I got an email from a friend a couple of weeks ago with a link to this interesting post at Positive Liberty by an accomplished libertarian blogger, decrying (in no uncertain terms) present-day polygamy of the sort practiced by the FLDS Church but defending consensual adult polygamy, which he rather generously likened to the sort practiced by the 19th-century LDS Church. This rather unusual constellation of positions is due in part to the author's recent reading of Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven. I like Krakauer and have posted on him before (Responding to Krakauer; Krakauer Walks the Walk; The Land That Time Forgot; and, from the old blog, a post on Into Thin Air). Here I'll just comment on the post at Positive Liberty.
I don't think that Krakauer's polygamy themes themselves were particularly controversial for most Mormons. I think it was his depiction of Mormonism as a potentially violent religion, and the suggestion that all religion sets believers up to slip into violence under the banner of any charismatic zealot, that really irked mainstream LDS readers. It's the sort of view that sounds reasonable to those who already believe it but sounds lame to anyone else.
Here's a short quote from the last paragraph of the Positive Liberty post that develops the violence theme:
What Krakauer convincingly documents is that religious faith, because it appeals to something other than reason, is incapable of demonstrating the truth of its claims or the untruth of its opponents. Having abandoned the standard of rationality, then, there are no sensible criteria for judging the goodness or badness of a religious claim, and that leaves religions and religious people vulnerable to fundamentalist exploitation. The dividing line between “mainstream” and “fundamentalist” religions is, epistemologically speaking, an illusion.
I can see what the author is getting at and there may be a grain of truth to it, but how would you discredit such a theory to one who accepts it? Show a bunch of peaceful, happy believers, and they'll say fine, peaceful now, but they are potentially violent. Show them secular regimes that practice widespread violence (e.g., Stalinist Russia), secular gangs that live by violence and coercion, or non-believing criminals, and their secularity is dismissed as having no connection with their violent disposition. After all, how could it? Religion is what causes people to be vulnerable to violent impulses. Just look at Dan Lafferty if you need proof. It seems like an argument based on filtered evidence.
The quote from the post takes a better whack at it, but still comes up short I think. If religion is incapable of demonstrating the truth of its claims, so are psychoanalysis and socialism, but that doesn't make psychiatrists or socialists liable to the charge of having abandoned rationality or of being particularly vulnerable to fundamentalist exploitation. "People believe what they want to believe" is not limited to just religious people. And if the quality of a person's moral and philosophical thinking is not a function of their beliefs (that is, if religion doesn't make people think differently), then it's unclear how religion can enter the discussion as an explanatory variable. I think most reflective people would agree that the causes of violence (whether personal or corporate) go much deeper than one's conscious beliefs.