Truth and the Book of Mormon

May 19, 2015

I stumbled across a series of articles about “fringe” historical and religious beliefs by Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, over on Patheos. Basically, he discusses the tendency of iconoclasts to portray the academic community as totally resistant to change because of their heavy investment in the prevailing paradigm. Naturally, then, those who reject the scholarly consensus often see themselves as courageous champions of truth who will eventually be vindicated. Mind you, this phenomenon isn’t unique to anti-academic outsiders, but is pretty common among those who fight against what they see as powerful consensus. Heck, a lot of Mormon critics I know see themselves as bravely shining the light of truth on entrenched Mormon beliefs. Recently, someone accused me of hubris, complaining that I think I “get it” and no one else does, so perhaps I am not immune to this.

Anyway, in his first piece, “I Want to Believe,” Jenkins begins by discussing a common claim by people advocating fringe theories: the powers that be are suppressing or ignoring vital evidence that challenges the current consensus. As he says, though, there are good reasons for the consensus. Writing about a book that posits a married Jesus, Jenkins writes:

For a scholar approaching any thing like Lost Gospel, the primary questions concern sources. Is the source credible, and does it have any chance of presenting information that can plausibly be linked to the period in question? That does not necessarily mean that a source about Jesus must have been written in the first century, but can we see any suggestion it preserves older material, so that we can establish a credible chain? In other words, a hypothetical thirteenth century document might contain a fifth century text, which preserved the words of some very early historian writing not long after Jesus’s time. Such a find would be wonderful, and might even revolutionize scholarship. Nothing like that appears in Lost Gospel. If there were the vaguest trace of a smidgeon of a hint of a suspicion that Joseph and Aseneth might have anything like the importance that Lost Gospel claims, someone would have suggested it long ago.

In short, the consensus is based on the accumulation of credible sources, not on the suppression of data. In his next article, “Outliers and Iconoclasts,” he introduces a legal standard for establishing the credibility of a source:

Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable

2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.

3.The known or potential error rate.

4.The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.

5.The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Some of those items apply more than others to the topics I am discussing, but here again we see the stress on scholarly consensus and general acceptance. The “mainstream” matters!

He notes that none of this involves appeal to authority. Scholars can and are mistaken, but, as he shows, in “The Monte Verde Principle,” the consensus changes when the evidence compels it to change. He notes that the discovery of the Monte Verde archaeological site challenged the prevailing paradigm and eventually overthrew it in what Thomas Kuhn would call a scientific revolution.

Put another way, scientists certainly did accept a paradigm, but when competing evidence arose, it was tested and verified, and the old model was effectively falsified. Such a change happens by focusing intensely on one clear exception to the rule, and then expanding to other contentious areas. And as everyone agrees, any such alleged exception has to be treated with the most rigorous and hyper-critical care.

That is what separates real science and archaeology from pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology. Challenging consensus wisdom is done by recognized scientific methods, and not by producing an endless swarm of obviously spurious junk examples.

You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.

To my surprise, in “Mormons and New World History” and “Wandering over the Plains of the Nephites,” Jenkins goes on to use Book of Mormon apologetics as an example of fringe pseudoscience employed to bolster claims that are “simply not factually correct in any particular.” Some of my readers might expect me to pile on in scorning Mormon apologetics, but that’s not what I found interesting about Jenkins’s article. Yes, he correctly explains that an extraordinary theory must have its “Monte Verde,” or some clear evidence supporting it before it can be accepted. In his view and that of most scholars, the Book of Mormon has none. That said, however, he doesn’t dismiss Mormons as simple-minded rubes with misguided faith. In fact, he expresses no opinion about the spiritual truth of Mormonism:

I have a lot of sympathy for Mormonism and the LDS tradition, for multiple reasons. So many of their ideas and principles appeal to me, and my personal dealings with Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. The church’s phenomenal social ministries fill me with awe. As to whether the church was founded by an authentic prophet: with all humility, I say, God knows. On the academic side of things, if you don’t know Mormon history, you are missing a huge amount of American religious history. If a member of my family announced an intention to join the LDS church, I would disagree with their decision, but I would wish them all success.

This is pretty much my view. I don’t see any evidence that supports an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon, but I cannot make any categorical statements about someone else’s faith being “true” or “false.” Obviously, I agree with the scholarly consensus about Book of Mormon claims, but I know and respect a lot of people who believe wholeheartedly in Mormonism, regardless of credible evidence or lack thereof. They feel their beliefs are based on solid grounds, both “scientific” and spiritual, as I feel mine are. That we disagree on the credibility and importance of different kinds of evidence does not mean either side is necessarily arrogant in believing we are right. That’s just human nature.

It will be interesting to see where Mormon apologetics goes from here. From what I can see, the arguments are all about possible and plausible scenarios, not about solid evidence–a Monte Verde–in favor of the Book of Mormon. I don’t expect such evidence will be forthcoming, but you never know.