A Cumulative, Convincing Case for the Book of Mormon?

I notice my friend Dan Peterson has a new article in the Deseret News:

Defending the Faith: Creating a convincing, cumulative case for the Book of Mormon

I should say I have no interest in bashing Dr. Peterson, and I hope people here can talk about substantive issues rather than personalities. For the record, I like Dan Peterson and have for a long time. I understand why he rubs people the wrong way, and I’ll admit sometimes he rubs me the wrong way. But then I rub a lot of people the wrong way (just ask some of my stalkers–err, regular commenters). And I don’t expect a response from Dan, who has said he doesn’t “care for” the environment of my blog, by which I suspect he means my liberal (read: almost nonexistent) comment moderation policies.

Just a few things from his article caught my attention. First, he says, “I’m often confronted with the demand that I prove the Book of Mormon true.” Maybe he does get such demands, but most people I know, myself included, aren’t looking for proof, just reasonable, solid evidence. When someone claims they can create jet fuel by mixing Kool-Aid and Pop-Rocks, that demands proof. When someone says that there is a book that is a record of ancient Hebrews who migrated to the Americas, that demands evidence, not proof. Those who would demand proof of the Book of Mormon are never going to find it, just as believers will never find proof that it is not an ancient record. What we will find is evidence, for or against its authenticity. Around the middle of the 20th century, a number of Mormons made a concerted effort to find the Book of Mormon in the archaeological record. Needless to say, they failed, with at least one of them seeing his faith collapse in the aftermath.

Dr. Peterson continues:

We don’t expect coercive proof of the kind found in mathematics (and virtually only in mathematics). We’re not counting on decisive, secular, public evidence to demonstrate Mormonism true “beyond reasonable doubt.” Probably by divine design, such evidence isn’t available to us. Instead, we’re here for testing in what specialists call “decision making under uncertainty.” Confident conviction, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach, comes through a personal, individual witness from the Spirit, not by sifting through academic arguments.

But this isn’t to say that no public case can be made, or that no secular evidence exists. And it’s certainly not to say that believers must forsake reason in order to have faith.

Dr. Peterson and others have referred on occasion to an “evidentiary stalemate,” meaning that there is sufficient evidence to support the Book of Mormon’s claims to antiquity, and equal evidence to the contrary. Thus, as he says, readers must engage in “decision making under uncertainty,” which is an ideal place from which to exercise faith and seek answers from God.

The apologetic effort, then, isn’t to provide “a handy cluster of arguments exists, let alone a single all-powerful world-conquering proof, that would compel unbelieving scholars to convert if only they paid sufficient attention.”

Rather, what we’ve sought to do over decades (with, in my admittedly biased opinion, considerable success) is to advocate and defend the claims of the Restoration by means of the patient, painstaking accumulation of often fairly small and specific arguments.

I could argue with his claims of “considerable success,” but then that’s in the eye of the beholder. But the point is that, when it became clear that–to steal a phrase–the Book of Mormon wasn’t to be found in Mesoamerica, the focus changed to finding Mesoamerica within the pages of the Book of Mormon. In other words, Mormon apologists (for want of a better word) began looking for ways that the content of the Book of Mormon fits in with what we know of ancient Mesoamerica. A lot of people have done some interesting work, from Jack Welch’s work with chiasmus to my friend Brant Brant Gardner’s six-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon to John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.

Where the debate lies, in my opinion, is what all that effort has produced. Again from Dr. Peterson:

Taken individually, many such arguments and observations may seem insignificant. It’s only when they’re seen to be meaningful parts of a larger picture that, we hope, they’ll be recognized as important indicators and clues.

A comparison might help: Consider a painting. Just about any painting will serve the purpose here, but 19th-century French “pointillism” provides perhaps the most obvious illustrations, and Georges Seurat’s 1886-1888 “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” offers an exceptionally good example. If you examine it up close, you’ll see only meaningless daubs of colored paint. Only when you step back and see the pattern formed by hundreds and hundreds of such applications of color can you begin to understand what the overall painting is about.

This is as good an explanation of current apologetic approaches as I’ve heard, but there’s a fundamental problem. The work focuses on the tiny points and “daubs” of possible correlation. Once you “step back and see the pattern,” you see that the big picture doesn’t match at all. To extend Dan’s analogy a little, when you look very closely at a photo or painting reproduced in a newspaper, you see that it is actually made of up tiny dots of varying shades and intensities. Seen up close, it’s difficult to distinguish between Seurat’s “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” and, say, a panel from Calvin and Hobbes. A careful study of the two would reveal common colors, placement of dots, and so on, but the big picture doesn’t match. But you would never know it as long as you focused only on the small “points of convergence,” as John Clark has called them.

That’s the problem with Mormon apologetics. Much as I appreciate and admire the work Brant Gardner has done to compile all the “Mesoamericanisms” he finds in the Book of Mormon, it still doesn’t add up to a civilization of transplanted Hebrews in the Americas; indeed, the civilizations that existed before and after the time the Nephites were supposed to lived show no appreciable change in culture or technology resulting from any interaction with proto-Christian Israelites. As anthropologist Michael Coe put it:

To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it — to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this — but there’s no actors. That’s the problem.

I’ve written before that a close examination of the small points and details does add up to a clear big picture: the Book of Mormon is pretty much what you would expect from an early 19th-century American myth about the origins of the Native Americans, the mound builders, in particular. Very few scholars have spent a lot of time explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon in mound-builder mythology, but that’s because most historians familiar with the early 1800s find the connections so clear as to be obvious. Mormon history scholar Dan Vogel has spelled it out pretty clearly in his book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, which is fortunately available at no cost on the Internet.

Dan lists what he considers to be “impressive” cumulative evidence of the Book of Mormon, but for me, none of it is remotely as compelling as the evidence of its nineteenth-century origins.

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35 Responses to A Cumulative, Convincing Case for the Book of Mormon?

  1. Steelhead says:

    I am going to buy stock in jiffy pop.

    When I read the article and the comments, all I could think was “would some one actually point at this cumulative evidence?” Instead of just obliquely referring to it, actually provide it for examination? But no, it is no where to be found. The BOM is written in a way dependent on a literal Adam and Eve, global flood, and tower of babel. The apologists try to hand wave and make these dependencies go away, unfortunately, they are strongly coupled. To make a historical case for the BOM, you have to make a case for the flood. There is 0 in the ground evidence for the BOM, 0 DNA support, science becomes harder to reconcile to the BOM daily. Cumulative evidence? 0+0=0 no matter how you dress it up.

    • yaanufs says:

      Yeah, where are all these little accumulative evidences. I spent years looking for them. Only to eventually realize they didn’t exist but in oblique references, as you point out.
      The psychological trick in making such statements about all the positive evidence, with nothing to back it up, is to reassure the faithful that the thinking has been done, and they don’t need to look any deeper.

  2. yaanufs says:

    Looking at the dots that form a picture is reasonable. However, the honest truth seeker will want to look at two pictures formed by the myriad of little evidences. One picture will support the BoM, and the other picture will make it look like a product of the 19thC.

    If you look at both pictures side by side, it will be pretty obvious which one appears more realistic. Hint – it is not the ancient origins picture.

  3. thesumidaway says:

    I am a bit confused … why does anyone need to “defend” what they believe? It can’t be proved either way for any religion. A person can verify the authenticity of the document itself but that doesn’t really matter, in my opinion. Shouldn’t we focus on the content and not the verification of the author? Either way, millions of people believe it, regardless.

    • runtu says:

      You’d have to ask the apologists, I suppose. As I said, there’s never going to be any proof, only evidence and probability.

      • yaanufs says:

        There could have been ‘proof’, but god wanted to play a different game and took the gold plates away. If they were still here, and had been studied, that would be some pretty impressive proof.

  4. Jenny says:

    Reading this has made me realize (again) that I have absolute zero interest in any part of the LDS church being “true”. Stepping away from it it is too clear to me (after having been a faithful member for 55 years…yes I was a throat slitter and gut gouger) that the end goal, mormon heaven , is not very appealing. If that is the best that God has to offer no thank you. Members can strain, and tango their way to make it all work as much as they wish….but this little chickiee feels damn lucky to have escaped all the lame/sad/silliness of trying to make the LDS world fit into any sort of reality. Cheers John!! Jenny ( Love your blog. Loved your book!)

    • runtu says:

      If it works for people, more power to them. I’m also glad I don’t have to defend it anymore. I’m glad you love the blog and book.

  5. If the same effort is made towards aspects of the OT, the NT, the Mahabharata, the Pali Canon, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Koran, etc…., all end up a little short. But this misses the forest for the trees. Is it possible that there is more there to the respective tomes?

    • runtu says:

      You’d have to ask the apologists.

      • But you decided to tilt at windmills, you must have a reason for it?

      • runtu says:

        A reason for what? I agree with you that all religious texts fall short, and obviously, there is more there than just the text for believers. The same can be said for “The Book of the Law of the Lord.”

      • You just wrote an entire negative piece critiquing (attacking?) Dr. Daniel Peterson’s POV on the BOM…in part because for some reason Dr. Peterson drive you people absolutely insane, but also because you do not like Mormons. If you readily acknowledge that all scripture has flaws, what is the point in making a huge issue of it? Particularly when you do not believe in it at all? You do not see the inherent contradiction in all of this? I do not believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, but I have not written a negative word about it, and I have thoroughly enjoyed studying it for a while.

        If your focus is always on negativity…

      • runtu says:

        I like Dan Peterson, and I like Mormons. I think Dan would agree that we’ve had a pretty cordial relationship for many years. My post was just some general comments in response to his rather generalized comments. I know, the hatred is palpable.

    • steelhead says:

      Funny that. ALL a little short. Omnipotent god has branding and clarity communication issues.

      • If we assume, with all of the pitfalls that entails, that God operates that way. I tend to think God operates in a manner that allows us freedom to interpret divine guidance, and in doing so all of our flaws, prejudices, and even ill intent can seep into the message. This is one reason I like the doctrine of continuing revelation, it allows problems to be “fixed” so to speak. If the failures lead you to atheism, I suppose that must work for you, but I would not be so quick to give up on the ineffable search for divinity.

  6. tolworthy says:

    I think the B of M can be proven, but nobody wants it. The proof would go something like this:

    1. 19th Century frontier values are good.
    2. The B of M is fiction that encapsulates these values.
    3. Fiction matters.

    I think we could prove this, if we define our terms precisely enough. But it would mean throwing modern prophets under the bus. The BofM is not the problem. Literalism is the problem. IMO.

    • tolworthy says:

      I should add, the proof would need to be precise: something like the Simon-Ehrlich wager. Instead of saying “people are creative”, Simon said “certain metals will decrease in price by a certain date”. We need some similar measure of the merit of frontier values. When we think precisely then proofs become trivial.

    • runtu says:

      Agreed. The Community of Christ abandoned the literalism a long time ago. In contrast the LDS church has so rigidly defended its scriptures and history as absolutely literal, such that it would be difficult to move away from that. Plus, how do you get people to sacrifice so much in time, effort, and money for something that isn’t literally true? It will be interesting to see whether the church moves to a more liberal interpretation, and if so, how.

    • I think it was Grant Hardy, speaking of scripture in general (professionally, not as an apologist), who said that there is something about scripture that speaks to us, collectively, that normal prose does not. The great tomes of scripture last, for this very reason. By breaking down the BOM into the various anachronisms and potential problems, the entirety of the work is missed. There is a certain beauty and depth to the work that parallels the Exodus, which also lacks complete historical support. If you study scripture, with a keen interest to how adherents study their scriptures, it is interesting what can be learned about opening yourself to God simply through a text.

      I think you are minimizing the work too much by simply calling it “frontier values” and missing some of the power and charm. It would be like calling the Bhagavad Gita simply a long poem. Again this whole conversation is missing the forest for the trees. You do not even need to believe in a scripture to appreciate the beauty and power.

      • tolworthy says:

        I probably have the benefit of distance here (I’ve never visited America), but to me the american frontier in the nineteen century is something sublime and profound: the most amazing part of the most amazing nation in the most amazing period of world history. I am interested in economics and world history, and cannot overstate the importance of American values at their best. If the Book of Mormon reflects these values then I think it is far more important than a mere history of ancient people.

        That’s a lot of “ifs” and a lot of opinion, but I think it’s a valid approach. Rather like Max Weber’s approach to the Bible, where he argued that the “protestant work ethic” changed history. I’m not saying he was right, but if he was that alone would make the Bible the most important book in the world.

      • runtu says:

        Chris, I like that very much. Thank you.

      • I would be curious to see your parallel with Weber and the Protestant Ethic, vis-a-vis the Bible. The Catholics used the Bible too, it was really particular nuances of Protestant theology that contributed to his thesis, not the Bible at all, at least from my reading of Weber. That is a side discussion, but I was curious. I also think Weber would be disgusted by modern Protestants, but that is another issue altogether. My copy is currently unavailable, but if you happened to have page numbers I would be interested in looking it up when I had time later.

        As to the BoM, you can see 19th century Americana in it, I suppose, but that is still sort of pigeon-holing it unnecessarily. Going back to my interpretation of Grant Hardy, who I am probably not entirely getting right so I would read him to clarify, it is studying a religious text, as the adherent studies it, that the meaning is found. A devout Mormon may draw values form the BoM, but there are not a lot of 19th century frontier Mormons around anymore, it might be more useful to see how the book is used as scripture these days, in the actual daily lives of its adherents. This is not required, but in my opinion, more fruitful. Certainly the Bible can be studied as literature, or poetry, but it is in the application and continual reinterpretation of the scripture that it really comes alive.

      • tolworthy says:

        Replying to your other point (I can’t find a “reply” link on it, sorry) I agree that your approach is the mainstream one, and quite possible works best for most people. I think we are getting to the age old question of whether religion is “religare” (binding to a group: Augustine’s view) or “re-legos” (studying the logic of our behavior: Cicero’s view). I am mildly autistic, so naturally prefer Cicero’s approach. So I look for some way to make the beliefs measurably true.

        I find it easier to study a single text than to study a billion lives, so I look for some way that the B of M might have a fixed and objectively measurable value. The only one I can think of is as a reflection of the forces that created it. If those forces have a measurable effect (e.g. if American ideals in that time and place had a measurable effect) then I think we have something concrete to work with.

        I am no expert on Weber, but I did like how he identified something that was perhaps measurable, given the benefit of centuries of hindsight.

        I recognise that sociology is always an inexact science, and there will always be disagreements, but the more we can narrow down a question in time and space the better chance we have of saying something concrete I think.

      • Sorry, I just saw this. Even considering that you may be on the spectrum, which is not as unusual as you may think (you would be surprised, or maybe not, who shares a place in that continuum), I am wondering about the internal inconsistencies in your argument. You prefer to study a single text instead of a billion lives, but isn’t a text interpreted differently amongst those billion lives, making your study of the text alone an incomplete, and even likely somewhat shallow, endeavour?

        If religion is the exercise of explaining, exploring, and exercising the relationship of the individual to God, scripture provides a window for this, but hardly the definitive picture, as most of these windows are stained glass in the first place. It seems better to understand it from the POV of the believer, from the inside of the building in the first place, and this does not require that one share the beliefs of the movement. I can study the Bible as history, art, literature, but if I want to study it as religion, I cannot ignore the spectrum of people who interpret this document in different ways. Such study is essential to understand the text, I would hazard that the text alone cannot be understood without this parallel, and defacto, mishna. This is one reason I argue with my brother than few people should be encouraged to actually read the Bible, since there is so much background that is ignored by the casual observer.

        As for Weber, I think you have misinterpreted him, at least with respect to the Bible. You might be interested to know, if you did not already, that Weber is still studied for historical value, but has been dismissed as a viable theory of economic development. Personally I like the book a lot, I just do not accept his theory as completely valid, and I am unaware of any economists who would disagree.

  7. Steelhead says:

    Joseph,
    You are making a whole lot of assumptions on the way god operates…. Too bad he seems incapable of clearly conveying his will and word to us folk.

    Scripture has value, just like any other tome of mythology. It is when you start to think it is literal than you run into trouble. Personally “The River Why” and “A River Runs Through It” speak to my soul more than the BOM ever did. I henceforth enshrine them as scripture. The plots are better, and the characters, way more approachable, not two dimensional caricatures like BOM characters.

    Missing forests for trees, nah… There is tons of good literature in the world that speak to folks, beauty to be found outside of works called scripture. The BOM is bad literature, and the bible paints god as a murderous, bifurcated psychopath. Sometimes trees are worth examining.

    • If those movies last for the next several hundred years, who knows, but it might be useful to appreciate others faiths instead of deriding them? Is it God who is acting, or men interpreting God and justifying their actions? In this case it might make you want to carefully consider if it is your will or God’s being executed. There are lessons that you are missing because of animosity.

      • Steelhead says:

        God is a figment of your imagination, so any interpretation of his acting is purely in your head. Exu, however is real. Axe Exu! Axe Yemanja!

        I have no animosity, project much?

  8. Steelhead says:

    Joseph, it is not an attack on Dan when one critiques the validity of an argument that he is forwarding.

    “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
    ~Ralph Waldo Emerson,

  9. Julie M. says:

    Joseph Abraham, there is a huge difference between disagreeing with someone and attacking them. Attacking someone is personal and Runtu has not done that.

    • runtu says:

      Nah, I’m a seething cauldron of hate. Can’t you see that? 😉

      • I cannot imagine that you are unaware of the rather bizarre fixation that way too many in the ex-Mormon community have with Dr. Peterson? If he declared preference for mayonnaise, many ex-Mormons would immediately profess their preference for Miracle Whip, or vice versa. Anything the man says MUST be picked apart and discussed. There are some forums where they cannot stop talking about him.

      • runtu says:

        My irony meter just exploded.

      • Poorly calibrated meters can be catastrophic for proper operation of a system. I would get that looked at.

  10. cynth says:

    runtu, you old cauldron, you! I love it when you seethe!

    Seriously, though, another great post. I agree with your extension of the analysis of paintings, up close and afar. Excellent point that small, disparate arguments do not automatically cumulate to the assumed picture, but rather the big picture still needs to fit the sum of evidence. To me, this is a crucial point undermining many apologetic arguments-the foregone conclusion drives every argument rather than the arguments logically giving rise to an appropriate conclusion.

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