Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why I don't like apologetics

The Greek term "ἀπολογία"/"apologia" means "speaking in defense", or more specifically, "to defend something by making an excuse for it." The idea of speaking in defense of something suggests that the thing is right and true to start with, and the counter-proposition is false.

Thus, "apologetics", by very definition, starts with a position that a received religious position is true, and everything is as it should be. There is no quest for truth here, there is only a combative stance: to defend the received position with whatever means possible.  "Good" apologetics, if there is such a thing, tries to defend with logic and reason.  However, most apologetics, especially that practiced by Mormons in their attempt to defend the indefensible, are not characterized by reason or logic.

Good apologetics start with a thorough investigation of the facts, with an eye to defend, but not to deny facts that that are reasonably justified. In Mormon spheres, Brian Hales comes to mind, whose work on polygamy is very good. He still betrays huge confirmation bias in his conclusions, but at least he seeks honesty as to his facts.  In the Mormon world, he represents the best of apologetics, and is rare.

However, facts get in the way of defense, especially when facts are inconvenient.  I don't think there are many apologists anywhere that try to defend a "young earth" theory of creation, although the Bible is pretty clear on that.  One can always say that the Bible was written so long ago, that the ideas of time and space may not have been fully understood; so such things can be set aside as, well, not literally the case.  Defending biblical texts, and the historicity of biblical accounts has become as well a bit difficult, but then again, these events happened long ago, so any evidence to the contrary of the existence of Abraham or Moses, or what exactly Jesus said, is anyone's guess.  Apologists can defend, because there aren't many facts to the contrary.

Mormonism suffers from a different problem.  The founding events of Mormonism are very recent compared to events in the Bible.  What people said and did is much more accessible in historical accounts -- there are many "facts" about how Mormonism started -- many more facts than exist for Christianity in general.  And, not all these facts favor the received accounts.

Mormons grow up with a sanitized view of Mormon history -- very much made "holy" so as to promote "faith".  This might work well if the person lived 2000 years or so ago, but when modern history is sanitized, there are enough contemporaneous accounts to reveal the unsantized account to somebody.  And today, with the availability of the Internet and wide dissemination of information, the sordid facts of Mormon history, the origin of its doctrines, and the nature of its practices and rules are readily available to anyone who wants to look.

But Mormons are told not to look -- this is Rule #1 of Mormon apologetics.  Don't read that "anti-Mormon" literature -- it's all lies.  Except, that now that real live historians have had a chance to discover the inconvenient facts, Mormon apologists, the self-appointed defenders and interpreters of Mormon scripture, can avoid the bullet of the facts.

So they changed their strategy.  Today, a number of LDS apologists no longer attempt to create mind-numbing propositions to defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  Instead, they seek to discredit and smear anyone the temerity to point out these facts to believing members.  They poison the well of anyone who attempted critical investigation into church claims, by attempting to demonstrate that the person who is pointing out the facts is an anti-Mormon apostate, a "Wolf in sheep's clothing", or an Antichrist.. This tactic to label and smear their perceived enemies taints the entire Mormon apologetic profession.

Once a critic or historian has been labeled as "unworthy", then Rule #1 kicks in.

Oh this should not be so.  I grew up in the LDS church, in what was called the "Mission Field" where our LDS faith was something we cherished against a very non-LDS society.  We valued the idea that Joseph Smith and others who founded this religion were about restoring the "truth" of the gospel.  I learned from my LDS parents that should not be afraid of truth in the least.  J Reuben Clark, a prominent LDS Apostle and leader, said, "If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed."

To me, the Gospel of Jesus Christ starts with a quest for truth Alma called "Faith", then moves quickly to an open and inclusive understanding and relationship with Christ as the very "I AM", the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

What does "Faith" have to do with "Truth"?  To me, Faith is the epistemic Middle Way between knowing something is true and knowing something is false.  Faith is "not knowing".  Paul speaks of Faith as being the evidence of things not seen.  In our LDS scripture, we have a prophet Alma speaking about faith as being this:
Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.  (Alma 32:21)

This begins a discourse by Alma about faith, where he presents faith as an "epistemic" -- or a way of figuring out how to "know" something.  This realm of "epistemology" is critical to belief, and as Joseph Smith once said that the very first principle of the Gospel was faith, so also does all learning and philosophy begin with the "First Principle" of epistemology.  And well should it be the First Principle: "Epistemology" -- the study of "knowledge" comes directly from the Greek "πίστις", pistis, which means "Faith", and not "knowledge".  Hence, the first principle of all of our investigations should be to understand how we come to know things, reject things, and maintain an open mound about that which is in the Middle.  The epistemic Middle Way is thus "Faith".

Hence, according to Alma, faith does not start from a position of confidence or certainty. It starts with a desire to believe in something, and then to practice and experiment to explore that thing with an open mind (do not cast out for unbelief). Action is involved. And the outcome could to cast the seed away, not because of disbelief, but because the seed is not good. This negative aspect of Faith is never discussed in apologetics or in the church. yet it is right there in the Book of Mormon: "Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away." (Alma 32:32)

But let's say that the seed is good, and it bears good fruit. The typical missionary response is that this means that the entire belief structure is good and true. I read the book of Mormon, i ponder it, i pray about it, and voila! i feel good about it. This means, according to our "all or nothing, all true or all fraud" proposition, that every aspect of the book of Mormon is also true, that it is authentic history (why would god lie?), that Joseph Smith never committed fraud and was a true prophet (why would god pick a con-man for a prophet), and the Salt Lake church is true (god promised that this restoration would never be taken from the earth).

I don't think that I am exaggerating to say that this inductive method of asserting the truth of the church is based and dependent on a spiritual experience -- a good feeling -- about the Book of Mormon.

This position of asserted certainty is at the heart of Mormon apologetics. The credibility of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's integrity must be defended at all costs, lest the entire assertive truth of the church falls.

The problem is the inductive leap from a good feeling to an acceptance of the aggregate factuality of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the Church is a horrifying example of fallacy by induction. Ironically, the Book of Mormon itself warns against such a leap:

"And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; ... now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge (of the whole tree) perfect? ... Nay, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good." (Alma 32:33-36)

If I read the Book of Mormon and have a spiritual experience with it, what does that mean? What seed am I planting? What does the plant I planted look like? Does my spiritual experience prove historical factuality? I have read Les Miserables, the Lord of the Rings, and many ancient Chinese myths, I have felt powerful experiences with them. My most powerful experience was reading Chapter 17 of Lao Tzu. Should I assert that Victor Hugo, JRR Tolkien, or Lao Tzu were prophets of God because I am inspired by them? (actually, I think they were, in a way) Did there have to be a real person named Jean Valjean? Bilbo Baggins? Do I have to accept the legend of Lao Tzu reciting his 5,000 characters of the Dao De Jing to the keeper at the Gate?

Of course not. Who would ever claim that I need to believe some prophetic calling of Hugo and Tolkien or some bogus origin story of Lao Tzu to realize that divine words are everywhere.

Yet to up the stakes, Mormon apologists have demanded that the only acceptable interpretation of the book of Mormon is a literal one. Those who leave the church accurately say that the church, writ large, insists on a literal interpretation of the Book of Mormon. The time has come that the evidence against the Book of Mormon as authentic history is conclusive -- it is only a matter of time before every LDS will learn of the facts. Many LDS will stubbornly ignore the evidence, being justified by the mental gymnastics and complete disregard for logic embodied by FAIR's apologists.

Yet for an entire rising generation of people entering adulthood, for those who are willing to look on the internet, and even read the LDS gospel topics, the facts are inescapable, and the literalized methods of FAIR do far more harm than good. At this point, there are no good tools, acceptable by the church, that helps people embrace the spiritual value of the Book of Mormon, divorced from its literalism.

By purporting to providing the answers to the factual issues in the Church, and only being able to discredit logically reasonable explanations, FAIR does much more harm than good.

1 comment:

  1. How can FAIR do more harm than good if you're abiding by your own standards to read EVERYTHING on a subject? defends the LDS theology of plural marriage (but I would never say we "apologize" for it). And a decade ago, when I was trying to come to grips with it some of the best resources were anti-Mormon publications because they didn't attempt to whitewash the truth. What happened though, was that the truth shone through their attempts to villify Joseph Smith and the practice of plural marriage that he had restored. Read everything...but carefully...and I would also add: with faith that there is a glorious purpose and design behind everything instituted by God. Question everything with the intent to understand, but don't doubt everything. Jesus never condemned anyone for believing too much, only doubting.