Mormons, antiquity, and plausibility

Here I am again responding to the NYT Magazine. In a long article on Mitt Romney and Mormonism, Noah Feldman writes,

Even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism’s tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God’s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh’s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith’s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

But this only makes sense under the assumption that the only reason people disbelieve Mormonism is its recency. It seems not to occur to Feldman to ask whether all propositions of all religions are equally plausible or implausible. Is “antiquity” really the only factor at work here? If only a handful were attracted to the teachings of David Koresh, is the recency of those teachings a sufficient explanation? Such an assumption is simplistic at best. Let me be clear: I do not mean to say that Mormon beliefs are anything like the crackpot tenets of Koresh; I am just claiming that if you want to understand why certain beliefs are not widely respected or admired, you might want to know something besides how old they are. You might want to inquire into the actual content of those beliefs.

Moreover, if the Average Joe takes Judaism more seriously than Mormonism — a proposition that may or may not be true — “antiquity” isn’t the reason. If that were the case, then the Average Joe would find the worship of Ashteroth, Baal, and Isis and Osiris as plausible as that of Yahweh. Insofar as people-in-general concede respect to Judaism, that’s not because of Judaism’s “antiquity” but because of its continuity. If we ever have Mormons who have been saying the same prayers to the same God for three thousand years or so, then those Mormons will almost certainly get a hell of a lot more respect than today’s Latter-Day Saints do.

N.B.: This post is not about the truth or falsehood of any religious beliefs, but about what fancy-pants academics call “plausibility structures.” Okay?