William J. Hamblin, a noted apologist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon church), today on his blog noted something particularly significant with regard to Book of Mormon historicity (whether the book is a real historical account), which has never been stated so plainly before by LDS apologists to this writer’s knowledge:
I maintain that the only thing that could securely establish the historicity of Book of Mormon peoples would be written texts containing BOM personal names or place names. No other type of evidence would be conclusive.
Neither Hamblin or any other apologist, researcher, or scholar has discovered or offered such written textual evidence of Book of Mormon people or place names in Mesoamerica, and so Hamblin has essentially conceded that there is no conclusive evidence that has been found to date that confirms the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon, at least in Mesoamerica. Given the many books, articles, conferences, journals, magazines, videos, and other materials published in abundance by Mormon scholars over many decades, if not the last 185 years, concerning Book of Mormon historicity claims, it is significant to note that there is admittedly absolutely nothing conclusive in Mesoamerican discoveries that has confirmed the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Of course, Hamblin gives himself an out by claiming that we simply don’t have sufficient data to show that the evidence doesn’t exist. It just hasn’t been found yet, was never created in the first place, or perhaps has been destroyed by the elements through time. If there were enough comprehensive data available, without evidence of Book of Mormon names, it would be considerably problematic for the historicity of the book, even for this esteemed apologist:
…the best test of “falsifiability” for the Book of Mormon would be the absence of BOM names in the corpus of Preclassic inscriptions. If we had, say, phonetic readings for several several thousand personal and place names in Preclassic Mesoamerica, and found no BOM names there, that would be problematic for the BOM. The problem is, there is no such data.
And so LDS apologists will continue to kick the can of evidence further down the road, claiming that there is not sufficient evidence to make a conclusive judgement. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is their popular refrain. Of course, such reasoning can only be taken so far, and LDS apologists long ago were knocking on that door. Having not found any conclusive evidence for Big Foot is not sufficient grounds for continuing to believe that it is an actual creature who lurks in the forests of America, and that we should withhold our judgement of its existence until more data comes in, or worse yet, continue to believe wholeheartedly that Big Foot lives even though no conclusive evidence exists, anywhere. The fact might simply be that no conclusive evidence has been found because it doesn’t exist. Yet claiming insufficient evidence, it seems, will continue to be the apologist chorus for some time to come. Of course, the critics are sounding a similar horn – there is no evidence, so what does that tell us.
Furthermore, LDS apologists are in a hard place, since discoveries of conclusive evidence seem to be expressly prohibited in Mormon theology. In an earlier blog post Hamblin notes:
To accept the Book of Mormon as history requires accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet and Jesus as the Christ.
So what would conclusive historical evidence do? The apologists claim it would confirm with certainty that the book’s history is at least partially true, that Joseph Smith was a true prophet for having inexplicably brought it to light, that the religion he formed must be true in some sense, and that Jesus is the Christ. God presumably wouldn’t allow this to happen, since it infringes upon man’s free agency, exercise of faith, and freedom of belief. As Daniel C. Peterson wrote in a recent Deseret News column:
We live in a world where answers to the question of whether to accept the claims of the Restoration or not, or even whether we should believe in God or not, are “underdetermined” by the publicly available evidence. Seeming evidence exists on either side, but there’s no agreed-upon proof, not enough evidence to force a decision.
Inescapably, though, we must still decide.
This is, I think, is [sic] deliberate. It’s vital to the divine design of mortality as a testing ground.
Terryl Givens, another noted LDS scholar and apologist, has also recently noted the same lack of certain evidence as a deliberate necessity for faith:
An overwhelming preponderance of evidence [read “conclusive”] on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.
And so conclusive evidence of the veracity of the religion and its claims is explicitly prohibited by Mormonism on the basis of maintaining faith, or a belief in things which cannot be proven; they must forever remain “things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Things of faith cannot cross the line into objective knowledge. They must remain subjective for us to be free and thrive.
But this is entirely opposite the way things work in the real world. In order to learn about anything, we must study that thing, the direct, objective, available evidence, to know whether it is one way or another, and to establish any truth claims as to its features, functions, and reality. Every day there are hundreds, if not thousands, of certain evidences for the truth of the real world, of the way things really are in our perceptual universe. Are each of these holding loaded guns pointed at our heads? Am I losing out on freely believing if I discover that birds, indeed, can fly? What do I give up if I find that the sun rises in the morning and sets at night? Do I lose my free agency somehow if I come to know with certainty that Africa is, in reality, a continent? If I’m “forced to believe” that bees help pollinate flowers, have I just become an automaton of some sort? Hoping something is true is entirely different than discovering the truth of something in reality. And the truth of reality seems to be far more important than anything we could subjectively hope is true. Doesn’t Jesus himself proclaim that the truth will set us free? (John 8:32). Yet these apologists claim that certainty in knowing these things would rob us of our agency, destroy our freedom, and force us into behaving in ways that are contrary to our will.
It’s a paradoxical position to be in when you claim something is historical, but can never show with any certainty that it is—this history really happened, but we can never show conclusively that it did. And you can explain away the lack of certain evidence to God preserving our free agency and exercise of faith. Of course, you must have faith in God to start, that he is preserving our free agency in this way. If you don’t have faith in God, then the lack of evidence cannot be explained away so easily. It’s a circular argument. We don’t have evidence of a book which claims certain things about God because that God of which it speaks is withholding the evidence, which is why we don’t have it.
Even if scholars were to find out with a perfect knowledge the history of Mesoamerica, with every piece of evidence fully uncovered of the people who once lived in that region, Mormon theology mandates that conclusive evidence could never be found for the Book of Mormon. Not a scrap. This puts the Book of Mormon in a difficult place ontologically and epistemologically. How can you honestly claim such a thing really exists in the real world? It means that God is playing the Great Deceiver, that what is there is not really what was there, and what is not there was really there. Really?
Think about it, which is admittedly hard to do because of the paradoxes. What would happen if a coin was discovered in a dig in Mesoamerica which had an inscription that when translated read “Nephi, son of Lehi, brother of Laman and Lemuel…” According to the apologists, all of the sudden scholars and the public would have to accept the Book of Mormon as at least partially a true literal history of an ancient Mesoamerican people, Joseph Smith as a true prophet who discovered and translated the record, and the LDS Church as a “true” church. Of course, some could outright reject the given evidence, as many foolish flat-Earthers do with the shape of the Earth, but the majority of sane people, when presented with the secular mainstream peer-reviewed plain evidence of these inscribed names as actual historical people who once lived, would view the church in an entirely different light. They could no longer accept the church and its claims as a matter of faith, but of objective history. The Church would fall out of the scope of religion, and enter the history books. It would be extremely difficult to brush off Joseph as anything other than a true prophet for having uncovered these things in the way he said he did. It would, it seems, destroy the LDS Church as a religion, and make it into some kind of scientific institution, one that seemingly proved the existence of God, with the particular qualities taught by the church. Accordingly, the ripple effects would deny people everywhere of their free will to choose faith, God, religion, etc. So by the very definition of faith in the LDS Church, conclusive evidence cannot be found. It won’t permit it. It must forever remain in the realm of subjectivity.
No, if the book is true history, as LDS apologists claim, then it demands that there exist no discovered sure evidence of its existence in the physical world. If the book is not true history, then we will never find any sure evidence of its existence in the physical world. So, in other words, there will never be any sure evidence of its existence found, one way or the other, whether true or false. Such is the strange paradoxical nature of its claims. Joseph positioned the book in the real world, but we can never find conclusive evidence for it in the real world. It’s a paradox in the extreme. It seems we need to study paradoxes to better understand what it is this religion is trying to do.
To claim the book is historical must be an act of faith. The nature of the book demands it. Studying the book in such a way cannot be a true professional academic discipline because it requires an act of faith. It’s like saying that Christ Resurrection Studies is an academic discipline. One cannot objectively, scientifically, evaluate the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. This isn’t an academic secular question, it is a religious question, a question of faith, demanded by the book itself and its religion.
So when LDS apologists, missionaries, and members ask people to consider their historic claims of the Book of Mormon, they are in reality asking you to have faith in Mormonism. The historicity of the Book of Mormon is not a question of objective historical inquiry. It can never be. By its own standards the conclusive evidence for it will never be available to place it in objective reality. Trying to show the historicity of the Book of Mormon is therefore an attempt to engage in proselytism, and engender faith in Mormonism. It is not an attempt to show the world as it really is.
Do I doubt the Church’s teachings on the Book of Mormon? I do.