[Part 1] Sagan has a paragraph on Mormonism in the chapter entitled "Extraterrestrial Folklore: Implications for the Evolution of Religion," offered as one of several examples of the wacky things religious people believe. Might as well just throw it out there.
There is a religion that believes that in the nineteenth century a set of golden plates was prepared by an angel and dug up by a divinely inspired human being. And the tablets were written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and had on them a hitherto-unknown set of books like those in the Old Testament. And, unfortunately, the tablets are not available for any scrutiny these days, and in addition there is powerful evidence of conscious fraud at the time that the religion was founded, which led, last week, to two people being killed in the state of Utah, having to do with some early letters from the founders of the religion that were inconsistent with doctrine.
For the benefit of anyone reading this post who is unfamiliar with LDS history and faith claims, I'll just quickly list a few rebuttals to Sagan's misrepresentations of generally held LDS postions:
- The text of the Book of Mormon claims the content of the plates was written by men, not by angels, although it also explains that the plates were preserved by supernatural means to come forth at a later time.
- Obviously the assertion that "there is powerful evidence of conscious fraud at the time the religion was founded" is a point of historical dispute rather than, as Sagan implies, a point that evidence has decided. Religious critics often accuse religious founders of some type of fraud. It's an easy, even cheap, charge to make.
- The reference to the Mark Hoffman bombings shows that caution rather than boldness is sometimes wise -- Hoffman's "early letters from the founders of the religion" were themselves shown to be fraudulent. Perhaps Sagan's charge of fraud against early LDS leaders was influenced by Hoffman's fraudulent documents.
I don't know that those details are particularly important for Sagan's position, however. Sagan's main point in the chapter was that personal accounts of bizarre or supernatural experiences are not enough to objectively establish the existence of speculative entities like UFOs or angels. For UFOs, he notes that "there is not one example of physical evidence that sustains even the most casual scrutiny" and concludes that "we are dealing with some combination of psychopathology and conscious fraud and the misapprehension of natural phenomena, but not what is alleged by those who see UFOs." He seems to take a similar view regarding religious accounts and religion (which have been a part of human culture for thousands of years) as he does of UFO accounts (which have only become a prominent part of human culture during the second half of the 20th century).
In his chapter titled "The Religious Experience," Sagan gives what is essentially a naturalistic explanation of religion, several years before such explanations became fashionable. Such explanations are helpful to read — they help advance the useful practice of self-criticism, plus it is often how people explain someone else's religion (that is, if people don't attribute those other religions to demonic forces or outright fraud by founders). The problem with naturalistic explanations is that they tend to be hypothetical rather than historical. They are a story about what might have happened given the accepted views of the storyteller rather than a story about what actually happened in a particular case based on historical, archeological, or anthropological evidence.
Other topics Sagan covered in the short chapter on religious experience include James Frazer (The Golden Bough), animism, Freud, psychoactive substances, and what might be termed religious instrumentalism (considering the social utility of religion independently of the status of a religion's truth claims). If you've read any of the dozens of science and religion books that have come out the last few years, I'm sure you've come across similar discussions, although Freudian explanations have fallen out of favor.
I'm not sure how to wind up the discussion, except to reference a prior post in which I discussed God's Universe, a book by Harvard astronomer and believing scientist Owen Gingerich. That's a nice book to go look up if the sort of stuff Sagan discusses bothers you. Scientists have a range of different views on lots of non-scientific topics, but often voice those views as if they are speaking for science rather than for themselves.