Mormon Apologetics

I wanted to give time to the other side to see if there were any believers who had wrestled with these troubling issues and had come up with faithful answers. I learned about "apologetics" and what the word means. It doesn't mean "to say you're sorry" or anything like that. Instead, it means "defense of the faith", or "defense of religious doctrines".

The leading apologetic site is FAIR Mormon. I read a lot of what they had to say, and I was unimpressed. Here are the problems I have with Mormon apologetics

Validated my doubts

The first problem was that the apologists validated the faith-challenging things I'd learned by admitting "yep, these things are legit issues". I was hoping to find refutations of the problems I had encountered, but instead I found open acknowledgements of the problems with Mormonism (multiple First Vision accounts, Joseph Smith's polyandry, bogus translation of the Book of Abraham, etc.). The apologists further eroded my faith by not providing any sensible answers.

Exposed me to new doubts

Just take a look at this topic categories page on FAIR Mormon. It's huge. And each one of the links on that page is just the tip of an iceberg leading to a host of other problems inside that category. It's unreal just how many doubts / criticisms / questions they need to address. I never would've had any idea just how deep the sea of doubt is if I hadn't spent some time browsing around FAIR Mormon. (By way of comparison, you might want to look at the LDS Church - Historical Problems Outline page on MormonThink.)

And this exposure to new doubts accelerated my departure from the church. If it was just one or two issues, I think I could've bought into the rationalizations, but there are so many problems that after a while, the simplest explanation becomes "it's all man-made", and then whole house of cards just came tumbling down.

We shouldn't ever need apologetics

I was raised to believe that Mormonism is build on a rock-solid foundation. Quotes such as the following led me to believe that way:

"The Church, the custodian of the gospel on earth, looks with full favor upon the attempts of men to search out the facts and laws of nature. It believes that men of science, seekers after truth, are often assisted by the Spirit of the Lord in such researches. It holds further that every scientific discovery may be incorporated into the gospel, and that, therefore there can be no conflict between true religion and correct science. The Church teaches that the laws of nature are but the immutable laws of the Creator of the universe." -- John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, Bookcraft, 1960, pg. 139

If all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, then there are a lot of problems with Mormonism because many of the "truths" they teach are in conflict with science (age of the Earth, great flood, Adam & Eve vs. Neanderthals & dinosaurs, Native American DNA shows Asian origins, etc.). Faith and reason should never point in opposite directions. If they do, then it either calls into question your faith or your reason.

No prophetic statements

Where are the official statements from church leaders? Growing up LDS, I frequently heard Amos 3:7 cited in church, which says “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” I don't ever remember reading a scripture that says "Surely the Lord will reveal his secrets to amateur apologists".

FAIR Mormon acknowledges this by including the following disclaimer on nearly every page: "Any opinions expressed, implied or included in or with the goods and services offered by FairMormon are solely those of FairMormon and not those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". So where is the outpouring of prophetic revelation from living "prophets, seers, and revelators" that will definitively answer member's concerns? Why do the Lord's anointed remain silent and let apologists do their job for them?

Put another way, the leaders of the Mormon church won't stand behind FAIR, but they will hide behind them.

A different brand of Mormonism

Apologists who have plumbed the depths of the difficult issues of the church and managed to emerge faithful on the other side believe in a brand of Mormonism that is unrecognizable to me. I've learned that there are terms used to describe these differences: "Chapel Mormons", who believe in the correlated narrative that is preached from the pulpit and taught in official church lesson manuals, and "Internet Mormons" who can defend the faith with apologetic answers to criticisms.

Here's the problem I had: After learning the uncorrelated narrative, I could never be a Chapel Mormon ever again, but I didn't want to be an Internet Mormon either, because the version of the faith they believed in seemed completely foreign and bizarre to me. I also don't think I could ever be okay with hearing something preached from the pulpit that was so totally different from what I would need to believe in as an Internet Mormon. I just couldn't do the cognitive dissonance thing.

Shady tactics

Another thing I was disgusted with was the shady tactics used by apologists. Here is just a small sample.

Words, words, words

A thorny problem for apologists is that the Book of Mormon mentions numerous things that didn't exist in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, including: crops (wheat, barley), animals (horses, elephants, goats, donkeys), and manufactured goods (silk, steel, the wheel).

The apologist response is to say that Joseph Smith saw an animal in a vision that existed in Mesoamerica and, not being able to identify it, simply used the name of an animal that he was familiar with. Therefore, a horse is not a horse, it's a tapir; a sword is not a sword, it's a machuatl; a chariot is not a chariot, it's a sledge, and on and on and on. I heard one apologist say that a "horse" could be "any animal that moves and eats", which (conveniently) doesn't rule out a lot of animals.

This doesn't explain how Joseph Smith was able to give not only the names but the spellings of ancient Nephite coinage (senine, seon, shum and limnah, senum, amnor, ezrom and onti, shiblon, shiblums, leahs), as well as the names of as-yet unidentified animals (cureloms, cumoms).

A related problem is reconciling Joseph Smith's use of the word "translated", especially with regard to the Book of Abraham. For years, faithful Latter-day Saints understood that word to mean what most people expect it to mean: transcribe from one language into another. When Joseph Smith's translation was shown to be at odds with the scholarly translation, apologists embarked on a quixotic quest to redefine the word "translated" to mean "revelation" or some such.

If you can redefine the meanings of words, you can make the narrative mean whatever you want. It's summed up in the following conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking-glass:

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't- till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

Desperate attempts to remove scrutiny

Mormon apologists often try to handwave evidence away. A good example of this is the Book of Abraham. Once the scrolls were discovered, doubts were raised when scholarly translations didn't match Joseph Smith's translation. Apologists have invented a number of arguments in response to this problem.

One argument is to say that the papyrus was not a source document, but rather a "catalyst" that prompted Joseph to receive some revelation from God. Since there was only one person who received that revelation (Joseph Smith), no one can independently verify his revelation and the scrolls we have are conveniently hand-waved away. This argument relies on the audience's willingness to accept a redefinition of the word "translate". (See "Words, words, words", above.)

A second argument is to say that the scrolls we have were not the source document(s) and that there was a third "long scroll" that we don't have now. This claim conveniently removes the "source" scroll from public view. It's also at odds with quotes from people Joseph worked with who said that there were "two scrolls and some fragments", which is exactly what we have now; they never mentioned a third scroll, long or otherwise.

A third apologetic argument I've heard related to the Book of Abraham: Joseph Smith initially sat down to write a "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL, for short). He (erroneously) believed that one portion of the scrolls contained the alphabet that he needed to use to translate the rest of the scroll, and he just needed to come up with definitions for the terms. The "definitions" he came up with followed the folk wisdom that Egyptian characters were "mythic-ideographs", where each character represents a whole sentence or paragraph. Well, this is not how written Egyptian works, and every respectable Egyptologist who has looked at the GAEL finds it ridiculous. One apologist response is to say that, yes, each character is a phoneme (per the scholarly understanding), but in addition, each character also contains secret, Mormon-only, meaning wherein each character does in fact contain a paragraph worth of text, but this meaning has been hidden from everyone except the prophet Joseph Smith. This is a convenient explanation, because it defies any attempts to test it objectively.

All of these inventions are desperate attempt to move the problem from the realm of the testable into the realm of the untestable, because, while the problem exists in the realm of the testable, the claims can be tested, and shown to be false. The typical apologist endgame is to convince people that they should rely more on "warm fuzzy feelings" than draw logical conclusions about evidence that we can examine with our natural senses.

The possible vs. the probable

Apologists seem to have no ability to distinguish between possibility and probability. Here's an example of this: Geneticists have conclusively proved that 99.96% of Native American DNA is Asian in origin. This ought to be enough to disprove the claims made by the Book of Mormon that Native Americans are of Hebrew origin. However, Apologists will desperately cling to the the 0.04% possibility that some Native Americans might be of Hebrew origin. (Spoiler alert: the remaining 0.04% comes from Western European and African ancestry that was introduced post-Columbus.)

Here's another example: Grant Palmer, in his book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins showed that 75% of the content of the Book of Mormon can be found right in Joseph Smith's backyard: revivalist sermons, stories about ancient seafaring explorers who populated the Americas, dreams his dad had, etc. Apologists will cling to the notion that the other 25% is inspired, and that's enough.

The lack of any evidence to support Mormon truth claims is only part of the problem. The larger part of the problem is the abundance of evidence that refutes Mormon truth claims. Many apologists are patiently waiting for evidence that will finally prove the truth of Mormonism, while turning a blind eye to the (increasingly large) body of evidence that disproves it. Vegas casinos stay in business because of people like these who gamble on low-percentage odds.

Disagreement among apologists

Also dispiriting was seeing conflicts among apologists. One example is the two major competing models for where the Nephites & Lamanites lived: one camp favors the Mesoamerican model (down by Yucatan, Panama, etc.) while another camp favors the "heartland" model (up in the good ol' U-S-of-A where Joseph Smith found the plates). This underscores the problem of not having official church answers to these problems; people on the Internet can just espouse their own pet theories.

And I already mentioned it earlier, but it is worth noting again that these arguments could be completely put to rest if the prophet of the church were to pray to God, ask HIm where the Nephites lived, get the answer, and point to the place on the map that God told him about -- but that kind of clear, prophetic, answer never comes.

The whole is less than the sum of the parts

I was also disappointed to discover that there is no unified system of explanation. In order to come up with a faithful answer to one problem, apologists will tout one proposition, but then discard that same proposition when it it would support the critics on a second problem.

One example: apologists will tout that the presence of chiasmus (A-B-C-B-A structured writing) in the Book of Mormon is evidence that it was revealed through a "tight" (literal, word-for-word) translation. However, when the Book of Mormon says that the Nephites used horses, but no evidence of Mesoamerican horses can be found, they will then switch and say that it was a "loose" translation (impressions, ideas) and that the "horses" referred to are actually deer or tapirs.

A second example: Apologists will claim that Joseph Smith never had sex with any of his plural wives based on lack of DNA evidence to support that claim. However, when it is shown that DNA evidence shows that Native Americans come from Asian ancestors, and not Middle-Eastern ancestors, that evidence is discounted.

A third example: We are told that the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon are men of integrity and we should trust their witness as to the authenticity of the BoM. However, these same eight witnesses also testified to the authenticity of the plates that James Strang translated, but in that case the testimony of the eight witnesses is discounted.

Only the faithful

Something I find very telling is that Mormon apologetics are written by the faithful, for the faithful. You never see anyone outside the Mormon faith trying to defend the truth claims (such as academic Egyptologists or secular Mesoamerican archaeologists), and you never see anyone outside the Mormon faith convinced by these apologetics. Contrast this to, say, scientific studies which are examined by people in various cultures and faith traditions. The conclusions that are empirically valid are accepted across the board.

Regarding the Book of Abraham, consider the following questions:

Full retreat

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Mormon apologetics is just how much ground they have given up as the light of truth has been shined onto Mormonism.

One example: For the first 150+ years of the church, members believed that the Nephites and Lamanites filled the entirety of North and South America and that the "narrow neck of land" was the isthmus of Panama. As DNA, linguistic, and archeological studies show no evidence of ancient civilizations of Hebrew origins, apologists have shrunk the size & scope of Nephite & Lamanite civilization smaller and smaller until it's almost nowhere to be found. (At the going rate, they'll probably shrink away to nothing by the end of the 21st century.)

Another example is the global flood at the time of Noah. Samples of ice cores taken at the poles have shown no evidence of saltwater deposits that we would expect to find had an actual, global, flood taken place. Apologists have reimagined the flood to be a local phenomenon only that occurred in Noah's close vicinity. (Much like the Lamanites, the global flood keeps shrinking in scope.) Note that the "local flood" introduces a problem: Joseph Smith said that the Garden of Eden was in Independence Missouri, but the post-flood Old Testament accounts all take place in the Middle East. In order to get Noah from the Americas to the Old World, you need a global flood... but we can't find evidence for it. Oopsie.

Yet another example is how much apologists have diminished the value of modern-day prophets and apostles. Mormons are trained to believe that there are living prophets on the earth who receive the truth directly from the mouth of God, as indicated by this bold statement from Bruce R. McConkie:

"The gift of the discerning of spirits is poured out upon presiding officials in God's kingdom; they have it given to them to discern all gifts and all spirits, lest any come among the Saints and practice deception.— There is no perfect operation of the power of discernment without revelation. Thereby even 'the thoughts and intents of the heart' are made known.— Where the Saints are concerned— the Lord expects them to discern, not only between righteous and the wicked, but between false and true philosophies, educational theories, sciences, political concepts, and social schemes." -- Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 197

There are obvious examples of prophecies and declarations made by Mormon leaders that have proven to be false. Examples:

The apologist response is to say that "prophets are only human; they're not infallible", or "the Lord has to work through imperfect men", or (a personal favorite) "they were just speaking as men". That last statement is much closer to the truth than the apologists realize.

Studying your way out of the church

Another tactic used by apologists that I find disingenuous is that they disparage people who have "studied their way out of the church", saying that if they had just studied a leeeetle bit more, they would've found some faithful answers just a little farther off. (Sometimes this is phrased as "Don't study church history too little.") The problem is that there are faithful answers, and there are honest answers, but there aren't any answers that are both faithful and honest. (Personally, I'm ready to accept a hard truth that leaves me intellectually satisfied over a comforting lie that leaves me with cognitive dissonance.)

Another way it is sometimes stated: "When faithful members first start studying church history, they find it starts to erode their faith, but if they keep studying, they find it strengthens their faith." What is being described here is the process of experiencing cognitive dissonance, and then finding (one or more) rationalizations that you can live with (more gears that you can add to the machine to keep it working). At the end of the day, it's still rationalizing (which is a nice way of saying "lying to yourself").

It is also worth noting that the church does not officially endorse this deep-yet-ultimately-faith-promoting level of study. The official curriculum that they endorse is the watered-down correlated stuff that keeps members in the dark about these difficult issues. So in order to remain faithful, you either need deep, scholarly, knowledge, or you need to be blissfully ignorant, but any point between those two extremes puts your faith in jeopardy. That sounds like an incredibly flawed system to me.

A final note on this point: I've never heard anyone say "Old Bob used to be a physicist, but he studied so much about physics that now he doesn't believe in physics anymore." That scenario never happens. And you know why it doesn't happen? Because physicist who write books don't try to deceive people with a whitewashed version of physics. They just publish the truth. Nobody that reads a physics book ever feels like they've been deceived by past generations of physicists.

The Power of Bias

I'm often baffled at how people who are aware of the problems with the church are able to stay active & involved (especially apologists). The only explanation I can come up with is that it's a triumph of cognitive biases over reason (confirmation bias, ingroup / bandwagon effect, sunk cost / post-purchase bias, status quo, etc.) It might also be an example of the backfire effect.

Many apologists are BYU professors who would be unemployable outside of BYU because of the poor scholarship of their work. That's a conflict of interest that prevents them from making objective observations. For people whose judgement isn't clouded by cognitive biases, the "faithful" answers just aren't plausible.

There was a Mormon Stories podcast with Daniel Peterson where he talks about engaging in apologetics over the years. He closes the interview by saying that he thinks believing in the church's narrative about the restoration by Joseph Smith is the simplest explanation. I was baffled when I heard this. In order to resolve my cognitive dissonance, all I had to do was admit to myself that the church was man-made, and suddenly everything made sense: One statement, one belief; that's all it took. In order to believe in the restoration / JS narrative, you have to construct a Rube Goldberg machine of of beliefs in order to account for all of the innumerable problems. I can't for the life of me comprehend how that would be "simpler".

But then, after thinking about it a bit more, it dawned on me that Daniel Peterson was actually telling the truth. Not the "capital T" Truth, but his truth. He's a respected individual within the annals of Mormonia. He has a good job that pays well. He has stability in his life as a member of the church. If he were to say "I can't believe this stuff", it would throw his life into turmoil. He could lose his job. He could lose his family. He could lose his respect & admiration. Does he really want that kind of chaos in his life? Does he really want to lose his tribe? Would he possibly be accepted by exmormons on the other side after all the years that he's practiced apologetics? Probably not. He'd be a man without a country. Isolated. Marooned. Who would want that? And that's why it's simpler for him to "just believe". It isn't an intellectually honest stand, but it makes sense when viewed through the lens of cognitive biases.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." -- Upton Sinclair

"When an honest man discovers he is mistaken, he will either cease to be mistaken or he will cease to be honest." -- Anonymous

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." -- Maya Angelou

They have left neutral ground forever

There's a lesson I heard many times growing up about people who leave the church: Joseph Smith was describing the persecutions he received at the hands of apostates. A Brother Behunin, who was in attendance, remarked:

"If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it."

Joseph Smith replied:

"Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’”

Source: Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, chapter 27

When I was a faithful member, I would always marvel at this statement, comparing it to how Jesus said "He who is not with me is against me".

Sound the warning!

Now that I'm on the other side of belief, I understand why disaffected members would express their opposition to the church. A comparison: If you knew that friends of yours were being swindled by a huckster, would you warn them, or would you remain silent and allow them to keep being swindled?

Furthermore, the church trains a "missionary mindset" in its members which persists even after disaffection. D&C 88:81 says "Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor." If a disaffected member has learned that the church is a fraud, why wouldn't they want to warn their neighbors?

Not unique to Mormons

I also learned that this tendency among "apostates" to want to warn believers is not unique to the LDS church:

Have these people also, somehow, "left neutral ground", or is this post-awakening desire to warn others common to anyone who has "seen the little man behind the curtain"?

Also applies to apologists

It occurred to me that apologists are also people who have left neutral ground. I alluded to this up above in "A different brand of Mormonism". Apologists have been exposed to the difficult aspects of the church, and as such they can never go back to being an ordinary, less-informed, believer. For whatever reasons, they decide to remain members.

But what kind of members are they now? These are the type of people who write for FAIR. These are the people who write emotionally-charged rebuttals to the CES Letter. These are the people who make ad hominem attacks against exmormons. For all intents and purposes, they are engaged in the same sort of highly-charged religious activism as those who "kick against the pricks". Both the so-called "anti-mormons" and the apologists are trapped in the same kind of black-and-white thinking, they've just decided to pick a side, and they both think the other team is on the wrong side.

And one other point: apologists can -- and often do -- cause believing members to lose their faith. Sometimes they do it far more effectively than the "anti-mormons" do.

See: Apologists & Apostates - Is There A Difference?

Notes, scraps, links, etc.

LDS Marriage in 2112 is an article that presents hypothetical apologetics for the Proclamation on the Family in a distant future where the LDS church allows same-sex marriage and apologists need to try to explain away the harsh language in the PoF

See this brief paper which covers The Dominant Narrative and Apologetic Fallbacks.