Friday, February 04, 2011

My anti-Mormon pet peeves

In the spirit of PZ Meyers taking on atheists he finds annoying, here are some things that ex/post/anti-Mormons talk about that annoy me.

"DNA evidence proves that the Book of Mormon isn't true." No, it doesn't prove that. It proves that, among those people who have been tested, there is no evidence for Book of Mormon claims. DNA evidence is yet another nail in the coffin of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but it is not the coffin. It is probably sufficient to prove that "Lamanites" aren't "the principal ancestors of the American Indians" as is widely believed among Mormons. However, if the "Children of Lehi" were small in number and absorbed by much larger surrounding groups, as some Mormons believe, then it would still be (theoretically) possible for descendants of "Lehi" to exist without possessing the type of DNA markers that we know how to look for. So the existing DNA evidence by itself is not sufficient to prove the Book of Mormon untrue. It merely reinforces the mountain of other evidence that it isn't true.

"Spiritual evidence isn't evidence." Yes, it is. Not only is it evidence, to those who experience it, it is extremely powerful and convincing evidence. It's entirely personal and subjective, it isn't replicable or consistent, and we're beginning to understand how it is that some of what people experience isn't what's really happening, but it's still evidence. It just isn't good evidence.

The Spalding-Rigdon theory of Book of Mormon authorship. Most historians of Mormonism seem to consider this theory to have been thoroughly debunked since No Man Knows My History came out in 1945, but that's not what bothers me. If people want to argue otherwise, that's fine. What bugs me is what I see as an underlying premise of this argument, i.e., the idea that there is something so extraordinary about the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith couldn't have written it himself. This seems ludicrous to me. I mean, have you read the thing? It's utterly banal. Banal as historical literature, banal as theology, banal as sociopolitical philosophy; it's "chloroform in print" as Mark Twain put it. I see no reason for thinking that an imaginative farm boy/con man like Joseph Smith couldn't have written it by himself.

Utah Lighthouse Ministry ("the Tanners"). I hate to see people incautiously linking to or citing this organization. ULM does some good work in the sense of uncovering historical documents and raising issues, but all of this is done to serve one agenda: making the LDS Church look bad. While I wouldn't go so far as to call them liars, on any given issue ULM seems to care far less about figuring out what really happened than it does about figuring out how to use the issue to portray the church in the worst possible light. It's a propaganda organization, not a scholarly one (sort of the mirror image of FAIR).

My larger point is this: as former Mormons, the truth is on our side. And, as someone once said, "...the truth will go forth nobly, boldly and independent, until it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every nation, and sounded in every ear...." We don't need weak arguments, lax thinking, or one-sided polemics to make that happen. We just need to tell the truth as we find it.

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  1. I just don't understand the point in having such a low standard for evidence if nobody in their right mind would ever consider "spiritual" "evidence" to support a claim about reality.

    You don't think it's good evidence. But it is good enough to be evidence. And so it would be good enough to support a position, right? So would there be a situation where we could bring the "spiritual" "evidence" to help our understanding of reality?

  2. Many people in their right minds believe that their "spiritual experiences" support claims about reality. It's not unusual to believe that.

    And I think such experiences do support the position that there is a god to have experiences with. I think they only weakly support the position -- and that weakness is compounded because of the "extraordinary" nature of the claim -- but they do support it.

  3. Is "bad evidence" evidence?

    Hint: no.

  4. Sure it is. If somebody says they've seen God and talked to him/her/it/they, for example, that's evidence. It's not worth much, but it's still evidence.

  5. No, it's not evidence at all.

    If I came to you with a claim that I'd taken a picture of a UFO, and you could clearly see the word "FRISBEE" on the surface of the disc, would that still be evidence, but just not very good evidence? If I'm personally convinced that I saw a UFO, does it add to the weight of evidence for my claim?

    No. When there's a better explanation for what I'm claiming as evidence, it is discredited. That means we do not add it to the pile marked "Evidence".

    There's a better explanation for people claiming to have "spiritual evidence" (as you know). People can be mistaken, people can see what they want to see, people can be crazy, and people can lie. It's faulty.

    So we dismiss it. It's off the table. Not evidence.

  6. But if we use that standard, then even if somebody were to take a picture of a real UFO, it couldn't be considered evidence of a UFO's existence because past UFO photos have been discredited.

    I'm not willing to be that dismissive. Skeptical yes, but not entirely dismissive. Somebody someday might come up with a real UFO photo. Somebody someday might come up with a real encounter with a god. The possibilities of either ever happening seem vanishingly small, but still non-zero. In light of those tiny possibilities, I think some people's claims deserve a tiny amount of consideration.

  7. If someone has a real encounter with a god, so-called "spiritual evidence" will not be good enough to demonstrate it. The level of evidence required will need to be greater.

    For my example, no UFO photo of a frisbee will ever be evidence.

    No argument based on emotional reasoning will ever be evidence. It's too unreliable.

    If someone goes beyond that and brings something new and inexplicable, then we can reconsider it. But if someone has a feeling, that doesn't mean they have a fact. It doesn't work like that.

  8. I find it incredibly hard to think of a spiritual witness, no matter how convincing, as being evidence for a supernatural being. I can see what you're saying, Kuri, but... I, for one, am willing to be 'that dismissive'. To me, evidence has to be measurable.

    Spiritual evidence is not evidence of the divine at all. It's nothing more than a hope - an intensely strong hope, yes - that this life won't end in annihilation, that there is something good and tangible after the death of the body, so individuals purchase through sacrifice (the price, of course, varies from person to person) a belief-system that best fits their personality.

    If anything, any person who attributes a supernatural meaning to an experience is showing evidence of their desire for the existence of the divine, but it's not evidence that a supernatural entity actually exists. It's only evidence of that person's biased mindset.


  9. Right -- it's not about being dismissive. It's about what kind of evidence is sufficient to establish a proposition.

  10. I'm not talking about evidence establishing a proposition at all. I'm talking about evidence that supports a proposition. Even if there are a million pieces of evidence against a proposition, one piece of evidence in its favor is still a piece of evidence. The odds against the proposition may thus be a million to one, but they're still non-zero, because of the evidence.

    "If someone has a real encounter with a god, so-called 'spiritual evidence' will not be good enough to demonstrate it. The level of evidence required will need to be greater."

    I agree completely. I don't think "spiritual evidence" can demonstrate anything. I think it can support something.

    I mean, there have been so many fake and mistaken UFO photos that even if somebody took a legitimate one, it wouldn't demonstrate anything. Much more evidence would be required to prove such an extraordinary claim. But the photo would be (weak) evidence that supports the existence of UFOs.

    We can apply Occam's razor to "spiritual evidence" and reasonably conclude that it's always based in things like intuition, coincidence, confirmation bias, placebo effect, wishful thinking, self-fulfilling prophecy, and hallucination. But can we entirely eliminate the possibility that some spiritual experiences are something else? I don't think so.

    So I guess what I mean by "weak" evidence is "possibility-raising" evidence rather than "proposition-demonstrating" evidence. Does "spiritual evidence" demonstrate propositions? No. Does it raise possibilities? I say yes.

  11. But can we entirely eliminate the possibility that some spiritual experiences are something else? I don't think so.

    Of course we can't. We just need better evidence to support it.

    What if someone said, "I feel that I've had experience with a UFO. This feeling is very important to me." Would that count as evidence, just not very good evidence? No, it would tell us nothing at all. It wouldn't invalidate any future claims about UFOs, and yes, the probability of UFOs would still be vanishingly-small-but-non-zero, but nothing of this nature would support the existence of UFOs, and would thus be no evidence at all.

    I presume you wouldn't accept anecdotal evidence for other claims. Why would it be sufficient to support a religious proposition?

    Sorry to beat this over the head, but this is important. No matter how much of it you have, anecdotal evidence is not data, and can't be used to support a claim.

  12. What if someone said, "I feel that I've had experience with a UFO. This feeling is very important to me." Would that count as evidence, just not very good evidence? No, it would tell us nothing at all.

    It does tell us something. If the person is honest and sane, it tells us that something happened. Sure, that "something" almost certainly didn't actually happen the way the person understood it to happen. But only almost certainly.

    No matter how much of it you have, anecdotal evidence is not data, and can't be used to support a claim.

    I disagree. Case studies are anecdotal evidence and they are used often by perfectly respectable scholars to support claims. But again, I don't think they can demonstrate claims. They can support or suggest conclusions, but they can't prove them.

  13. I think I have a hang-up with the word 'evidence' when it's used to support the notion of the supernatural. It would be better if another word was used.

    Admittedly, I'm extremely dismissive of all claims of religious insight. Maybe that's because of my experience with the religious mind-set. I'm really not open at all, not even slightly.

    Whereas, Kuri, you appear to be a bit more giving, accepting that there's a miniscule possibilty that so-and-so's spiritual experience is actually evidence of the divine. This is where we vary. And I think it's a significant varience.

    I conclude that, because there is so much religious diversity in the world today, any information gained by revelatory means has it's source in the mind of the experiencer. There's just too many contradictory reports to be able say that they all have their source in a divine entity. Therefore, I'm unaccepting of a spiritual witness being supportative of some form of reality outside of this world.

    And as for possibilities be raised - there's just no way of separating the chaff from the wheat where religious experiences are concerned, so no, I can't respond in the affirmative to your question: "Does it raise possibilities?"


  14. Yeah, I'm open to the possibility that there could be a god of some sort. I don't think there is, and I think that's the best conclusion based on the available evidence, but I don't rule it out completely. So I think that spiritual experiences are "evidence" in maybe the weakest possible sense: they deserve examination rather than dismissal.

    I get that you and Daniel think that they've been examined well enough in general for a blanket dismissal. I don't quite agree. Just like with UFOs, I'm willing to look at every single case. (Or at least, watch other people look at every single case.)

  15. "DNA evidence proves that the Book of Mormon isn't true."

    In fact, it is evidence that the BoM isn't true, as the BoM was interpreted by past prophets. The Lamanites used to be the ancestors of ALL of the darker-skinned aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas. Now, the Lamanites are becoming just like the God of the Gaps.

    Just like God, certain evidence can never prove that _a_ god doesn't exist. However, it can certainly prove that _specific_ gods don't exist.

    The DNA evidence proves that everything that Joseph Smith said about the Lamanites was wrong. When he sent people to preach to the "Lamanites?" Oh, sorry, those weren't descended from Lehi. Wrong group. And so forth.

  16. That's pretty much what I said, although not as clearly as you did.

  17. I guess I just don't see that there is any point in being open to the remote possibility that there could be a supernatural being of some kind when religious experiences can be adequately explained away without resorting to thoroughly examining unverifiable claims that truly belong to history and not to present times, in a nutshell.

    You must think me very closed-minded now that you're talking with me again. I guess we've both changed. :-)


  18. I get that you and Daniel think that they've been examined well enough in general for a blanket dismissal.

    No -- that's not what I'm saying. Like you, I'm still open to the notion. I'm just saying that anecdotal evidence isn't going to cut it.

  19. It's the old "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Or, in more prosaic terms, "Mom, why are you punishing me for eating the ice cream before dinner? I told you it was space aliens! It COULD have been, right?"

  20. My personal ex-Mo pet peeve? Misspelling Mark Hofmann's surname. Really, people, it's not that hard. H-O-F-M-A-N-N. One "f" and two "n"s. Simple. There, I feel better now.

  21. I don't know... I think it's kind of his fault for only using one F. ;)


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