Monthly Archives: August 2008

Joseph as a Con Man?

It is interesting to see the many different arguments used in support of LDS claims. Here was an interesting argument set forth on a forum for the authenticity of the gold plates.  The discussion touched on the Kinderhook Plates, and Joseph’s inability to identify them as fraudulent artifacts before he died. For at least one person, Joseph’s inability to identify the fraudulent nature of the Kinderhook Plates serves to strengthen his faith in the reality of the Gold Plates:

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I’m always looking for motives. Let’s just say JS did fake the BOM. Now he knows and the helpers he had know it’s fake. Things are going great, church is growing he’s raking in money,  he’s crowned King of the world by his crazed followers.

Why would he risk his credibility that he worked so hard to achieve? He would look better if he saw those fakes and said, “They are absolutely fake!” Of course he would know it as he made up the first plate story.

However, if Moroni showed him those plates and he KNOWS it’s true now he’s obligated to investigate if they are true or not. And since he is human he can make mistakes.

Am I the only one who sees this logic?

“Flucci” on MADB

The problem with this argument is that the answer lies in the characterization of “Joseph Smith just faking the BOM.”

What if instead of it being a conscious, planned “con”,  it was something a little more subtle, and based on a phenomena with which few people are familiar?  Are there other alternatives that can be considered?

So much of that argument is based on our assumptions about motivations, and the capabilities of Joseph Smith.  But there is much we don’t know about the limits of the human mind.  When we learn about other incredible things people have done, it raises interesting possibilities.

For example, consider the interesting phenomenon which can be seen in the works of a woman named Pearl Curran, who revealed the words of a long-dead entity named  “Patience Worth“.  Pearl’s dictation of Patience Worth’s poetry and histories was no less unusual than Joseph Smith’s dictation of The Book of Mormon.    When we consider Pearl Curran and other unusual feats like Ramtha/ JZ Knight, must we believe their claims whole-heartedly if we chose not to accuse them of being frauds and cons?  Or is there something else?  These people have also revealed the words of long lost cultures and civilizations. I don’t think their works are authentic records, but I also wouldn’t say they “know” they are “just faking it”. It’s possible for people who create such works to really, really believe they are authentically conveying the words of a long lost author, but still be mistaken.

There is also the phenomenom illustrated by the followers of Uri Gellar. He is a mentalist who bends spoons with his mind and other such things. There are situations when mentalists and psychics have been “caught” using cheats and other mechanical means to perform their tricks. When this happens, do their followers admit they were duped? Do they renounce their belief in their guru’s power?

No.

They easily hypothesize that their guru does have true powers, but they aren’t consistent. So he wouldn’t be able to do a stage show every night and get it right every time. So, in order to get his message across, he needs to supplement his true powers with “tricks” or props, so people will find it easier to believe.

So how does this help me understand Joseph Smith better? I think it’s entirely possible for him to dictate the Book of Mormon and truly, honestly believe he is conveying the words of a long lost civilization. I think it is possible for him to look at his culture, and understand it would be much, much easier for people to believe his story if he had a physical representation of the plates (which, judging from what I hear at Church and on online, is true either way).

I think it is entirely possible for Joseph to be pondering the experience of Abraham, and then have Chandler’s mummies show up with the papyrus.  Would it be that hard to believe God had arranged for the writings of Abraham to come to him? Apparently not, since people to this day believe it. And when he looks at the papyrus and closes his eyes and prays and concentrates, words come to him. It must be God, revealing the true meaning of the papyrus, right?  Would Joseph be a “con man” for truly believing such things, but being wrong?

It is a mistake is to assume that alternate theories regarding the 19th century origin of the Book of Mormon need to follow a traditional “con-artist” mentality like something from “The Sting” with Scott Joplin music playing in the background. We need to look at our assumptions a little more closely before disregarding a theory because just because you couldn’t or wouldn’t do it that way.  We need to honestly consider other alternatives.

In short, I believe that until the day he died, it is entirely possible for Joseph Smith to believe in everything he said or did as being “true”, never thinking he had spoken against the will of God or acted unethically or immorally. But I think it is possible for Joseph to have believed all of this, and at the same time for the Book of Mormon to not be historically true.

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Which Questions Does the Book of Mormon Answer?

One of the greatest benefits to religion (and one of the greatest selling points) are the answers.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  Where am I going?  Certainly, science gives questions such as these a wide berth, leaving the philosophers, theologans and prophets to provide their theories and argue amongst themselves.  Only rarely do these prognosticators venture into scientific territory, whereon they are usually summarily slapped on the wrist and sent packing back to their corner of the “human knowledge” party.

Certainly, Mormonism provides a whole bunch of answers to all sorts of questions.  The very foundation of Joseph Smith’s history was his desire to question and receiving an answer to that question.  Early Church members had many powerful experiences of having their questions about God, Jesus, the Gospel, and the world around them answered in a powerful way.

One of the vehicles of answers for the early Church members was the infamous Book of Mormon.  Not only does it illuminate on topics such as the atonement and the fall of man, it also precisely fills in many key gaps of colonial knowledge regarding the history of the Americas, and the strange brown-skinned peoples running around in loincloths upon European arrival.  Who are these people?  Why are they here?  And where are they going?  Early thoughts on these questions have been well documented by Dan Vogel in his book Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (read if free at that link.)

But recently, it seems this entire scope of Book of Mormon questions and answers is slowly and methodically getting dismantled at the hands of Mormon scholars and apologists.  No longer do we learn of the initial colonization of the Americas following Noah’s flood (i.e. the post-Babel Jaredites). No longer is the Book of Mormon a record of the principle ancestors of the same natives early Church members were familiar with.  Instead, Lehi and his group are only insignificant contributors to the New World gene pool.

This shift has been a necessary retreat from the growth in knowledge regarding the history of the Americas.  As more and more becomes known through all avenues of investigation, readers of the Book of Mormon will slowly (or quickly) realize that the book they are reading is not describing the civilations and people being discovered by those who discover such things.  To this realization, the believer can only respond “Yes, but we really don’t know that much about ancient American history.”  Statements such as this are meant to present evidence by implication, as if by implying that we may find evidence in the future, we should ignore the evidence we have found already that points in a different direction.

But the issue isn’t whether we know everything about the history of Central and South America in order to find Book of Mormon evidences. No, what’s disturbing is the trend

175 years ago, pre-Columbian history was relatively unknown, and the field was ripe for rumor, myth, and supposition. You could create any kind of theory imaginable, with little fear of being “proven” wrong (unless you made some artifacts to go along with your theory). But over the last 175 years, quite a bit of research has been done. Certainly, not all of it. There remain many questions. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is, not even the questions are pointing in the direction of the Book of Mormon. In other words, the Church presents the Book of Mormon as the “answer” to questions about ancient America, but no one can seem to find any questions that it answers.

The Book of Mormon was once thought to explain the question of where these people (the Indians) came from, and why they had dark skin. Not anymore; even if the events in the Book of Mormon hadn’t happened, we’d still have dark-skinned Indians.

Some people thought it answered the question of where the great mounds of the mid-East came from. Not anymore.

Some thought it answered the questions regarding the great cities of Central America. But does anyone today really think those cities resulted from Book of Mormon migrations, and without Jaredite or Lehites, those cities wouldn’t be here?

So what we find ourselves with today is a shrinking book. As research and knowledge increases, the claims of the Book of Mormon must shrink to get out of their way. Theories once thought supported by the Book of Mormon are discarded when the unimaginable becomes possible: falsification.

As long as apologists can insist that we shouldn’t expect any evidence of the Book of Mormon, as well as refusing to develop any theory which may possibly be falsifiable, people will comfortably believe. And with the present state of research and technology, that may seem possible.

But where will we be in 50 years? If you look at the progress of one area, DNA research, over the last 50 years, can anyone imagine where things are headed? The last refuge of Book of Mormon supporters is that current DNA analysis isn’t precise enough to detect such a small migration so long ago. Perhaps. But what happens if the tools have improved to the point that such as migration would be easily detectable?

How many gray areas are there in the Book of Mormon today that are fuzzy enough for faith, that will one day be subjected to clear, unambiguous light? Can apologists change their tack quickly enough to keep up with new research, and will they ever find that the Church “parade” has continued down main street, while they’ve turned left on 3rd, and no one is following them, no matter how much they wave their baton?

If you don’t believe me, I can only offer you this experiment.  Find your nearest and most knowledgeable Book of Mormon scholar, and ask them this simple question (with these simple follow up questions):

“How would the New World have been different when Columbus found it if there had been no Jaredite or Lehite migrations?  How would they people have been different?  Would they have looked or acted differently?  Would their language, culture, or religion be any different?  Would there have been more or fewer natives?”

A century ago, the Book of Mormon answered all of these questions definitively.  Today, with the help of Mormon scholars, it answers each of them, but negatively and in the smallest way possible.  The Book of Mormon peoples didn’t make a noticeable difference in the long run.  If Lehi’s boat had been lost at sea, the New World circa 1492 AD wouldn’t have been noticeably different.  Why that is seen as progress in apologetic circles, I have no idea.

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The housing of the past (or future)

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The Mortal Family

A few days ago, while digging through some boxes of assorted junk, I came across an envelope of old family photos.  I opened it up and flipped through the pictures, expecting to see the same familiar images I’ve seen a hundred times, but instead I was surprised.  I’d never seen these pictures before.  These were the apocrypha to the canon of photos selected to be preserved in family albums.  After repeated viewings over the years, I had apparently developed an emotional immunity to the album pictures.  These newly discovered pictures, on the other hand, brought on the kind of sentimental nostalgia normally reserved for weddings and funerals.

My mother had carefully notated the back of each picture with the subjects’ names and ages–a practice she later abandoned.  “MC (5), blowing out candles.”  “MC (5) sharing watermelon with Brian (3).”  “MC (5) holding up fish he caught.”  The images were mostly of two particularly camera-worth events: birthdays and camping trips. Here’s Dad (beardless Dad!)  with a loaded baby carrier on his back, posing on a hiking trail.  Here’s Mom and Aunt Lisa; each with broad grins; each holding their newborn daughter.  Here’s David, tearing off the wrapping paper of his brand new, high tech Atari 2600.   Here’s Jeff, doing a wheelie on his bike, followed by MC, whose bike is held up by training wheels.

This was our family.  I say “was,” because this family no longer exists.  Day followed day, month followed month, and year followed year until gradually those relationships and interpersonal dynamics dissolved into the ether.  The atomized family unit, composed of Father, Mother, and Children has evolved and splintered into entirely new family units.  If you cut the limbs off certain species of starfish, each limb with regenerate an entirely new starfish.  Like the starfish, each part of my family has broken off and become a new whole.  And just like the starfish, the original unit has been destroyed in the process.

Looking at these old pictures, I’m reminded that “family” is a life phase.  It’s an abstraction, based on the relationships of the participants.  When those relationships evolve–when the roles that define the family are no longer relevant–the life phase ends.  The family ends.  Just like individual persons, families are mortal.

So when a Mormon tells you that families can be forever, he’s talking gibberish. Families can’t even survive time, let alone eternity.  A family dies long before the people who made up that family pass away. It makes little sense to speak of families persisting in some imaginary future afterlife.

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