Mormonism as “Counterknowledge”

Writing in a blog on the U.K.’s Telegraph website, author Damian Thompson makes some thoroughly unsupported and misguided claims about Mormonism. In what appears to be simply a plug for a book that he wrote focusing on the reliance on myth and fake history, which he dubs “counterknowledge,” Thompson argues that Mormonism rests on “pseudo-historical fantasy,” and calls out Romney for believing in the origins of the Book of Mormon.

Of course, in order to dismiss Mormon claims as fantastical, but not offend every other religious believer, you have to come up with a creative way to distinguish the miraculous claims of the former from those of the latter. Given that Christians, Jews, and other major religions make claims just as extraordinary and just as unverifiable as any Mormon does, this can be tricky. Thompson decides to draw his line between the Book of Mormon and the Bible by saying that “nothing in it actually happened. Nothing.”

We’ll get to why he’s wrong in a moment. But first consider the logic here- the Book of Mormon should be dismissed because it posits an entire history we cannot verify. Whereas, the Bible at least has the courtesy to present its fantastical stories and impossible miracles in an area for which we have some historical record. And yet isn’t it interesting that so much set forth in the Bible cannot be verified? Did you know, for example, that scholars can only locate approximately 36 of the 475 place-names mentioned in the Bible? (See Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, p. 148). Isn’t that sort of strange for a book that is widely assumed to be easily proven with the use of history? And how about the fact that no one can find any evidence of a census that would have forced Joseph to go to Bethlehem in the year of Christ’s birth? (You’ll have to look that one up.) If you think these little voids in the historical record are unique, you don’t know your Bible.

In truth, there are hundreds of Biblical references to people, places and events that simply cannot be substantiated by historians. Thus, Thompson’s cute distinction, dismissing on the one hand a book without much affirmative historical support, and crediting a book that took place in the known world but which has countless historical implausibilities, utterly fails. The point of the Bible is not to say that Palestine existed, but that God worked constantly with his children and sent his Son to die and be resurrected. Saying that we can believe the Bible because Palestine existed is like saying we should believe in Greek Mythology because we’ve found Greece. Stated differently, if you insist on scientific evidence for every claim, what does it matter that the unprovable miracles in one book took place somewhere we’ve heard of, and the unprovable miracles in the other book took place somewhere that is unfamiliar? Both sets of claims are “counterknowledge,” i.e., both require faith. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves pretending that the Bible and the Koran came complete with citations to scholarly authority and the Book of Mormon took place on a different planet. (And by the way, the Book of Mormon story begins in Jerusalem, refers to the very verifiable reign of King Zedekiah, and continues through several known locations, which erases Thompson’s false distinction with the Bible anyhow).

Now, as to whether “nothing in [the Book of Mormon] actually happened,” here again, Thompson is badly misinformed. To be sure, no one has been able to prove most of the narrative truth of the Book of Mormon. Much of it took place in the new world after all, positing civilizations that could have arisen and fallen thousands of years ago, living in undisclosed locations somewhere in the Western hemisphere. The failure of historians to positively locate this needle in the haystack of our two continents is certainly no evidence of absence.

However, some surprisingly strong arguments have been offered in support of one of the Book of Mormon’s significant parts. Specifically, the early chapters of the Book of Mormon tell of the journey of one family from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, and from there through the Arabian desert all the way to the end of the Arabian peninsula. Although this area was almost completely unknown to Americans at the time the Book of Mormon was published (indeed, much of it had never even been charted), the Book shows an astonishing propensity for nailing the details of the landscape it covers. For example, these travelers pass through a place called Nahom in their travels, something no one had heard of at the time of publication. Recently, it has come to light that an area directly in the path of the Book of Mormon’s wanderers has been known by a functionally identical name, and controlled by a tribe of that same name, for thousands of years. Other evidence of the early travels of these characters continues to mount, including the Book of Mormon’s uncanny prescience in locating mountain ranges and describing a rare spot of wooded, ore-rich coastline in Oman that figures prominently in the story. (See here for a more extended treatment of these evidences).

None of which is to say that the Book of Mormon must be true. Rather, that it is simply dishonest to continue to say that there is absolutely NO evidence supporting its claims. (Much more could be detailed here, but apologetics is not the focus of this blog.) And before we leave this topic, note how confident Mr. Thompson is in asserting that “Jesus of Nazareth never set foot in America.” No support is offered for this assertion. How Thompson could be so sure of the post-resurrection travels of the Son of God is a mystery to me, unless he’s comfortable relying on a bit of “counterknowledge” of his own.

Finally, Mr. Thompson claims that the Smithsonian has declared Mormonism’s claims to be untrue. To be more precise, it is true that at one point the Smithsonian took the position that Book of Mormon claims were implausible (saying nothing about the vast bulk of Mormon doctrine, of which there is much beyond the Book of Mormon, of course). However, Mr. Thompson fails to note that the Smithsonian’s earlier statements on Book of Mormon archeology drew strong critical response, much of it in the way of solid scholarship. Reacting to these rebuttals, the Smithsonian withdrew its earlier statement, replacing it in 1998 with the following innocuous declaration:

Your recent inquiry concerning the Smithsonian’s alleged use of the Book of Mormon as a scientific guide has been received in the Office of Communications. The Book of Mormon is a religious document and not a scientific guide. The Smithsonian institution has never used it in archeological research and any information that you may have received to the contrary is incorrect.

Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 77

Mr. Thompson’s reliance on a decade-old statement as definitive proof of Mormonism’s falsity, while ignoring the updated statement, is either sloppy or disingenuous, and again, smacks of “counterknowledge” all his own.

For more on whether Mormonism is “obviously false” see this post.