By Dustin Phelps
Not too long ago, Britt and I were eating dinner with a family member when she proceeded to tell us that she was seriously struggling with doubts about the Church. She told us that she and her husband had stopped attending Church meetings a year earlier and that she didn’t know if she would be able to look past the things she had heard about Church history. We tried to share some of our thoughts and experiences, but she didn’t seem interested in hearing what we had to say. Their struggle was heartbreaking for us to see, but, unfortunately, we know many others like them.
If you are like us, you also have multiple friends, family members, and acquaintances who have struggled deeply with doubts and maybe even left the Church.
And after seeing so many good people struggle, Britt and I have decided to do something about it. You see, there are many people who want to believe, but after learning seemingly disconcerting things about Church history, they are unable to work past their doubts.
Too many have been driven from the Church, not because they were looking for a reason to go, but because they happened upon information that they couldn’t reconcile with their faith nor simply ignore.
I personally know what it’s like to struggle with understanding how certain historical realities fit into the story of the Restoration. I also have many ex-Mormon friends, and I’ll bet I’m familiar with just about every anti-Mormon argument in the book. And yet, I’m a Mormon through and through.
I hope that by sharing what I have learned through both faith and reason, someone who is struggling might find strength and perhaps a few who have left the fold might find their way back.
This article (the first in a series of related articles) will attempt to undermine the logical power that anti-Mormon arguments falsely appear to have. The reason I start with a logical approach is because anti-Mormon thought can be so seemingly convincing that some people lose the disposition to exercise faith in God. This may sound strange because you may have had experiences exercising faith in the midst of doubts. But for others it is not so easy. For those who have been convinced that Joseph Smith is some kind of crook or criminal, sincere prayers and scripture study is unthinkable.
So, I write this article hoping that by demonstrating the logical weaknesses of anti-Mormon arguments, someone in this situation will regain the opportunity to exercise a particle of faith.
Consider the following reasons that anti-Mormon arguments are not as convincing as they appear to be:
1. Negative Evidence Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Many intellectuals argue that “negative evidence” is supreme. To understand what they mean by this, consider the hypothesis that “all swans are white.” According to these intellectuals, it doesn’t matter how many white swans you find, you never really prove that “all” swans are white. However, as soon as you find one black swan, you have disproved the theory that “all swans are white.” They conclude that positive evidence doesn’t ever really prove anything, but negative evidence can. And it’s easy to see why they think that way.
This is the approach that some ex-Mormons have taken to their faith. In the face of unsettling information, they disregard all of the positive evidence because they think that a few points of negative evidence is sufficient to end the discussion. And given how logical the above reasoning seems to be, it is no wonder why.
But they are still wrong.
To understand why, consider another example. After first discovering the planet Uranus, astronomers attempted to predict its orbit by using Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of physics. They could observe the orbit of Uranus with their own eyes, but when they used Newton’s mathematical models to predict that orbit, they failed time and again.
It made no sense. Newton’s laws had been right about so many things, but astronomers had found a case in which Newton’s laws did not work. So, was Newton wrong? Were his laws not quite as infallible as they had seemed? In light of this “negative evidence,” it would have been easy to conclude just that.
However, years later, astronomers discovered another planet, Neptune. And as it turns out, when astronomers accounted for the mass of this newly discovered planet, Newton’s laws predicted the orbit of Uranus perfectly.
So, as it turned out, it wasn’t that Newton’s laws of physics didn’t work. It was that they didn’t seem to work. And that’s because the astronomers simply didn’t have all the relevant information and context.
This example shows very clearly why negative evidence is far from supreme. You can dig up all sorts of facts about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but you will never know if you really have access to all the relevant context and perspectives. And if that is the case, why discount the positive evidence proving that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God?
I could give you a list of examples a mile long of incredibly disconcerting and persuasive arguments that have been made against the Church since its founding but have since been invalidated by new information. How many accounts against the Prophet turned out to be forgeries? How many Book of Mormon animals and crops were supposedly nonexistent before European settlement, but in recent years were discovered to have ancient American date? Ever hear about the Spaulding-Rigdon theory? Probably not. It used to be all the rage in the anti-Mormon community, but it’s now joined the long list of discredited claims against the Church.
To be fair, there are certainly things about the Church and its history that continue to defy any honest attempt to explain. But again, if we are sincere in our quest for truth, we will be very careful about how much weight we give negative evidences considering all the context we are potentially missing. While no one should reject negative evidences blindly, the sincere seeker of truth will consider the possibility of missing context and will fairly weigh the negative evidence against the positive evidences, not to mention the potential for spiritual witnesses.
In short, the sincere truth seeker will not take negative evidence to be supreme.
2. The Evidence in Favor of the Restoration Is Truly Extraordinary
Joseph Smith prophesied that he would be proven “a true prophet by circumstantial evidence.” Now, more than ever before, the evidence is mounting in Joseph’s favor.
And I don’t care if you think that the Book of Mormon was actually written by Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon or if you think that a 23 year old Joseph Smith was some kind of genius, you still can’t explain away what a feat the Book of Mormon would be if it truly was an invention.
The positive evidences may never “prove” that the Book of Mormon is true, but they can provide a strong justification to carefully and prayerfully study it.
Since the evidences are so incredible and I want to do them a decent justice, I have taken them up in another article: 5 Surprising Evidences for the Book of Mormon. However, the following is a teaser of that longer and more detailed list of evidence:
- The Book of Mormon, from start to finish, is filled with ancient Hebraic art forms. The LDS Church wasn’t even aware of this until a missionary discovered it in the 1950s. You’ve got to see what our forthcoming article has on this.
- The Book of Mormon explains a monetary system that happens to not only be closely related to the ancient Egyptian one, but that also constitutes the most efficient money system the world has ever known. (This one is also pretty darn cool) Stay tuned for more details.
- The Book of Mormon’s seamless fit with Bible doctrines and the lack of self-contradiction is incredible.
- It is difficult to imagine a fraud producing so much good.
This is a very abbreviated list of the items that provide serious cause to seriously and prayerfully study the Book of Mormon. Get more information in the article mentioned above.
3. Anti-Mormon Arguments Are Like Conspiracy Theories
If you poke around Netflix or YouTube, you’ll find all the conspiracy theories your heart could ever desire. I personally think that they’re a waste of time, but I’m also fairly acquainted with quite a few of them because I used to work at a hospital where a couple of employees would talk my ear off about one conspiracy after another.
One of the principal problems with government conspiracy theories is that they assume the guilt of government from the beginning (this is also known as circular reasoning). Since it is a “conspiracy” theory, any information put out by the government is immediately suspect. This means that conspiracy theories operate by poking holes in things that government or the “main stream media” says or does without allowing either of those sources to be used to counter their claims.
Whatever proof or context the government provides to exonerate itself is simply dismissed because “of course, they’d say that” or “it’s just a government cover-up.” Most conspiracy theorists don’t recognize the problem with this, but imagine that you are accused of a crime and when you go to trial you aren’t allowed to defend yourself or bring witnesses in your defense. Your attorney isn’t even allowed to make a case on your behalf. Why? Because you are “biased”; you’ll do anything to disprove the charges against you, so we can’t trust you or those who may be “conspiring” with you.
Sound just to you? Of course not.
But critics do the same thing with the Church and its members.
Skeptics get to present the facts (and half-truths and outright lies) in whatever manner they please, but when the Church releases context or LDS scholars present alternative views, critics paint these attempts as worthy of dismissal since they come from “biased” sources. That makes no sense. And doing so means that they are assuming their conclusion is true without actually caring about proving it to be true.
This anti-Mormon tactic really needs to be taken seriously because it is used very subtly. Critics attempt to undermine the credibility of Joseph Smith, the 11 witnesses, modern apostles etc., all so that it seems only natural to distrust the Church as a source. But that’s about as fair as your friend deciding that the gossip they heard about you is all they need to know. Your side of the story wouldn’t be worth hearing.
If you want to see claims that are an awful lot like anti-Mormon arguments, look at this list of debunked claims that the Moon landing is really a hoax. The claims all seem to be very convincing, but when you dig a little deeper and talk to the people who actually know something about science, space, and NASA, you realize very quickly that the claims don’t hold much water.
Furthermore, tough questions NASA might pose in its defense, such as “if the Moon landing were really a conspiracy, how could they have kept the secret for so long? Wouldn’t an astronaut or film crew worker have spilled the truth by now?” are a lot like “Why did none of the 11 witnesses ever deny their testimony of seeing the gold plates, particularly when several of them became disaffected?”
And if you are the type of person that dismisses NASA’s explanation for why the American flag appeared to be “waving” in the Moon landing film, then there is a whole world of conspiracy theories that will interest you. Just Google any one of the following: the Federal government is really being run by a shadow world organization, the Earth is actually flat, lobster men live beneath the crust of the earth, Obama is really an alien, President Kennedy was really killed by the CIA, etc.
4. Anti-Mormon Literature Uses Deceptive Presentation Tricks
One of the main reasons that anti-Mormon literature leads people from the Church is because it artificially produces a shock and awe effect. You see, the Church focuses on teaching the Gospel and the things that matter, while historical items that are unimportant, unedifying, or difficult to understand are often brushed over in the process. Unfortunately, this provides an opportunity for the naysayers to say, “Let me tell you something you don’t know about. Do you know why you don’t know about it? It’s because the Church is hiding it from you. Don’t you see? These historical facts are incriminating, and that is why they have kept it from you.” Suddenly, what wouldn’t have been such a big deal if you had always known about it, is made out to be a conspiracy by Church leaders.
The Church has responded to this by demonstrating that they have nothing to hide. They have released article after article discussing the biggest controversies, but placing them in context and providing a faithful perspective. For example, the Church is plenty open that Joseph was indeed a treasure hunter as a young man and that he used superstitious practices in this pursuit. Of course, this seems less wild when one takes into account how common this sort of thing was in Early American culture, particularly among the uneducated and poor.
Of course, you’ll never get the relevant context from John Dehlin and others.
What people have to understand is that while anti-Mormon literature is filled with many historical facts, they are often presented in a sinister light. So, while there may be nothing sinister about what happened, events are made to appear that way by the manner of their presentation.
An example of this is the way that some anti-Mormons will surprise their audience by revealing that Joseph Smith translated much of the Book of Mormon through means of a seer stone, instead of mainly translating through the urim and thummim as most members imagine. Joseph would place the seer stone into a hat and then press his face into it so as to block the outside light. There’s really nothing more strange about using a seer stone to translate than ancient spectacles, however, anti-Mormons describe the events in a way that makes Joseph sound like a lunatic peering into a hat. They also make it seem as though the Church is trying to keep this information secret (it’s actually on the Church website).
By capitalizing on information that the Church does not hide, but which few members know, anti-Mormons are able to control the presentation in a way that makes what Joseph did seem to be something that it is not.
In these and so many other cases, it is not the force of reason that drives people from the Church: it is the effect of emotion.
In addition to manipulating information that few members know about, anti-Mormons also talk about things that happened two hundred years ago that are difficult to understand from a modern perspective. Without putting ourselves in their shoes and understanding all of the facts of the day, things that aren’t really that big of a deal suddenly appear to be very important pieces of negative evidence.
I could go on and on about deceptive presentation tricks, but I’m going to leave it here for now.
5. A Spiritual Witness Is a Really Good Reason to “doubt your doubts”
The real reason that I believe in Christ and in the Restored Church is because of the spiritual experiences I have had. Human reason is limited. Pure and simple. Whatever atheists tell you, they have to exercise faith too. There are just so many things that are unknowable and that is why personal revelation is so important. Revelation bridges the gap between what Humans think they know and the truth that only God can distill.
So, when you experience personal revelation confirming the existence of God, Christ’s love for humankind, the Book of Mormon’s veracity, and Joseph Smith’s sacred calling, it only makes sense that this would be an overpowering piece of evidence. It may be evidence that no one else can understand, but it is evidence, and it is certainly logical to draw conclusions from it.
Before my mission, I had a crisis of faith that led me to study and pray more fervently than ever before. I really wanted to know. And after many weeks of effort, praying and studying for hours each day, I had experiences that witnessed to me the truth I had been seeking.
And I’m not talking about the type of feeling you get when you hear a touching story—you can experience that with or without the Spirit. I’m also not talking about the feeling you get when you hear something that defies Human understanding and the hair on the back of your neck stands up—you can experience that with or without the Spirit.
I’m talking about something else. And if you don’t know what that something else is, I challenge you to discover it. Just remember that half-hearted scripture study here and there doesn’t cut it. God expects more from us.
Why You Should Consider Sharing This Article:
More people than you may be aware are struggling with the flood of information and arguments made against the Church. You used to have to seek it out, but now it finds itself in your pocket by virtue of social media and the internet more generally.
So, consider sharing the article to help someone you may know or love who needs a little help seeing that the arguments made by the “world” are not as convincing as they seem to be.
We’ve also got some really cool forthcoming articles that look at this topic from a variety of different angles, including some interesting spiritual perspectives. So, make sure to like our page and give us your email so you get updates.