The Core Arguments of Mormon Neo-Apologists

As of late, I have been spending some time studying the core arguments of several Mormon neo-apologists including Richard Bushman, Terryl and Fiona Givens, Patrick Mason, Thomas McConkie, Spencer Fluhman, Adam Miller, and Phil Barlow.

In an attempt to understand their arguments better, and to distill their arguments into a single document, I have made the following notes.  I have tried to convey their writings as accurately, fairly and charitably as possible.

I’d love your feedback.

Why I Remain an Active Member of the Church:

  1. The LDS Church is imperfect, but all organizations are imperfect.  If your standard is perfection, you will never be a member of any organization.  Some people expect the church to be 99% divine and 1% human.  In reality, the opposite is true.  The church is 99% human/flawed.
  2. In spite of the weaknesses, there is much good in the LDS Church, and consequently much value in remaining a member (e.g., profound scripture, solid morals, good people, strong community, opportunities to serve, a solid institutional structure)
  3. Mormonism is fundamentally Christian, and Christianity (belief in Christ and His teachings) is a good thing.  Mormonism connects me to Christ, and helps me be a better Christian.
  4. Mormonism is a religion, and religions are generally good things to belong to.   It is good to believe in God, and it is good to belong to an organization that encourages/nurtures deep spiritual practice.
  5. Even the bad/difficult/painful things about the LDS Church present opportunities for personal growth and development.
  6. Staying active in the LDS Church gives you power/ability/capital to make things better for those inside (e.g., protect children, support LGBTQ individuals, empower women, combat racism).
  7. Religious differences (exclusive truth claims) are far less important than the principles that unite all religions (e.g., love, kindness, charity, community).  Those should be the focus.
  8. Mormonism does not have a monopoly on truth.  The core Mormon principle of “continuing revelation” is an acknowledgment that the church is imperfect, and will continue to change/improve.  Things will keep getting better.
  9. There are some distinctive Mormon beliefs (e.g., we can become Gods some day) that differentiate us in important ways.
  10. We have exclusive authority to perform saving priesthood ordinances.  That is one of our most unique contributions to humanity.
  11. All of the problems with the church are intentional (by God) – they provide opportunities for faith.  If everything was easy and whole and logical and good – there would be no need for faith.  Challenge to faith and cognitive dissonance lead to stronger, more mature faith.
  12. All problems with the church are the fault of imperfect men and women.  This includes prophets, which have been deeply flawed since the very beginning (Old Testament).  Moses killed a man.  Noah got drunk.  Abraham lied about his wife.  Jonah ran away from God.  Etc.
  13. Testimonies should be rooted in Christ, not Joseph Smith.
  14. In all our studies, we’ve never found a “smoking gun.”  In fact, our studies have strengthened and deepened our faith.  The imperfections are what makes the church rich and beautiful.
  15. Much of our problems with scriptural historicity or prophetic fallibility revolve more around our unrealistic expectations for scripture and prophets.  We expect too much from both.
  16. What it ultimately comes down to:
    1. I still feel inspired that the Church is good/true, and/or called to remain a part of it.
    2. The benefits of church membership far outweigh the costs/disadvantages.
    3. Mormonism has made me a better person, and has made others better too.

Book of Abraham:

  1. The Book of Abraham is not a translated text.  It is a revealed/inspired text.
  2. This means that Joseph didn’t fully understand what he was doing when he produced the text, but this is ok too.  Joseph wasn’t perfect.
  3. The papyrus was a catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive revelation.
  4. I see no evidence that Joseph Smith was trying to fool anyone with the Book of Abraham.
  5. The focus should be on the inspiration that the text brings to people’s lives, not on the text’s origins.

Kinderhook Plates:

  1. This is an example of Joseph being overly exuberant after his experiences with the Book of Abraham.  He got carried away.  But it was not a conscious fraud.
  2. Joseph was fooled in this instance, but prophets are imperfect.
  3. The “translations” never went anywhere.  They were never used in any meaningful way.  So they don’t really matter.

The Book of Mormon:

  1. No smoking gun condemning the Book of Mormon has ever been discovered.
  2. The Book of Mormon is too powerful, complex/sophisticated, and beautiful for Joseph Smith to have written it on his own.
  3. The Book of Mormon is a revelation, not a translation.  The plates were not really used, other than as a catalyst for inspiration, much like the papyri with the Book of Abraham.
  4. The Book of Mormon contains 19th century content because Joseph’s revelatory process included his own thoughts/feelings/experiences placed into the mix.  ALL prophesy is imperfect in this way, and includes the biases of the prophet (who acts as a medium).
  5. Some of the flaws in the Book of Mormon can be attributed to errors made by the original authors and editors of the book.  It was clearly a complex process to take Hebrew ideas, write them down in Reformed Egyptian, and then to have them abridged by Moroni, and then translated (or revealed) by Joseph.  LOTS of human error would have been introduced throughout that process.
  6. As with the Book of Abraham, what’s most important about the Book of Mormon is the content, how it transforms the lives of those who study it, and how it brings people closer to Jesus Christ.  Focusing on its origins and historicity completely misses the mark.
  7. The book itself acknowledges that it has errors, and is as flawed as the people who brought it into being.  Why would we expect it to be more than it claims to be?
  8. Part of the reason the Book of Mormon remains a complex mystery is that God requires us to live by faith, and so the evidence proving the Book of Mormon as true will NEVER be provided, or God’s plan requiring faith will be thwarted.  In addition, cognitive dissonance can be an engine for growth/progress/development if engaged.
  9. Even if the Book of Mormon isn’t historical (or fully historical), beautiful/powerful scripture can be still non-historical (e.g., the Book of Job)

Polygamy/Polyandry:

  1. Polygamy is definitely unsettling.  Especially in the way Joseph practiced it.  Joseph definitely misled Emma, the Saints, and the general public in his practice of it. He also sometimes pressured women and their families to practice it, potentially abusing his authority, and employing spiritual coercion.
  2. In some sense, God put Joseph in a difficult position.  He was commanded to practice polygamy, but he rightly feared for his safety/life to be open/honest about it.
  3. God often gave Joseph commandments, but did not clarify how to carry out the commandments.  This is how error was introduced.
  4. Polygamy could have been a mistake.  Polyandry was likely a mistake.  But again, prophets are capable of mistakes, even really big ones.  This is part of the miracle of the restoration (that God can work through imperfect people), vs. a condemnation of the restoration.
  5. Joseph Smith’s Polygamy is not reducible to Joseph’s desire for sexual gratification.  Firstly, there are much easier ways to be sexually gratified.  Secondly, there was clearly a desire on Joseph’s part to seal families together in one unbroken chain.
  6. In modern times we have a distaste for polygamy, but that is a monogamy bias.  Most historical civilizations have been polygamous, and to some extent we unfairly misjudge polygamy due to this monogamy bias.
  7. Much good came from polygamy, including many high-level church leaders, and many stalwart members.
  8. Joseph’s practice of polygamy should not be “lumped in” with post-Nauvoo polygamy, since Joseph was not practicing domestic polygamy (i.e., living with the women who were his plural wives).  Again, Joseph’s focus was on the sealings, not on the raising of families.
  9. In the case of Helen Mar Kimball (14 years old), we can’t place all the blame on Joseph Smith.  In her case, it was Helen’s parents who requested that she be married to Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith’s Character:

  1. Joseph was flawed, but Biblical prophets were deeply flawed, and in some sense we are all flawed.
  2. Joseph’s failings/flaws are actually inspiring, because they teach us that God can work with deeply flawed people.
  3. Joseph Smith did not display the traits of a “con man.”  Joseph was rarely (if ever) trying to intentionally fool people.
  4. In the church we worship Jesus, not Joseph.  We celebrate Christmas, not Smithmas.

Racism:

  1. Prophets and scripture are fallible.
  2. God allows us to make mistakes.
  3. We’re doing better.  We fixed many of the problems, and will continue to improve.

LGBTQ Issues:

  1. Have patience.  This is another example of where the church is making mistakes, but we are improving, and we will “get it right” in time.
  2. Difficult options like celibacy and mixed-orientation marriages offer opportunities for deep spiritual growth.

Gender Equality:

  1. Have patience.  This is another example of where the church is making mistakes, but we are improving, and we will “get it right” in time.
  2. Equality does not need to entail “sameness.”  There can be equal status/worth with differing roles/responsibilities.

Comments 1

  1. Response from a “healed secular non-theist ‘spiritual’ ex-Mormon” (*who will be a bit straightforward in some cases… but not outwardly rude)

    Why I Remain an Active Member of the Church:

    1. The LDS church is 0% divine and 100% man made. When the leadership and membership of the church grow the self-awareness to realise that God is not the author of a portion of their thoughts and feelings, then the church would have taken a massive step towards modernity. Naturally, this might actually happen, but it’ll take maybe 100-200 years. This applies to all other religions as well. A peaceful world awaits us when we stop thinking God is sporadically inserting thoughts into the narrative of our minds. That said, it is 100% fair to expect non-perfection.

    2. There is much good in the LDS church. There is also plenty of nonsense, and harmful ideas. Weed out the latter, and it will be a better religion — one that might more better deserve the goodness of her membership.

    3. Mormonism being Christian is a great put-off for secular people. Mormonism, like Christianity, needs to outgrow Christianity.

    4. It’s not necessarily good to believe in (the LDS version of) God. However, spiritual practice is a great thing and very much lacked in modern secular life.

    5. True. Agreed. This can be said of any bad thing in one’s life.

    6. True. Good on the people who are part of this group. But leaving in an outward way also puts (arguably more) pressure on the church to change, that should also be acknowledged.

    7. 100% agreed. But I’ll go even further; shed the naivety of exclusive truth claims, and focus entirely on principles, and that’ll be a religion I’ll attend every Sunday.

    8. Things will keep getting better, but so far they’ve been for all the wrong reasons. Mormonism and other religions have been left behind the curve of modernity and are being dragged forward. It’ll take a lot to switch that to leading the way.

    9. These are fictional.

    10. These are fictional.

    11. “God” has nothing to do with the problems in the church.

    12. We should not be holding these “prophets” up as examples then should we! Modelling abuse, dishonesty, etc.

    13. Root your beliefs in evidence, empiricism, reason, rationality, and science. Root your moral beliefs in philosophy and ethics.

    14. This is due to lack of self-awareness. There are plenty of smoking guns, but it takes something special in a person to genuinely answer the question “what if I was wrong?” “what if I didn’t win the worldview lottery?” “what if the religion I was born into (or encountered) wasn’t the lucky one in a million?”. Answering those questions honestly significantly affects what is and isn’t a smoking gun for you. Cognitive dissonance is strong.

    15. Our expectations are reasonable, if we truly believed the grand and perfect creator of the universe were working through these individuals. Hence, their behaviour is evidence that this is not the case.

    16. I don’t!

    Book of Abraham:

    1-3. BoA is fictional delusions. It’s as clear as day that JS had no idea what he was doing.

    4. However, agreed with this point. I don’t think JS was, per say, trying to deceive anyone.

    5. What inspiration does BoA bring exactly? Ancient cosmology? If one does not believe in Gods and Spirits, then BoA becomes quite … weird… and boring!!

    Kinderhook Plates:

    1. No. This is a very clear trend with JS, BoM, BoA, Kinderhook plates, can no-one see the parallels? In 2/3 cases we have the original manuscripts (or portions) and they clearly do not have any relationship with the results of the “divine translation” at all. One has to do veritable mental backflips to make all of this work.

    2. In every instance, there was only his mind and his ideas; which turned out to be delusional.

    3. Much of early Mormon writings have been buried. JoD (Journal of Discourses) fits into this category.

    The Book of Mormon:

    1. “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”. The burden of proof is on Mormonism to prove the BoM narrative. No objectively verifiable proof has been produced. (*subjective religious experiences are another topic, and still do not prove the BoM and are very inconsistent).

    2. Or, we underestimate his mind. Look at L. Ron Hubbard. The human mind can do incredible things.

    3-4. Regardless of “translation” or “revelation”, there’s no supporting evidence.

    5. “Most correct book on the earth, cornerstone of our religion”

    6. There are a few good ideas here and there in the book. But those can be found elsewhere, with much more clarity and effect. It’s really, not such an amazing book.

    7. “Most correct book on the earth, cornerstone of our religion” – engendered by the creator of the universe.

    8. The resemblances between the Mormon version of God and the Mormon leadership are quite striking.

    9. Sure, fictional works can be inspirational.

    Polygamy/Polyandry:

    1. A mature admission. It’s wonderful that people are saying this.

    2-4. The LDS God — again — abusive, strange, unclear, imprecise, weird. This is the grand creator of the universe we’re talking about here – not the best of communicators it seems.

    5. Perhaps yes.

    6. Yes, interesting that this is from apologists.

    7. Depends how you define “good”! Good for the growth of the LDS church? Yes.

    8. Read point 6, then point 8. These unnecessarily clash. This is a great example of how if you consider apologist arguments in the aggregate they do not form a coherent narrative.

    9. … not relevant if you consider point 6 again.

    Joseph Smith’s Character:

    1. We are all flawed. But do we hold such deep flaws up as divinely inspired prophets? Most of the membership of the LDS church somehow are way less flawed than this.

    2. His reaction to his own flaws is not inspiring. It did not show self-awareness, thoughtfulness, consideration, etc. There are much better examples of flawed people doing their best and being vulnerable about their flaws.

    3. I actually agree with this point. I think JS truly breathed in his own stories (like many religious founders)

    4. Haha! Either way you’re worshipping a man.

    Racism

    1. Yup

    2. There’s that “God” thing again…

    3. This is true, and should be acknowledged

    LGBTQ Issues:

    1. It is true that this is gradually improving. Give it 50-100 years we’ll be in a way better place (gays being sealed in the temple etc.)

    2. OOOO, this is a tough/deep point and very relevant point. This kind of spirituality is abusive. It is true that religious experiences can sometimes sprout from the well of pain that sits deep within due to abuses. Consistently “submitting” to a “dominant” figure is capable of creating spiritual types of emotions. But these are not sustainable or healthy, there are far more healthy forms of spirituality than this. Finally, the cognitive dissonance works in favour of the LDS church, creating more “sunk cost”, hence more “faith”.

    Gender Equality:

    1. Yup, it will improve

    2. Yup, fair point.

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