“Mormonism,” wrote one LDS-critical author, “would gain a measure of respectability if only some credible evidence could be found to support at least one of Joseph Smith’s claims.”[i]
In my book Shaken Faith Syndrome, I spend some time talking about the nature of evidence and the fact that evidence does not equal proof. Proof is generally a conclusion we infer from what we see as strong or overwhelming evidence. Scholars generally tend to avoid terms such as proof when dealing with inconclusive and open-ended topics such as religion or certain aspects of history and archaeology. While critics seem to want secular “proof” for the Book of Mormon, that is not how science works. In science, cases are typically built with supporting evidences and a convergence of evidence from various disciplines. While evidence doesn’t typically prove a position it can demonstrate consistency with the position of the theory or claim.[ii]
Evidence is basically any data that supports a proposition. Not all evidence is equal in strength (or weight) and we evaluate the strength of evidence based on numerous other factors—including additional evidence. There is evidence for all sorts of things and even conflicting evidence on unresolved questions. “Some of it is strong to the point of proof or near-proof,” notes Dr. Daniel Peterson, while other evidence may be “weak to the point, almost, of non-existence. Much of it is somewhere in between. Until a question has been settled beyond any reasonable disagreement, there will typically be relevant evidence pointing in at least two directions, and possibly in many more. It is only when a question is effectively declared dead, when a single answer triumphs, that the seemingly contrary evidence ceases to function as evidence.”[iii]
Lastly, it’s important to understand that bias plays a large factor in the weight assigned to different evidences. No matter how we might wish it were otherwise, the fact is there is no unity among humankind. Wars are fought over religious and political disagreements, land rights, greed, real or perceived offenses, or dislike of another person’s culture or color. In the United States we are constantly bombarded with media commentaries and debates by intelligent people who disagree on various major and minor political and economic issues. All parties think they are right and can generally buttress their agendas and positions with supporting evidences. They can also generally offer reasonable explanations that counter the evidences proffered by their opponents. As atheist researcher Michael Shermer explains,
Most people, most of the time, arrive at their beliefs for a host of reasons involving personality and temperament, family dynamics and cultural background, parents and siblings, peer groups and teachers, education and books, mentors and heroes, and various life experiences, very few of which have anything at all to do with intelligence. The Enlightenment ideal of Homo rationalis has us sitting down before a table of facts, weighing them in the balance pro and con, and then employing logic and reason to determine which set of facts best supports this or that theory. This is not at all how we form beliefs. What happens is that the facts of the world are filtered by our brains through the colored lenses of worldviews, paradigms, theories, hypotheses, conjectures, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through living. We then sort through the facts and select those that confirm what we already believe and ignore or rationalize away those that contradict our beliefs.[iv]
While bias is an inescapable part of human nature, we can strive for balance if we become aware of the human limitations to rational thinking. For those who reject the divine, typically no intellectual argument will convince them otherwise. There is no way to prove the existence of God or the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ through secular argument alone.
For those who have had spiritual promptings, who can feel the divine hand in either their daily lives or at specific points in their past, or who find that the fruit of the Gospel tastes good (see Alma 32), it can be helpful to know that many secular evidences support belief.
Austin Farrer, praising C.S. Lewis once said,
“Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”[v]
In 2008, as my book Shaken Faith Syndrome was getting ready for publication, I contemplated on the fact that most of the book engaged the negative influences toward belief; my book addresses these negative influences and provides specific answers to common anti-LDS arguments. But I was a bit bothered that I hadn’t really included some of the wonderful and exciting evidences in favor of belief. So just a few short months after Shaken Faith Syndrome came off the press, Cedar Fort, Inc. Published my book, Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith.
While the critics cannot prove that God does not exist and that Joseph Smith did not speak to the Father and Son on a hill in Palmyra, neither can believers prove that an angel led Joseph to an ancient Nephite record, or that resurrected beings restored the priesthood to the young prophet. Instead, critics attempt to show that Joseph borrowed teachings and stories from his environment to create a fictional Book of Mormon as well as a man-made Church. These criticisms are addressed in Shaken Faith Syndrome. Believers can show, however, that there are many evidences which support and are consistent with the story told by Joseph Smith. There is evidence consistent with the claim that an ancient family from Jerusalem traversed the Arabian Desert in about 600 B.C. There is evidence consistent with the claim that Joseph possessed actual metal plates with the appearance of gold. There is evidence consistent with the claim that Joseph restored authentic ancient Christian teachings that were no longer practiced and/or taught by Christianity in his day.
For example, in Helaman chapter 1 we read of Paanchi, one of the sons of Pahoran who fought with his brothers for the judgment seat following their father’s death. While the names may sound made-up to some, we now know that they are authentic Egyptian names and were unlikely to have been available to Joseph Smith. Scholars at the Maxwell Institute relate the story of William F. Albright—a renowned (non-LDS) Near Eastern scholar at John Hopkins University—who responded to a critic eliciting negative comments about LDS scriptures. Albright said he was surprised to find Paanchi and Pahoran—two authentic Egyptian names—in the Book of Mormon. He also noted that the names appear in close reference to the original Book of Mormon language being written in reformed Egyptian. He didn’t know how to explain the appearance of these names and doubted that Joseph could have learned Egyptian from any early nineteenth century source. Perhaps, Albright suggested, Joseph Smith was some kind of “religious genius.”[vi]
Over the next few months, I plan to share some excerpts from Of Faith and Reason in the hopes of demonstrating that our faith in the Restored Gospel, the Book of Mormon, and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith is supported by evidence that is consistent with the claims made by the LDS Church.
[ii] Actually, science typically tries to “falsify” or eliminate the data that is least consistent with a theory, thereby strengthening those theories that are more consistent with the data.
[iv] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011), 36.
[v] Cited by Neal A. Maxwell, “Discipleship and Scholarship,” Brigham Young University Studies 32:3 (1992), 5.
[vi] John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 10 (2000): 45.