Updated: Jul 30, 2020
This site is unique in its attempt to look at Mormonism through the lens of a multi-layered spectrum. It’s not intended to be a polemic, yet it should be challenging to conventional wisdom, depending on what end of the spectrum you fall. It’s not your typical foundation story that enumerates the author’s Mormon credentials in order to get some sort of trust only to log on to the internet or Facebook and find challenging truths that dash that paradigm.
Because of a belief in full disclosure, if you’re hoping to find a blog that elaborates on value in the story of Joseph Smith and his production of the Book of Mormon, you’ll find that here. But you’ll also find challenges to the history and story of Mormonism that have been sanitized over the decades for a myriad of reasons, some deliberately and others organically. Hopefully, one will continue to find value in their Mormon faith path but recognize that some of the stories told and how they came to be are seriously prone to error and sometimes outright obfuscation.
The term “Mormon,” while going through its own challenges as of late, particularly through the marginalization by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be used as a larger idea than the said church. Efforts will be made to distinguish between the two.
It is clear today that more and more people are finding errors in Mormonism and dropping the entirety of their faith. There may be some appropriate logic to this process, but for many, it happens as a set-up, where their original faith was rooted in so many false equivocations and bad epistemology, that when some of the ideas started unraveling, they drop all of it. It’s portrayed as a binary option and acted upon in that same manner. That binary was embraced when they were orthodox and continues to be embraced as ex-Mormons. This isn’t a judgment on that decision. It’s simply reality and for many who have embraced other paths. For others, however, perhaps they weren’t given other options, ways to seek a middle ground in their thinking, to explore other variations of Mormonism that allow them to keep more of their faith intact. This blog is an attempt to develop a process that may help people to conceive of those options and at least consider them.
Many of the talking points come from the CES Letter and branch out from there, due to its popularity within the post-Mormon zeitgeist as an illustration pamphlet that touches briefly on some key troubling topics. True, there have been attempts by Mormon apologists to counter the pamphlet. Some of them work, but usually at the cost that elucidates the problem with confirmation bias. Most answer the Letter based on polemics to counter the pamphlet. Here, attempts will be made to take the Letter seriously, to answer many of its questions, in a thoughtful and non-confrontational way.
The Nature of Truth
In the Letter’s preface, President J. Reuben Clark is quoted:
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”
This is a sound premise. But in order to defend the premise, it’s important that the term “truth” is defined.
As people learn in life, they find truth to be somewhat subjective, perhaps irreconcilably so. Truth is too often in the eye of the beholder. The Rorchach test demonstrates this. Do people see a beautiful butterfly, or do they see two guns back-to-back? Is it truly possible for a human to eliminate the biases brought to a particular question? Those biases are based on a mix of logic, reason, intuition, emotion, and experience. The mix of the bias batter differs for everyone, but all those ingredients are there. This the why the 20th Century became defined as the post-modern century, because it was the first time in history this conundrum was experienced because of the flourishing of the scientific method mixed with the failures of different sorts of societal systems. And society has largely remained true to this concept in philosophy for the most part in the 21st century. Truth is messy. It’s post-modern. It’s de-constructive.
To add fuel to that subjectivity, everyone has a different level of skepticism, or the ability to believe, in what would be “the simplest answer” aka. Occam’s razor, or credulity, when it comes to the plausibility or implausibility of an answer to a question. Many people are deeply impacted by intuition, emotion, or spiritual premonition. They often weigh answers very carefully with the heart, and the heart becomes the final answer, even to matters of credulity or logic. In Mormonism, revelation-derived intuition is given preeminence. Others tack very carefully to logic and reason, especially when they see the incongruities that come from using intuition, particularly based in emotion, to come to a belief in some sort of truth. There is too much inconsistency in emotion. Thus, they prefer to rely upon the material and upon the scientific, even as they place trust in perceived consensus of what institutions have claimed to be material and scientific. It’s as if for one type of truth seeker, the egg comes first, and for the other, the chicken. But they both have impact at some level.
Science learning can come from two different arenas. Expert witness is one way to help define levels of credulity to a particular answer. Something should be explored, researched, reviewed, and published to be considered trustworthy or accurate. Some are very fond and very trusting of this system. Others still doubt experts, or the system that drives this kind of knowledge forward, knowing that biases, money, and power can still influence outcomes, and so they tend to be more trusting of personal anecdotal or empirical experience. Expert consensus, as well, often cascades, particularly in controversial projects, instead of bubbling up organically. That's a problem of authority that all institutions possess.
Others mix the two, which seems to be a healthier way to examine truth. Perhaps the best blend is a mix of the intuitive and empirical scientific, finding less value in consensus, while useful for a baseline. Some don’t trust much in experts, whether they be prophets, priests, professors, or publishers. Simply stated, even experts are human and are subject to the passions of all men. They often make decision about what to support first, on the basis of their own self-preservation or self-morality, rather than the expertise they purport to wield. This raises suspicions to the level of all institutions, that of government, business, churches, scientific, and academia. At many levels the differences are quite blurry and cross over. This idea of mixing the supernatural with institutional suspicion would be very comfortable as a position statement in the X-Files universe. In this way, options within any truth system could parrot the following:
The truth is out there
Trust no one
Highly unlikely, but not outside the realm of extreme possibility - Fox Mulder
Science can also be spiritual in nature. But that also means Occam’s razor needs to be suspended quite a bit. The simplest explanation is often too subjective. How does one define simple? Could it be that simple means a scientific consensus? Or does simple only include material evidence? Perhaps simple means the easiest explanation? There is no problem with Occam’s razor being a good hypothesis for something “tending” to be a certain way. It’s certainly a good and adequate hypothesis. But more often than not, its use is polemic, a way to declare the high ground in a debate. It’s more satisfying when people declare uncertainty as an answer, even if something “tends” to be the best answer. The other method is to attach a probability ratio, but that can also be subjective. It does, however, give wiggle room for alternatives. Scientific consensus is often an oxymoron, since science is in the business of changing what appears to be true. The ground shifts toward progress when people postulate possibilities that seem to be out of the mainstream, or out of the realm of observable reality—mostly because it’s a necessary position to take in the face of less than 200 years of academically-based scientific progress—a drop in the bucket of the universe of all possible knowledge. Science-minded people could do better to develop a better sense of awe about what we don’t know, and then personalize that awe—almost like how children approach science.
To relate this to Mormonism, when people make claims, either for or against, they are typically interpreting a fact through a subjective lens guided by a governing philosophy relating to consensual expertise. In the larger scheme of things, this only means that a claim is merely a possibility with a ratio relying upon assumptions relating to expert opinion. It’s up to the receiver of any fact or explanation to determine their own probabilistic realm of certitude or incredulity. That always has been, and always will be . . . quite subjective.
Facts, if observed or understood correctly, can be stated quite literally, and they are just that . . . facts. For example, the CES Letter presents lots of facts. Joseph Smith, for example, was employed with money-digging schemes when he found the Book of Mormon. That’s a fact that's not disputed. It's only muted. Narratives or implications of truth claims that derive from such facts though, are quite subjective, which will be the focus of factual interpretation analysis here. Facts are stubborn pieces of information that are essential to absorb. Sometimes they build up our biases and confirm them. Often, they do not. Sometimes there are ways to make the facts fit completely together, but this almost always problematic in any historical case. Mormonism is not unusual here. Usually some facts remain as outlier pieces of information, not to be forgotten, but to be shelved until more facts come to light. Sometimes another fact will cause the shelved fact to be absorbed. Else-wise, the facts weigh the shelf down so much that it no longer becomes an outlier but becomes its own narrative. The shelf then collapses and must be rebuilt. At that point, people must decide whether to create a new truth, a new narrative, or live with cognitive dissonance, going along as if something is true, when it is not true.
The approach in this blog is not to play that sort of role. The default position here is to take most facts critical of the LDS Church at face-value, unless other facts can illuminate a different perspective or undermine a given fact as an outlier. The approach that will be taken is to present a realm of possibilities that would answer questions that could help the reader construct a basket of options they may have not yet considered, for the both the unfaithful skeptic and the questioning believer.
Many of the questions and facts in the CES Letter inherit a certain element of “begging the question.” It’s not that the author never considered it personally, and his constraints are understandable—wherein he made it simple and poignant without boring the audience—but in some instances, it would be better to take a step back and discuss the inferences made.
In all respects, it is assumed that questions from those like the CES Letter author and other post-Mormon skeptics come from a sober frame of mind and deserve answers to their questions. Their inquiries should be respected, and they should be seen as earnest. The skeptics deserve an adequate response to their questions. Expertise is not needed but thinking through these things in ways not before considered is a valuable exercise. Discussions should be entreated with people being edified on both sides.
Here’s to hoping for edification.