Mega-bloggers Ross Douthat and Matthew Iglesias sat down for a video chat about Romney and Mormonism last week, presenting opinions on the LDS Faith at times interesting and at times spectacularly uninformed. The video is an excellent artifact of the way Mormonism can be held in contempt even by those whose bona fides as non-neanderthals are undeniable. Mormons are used to having fringe-y religious zealots attack their faith, and can even conceive of the secularists of the far left dismissing them, but it is a relatively new experience to hear normally open-minded, thoughtful people label their religion as pure silliness, as Yglesias and Douthat have. To his credit, Douthat quickly admitted that he spoke mostly from ignorance on the topic, and invited informative responses. Russell Arben Fox offered a very good one, and this piece hopes to answer that call as well.
There is much to respond to in the Bloggingheads video– too much for this morning. So let’s take a few major points, and hopefully get back to some of the specifics in later days. (Note: While it is not the mission of this blog to attempt actual apologetics of Mormonism, some of the below approaches that line. With apologies to those readers not interested in the intricacies of DNA testing and the archeology of the ancient world, some limited apologetics discussions are referenced below).
The major line of attack in the bloggers’ discussion is one that has been cropping up frequently of late- as in this high-profile rant by Bill Maher for example. It posits that Mormonism should not be taken seriously because so many of the claims central to its tenets are, as Maher put it, “demonstrably false.” That is, given that the religion was founded so recently, many of its claims can be checked by resort to the historical record. And, (the polar opposite of the first argument) given that the Book of Mormon happened so long ago in a place that produced no historical record, we can hardly be expected to believe it. The upshot is that with so many theoretically falsifiable claims at the core of Mormonism (as opposed to Judaism or Catholicism), there ought to be plenty of facts available that utterly disprove Mormon claims.
Note the “ought” in the above sentence. It’s important. That is because, while many speculate that there ought to be an abundance of such debunking facts, no one has yet found any that could bring Mormon truth claims to their knees. Yglesias and Douthat have made an error common among those observing Mormonism from a distance (one shared in by Jacob Weisberg, among others) by leaping from their perceptions of the implausibility of Mormon beliefs to the idea that all who hold such beliefs must be credulous rubes that care not for the verifiability of their positions. This view of Mormons is simply unsupportable, and may be the stickiest misconception remaining among the intelligentsia about Mormonism.
The first thing for a person leaping to conclusions about Mormons to learn is that there are intelligent, sophisticated, even (though this is more rare) objective Mormons in the world thinking about these issues, weighing them against the relevant science and other evidence, and theorizing about the various possible realistic interpretations of Mormon claims. This is a general point, but it strikes at a general prejudice– the idea that no one who believes these claims could possibly have considered them in any sort of analytical, non-brainwashed way. Over this background, Matthew Yglesias’ boast that he could easily disprove Mormonism is the height of hubris, a revelation that sheds more light on his own ignorance than on the state of Mormonism.
I do not mean to suggest that Mormons think they have conclusively won the big battles over their more controversial claims. Quite the contrary- there are myriad questions that remain completely open at present, with points still being scored for both sides. However, in the last two decades at least, the scholarly dialogue on Mormon assertions of truth has broadened, deepened, and grown more sophisticated in nearly every way. Doubters may find one trustworthy witness to this trend in a 1997 paper written by two reputable Evangelical Scholars, Mormon Apologetic, Scholarship, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?. One of the authors describes his paper as an attempt to alert the Evangelical community to the fact that “Mormons are winning the debate” over the controversial aspects of their doctrine and history. The paper warned of “a plethora of scholarly and apologetic literature produced by Latter-day Saints that remains unrefuted and for the most part unmentioned in Evangelical criticisms of Mormonism.” Further, “the sophistication of argumentation and the breadth of sources cited by the LDS in this literature is simply more than the education and training of many cult apologists affords them to deal with.” In short, according to a couple of credible scholars with outspoken objections to Mormonism, Mormon assertions about the Book of Mormon and the founding of the church were far, far from being authoritatively disproven by 1997. And the sophistication of the church’s defenders has only increased dramatically since that time.
Again, there is no need to overstate the LDS case here. The mere fact that a few Ph.D’s are now on the case does not suddenly signal that all Mormon claims of veracity are now credible. What it does suggest is that most of the questions at the heart of the apologetics battles are extremely complex, with numerous theories and interpretations available, and with multiple analytical and scientific frameworks being applied. Indeed, the questions surrounding the history of the Book of Mormon and the LDS Church itself- far from being easily discredited- have spawned a cottage industry in the academic world, with programs in Mormon studies popping up at various universities across the country, and more symposia, conferences, and endowed academic chairs than you can shake a stick at. And this does not scratch the surface of the more agenda-driven, scholarly apologetics organizations, such as can be found here and here.
What does this mean? It means that, to state the Mosser/Owen argument as conservatively as possible, the debate among those most knowledgeable about these issues remains very lively indeed. Given the long history and continued vibrancy of this dialogue, it is simply not plausible to suggest that the debate is already over. Yes, LDS truth claims are subject to scientific questioning. No, that scientific questioning has not yet led to anything conclusive for either side of the debate.*
Let’s take one example, as highlighted in the Yglesias/Douthat video. There appears to be an impression among the lightly informed that somebody somewhere used DNA evidence to completely explode the very foundation on which the Book of Mormon rests- a theme relied upon by both Yglesias and Maher. This impression dates back to a few studies released in the first part of this decade, which posit that the lack of a DNA link between Native Americans and semitic peoples proves that the former did not descend from the latter, as the Book of Mormon appears to claim. These studies received wide media attention and appeared to those not following the issue to end the debate.
And yet, the use of the DNA studies as proofs against the Book of Mormon was flawed in several ways. Most importantly, it knocked down something of a straw man- an interpretation of the Book of Mormon that a majority of Mormon scholars had long abandoned. That is, the DNA tests asserted that Israelites could not have been the primary progenitors of the collective Native American peoples, when many in the Mormon community had already adopted interpretations of the Book of Mormon that drastically limited the genetic influence its relatively small Israelite populations could have had on the future generations of Native Americans.
But beyond the straw man targets, the DNA studies have also come under attack simply for being bad science. For example, some of the studies assume that mitochondrial DNA should be shared between any group of people and its progenitors, a claim that does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Indeed, other studies have tested related Jewish groups and found no DNA connection between them, indicating that we should not be surprised if no such link exists between modern semitic peoples and the modern native Americans that might trace common ancestors some 2600 years ago. In short, this debate is far, far from over, contrary to the lopsided press in recent years on the issue. A good statement of LDS positions on the DNA debate can be found here.
The issues at the heart of the DNA debate also give rise to a larger battle being waged by Mormons and their critics- the charge that Mormons repeatedly revise their beliefs to fit with whatever facts become available. Commentators have noted that Mormons can be squishy on what they believe, which makes them hard to argue with. Mormons view this as an unfairly cynical charge, a distortion of their belief that the gospel includes all truth, no matter the source. But many would admit that the open-endedness of LDS theology does allow some flexibility, as evidenced by the shift from full-continent readings of the Book of Mormon to the increasingly consensus “limited geography” model. And while the ability to integrate new science and modern approaches into old beliefs may seem like some to be too convenient, one would expect this trait to be lauded by secularists like Yglesias, who emphasize empiricism and rationality over spiritualism. In other words, if the concern is that Mormons are head-in-the-sand info-phobes, the ever-expanding base of truths– scientific and un–, which Mormonism explicitly claims to contain should offer some comfort.
Despite all this, Yglesias may yet continue to cling to his right, as he calls it, to decry Mormon beliefs as silly, and Douthat may follow close behind. But if the Romney campaign continues, and if Mormons are allowed a place in the resulting dialogue from which to answer the uninformed ramblings of critics such as these, there is every chance that Yglesias and Douthat will invoke that right less and less frequently. It appears that these two pundits, as well as Weisberg, Hitchens, and others, are uncomfortable with Mormonism mostly because it’s just too new and too unfamiliar. If they will simply look up and notice that Mormonism indeed has not been proven wrong, and that many of its adherents are not only credible, but normal and likable, they may grow out of the tendency to dismiss it so casually. This will not require that they accept the truth claims of the Mormon faith, only that they come to understand the intelligence and good faith with which they are held. If that result is the only good to come from the Romney candidacy, at least six million Americans will be grateful.
*If I had to offer my own underinformed evaluation of where the battle stands at present, I would say that regarding internal evidence of the historicity of the Book of Mormon (language structure, linguistic studies, cultural factors, authorship issues, etc.), the Mormons are ahead of their opponents. As for the battle over external evidences (archeology, anthropology, genetics), the critics of Mormonism have the lead, at least as far as the site where the great majority of the Book of Mormon takes place- the still unknown site on the American continents. The “external evidences” arena of the contest has a subset, though– evidence regarding the departure points of the Book of Mormon peoples on the Arabian peninsula. Regarding that minor but crucial Book of Mormon setting, LDS apologists appear to have taken a respectable lead.