Monday, December 26, 2005

Under the Banner of Heaven: Jon Krakauer

Krakauer is the guy who wrote the definitive book on Everest folly - "Into Thin Air." "Under the Banner of Heaven" is on a completely different topic: the Mormon faith. Ed recommended it highly, and lent it to me and it's an excellent read. There are two interleaved parts to this book - one set of chapter tells the story of a gruesome sets of killings by fundamentalist Mormons; the other part describes the history of mainstream Mormonism.

Since Mormonism is such a new religion, its history is completely documented. Joseph Smith, the charismatic founder, climbs to the top of a little hill and gets the text of 'the book' from an angel. He designs a modern religion for our times - Mormonism respects labor and is very capitalist in its practices. Joe Smith attracts many followers, faces persecution and moves to Ohio, and then to Illinois, and gets killed at the age of 38. His followers move to Utah and set up their base there. Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in US today.

The parallels with Islam are everywhere. The mountain, the angel, a modernized, prescriptive religion, a charismatic Prophet, and a bunch of fundamentalist spinoffs. The practice of polygamy, it seems, was an afterthought added to the religion by Smith who just couldn't stop womanizing. Polygamy damaged the reputation of the church more than anything else.

I skipped most of the sections that deal with the fundamentalist stuff and the gruesome killings in this book. Crazy fundamentalists are the same everywhere, and I just don't think it is right to blame religion for their acts of extremism, even if religion is used to justify these actions.

The summary of the fundamentalist story is this: there are several hamlets of fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy in Canada, Mexico and the US. They are not really connected to mainstream Mormonism - which has outlawed polygamy for at least a hundred years now - anymore. Some of these fundamentalists have been convicted for gruesome murders, kidnappings etc.

The book set me thinking about the evolution of religion. We always discussion reformation within religions - within Islam, within the Catholic Church and so on. But really, that'll take too long. It's more likely that new, more modernized religions will replace the old ones. So the question is where are the hot new religions of the 21st century? Who're the charismatic leaders ready to replace Muhammed in the Middle East?

There are some parallels between Swaminarayans and Mormons too. Swaminarayan is also a thoroughly modern and fast-growing sect, but with some strange traits that are out of whack with the times - like the sadhus are celibate and try not to speak to women. These are also both very wealthy religions that are run like modern-day corporations.

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