Michael, Mormonism makes many empirical claims that are historical, anthropological, or archeological in character — gold plates, Semitic peoples in the ancient Americas, etc. Someone like Hitchens presumably thinks that these claims deserve no more and no less scorn than mainstream Christian beliefs. But the political marginalization of Mormonism depends on making it seem uniquely “weird.” So I hope the public understands that there is an evidence-based way of believing a claim, and then there is a faith-based one — and that the two have little to do with each other.
By the evidence, we can say with some confidence that dead people do not come back to life, but this does not stop Christians from believing that, on a certain occasion, one did. The claim is so spectacularly at odds with the empirical evidence that it is hard to see a Christian as applying an evidentiary standard at all. The empirical claims unique to Mormonism concern subject matters less conclusive than biology and so are, in a way, not as brazen. This makes it easier for us to see a Mormon as simply defective in his capacity for empirical reasoning. But that would be unfair; again, we should see him as not applying an evidentiary standard at all.
“No, we have no evidence that any dead person has come back to life; but we also have no proof that on that occasion one did not, so I will stick to my faith.” “No, we have no evidence that Jews migrated to the ancient Americas; but they may have been one group living among unrelated indigenous peoples, and perhaps we simply haven’t found the evidence yet — or perhaps God took it away, like the gold plates themselves — so I will stick to my faith.”
I thought of this comment from Wittgenstein (as recorded by a student and published in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief):
I have a moderate education, as all of you have, and therefore know what is meant by insufficient evidence for a forecast. Suppose someone dreamt of the Last Judgment, and said he now knew what it would be like. Suppose someone said: “This is poor evidence.” I would say: “If you want to compare it with the evidence for it’s raining to-morrow it is no evidence at all.” He may make it sound as if by stretching the point you may call it evidence. But it may be more than ridiculous as evidence. But now, would I be prepared to say: “You are basing your belief on extremely slender evidence, to put it mildly.” Why should I regard this dream as evidence — measuring its validity as though I were measuring the validity of the evidence for meteorological events?
If you compare it with anything in Science which we call evidence, you can’t credit that anyone could soberly argue: “Well I had this dream . . . therefore . . . Last Judgment.” You might say: “For a blunder, that’s too big.”