Monday, November 27, 2006

On critiquing Mormonism

Where I live Mormons are vastly more numerous than atheists, and I get Mormon students quite often in my classes. So understanding why the believe what they do, and why they seem uninterested in the evidential issues surrounding the book of Mormon has been something I want very much to understand.

I also did say that, in some contexts, a "feeling in the heart" might provide a reason for belief. I specifically indicated several contexts in which some kind of intuitive appeal might be used to defend one's religious beliefs. I even talked about the "outgunned" believer who is confronting a better informed opponent but doesn't give up his or her faith on that account. Such a person, I argued, can be rational. Christians do believe in the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The question is what the limits and parameters are on the use of this "testimony." Could we tell a perplexed high school student who comes home from school having been given evidence for evolution to "take the first chapter of Genesis, read it, pray over it, and if God gives you a conviction that it's literally true, then you can know that world was created in 6 days 6000 years ago, in spite of what your hell-bound blasphemin' science teacher says."

Clark says no, that would be an abuse of the appeal to religious experience, and I agree. Where I differ with him is in the fact that in my view the weight of the evidence against the Book of Mormon, at least in my mind, is about as strong as the evidence against YEC. Yes, there is the defensive Mormon apologetics from groups like FAIR, but there is also the Answers in Genesis defense of YEC.

Second, it looks like the people in the Mormon hierarchy, including apostles like Oaks and Packer, think that the testimony supports the Mormon religion regardless of the facts.

I am also going to be considering a criticism of William Lane Craig in which he has been criticized for saying that the "inner witness of the Spirit" constitutes sufficient reason for believing in Christianity even if all the other arguments turned out bad. His claim has been compared unfavorably to the position of Mormon epistemologists. I actually think there is some justice in these criticisms, and I am going to be considering them in a subsequent post.

Finally, I think that there is a substantial case to be made for the Christian miracles. I don't think it's sufficient to prove the irrationality of the skeptical position, but I do think it creates problems for the skeptic in ways that the Mormon case does not. I think most people who reject Mormonism can pretty substantially agree on how Mormonism got started without divine intervention. Where the founding of Christianity is concerned, I think that if we ask the question "If Christianity isn't true, then how DID it get founded, and then try to go through all the theories of what might have happened instead of what Christians say happened, we find that no theory looks very good. (Hallucination, theft, swoon, wrong tomb, legend, etc.). I realize that you can disbelieve in a miracle without knowing how the miracle report was caused, and how it came to be believed so widely. But I think the skeptic is left with a conundrum here that I have not seen adequately resolved.

I do think that Mormons are caught up in a set of false beliefs and that the falsity of their beliefs is such as to do them harm.

23 comments:

jeff g said...

While I certainly grant that there may be far more Mormon than atheists in Arizona, do you really think this is true in a wider context? For some reason this would surprise me. It seems to me that within the context of academia in general atheist would vastly out number Mormons.

On to a more substantial comment,

"The question is what the limits and parameters are on the use of this "testimony." Could we tell a perplexed high school student who comes home from school having been given evidence for evolution to "take the first chapter of Genesis, read it, pray over it, and if God gives you a conviction that it's literally true, then you can know that world was created in 6 days 6000 years ago, in spite of what your hell-bound blasphemin' science teacher says."

Clark says no, that would be an abuse of the appeal to religious experience, and I agree."

I agree with you guys as well, but I see this point as being absolutely crucial. If somebody can have a "testimony" experience which is just as strong and just as valid for YEC as they can for "God exists" or "The BoM is true" this seems to undermine the testimony experience as a reliable source of any truth at all. In other words, the use of the "testimony" in the case of YEC is not an abuse of the method, but is rather a clear case of why the "testimony" method is unreliable in the any case.

It is for this reason that I am trying to understand why you seem so determined to undermine the testimony experience altogether. It seems self-defeating for a Christian such as yourself.

JD Walters said...

I think what Vic is getting at is that the 'inner testimony' argument can only do so much persuasive 'work'. Take the case for theism in general. Many philosophers would agree that there are good arguments both for and against believing in the theistic God. The testimony of the Holy Spirit might lead you to 'jump off the fence' as it were on the side of theism. But the point is that testimony cannot replace the other (good) reasons to believe. It cannot bear the full weight of evidence.

A good book on this subject which I've just started to read is Rick Kennedy's "A History of Reasonableness", whic argues that authority and testimony do have a proper place in justified knowledge. What that place is, however, is open to dispute. Whatever the place, it certainly couldn't bear the main burden of proof.

jeff g said...

I take issue with your response on two points:

1) To say that it works "to a certain extent" is far too wishy-washy. What extent is that? How do we know when we have reached it? etc.

2) My perspective is that most philosophers sees both arguments for and against god as all being bad and therefore not persuasive at all in either direction.

Clark Goble said...

"Yes, there is the defensive Mormon apologetics from groups like FAIR, but there is also the Answers in Genesis defense of YEC. "

Shouldn't arguments be taken on a case by case basis? Surely you're not seriously putting forth as an argument that because some claims have bad apologetic arguments that all apologetics arguments are bad.

Regarding miracles, what is your best case with evidence?

Clark Goble said...

BTW - as I've repeatedly said I don't think a "burning in the bosom" alone establishes anything.

So when one says, "inner testimony." unless one unpacks what it means, I'm afraid you're not really establishing much.

Anonymous said...

The LDS church actually promotes two forms of learning to understand spiritual promptings. One is that the answer will come to both the "heart" and "mind" thus meaning that reason and feelings will garner the same answer if investigated closely enough. The other would be the multiple witnesses option, where one can check with others of similar inclinations to see if they are having similar feelings.

I think most other epistemology falls into these two realms.

Matt W.

Anonymous said...

"I do think that Mormons are caught up in a set of false beliefs and that the falsity of their beliefs is such as to do them harm."

So you can sympathise with the atheist viewpoint, then. Since most of us feel the same about Christianity.

Victor Reppert said...

Anonymous wrote: "I do think that Mormons are caught up in a set of false beliefs and that the falsity of their beliefs is such as to do them harm."

So you can sympathise with the atheist viewpoint, then. Since most of us feel the same about Christianity.

VR: Precisely. Short of embracing Christianity, the biggest compliment you can pay Christianity is to attack it. To do so is to treat is as a truth claim, to treat it as a truth claim that matters. This is the often-overlooked common ground between atheists like Parsons and Christians like myself. What drives me crazy are people who are indifferent to the whole thing. Man or rabbit?

Of course if someone is just bashing away and not taking Christianity seriously, then of course this doesn't go down so well with me.

Anonymous said...

"Precisely. Short of embracing Christianity, the biggest compliment you can pay Christianity is to attack it. To do so is to treat is as a truth claim, to treat it as a truth claim that matters."

Attacking something that is perceived as harmful to society does not mean one takes the claims of Chrisitanity to be truthful in any serious or meaningful sense of the word. Quite the contrary.
If you are really seeking common ground with the atheist, this is not the area to find it.:-)

"Of course if someone is just bashing away and not taking Christianity seriously, then of course this doesn't go down so well with me. "

In general, I'd say the atheist only takes the harmful activities of Christians seriously. For example, it is hard to imagine any dedicated atheist thinking there is any merit to the claims that humankind is tainted with Original Sin that could only be cleansed away by the sacrificial Blood of the Lamb. But they would take quite seriously the attempt by Christians to force the teaching of their religious beliefs in public schools or to deprive women of their right to birth control or to prevent gay couples from enjoying the benefits of marriage.

Jeff Downs said...

Greg Koukl made some (opening) comments on a conversation he had with someone at the recent ETS meeting, on the LDS.

Click here to listen. You might need to register.

jeff g said...

While its clear that Koukl had the best intentions, he misrepresented the Mormon position in a number of important details. I'll only mention two:

1) Mormon do not claim to be Orthodox Christians in the sense that Christians mean it. They think "Orthodox Christianity" is far too influenced by the Creeds of the 4th century onward, which were formulated by non-prophets, and as such gleefully disagree with most all of them.

2) The average Mormon really is not all that different in their views from the average Christian. While the well-informed Mormon will probably disagree with orthodox Christianity in more fundamental ways, it is still inaccurate to call the typical, uninformed, run of the mill Mormon "not a true Mormon." Mormonism allows for a good deal of heterodoxy. Accordingly, they do not proselyte Evangelicals because the latter are wrong, per se, but rather because the former view the latter as being unauthorized. Of course, one could view this as being but a form of "being wrong", but the difference between this and what Koukl implies is important, I think.

Victor Reppert said...

So would a typical Mormon accept the claim "As man is God once was, as God is, man may become?" Because that is a radically different understanding of the God-Man relationship from what anything anywhere near orthodox Christianity would accept.

I know Gordon Hinckley issued a disclaimer about that "couplet," but everything I've read tells me that this is what they believe.

Victor Reppert said...

Many people who would in general be thought of as ID supporters would oppose ID being taught in public schools at this point. As would I. And I believe strongly enough in the separation of church and state that I think it hypocritical for someone to oppose gay civil unions (that's really what the government can offer--it's the civil government, dang it) but allow that patently adulterous hetersexual unions can be authorized by the civil government. However you construe "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,' the fact is there are plenty of patently adulterous relationships authorized by the government. So either the government is not in the business of enforcing biblical marital standards, or the government needs to be a lot tougher on the remarriages it allows.

So I don't take either of the positions you think are harmful. There is nothing about being a Christian that requires me to take those stands, however popular they might be in some Christian circles.

Jeff Downs said...

he misrepresented the Mormon position in a number of important details. Mormon do not claim to be Orthodox Christians in the sense that Christians mean it.

Did Koukl say that the LDS believe they are Orthodox in the same sense. I don't think he did, but I'd have to go back and listen. What he was saying, and it in fact true, is that the LDS have tried to represent themselves to the public, not as a group who believe that all creeds are an abomination, but that they (the LDS) are just a like the average denomination.

The average Mormon really is not all that different in their views from the average Christian. While the well-informed Mormon will probably disagree with orthodox Christianity in more fundamental ways,

I am amazed that you keep making these type of statements...in light of the LDS view of God and man, salvation, etc. These are what set Latter-day saint theology in the camp of being an counterfeit of Christianity.

Vic brings up the issue of God and man. There is a huge different between what the Bible says about God (who he is, his relationship to creation and creatures, etc.) and the LDS view and God was once a man, who obeys laws and ordinances to become the person he is.

This recent article (although not online) may be of interest:

Lorenzo Snow’s Couplet: ‘As Man Now Is, God Once Was: As God Now Is, Man May Be’: ‘No Functioning Place in Present-Day Mormon Doctrine?’ A Response to Richard Mouw, by Ronald V. Huggins. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 49, No. 3 (September 2006).

Clark Goble said...

I don't think it fair to say Mormons portray ourselves as "just like the average denomination." While they've recently changed the LDS missionary discussions the notion of the apostasy is pretty prominent in it. Over at Mormon.org, the main website for folks curious about the LDS Church one also finds this in the FAQ. Is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a Protestant church? It contains references to both the apostasy and the restoration. We obviously do believe we are Christians though, which is a different matter from thinking we're Protestants.

As to phrases like, "what the Bible teaches," it sure would be nice if people acknowledge that there are interpretive processes at work. The Bible is often vague and is open to different readings. Just because we don't read it the way Evangelical Protestants do doesn't mean it isn't in the Bible. (No desire to get into an exegesical debate over the nature of God at the moment - just making a rather obvious philosophical point)

Jeff Downs said...

Stay-tuned to James White's blog for when he posts the link to today's Dividing Line. An LDS member called about 15 minutes before the program ended. You'll certainly hear the differences between a Biblical view of God and an unbiblical LDS view.

jeff g said...

News Flash!!! Not all Mormons believe the same things!

"As man is ...."

LOTS of Mormons, maybe not half, but close to it, don't accept it!! I'm sorry if this is disappointing.

Jeff Downs said...

As to phrases like, "what the Bible teaches," it sure would be nice if people acknowledge that there are interpretive processes at work.

Yep! and one of the "interpretive processes at work" are just what you state... "The Bible is often vague and is open to different readings."

While you and other LDS come to the text with this presupposition, I do not. I'm not saying that there aren't things that are hard to understand....so you don't need to go down that road. That is not the claim you are making above.

So, is your reasoning above scripture, or is your reasoning subordinate to the text?

Jeff Downs said...

News Flash!!! Not all Mormons believe the same things!

LOTS of Mormons, maybe not half, but close to it, don't accept it!! I'm sorry if this is disappointing.


Not disappointing my friend, but it would be interesting to have you over when the missionaries come to the door, and they begin talking about the unity of the LDS people in their beliefs and how Christendom is so fractured because they believe so many different things..."just look at all the denominations", etc.

Perhaps I can have you over next time.

Jason said...

Vic: "Precisely. Short of embracing Christianity, the biggest compliment you can pay Christianity is to attack it. To do so is to treat is as a truth claim, to treat it as a truth claim that matters."

Anon (not Matt?): "Attacking something that is perceived as harmful to society does not mean one takes the claims of Chrisitanity to be truthful in any serious or meaningful sense of the word. Quite the contrary.

"If you are really seeking common ground with the atheist, this is not the area to find it.:-)"


To treat something as a truth claim that matters, is _not_ the same as taking the claim to be truthful in any serious or meaningful sense of the word. (This ought to be obvious even in the case of the school-teaching dispute. That dispute isn't happening apart from truth claims being held, and passionately so, by the various parties.)


On a more incidental note, Jeff G wrote: {{While I certainly grant that there may be far more Mormon than atheists in Arizona, do you really think this is true in a wider context? For some reason this would surprise me. It seems to me that within the context of academia in general atheist would vastly out number Mormons.}}

Victor was talking about getting Mormon students quite often in his classes, _therefore_ wanting to understand why they believe what they do, and why they seem uninterested in the evidential issues surrounding the BoM. He wasn't saying that in the context of academia the number of Mormons is substantial (much less that they would outnumber generally atheistic scholars.)

jeff g said...

JD,

That sounds like a great plan! ;-)

Yeah, sometimes its hard to remember, or rather get the missionaries to remember that they are barely out of high school and that a lot of what they think they know about the world is simply wrong. As to "As man is..." I do grant that almost all missionaries believe it. But the missionaries are people who have spent far more time reading and studying Mormon doctrine and history than the average member has. Thus, they will say a lot of things about what Mormons believe which aren't necessarily true for all or even most members.

The fact is, if one attends church on Easter Sunday in a Mormon congregation, you aren't going to hear hardly anything at all that the traditional Christian would disagree with. This is not the exception. And it's not because Mormon are hiding anything. Its because they really aren't terribly sure about all those doctrines which are commonly attributed to them. They not only do not want to scare any non-Mormons who might be in the congregation, but they don't want to scare the MORMONS who are there. This is because most Mormons simply do not know of or believe much of that stuff. Most members are far more concerned about having faith in Christ and being a good person.

justin said...

How do the "Christian miracles" cause problems for the skeptics? What is this "substantial case" that you feel can be made for these miracles? You talk about "miracles" as if they're historical facts. What proof do you have that any of them actually happened besides what you read in the officially approved texts? Are there any corroborating contemporary sources for any single "miracle" allegedly performed by Jesus?

Christians use a circular logic: The Bible must be a source of truth because it's the Word of God, and they know that because the Bible says so. Which of the miracles can be verified independently using reliable non-Biblical sources?

Skeptics do not have problems with something that we can be reasonably sure did not happen.

Jeff Downs said...

Josh, Christians would say God does miracles every day, when those who are dead in their sins, come alive in Christ Jesus.