Two Starting Points for Exploring the Unexplained Book of Mormon

For critics, the Book of Mormon is ridiculously easy to explain, as I’ve learned from my years of interaction with them. Many seem to gravitate toward theories of Joseph as a lazy plagiarist. Too lazy to come up with his own words, he just found scattered phrases in the Bible and some other sources and used them over and over in a clumsy imitation of Biblical language to deal with some popular issues of the day like the origins of the American Indians and the intrigues of Masonry. Then grab a few friends and cajole them into thinking they had magically imagined seeing some gold plates, and bingo, the Book of Mormon and the Church was born.

For those who are willing to recognize the complexity and sophistication of the Book of Mormon text, it can be useful to add a shadowy figure or two to Joseph’s frontier conspiracy, maybe Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon and associates, someone who may have had the scholarship to imitate Hebraisms and chiasmus, while developing an intricate story line and imaginary geography with the internal consistency needed for a good work of fiction.

The theories of plagiarism immediately satisfy their proponents, but leave a wealth of details quite unaccounted for. As in science, a good theory may begin with some gaps and puzzles, but over time, these should steadily be resolved and the theory, if sound, should increasingly explain the data and be able to account for future discoveries. The ability to explain and resolve should grow with time. When theories are inadequate, the gaps increase with time.

The trend with Book of Mormon data over time is one that I’d like to call attention to. For those of any faith interested in the details and especially the origins of the Book of Mormon, let me point to recent areas of investigation that have yielded many surprises that need to be explained, somehow, if we are to account for what the Book of Mormon actually is, not just what we imagine and hope that it is.

Some of the most important data related to the Book of Mormon is the external tangible data and evidence related to the first book, First Nephi, where we have a clear and specific description of a journey with a known starting point and specific directions and geographical features. Until about 20 or 30 years ago, it was all rather laughable to our scholarly critics who knew that places like Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula or the River Laman simply did not exist. Now we have a wealth of data confirming the plausibility of the voyage and the places visited. There are plausible candidates for the River Laman, the Valley Lemuel, the south-southwest path, the place Shazer, the ancient burial place Nahom (including an ancient burial place of a similar name in the precise area that fits the text, and 7th-century B.C. archaeological finds confirming a tribe of a similar name inhabited that area–bingo, bingo, bingo), a plausible eastward path from Nahom to the sea, and two nearby competing candidates for the actual place Bountiful itself, with the primary candidate (in my opinion) being Khor Kharfot. It’s not just a surprisingly green spot on the coast of Oman, but one that appears to fit numerous details in the text, even down to the level of being a rare source of iron ore near the surface that plausibly could have been used by Nephi to make tools for the ship he built.

The Arabian Peninsula, including Khor Kharfot, is a physical starting place for better understanding the Book of Mormon. Research at Khor Kharfot in particular is desperately needed to better understand this rare gem that is facing environmental degradation and loss in several ways. Before it is too late, its unique ecosystem and its ancient treasures need to be studied, documented, and preserved. This is a prime starting point for gaining more understanding related to the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, there is an international team of mostly non-LDS scholars and lovers of knowledge and the environment who are joining forces to explore and preserve. I salute the newly formed Khor Kharfot Foundation and encourage all of us to consider making a donation to support their work.

Here is a photo of the Khor Kharfot Foundation team. What a great looking group!

There is another starting place I’d like to suggest. Some of the most interesting and puzzling data related to Book of Mormon origins is coming from extensive scholarly investigation into the dictated text itself, the original Book of Mormon manuscript. This has culminated in the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, which now serves as the best we have for a critical text for the original Book of Mormon. It’s what we need to be using for scholarly analysis of the text if we are interested in exploring its origins and the translation process.

The details uncovered by Royal Skousen provide strong confirmation that the text was dictated and written line by line by a scribe based on what he heard dictated, often showing the kind of mistakes and corrections consistent with a dictation process. But there is far more interesting evidence coming from the language itself as dictated. What once was thought to be a lot of hick grammar actually is good grammar, but from several decades before the rise of the King James Bible. The work of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack provide a rich body of new data that we need to understand and account for, somehow, wherever that leads. This is one of the new frontiers for Book of Mormon research. I’ll discuss why I think it is especially important in a future post.

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Author: Jeff Lindsay

70 thoughts on “Two Starting Points for Exploring the Unexplained Book of Mormon

  1. Jeff, this post leaves me wondering how you feel about the Heaven's Gate religion.

    Some background: Marshall Applewhite had a near-death experience and came to believe "that he and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles, were 'the Two,' that is, the two witnesses spoken of in the Book of Revelation 11:3 in the Bible. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to run an inspirational bookstore, they began traveling around the United States giving talks about their belief system. As with some other New Age faiths they combined Christian doctrine (particularly the ideas of salvation and apocalypse) with the concept of evolutionary advancement and elements of science fiction, particularly travel to other worlds and dimensions."

    "Heaven's Gate members believed the planet Earth was about to be 'recycled' (wiped clean, renewed, refurbished, and rejuvenated), and the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. While the group was formally against suicide, they defined 'suicide' in their own context to mean 'to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered' and believed their 'human' bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey" (Wikipedia).

    As you'll recall, the Heaven's Gaters wound up killing their bodies in order to transport their spirits to the spaceship hidden behind the comet Hale-Bopp.

    It seems to me that Marshall Applewhite is in some ways like Joseph Smith, in that he leveraged some kind of vision into a new religion that, to outsiders, was rather obviously cobbled together out of certain enthusiasms of his time. (For Smith, these enthusiasms were revivalism, Native American origin theory, Protestant disputation, etc., and for Applewhite they were New Age religion, Christianity, and science fiction.) Applewhite gained fewer followers than Smith, but of course mass suicide is not amenable to long-term membership growth. Had the Gaters had a less lethal theology, they might have taken off like Scientology did.

    Anyway, the questions I want to ask are these:

    How would you characterize Applewhite — liar, prophet, or lunatic?

    If one can't decide which of these three best characterizes Applewhite (or whether any of them do), does that really prove anything in particular? (Here I guess I'm getting at the stupidity of the trilemma and the modified version of it invoked by Mormons to defend Joseph Smith.)

    Can you explain how Applewhite managed to convince others of his beliefs?

    If you can't explain how he did so, does it mean he was right? Or does it mean simply that there are a lot of needy, gullible people out there?

    When people make claims like Applewhite's, who bears the burden of proof? Is it really incumbent on non-Gaters to justify their disbelief?

    Like Heaven's Gaterism, Mormonism makes a number of claims that are so extraordinary they call for a very high standard of proof, and despite many, many years of trying, LDS apologists just haven't met that standard. (Do I need to remind you again of the apologists' aversion to secular peer-review?) Nor are they accumulating more evidence as time goes on. (This claim only makes sense if you pretend that none of the old "evidence" has been debunked.) What slender evidence apologists have concocted is still heavily outweighed by the totality of the very strong evidence against those claims.

    Also, Jeff, I don't really think you're honestly interested in "exploring" the Book of Mormon. If you were, you wouldn't frame your posts in terms of the stupidest arguments of your opponents. That's not the way to engage in exploration, it's a way to score easy rhetorical victories.

    You're not an explorer. You're an apologist.

  2. Wonderful stuff, Jeff. And, IMO, these kinds of evidences will only increase.

    Ironically, though, those who cry the loudest for evidence seem to be the last to embrace it. Here we have numerous bullseyes in the Arabian peninsula and somehow that's all explained away by an appeal to some lunatic's wonton journey to Hale-Bopp.

    Jack

  3. Evidence will never work for the nay sayers, no matter how much or how obvious.

    To the critics their could haves, may haves, possibles, and parallels, are their evidence.
    The critics have a double standard.

    They do the very things that they complain the LDS do.

  4. Yes, it will look very much as though the critics have a double standard.

    What's the difference, after all, between a firm rebuttal and a flimsy rationalization? Between a damning disproof and a minor detail? Between an unimpressive coincidence that is only to be expected in the mass of events, and a convincing confirmation?

    Very often, the difference is only in the eye of the beholder.

    This is the thing that interests me. The real world is very complex, and humans prefer to think in sandboxes — simplified worlds where only a few issues are recognized. Thinking within the sandbox comes easily to us. Thinking about how the sandbox relates to reality is much harder for us all; but that's the subject about which I want to learn more.

    Religious disagreements tend to involve different sandboxes. People from one sandbox talk with people from another one, but they rarely really grasp each other's meanings. Yet often each group is committed to converting the other. So they keep flinging sand at each other.

    I am not a relativist. Reality is bigger than any sandbox, but sandbox thinking is a necessary tool for simple brains like ours. On the other hand, the real world is real, and we are not really at liberty to just make things up. Some sandboxes are better representations than others of how things really are.

    Abandoning sandboxes is not really an option for humans. To get the best sandbox we can, though, it really helps to recognizing the limits of our sandbox thinking. The best way I know to do this is to try to see things from others' viewpoints.

    For example, evidence that seems to correspond with the Book of Mormon may well have been growing over time. Suppose that's so. How would it look from a critic's viewpoint?

    Well, the number of Mormon apologists has grown over time, and the extent of their labors. They have combed the world and time for correspondences. And they have gradually found some. Now, if the Book of Mormon were false, would one expect to never find correspondences? No; that would be a bit spooky. What one expects are a few coincidences. The more people look, the more of them will be found.

    An explosion of correspondences everywhere would be one thing. That's how scientific revolutions go, for instance. But a slow accumulation of correspondences fits very well with a theory of fraud and coincidence, given steady effort by apologists.

    On this point, that's the view from the other sandbox.

  5. James,

    You said "But a slow accumulation of correspondences fits very well with a theory of fraud and coincidence, given steady effort by apologists." Really? I would assume just the opposite. What is your thought process to substantiate it? Can you point me to some study of fraud and coincidence that supports your opinion?

  6. wbk,

    Maybe what James means is that if the book were everything it claims to be from the historical point of view, its truthfulness would be obvious. From the moment of its materialization in the 19th Century, the Book of Mormon has made huge claims for itself. Claims that the Bible doesn't make for itself. The Bible just is. It exists and everyone has an opinion about it, but it never really tells us what we are supposed to think about it. It just is what it is.

    The Book of Mormon, however, tells us exactly what we are to think about it. It says, "I am really real. Honest! Trust me! I am a real ancient record. Don't doubt or reject me or you'll be damned."

    See the difference. The Bible is a real authentic ancient record that was slowly produced over a long period of time by many authors all working completely independently of each other. And much later, the various writings are finally compiled in their present form, and there is no preface that says, "This is what I am all about."

    This is what a real ancient record looks like. It is messy and self-contradictory.

    A record that really wants everyone to really believe it is real, even while it isn't, will go to great lengths to really try to convince you it is everything that it actually isn't, especially if it is written by someone with a more "childlike" mind. (Children ruin their own pranks because they try so hard to convince their mark that what they are doing isn't a prank at all. "Here Daddy! Eat this candy! I didn't do anything to it, really…")

    And this is what the Book of Mormon does not only on the title page, but also throughout the book itself. It just tries too hard to convince me it is real. It threatens me if I decide to reject it. This makes me very suspicious.

    But back to what James said. A slow accumulation of correspondences after decades of intense investigative research means that it is taking far to much work to verify something that shouldn't be too hard to verify, given our current scientific technology, general state of political stability, and our advanced research methods and techniques. It has taken over a century to come up with very few evidences. This suggests that the evidences we have found are not evidence at all, but the very few coincidences that do actually exist.

  7. everythingbeforeus,

    Perhaps you did not understand my intent. I am asking James to substantiate his assertion that "a slow accumulation of correspondences fits very well with a theory of fraud and coincidence, given steady effort by apologists." This seems to be an unsubstantiated opinion, and I would like to understand how he came to that position.

  8. My point about steady accumulation of correspondences being consistent with fraud and coincidence isn't the kind of thing you need a study to establish. It's the kind of reasoning that studies use, to make their claims.

    The Book of Mormon is a long book. There are lots of things to ask about it. You can find a lot of things you can think about and say, Hey, if the Book of Mormon were right about this thing, then we should find that thing in such-and-such a place, at such-and-such a time. So you can look for correspondences like that.

    And so you should. But you have to bear in mind: for any given 'that thing', there's also some chance that we might find it in the given place and time, even if the Book of Mormon were fake. You have to expect a certain level of correspondence just by coincidence.

    Suppose that you'll find some coincidental correspondence on 1% of the points you examine. Then if Mormon apologists check out ten things per year, then every ten years, on average, someone will report a new correspondence. The volume of correspondences between the Book of Mormon and some external thing will be steadily increasing over time. But it would just be because more looking turned up more coincidences.

    My point is that this scenario is possible. I don't need a study to prove that. On the contrary, decent studies acknowledge that point, and others like it, and make sure to test their hypotheses against realistic null hypotheses, which typically include some proportion of coincidence.

  9. James,

    Fair enough, but if you are not able to substantiate your claim with at least pointing me in a direction that I can research to verify, then your point fails in all reasonableness. In my simple mind, as we study a thesis and come to greater and greater knowledge about the topic, a theory will either stand or fall based on the new facts that come to light after additional research is performed. There is always the possibility of coincidences to take into account. But your point is well taken. At what point do we say that coincidences are just that and move on, or do we start to take notice.

    If we are trying to find the “truth” (whatever that may be) then when we have a string of coincidences that start trending in a particular direction, it then becomes incumbent for those doing peer review to either substantiate or refute those findings. They are either coincidences or verification of the theory. If you are engaged in peer review, then let’s see the support for your positions, instead of assertions that “everyone” knows like “It's the kind of reasoning that studies use, to make their claims”.

  10. What claim do I have to substantiate? What further research could you possibly do? It's a simple mathematical fact that if coincidences exist in a certain abundance, then more will be discovered the longer one keeps looking. If you need a study to substantiate this, you will need a lot more studies to substantiate the arguments in any study you read.

    Really dramatic evidence, or enormous abundance of plausible evidence, would be a different story. But a slow accumulation of mildly suggestive evidence does not suggest a tipping balance of probability. It suggests coincidences being collected over time.

  11. James,

    If I understand your thought process, the basic premise you are working from is that any correspondence in favor of the Book of Mormon is to be viewed as a coincidence, and thus be dismissed as such. i.e. even a blind pig can sometimes stumble across an acorn.

  12. Basically, but not exactly.

    A huge wave of correspondences, or some real headscratchers that were just impossible to explain naturalistically, would have to be more than coincidence. But Jeff doesn't seem to be claiming either of those.

    And I'm not saying you have to view all these mildly suggestive correspondences as coincidences. To a convinced Mormon, they make sense as being there because the Book of Mormon is true. I'm just saying you can also view them as coincidences, and that this really doesn't take any stretching.

    Mormon apologists can look at every single little feature of the whole Book of Mormon, and then look at all of world history for correspondences. In this kind of search, finding a curious correspondence is not like buying one lottery ticket and miraculously hitting the jackpot. It's like buying all the lottery tickets. Of course you get some winners in there. They're not surprising at all.

    And in particular the tendency of suggestive correspondences to accumulate slowly over time requires no strain at all for the coincidence theory. In a big field with acorns strewn across it at random, the longer a blind pig keeps snuffling, the more acorns it finds. Of course I don't mean to call Mormon apologists pigs, though I am calling them mistaken; I'm just accepting your analogy.

    You can argue that the correspondences you've found are too dramatic to be written off as coincidences; I'd disagree, but that's a different point, and it probably has to go case-by-case. Right now, I'm just saying that steady accumulation of correspondences, regardless of each one's quality, does not really tend to support the Book of Mormon. Thinking it does is a Big List fallacy of exactly the kind to which Jeff and other Mormons object.

  13. Hi Jeff!

    Came across your blog and website a few weeks ago and have been enjoying exploring it since. Thank you for the time and love you have poured into collecting and presenting your research.

    Of course, material evidence will never be able to prove such things as The Book of Mormon. Angels and visions are always going to be at the bottom of the probability totem; that's kind of what makes them miracles.

  14. Jeff, the only thing this post confirms is the similarities of the BOM to horseshoes and hand-grenades.
    You've turned "confirming the plausibility", "plausible candidates", and "plausibly could have been" into "bingo, bingo, bingo" I guess close enough counts.

    And you mention "physical starting place" What about the real "physical starting place"? Smith's claim of The Garden of Eden located in Missouri! Can you tell me how that ties back to the Arabian Peninsula?

    And then you bring up the translation process? The Church cannot even tell us how it took place? Was it done with Urim and Thummim? A rock in his hat? Was it the same rock he claimed could find buried treasure? Nobody seems to know for sure

  15. James,

    Thank you for your explanation of where you are coming from. We obviously are looking at the issue from two different perspectives. When I was in college (a very long time ago) I found that I had to accept by faith many differences between the scientific knowledge of the day and what the Book of Mormon claimed about itself. Over the course of my life, I have not seen any of these claims refuted and I have found many validated. Notice I did not say all of them. I strongly agree with Jeff, the trend in the last 30 years or so has been to substantiate rather than refute these claims. So for me, the ”coincidences” that you refer to, seem to be one more item to add to the growing list of correspondences supporting the claims of the book. The question then becomes at what point do we stop saying that they are random occurrences by blind luck, and tip the scale in the other direction.

    As Jeff also pointed out, none of the modern research techniques being applied to the Book of Mormon from a contextual perspective seem to be doing any favors to the critics. The challenge for the critics of the Book of Mormon is to come up with a consistent theory of how it came to be that accounts for all the known complexities and facts. As with any theory, it needs to be predictive in nature. When new facts arise that do not fit, it has to be modified to reflect those facts.

    The problem with the existing theories is they have lost their ability to account for new facts and findings. These theories have become so contradictory and convoluted that I come to the point where they cease to hold any value. The more the critics fail to effectively engage the scholarly work coming out over the last 40 years, the more irrelevant they become in this discussion.

  16. I guess we are coming from different starting points, and this is exactly what interests me, here. I've only recently begun learning about Mormonism, so if there have been longstanding anti-Mormon theories that have become discredited in recent years, then I've missed them.

    I have noticed that some critics sometimes seem to get so committed to pet theories that they will stoop to pretty dodgy arguments to defend them. On the other hand, part of what I mean by my sandbox metaphor is that everybody tends to imagine that other people are playing the same game that they themselves are playing. So for example, many Mormons seem to believe that the Book of Mormon's divine revelation makes it absolutely perfect, and so conversely even a small fault, if it could be proven conclusively, would bring down the whole faith. People who play that kind of game in their sandboxes expect that everyone's playing by the same rules. So they'll pounce on a minor issue in some critical theory, as if it destroys the entire opposition.

    But believing that the Book of Mormon is a fraud isn't actually the mirror opposite of believing that it's divine. If Joseph Smith's work was a fraud, it doesn't have to have been a perfect fraud. It might well have been a risky gamble, and it might well have had a lot of luck. Many of its details may have been fixed by chance, and not fit into any grand plan.

    If the production of the Book of Mormon wasn't a miracle, then it was an ordinary event of ordinary history. It happened close to two hundred years ago, and if it was a fraud, then those who knew the truth about it were actively trying to conceal that truth, not record it for historians to find. History is full of uncertainties even when people do try their best to make records. And fraudsters who cover their tracks can still be hard to catch today, when you can subpoena their e-mail. It's all too plausible that a fraud from the 1830s has simply left us no smoking-gun proof of its falsehood. That hardly implies it can't be a fraud and must be a miracle.

    From a critical point of view, then, there really is a double standard, and from a critical point of view, that's only right. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, while plausible default assumptions can stand by default. The theory of a miraculously revealed Book of Mormon has a much higher standard to meet, to prove itself, than the broad and general assumption that the thing was some kind of fraud.

    The sandbox thing comes, it seems to me, when you say which claims are extraordinary and which are plausible defaults. If you didn't grow up Mormon, I have to tell you, the story of Joseph Smith's revelation has quite a hill to climb. It strikes me as quite extraordinary indeed. But I suppose that if you grew up singing 'Praise to the Man', then the notion that Smith was a fraud might seem just as extraordinary.

  17. James,

    There are times that those in the Church make claims that the Book of Mormon says things it really doesn’t. I wish they wouldn’t, but they have their free agency to choose. Likewise, I see where critics make a strawman and then attack that strawman without any real understanding of what they are saying. It goes both directions. I enjoy reading the banter going back and forth. Like you, I find it very stimulating. Sometimes I find it a little over the top when one side refuses to listen to what other is saying and respond appropriately. I personally have a hard time accepting unsubstantiated statements that fly in the face of my perception of reason.

    I agree with you that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, apart from Moroni appearing to people and leaving the plates for us to examine, I doubt there is much direct evidence that can be provided other than to determine plausibility for the physical claims of the text. We are then left to determine for ourselves what we will accept as truth and live accordingly. If something can be shown to be plausible, then dismissing it out of hand as blind luck seems to be a knee jerk reaction. As I see the state of apologetics in the church, we are presented with a growing corpus of plausible correspondences. As stronger and more improbable correspondences are shown to be plausible, the stronger the case becomes, and the harder for critics to adapt their theories to account for the new scenarios. As I stated previously, the tipping point is to be determined by each individual. Please remember that in 1830, just about everything about the Book of Mormon was ridiculed as being contrary to the accepted scientific facts of the day. Over time, one by one many have moved from being a laughing stock to become plausible until today, a significant and impressive list is being shown as not only plausible but probably very likely. I wish all issues had been resolved, but that is not where we are today. However, the trend is in the right direction.

    in accepting that the Book of Mormon was a fraud / conspiracy you need to believe and accept that an equally unbelievable string of events occurred that are almost as unlikely as you see the official story. The angelic visits, gold plates, et al, must have been fabricated out of thin air and shown to many people over a considerable period of time and space both in the presence of Joseph Smith, and others where he was not even in the same state. All this in the age before computer generated special effects. They all must agree to keep the secret for the rest of their lives and swear on their death bed to the truthfulness of the conspiracy. With many of them leaving the church and in some cases fighting against it, I find this theory to be highly dubious. Human nature being what it is, if someone feels like they have been wronged and then has a chance to set the record straight, they do it with a vengeance once they have left the inner circle. Conspiracies are very hard to keep quiet over long periods of time, especially when something is very controversial. In my simple mind your scenario is highly implausible with the Book of Mormon. That being said, as you rightly pointed out, we cannot rule out that this example was a successful conspiratorial fraud. We both get to choose what we believe and hopefully treat the other with respect. All I can ask is that you consider that many people believe that what Joseph Smith and others said might well have been the truth after all.

  18. Indeed, many people believe it; and I'm familiar with believing in extraordinary things. I'm a mostly pretty (small-o) orthodox Christian, and I think the bodily resurrection of Jesus probably really occurred. (I say 'probably' because it would make a big but not huge change to my faith for the Resurrection to have been a purely spiritual event; Jesus is supposed to be present in the world even now, just not bodily, so maybe it was like that from the start.)

    Whatever happened between the crucifixion of Jesus and the emergence of the early Christian church, it was either miraculous, or else some kind of mixture of fraud and fluke. Pure fraud has never been such a winning theory, because most of the leading figures in the movement were executed, and the danger of that was surely obvious at the time. It's hard to see what payoff would have been worth the obvious risk. The fluke theory, though, has an awful lot going for it, possibly helped along by some amount of fraud. Unlikely coincidences are bound to happen sometime, somewhere, in the course of human history. Bodies get lost, maybe doubles get seen; who knows? Subsequent history has shown that religions aren't trivially easy to start, but not impossibly hard to start, either, when conditions are right.

    As a Christian nonetheless, I'm happy to look at any particular theory and try to weigh its likelihood, but I'm not kidding myself that we're going to be able to rule out fraud or fluke, and establish the miracle, no matter how many speculations can be shown to be unlikely. Maybe what happened really was unlikely, but happened nonetheless. Real life is like that.

    Neither the Old nor New Testaments was prepared by anything like the procedure of the Book of Mormon. The revelation of the Koran, however, was quite similar (according to Islam). There were no plates and no special spectacles, or stone and hat. But Muhammed would go into a trance periodically, and recite original Arabic poetry so magnificent it defined the language. The revelations came regularly over many years. Only Muslims really believe the Koran was dictated by God, but I don't think the basic scenario is so implausible. Maybe Muhammed was really a gifted poet who prepared his verses in advance and then faked his trances, but channeling text is a rare but well attested psychological phenomenon. I'm inclined to believe he was sincere, and for that matter I'm prepared to believe that some of the Koran really did come from God.

    So I'm not just dismissing the Book of Mormon out of hand and a priori. And maybe I'm not giving it as much benefit of the doubt as I should, just because it came more recently, in a cultural environment less foreign to me than first century Palestine or seventh century Arabia. But I do try to take that into account, and so far, for me, the Book of Mormon still seems very different. The points in its favor all seem not telling, but tenuous at best, and suspicious at worst. The points against it seem compelling, not minor.

    Mormons see differently. I can only account for this, from my perspective, as extreme sandboxing — a radically different way of weighting what is plausible and what is extraordinary.

  19. The Book of Mormon, however, tells us exactly what we are to think about it. It says, "I am really real. Honest! Trust me! I am a real ancient record. Don't doubt or reject me or you'll be damned."

    You know, Christ said much the same thing about Himself during His earthly ministry. He did not leave us the option of thinking He was just an average guy, or even a mildly interesting preacher. With His declaration of His own divine origin and purpose, we are left with really only two possibilities – He was crazy insane or He was actually the prophesied and promised Savior of the world.

  20. If the production of the Book of Mormon wasn't a miracle, then it was an ordinary event of ordinary history.

    When you consider the fact that "it happened close to two hundred years ago," and that we are still having such a lively discussion of it even today, and that the number of people around the world that believe its claims continue to increase in numbers not trivial, I'm sure you can agree that the production of the BoM was more than an "ordinary event of ordinary history."

  21. wbk: All I can ask is that you consider that many people believe that what Joseph Smith and others said might well have been the truth after all.

    Would you agree to consider that many people believe that what Sun Myung Moon said might well have been the truth after all?

    I highly recommend that you read Moon's Exposition of the Divine Principle. Read it with an open mind and heart, and then pray over it. If you do these things sincerely, the Spirit will guide you to an affirmation of the truth of Unificationism.

    If you wish, you can deny the spiritual truth of Unificationism. But if you do so without carefully studying the latest edition of the Exposition of the Divine Principle, then you're not being fair. In fact you're being irrational. And you're missing out on so much happiness and salvation….

    And if Unificationism just doesn't work for you, there are hundreds of other religious texts you'll need to study and pray over before you can comply with the request that Mormons make of everyone else about their book…..

    OK, seriously — all I'm trying to do here is help you see how ridiculous certain Mormon claims seem to us outsiders. If other religions were to make similar arguments you'd reject them in a heartbeat. Face it: your religion is just another religion. It's special and true to you, but only because it's yours.

    Bearyb: [T]he BoM was more than an "ordinary event of ordinary history."

    I see your point — though I think James didn't mean that the BoM hasn't been important, merely that it is explainable in terms of regular old earthly history. The invention of the Internet was very consequential, but its appearance was an "ordinary event of ordinary history" in the sense James meant.

    Anyway, Joseph Smith's writing of the BoM, and the church he created around it, are really not all that special in an "ordinary historical" sense.

    Plenty of other people have done similar things, some with more long-term success than Smith, other with less. Consider the following very partial list of religion-makers:

    — Mohammed and Islam
    — Ann Lee and the Shakers
    — Joseph Smith and the FLDS, RLDS, and LDS Churches
    — James Strang and the Strangite LDS Church
    — Ellen G. White and the Seventh-Day Adventists
    — Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science
    — Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church
    — L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology
    — Li Hongzhi and Falung Gong
    — Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate

    Some of these churches have flourished, others have floundered. The point is simply that Joseph Smith was not unique. He's part of a larger history of religion making. To those of us who don't follow him he's just one of many who have had visions, found credulous followers, and created new religions.

    It doesn't happen every day, but it happens often enough to suggest a general spiritual yearning as a part of human nature. If we want an explanation of how Joseph managed to convince others of his claims, we should look to this yearning — and the gullibility that can flow from it — rather than to the truth of his claims.

    Otherwise, how would you explain the fact that, in a mere 23 years since Li Hongzhi started preaching Falung Gong, that sect has become four or five times as big as the LDS Church?

    Is this growth to be understood as evidence that Falung Gong is divine truth? Or is it to be understood as part of "ordinary history" — in terms of people's desire to believe, in a nation of 1,300,000 potential converts, etc.?

    And if you explain Falung Gong in these terms, why not also Mormonism?

  22. Although I'm a Christian, I don't really buy the classic 'aut Deus, aut homo malus' argument (Jesus was either God or a bad man). For one thing, it depends on accepting a few lines in the Gospels as historically accurate, rather than made-up insertions from later. In fact nobody really knows just how the New Testament got written, or even exactly when. Maybe some bits did get put in later. Most of what Jesus said would work fine with him as just an interesting preacher. There's no film of him walking on water, no recording of him saying, "I am."

    The fact that the Book of Mormon is still a topic nearly two-hundred years later does mean that it wasn't a trivial bit of history. A lot has happened since the 1830s, though. Trivial things don't count as history at all. How much impact has Joseph Smith really had? A lot more than most people, to be sure. But only a really thick book of modern world history is going to mention Joseph Smith.

  23. James,
    Instead of calling it sandboxing, let’s call it a different paradigm. That seems to me to fit better what the differences are. From your brief explanation of your beliefs, I infer you are a Trinitarian. That you subscribe to the Nicene, Chalcedon, et al creeds. i.e. the writings of the doctors of the early Christian church 300 years plus after the life of Christ. Being steeped in this tradition, of course Mormonism would seem strange to your ears.

    If you would like to continue this conversation offline, please let me know.

  24. I'm afraid that if I undertook an offline discussion I'd feel obliged to participate more reliably than I can really afford, time-wise. As just one comment poster among many, I don't feel that I'm letting people down if I just bow out at any point — and so I don't feel I'm making an irresponsible time commitment by posting. If that makes sense.

    'Paradigm' is part of what I'm trying to mean by 'sandbox'; it captures the notion that people can have different approaches. Another point that's important to me, though, that I don't really see in the paradigm concept, is the emphasis that all the sandboxes are drastic simplifications of reality.

    I'm actually Trinitarian to an almost heretical degree, I would say. I believe in the Trinity more than I do in the Bible. I'm not sure this is all that orthodox. But I'm a theoretical physicist, so I'm conditioned to think of bizarre abstract ideas as ultimate truth.

    So, yes, Mormonism's plurality of Gods leaves me cold. And apart from the whole issue of evidence for or against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, some of its content just clashes violently with my own beliefs.

    (I guess the biggest thing I've noticed so far along those lines is 3 Nephi 9:3-15, where Jesus announces from the heavens that he has just committed an enormous massacre, which must have involved thousands of children being drowned or burned or buried alive. That just floored me, I have to say. I had had no idea the Book of Mormon contained things like that. )

  25. James,

    You know. I was a Mormon for 38 years. 30 years if you don't count my early childhood, and I read those passages in 3 Nephi 9 all the time and never thought much of it. But now, a year out of the Church, and you inspired me to read them once again, and I burst out laughing. You are right. It is simply bizarre. Jesus bragging about the cities and inhabitants he burned with fire!

    I am transitioning into traditional Christianity (visited my local Episcopal church yesterday and really liked it). The Trinity is one thing Mormons are trained to mock, even if quietly in the privacy of their own minds, and sometimes publicly in Gospel Doctrine classes. I have been trying to wrap my mind around it myself lately.

    I understand the reasoning for it. Trinity is a shorthand way of making seemingly-contradictory statements in the Bible make sense. And from that point of view, I think the doctrine is brilliant. But you gotta understand…I've endure a lifetime of conditioning, being told that the Trinity is screwed up. (For the record…when Mormons argue against Trinity, they are almost always arguing against Modalism/Sabellianism, because the majority of them do not understand what the doctrine of the Trinity actually means, and not knowing anything about Sabellianism, they don't realize that they've got it mixed with Trinitarianism. What a shocker it was when I realized just what Trinitarians believe! I guarantee you the vast majority of Mormons have no idea with Modalism/Sabellianism even is.)

    Now that I realize Trinitarians are not Modalists, I think I can get on board with the Trinity. I see the reasoning behind it.

    I don't know what I am saying, and I guess I am technically hijacking this thread, so don't respond to this. I am just thinking out loud.

  26. May I suggest that the two of you withhold your scorn for a harrowing BofM passage. Christ did not brag in 3 Nephi 9. Why haven't you also considered and criticized some biblical massacres. God can be held directly responsible for a few of those. And innocents were killed. Oh, that's right, they're biblical, so they withstand scrutiny.

    So you assert that God doesn't kill innocents along with evil people. But of course world history says otherwise; any rational person who believes in God and the Bible must conclude that he does at times (see also Isaiah 45:7 and 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). On your slam-the-Book-of-Mormon view, God should be maligned for every single natural disaster that kills (righteous/innocent) people. For of course each human death that results from those can be attributed to God since he set up the world with its earthquakes and eruptions, and given his omniscience and omnipotence, he knows all about them and would be able to prevent any disaster that he wanted to, or he could prevent any living creature from being killed in the midst of one. But of course he doesn't. So absolute omnibenevolence must be rejected.

  27. I don't think God commanded Old Testament massacres either. The Israelites were ancient marauders and like every other ancient culture, they did what they wanted and gave God the glory and the credit. I honestly don't think that the same Jesus Christ who just years prior said that he didn't come to condemn the world, but to save it, would say "behold all the people I burned up!"