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Re-blogged from August, 2011

“Can I believe this?” and “Is this believable?” are two very different questions.

I’ve spent a lot of time driving over the last few days.  On one recent road trip I downloaded and listened to one of the latest Mormon Stories podcasts featuring Daniel Peterson. I fully expected it to be a train wreck because all I really knew of him was the caricature of him on the former-Mormon message boards.  He’s a well-known Mormon apologist.

I have to admit that he wasn’t as bad as I anticipated and I was able to listen with sincere curiosity and without pulling over to throw up. At the very best, I can at least understand where he is coming from in his belief and in his vigor to “defend the faith.”

I agree with him on many points, others not so much.  He’s probably correct at stating how the LDS policy of excluding loving family members from their daughters’ and sons’ temple weddings does far more harm than good for a church that likes to market itself as “family friendly.” It’s mean-spirited and clearly not a universal requirement as it isn’t enforced overseas. He gets an ‘A’ on that subject

He’s much weaker in his own attempt to understand homosexuality or imagine the LDS church adjusting its policies in that arena, even though he claims to support “civil unions” and granting all relationship rights on a personal level.  I’d give him a C- there.

I also give him low marks for the often-heard LDS claim that it’s a member’s own fault for not knowing the dark side of LDS history. One shouldn’t have to venture beyond lesson manuals or missionary discussions to learn the truth of a religion. It should also be made evident BEFORE extracting a life-long commitment out of someone.  Is an 8 year old really responsible for doing due diligence to discover that what she learns in primary are glossy half-truths? He gets a F there.

At his worst, I think he described accurately how he lives within the standard circular logic and reasoning  of most educated Mormons. He pretty blatantly admits that he approaches everything he does from a position that the LDS Church is already true as if that’s real honest investigative work. But he claims to think that that’s what all scientists do. I think a middle school science student could probably call him out on that. And as much as I like the gentle interviewer, Dan Wortherspoon, I believe he soft-pedaled it too much at these interludes and didn’t challenge Peterson’s circular statements.

I  remember Peterson from 2 experiences back when I was still LDS. Long ago at BYU, I attended either a symposium or a fireside where he discussed similarities and interesting facts between Mormonism and Islam.  It was a pretty innocuous presentation that I found interesting. I also remember watching him as a talking head in at least one video shown in Gospel Doctrine class just as I was finding out all of the weaknesses in Church history and doctrine.  At the time, what he said appeared to be a flat out lie to me.  He stated that scientists are regularly discovering facts which support the factual claims made in the Book of Mormon.

In this podcast, he actually explains himself in this regard and I still believe the statement is deceptive, but I can also see the chain of reasoning that takes him there. Here’s the problem:

In his response to the question of whether or not given all the evidence the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, Mormon leaders, etc. are believable Mr Peterson gives an emphatic “Yes!” The problem is , however, that he’s actually answering a different question.

It’s not believable and he knows it.

What he’s actually saying is that “Yes, one CAN believe this stuff.”

“Can I believe this?” and “Is this believable?” are two very different questions.

What Peterson does in his work is give believing Mormons permission to keep it up…to continue believing, or for new and younger members to start believing.  There’s a very low threshold required to be able to believe something so in the end that’s not really a tall order. Gullibility abounds in humans and Mormons (and ex-Mormons) are no exception… multi-level marketing, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, frauds, religious followings… yada, yada, yada…. To give yourself permission to believe in something, anything, doesn’t really require more than the thinnest of vague evidences. A mere hint really is all it takes. Children don’t even need that. They’ll literally believe anything. Presumably adults will require more, but it is certainly not much more.

Peterson mentions a couple of times that the doubters he encounters are often beyond helping because they are only willing to hear one answer: that the LDS Church is a fraud. How is that any different than himself? Like these doubters who approach him, he’s obviously willing to at least hear a dissonant note, or to lay eyes on a contradiction.  He’s just not willing to actually listen or consider it. He’s always ready and willing with only one answer: that the LDS Church is true.

The answer to, “Can I believe this?” is almost always “Yes!”

“Is it believable” on the other hand requires taking a step back and approaching the topic from an independent perspective without assuming truth or falsehood. In scientific language that means developing a “null hypothesis.” As I understand it, if you are honestly searching for truth on a particular topic you need to figure out the conditions and facts which would lead you to conclude falsehood.  And this needs to be done ahead of time…before the fact-gathering and investigation.

To put it more simply, an honest investigator of Mormonism would need to decide, “It’s not true if _______”. Then whatever that was would have to be something universal that could be repeated by anyone and everyone with the same result. Most Mormons I know couldn’t ever perform this hypothetical mind exercise and clearly Mormon scholars don’t.

The problem is that Peterson and most other believers are unable to imagine a null hypothesis in this manner. Personal feelings, emotions and vague experiences don’t qualify because there are too many contradictory experiences as well as similar ones in other faith traditions.

If it were indeed believable, just about anyone performing the “test” or the investigation with the same null hypothesis would come to the same conclusion…Mormon and non-Mormon alike.  Yet, it is an interesting observation that I don’t think there’s one non-Mormon scholar, for example, who would claim that there’s even a shred of plausibility for the Book of Mormon like Peterson does. You can only reach his conclusion by entering the investigation with the exact same prejudices and biases that he does.

I love the story a friend of mine once told me of his chance meeting on the subway with a well-known scholar at his university.  The two chatted and the discussion led to the topic of my friend’s faith in Mormonism whereupon the scholar asked my friend to elaborate.  As a recently returned missionary, my friend happily related the first few missionary discussions briefly.  As they both exited the subway car at their stop, the scholar shook my friend’s hand and said, “You’ve done a very good job at explaining all that. It now seems just slightly less implausible.”

In other words, “I can see why you give yourself permission to believe all that, but it still remains unbelievable.”

Ex-Mormon Scholars Testify

Mormon Scholars Testify

Believability depends a LOT on context