What possible use is there is studying Mormonism, a religion which seems to be very much out of touch with the basic facts of Science? As it turns out, Mormonism is quite useful to those who are interested in the origin and power of belief.
Mormonism is a fairly recent religion - it arose less than two hundred years ago, in an age where (thanks to the printing press) information could be readily recorded, produced and disseminated. As such, it is possible to build up a fairly accurate picture of the true origins of the sect. This picture can then be compared to the state of affairs currently presented by the Church leaders. The differences reveal much about the origin of most religions, as well as the manner in which beliefs are constructed and defended.
Mormonism began as a hoax. This is not true of most religions (that we know of), but it does underscore one important point - where the origins of religion can be checked, they are usually found to be very different from that which the proponents believe. Over the course of time, the images and history of religious founders are carefully cleaned and deified by faithful followers, to the point where they no longer bare any reasonable relation to the original.
This is true of Mormonism. Mormons tend to view Joseph Smith as a prophet, a man who represented the intrusion of the Divine into the Mundane. He restored the true principles of Christianity to mankind, and gave a hope of exaltation to millions.
The picture of Joseph Smith recorded by harsh history is quite different - he was a schemer; dishonest, cunning, greedy, unfaithful, in a word, a charlatan. He conceived the Book of Mormon as a scheme to make money. When that failed, he used it as the underpinning of an empire of power and manipulation. In short, the Smith of history is a very different character than the Smith of sanitised idealism.
One wonders whether a similar thing happened to the founders of other religions. Is it possible that the historical Jesus was nothing more than a Judaistic reformer, someone who simply wanted to remind his fellow Jews that the Law was originally intended to teach men to love one another? Is it further possible that much of what we know of as Christian doctrine was invented by Paul? Paul never met Jesus, and claims to have received his doctrine directly from God in the form of visions and revelations. Is it possible that Paul, influenced by the prevailing Paganism of his day, invented a mystical background for Jesus? Is it further possible that the Gospel writers received their narratives from legends and myths that circulated in the early church, long after Jesus had died and been buried?
How about Islam? Is it possible that Mohammed invented the Koran as a means to unite the hopelessly fragmented Arab tribes, and thus launch a religion that forever changed the history of the world?
Looking at Mormonism, we find more characteristics of the emerging religion that can be applied to other faiths. There is, for example, the appeal to an older faith, which the new religion claims to restore or complete, while actually seeking to supplant. God told Joseph Smith to join none of the denominations of his day, but instead instructed him to restore Christianity to it's original purity. In a like manner, Paul argued that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law, the Seal of Judaism. Mohammed, too, kept the Qaabah stone of his ancestors, while scorning their idols as imperfect representations of the One God. Mohammed himself came to be the Seal of the Prophets, Allah's last revelation to mankind.
The character of religious founders, too, can be illuminated by considering Smith's personality. Although religious gurus come in all shapes and flavours, there are some common elements that unite them. Smith was a complex character. Given the nature of the Book of Mormon, and the events surrounding the formation of the Church, it is almost certain that Smith knew that he was practising a deception. He was not simply a deluded psychotic. The question remains, however, as to what extent he believed his own revelations.
History is replete with pious frauds - people who were well aware of their deception, and yet still felt that such deception was necessary for the greater good. Jim Jones and David Koresh are perfect examples (although, in both cases, the strain of cognitive dissonance eventually resulted in near total psychic disintegration). Smith's complex and often contradictory character thus serves as an excellent foil against which to test the actions of other gurus, about whom less is known.
In the matter of the defense of faith, we find too the appeal to blind devotion. Mormons are told to mistrust the 'arm of the flesh'. In other words, they are not to rely on reason or intellect, but instead to trust God in all things. This very same principle infects the teachings of all religious devotees. Intellect and reason are disparaged as fallible and useless - faith alone is the path to truth. One can see this principle applied to the defense of their Holy Scriptures. When critics point out that the Book of Mormon has much in common with Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, they respond with the wonderfully illogical point that there are also many differences between the two works. When critics point out that the Book of Mormon quotes the King James version of the New Testament hundreds of years before it was written, they respond that the same Spirit that inspired the New Testament prophets inspired the Nephite prophets, thus creating a neatly circular argument.
This 'unreasonable defense' is by no means limited to Mormons. Biblical inerrantists respond to Biblical problems by either ignoring them, or by inventing far-fetched explanations that are obviously contrived to fit the facts. Matthew's genealogy disagrees with Luke's? Well then, one of them must be Mary's genealogy, despite the fact that Jewish genealogies always recorded the male line only. Josephus failed to record the Slaughter at Bethlehem? Well then, Josephus must have been mistaken, or the event must have happened in secret.
At the end of the day, intellect and reason are the only tools that we have to discern truth. It is only by the application of these tools that we have arrived at the point we are today. Faith and devotion did not give us quantum physics or genetics - they were worked out in the minds of men of science, trusting in their own intellect to solve their problems.