Tuesday, September 4, 2012


I have been wrestling with a few topics over the past few days. And by "wrestle" I mean I can't decide which topic to comment on first. So, let's start with a fairly easy one: mormonthink.com. This is a great resource for those interested in a different perspective on the Mormon Church. The site is a collaborative effort from many people, some active Mormons, some former Mormons, and some unaffiliated critics. The primary purpose is to present as many perspectives on controversial topics concerning the founding of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon as possible.

I understand that some active Mormons would opt to not view the site as they may be exposed to "anti-Mormon literature" (aka "anything which sheds an unfavorable light onto Mormonism"). To this I say, the truth has nothing to hide. What does your refusal to read anything contrary to your point of view say about your character (or your point of view)? If your beliefs are true, then a thorough examination--even by critics--should affirm your views. Avoidance of sensitive topics only breeds speculation and ignorance.

Now that I have that throat-clearing out of the way (cough), let's get into the meat of Mormon Think. The site has some great information on the founding of the Church and I highly recommend you check out their stuff, but what really interests me are the scientific challenges of the Church.

Martin Harris was one of Joseph Smith's scribes for the Book of Mormon and one of Smith's greatest supporters, as shown in the following clip from South Park:

I don't want you to take this clip too seriously as a historically accurate account, but it does illustrate Harris' loyalty to Smith, and more to the point, how Mormons can spin events to appear more favorable to their Church. This is very common, not just for Mormons. I recall another such incident involving Harris which I was taught in church which has similarly been twisted as a faith-building story.

The story goes that Martin Harris had transcribed some of the characters from the Book of Mormon onto a paper and had them verified by a collegiate linguist, Charles Anthon, who allegedly "stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I [Harris] then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct."

Harris' account continues that Anthon inquired about where the characters came from and Harris admitted to him that an angel had given Joseph Smith gold plates with an ancient record written in reformed Egyptian. Anthon then withdrew his previous statement, tore up the certificate and denounced the supernatural explanation offered by Harris. According to Mormons, this story illustrates the oppression of the Church by scholars (as predicted in Isaiah) who seem to have had a vested interest in denouncing Smith as a fraud, instead of admitting he was divinely inspired. This was standard procedure for Mormons whenever anyone came out against Smith (for fraud, treasure hunting, etc.) denouncing such claims as slander from the wicked. But Mr. Anthon did not slander Smith or Harris based on his account, which you can read here. Anthon simply claimed that Smith was taking advantage of the gullible Harris, and called Mormons "fanatics." Given the circumstances, who can blame him?

This is neither here nor there, however, since we still have the paper with the writings of "reformed Egyptian" from the Book of Mormon (see left). And what do current scholars say about it? It is nonsensical gibberish.

Even if Harris was telling the truth about Anthon tearing up the certificate in a fit of anti-superstitious rage, we can examine the characters today and see if they really are "Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic" characters, as claimed. Modern-day Egyptologists clearly say the characters are fake, or in the words of Egyptologist Klaus Baer, "doodlings." Furthermore, since the characters are not authentic, any claims by Harris that Anthon said they were translated correctly are either false on the part of Harris or Anthon didn't know what he was talking about. However, Anthon's account that the characters "consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns ... containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways" seems consistent with the views of modern scholars, therefore, it seems Harris was the one being dum dum dum dum dum.

This is not an isolated case. There are other accounts of Joseph Smith attempting to translate ancient texts and failing miserably. Arguably, the most important instance of Smith's failure as a translator is the one that actually made it into Mormon scripture. The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price (part of the the Mormon canon) is claimed to be a translation by Joseph Smith of facsimiles found on some ancient papyri (see left). According to Smith, this picture depicts Abraham being sacrificed in Egypt and an angel saving him. The jars below the altar are idols of various Egyptian gods. And what does this facsimile actually depict according to real scholars? Embalming. Yup, that's it. It is a picture of a man named Hor being prepared for burial. And the idols of Egyptian gods beneath the "altar" are, in fact, idols of gods, just not the gods Smith claimed. There are more examples on Mormon Think, and again, I highly recommend checking out their stuff.

Do I think any of this will de-convert active, believing Mormons? No. I had heard about the contradictions of the facsimiles before I left the Church and I recall my attitude of "well, we don't know how it all works, but it does, because the Church is true." It is shallow and intellectually dishonest to hold such a view. But many hold it, and it seems to be the very basis of religious apologetics.

Mormon groups like fairlds.org and the Neil A Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship are similarly dishonest and are engaged in the most biased form of pseudo-science. They start with the conclusion that the Mormon Church is true and then seek out information to affirm this and explain away through the most dizzying of spin tactics anything which might discredit the Church. They are neither fair, nor scholarly.


Here is Mormon apostle Jeffrey R. Holland (whom I met once outside of a men's room in Eastern Europe--no joke) claiming that the Book of Mormon is true while denouncing all the arguments I gave above in one fell swoop of pathos. Tell me, which is more compelling, an appeal to emotion and a claim that Joseph would not die for a lie, or actual scholarly criticism? Do you agree with Mr Holland that the arguments I offered above or others offered on Mormon Think are "frankly pathetic answers?" Is believing Joseph's story because "there is no other answer" anything less than an argument from ignorance?

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