Thursday, January 21, 2016

Many Reasons This Particular Apologist is Totally Unconvincing

Every now and then, I stumble across something on the internet that gets me riled up a little more than it should.  This time, at least, it wasn't Greg Trimble.  It was a blog post entitled 5 Reasons Anti-Mormon Arguments are Totally Unconvincing.

The author begins by explaining that he's noticed a lot of people losing their faith in Mormonism, and with the desire to illustrate the "logical weaknesses of anti-Mormon arguments," he lists some reasons why people should not be swayed from their testimonies.  It quickly devolves into a poorly conceived, one-sided blog promotion.

Negative Evidence Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be
The author relates a story about Isaac Newton and the way Uranus's orbit didn't match up with his predictions.  It wasn't until Neptune was discovered that scientists realized that the apparent negative evidence against Newton's model had been missing a vital piece of information.  This anecdote is used to warn people that "negative evidence is far from supreme."

My problem with this is that Newton was only one guy and the model in question only concerned the movement of the planets.  Mormonism claims to be the one true church doing the work of God and its model involves basically everything.  The higher the stakes, the more damning any negative evidence is.  You can't build your reputation on honesty and then pretend that one lie isn't a big deal.

If you make the claim that, say, Dexter was a good television show, and somebody points out a few of its flaws, the original claim can still be true.  But if you make the claim that Dexter was a perfect television show, all you have to do is find one tiny editing continuity error in one frame of one episode and you have all the proof you need (or you could, you know, cite the final episode or basically the entire last season).  If the statement in question is extreme or superlative, negative evidence is pretty damn close to "supreme."

The blogger continues:
You can dig up all sorts of facts about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but you will never know if you really have access to all the relevant context and perspectives. And if that is the case, why discount the positive evidence proving that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God?
Similarly, you can dig up all sorts of good things about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but you will never know if you really have access to all the relevant context and perspectives.  And if that is the case, why discount the negative evidence that Joseph Smith was a con man and that the Book of Mormon is truly a fraud?

Don't discuss weighing the evidence if you're going to fall back on a default position.  An honest search for truth should be open to any possibilities.  Was Joseph Smith a con man?  Did he restore the true church and then become a fallen prophet?  Was he inspired by God the whole time?  What else could be the case? We shouldn't be discounting positive or negative evidence, and we shouldn't be implying that coming to one conclusion or another is so simple as completely disregarding the other side of the argument.  People struggle with this stuff.  They don't flip a switch and decide to stop caring about half of the evidence.

And beyond that, if the evidence requires a buttload of context in order to be understood and it's often misunderstood even in context, I don't think it's fair to use the word "proving."  We should stick with something like "suggesting" to avoid coming off as, I don't know...overbearingly presumptuous.
How many accounts against the Prophet turned out to be forgeries?
Uh...yeah.  And how many prophets, seers, and revelators were duped by those forgeries?  How many of God's true churches introduced those forgeries into their official materials?
To be fair, there are certainly things about the Church and its history that continue to defy any honest attempt to explain. But again, if we are sincere in our quest for truth, we will be very careful about how much weight we give negative evidences considering all the context we are potentially missing.
That admission is a little refreshing.  But weight should not be assigned to evidence based on whether it is positive or negative.  If you're not giving it much weight, it should be because the argument is weak, not because of an unknowable context.  If you don't know the context, find out.  If there isn't enough context to rationalize whatever issue you're confronting, it's totally reasonable to change.  Adapting what you believe in light of new information is a good skill to have.

Continuing in your beliefs while patiently waiting to be provided a context in which troubling issues can be addressed to your satisfaction is not being sincere in your quest for truth.  It's postponing your quest for truth by ignoring the possibility that you've been lied to.

The Evidence in Favor of the Restoration Is Truly Extraordinary
The article moves on to its second section:
And I don’t care if you think that the Book of Mormon was actually written by Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon or if you think that a 23 year old Joseph Smith was some kind of genius, you still can’t explain away what a feat the Book of Mormon would be if it truly was an invention.
Sure I can.  People write books all the time.  James Fenmore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Edgar Allan Poe were all active writers around the same time the Book of Mormon was published.  As a novel, the Book of Mormon isn't even that good—it's a mess of recycled plot devices, one-dimensional characters, frequent grammatical foibles, and a whole lot of unnecessary filler.  If the Book of Mormon isn't true, its value isn't literary.  At best it's a historical curiosity.
The Book of Mormon, from start to finish, is filled with ancient Hebraic art forms. The LDS Church wasn’t even aware of this until a missionary discovered it in the 1950s. You’ve got to see what our forthcoming article has on this.
I would be surprised if the Book of Mormon weren't filled with ancient Hebraisms, considering that it borrows heavily from both the Old and New Testaments.  Plus, regardless of whether it's a book of divinely inspired scripture, the writing style clearly mirrors that of the King James version of the Bible, so it shouldn't be surprising that similar ancient-sounding elements make an appearance.

Also, the part about the missionary discovering it sounds a lot like folklore, but I guess I'll have to wait for the next article for that.  Stay tuned, viewers.
The Book of Mormon explains a monetary system that happens to not only be closely related to the ancient Egyptian one, but that also constitutes the most efficient money system the world has ever known. (This one is also pretty darn cool) Stay tuned for more details.
I learned about this during a special fireside when I was maybe 14.  I don't know how true it is, but I agree that it's pretty cool.  If I remember right, the currency is designed to require the fewest number of coins to make any given sum.  So it might be numerically efficient, and certainly an impressive invention if the Book of Mormon is a fraud, but I don't think it's fair to characterize it as the most efficient money system the world has ever known.

This is because the Nephite currency as described in Alma chapter 11 involves gold, silver, and "measures" of various types of grain.  There's so much going on and so many complicated conversions between the different types of money that it's hardly efficient.  Efficiency would be selecting only one metal to be legal tender.  If a senum of silver is equal to a senine of gold, why are both denominations necessary?
The Book of Mormon’s seamless fit with Bible doctrines and the lack of self-contradiction is incredible.
There's plenty of self-contradiction within the Book of Mormon.  For example, just about everything Captain Moroni does in the name of freedom denies people freedom.  And it doesn't fit that seamlessly with Biblical doctrines, either (thou shalt not kill, unless you're Nephi and I tell you to).  The "seamlessness" is very subjective—if you ever try explaining the whole "stick of Joseph" thing to a mainstream Christian, you might learn that they have no idea what you're going on about.  And a lot of the ways the Book of Mormon fits with the Bible can be traced back to the fact that a decent chunk of the Book of Mormon is the Bible.
It is difficult to imagine a fraud producing so much good.

I reject the entire premise of this statement.  All of it.  I don't think it's difficult to imagine a fraud producing good and I don't think that this particular fraud has produced that much good anyway.

I mean, sure, the church donates a few million dollars every year, but its spending on charitable giving is far outstripped by its spending on the construction of needlessly ornate temples, its properties, ranches, and condominiums, and on its various business interests (cough cough shopping mall cough cough).  What other good things has the church produced?  It has repeatedly been one of the last institutional bastions of bigotry, it has taught youth to fear their emerging sexuality, it has led gays to commit suicide, it has stunted critical thinking skills across generations, it has taken countless bishops and stake presidents away from their families for unreasonable hours, it has separated families on their wedding days, it has applied an insane amount of social pressure to convince teenagers to give up two years of their lives in its service.  It has convinced my aging parents to run themselves ragged with indexing and temple work and callings that have them driving all over the region, even in dangerous weather conditions, to fulfill the assignments the church has given them.

I mean, Mormonism also promotes a nuclear family, which is nice I guess.  Unless you don't have one.

I find it very easy to believe that a fraud can produce these kinds of results.

Anti-Mormon Arguments are Like Conspiracy Theories
One of the principal problems with government conspiracy theories is that they assume the guilt of government from the beginning (this is also known as circular reasoning).
One of the principal problems with a lot of Mormon apologists is that they assume the truthfulness of the church from the beginning.  To be fair, one of the principal problems with many anti-Mormon arguments is that they assume the church is not true from the beginning.  But circular reasoning is found in both camps.  Let's not pretend we're immune.
Why did none of the 11 witnesses ever deny their testimony of seeing the gold plates, particularly when several of them became disaffected?
Not to fall back on an anti-Mormon trope of referencing the CES Letter, but I think Jeremy Runnells addressed this issue nicely (starting on page 50).

But hey, while we're oversimplifying people's opinions, let's take a moment to talk about how Mormon theology is like the embarrassing Hollywood bastardization of a popular novel and how the members are only slightly less crazy than Scientologists.  Or is that not a fair characterization?

Anti-Mormon Literature Uses Deceptive Presentation Tricks
Unfortunately, this provides an opportunity for the naysayers to say, “Let me tell you something you don’t know about. Do you know why you don’t know about it? It’s because the Church is hiding it from you. Don’t you see? These historical facts are incriminating, and that is why they have kept it from you.” Suddenly, what wouldn’t have been such a big deal if you had always known about it, is made out to be a conspiracy by Church leaders.
I don't think this is accurate in the majority of cases.  My first troubling issue with the church was learning about the end of the priesthood ban.  It was nothing about a conspiracy.  It was just difficult for me to wrap my brain around how the ban amounted to anything less than totally un-divine racism.

But when you tell a person for the first time about, say, Joseph's polygamy, the problem isn't that there's been some kind of church cover up.  The problem is that it's true.  I think most people who are swayed by anti-Mormon arguments are initially shocked by the discovery that the claims aren't merely vicious lies.  It's only after they've reached the conclusion that the anti-Mormon was right that they angrily blame the church for hiding the information.  The conspiracy theories come second.
The Church has responded to this by demonstrating that they have nothing to hide. They have released article after article discussing the biggest controversies, but placing them in context and providing a faithful perspective. For example, the Church is plenty open that Joseph was indeed a treasure hunter as a young man and that he used superstitious practices in this pursuit.
I don't think it counts as "plenty open" if the best example of openness is a recent and little-publicized essay tucked away in a corner of the church website.  "Plenty open" would be the appearance of this information in church lesson manuals and missionary discussions.
Of course, you’ll never get the relevant context from John Dehlin and others.
Hold up.  How is this different from the condemnation of conspiracy theorists a few paragraphs earlier?  How is this anything other than discarding an argument simply because you don't like its source?

And the phrase "relevant context" is starting to bother me.  So John Dehlin can offer context, just not the relevant context?  How do you know what constitutes relevance?  Because if the definition of "relevant" is "faith-promoting," I think maybe we need to review our earlier musings on weighing evidence equally.
By capitalizing on information that the Church does not hide, but which few members know, anti-Mormons are able to control the presentation in a way that makes what Joseph did seem to be something that it is not.
If few members know about these things, how can you be sure the church hasn't hidden them in the past?  The article on the seer stone is from 2013.  (I think.  Maybe 2012.  It's not dated, of course, but these essays have only been posted within the last few years.)  Other than a few passing mentions in an Ensign article here and a decades-old General Conference address there, what was the church doing before the age of Google to make this kind of information readily available to its members?

I think it's fair to label this a lie of omission.  If it's not common knowledge in the membership, even after twenty hours of General Conference and fifty sacrament meetings and fifty gospel doctrine classes every year, when was the church going to speak up?  If you want to talk about controlling the presentation, there's plenty of blame to go around.
In these and so many other cases, it is not the force of reason that drives people from the Church: it is the effect of emotion.
Can't reason and emotion both be valid reasons to leave?  Besides, the church tries to play on emotion too—Monson's heartwarming stories about widows, Eyring's throaty sobs as he bears his testimony, the whole directive to base your beliefs on an emotional, non-objective "burning in the bosom," the promises of happiness and eternal glory in the typical patriarchal blessing, etc.  There's also Heartsell, if you want to delve into another conspiracy theory kind of thing.
In addition to manipulating information that few members know about, anti-Mormons also talk about things that happened two hundred years ago that are difficult to understand from a modern perspective.
I'm pretty sure sending somebody overseas and marrying his wife while he was gone was a dick move two hundred years ago, too.  Publicly lying about practicing polygamy was still morally wrong in the nineteenth century.  Using your political power to order the destruction of a printing press that was publishing stuff you didn't like was still a violation of the First Amendment.

There are even a few things that better knowledge of the time period can do to suggest that Mormonism is a fraud.  For example, understanding the mysticism and superstitions of the era explains a lot about Martin Harris and his claim to have seen the plates with his spiritual eyes.  But perhaps that's not relevant context.

A Spiritual Witness Is a Really Good Reason to “doubt your doubts”
The real reason that I believe in Christ and in the Restored Church is because of the spiritual experiences I have had.
And I don't have any problem with that—up until the point at which people cling to their spiritual experiences when threatened by logical arguments.  The scriptural depictions of spiritual witnesses (short of angelic visitation) are usually vague, often metaphorical, and largely unhelpful, which means it's difficult to identify them when they happen and difficult to accurately pinpoint their sources.  If you won't allow your beliefs to change when a rational argument debunks something you've had a spiritual witness of, you're putting too much faith in your spirituality and not enough faith in your intelligence.
Whatever atheists tell you, they have to exercise faith too.
I have no idea what this sentence is doing here.
So, when you experience personal revelation confirming the existence of God, Christ’s love for humankind, the Book of Mormon’s veracity, and Joseph Smith’s sacred calling, it only makes sense that this would be an overpowering piece of evidence. It may be evidence that no one else can understand, but it is evidence, and it is certainly logical to draw conclusions from it.
I agree with this.  Except that I think that wariness concerning the source of the confirmation is wise.  When I first discussed my disaffection with my dad, he reminded me that the answer to Moroni's promise probably isn't going to be an actual still small voice.  And it's not necessarily going to be a burning in the bosom, either.  It might be something that happens to you in your daily life that makes you look at something differently, or an event that speaks to the subtle machinations of your father in heaven.

But if it's not a voice and it's not an obvious burning in the bosom, I can't think of many methods of discovering truth that are less objective.  If you're going about your day searching for a sign, you're going to find one.  Every coincidence can be construed as a divine being nudging you in the right direction.  And maybe it is...but how can you know?  How do you know you haven't completely misinterpreted everything?  And how is it responsible to draw conclusions upon which you will base your identity and your entire life from something you can't really validate, corroborate, quantify, or even identify?

Human reason is limited. There are so many things that are unknowable, and that's why I believe it's important to avoid overcommitting to a mechanism you can't comprehend just to have the luxury of thinking you can know the unknowable.
Before my mission, I had a crisis of faith that led me to study and pray more fervently than ever before. I really wanted to know. And after many weeks of effort, praying and studying for hours each day, I had experiences that witnessed to me the truth I had been seeking.
This is very reminiscent of my own experience.  Right up until the ending, anyway.
So, consider sharing the article to help someone you may know or love who needs a little help seeing that the arguments made by the “world” are not as convincing as they seem to be.
This couple is clearly trying to get their blog launched successfully, and they're probably doing so with a desire to help.  I can hardly fault them for that, considering that I have a blog too and I run it with a desire to help...although mostly with a desire to complain.  But I don't think we need to tell people that the arguments of the "world" are not convincing.  I think we just need to get information out there.

Good information, though.  Not this kind of rubbish.


  1. Congratulations Alex on your multiple Brodie award nominations! They are certainly well-deserved.

    Here's the link for those who would like to go vote:

    1. Thank you! Since getting into online ex-Mormon communities, I've looked forward to the Brodies each year. It's a good way to find some great content that escaped my notice and revisit the best of what I've already seen. And, of course, I've got my fingers crossed...