Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: apologetics (page 2 of 3)

Without a trace

I recently learned of L’Anse aux Meadows. It’s a place in Newfoundland, Canada where Vikings settled about 1,000 years ago. It’s the oldest European settlement in the Americas. The Vikings didn’t live there very long — only about 10 years — and it seems that there weren’t that many of them. It’s only a small site — no stables, no burials.

Yet for that small a group in so short a time, they left enough artifacts to fill a small museum.

Long-time readers will see where I’m going with this. The Book of Mormon claims to be the history of a group of people who lived in the Americas for about a thousand years, numbering in the millions. The book discusses their metalwork, their swords, their coins, their money, and much more — no evidence of which occurs in the archaeological record. And they didn’t dwindle down slowly — they were supposedly killed off quickly in wars of extinction. You’d think that something would have survived, but no.

Maybe the Nephites and Lamanites just didn’t build stuff as well as the Vikings. Or else fictional people don’t leave archaeological traces.

If you attack the Church, you are attacking me.

Many times, when I make criticisms of religion (or a religion), various practitioners take it personally and say that I’m attacking them.

My answer is: No, I’m not attacking you; I’m attacking your church. If you can’t tell the difference between your church and yourself, then you have made a serious mistake. What that means is that you are identifying too closely with the organisation. You have conflated your goals, your future, and your identity with those of the group. You need to fix this. It’s not healthy to confuse your own identity with other things that are not you. (It is understandable that high-commitment religions are slow to correct this tendency. It works overwhelmingly to their advantage.)

Many religious folks are able to differentiate, and I quite enjoy talking to them. Many thanks if you’re one of these. I have a harder time with the internalisers. I’ve just had an multi-day online discussion where I started with this notion:

Churches are (among other things) safe places for weak ideas. They’re like shelters for ideas that can’t defend themselves.

I thought this was an interesting idea. I’d always considered that ideas keep religions going, but this was the opposite — the idea that churches exist as social life-support systems for their ideas — and it hinted at a commensal relationship. I was hoping for a bit of discussion on the topic. Oh, that it were possible.

It didn’t take long before a believer insisted that I was just ‘having a go’ at religion and that I was implying that all religious people were ‘weak-minded fools’. I don’t think this, but if someone wanted evidence to the contrary, it was not to be found from his comments. He insisted (without evidence) that angels and demons were real, that science ‘didn’t know everything’, and that his ‘feelings of the Spirit’ were different from ordinary feelings, and ought to be evidence enough for anyone. Moreover, he was unwilling to consider that his subjective feelings might be in error. All of this was couched in the most tormented reasoning; over the course of 200 comments, he committed the bandwagon fallacy, special pleading, and terminal logorrhea. Well, that’s not a fallacy, but ad hominem attacks are; he surmised that I must be a terrible partner if I needed evidence for everything. Not to mention the argument from ignorance — what proof did I have that God didn’t exist? In short, all the devices, defense mechanisms, and poor reasoning that has kept him (and will keep him forever) anchored to his faith. And he managed all this while misreading my initial premise. If he wanted to demonstrate that religious believers were not weak-minded fools, he could have done a better job than he did.

I am not, by nature, a poker of hives. I dissect poor ideas unsparingly, but I try to go easy on actual people (previous paragraph excepted). I don’t expect believers to like it. But there needs to be a way to say “I think you’ve got this wrong”.

So if I criticise a religion, what reaction would I expect its members to have? That depends.

  • If I’m right, accept it, and move on with a determination to do better.
  • If I’m wrong, please tell me. But in the process, don’t make me right.

What I wish Mike Ash understood

Michael R. Ash is continuing his discussion of testimony over at the Mormon Times with a column titled “What critics don’t understand about testimony“.

Don’t understand testimony? What’s not to understand? I’ve had one and recovered. One thing I wish Mike Ash understood is that testimonial evidence is not good evidence, and relying on it is asking to be fooled.

He’s making an assumption here is that critics of the church don’t understand the church. (It’s a bit like the soggy drunk in a bar, saying “My wife doesn’t understand me.”) Many of us used to be LDS. Some of us served in the church for years, had a testimony, and remember the feelings that kept us believing with more certainty than was warranted by real evidence. So another thing I wish Mike Ash understood is that we do understand the church. We’re critical of the church because we understand it.

While a testimony must be grounded on a spiritual confirmation, the mind is an integral part of gaining our testimony. We are expected to use our minds to study the scriptures and learn what God wants.

Whoops, presupposition. Whether a god exists is one of the items still under consideration for the testimony-hunter. So the next thing that I wish Mike Ash understood is that if you start from your conclusion, and then try to amass facts to support it, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s not just creationists.

When Oliver Cowdery made his failed attempt at translating the plates the Lord told him: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”

It’s true that Mormon writings encourage you to think about things that you’re praying about. But encouragement to think does no good unless you learn how to think well — another thing Ash doesn’t seem to understand. That’s not an insult to any Latter-day Saints. Thinking well is a skill. No one’s automatically good at it, and everyone is bad at it when cherished beliefs are on the line. Including me — I’m not nearly as critical of ideas I agree with as I ought to be. But by learning only a few things about how to spot a fallacy and how we fool ourselves, the poor reasoning at church becomes easy to spot.

Here’s a good example:

In 2007, the church published a statement about LDS doctrine which read in part:

“The church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.”

It’s no surprise that the church tells people that faith and reason work together. Magical thinkers have been borrowing the credibility of science for years. It’s just a way of muting concerns: Gee, if the leaders say that reason is good, then this testimony thing must be scientifically valid after all. But while reason is concerned with logic and evidence, faith encourages belief without evidence. You can’t use both at once. Faith and reason are opposite and incompatible methods. And that’s another thing I wish Mike Ash understood.

Proof is not in the eye of the beholder if they won’t show it to you.

I’m not a masochist, but I do check the Mormon Times occasionally. And Michael R. Ash’s latest column is a corker: Proof is in the eye of the beholder.

The next several installments will deal with evidence, proof, faith and Book of Mormon archaeology.

Evidence for the Book of Mormon? At last! Unfortunately, he then spends the entire column making excuses for why we shouldn’t expect evidence. That’s always a bad sign. If he had the evidence, he would rely on it. Instead, there’s tap dancing.

I should note two important points regarding the nature of evidence and the necessity of faith. First, I’m unconvinced that any critic would “convert” because of some alleged “proof” because I doubt that any “proof” could ever satisfy those who have truly hardened their hearts against Joseph Smith.

This is not quite right. When I deconverted, it was not because I had ‘hardened my heart’. In fact, I spent years making excuses for the church and trying to shoehorn the facts into my narrow religious belief. Only when I realised that it had no evidentiary basis did I abandon the religion I’d invested so much in.

Now, as someone who’s doing science, I will change my mind if the facts require. I can think of a few things that would make me reconsider the Book of Mormon. One would be evidence of Hebrew or Egyptian writing in Mesoamerica. Another would be if a Native American language showed good linguistic evidence of Hebrew or Egyptian loanwords — solid patterns of correspondence, not piecemeal lists of ‘similarities’. If Ash has this evidence, let him say so.

I might say that Ash’s presumption may be based on his own attitude. I wonder what evidence he’d accept that his beliefs are in error. I hope he shows up in comments, because I’d really like to ask him that one question.

Here’s his other point.

Secondly, the Lord doesn’t work via secular proofs because that would confound the primary principle of agency. While there are evidences that support religious convictions, there are no intellectually decisive proofs, and there will always be evidences that conflict with our beliefs

Non-LDS philosophers have argued that in order for us to have spiritual freedom — freedom to make choices — God cannot allow us to know — by secular proof alone — that he exists.

If humans had incontrovertible secular evidence for the existence of God, they would be unable to freely choose whether or not to accept God.

So God exists, but he’s not going to give any evidence. And then when I don’t believe in him, he’s going to punish me for not believing in him despite the lack of evidence. If that’s the case, then he values ignorance over knowledge, which is not the kind of being I’d want to worship.

There’s something odd about Ash’s post. Take another look at his two reasons for not giving evidence.

Point 1: If you gave someone evidence, they could still just reject it.
Point 2: If you gave someone evidence, it would destroy their agency because they’d be unable to reject it.

So which is it? Can someone reject evidence, or can’t they? He’s rested his case on two points that contradict each other.

Is this really the best the Mormon Times can do?

It’s a miracle! Always.

I thought I’d post this handy guide before the inevitable miraculous claims that seem to follow every horrendous tragedy.

Either they deserved it, or they’re in heaven now. Isn’t the divine plan amazing?

Everyone worships the same god — ours.

Shorter Dan Peterson:

Atheists wonder why we Mormons think our god is the right god, while everyone else’s god is the wrong god. But in fact everyone really worships our god, which is the right god. When people find out they’ve been worshipping the wrong god (which is actually the right god), I have it on good authority that the right god will give them a pass.

How terribly condescending. I wonder if he’d be just as happy to admit that he worships Allah.

And what about polytheism?

‘Moroni’s promise’ still not evidence

I can’t do much better than profxm’s takedown of this drivel from the Mormon Times. A guy named Lane Williams bemoans the fact that some journalists have decided that atheism is interesting and worth writing about.

As disappointing as it is to say this, reporters may not be able to do much better than provide a balanced conduit for atheists in the modern world we live in.

Dontcha hate when that happens? I mean, balance? But have no fear — since journalists are providing a ‘balanced conduit’, he’s going to use his journalistic influence to unbalance the balance, or something like that.

So my point today, really, isn’t so much about reporters; my point is to use the opinion format of this blog to take a public stand because so few news reporters can or do so.

Way to go, Lane. That’s what journalists should do — argue their side, regardless of how true or well-supported it is. And here’s where things go awry.

Mormonism’s last evidence sits in the power of the Holy Ghost that comes to the hearts and minds of those who seek God through earnest, submissive prayer and faithful action. It is an “experiment” successfully repeated millions of times around the world.

Prayer is not any kind of experiment. As I’ve pointed out, it relies on bad sampling, since everyone who doesn’t get a revelation is either struck from the sample, or told to repeat the experiment until they get the “right” answer. Test subjects are told what emotions to expect, so bias enters the picture. And so on.

You can’t use a ‘holy ghost’ to confirm the existence of a god. They’re part of the same story! That’s what you’re trying to ascertain. It’s like saying “I know Santa Claus exists because I prayed to him, and one of his reindeer told me.”

Millions of Mormons, including me, would say that God answers prayers because of their own experiences with the Holy Ghost and prayer. Therein lies our evidence that God lives. I assume other religious believers feel much the same way.

That’s part of the problem. Many other religious believers feel the same way… about their mutually incompatible, multiply conflicting religious claims! Anyone who knows about science has heard that anecdotal evidence is not data. And notice the bandwagon fallacy. If this is the best Mormonism can do, they’d better give up their scientific pretensions.

Then he says, in a hushed voice, deep with portent, “I know.”

I study Shakespeare and have many books that have inspired me for years, but when I read the Book of Mormon for the 30th time or so and experience a deep, almost mysterious reassurance no other book has come close to giving me amid trial, I know.

I have experienced many joys of human interaction at holidays and in evening activities, but when I experience the quiet, soul power of priesthood blessing called down on a dark night, I know.

I am only one flawed journalist, but in the midst of the atheism debate that Gervais and others continue in our public space, I must say something. I know.

No, you do not know. You’re just certain. There is a difference. Even if your claims were coincidentally 100% right, you still would not know that they were true. Knowledge does not come from intuition or feelings. Knowledge comes from observation of real-world phenomena. And this kind of evidence is nowhere to be found.

This is my beef with religion and supernaturalism. It is such a lazy way of thinking (or not thinking). You take your own beliefs and preconceptions, and just assert them over and over again without trying to back them up with any real evidence. You get to feel all spiritual and believing. But it stops you from learning anything.

The Provo Tabernacle died for your sins

The Provo Tabernacle burned down. It’s a real shame. I went to church there a couple of times in my Utah days, and I remember it as a good old building. It would have made a nice library in 100 years.

One might wonder, of course, why the Mormon god would allow a church building to be destroyed by fire as he watches, pitiless and indifferent to human affairs. One might even wonder what message he intends to send. Perhaps an Old-Testament-style message of anger and vengeance! The fire and destruction symbolic of the wrath to come. A Mormon might get a sense of divine disapproval, and that would never do.

But wait! It’s a Christmas miracle!

As the four-alarm fire raged at the Provo Tabernacle, firefighters and those watching helplessly from the sidewalk observed something truly remarkable. Some are even calling it “a Christmas miracle.”

A painting of Jesus Christ burned in the fire, save for the image of the son of God [yes, that was the wording chosen by Fox News], which was left unscathed.

Yep, the church burning down isn’t the real takeaway here. It’s the painting. That’s the ticket.

This is the Argument from Incomplete Devastation, one of many ways to creatively interpret events in order to sustain a narrative that you already believe. Religious folk are quick to use this one because in the face of disaster, there are only two possible outcomes — either your faith is boosted, or your faith is boosted more. You have to admire their optimism, at least.

Here’s the scorched painting. Coming soon to a fireside near you.

Wait a minute! Forget about Jesus — that outline around it looks strangely familiar! Could it be the hunched figure of…


Michael R. Ash concedes, and then misses, the point

I haven’t commented on Mormon apologist Michael R. Ash’s stuff for a while, for the simple reason that when someone’s wanking, it’s rude to interrupt. But he’s been going on like that for quite a while, and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself. He’s been covering the Book of Mormon bit by bit, and it’s the same old tactic Mopologists have always used: rather than find evidence for religious claims, just cast about for a nearest match, and say that this shows the claim is ‘plausible’. For example, Ash thinks the Tree of Life metaphor is plausible because early people used the same metaphor. (Really? Ancient people knew about trees?) Or look around for features of ancient boats for a nearest match so you can validate Jaredite barges. Find an NHM inscription somewhere, and try to match it to ‘Nahom’. As long as it looks close enough to something out there, you can claim a match, coincidence be damned.

But lately, he’s been writing about the Tower of Babel. Ah, Babel. It was one thing that did Mormonism in for me, as I’ve recounted here. The short version: The T of B presents a special problem for Mormons. It’s a myth about why there are different languages, but Mormons can’t really play it off as a myth because the author of the Book of Mormon wrote into it a character (the Brother of Jared) who was ostensibly at the Tower at that time. If you concede that Babel’s a myth, then the Book of Mormon can’t be taken completely literally, and this makes for shaky ground for Mormons.

I’ll be addressing the problems with Babel from a linguistic perspective in a later post. For now, let’s just point out that Mike Ash concedes that the Tower story might be mythical…

it’s possible that the confounding of tongues is an aetiological myth or legend that attempts to explain the divergence of languages. Anciently, such traditions were passed from generation to generation and, in a pre-scientific era, were never questioned for historical or scientific accuracy.

…but fails to see why that is a problem for the Book of Mormon.

While some believers may prefer either a literal or mythological approach to this topic, we should be careful to understand that a mythological approach doesn’t mean that the Nephites were fictitious. Ancient histories and scriptures can contain mythical elements as well as actual history.

Let me explain: If something is a ‘myth’, then that means ‘it didn’t happen’. So if your book claims that literal people were there for that event, then it’s wrong.

Not for Ash.

We don’t have the brother of Jared’s personal journal. We have Joseph’s translation (which was dictated in King James vernacular) of Moroni’s abridgment of Mosiah’s translation of Ether’s long-after-the-fact traditions. Perhaps the tower saga was part of the Jaredite lore which Ether interpreted according to his cultural heritage and recorded on his plates.

Ancient redactors (or abridgers) — which include Moroni and Mormon — were editors who often added to or adjusted elements to fit their view of the story or to square with the conclusions they were attempting to project.

Redacted by Mormon and Moroni? Well, what did they know? They were only prophets! They weren’t as smart as Mike.

In other words, even if he’s right, and if the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, its message is still just a fourth- or fifth-hand account through a string of biased and uncomprehending middlemen. Which is convenient for Ash, because then he has a lot of latitude to massage the text into whatever he wants. But it opens the question of why anyone should believe such a muddle to be a factual record at all. I hope Mormons are paying attention, because what Ash is showing is that you have to dismantle the Book of Mormon in order to defend it.

But this Babel blunder does not weaken the Book of Mormon’s veracity in Ash’s estimation at all. Of course not. On the contrary, it actually strengthens it.

If the Book of Mormon was written by real ancient people it should contain ancient mythological elements.

See how it works? The more mistakes, the truer it gets! Let’s see if we can take it farther: Real people make mistakes, and real people lie. If the Book of Mormon contains mistakes and lies, that just proves that it was written by real people!

Real people from the 1800s, that is.

Doesn’t do much, does he?

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