The Problem of Evangelical Anti-Mormon Arguments

February 24, 2005 | 24 comments
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You’ve all seen them, spoken with them, discussed things with them. They’re your evangelical anti-Mormon friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers, relatives. (Not to mention those random strangers who accost you as you go to the temple.) We get comments from these folks around here sometimes as well. I’ve always been a little surprised by the types of arguments put forth by evangelical anti-Mormons, because it seems to me that they prove too much. Evangelicals, it seems, are best at giving Mormons a strong reasons to become an atheist (or agnostic, or Unitarian).

Thus, one evanglical critic of the church states:

There are three standard tests (University of Chicago history Dept.) used by all historians to verify the accuracy of historical event and they are;

1. The bibliographical evidence test- how reliable is the transmission of the historical account? Has the story been changed down throughout history

2. The internal evidence test-does the writer of the event contradict himself internally in his own account.

3. The external evidence test-is there any external evidence through documents and archealogy that contradicts the account under question?

These tests of historical authenticity should be applied to Joseph Smith’s accounts as a better means of verifying if indeed he saw an angel and the LDS religion is true, not some subjective unsubstantiated series of visions.

This is a reasonable approach for a person to take, and the critic is correct that one might come to doubt Joseph Smith, applying this logic.

But here’s the rub: The Bible is full of accounts which would also fail such a test. That’s not such a big deal for certain offshoots of Christianity, which may believe that large portions of the Bible are not literal depictions of events. But for evangelicals, who themselves tend to believe in Biblical literalism, this is a big potential concern.

It seems clear that an objective observer, applying the historicity standards listed above (those which the Evangelical critic suggests Mormons apply to their own faith) could easily come away with serious doubts as to the Biblical accounts such as the Creation; the Flood; the Earth stopping in its rotation; the birth of Christ; the miracles of Christ’s ministry; the Atonement; the Resurrection; the conversion of Paul; the miracles performed by the early Apostles.

And yes, I know, there are scads of Christian apologists who can explain to you how two of every animal, all housed in the same ark, managed to disperse into the biodiversity we have now, and how kangaroos hopped all the way to Australia. But once we’re opening that door, it’s time to admit that we’re listening to apologists and leaving behind the critical thinking hat. And the natural question is, why? Why should we be critics with regards to Joseph Smith but apologists with regards to Noah?

The Evangelical anti-Mormon argument simply proves too much. It may be an effective argument if one is intending to convert a listener to atheism, or agnosticism, or perhaps Unitarianism. But it’s not really effective coming from a believer in Biblical literalism. And this is because it depends on an application of a double standard: Please apply certain rigorous tests to the truth of Joseph Smith’s claims, but don’t do the same for Paul’s claims or Matthew’s or John’s.

Evangelicals don’t apply rigorous historical review to the Bible. An Evangelical believer accepts Biblical claims not because they meet some professional standard of historicity, but because of faith. And so it should be no surprise that, when examining Joseph Smith’s claims or the Book of Mormon, we Mormons take the same approach.

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24 Responses to The Problem of Evangelical Anti-Mormon Arguments

  1. Bryce I on February 24, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    Hmmm, Kaimi, are you going to let Ed respond here? Seems only fair.

  2. Kaimi on February 24, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    Bryce,

    Ed has been put on the moderation queue — he’s free to comment, but all of his comments will initially be held until they are individually approved by a blogger.

    This was the result of his prior comments, and one major reason was his tendency to turn every thread into a referendum on whether or not Joseph Smith was really a prophet.

    I think that those sorts of comments are probably less of a concern on this particular thread.

    As with any comment that goes into the moderation queue, if it looks uncontroversial, it’s likely to be approved quickly. If it looks like it’s potentially problematic, it will be discussed among the bloggers.

  3. Christian Cardall on February 24, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    Kaimi, I agree 100%. As I’ve said here before, I was puzzled by existence of Robinson’s Evangelical/Mormon `How Wide the Divide?’ book; in some ways, the notion ‘Mormons and Atheists: How Wide the Divide?’ seems more natural in terms of the issues you mention, and also philosophy/theology.

    (To be fair, I haven’t read Robinson’s book. People may have noticed that I read more introductions, tables of contents, and book reviews than whole books! ;) )

  4. Wilfried on February 24, 2005 at 2:40 pm

    Simple but excellent logic, Kaimi. I can compare it with anti-Mormon Catholic criticism (with which I more familiar given the European background). Often such criticism also applies equally to Catholic doctrines or practices. We have to learn to be honest in our approaches, in both directions.

  5. Kevin Barney on February 24, 2005 at 2:48 pm

    Good and true point, Kaimi. If I ever lost my faith (and I freely acknowledge that such a thing is possible), I would become an atheist. Oh, I might attend a Lutheran church or something just because I like the music so much. But the foundational arguments against our faith apply with equal vigor against all faith.

  6. Dave on February 24, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    Great minds think alike: Ronan just shared similar views in an article in the current issue of The Bloggernacle Times, Jettisoning Joseph but not Jesus.

  7. annegb on February 24, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Yup, good point. I will use it on my baby sister if she should ever be so foolish to attack my faith. She joined with the makers of the Godmakers and enjoyed a certain notiarit, how do you spell that, notierity?–in her community for a time.

    I like Presbyterians. They have a nice church, a really cool nursery, and they do the greatest dinners. They serve you and they seat you. They let all sorts of organizations use their church. I have a key to their church. But you know, I went to one of their funeral services, and they don’t have the complete scriptures. They leave out huge parts of the bible. They’re nice. I wish they could have what we have. I also wish we could do a ward dinner like they do and have a two-way mirror AND a bathroom AND a drinking fountain AND a little fenced playground complete with all the Fisher Price toys. Hmmm…sounds like hot tub, color TV, church.

  8. Jonathan Green on February 24, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    Kaimi, a couple questions:

    What is the range of evangelical reactions to what we’ll call the FARMS argument: “After sober consideration of the historical record, I conclude that Joseph Smith is a prophet, the Book of Mormon is authentic, etc.”?

    What is the range of Mormon reactions to the mirror image of the Mormon argument: “I prayed about it and received an unmistakable witness that I should be a Baptist”?

    I would like to think my reaction to #2 would be that being a Baptist is what God, in his mysterious way, wants for that person right now. I have no idea how much the range of reactions would differ from each other.

  9. Kaimi on February 24, 2005 at 3:25 pm

    Jonathan,

    I can’t claim expertise, but my responses:

    1. I don’t think that Evangelicals take FARMS very seriously. FARMS is either the work of the devil, or it’s just ignored.

    I don’t think that FARMS really helps their case with the number of camels they sometimes seem to be asking people to swallow. I’ve criticized FARMS elsewhere for this. But I think that FARMS sees itself as defensive rather than offensive. I don’t think that their intended audience is the Evangelical, I think it’s the wavering Mormon who is looking for any logical hook on which to hang her faith.

    2. That’s a great question. I believe it was Dave of DMI who said something along these lines:

    “If you tell a Mormon you’ve prayed about whether you should join a church, and you get a strong feeling that church is true, and you want to know if that’s the Spirit, the Mormon will ask you which church it was before giving you an answer.”

    And there’s a real potential problem there, distinguishing between the Spirit and just random good feelings. And many church members seem to do this ex post facto. I don’t know what the answer is to this concern, myself.

  10. john fowles on February 24, 2005 at 3:47 pm

    Kaimi, I’m sad to see you have such a low view of FARMS. What, in your view, would be the ideal organization if FARMS is so lacking?

  11. Kaimi on February 24, 2005 at 4:02 pm

    John,

    I should be clear that my phrasing “I don’t think that Evangelicals take FARMS very seriously. FARMS is either the work of the devil, or it’s just ignored.” is meant to convey my impression of the Evangelical view of FARMS. I personally don’t think it’s the work of the Devil, though I think that some church critics believe it is.

    Without trying to derail this thread too much, I’ll note that I’ve criticized FARMS in the past for being overly defensive, for using a no-holds-barred approach which looks an awful lot like fighting dirty, for doing what looks a lot like character assassination. Basically, my impression is that many FARMS-ists seem to be taking a litigation approach — make no concessions (even reasonable ones), admit nothing (even obvious points), attack the other side full-bore (even in very uncharitable ways), because it’s for a good cause. It strikes me that much of the contention could be avoided.

    But that impression has been documented in other threads. See, e.g., http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=1605 . Those threads tend to drift towards comments meltdown very fast. So I’m inclined to try to avoid that topic on this thread, we don’t need another Chernobyl thread like the Signature Books one became.

  12. john fowles on February 24, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    annegb # 7–a two-way mirror in the bathroom?

  13. Eric Soderlund on February 24, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    #8 and #9:

    I would put it this way: fast forward in your mind to the day when you will be standing at the great bar of judgment. The Lord asks, “Why did you join ‘X’ church?” Can you respond, “Because you told me to”? If so, join that church. If not, keep looking. Based on my conversion experience, I am confident that I am “safe” with respect to this question come Judgment Day. If the Lord desires to tell my Baptist friend to leave his church and join with us Latter-day Saints, great. If my friend, however, prays with sincerity, real intent, and faith in Christ and the Lord doesn’t deliver on the promise, who am I to judge the Lord or my Baptist friend if he chooses to remain in his present church?

  14. Geoff Matthews on February 24, 2005 at 6:59 pm

    Gotta agree with Eric. Trying to tell someone that a spiritual experience doesn’t mean what they think it means is analogous to arguing over the color of the sky. If someone claims that the sky is green, is there any way that I can convince them that they are wrong?
    Please note, I don’t mean any disrespect by this analogy. I just want to point out the futility of arguing over it.

  15. Stephen M (ethesis) on February 24, 2005 at 11:15 pm

    The Evangelical anti-Mormon argument simply proves too much.

    Indeed. I’ve seen the same in Jewish anti-Christian literature (some Jewish friends shared a bit with us).

    And, when I was on Prodigy (because they had a POP where I was and no one else did — and the best grief support group on-line) I saw people drop all the way through from waivering LDS to non-believers in anything.

    Note that Beck’s “journey from religion to faith” is a journey from being LDS to being an atheist.

  16. annegb on February 24, 2005 at 11:21 pm

    :) no, it’s not in the bathroom, it’s a part of the wall, so parents can look in. It’s a big window too. Hey, those Presbyterians don’t do things by halves. You guys, they are like us without the gospel.

  17. Sheri Lynn on February 24, 2005 at 11:52 pm

    I was 27 when I prayed my first sincere prayer. It was answered, unequivocably answered, and the knowledge that came with it was knowledge I did not have–that was not something that could have come from my own mind in any way, shape, or form. The Voice I heard was not from MY mind nor from anyone around me at the time. I can’t prove that to anybody. But anybody who doubts I have a testimony that I am in the right church would have to believe that God let the devil answer my first sincere prayer in the name of Jesus Christ with a misleading answer, so misleading I completely believed it to be from God. If that kind of God exists I wouldn’t want to follow him anyway.

    The answer to my prayer confirmed that God EXISTS, knows me and loves me PERSONALLY, and wants me in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now the rest of my testimony isn’t so direct as that, it often merely FOLLOWS those initial conditions. I struggle to get a real and strong testimony of the Book of Mormon and parts of the Bible bother me too. But I heard the voice of the Lord answer ME. Maybe sometimes a Baptist is supposed to be a Baptist. The Lutherans I know do great things, more with what they have than most Mormons I know I am a clumsy Mormon. But I’m a Mormon till the Lord Himself tells me otherwise.

  18. JNG on February 25, 2005 at 12:15 am

    Kaimi,

    You state four contentions:

    1) Evangelicals state a reasonable standard for authenticity;
    2) Mormon beliefs probably fail the standards of authenticity set by Evangelicals;
    3) Evangelicals fail to self-apply the standards of authenticity that they apply to Mormons;
    4) If Evangelicals did self-apply those standards, they would find their interpretation of the Bible wanting.

    That’s a fine and reasonable argument, but it leaves one considerable difficulty–Mormon beliefs nonetheless fail the standard of authenticity. The hypocrisy in the Evangelical application of the standard is irrelevant to the propriety of the standard–that is, the propriety of the standard is unrelated to the incident of its application.

    Two boats go out into the deep water. The man in the first says to the man in the second, “Your boat is sinking!” The man in the second boat looks down and sees water around his ankles. Then he looks back at the man in the first boat and replies, “You hypocrite. So’s yours.”

    In my opinion, the man in the second boat didn’t gain anything by his response. He certainly helped the man in the first boat by pointing out by pointing out the hypocrisy, but for his own part he would’ve been better served by searching for the source of the leak and seeing whether anything ought to be done about it.

  19. Frank McIntyre on February 25, 2005 at 12:37 am

    JNG,

    I don’t think Kaimi actually agrees with the arguments presented, he just understands them and sees why someone ( for example, who lacks a spiritual witness) might find them compelling.

    To modify your water analogy, imagine two men in waist deep water, and one says to the other “a monster wave is coming and it is going to kill you because you are too far in the water! Run! Run!”

    1. The second guy may or may not believe the argument that a monster wave is coming.

    2. Regardless of whether he believes guy 1, he still gets a chuckle from this guy yelling at him when they are both in the same water.

  20. Anna on February 25, 2005 at 8:06 am

    I would put it this way: fast forward in your mind to the day when you will be standing at the great bar of judgment. The Lord asks, “Why did you join ‘X’ church?” Can you respond, “Because you told me to”? If so, join that church. If not, keep looking.

    Eric, what about all the people who sincerely ask about X church (whatever that may be) and feel that God has not clearly told them whether to join it or not? When does a lack of an answer mean “No, this church is not true” and when does it mean that the person just needs to try harder to get a “Yes” answer?

  21. annegb on February 25, 2005 at 8:54 am

    I had never heard of FARMS, but when you guys started talking about it, I went to their website. I think it’s pretty interesting. I never needed that sort of affirmation, but it does explain some stuff. I didn’t get the feeling that they were radicals.

    I really like your original argument that the bible fails some of the same tests as the book of mormon. For me, that is quite profound, not to stir my faith, but to stir my interest.

  22. Eric Soderlund on February 25, 2005 at 11:18 am

    Anna–

    I think, generally, there are three possible answers to a prayer from someone seeking to know which church to join. First, the answer could be an unequivocal “Yes” like the one I received (unexpectedly) when I sincerely prayed about the Book of Mormon and like the one described by Sheri Lynn. The second could be an unequivocal “No” like the one Joseph Smith received in the First Vision (“I was told to join none of them . . .”) The third is the non-answer like you have described. In such cases, I would think the non-answer is neither a “yes” or a “no” and I would think the individual would be justified in making his or her own decision, while continuing to seek further light and knowledge from the Lord (there is a post on one of these Bloggernacle sites with a quote from Dallin Oaks elaborating on this idea). I do not think the Lord would hold someone accountable for joining the “wrong” church if the individual were sincerely seeking additional light.

  23. danithew on February 25, 2005 at 11:28 am

    Eric,

    The post you’re talking about is at Nine Moons:

    http://nine-moons.blogspot.com/2005/02/dallin-oaks-confuses-me-on-prayer.html

    In addition to the yes, no, silence type answers I would simply add that sometimes answers to prayers come through other indirect or delayed means (a particular scripture, something another person says under the influence of the Spirit, a passage from a book, etc.).

  24. Brent on March 2, 2005 at 4:09 am

    Two of my children have been approached by evangelical friends with the book “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel. Neither of my kids took the time to read it, but I did. The book deals with the reliability of the New Testament and applies such tests as bibliographical / internal / external evidence. This is a very good book if anyone wishes to become more familiar with the evangelicals’ line of thinking in this area. For myself, I actually gained a greater respect for the accuracy of the NT to where I will be much more hesitant in the future to think of various verses as “not translated correctly”.

    The only major fault I can see in the book is that the author interviews many leading biblical scholars but never directly interviews the critics. Instead, he relies on what the scholars SAY the critics’ positions are.

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