long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paradigm shifts are difficult

People ask me all the time why there is so much resistance to the North American setting for the Book of Mormon.

The first answer is easy: some people still adhere to the Times and Seasons articles that Joseph Smith supposedly wrote or approved of. There are two basic problems with those articles. One, Joseph neither wrote nor approved of them. Two, the articles are patently false and ridiculous. No one I'm aware of believes Zarahemla is in Quirigua; the place doesn't even have a significant river. The buildings Stephens and Catherwood documented don't date to Book of Mormon time periods. And, of course, the articles misrepresent what the Book of Mormon says anyway. Attributing them to Joseph Smith is a huge error.

"Okay," people say, "we get that the articles are invalid. Why do some scholars still insist Mesoamerica is the setting for the Book of Mormon anyway?"

This answer is difficult for many people to believe, but it's a common academic response; i.e., the academics have been advocating the Mesoamerican theory for so long they don't care any more that it originated from these ridiculous articles. The Mesoamerican theory has acquired a life of its own. It doesn't matter that Mesoamerican proponents have to assume the Book of Mormon text is wrong. It doesn't matter that they have to assume Joseph Smith was speculating. And it doesn't matter that there is zero evidence of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. They adhere to their theories because they are their theories!

Confirmation bias is a well-known problem and I could cite dozens of experts on it, but it's kind of fun to cite novelists, so here goes. Leo Tolstoy astutely summarized the problem over a century ago:

"I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others and which they have woven thread by thread into the fabric of their lives."

In The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), Tolstoy observed, "The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him" (ch. 3). Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett, New York, 1894. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4602/pg4602.txt

So there's the answer. The shift to North America from Mesoamerica is going to have to come from the people, not from the self-appointed scholars who have insisted for decades that the Book of Mormon can only have taken place in Mesoamerica. We can hope--maybe even expect--that some leading scholars will change their minds, but it will take something unusually significant to persuade the rest of them.

In a way, this is the inverse of the old adage that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The "extraordinary claim" in this case is the Mesoamerican theory; i.e., that there were two Cumorahs, that Joseph wrote (or approved of) the ridiculous Times and Seasons articles, the the complete absence of evidence of Book of Mormon people and culture in Mesoamerica is somehow evidence of them, etc. 

By contrast, the North American setting is easy: it is consistent with everything the scriptures say, it fits everything Joseph himself said, and it is corroborated by objective archaeology. 

True, it is an extraordinary claim that Joseph translated the ancient plates by revelation, but the extraordinary evidence of that is the book itself. Why make additional, unnecessary extraordinary claims about Mesoamerica? 

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