A FAIR Perspective on Critical Claims

by
August 27, 2009

Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who don’t like us Mormons.

I can understand why.  We aren’t like most break-off sects, based on our peculiar interpretation of scripture.  People are more or less comfortable with these groups.  After all, if Martin Luther said something you don’t agree with, you can rest assured that his foundation is firmly rooted in the Bible.  He might be mistaken on some things, but by and large he agrees with mainline protestantism.  He never claimed to be a prophet.

But Mormons are new and different.  It’s all or nothing.  It can’t be swallowed half-way.

Joseph Smith described in detail a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ.Either Joseph Smith was honest about his first encounter with God or he lied about it.  He was visited frequently by angels or he wasn’t visited at all.  He was a prophet or a hoaxer.  If one is not Mormon and will not be baptized, “Joseph Smith was a fraud” is the stance one is required to take.  The middle ground is removed.

This polarization has energized detractors to produce mountains of criticism to discredit Mormonism, which if seen by itself makes our religion look plain silly, or worse.  The criticisms range from sophomoric name-calling and laughably-inconsistent retelling of our beliefs to historical documentation and intellectual DNA analysis.  Most of this is aimed not at Mormons (these kinds of attacks rarely have the gravitas to significantly shake LDS faith), but primarily at potential investigators of Mormonism.  They are designed to damage the Church’s reputation enough that you’ll dismiss anything we might offer.

The criticism, in turn, has prompted Latter-day Saints for years to rebut the arguments and point out evidences in our favor.  This rebuttal in defense of faith is called apologetics from the Greek apologia, meaning “defense.”

The leading body defending Mormon doctrine from critical arguments is the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR).  It is an independent, non-profit group of Latter-day Saints dedicated to “providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS (Mormon) doctrine, belief and practice.”  They have a website and a wiki full of every piece of anti-Mormon material you could ask for and a confident, clear response to each.

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A few weeks ago I attended their annual conference in Sandy, UT.  They had speakers from a variety of professional backgrounds.  A lawyer-economist spoke on the failed Kirtland Safety Society, a banking endeavor that Joseph Smith initiated (and according to critics, caused to fail in order to steal parishioners’ money).  A physicist (a former member of the federal government’s — and no, this isn’t a joke — Dark Energy Task Force) gave a lecture on Joseph’s cosmology compared with a modern physics account of the creation of the universe.  There were talks with titles like, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage (but were afraid to ask),” “Haplogroup X in Light of Recent Book of Mormon Claims,” and “Joseph the Seer, or Why Joseph Translated with a Rock in His Hat.” I came away impressed with their professionalism and their ability to make the topics accessible, interesting, and relevant.

Dr. Daniel C. Peterson, the face of modern Mormon intellectualism

My favorite FAIR contributor is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic named Daniel C. Peterson.  I became a fan through watching his FAIR presentations on YouTube.  (Click here to see Dr. Peterson’s review of Christopher Hitchens’ infamous book god is Not Great).

Members of FAIR look into the criticisms in their spare time and on their own dime; the Church doesn’t fund their research.  There are important reasons for that.  One of the key reasons is that Father has a different method for teaching us, which the Church favors.  It doesn’t require advanced degrees or superior reasoning capacity, and the objective isn’t merely knowledge.  The objective is goodness, even Godliness.  He created this whole world as a sort of school.  A proving ground.  What is required is a humble heart and a will to follow Jesus Christ.  Learning how to pray is much more vital to this kind of education than writing a thesis.

So, if you are investigating the Church, and you’ve been bombarded with defamatory information in anti-Mormon pamphlets or movies, first go to God.  You can learn a lot through prayerful revelation.  This should be your first step.  Always.  If it still bothers you, poke around FAIR’s website.  They’ve heard it all.  You may find peace in knowing that when you don’t have all the answers, some smart, faith-filled people have blazed the trail ahead of you.  It certainly helps me.

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3 Responses to “A FAIR Perspective on Critical Claims”

  1. Nice post and good links. I like any website with a wiki! I have one question: do you think all non-Mormons think Joseph Smith was a fraud and a hoaxer? I’m inclined to think there are people who think he was not outright fraudulent, but instead delusional. In other words, they think Joseph Smith truly did believe he was a prophet and was visited by angels, and so forth, but that that none of it actually happened. Some people might think this would make him insane, but others might think he was sane but just very much WANTED to believe these things.

    Is that worth distinguishing, in your opinion? Or is it just a detail in context of the larger picture, which is that people either believe Joseph Smith was a prophet or that he wasn’t?

    As for myself, I don’t know. I’m not a Mormon, so obviously I don’t believe Joseph was a prophet. Beyond that, I’m not sure. For one, I cannot prove he’s not a prophet (just as I can’t prove there’s no god, etc.). But I haven’t come to any conclusion beyond that. I’m hoping Bushman’s biography will be enlightening on that front. (I plan to start it as soon as I finish “Infinite Jest,” so here’s hoping I can get through the NEXT 500 pages of that book in a reasonable amount of time.)

  2. Thaddeus

    Katie, I appreciate you brought that up. There are a variety of other ‘takes’ you can have on Joseph; however, I implicated only the two categories for a few reasons:

    1) This is the common dichotomy taken up by the most vocal detractors and defenders.
    2) There are people who hypothesize that Joseph Smith never existed; others claim that instead of following a divine voice it was diabolical. These, along with the insane, deluded, or lost-in-fantasy hypotheses tend to ignore mountains of evidence (his writings, travels, relationships, etc.).

    I happen to believe the fraud hypothesis ignores evidence, too, but arguably less so.

    His claims were so bold and concrete that it would be incredible for him not to cognitively know their truth values (he wanted to believe he was hefting golden plates that weren’t there?). For Joseph to have deceived himself (and others!) so convincingly that even he believed it stretches my imagination further than believing in angels.

    Feel free to take whatever hypothesis you like, just don’t rest your case until you see whether the evidence bears it out. (Bad science is done when a hypothesis is confused with a conclusion).

    And lest I cross my own words, the surest way to know the truth about this is through revelation from Father. Even an atheist has revelations, she might just call them epiphanies or moments of clarity. Consider their origins carefully.

  3. Kassie

    I am LDS but I have a brother in law who is not and he asked a few questions which I have no idea how to answer about JS. …how deep was his hat? If the plates were 6x6x10 (is that right?) and he put the plates into his hat to translate them, then how deep must the hat have been? This has always confused me. Also, how much did the plates weigh? A non-member (who is an engineer) was trying to explain to me that the plates described by JS would have been way too heavy for anyone to “throw over their shoulder” and walk home with. Last question: why does the story of him translating the plates have the one version of him actually looking at the plates and translating, and another where he put the chocolate colored stone in his hat and translated through that. I really would like a good answer for both to give to non-members.