People believe all kinds of strange stuff. Some people are convinced that they are victims of alien abduction and experimentation all evidence to the contrary. Some believe that the apollo missions to the moon were staged and never actually happened. Others believe that the Jewish holocaust never happened. Some of these people might be liars, but others are completely convinced and aren't being deceptive. If they were all mentally ill, then that might make understanding them easier, but many are perfectly sane or at least as sane as you and I (which might not be saying much...).
As I was leaving Mormonism this topic interested me a lot. How could I have believed such impossible stuff? I found a couple of books helpful. The first was "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" by Michael Shermer and the other was "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan. Both are excellent books that are pretty short and easy to read and the topic is very important to understand because it helps explain why witnesses can be pretty unreliable sources for figuring out if something is true or not. As a bonus they also give some pretty good insite into how to avoid being a sucker.
The topic is a broad one that I don't intend to explain it here. If you are interested then read away. But the ramifications are very important, especially when it comes to religious belief.
Take, for example, the 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon story is pretty ridiculous just about any way you look at it. Yet, here you have 11 individuals who were eye witnesses to its origins to testified to it and never gave up that testimony. From reading David Whitmer's writings I firmly believe that he believed that the Book of Mormon came from God. I think the same can be said of Martin Harris, but when it comes to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith I doubt it.
But the bigger question is "So what?!". Let's concede that they all firmly believed what they were saying. Does that mean it's true? Certainly not. It is something you need to address if you don't believe, but when you understand why people believe all kinds of strange things then it isn't so difficult to understand and explain away. In fact, given the enormous burden of proof that must be met, their statements are pretty thin.
I'll write more on this topic in the next post where I want to talk about problems that I have with the witnesses and their story.