Like a lot of people who have gone through faith crises, I’ve spent some time thinking through the alternative to belief in the Church’s truth claims. If we assume that the Church isn’t what it says it is, what is the best explanation for the Church and its related claims that make sense of the data? At the outset I should note that I am indeed a believer, and that this picture was developed from faith crises of the past and isn’t reflective of anything I’m currently going through.
Joseph Smith Trilemma
C.S. Lewis famously stated that the only logical options for Christ was that he was divine, evil, or insane, thus logically negating the option of the not divine, albeit good, wise teacher that is a favorite among a certain class of intellectual Christian. I’m not going to argue for or against Lewis’ trilemma here, but rather use it as a framework to approach Joseph Smith.
On the one hand, the Book of Mormon seems to logically close off the possibility of deluded-but-sincere. To create a complex backstory across multiple years, arrange for witnesses, dictate the manuscript, and arrange for its publication would require a lot of concerted intentionality. If the Church was based solely on a kind of beatific vision a la the first vision, I would definitely see this as a more plausible scenario, but the Book of Mormon seems to mitigate against the sincerity thesis.
On the other hand, Smith’s writings clearly impress upon readers the sincerity of his religious convictions. The nail in the coffin here for me was Don Bradley’s excellent piece about the role of the Book of Abraham in the translation of the Kinderhook plates, which solidly convinced me that, whatever else can be said about the Book of Abraham translation, that Smith himself believed that the spiritually directed translation was valid, since, without a lot of fanfare that took almost two centuries to uncover, he privately used it as the basis for his attempts to translate the Kinderhook plates.
Consequently, if I were to categorize Joseph Smith from a non-believing perspective, I think the story that best fits the data is that he started it as an intentional fraud, but eventually came to believe his own prophetic role himself after the Book of Mormon but by the Nauvoo-era.
The witnesses to the plates are a stronger point for the Church than a lot of critics are willing to acknowledge. Still, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and while the witnesses’ accounts and faith in the Book of Mormon even after leaving the Church are an objectively strong point in the Church’s favor, in and of themselves they’re not enough to hang a religious belief hat onto (for example, I’m not going to become Catholic because of the Miracle of the Sun that was reportedly witnessed by many people). If there was a similar situation for another faith it wouldn’t be enough for me to convert to that faith, for example, but it would be a supplement to other reasons to convert, and I think that’s what the witnesses give us as believers. Given the historical record, from a non-believing perspective I think the most likely explanation for the witnesses was some kind of collective delusion, or maybe a collective delusion for the three that saw the angel, and a prop for the others. This would be hard to pull off for Joseph Smith, but whatever the case the conspiracy hypothesis is clearly out given everything that happened afterwards. Also, I’ve always felt that the “when they said they saw it they didn’t mean that they saw it” just because of some statements decades later that emphasized the spiritual nature of the experience to be a little clasping-at-strawish. Even if I didn’t believe in the truth claims, I’d still believe that the witnesses believed that they actually saw plates.
The Book of Mormon
As someone who got a B- in Book of Mormon at BYU, I can personally attest to the complexity of its narrative. To create such a book would be hard enough, but to do so off the top of one’s head while dictating extemporaneously would have required savant-level brilliance. People who think he could have dictated it off the top of his head have never tried to read it carefully and keep all the characters, numbers, and storylines straight. Consequently, if we assume a naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon, he must have had another document he was reading from. However, having a copy doesn’t make sense with the 116 pages, or else he could have just redone it with the extra copy. Consequently, I think the most plausible scenario is that after, but not before, the 116 pages episode he wrote it first, then dictated from that copy, or at the very least a detailed crib sheet of some sort.
Again, do I think this is what actually happened? No, but if for some reason I were to lose my faith I think these are the most plausible scenarios.