not that people were responsible for the original sinful acts of Adam and Eve. That, however, is the straw man that Mormons argue against in their dismissal of the importance of Original Sin.

Moreover, they don't concede that the alteration of our inner nature toward sinfulness is a bad thing. Mormons view mortal existence as only a brief journey between the vast stages of pre-mortal spirit existence and post-mortal existence. Our purpose during the mortal stage is to acquire the knowledge, skills, and experience that will allow us to make effective gods in the post-mortal stage. If we remained as naive spirit children forever, we would never acquire any of that.

Crucially, we must acquire the knowledge about what is good and what is evil, and how to choose good over evil. (I'm unclear on whether Mormons emphasize this knowledge being explicit or intuitive, but it doesn't matter here.) We wouldn't make for very just gods if we were ignorant of the distinction or how to administer justice based on it.

Mormons believe that learning is best done through the experience of contrasts -- the notion is emphasized over and over again. You can't appreciate what pleasure is like without also experiencing pain now and then. Likewise, you can't appreciate what is good without experiencing what is evil, nor can you fully learn how to choose the good without also making mistakes by choosing evil now and then.

Thus, sinful acts are not all bad things that vary only in the degree of depravity, as in the Christian framework. On the contrary, in Mormonism those occasional not-too-severe sinful acts are for the greater spiritual good, allowing you to learn from your mistakes through trial-and-error, so that you'll be a more capable god in the post-mortal stage.

The role of sin reveals a profound difference in the orientations of Christianity and Mormonism. For Christians, the goal is to return to our sin-free state of being before the Fall. We may have inherited a nature of already-lost innocence, and we continue to sin, but we're doing our best to keep from sinning, and to attain a state of restored sin-free existence. Christian living is a sometimes Sisyphean struggle toward an ideal, and sliding back downward is never a good thing.

For Mormons, the goal is not to restore mortal mankind to a state free from sin -- that would prevent all the important learning about good and evil during our mortal stage, and handicap us as gods in the post-mortal stage. In that ultimate exalted form, our bodies will become immune to the tendency toward sin, from sickness, from decay, and from death. But we can only become that way from having learned through experience of contrasts (good and evil) during mortal life. Righteous and sinful acts are not ones that elevate us or sink us along the upward path toward an ideal sin-free state, but merely the successes and mistakes that are both necessary for learning and maturation to progress toward completion.

Adam and Eve's "transgression," in the Mormon euphemism, did not curse their offspring but enable their development toward godlike exaltation.

In this way, Mormonism has undone the Axial Age focus on our flawed inner nature, and the goal to correct this inner nature to point our outward acts in a more righteous direction. It does not celebrate sinful acts, let alone encourage its followers to indulge in them however they please. But it has removed the taboo on sin or vice, and reduced it to the concept of mistakes made during the course of learning and maturation.

Indeed, there is now a certain duty to commit sinful acts -- not necessarily on purpose, or so great in severity, or so frequently, or without trying to learn from them (a notion that is still different from atoning for them, as though they were wicked). Followers are reassured by the Mormon take on the Garden of Eden narrative, in which the original sin is pardoned as the lesser of two evils, necessary to populate the world. We are meant to follow the example set by our first parents, not to clean up after their mess. Adam and Eve could only set the eternal progression into motion on Earth by disobeying one of God's commandments.

In a future post, we will explore a related pagan development in Mormonism relating to the shift away from inner nature and toward outward acts -- a more legalistic moral framework, rather than the cultivation of inner righteousness or virtue.

* Here is the fuller rationalization of Adam and Eve's transgression in the Book of Mormon, along with the emphasis on growth through experiencing contrasts (2 Nephi: 22-25).

22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.

23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.

24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.

25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.


  1. They do have one ultimate sin:

    "All sins shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition."

  2. For those who've already read the post and are only checking comments, I just removed a large part of the introduction, which was about the distinction between inner and outer morality. That will be explored in a second post about sin in Mormonism vs. the Axial Age religions. This first one is just about whether our inclination toward sin is fundamentally a bad thing, or actually good if you see it the right way.

  3. >Thus, sinful acts are not all bad things that vary only in the degree of depravity, as in the Christian framework. On the contrary, in Mormonism those occasional not-too-severe sinful acts are for the greater spiritual good, allowing you to learn from your mistakes through trial-and-error, so that you'll be a more capable god in the post-mortal stage.

    So, if a young Mormon man has some premarital sexual adventures, those could help him develop a skill set for dealing with his wife successfully in marriage?

  4. do you consider the Mormon viewpoint superior to that of traditional Christianity, and other Axial Age religions?

  5. Catholic theology often seems to justify suffering in this manner - suffering, flaws in the world from the god as justified, because they lead to human growth and moral development, and highlight the presence of good.

    Mormons who see themselves as inchoate gods might then be inclined to deal with the problem of evil within themselves in the same way. Keeping the two psychologically separate would violate their idea of themselves and god as fundamentally of the same substence (if different in degree of development).

  6. Catholics don't justify sinning in that way, though, only the experience of hardship. You wouldn't find any mainstream Christian group that would say people in Eden were "doing no good, for they knew no sin."

  7. found this, Turchin has applied his cycles of equality-inequality to the growth of Mormonism since the Second World War:

    "Turchin has also applied this approach to other historical puzzles, such as how religions grow. Several models have been proposed. One is that they grow in a linear fashion as nonbelievers spontaneously 'see the light'. Another model holds that the number of converts increases exponentially, like infections with a contagious disease, as outsiders come into contact with growing numbers of converts. Using several independent proxies, Turchin has mapped conversions to Islam in medieval Iran and Spain, and found that the data fit the contagion model most closely2. Using the same techniques, he has also shown that the model describes the expansion of Christianity in the first century AD, and of Mormonism since the Second World War."

    not sure if he published anything about it, though.


  8. That's not about the inequality cycle, though. It's about what kind of mathematical model fits the data on rising membership in a new religion.

    In a linear model, one person's conversion doesn't affect, and is not affected by, anybody else's conversion. The change in membership is a constant.

    In an exponential model, one person's conversion has the influence of raising the chance that others will convert. The change in membership is proportional to the existing number of members -- the more there are already, the more powerful their overall influence.

    Growth in membership isn't exponential forever, because that would take over the whole world in short order. He's talking about the early stages, when the religion is new, and growth appears to have no upper limit.

    An even more interesting model is one that allows not just a boom phase but a bust phase as well. Looking only at membership in the US, Mormonism's growth looked like that of other cults -- steady growth during the '60, '70s, and '80s, then a steady downturn since then. That's just a little cycle around their long-term upward growth, but still interesting to note.

    Turchin writes about much more than just inequality (he used to be known primarily for work on the rise and fall of empires, ethnogenesis, and "asabiya"). You'd be interested in it, and should check it out.

  9. The Felix Culpa, a part of the Easter Vigil Mass for ever, goes (speaking of the Fall) "O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer." Both St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine endorse this idea. "God writes straight with our crooked lines" is a cliche you'll hear not too infrequently from Catholics.

    Of course, Catholics don't "justify" sinning any more than Catholics draw round triangles. It is a contradiction in terms to justify sinning. But the idea that good can come out of sin, that God can use sinful acts to create good which would not have occurred without the sinful acts is perfectly orthodox. In fact, it's just true. How can you have repentance without sin? How can you overcome temptation if there is no concupiscence?

    For centuries, the mainstream Christian view has been that Original Sin altered the inner nature of mankind, inclining it toward sinful acts -- not that people were responsible for the original sinful acts of Adam and Eve.

    It is perfectly orthodox for Catholics to believe that, for example, unbaptized babies (who, being too young to be moral agents, have no personal sin) burn in Hell for their Original Sin. Burn. Are punished for. By God. It's not popular to believe this, these days. But it is not condemned, and it used to be the usual belief. St Augustine believed it. Original Sin is both things. It is sin for which we are responsible. It is the reason for concupiscence.

    You don't need any of this stuff for your argument, though. If Mormons really deny that Adam and Eve's sin was evil, then they are not Christian. If they really deny that Original Sin caused concupiscence, then they are not Christian.

    That some sins, from a God's eye perspective, lead causally to good does not make them good. The doctrine that good outcomes implies good is consequentialism. A no-no. That good comes from a sin in no way justifies it. If Mormons really deny this, then they are (for yet another reason) not Christians. It's kind of natural to take a God's eye view of things if you think you are a proto-God, though.

  10. A though on Easter: I wonder if the Axial Age was caused by rising crime and a more outgoing social environment. cocooning is associated with all form of delusion, especially in the social sciences, so an enhanced consciousness and a better grip on reality seems more in tune with rising crime and more social contact.

    Nietsche argued that cocooning - what he called "apollonian" culture - started with Socrates and spread through Alexander's wars and the Hellenistic age. Hellenistic Age started around 200 B.C., which is when the Axial Age is said to have ended.


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