Mark Twain offered in Roughing It that the style in which The Book of Mormon is written argues for its authenticity. His argument was that someone intentionally concocting a hoax would contrive to hold people’s interest. The Book of Mormon, he countered, is “chloroform in print”.
While I have no faith in Mormon doctrine, I have known a few members of The Church of Latter Day Saints, and they were, without exception, decent, pleasant people. Why would anyone believe their teachings? Here’s a few guesses:
Some people believe, or convince themselves they believe, because they admire the Mormons they know and are grateful for their company.
A woman I know had a really hellish childhood and adolesence which included, among other things, bouts of alcoholism, the attempted suicide of her mother, her father’s incarceration in a federal prison, and a period in which she ran away from home and survived as a prostitute for over a year. After she was befriended by Mormons while in college, she converted for a time. Asked if she really believed any of this stuff, she replied that “I believe it as much as I believe anything”.
Humans are gifted with a phenomenal ability to rationalize. The Roman Catholic theologian Cardinal Newman observed that much of the trouble in the world derives not from a lack of reason, but from its abundance; starting with a belief (or a desire to hold it), one can rationalize endlessly to hold on to it. My friend, for instance, thought it was important evidence that Joseph Smith Jr. was able to translate the tablets so rapidly. She is an intelligent person and has a fair grasp of what evidence consists of: she is a lawyer, and is the only person I know who passed the Missouri Bar Exam on the first sitting without taking a review course of any kind.
With respect to this, it might be noticed that some years ago researchers at Harvard University issued a report on The Scroll of Abraham. This is a sacred Mormon text which, unlike the famous tablets, were not taken back up to Heaven. Harvard–which had been commissioned by the Church to evaluate the manuscript–concluded that it was just a sort of scrapbook made of fragments of a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead which had been pasted together. Their report noted that one page had been pasted in upside down. The Church replied that this was meaningless; if The Scroll was actually a Divine revelation, it didn’t matter what it actually said, only what God had inspired Joseph Smith Jr. to think it said as he translated it. It’s a weird argument, but you can’t entirely get around it.
Church members also point to various historical events as miraculous signs. For instance, the early settlers were saved from starvation when tremendous flocks of sea gulls flew inland and saved them from locusts.
Although the Church is very active in proselytizing, most Mormons, I expect, were raised Mormons. It is relatively easy to accept beliefs, and hold on to them, if you were indoctrinated as a youth. Sinclair Lewis observed in that Elmer Gantry that while people commonly insist that their denomination is the only one they could believe in, it is a striking coincidence that it just so happens to be the one in which they were raised. It’s like in Gone With the Wind where Rhett asks Scarlett if she is really sure there is a Hell, and she replies “I was raised on it”.
A final thought: at the end of the South Park episode Stan’s Mormon friend makes a valid observation. I don’t claim to recall what he said exactly, but it went like this: “My religion believes in being nice to people and respecting their beliefs. And if you don’t want to be my friend because of that, screw you”. You know, he has a point.
And now, a slight hijack: were either Trey Parker or Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, raised in The Church of Latter Day Saints? In the movie Orgazmo Parker plays an earnest young Mormon who is anxious to raise money so he can hold his wedding inside the Temple in Salt Lake City, and is bequiled into becoming a star in porn films (though stunt doubles do all of the important work). His portrayal of a Mormon had a ring of authenticity, I thought.