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On December 12, 2014 John Dehlin made a post on his Facebook page that reads as follows:

Ben Park writes, “I believe in the Book of Mormon, both its powerful spiritual message and its historical claims.”

I have a ton of respect for Ben. I would love to better understand some day how he has retained belief in the Book of Mormon’s historical claims….given the mountain of scientific evidence against these claims.

Ben – If you are ever willing to discuss in detail, I’d be honored/thrilled/grateful.

The post he is referring to is located here and deals with the resolution of a dispute over the implication of an essay recently published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies that serves here as a pretext to John Dehlin’s argument for a non-historical Book of Mormon. For clarification, it appears that he means non-historical in the sense of the whole of the Nephite and Lamanite groups being made up and having no relationship to any real people of the past. If I have in any way misread his assertions on this point, I am totally willing to correct this.

His initial posting follows what for Dehlin is a familiar formula lately for opining:
1. He quotes some public figure or person
2. He expresses his admiration for them
3. He uses them as a springboard for discussing and promoting his unbelief

His claim here, which he (sort of) develops further in the comment section is that the evidence against the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as translations of ancient works is so conclusive that anyone who honestly engages the evidence will be compelled to come to the same conclusion. A number of people in the thread recognized just how problematic that claim is, a remarkable outburst of sanity on that particular Facebook page. At least one of them was banned for disagreeing with him, not an uncommon outcome.

In response to a request for evidence, John suggested reading the “CES Letter”, a lengthy anti-Mormon tract [1] written by someone with no relevant expertise by aggregating the complaints of others, and as far as I am aware contains no original research but is simply a lengthy rehash of most of the available anti-Mormon claims (and is rebutted here ), and the audio recording of his own interview with Michael Coe, which was rebutted here soon after by John Sorenson. These two documents constitute the authority upon which Dehlin argues that the case against the Book of Mormon is entirely settled. The first is written by a non-expert on anything relevant to the subject, and the second an expert on Mesoamerica that has unfortunately limited exposure to the Book of Mormon. In the interest of making it clear how certain he is on this point, here is a sampling of his quotes on the subject:

The evidence summarized in http://cesletter.com shows pretty conclusively (to me, and many others) that neither the Book of Mormon nor the Book of Abraham are translations of ancient records. An analogy would be….if we found a photography of Abraham Lincoln wearing an iPod, we would know for sure that the photo was a fake. The evidences against the Books of Mormon and Abraham are equally troublesome (or even worse) for anyone willing to seriously consider the evidence

evidence honestly leaves no room for plausible doubt…it’s overwhelming

In my view, anyone willing to fairly review the evidence, with an open mind, will conclude that the Books of Mormon and Abraham are NOT what they claim to be. At all. They are not translated ancient records. They are fiction. Authored by Joseph Smith.

What I can say for sure is that:

1) The Book of Mormon is not a translation of gold plates provided by an ancient American civilization via an angel (which it claims to be)….and

2) The Book of Abraham is not a translation of the papyrus (which it claims to be).

They are both works of fiction, and the evidence against both of them as translations of ancient documents is OVERWHELMING to anyone who is objective.

The evidence against the BOM and BOA is overwhelming. If I were to claim with conviction that the earth revolves around the sun, or that gravity is real — you would not respond in such a way.

I am saying that the evidence against the BOM and BOA is equally compelling for anyone open/honest enough to inquire. And I stand by that.

1) The church’s exclusive truth claims are not credible. At all. Not even a tiny bit. As in…there’s gravity…the earth revolves around the sun…..and the BOM and BOA are not translations of ancient documents. It has become that clear/obvious to me.

What I believe is that sufficient evidence now exists re: the BOM and BOA — to safely conclude that neither are translations of ancient documents. They are clearly fiction. If you want to call them inspired fiction, that’s fine. If you want to re-define scripture as inspired fiction, that’s fine too.

It strikes me as foolish that he would equate his faith in the non-historicity of the Book of Mormon with gravity. For someone who has spent some amount of effort trying to abate the culture of certainty that is sometimes taken too far by some members of the church this is outright hypocritical, and he should adopt a bit more moderation in his habits of speech on this point. I really think that doing so will help him avoid the kind of extremism that undermines any good he might otherwise accomplish.

Also, the fact that he as a non-expert [2] finds a relatively small body of evidence, all of which is specifically chosen to support his preexisting conclusions conclusive, isn’t particularly impressive. Here’s an analogy from mathematics (if you hate math just skip this section): what is the value of the sum of -(-1)^n/n for n=1 to infinity? That is if you were to add up the numbers 1, -1/2, 1/3, -1/4, 1/5, -1/6 and so forth what you get? The answer is interesting, and sort of depends on what priority you give to the numbers. You see you can start by adding up the positive terms and get that the series diverges in the positive direction, or you can start by adding up the negative terms and it will be unboundedly negative, or you can sum all of the terms, and find that they add up to a specific finite value, which in the case of this example is slightly positive. If he wants to, John can take as the only evidence that he will accept an anti-Mormon tract, and an interview he has conducted with deep flaws—at one point they mock Nephite coinage even though that isn’t actually in the text of the Book of Mormon and thus has no bearing on the subject of the Book of Mormon’s basis in reality—and he can come to an unboundedly negative conclusion: that the Book of Mormon is as certainly made up as gravity is certainly a law. But let’s not pretend this approaches any sort of objectivity. Alternatively, one can take in the totality of evidence and come to a very different conclusion. Ultimately, as Dehlin points out, truth matters. But so does balance. I suggest that one way he can improve his balance is by considering evidence that contradicts his hypothesis. This is important in science, in psychology research as I hope he will note, and also in understanding the Book of Mormon. And if size counts for anything in this debate, his anti sources are not the only overly long resource that has some bearing on the subject. See, for example, Fair’s index on the Book of Mormon.

Reasonable people can disagree on the same body of evidence, and this especially is true because different people weight different parts of the evidence set differently and different people will construct different narratives in which to place and contextualize the evidences that they see. It is understandable that sometimes the stories that people build around any set of data—be they psychology data, historical documents, numerical data, or some other sort—will differ from one another, and yet still be reasonable interpretations of the same information. John seems to have forgotten this, and in fact argues against it pretty passionately. He seems to think that anyone who doesn’t come to the conclusions that he has is denying the evidence. As we’ve shown in this relatively brief post the result you get from an analysis of evidence depends on whether you account for all of the evidence.

The fact that many people who are significantly more expert than he is on the subject of the Book of Mormon disagree with his position needs explanation if indeed the evidence is as compelling as he believes. Indeed it suggests that the evidence for his position really isn’t that impressive to those who have looked at it carefully, but he has a different explanation. He suggests that the reason for highly educated and expert individuals continuing to associate with the church and endorse its core beliefs including the reality of Book of Mormon events is that they derive various benefits from it. Specifically he claims they must believe or fain belief because they receive familial, social, psychological, and financial benefits. This amounts to ad hominem circumstantial. You can find a definition of it here.  Pay special attention to example #2. If they don’t believe like him then it must be because they are in it for the money, the social benefits, or other sorts of gains.

But because the familial/social/financial/psychological stakes are so high if you were to leave the church….you remain. And you make excuses for the books (They make us feel good! They teach some important truths! Plus…there’s still a very, very remote and purely philosophical chance that they are true!!!).

But you are not acknowledging that at their core, these books are based on a deception. Likely because deep down, it makes you really uncomfortable to admit this.

In my experience, anyone who is smart, who has looked at the evidence, and who is not willing to concede this — almost always has some set of forces bearing down upon them (e.g., familial, social, financial, psychological) that prevent them from being able to acknowledge this reality. But it is reality.

You want us to go away because we remind you of this fact.

I would be surprised if [K. H.] believes that the BOM is a translation of ancient documents. Maybe you know more than I do on this matter. But as for Nate Oman and Ben Park — I believe that their familial/social ties and/or psychological needs (along with their privilege as white, educated, middle class males) are a much better explanation for their convictions about the BOM than any explanation you could offer. That’s just my opinion. If they’re willing to discuss, I’m happy to do so any time.

[K. H.] – My guess is that you speculate about people just like the rest of us. And my guess is that you derive enough familial/social/psychological/financial benefit by retaining your ties to Mormonism…that is sufficient to explain your beliefs. That’s just my theory, but I sincerely believe it.

[K. H. then responded with:] Well, believe whatever you want, I guess, if you want to persist in error despite the available evidence…

To close this section, I must say that I find his assertion that people stay in Mormonism for financial reasons very curious indeed given that it is coming from someone who derives significant and quantifiable benefits [3] from his association with Mormon things. Undoubtedly some do stay for precisely these reasons, and I expect that they are in some ways reasons that he understands from personal experience. There is nothing wrong with one’s personal experience informing one’s judgement, but it become problematic when one assumes that everyone thinks and acts as they would in the same circumstances, and projects their own motivations onto others. Thus his personal experiences and choices do not give him license to presume the nature of others’. Indeed as one of the other participants in the conversation whose participation he tried to explain in that way said, “We might have to just conclude that it’s complicated, and quit using people’s deeply personal beliefs and choices as weapons.” It would seem that someone who aspires to be a psychologist and counsel others ought to do several things differently than John does. These include:
1. Listen, don’t mind read—treating pretended or actual insights into human nature as ammunition is offensive and possibly even unethical

It’s clear that you are hurting and defensive….and I apologize for the discomfort.

[R.C.] and [A.B.]- It’s totally fine that because you derive benefit (marital, financial, social, emotional, etc.) from your associations with the church, that you maintain your membership.

but when they actually tell you what they are thinking it is a good idea to take them seriously instead of pretending like you are more of an expert on their beliefs and motivations than they are.
2. If you are going to psychoanalyze people, a tendency which I would highly recommend you suppress, it damages your credibility if you diagnose all of them with the same thing (e.g. everyone is either too naive or in it for the monetary/familial/psychological/social motivation). This is especially true when your conclusions about the psychology of your conversants appears to be rooted in your own personal ideology.
3. Recognize that other people looking at the same set of evidence can come to different opinions—they don’t all have to correlate with yours exactly.
4. Don’t come to the conversation with predetermined conclusions about those whom you disagree with. As much as you insist you are interested in open dialogue, having a predetermined conclusion about the rationality of your conversants sends the opposite message.

I think the comment by Ben Park on the thread summarized how many people, including a number of the participants in the conversation, saw John’s behavior:

I’m not going to join into this discussion beyond one brief, possibly curt comment (and I’ve already proffered one prodded testimony this week, which is enough for a while), but if you are willing to dismiss my personal beliefs–ideas with which I have spent a lot of hours, and ideas over which I have often fought–as something merely based on “familial/social ties and/or psychological needs,” then you really aren’t that much further along than those who dismissed people who don’t believe as sinners looking for an excuse to go inactive. And it does very little by way of encouragement for someone who cherishes their personal, hard-fought beliefs to then enter a discussion when they already know their interlocutor doesn’t respect them enough to grant them an actual intellect.

 

 

 

 

[1] The propaganda in question is the CES letter, which Dehlin has been pushing lately. A rebuttal to it is available here.
[2] John doesn’t have a background in history or anything related to the study of the scripture in an ancient context. Interviewing people does not constitute expertise on these subjects.
[3] John Dehlin’s Salary from his Open Stories Foundation is $56,225.95 according to its website, a significant financial interest.

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