Re-Read The Book Of Mormon, Etc. – A Response To A Mormon Leader

This does not happen much anymore, but I still occasionally get a letter from an LDS leader asking in a polite way what happened to my testimony and why I don’t do what he thinks might bring it back.

In this case, the questions and comments were as follows:

– My questioner understands that I have displaced Steve Benson as the guru of “anti-momons” and so he writes to me as an expert.

– How would an articulate anti-mormon respond to this: Read the Book of Mormon, including Third Nephi, and answer this question: “Could an evil man have written that? And would a righteous man write it and lie about it?”

– How is my quest for a debating adversary coming? My questioner understands that Dr. Peterson declined my invitation for a debate.

My response (lightly edited) is found below. If anyone can tighten up my argument or provide better illustrative examples, I would be happy to become better edcuated.

best, bob

Hello **,

I am not sure where you are getting your information about Steve Benson or me. I doubt he ever characterized himself (or would have been characterized by many others in the post-Mormon community) as anyone’s guru. Same for me. I have never attracted more than a small amount of attention within one corner of this immense, and rapidly growing, community. It is too amorphous for guruship to take hold, and the central dynamic of the vast majority of the community is anti-authoritarian, as a result of its largely reactive nature to its member’s inherited faith tradition. This explains in part the fact that Steve has been the frequent focus of attack and controversy within the part of the post-Mormon community with which I am familiar as a result of his sharp witted and tongued style. There is no equivalent to “Follow the Prophet” in post-Mormonism.

Since you are a thoughtful, well read person, I suspect that you are already familiar with the social science and neurology related to belief transition. From my perspective, the idea is basically this. Belief and behavior appeared to be completely the function of genetics and conditioning. This is reflected in the patterns formed by our neural networks. As long as our intended behavior and thought patterns are inconsistent with these neural networks, we will feel something like the force of gravity pulling us back toward where we were. Changing basic beliefs and behaviors requires the growth of new neural networks, and permitting the old ones (or least some of them) to fall into decline. This is a biological process that causes pain (not unlike the pain caused by the significant development of new muscle), some of which is described by the people who study cognitive dissonance. The growth process takes a significant amount of time and energy.

As I look back on the first several years after I decamped Mormonism, I now see the massive amount of reading, writing, analyzing, rewriting, reanalyzing, etc. that I did as an instinctive effort to rewire my brain. As the new neural patterns gradually stabilized, my impulse to continue with all of that declined. Accordingly, my interaction in the various online post-Mormon communities declined. By a little over a year ago, the time and energy I was spending in activities of that type were below 10% of what they had been at their peak, a period of time that lasted several years. I now seldom spend more than a couple of hours a week reading, writing and thinking about Mormon issues. This e-mail will absorb a substantial part of this week’s unconscious allotment. I now go for weeks without doing anything of a material nature relative to Mormonism. Those who are concerned about me as some kind of serious foe (if those there be) are looking in the wrong place. Dozens like me have already sprung up and are frantically writing, posting, etc. as they re-wire their brains. Who knows where they are. Some are in Latin America and Africa, though. I know because they have been in touch with me. Steve Benson was one or two generations (these are short generations) before me. A cat (or whole bunch of cats) is out of the bag. I am glad I don’t feel the need to try to keep track of this. If you want a military metaphor (since Packer seems to favour these), think Vietnam or Afghanistan. The dissent just keeps springing up from the grassroots in unexpected ways.

The time that I spent for most of my adult life on Mormonism, which was then shifted to recovering from Mormonism, is now discretionary. I use that reading about a wide variety of things, spending more time than ever at the gym, hiking, interacting with my kids, interacting with a wide range of scientists and intellectuals who live all over the world, drawing, painting, etc. Given the little I know of you, I suspect that the existence I now enjoy would appeal to you. It took a mighty effort to put myself in the position I am now in. I am deeply grateful that my life has evolved in the way it has.

The pattern I just described is typical of many, if not most, people who leave Mormonism and other literalist, authoritarian sects. During the initial stages of this process, people are emotionally battered, insecure, and accordingly may for a relatively short period of time pay serious attention to someone like Steve Benson, or me, but it is more likely that they will rely upon the Fawn Brodies, Mike Quinns, Jan Shipps, Todd Comptons, etc. of the world who are more or less permanent figures as a result of their publishing and academic standing. Small eddies of local popularity within the post-Mormon world develop on the same basis as some people become coveted book club members – they make useful, local contributions to understanding or are in other ways enjoyable conversation partners. It is no more complicated than that.

This period of insecurity does not, in any event, usually last long. The typical tenure of people at the recovery from Mormonism website, for example, is somewhere around one year. A few stay on for longer periods of time, primarily in mentor roles, but for the most part people move through a recovery process and then disappear into the cultural ether. I think this is a healthy process.

This brings us to the subject of Dr. Peterson. He did decline my offer of debate. I can’t recall how long ago that was. Two years? Three years? I basically wanted to call his bluff, and that is what I did. He had been going on about how people like me (and me in particular) were afraid to visit the places on the Internet he tended to frequent at that time, and deal with him there. So I paid him a visit. I would’ve been happy to fly down to Salt Lake City to deal with him in person (the proposed debate topic was “Was Joseph Smith Trustworthy?”), but he did not want to do that. I was not out looking for any old debate, and have made no effort to set up anything of a similar nature up since dealing with Peterson.

As you might suspect, the challenge to re-read the Book of Mormon, pray about it, and ask the standard missionary questions is one that I thought about a lot before leaving Mormonism, and the suggestion that I repeat the process has often been made to me. Here is something from my stock answer.

In general, we are talking about epistemology. One of the most unjustifiable epistemological systems ever invented is the one that relies upon feeling — and especially feelings that depend largely upon social context for their power (read the Book of Mormon and tell us how your feel while we love bomb you or implicitly threaten you with the withdrawal of our approval or love …) — as a means for determining what is real. This system is designed to create a false sense of certainty that is primarily helpful for the purpose of binding social groups together. It is unreliable from an epistemological point of view, but the way in which it is used within particular social groups can tell us a lot about their nature.

How do the JWs, for example, justify their beliefs? How about the Moonies? The Hare Krishna? If you read the cult deprogramming literature relative to groups like those, you will find a description of cult belief induction techniques that bear a striking similarity to the way in which the Mormon missionary and fellowshipping system works, and you will find a deprogramming response that attempts to break through the reliance upon feeling to discern reality. I think you and I have corresponded on this topic before, and so I will leave that point there.

If you cleave to something like the categorical imperative or golden rule, how would you justify adopting this as your epistemological standard while denying others the same right? If you permit others the same right, how do you deal with the contradiction that arises when they, on the basis of their feelings, reach the certain belief that their system is the only true system at the same time you reach the same conclusion with regard to your system? There are many ways to establish the inadequacy of emotion-based epistemic systems.

So, bearing that in mind, how would I likely respond to rereading the Book of Mormon? I would, of course, try to set the book in context and understand as much as possible about the book as I attempt to discern its reliability as a source of wisdom or knowledge. I would purposely suppress my initial gut reaction. This is how I try to approach everything I read. In some cases, this allows me to overcome an initial negative reaction based on an inadequate appreciation of the context surrounding a piece of literature, so as to put myself in a position to learn something significant. In other cases, the result of doing the kind of work required to understand a text as well as possible is its dismissal as unworthy of additional time or energy.

As you know, or at least suspect, I spent a great deal of time during the initial stages of my brain retooling focused on the Book of Mormon. I therefore have a lot of context in my head with regard to that book. The way you posed your question suggests that I should somehow eliminate that from consideration when I attempt to reassess the book. Is that what you are suggesting? If so, can you provide me with examples of other situations in which you would suggest the same thing (ignoring the best scholarship available with regard to origins, context, etc. with regard to a piece of literature) while making a serious effort to understand an important text, and particularly a text that is potentially one of your life’s foundation pieces?

I am aware, for example, of studies occurring right now at *** [well known US university] that will lead to a new kind of word pattern analysis of the Book of Mormon, and will point to Sydney Rigdon as its primary author. This research will be published in peer-reviewed journals. I do not have the expertise to critique this, but from what I’ve read about it I think it will at the minimum cause additional scholarship and will increase the academic understanding of the Book of Mormon. The hypothesis underlying this work is that Rigdon sincerely believed in the need to reform Christianity’s direction. He accordingly borrowed from Ethan Smith, Solomon Spaulding and others to create a pseudepigrapha that would move Christianity in the direction he thought it should go. He told what he regarded as a noble lie in that regard, and recruited J. Smith to help him do so. Smith probably bought into the noble lie aspect of the project, and likely had his own reasons for participating as well in light of his straightened financial circumstances and history as a treasure seeker for hire. His talents in this regard are what attracted Rigdon’s attention. There is now evidence of pre-Book of Mormon contact between Ridgon and Smith. Again, I don’t profess to be expert in this area. I lost interest in it long ago. I am barely aware of the developments in this area of Mormon-related scholarship.

As you know, biblical scholars believe that significant chunks of the Old and New Testament were written as psuedepigrapha. A variety of other important religious and historical texts are also understood to have originated in this fashion, including Jewish Kaballah’s foundational documents. It would hardly raise an academic eyebrow if it were up established to a high degree of probability that the Book of Mormon came into being in this fashion.

About a year ago, during one of my last fits of activity re. Mormonism, I corresponded with people like Steve Farmer (see…) who use complexity theory based programs to date ancient documents. I tried to persuade him and his collaborators at Harvard to publish a peer reviewed article on the Book of Mormon, using his system. I offered to fund this. After reviewing the Book of Mormon literature re. archaeology, etc. they declined. They said that the problem was “trivial” from an academic point of view. That is, after they did months of painstaking work that showed the BofM to be of 19th century origin to some very high degree of probability, their academic peers would look at them in the same way they would anyone who spent months on a geological study designed to show that the Earth is well more than 6,000 years old. Time is short for these folks. Other academic projects are far more important tothem. The offer of substantial funding did not come close to turning the trick for them. It takes an interest in the post-Mormon community of a personal nature, it seems, to motivate a serious academic to spend time on Mormon studies, as is the case with the study proceeding at *** [the other university mentioned above].

Given the fact that I have the opportunity to understand the Book of Mormon in this type of broad, rich context, why would I choose to limit myself to the type of superficial analysis you suggest? Given the wonderful scholarship related to how religious organisms come into being and evolve, why would I choose to limit my understanding of Mormonism to my personal phenomenology? I do not approach any other aspect of my life in this kind of shallow fashion. How could I possibly justify treating what is arguably the most important aspect of my life in this way?

If the response is that we must walk in the light of faith; not rely on the arm of man or his puny intellect, etc. I would respond that we should acknowledge that the same applies to Mormonism’s religious competitors. We don’t exclude the best scientific and historical work when we question the legitimacy of the Taliban, the JWs, and the alien abductionists. The exhortation to ignore the most reliable evidence available is predictable when social organisms are defending their turf. Outsiders see this quickly. Insiders struggle to see it at all. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Some studies suggest that really smart people who are committed in various ways to a social system are more strongly affected by cognitive biases than the less intelligent. This has to do with the ability of intelligent people to find patterns in ambiguous data and persuade others around them to their point of view. This applies as much to political, economic, quantum mechanical and other similarly ambiguous fields of scientific endeavour as it does to religious belief.

Furthermore, to frame the question in the way you have poses a false dichotomy. I doubt that you recall the letter I wrote to Jeffrey Holland (see, but in that I accused both him and Gordon Hinckley of the same thing. This is a cheap debating trick. Those who see it as such will punish those who attempt to use it in various ways. Such people are not to be trusted, for example.

The issue is not one of black or white. The question is not whether an evil man or a righteous man wrote the book, or whether a righteous man could lie about the book. The motivations that underlie individual human behavior are far too complex for that to be a useful approach. The Rigdon hypothesis (which I of course know is not new) and other psuedepigrapha cases illustrate how complex these things are. And the mechanisms that underlie group behavior are exponentially more complex still. The study of complex adaptive systems, and the way in which they apply to the social sciences (including things like Daniel Kahneman’s studies of bounded rationality, and the various reincarnations of Adam Smith’s invisible hand and other forms of collective or hive mind), have shed wonderful light on how social groups behave in general. It does not take a rocket scientist to read this stuff, and apply it to Mormonism.

I wrote the foregoing on the assumption that you would use whatever information I provided to you for the purpose of better countering information that is making its way into the Mormon community. While our interests might be construed to be adversarial in that regard, you will note that I have given you a relatively full, and utterly frank, assessment of the issues you presented to me. I think greater understanding on both sides of the Mormon (and other religious) divide(s) is important, and hence I proceed as I do when approached by sincere members of the Mormon faith, or other believers.

I hope that you and other Mormon leaders are making progress toward frank and full disclosure with regard to Mormon origins. I continue to regard the way in which the Mormon leadership deals with its history and claims to authority to be immoral. Not excommunicating people like Bushman and leaving his book on obscure shelves does not go anywhere near far enough. As long as missionary lessons, Sunday school lessons, etc. contain versions of Mormon history that would fail miserably the standard required for even middle school history texts, Mormon leaders should feel ashamed of what they are doing. It was largely my inability to remain associated with deception of this type that led me to distance myself from the Mormon institution. The “We can’t tell them because they might disobey/implode/become sex fiend alcoholics etc. likewise does not cut the mustard. There is no justification for this view of which I am aware. The unconscious motivation of Mormon leaders to retain their power over the Mormon group is clear to outsiders. These things are almost never clear to insiders. You can see these forces operating in other groups. They should be presumed to operate within Mormonism. The idea that “our group is immune from corruption because it is God’s group” has a long, dishonourable pedigree.

I hope you will use your considerable influence to cause those at Mormonism’s pinnacle to come clean.

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