The Spectacles and the Stone

August 21, 2015

Great piece from my good friend Christopher Smith.

How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

Growing up in the LDS church, I was taught that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, as described his 1838 history:

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

As Chris notes, however, the official illustrations of the translation process almost never showed Joseph using the Urim and Thummim. For example, this compilation shows the Urim and Thummim in only one of the illustrations, and it’s one I did not see until I was well into adulthood.

Now, before someone gets upset, I am not suggesting some nefarious attempt to cover up church history. This version of the translation process is just what I was presented with growing up.

As the church has recently acknowledged, the other instrument used to translate was a seer stone that Joseph Smith had borrowed from Willard Chase. I was completely unaware of the seer stone until my mission president mentioned it in a devotional meeting in our office.

As Chris says, the church’s increased openness in discussing the translation process is a very positive sign that the church has decided to “peel back many of the layers of historical revisionism that have accumulated around the translation process.”


Boyd K. Packer’s Prophetic Voice

July 20, 2015

I’ve been reading the predictable backlash against Kate Kelly’s recent op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Kate Kelly: If staying in LDS Church doesn’t ‘spark joy,’ it’s OK to leave

Most people would agree that it’s OK to leave an organization that doesn’t bring you joy or happiness, but a number of Mormons have responded that Ms. Kelly is “encouraging others to leave the LDS church.” Some representative comments from an LDS message board:

“Here she both A) signals that she is backing off on her previous stance in encouraging others to stay in the Church, and B) slandering the Church is being an entity’that doesn’t value (women) as equals.'”

“People have their agency to do what makes them “happy, but people who are young in the gospel or their testimony of the gospel are like children who might be easily swayed out of a path that could have led them to eternal joy. In my opinion Kate Kelly is like the pied piper leading the children away from their families into the secular world.”

“Ms. Kate has burned up her fifteen minutes of fame and she has long since become a tinkling cymbal in the ‘way back’ of LDS conversation. I see nothing new or surprising in her current position. I agree with jkwilliams; KK has been fooling herself and fooling others from the beginning. I have never appreciated her approach or her position. She always represented the example of an individual that has gained a little bit of learning, inflating her ego, and without any wisdom. She has never understood the value of a wife and mother because she has always demeaned them. Likewise, she has never understood the value of man as father and husband.”

(Note: The jkwilliams referred to above is me. What I said is that I think anyone who believes they can change the LDS church from within is fooling themselves. Change always comes from the top down in the LDS church, at least from that I can see. I did not, however, say she was fooling others.)

As I said, I’m not surprised by the response, and I’m not quoting these folks because I think they’re bad people. Rather, these responses show that many people within the LDS church see Kate Kelly as being in opposition to the church and, by extension, to God. Some even believe she was trying to tear down the church and lead people astray from the beginning. I don’t think so, and I think her recent statements reflect a reassessment of her feelings and opinions after being excommunicated from the church. Being outside the church does change your perspective, and sometimes you see things more clearly. I did, anyway.

But reading the reactions of some Mormons got me thinking that the LDS church has taken a few hits recently. First, the gay-rights movement, and in particular the aftermath of the Proposition 8 campaign in California, has cast the church in a negative light for a lot of people.

Second, Mormon feminists, such as Kate Kelly, have highlighted the church’s patriarchal structure and traditional views of women’s roles. I had coworkers here in Virginia tell me they were following the Ordain Women movement with interest, even though they had previously known almost nothing about Mormonism and had never paid any attention to it.

Last, the explosion of information about church history and doctrines, made widely available through the Internet, has caused a lot of trauma and doubt among Mormons who had never had any reason to question their beliefs. And then it hit me: we are seeing pretty much what Boyd K. Packer told us was coming way back in 1993:

The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals. Our local leaders must deal with all three of them with ever-increasing frequency. In each case, the members who are hurting have the conviction that the Church somehow is doing something wrong to members or that the Church is not doing enough for them.

He went on to say that the only safe path in the face of these dangers is in following the brethren:

We face invasions of the intensity and seriousness that we have not faced before. There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.

It’s clear to me that a lot of people are turning around and “facing the wrong way” these days. But I do not think these three “dangers” are the reason. People follow leaders and institutions they trust. We know who is being honest and truthful with us, and we also know who has our best interests at heart. In my opinion, the reason people are either leaving the church or pushing for change from within is that the church hasn’t always been honest and truthful and hasn’t always looked out for members’ best interests. I’ve written before about the efforts in the 1970s under Church Historian Leonard Arrington to be more open, honest, and realistic about church history, only to be shut down by, among others, Boyd K. Packer (see “Does the LDS Church Hide Its History?“). The leadership of the church made a conscious decision to present a sanitized version of Church history to the membership. Packer explained at the time:

Church history can he so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer. … There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful. There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. … In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it.

Because the goal was to “give preference to and protect” the church rather than to provide the whole truth, members of the LDS church were taught what I call a “Disneyfied” version of church history and doctrinal origins. Such an approach may have been sustainable in 1980, when one needed to seek out historical materials to get a good idea of Mormon origins, but it is untenable today, when information is a Google search away. In short, members haven’t begun “facing the wrong way” because of these three dangerous movements but because they have lost trust in the leadership of the church. An LDS friend recently wrote me:

I think everyone is shell shocked when they realize that what we were told as youth and missionaries about the church wasn’t 100% true (multiple accounts of the First Vision, Book of Abraham, the Urim and Thummim was likely just a rock in a hat, blacks and the priesthood was racism, prophets cannot make mistakes and are always inspired, the church spent billions of dollars on City Creek, the church has whitewashed the negative parts of their history, Joseph Smith fancied young women and married women and wasn’t honest with his wife – or anyone else for that matter about it, etc, etc, etc).  I have just come to accept that the church is not what I thought it was, and try to accept how it has helped me and try not to think too much more about it.  I am by no means trying to condemn you or even pass judgment.  I am simply saying I understand where you are coming from.  So please just know I understand where you are coming from, appreciate it, and think its amazing that you have found a middle ground with your family.  I just wanted to acknowledge that I know where you are in terms of your beliefs, and I understand it.  I have had my trials of faith, and in many ways you have handled it better than I have.  I just sit quietly, play nice, and go along to keep peace in my home.  I only want to put that out there so you are aware that I know where you are.

I understand that the church is attempting to address this lack of trust through publishing its doctrinal essays, but even those shade the truth far too much, in my view. I wonder if it’s too little, too late, and not honest enough. If otherwise faithful members are just sitting quietly and playing nice, I think it probably is.


Boyd K. Packer

July 6, 2015

As pretty much all of my Mormon and former-Mormon readers will know by now, Boyd Kenneth Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Friday, July 3, at the age of 90. I haven’t been surprised at all at the reactions from different camps. A great deal of vitriol has been heaped on his corpse in the last few days (my personal favorite: “Rot in hell, you bloated toad”), and, of course, the faithful mourn the passing of a great man who loved God and painted in his spare time (M. Russell Ballard said, “He was truly an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he represented the Savior of the world”).

So, what was he: the Savior’s representative, or a vicious old toad? Quite clearly, how we see his life and legacy depends entirely on how we view the church he served for so long. Much has been said about Packer’s role in the September Six affair in 1993, his apparent preference for faith-promoting history over things “that are true [but] not very useful,” and his retrograde attitudes towards sexuality and, in particular, homosexuality. He clearly was a lightning rod who did not shy away from controversy. As Dallin Oaks said of him, “You can’t stage-manage a grizzly bear.”

I had only a few minor brushes with the man. Like all Mormon boys of my generation, I was well-acquainted with his talk, “To Young Men Only,” which, although it spawned countless jokes about “little factories,” made it clear to me that masturbation was a terrible evil, so I vowed to stop, and was quite successful (so much so that my urologist tells me that certain health issues I have had are a direct result of my not “stimulating my little factory”). I learned from Elder Packer that it wasn’t enough not to masturbate, but I was to control my thoughts with such vigilance that I would never allow my mind to wander to anything lustful. More than anything, this teaching is what filled my young mind with shame and guilt, which would remain for many years.

My first real-life brush with President Packer came in December 1983, a couple of weeks after I received my mission call. My birthday is in November, so I had agonized over whether I should squeeze in another semester of college before leaving or enter the MTC right when I turned 19. I finally decided to go back to school, which meant delaying my mission for a couple of months. When my roommate and I heard then-Elder Packer was coming to Provo to give a “missionary fireside,” we were excited, and we arrived early at the Provo Tabernacle to get good seats. Elder Packer spoke about how selfish it is to delay a mission for any reason, such as education or finances. I sat there, slowly shrinking in my seat, burning with shame for having acted so selfishly. Had I been more faithful, I thought, I would have been in the MTC at that very moment, instead of feeling all that guilt. After the meeting, my roommate insisted that we get in line to shake Elder Packer’s hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to look him in the eye, knowing I had shirked my duty and that he knew. As we got closer to him, the shame kept on building. Eventually, he put out his hand and shook mine. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you going to serve a mission, young man?” I told him I had already received my mission call and would be leaving for Bolivia in a few weeks. He patted my hand, smiled, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was so relieved. Clearly, I had been forgiven, but I vowed I would never again put my own needs ahead of the Lord’s.

The next time I came across President Packer in person was in 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building. Our editing staff had been invited to the All-Church Coordinating Council, which was a meeting of everyone in management in the building. We met in the auditorium, and we heard from M. Russell Ballard, President Packer, and finally, President Thomas Monson. I don’t remember Elder Ballard’s talk at all, but I do have a vivid memory of President Monson glaring at us over glasses he’d borrowed from Neal Maxwell, berating us for our poor efforts to spread the gospel message. But everyone else remembers President Packer’s talk, now (in)famous for his belief that the church faced three great dangers: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” What struck me at the time was less his calling out of people who were “facing the wrong way,” but more that he read letters from members who were obviously distraught, yet his tone was disdainful and even mocking (the official transcript does not include the laughter he elicited at the letter-writers’ expense). I found the whole thing deeply troubling, and I remember thinking, as the auditorium rang with raucous laughter, “This is not a man of God.” I felt terribly guilty for thinking that, but I couldn’t shake it.

The last encounter I had with him was in 1996, when I attended the dedication of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in American Fork, Utah. Our bishopric had received tickets to the celestial room, meaning that we would be in the same room as the prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) when he spoke and offered the dedicatory prayer. At the time, we had 5 small children, and although we had tried to get out of the house early, we didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes before the meeting would begin. To our surprise, the room had been filled from the back, going forward, meaning that our bishop, who had arrived 4 hours early, was seated in the very back row. My wife and I, on the other hand, were in the second row, with only the secretary to the Quorum of Seventy and his wife sitting in the row ahead of us (I knew him from my days at the Church Office Building). Only a couple of things stand out to me: first was President Hinckley saying, as near as I can remember it, “That you are here means that you are the best people in the world, that is, if you were honest in your worthiness interviews.” I remember digging through my brain, trying to find some failing I’d missed, but I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. President Packer was to lead the “Hosanna Shout,” which is the point during the dedication when everyone stands, waves a white handkerchief in the air, and shouts, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!” three times, followed by, “Amen, Amen, and Amen!” He gave us some background history, and then led the shout. I thought he seemed bored in his matter-of-fact recitation of the “shout,” which was more of a low-key chant than anything. I’m guessing he was aiming at solemn dignity, but it sounded mechanical and uninspiring to me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in tune with the Spirit.

And that’s pretty much it. I didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t know his heart. Part of me admires his dedication to the LDS church. His entire adult life was spent serving the church in one way or another. After a career in the Church Education System (mostly as an administrator), he was called into full-time church service as an Assistant to the Twelve when he was only 37 years old. Eight years later he was called as an apostle, so more than half his life was spent as a full-time church leader, with almost exactly half his life as an apostle. Anyone who saw him the last few years knows he was in very poor health, and yet he still served his church to the best of his ability. He was, by all accounts, a dedicated and loving husband and father to 10 children, and despite what some have said, it seems to me that he lived a fairly modest lifestyle.

At the same time, I completely understand why so many people disliked the man, maybe even hated him (for the record, I have trouble mustering hatred for anyone, so I don’t). His teachings, regardless of their intention, put me and many others through a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame. A friend tells me that Packer’s teachings about masturbation drove him to attempt suicide at age 45. I know a lot of gay and bisexual members (and their spouses) who have suffered so much because of his condemnation of them. Am I angry? Do I blame him for putting people through all that? It would be easy to do so, but I don’t blame him, at least not entirely and not specifically him.. He was simply expressing what everyone in LDS culture knew about sexuality: outside of marriage, it was not to be expressed or even thought of. I’m sure he believed that as fervently as I did, so I can’t blame him for saying what I probably would have said had I been in his position. Did those teachings mess me up? Undoubtedly, but, whatever I experienced, those teachings didn’t originate with him, and they were expressed just as forcefully by others, such as Spencer W. Kimball.

It’s also easy to single him out for his role in quieting dissent and keeping a lid on those aspects of church history that are “not uplifting.” But again, he was merely giving voice to certain strains within the church as an institution. Alone, he could not possibly have orchestrated the excommunication of six very different personalities; the September Six happened because that’s where the church was in 1993. That the institution’s goals coincided with his beliefs is more a problem with the institution. Packer made an easy target, perhaps because people wanted to see him as an aberration, an outlier, so they could distance the church from its actions.

I suspect he recognized his role as lightning rod. He took it upon himself to attract the attention and vitriol of those who would otherwise understand that his “controversial” statements were simply restatements of what the church was already doing. Some might call that courageous, but I think he probably enjoyed it.

In the end, Boyd Kenneth Packer was just like the rest of us: complex, a mass of contradictions, and utterly human. May he rest in peace. And may all those who suffered shame and guilt because of his words find forgiveness–both for themselves, and for him.


And They Say I Can’t Let It Go …

June 15, 2015

I mentioned a while back that a non-LDS blogger, Philip Jenkins, had decided to take on Book of Mormon historicity as an example of how pseudoscience is employed to bolster faith. As I said, I agreed with him entirely that the historicity is far less important to a believer than how one’s faith operates in one’s life. I’ve said many times that I will never question anyone’s personal spiritual experiences.

The problem, of course, is that Mormon apologists who have responded to Jenkins want to argue over the historicity of the book. I think that’s pointless, but then you’d expect that from me, wouldn’t you? Jenkins, however, isn’t willing to let apologetic arguments stand without response. So, he’s still going. The title of his latest article indicates his attitude towards the apologists.

The Nahom Follies

I’ve known a lot of apologists who complain that serious academics have not given the Book of Mormon any attention, but usually when they do, it ends up much like what Philip Jenkins has come up with. It’s a pointless debate for both sides, in my opinion. Best to let it go.


Applied Apologetics

June 11, 2015

I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.

A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.

First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:

Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”

“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”

The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”

I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.

Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.

But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.

The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.

Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.

“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”

People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:

Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.

I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)

I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.

Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:

While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”

“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”

I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.

But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.

In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.

Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.

Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.

“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”

I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.

None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.


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.


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


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