Monday, November 13, 2006

Teresa Nielsen Hayden's critique of Mormonism

I thought I should put Teresa Nielsen Hayden's critique of the book of Mormon up on its own entry. I also linked to her blog.

So there's that venerable (150 years old now) book for you, reduced to a pureed caricature of itself for your easy consumption. But remember Joe Sheffer? We left him sitting in the Howard Johnson's in Tempe several pages ago, drinking coffee and waiting to deliver his clinching argument. Actually, all he said was that Lehi & Co. would have had to forget the use of the wheel somewhere on the voyage from the Middle East to America, since the invention was widely in use at the time of their departure from Jerusalem but was never used in the Americas until the European conquests. I thought about that for a moment. Joe was dead right, of course. Then I considered it for a couple of minutes more while I waited for the tremors to die down (no doubt the serpent at the foundations of the earth stirring), and then plunged into an orgy of dissection.

For instance, the book is written in very bad King James English that sounds like the language spoken in Mighty Thor comic books (I say thee, nope!). This is a little hard to swallow in a manuscript that was theoretically translated by an upstate New York farmboy in the nineteenth century; harder to swallow is the notion that God really talks like that. It reads as though someone very familiar with the Bible (in an unscholarly way) were trying to write in imitation of the King James Version's style--say, the son of a devout Protestant Fundamentalist family, where reading the Bible would have been the order of the day, where more sophisticated Biblical scholarship would have been unknown, and where the most commonly available version of the Bible would have been one in a distinct and peculiar style that included things like verse breaks.

Then there's the archaeological side of the question. In the nineteenth century the science hadn't really been invented yet; there was still the possibility that the Amerinds were the Ten Lost Tribes, or something equally fabulous. Of course, the truth (current version, who knows?) turned out to be just as strange, in a wildly different way, and I'd no more give up on Olmec heads, the Mound Builders of the eastern United States, and the trek across the Siberian land-bridge, than I would have given up on dinosaurs as a kid. Moreover, the Amerinds are manifestly not just dark-skinned Semites; there are some distinct physiological differences besides skin color, the blood type is all wrong, and the indigenous American languages, all God-knows-how-many-dozens of them, are nothing like any known Semitic language.

Another thing, a small thing that peculiarly caught my eye, is that in the Book of Mormon there are many large battles fought with swords. Now, there are two kinds of swords that could be used in these conflicts. They could have the all-metal one- or two-edged sort that comes in a hundred shapes and sizes in Old World literature, or they could be using the best New World equivalent, a sort of large club or paddle edged on both sides with inset rows of sharpened obsidian chunks--a fearsome weapon. Whichever; take your pick. Many men with swords go out to the field of combat and die there, their swords and armor decomposing somewhat more slowly than their bodies. Now, if they were using metal swords, there ought to be some trace of that much metal left--its rust in the ground in wetter climates, the artifacts themselves further west. (In some parts of the Southwest, corncobs and broken sandals are found in caves thousands of years after they were abandoned there, still in perfect shape.) In either case there'd be metalworking sites near sources of ore. There's nothing of the sort. So, okay, they were using the Aztec-style wooden paddle with obsidian edges. In that case there should be, around the old battle sites, innumerable shaped obsidian pieces lying where they came to rest after their wooden cores rotted out. These should occur frequently at sites extending from Old Mexico to New York. They don't, of course; there was a remarkably widespread trade in Central American obsidian across North America, but the stuff was used for things like ritual implements and jewelry.


JD Walters said...

She makes good points but I really wish she'd cut the sarcasm. I hate it when people lash out at their former beliefs, it shows that the person did not become more mature, thoughtful or wise as a result of deconverting, but rather took a step down.

The one point I have to agree about, more than any archeological or other considerations, is the King James English. The Mormons will typically protest that Joseph Smith wanted to 'translate' in an idiom which people of the time would accept as authoritative Scripture, but then it should have been English which reflects both the mastery and usage which Elizabethan translators had, as well as the distinctive style and form of the original Hebrew. None of these are apparent upon a close reading of BoM.

Is it usually hard to get Mormons to commit to debate? I directed several arguments and questions at Alma, the one participating Mormon in the discussion, but he seems to have ignored me. Likewise I was talking with 'lds patriot' over at my blog about the Trinity and whether God has a body, but it seems like he just took time to give the official Mormon propaganda, after which he just stopped.

Victor Reppert said...

Mormon epistemology, I think, makes debate and argument seem unnecessary to Mormons. The ultimate truth of Mormonism is verified by a "burning in the bosom." If you've had one, it's self-authenticating, if you haven't, evidence and argument won't work anyway. Just take the book of Mormon home, pray over it, and see if God doesn't give you a feeling that Mormonism is true.

I remember visiting friends at Asbury Seminary in 1976 when I was going to seminary at Candler and we had dinner with a Mormon missionary. The missionary pushed the experience button whenever he got in trouble.

Alan Rhoda said...

JD, Victor, ...

I've noticed the "experience button" thing too. Several times in discussion I've pressed Mormon missionaries for an evidential apologetic for their faith, and they always come back to the Moroni 10:4-5 and the "burning in the bosom". I've never gotten anything more substantive than that.

After repeatedly arguing that simply "praying about it" while setting aside the numerous prima facie difficulties with the Book of Mormon was an unreliable (and unbiblical) methodology, one of the Mormons I talked to loaned me a book by Mormon apostle Dallin Oaks somewhat ostentatiously entitled "The Lord's Way". The basic message of chapters 2 and 3 is that, for Mormons, revelation (read "burning in the bosom") always trumps reason whenever the two pull in opposite directions.

Partly in frustration over this persistent refusal to take objective evidence and argument seriously, the last time a Mormon suggested that I pray about the Book of Mormon I told him that I had prayed about it and that God had shown me unambigously that Mormonism was false. That seemed to strike a nerve, but since their "test" in Moroni 10:4-5 doesn't allow for genuine failure (a la heads I win, tails you lose), the quick response was "Well, pray about it again." Sigh.

Johnny-Dee said...

I agree with these criticisms of Mormon epistemology, and I've experienced the same frustrations in my encounters to rationally engage Mormon missionaries. (I sometimes ask "What evidence would be sufficient for you to abandon your belief?" to which I am often told, "nothing.")

Here's an interesting question: to what extent is Plantinga's epistemology significantly different than the Mormon's? It certainly is different insofar as Plantinga allows defeaters to unseat these sort of beliefs, but is that it? It also seems that at least the Mormon has some evidence (the religious experience) for the deeply held religious belief whereas Plantinga does not even require that kind of evidence for the basicality of belief in God.

When asked about this problem at his 2005 Stobb Lectures, William Lane Craig seemed to have some difficulty explaining how reformed epistemology is significantly different from Mormon epistemology. I'd be interested to hear what others think on this issue.

Jason said...

When I made my initial remark months ago in Victor's Mormon theology thread (which was recently redated for the new semester), I was specifically (though not exclusively) thinking about WLC's experiential apologetic, as represented in (for instance) his 1998 debate with Keith Parsons.

Granted, at this time I only have Jeff Lowder's incomplete (though still fairly detailed) notesheet summary, as posted by Victor, for that debate; so it's a little hard to tell whether there's some convenient sliding going on by JL in his reportage; but the similarities between WLC's appeal to KP and Victor's story about the Mormon apologist, are striking in at least a prima facie way. {shrug}

And I agree with JD: I wish Teresa would cut down on the sarcasm. (Not least because I have a friend who admires her.) I guess it's her way of dealing with the extreme emotions involved, though.

The KJVEnglish (not too well done), I could give a pass on; after all, grammarians sometimes tag the NT authors for sloppy composition even in koine Greek. (The point being that if a language is chosen for whatever reason, we can hardly claim God will inspire the writers to be masters at that idiom. Heck, we know from internal testimony that a majority of the epistles were dictations to a secretary or something like that!)

The loss of wheelage I might give a pass on, depending on other story contexts (along the lines of Alma's defense of only 25ish people initially arriving. Assuming that's a story detail, of course. {g}) That would tend to take care of physiological characteristic spread, too; _maybe_ blood type spread (or lack thereof). Language and customs I might be less inclined to give a pass on, depending on whether these were supposed to be faithful Jews, and if so how faithful. But then, there's a lot of apostasy in the OT, too, and I don't know enough about Mormon story characteristics to have an opinion on whether that sort of thing occurs, how plausible it seems, etc. (I don't consider myself to be a counterapologist on Mormon historical claims. Theological claims, yes; historical, someone else's purview.)

Teresa's point about the swords, or lack thereof, is the sort of problem I _do_ consider seriously problematic, though. It would be like the OT talking frequently about numerous large battles being waged with broad-bladed Zulu assegai spears, and finding no evidence of this later. And it isn't like we have texts in the original language to check for seeing if Smith was idiomizing a term into something he thought people would be more familiar with today. (While I can still tease out some workarounds, maybe, the burning in my bosom is telling me this is a serious problem. {g})

Mike D said...

Johnny-dee offers a challenge that in my mind goes to the heart of the issue. Does Christian epistomology use the same experiential side-step as Mormonism? In the area of apologetics, I do not believe it does. Christian apologetics has a high regard for what is true. The Christian worldview proclaims, "All truth is God's truth." Johnny-dees suggestion that Platinga is a suitable representative of the Christian worldview is a good approach. This might be a good reference article:

JD Walters said...

Hmm, Christians do often use the 'argument from experience' or the 'internal testimony of the Holy Spirit', but I would like to think that it's never the primary argument or, God forbid, used when rational argument fails. Since we believe that "all truth is God's truth", rational and 'supra-rational' considerations should go together, I think. As for WLC, I've noticed in whatever debates I've read that he always gives his personal testimony AFTER his usual slew of rational arguments.

I think the title of C. Stephen Evans' popular apologetic says it all: "Why Believe? Reason AND mystery as pointers to God". Certainly believers affirm that Jesus the Word is God's self-revelation, and that any true knowledge of God can only come from God Himself, but we wouldn't be able to affirm that without a solid ground in reason as well. We point to the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, but we also write books like N.T. Wright's "The Resurrection of the Son of God" or Richard Swinburne's "The Existence of God".

Mike D said...

I found Platinga's article helpful because it focuses on what to do when science and religion clash. This is the primary issue. The Mormon view is to ignore science in favor of an experiential feeling. The Christian view is much more complex. There is a presumption that there can be no real contradiction. Christianity tends to focus on the interpretation of the facts. Facts revealed in Scripture can be interpreted incorrectly into questionable theology. Likewise, the science can be challenged, if not in fact, then in the intepretation of the facts.

Jason said...

{{As for WLC, I've noticed in whatever debates I've read that he always gives his personal testimony AFTER his usual slew of rational arguments.}}

That may be his standard operating procedure now (for instance, I seem to recall him doing this during the recent debate this year with Bart Ehrman), but in 1998 he led out with this against KP, and it was a running topic between them for the entirety of the debate (along with a bunch of other things, too, of course.) Maybe he learned better from that experience? (Topical focus probably contributes, too. The debate against KP was intentionally set, by agreement from both debators, to range all over the place.)

I agree, however, that the argument from experientials is usually refreshingly low on the list of tactics by more-or-less orthodox Christian apologists, at least the more high profile ones.

I do, though, recall a debate between Richard Carrier and someone earlier this year, officially judged by Victor, where the Christian defendent closed his opening case by appealing to what amounted to a mere feeling that something was being accomplished _even if it turned out his logic was faulty!_ So our side is far from immune to it. (This is aside from personal experience with Christian proponents who are just everyday people. Relatedly, a high percentage of Mormon converts come from that category, though of course that would be true anyway, simply by proportion. {s})

If I recall correctly, Plantinga's attempt wasn't so much an appeal to experience in itself (i.e. go read the NT and see if God tells you in your feelings that it's true), as a defense of the rationality of having a minimally basic belief in God that's just _there_. A very different kind of goal, if so.

Jason Pratt

Mike D said...

The greatest potential difference between Mormon epistomology and Christian epistomology may lie in Chrisitan humility about interpreting the Scripture. Platinga says, "In the immortal words of the inspired Scottish bard William E. McGonagall, poet and tragedian,

When faith and reason clash,
Let reason go to smash.

But clearly this conclusion doesn't follow. The Lord can't make a mistake: fair enough; but we can. Our grasp of what the Lord proposes to teach us can be faulty and flawed in a thousand ways. This is obvious, if only because of the widespread disagreement among serious Christians as to just what it is the Lord does propose for our belief in one or another portion of Scripture. Scripture is indeed perspicuous: what it teaches with respect to the way of salvation is indeed such that she who runs may read. It is also clear, however, that serious, well-intentioned Christians can disagree as to what the teaching of Scripture, at one point or another, really is. Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe. Sadly enough, however, our grasp of what he proposes to teach is fallible. Hence we cannot simply identify the teaching of Scripture with our grasp of that teaching; we must ruefully bear in mind the possibility that we are mistaken. "He sets the earth on its foundations; it can never me moved," says the Psalmist.3 Some sixteenth-century Christians took the Lord to be teaching here that the earth neither rotates on its axis nor goes around the sun; and they were mistaken."

If only the science community would excersize the same humility in their pronouncements about origins.

Johnny-Dee said...

I'm a Christian, so my point in bringing up Plantinga was not to hail him as a Christian representative of Christian epistemology. I was hoping to rouse the suspicion that Christians should shy away from Plantinga's epistemology, and adopt an evidentialist approach, which is clearly present in the works of Richard Swinburne, for example. I think the well-named "Great Pumpkin Objection" to Plantinga highlights one of the weaknesses of his epistemology, which is similar to the initial problems we were discussing concerning Mormon epistemology. Why should Christians be afraid of evidentialism?

JD Walters said...

Hmm, evidentialism in some form seems uncontroversial, until you get down to the tricky question of what counts as convincing or conclusive evidence in a particular case. For example, the Mormon view could probably be called 'evidentialist', only the evidence used is the 'burning in the chest', which strikes most intelligent people as singularly inadequate.

Or consider Paul Moser's distinction between spectator and authoritative evidence. Spectator evidence is knowledge which we can 'store away' in the back of our minds without having to act on it, whereas authoritative evidence is that which is only given through some kind of internal transformation. Moser argues that a theistic God would have reason to withhold spectator evidence (e.g. scientifically sound knowledge of His existence) and would reveal Himself via perfectly authoritative evidence, in the call to submission in reponse to the perfect self-giving love of Jesus Christ.

It might seem like this approach falls into the 'burning bosom' trap, but on closer inspection this 'hypothesis' can be tested with regard to what evidence we have of humanity's 'cosmic authority problem', the responses people actually make to self-giving love, etc. And on some level it just has to be right: it corresponds with what we think we know about God through Scripture.

So is Paul Moser's approach evidentialist? I think so, as long as you keep in mind that his perfectly authoritative evidence would be rejected as unacceptable by selfish, autonomous human beings. I certainly hope that by evidentialism you don't mean an appeal to a sort of universal rationality presupposed by the Enlightenment.

There is good reason to think that human reason on its own could not come to morally transforming knowledge of God. At best we have the 'God of the philosophers', which does not lead to salvific knowledge.

Jason said...

{{It might seem like this approach falls into the 'burning bosom' trap, but on closer inspection this 'hypothesis' can be tested with regard to what evidence we have of humanity's 'cosmic authority problem', the responses people actually make to self-giving love, etc.}}

And the burning in the bosom trap _can't_?

Paul Manata, in a related comment (above in a subsequent thread) points out that Mormons not infrequently tell him his feeling that they are wrong is from Satan. It wouldn't be much different for them to conclude instead (as some Christians on this board have professed to conclusion in regard to atheists--opposed by Victor and I, among others) that non-Mormons are simply being willfully dishonest about what they feel if they read the Mormon scriptures. i.e. that there are no honest non-Mormons (per se).

Sometimes the only evidence people have is a burning in the bosom to go on--whether they're LDS Christians, orthodox Christians, pagans, Muslims, Buddhists (probably trying to get rid of the burning {g}), agnostics, atheists, whatever. It's still reasoning from evidence, whether or not it may be trumped (pro or con) by other reasoning from evidence.

Jason Pratt

Clark Goble said...

Johnny-Dee, while there are Mormons who embrace the kind of epistemic externalism that Alston or Plantinga embraced it doesn't really seem to be that popular a view. I think a more straightforward evidentialism is common.

To say that Mormon epistemology makes debate and argument unnecessary seems an odd thing to say. I certainly see no evidence of that. If there is an anti-debate tendency among Mormons I'd suggest it is because of a dislike of contention. But there is a very strong sense of internal debate among Mormons as one can quickly see from the large number of blogs that debate almost everything.

I also think that saying Mormons don't embrace evidence is false. It's just that the kind of evidence is different. I find that the sorts of evidence (i.e. Biblical history) that some evidentialists appeal to is odd since I can't see that it establishes anything. It's akin to me writing about my environment and then saying a few hundred years later that my religious claims must be right because my historical claims are right. But that just seems odd to argue. (I'm not saying all evidentialists make such claims obviously)

To say that the Mormon approach is to ignore science in preference to feeling is just a very grave misunderstanding of LDS views. Groups like FARMS or FAIR, whether you agree with them or not, embrace science. One must merely point out that silence isn't necessarily strong evidence against something. Especially in archaeology.

Manuel said...

There is a paper written by Carl Mosser and Paul Owen titled "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect:
Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" that was published in Trinity Journal in 1998. According to this article there are some Mormon scholars out there. Thought you might want to know.