Faith versus Proof

February 2, 2004 | 27 comments

One thing that has always fascinated me is the tension in the church between faith and proof. We tell people they should pray about the Book of Mormon and receive a testimony of its truth and of the prophet Joseph Smith. And then we spend lots of time and energy trying to prove that they are true.

What do we use as proof? The Lehi stone. Chiasm. The health benefits of the Word of Wisdom. The Civil War beginning in South Carolina. And a thousand whispered rumors like the idea that the Dead Sea scrolls contain the prophecies of Lehi.

I have never been particularly impressed with the proofs suggested of the Book of Mormon or of the Gospel. Maybe it’s my lack of training, but chiasm seems like a real non-starter — all of the examples I’ve ever seen look incredibly forced and clearly ends-driven.

The word of wisdom is similarly unconvincing. As much as members like to profess that Joseph Smith just woke up one day and said “No Alcohol” and everyone else thought “Wow, what a novel idea!” (and I sat through a lesson not a month ago that made exactly that claim), the fact is that temperance movements were well known and a big part of the political climate at that time.

As for the Lehi stone, and every other depiction that is supposed to prove the existence of the Nephites, I find them all very forced as well.

That said, I think that attempts to disprove the church are equally ludicrous. Those 4000 errors in the Book of Mormon? Oh wait, they’re all commas. The Spalding manuscript? Don’t make me laugh.

In fact, all attempts to either prove or disprove the truth of the gospel seem highly misguided, like the attempt to build a tower that reached heaven. We’re not supposed to prove the Book of Mormon’s truth by chiasm and archeology. We’re supposed to take it on faith. And church members’ attempts to prove the gospel true are as doomed to failure as anti-Mormons’ attempts to prove it false.

(Of course, Mormons aren’t alone in their desire to prove the veracity of their religion. I began thinking about this topic (again) when I got an e-mail forwarded of the “NASA finds Bible proof” hoax, which is certainly not of LDS origin — though we seem to like it as much as any other Christian church.)

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27 Responses to Faith versus Proof

  1. Logan on February 2, 2004 at 8:16 pm

    Kaimi, my response to this feels rather uncharacteristic of most of my thinking, but out it comes anyway.

    It’s very interesting that people want to “prove” their religion. I think it’s a very normal, human desire, but ultimately, the effort fails. Not only is the evidence ultimately unconvincing on its own merits (as seems to be your argument), but it misses the point anyway. The more I ponder on these things, the more I am convinced that the primary reason we even have the Book of Mormon is to provide a good way for people to exercise their faith. That is, it’s an object over which people can learn to pray and receive answers to prayers, and learn what it feels like to listen to the Spirit. It also allows us to rely on the Lord as we convert people (instead of thinking we can do it ourselves).

    The urge to prove the truth of the Book of Mormon represents, I believe, the common desire to “make” other people see “the truth.” We want so badly to share important truths with other people we care about (or mark off another baptism — whatever) that we want to give some sort of irrefutable evidence, after which they will have no choice but to believe.

  2. A Scientist on February 2, 2004 at 8:40 pm

    Kaimi, if I may be so bold, why do you read the Book of Mormon, if you cannot prove that it is true?

  3. clark goble on February 2, 2004 at 8:52 pm

    I suspect the two of you are talking past one an other. Kaimi is, I suspect, talking of public proof whereas most believing Mormons accepts some sort of more private proof. (Which isn’t to discount the role of the community in knowing)

    I agree with Kaimi that many “proofs” aren’t and actually end up hurting the aims of those using them. Anyone with much thought will realize they are bogus. That’s not to say the proofs can’t be found. Just that they haven’t yet.

    I think that most apologists are more interested in proving how belief in the Book of Mormon can be informed and rational. And, unlike what Kaimi suggests, there are rather sophisticated arguments against the book. Yes there are many facile ones. But there definitely are some interesting ones.

  4. Aaron Brown on February 2, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    Logan says that people want to “prove” their religion in order to “make” other people see “the truth.” I’m more inclined to see the phenomenon as a product of faith insecurity – people need something concrete and “objective” to grasp onto for themselves as a backup plan for when their own faith is faltering.

    Kaimi’s comments suggest he isn’t sympathetic to the whole FARMS enterprise. I, personally, quite enjoy reading Peterson, Midgeley, et al., and I agree with Clark that many apologist’s understanding of their own efforts are more modest than the robust “I can indubitably prove the Book of Mormon is true!” characterization of their work that is often, unfortunately, attributed to them (by believers and skeptics alike). However, I think I understand why the skepticism is so wide-spread.

    Kaimi brings up two common LDS claims: the bogus notion that Joseph Smith’s introduction of the Word of Wisdom was some sort of health anachronism in the 19th Century; and the less-than-impressive Civil War prophecy. While it’s certainly true that LDS members often use these to try to impress their non-LDS friends, I have often wondered if the need to make these claims doesn’t really arise from a widespread desire to find substantive content in the claim that LDS prophets are, well …. “prophets.” That is, a need to find evidence that LDS prophets are in fact “prophets” and “seers” (i.e. men who are in the business of seeing the future) rather than mere “revelators” (i.e. men who are in the business of revealing moral guidance, or more often, just reiterating moral guidance). Let’s face it: When was the last time that any of us attended or watched General Conference and awaited anxiously, on the edge of our chairs, for the Prophet’s next big “prediction”? It doesn’t happen. Yet, non-LDS people who hear about LDS claims of being led by a “prophet” often want to know: “What has he predicted lately?” It is understandable that people interpret the prophet’s role this way, and quite frankly, I think many LDS members want to also. Thus, the preoccupation with this type of proof claim (in my opinion).

    Aaron B

  5. Nate on February 2, 2004 at 10:28 pm

    Kaimi: I agree with Clark and Aaron that the idea that folks at FARMS are involved in trying to prove the Book of Mormon is more often attributed to them than actually made by them. That is not to deny that some rather bold claims have from time to time come out of FARMS. On the other hand, I don’t think that there is anything Babel-ish about trying to show that one’s belief is reasonable. Also, I think that a great deal of what gets labeled as apologetic is actually quite useful in simply understanding. For example, I actually DO think that there is chaism in the Book of Mormon (as do such wild-eyed, thesis driven apologists as Michael Quinn). I don’t know how much it “proves.” On the other hand, I think that it is a useful and interesting way of reading certain passages.

    Also, as Clark points out, there are some quite sophisticated arguments against the Book of Mormon. Most anti-cult ministries are recycling long ago discredited stuff. This does not mean that these are the only arguments that can be made.

    I hope that Dan Peterson will chime in here as well.

  6. Kaimi on February 2, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    Nate, Aaron, and others,

    I don’t mean to criticize the FARMS project or any person’s work. Perhaps to others, such work is an important way of maintaining or supporting their own testimony.

    My own belief is that such an endeavor is wrong-headed, and that any testimony built on “proof” (other than the Spirit) is built on a sandy foundation. The problem is that anything that can be proved by science might eventually be disproved by science.

    (In that sense, as a lawyer, I think that basing one’s testimony on current science is about as good an idea as basing constitutional law on current science. As all of the lawyers on this blog know, that is a very bad idea — Roe was based on current science, and the doctrine had to be completely restructured when the underlying scientific ideas changed over 30 years).

    To use a highly stylized example, assume that I have questions about the validity of the Book of Mormon, in particular that I don’t think gold could be made into plates. Then I read a paper by Oman, who shows that the ancient Hohokam made gold into plates. Excellent, my testimony is now reinforced. But then, some time later, Goble comes out with a new study suggesting that the Hohokam never had gold plates. Now what do I believe? And then Brown critiques Goble’s methodology, and Goble responds, and back, and forth.

    And to the extent that I have based my testimony on the ideas of Oman or Goble or Brown and these are discredited, altered, discarded, or whatever, I will find myself buffeted by every wind of doctrine. It’s a sandy foundation.

    Hence my doubts about attempts to prove or disprove the Book of Mormon by science.

  7. Grasshopper on February 3, 2004 at 12:04 am

    “My own belief is that such an endeavor is wrong-headed, and that any testimony built on “proof” (other than the Spirit) is built on a sandy foundation.”

    But Kaimi, the gist of Clark’s, Aaron’s, and Nate’s posts is that FARMS, et al., are not endeavoring to provide a foundation for their, or anyone else’s, testimonies. As I have read FARMS material, for example, the point is made repeatedly that the witness of the Spirit is the foundation of our testimony.

    I agree that is is unwise to base our testimony on reasoned “proofs”, but since that’s not what FARMS, et al., are trying to do, criticisms of this seem misguided. They are better directed toward the individuals who build on a sandy foundation.

    And I think that there is value in demonstrating that our beliefs are not irrational, particularly because Mormonism as I understand it claims that reason and faith should work hand in hand.

  8. Kaimi on February 3, 2004 at 12:31 am

    I don’t know if I made things clear or not. I’m not criticizing FARMS or any particular person’s work. (If FARMS defenders want to bash a FARMS-hater, they’ll have to look elsewhere, as I don’t have strong feelings either way). (Take a look at this post — I don’t mention FARMS at all in the original post, and discuss only in response to others’ attribution of a position to me, and my only statement directly about FARMS is to state that I’m not criticizing them!).

    What I am criticizing is the idea — whoever chooses to advance it — that we can prove things true. The person who says, “I can prove that the Book of Mormon is true, look at its chiasm patterns, this was unknown at the time of Joseph Smith, so there’s no way he could have just written the book.” That is a line of reasoning I have heard on numerous occassions in classes, and in dicsussions with members. Or, “You know, you can prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet, because none of the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom were known at the time he received it, and look at modern medicine telling us tobacco is bad, etc.”

    I certainly haven’t read all of FARMS studies and articles, but to the extent that they warn or encourage members to base their testimonies on the Spirit, they are not objectionable. To the extent (if any) that any articles suggest that chiasm or the Lehi stone is a basis for a testimony, I disagree with them.

  9. Gordon Smith on February 3, 2004 at 12:34 am


    My wife have recently taken up reading together again, after a long hiatus. We are reading The Da Vinci Code, which is pretty fun and fast-paced. Just tonight we read this, apropos your post:

    “[Bishop] Aringarosa had never been comfortable with the Vatican’s historical need to dabble in science. What was the rationale for fusing science and faith? Unbiased science could not possibly be performed by a man who possessed faith in God. Nor did faith have any need for physical confirmation of its beliefs.”

  10. Matt Evans on February 3, 2004 at 12:51 am

    The strongest form of the phenomena Kaimi describes that I’ve encountered is with born-again, professional anti-mormons.

    I don’t know if they concocted this argument simply to dismiss the spiritual basis for Mormon’s testimonies, but two born-again ministers I spent a lot of time with claimed that their religious beliefs were based wholely on empirical facts. I pushed them on several points, like Christ’s divinity, his second coming, their need for repentance, and so on, and was, unsurprisingly, unimpressed by the evidence they could marshall to butress their fact-based witnesses. They put a lot of stock in the bible, of course, but have a hard time proving with evidence (to put it kindly) that the bible should be accepted as true in the first instance.

    Does anyone know if they really believe their religion is fact-based? Or is that just their angle with Mormons?

  11. lyle on February 3, 2004 at 12:58 am

    One interesting benefit of FARMS style research is just trying to create “the condition of the POSSIBILITY” that X in the Bible/BoM ‘could’ reasonably have happened.

    Another, more important for me, is stuff like those that have actually done the hike from Jerusalem to the Saudi Peninsula. By ‘doing’ as Lehi/Nephi y Co. did, they can learn via experience, as the Savior suggested re: how to know if his works were true. Did these ‘type’ of folks discover of the Nahum (sp?) rock indicate the burialplace of Ishael? Maybe. Does it make for an interesting experential, possibly faith building/experiencing role-play? yes.

  12. Clark Goble on February 3, 2004 at 2:10 am

    It is an interesting question as it *almost* seems like Kaimi is questioning the very nature of proof itself. I’m not quite sure what he is asserting though, especially when he invokes Roe v. Wade. The problem was that the biological knowledge was (and is) very fragmentary. It is dangerous to extrapolate from that to all science.

    Perhaps I’m a tad biased due to my background in science. But I have noted a tendency among those of the legal profession to see in science a degree of fallibilism greater than there actually is. This isn’t to deny fallibilism. However I think you vastly overstate things Kaimi. Some things we can know quite strongly.

    I’d add that merely reducing the problem to the spirit doesn’t resolve the problem. After all, one can still ask when one *knows* by the spirit. Many critics are just as apt to criticize revelation in general as a way of knowing. And indeed, the things sometimes mistakenly treated as “proofs” are actually simply evidences to support why one can trust revelation. i.e. showing how ones revelatory beliefs are rational.

    My point is that there is a complex give and take between public phenomena and private phenomena. I think that if we simply discount public phenomena as a way of knowing we are implicitly removing the religious experience as truth out of the public sphere. It is a very small step from that to religion as basically “demythologized” of any physical content.

  13. A Scientist on February 3, 2004 at 9:29 am

    It seems that Clark has beaten me to my point. As Mormons we accept certain types of experiences as “spiritual proof” of the validity of the Book of Mormon. Rather than asking why members try and “prove” the Book of Mormon true, a more interesting question might be “Why do Mormons seek empirical, scientific proofs of its validity?” As has been mentioned above, since everyone accepts these types of evidence, we can appeal to a much larger audience.

    But this raises in my mind another question, namely, why is it Kaimi that you are willing to accept evidence in your heart (by the spirit) and do not expect there to be empirical evidence proving the same conclusion? If truth really is whole, really is one, then shouldn’t both methodologies lead to the same conclusion? Don’t we have a right to expect that what we see with our eyes and measure with instruments should correspond to the truths through the spirit?

  14. Kaimi on February 3, 2004 at 9:31 am


    I agree that there are things within science that we can know quite strongly. However, I haven’t heard those sorts of rock-solid facts used to support the church. No one says “gravity 4.9 meters per second squared, therefore Lehi.”

    The science that is used to support the Book of Mormon and the church is exactly the sort of stuff that is, in my inexpert opinion, most likely to be disproven or changed by future developments.

    The Lehi Stone. Now, based on our tiny, fragmentary knowledge of Mayan civilization, and writing, some people say it might be the tree of life. But how much do we know about the Maya? Very little. It is entirely possible that someone will find a Rosetta stone tomorrow, and we’ll learn that the Lehi stone is actually someone’s laundry list. More likely, we could find other uses of the same images elsewhere to mean vastly different things, casting the whole tree-of-life interpretation into doubt.

    (And as for chaism: (1) Chiasm is definitely more of an art than a science. (2) Part of the “proof” story is that we didn’t know anything about it until what, 50 years ago. Are we so sure that we know everything about it now? What if we suddenly realize (discover) that chiasm has to be written in rhymin quatrains?).

    Meanwhile, the health benefits of the Word of Wisdom are undisputed. Or are they? Several recent studies show that mild wine consumption can help prevent heart disease.

    I appreciate all that science does. I recognize that much of science is unlikely to ever be disproved. But science also gave us Piltdown Man, a hoax that wasn’t discovered for 50 years. I don’t want to base my testimony on a Piltdown Man. (Note that Piltdown Man was as successful for as long as it was because it gave people what they wanted to beleive). And much of the science that I hear people bring up to prove the church true seems more likely to be Piltdown Man than it is to be 4.9 meters/second squared.

  15. A Scientist on February 3, 2004 at 9:46 am


    The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining work of fiction, but I find your quote highly disturbing. In fact I think I disagree with every proposition in the quote. For starters, having faith does not preclude one from doing good, objective science. Many great scientists have been believers–Henry Eyring Sr is a Mormon example.

    It says that “faith does not need physical confirmation of its beliefs.” I would counter that a belief system which makes no claims about the physical world is anemic in the extreme. All of our experience is mediated through earthly matter; even our so called “spiritual” experiences (burning bosom anyone?). Our religion makes a large number of physical claims. And our understanding as Mormons of the physical world is largely modern and scientific. You simply cannot divorce these two worldviews.

    The rationale for fusing science and faith is that we believe that truth can be circumscribed into one great whole. The separation into spiritual and scientific truths is based on methodology and not on there being separate spheres of truth. Science uses certain assumptions that limit its sphere; but we should still expect a correspondence. Most Mormons are “scientific realists” and believe that science describes natural laws that (some believe) even constrain God. The idea that somehow science and religion are at war is historically problematic and not in tune with our religion.

  16. Logan on February 3, 2004 at 10:03 am

    Aaron, I think your obsevation about trying to “prove” the Book of Mormon’s truth to ourselves when our faith is perhaps shaky is a good one. That’s likely the case in more situations than is my first explanation. My view, focused on how we try to help other people become converted, is probably colored by being the ward mission leader here in the Bronx.

    I think it’s essentially the same sort of idea, though: we look to more *tangible* sorts of evidence when we’re inexperienced or feeling uncertain of how faith and the Spirit work.

  17. ben on February 3, 2004 at 10:09 am

    The problem with the Lehi stone is that all positive claims put forward on it were done by amateurs and then sensationalized by word of mouth. It seems that it’s the naivete of people who base their testimonies on such things being criticized here. Or are you really saying “Since we can’t know anything for sure, we might as well not bother trying”?

    I’ve found the following to be the case as I interact with members of all stripes (as well as “neutral” anti-, non- and ex- members) in the LDS apologetic world.

    Henry Eyring. To Draw Closer to God, p. 142
    But even at its best, the resolution of doubts by reason and appeal to evidence cannot take us far. It is helpful to meet a brilliant mind who defends gospel truths with fact and logic. There is comfort in finding that such a person has confronted the same questions with which you struggle and has retained his faith. But there is a hazard. Even the most brilliant and faithful person may defend the truth with argument or fact that later proves false. The best scholarship has, at least, incompleteness in it. But even flawless argument has a weakness if you come to depend on it: What happens to the next doubt, or the next? What if no physical evidence or persuasive logic can be produced to dispel it? You will find then what I have found-that faithful scholar who reassured you with logic did not base his faith there. It was the other way around. His faith reassured him that someday, when God told him how it was all done, he would see all truth as perfectly logical, transparently reasonable. In the meantime he was enjoying discovering what he could with the logic he could muster.

    Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C. S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1965), 26.
    Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

  18. Kaimi on February 3, 2004 at 11:09 am


    I’m doing a little of both. On one level, I think people are terribly naive to base their testimonies on what may be flimsy science.

    On a broader level, I’m not sure if it is ever appropriate to base one’s testimony on science. Almost all science is ultimately subject to debate and revision. Testimony should be based on something which is not subject to debate or revision, the manifestations of the Spirit.


    My belief in the Book of Mormon comes from praying about its truth and receiving a testimony of it. That is a belief which will not be removed or taken away, even if (worst case scenarion?) it is eventually proven by archeologists that the Mayas never existed at all and were all just a figment of someone’s imagination.

    On the one hand, because of its lack of reliance on physical proof, that testimony is more powerful than any I would receive from studying archeology. On the other hand, that testimony allows me to exercise faith. No matter how sure I _feel_ about the Book of Mormon, my rational side is saying “but you don’t _know_ it’s true.” And yet I continue to obey commandments, pay tithing, etcetera. Obedience despite an inability to _know_ on a rational level is the test of my faith. And it’s a test I will have to grapple with for the rest of my life (and probably beyond).

  19. A Scientist on February 3, 2004 at 11:34 am

    Kaimi — You say that your belief in the Book of Mormon comes from praying and spiritual experiences. This is also why I read and love the Book of Mormon. I just wanted to emphasize that this requires action and evidence in an experiential way not so different from “proving” to yourself that the book is true. Your belief is not simply accepting some proposition but is a result of your efforts and experiments to know the truth. My question is then why should we not expect the results of these experiments to corroborate the results of scientific experiments (properly done)? I don’t think the strict “belief” and “proof” dichotomy in your original post is workable.

    Furthermore I wonder in awe at your epistemological certainty that although science is subject to revision, testimony is not. My relationship with deity is far more complex. I am not always sure what is revelation and what is the lasagna I ate for lunch. Often my interpretation of spiritual manifestations prove to be incorrect later (ie maybe God did want me to do X, but only to try and fail and learn from the experience–not my initial interpretation).

    Rather, in my experience, both in science and in spirituality we have subjective experiences which we correlate with other people, trying to build consensus through our common experiences. In my mind this is as close as we can get to objectivity.

  20. Adam Greenwood on February 3, 2004 at 11:36 am

    Look at Alma 36, probably one of the strongest cases for chiasm in the Book of Mormon. Take it as proof or not, as you like, but recognizing the structure makes that chapter one of the most beautiful in all scripture.

  21. lyle on February 3, 2004 at 11:41 am

    For everyone’s entertainment and spiritual growth, why not ask Bishop Spong to do his type of study on the BoM? Then we could find out if it too is filled with ‘symbolic’ writing that is consistent with Hebrew traditions a la The Bible.

  22. Nate on February 3, 2004 at 12:12 pm

    Incidentally, FARMS published a study debunking the Lehi stone a while back. The stone itself is badly weathered. They used infrared photography to bring out detail that is not visible to the naked eye. This detail provides additional information that allowed them to identify the picture with a particular story in Mayan mythology. Sorry to all those who got baptized on the basis of the Lehi stone…

  23. Grasshopper on February 3, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    Kaimi said, “Testimony should be based on something which is not subject to debate or revision, the manifestations of the Spirit.” Only problem with that statement, as A Scientist pointed out, is that “the manifestations of the Spirit” may be subject to debate or revision. We have ample evidence of that in the history of our church.

  24. the wandering fool on February 3, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    If you dance with the devil he will allwas try to lead. When you demand Proof, just remember the devil knows the gosples better than anyone I know. Once you rely on a “Proof” you set your self up. As a child in school I was taught that “What ever went up must come down.” and every thing did. It was the Law, untill Sputnik. I recall hearing that God would never let man go to the moon, Religious men of many faiths could show you in the Bible the proof. To this day there are people who say the moon landing was a hoax.

    When it comes right down to it I can not prove anything. I have to take a lot on Faith, and I have been fooled more than once. So if some one wants to offer Proofs of the truth or not of the book of Morman. I say let them. I found my own proof, years ago, in a could snowy woods, where I prayed and got the answer I have taken as the only proof I neaded. I still study, I still pray, but I have my proof.

  25. greenfrog on February 3, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    I am interested at the comments suggesting that spiritual experience is different in kind from presumptively non-spiritual experience, and that the former can be trusted to always yield the correct understanding, while the latter cannot be trusted. The passage quoting Bro. Eyring seems to suggest that any methodology that would allow for the hypothesis implicit in a spiritually founded testimony to be proven wrong must be rejected.

    That seems, to me, unnecessarily defensive. It is rather than antithesis of the scientific method to which we can fairly attribute almost every advancement and functional creation (from agriculture to the Internet) that mankind has developed. And such an approach seems to me to discount entirely the straightforward utility function implied in a number of scriptures that direct “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”


  26. Clark Goble on February 3, 2004 at 9:49 pm

    I’d agree with the prior comments. Just because you have a spiritual experience doesn’t mean you understand the experience. We all frequently misinterpret promptings. And there are lots of people who, one they had a spiritual experience, convince themselves of a new meaning for it or even deny its happening.

  27. Kaimi on February 4, 2004 at 5:03 pm

    Wandering fool,

    I agree completely. I couldn’t have said it better.


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