Fair Mormon Conf – Dan Peterson: Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director

The videos from the Fair Mormon Conference are now available, for those of us who missed the actual conference itself.

Jeremy Runnells and Dan Peterson

Jeremy Runnells and Dan Peterson

Of those that haven’t been covered, I was drawn to Dan Peterson’s discussion of Letter to a CES Director, which is 90 pages of challenges to the truth claims of the Church. By way of history, a CES Director wrote to Jeremy Runnells, a young man who had left the Church, asking why he had left. And so the fellow assembled 90 pages of objections that would take 500 pages to respond to. [I note that Mormon Stories episodes 480-482 from June 2014 are with Jeremy Runnells.]

The motif of the letter is a shotgun blast of objections, the big list technique, which gives the impression that there are insurmountable objections. These objections are compiled by individuals too intellectually lazy (my words) to examine the many existing faithful explanations, and who are clearly also too intellectually lazy to investigate to defenders’ explanations. If the defenders ever answer “I don’t know,” the attacker can declare victory. It is a painfully familiar technique.

[Updated based on kinglamoni’s comment objecting to my use of the term “lazy.” When people fling objections to which there are valid responses and when these accusers don’t give any indication that they’ve bothered to research the matter, and then go about promoting their views aggressively, then I’ll amend my “lazy” to intellectually lazy, or intellectually dishonest. And anyone who swallows these objections whole without considering the data is likewise intellectually lazy. By the way, I went and invited Jeremy Runnells to read and consider the information I was writing in my Faithful Joseph series a few months ago, and he never bothered responding. So I have my own reasons for thinking he is unwilling to consider information that might challenge his new-found fame.]

The Fair Mormon wiki has done a good job of organizing responses to the objections raised by the letter. Dan Petersen goes through a few of the objections raised by the writer of Letter to a CES Director:

1) DNA evidence – the writer of the CES letter grossly simplifies the matter. Dan explains, for example, the reason that the Book of Mormon never makes claims that some have made on behalf of the book, such as the idea that Book of Mormon peoples were the primary ancestors of the Indians. But the Book of Mormon never claims this for itself.

2) Anachronisms – [image of John Sorenson Mormon’s Codex shown] the author of the Letter to a CES Director indicates there is no evidence, which is wrong. He could say it isn’t persuasive, but this is not what he says. He acts as though the vast writings available on this matter simply don’t exist.

3) Archaeology – states there is no direct evidence. But archaeology rarely directly supports anything, citing the example of Jerusalem, which only recently was identified by an inscription, versus tradition. There is no evidence that the author has engaged the data. He makes claims about Book of Mormon Geography that are patently untrue. It is clear from the Book of Mormon text that the events take place in a limited area, not the entirety of the American continents.

4) Claim that NWAF was financed by the Church, but that founder, Thomas Stewart Ferguson, failed and lost his testimony. But the NWAF was not an LDS organization. Ferguson was a lawyer, not an archaeologist. It was specifically forbidden from looking for Book of Mormon evidences. Why not write about those who actually were archaeologists who did believe the data supports the Book of Mormon?

The Letter to a CES Director makes no attempts to deal with positive evidences, such as Wadi Sayq/Khor Kharfot site in Saudi Arabia, which for many reasons appears to be the land of Bountiful described in the Book of Mormon. These positive archealogical “proofs” are simply ignored.

The Vernal Holly maps based on the Solomon Spaulding theory of the Book of Mormon. The Solomon Spaulding theory has been exploded so many times, but the accusations keep coming back like some kind of brainless zombie. Vernal Holly tries to make correspondences between Book of Mormon locations and existing locations, but they aren’t in the same locations (and from reviewing the Fair Mormon discussion, some didn’t exist at the time of the Book of Mormon). But if you have no standards for evidence, anything can count as “evidence.”

5) Discussion of Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, which some critics see as a source of the Book of Mormon. It is not similar to the Book of Mormon at all, and this has been well-covered in publications such as Larry Morrison’s discussion of Oliver Cowdery’s Vermont years, which shows the theory that the Book of Mormon could have been based on View of the Hebrews is untenable.

6) The Letter to a CES Director asserts The Late War could be a source for the Book of Mormon, but there is no acknowledgement of Ben McGuire’s article in Interpreter Volume 7, or information such as the presentation by Matt Roper & Paul Fields on Scriptural Style in Early Nineteenth Century American Literature.

7) The translation of the Book of Mormon, claiming Church deception, since illustrations have gotten it wrong. Dan Peterson goes on at length showing a variety of illustrations that are patently incorrect, such as the famous picture of Samuel the Lamanite on the wall, the pictures of the holy family traveling to Egypt, or showing the plates and the eight witnesses around a stump. Dan gives an example from C. S. Lewis’ book Out of the Silent Planet, where the cover was clearly created by someone who had not read the book. Dan discusses the inaccuracies in Ben Hur, showing events that could not occur in the historical landscape.

There is no discussion of the extensive research performed by those such as Royal Skousen, looking at the nuances of the manuscripts, which supports the traditional story of the Book of Mormon rather than the hypothesized use of other manuscripts. The errors in the manuscript shows errors one would make based on mishearing, where the printer’s manucript shows errors in transcription (such as Amalekites in lieu of Amlicites). Those who were present during the translation consistently refuted the idea that Joseph was reading from a book or manuscript. Joseph dictated from words he was seeing in the seer stone in the hat, with the plates wrapped in a cloth on the table. There was no curtain between Joseph and the scribes, and the translation took place in the room where the family was working, in full view of Emma, even when she wasn’t the scribe.

8) Criticisms of the First Vision accounts, but there is no engagement with the fine work by scholars such as Jack Welch, Milton Bachman, Richard Lloyd Anderson or Richard Bushman. No sign the critic has bothered looking at this information.

9) Book of Abraham – the fellow claimed this was the smoking gun that obliterated his testimony. He claims the ancient world as understood is completely wrong. But in fact the Book of Abraham gets much right, and doesn’t describe the Newtonian world the critic presumes, rather describes a primitive geocentric astronomy that would have been appropriate to Abraham in that era. The critic claims Joseph got everything wrong, but he is wrong. Dan Peterson mentions articles that show plausible claims, but focuses on the crocodile god, as the idolatrous god of Pharoah. This is completely true of that time and place in Egypt. The Greeks basically called the city crocodilopolis! Sobek was the name of the crocodile god, and the pharaohs took the name of Sobek.

10) Polygamy is a big issue for the person who wrote the CES Letter. The Persistence of Polygamy and Brian Hales’ massive work are complete ignored as to how they address these issues.

11) Attacking the witnesses, as though they were primitive people would couldn’t distinguish fantasy from reality. Richard Lloyd Anderson’s “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” does a beautiful job of addressing these concerns. The smugness of the attack is condescending, as though only recently have people learned to experience the physical world. We, in our air conditioning and packaged foods with no relationship to seasons or weather, we are the one’s saying pre-industrial folks were estranged from reality?

There’s a funny story where Martin Harris was wondering at the weight of the contents of the box in which the plates were allegedly kept, saying he knew Joseph didn’t have enough credit to afford that much lead… The witnesses cannot be simply brushed aside so easily.

The writer of the Letter claims the Strangite witnesses were more of the same. But Strang’s witnesses were not on the same par.

Everything is thrown in – the September Six, the temple, Paul Dunn, and on and on. But Dan Peterson got bored with responding at a certain point. He suggests that we don’t just defend. If we only defend, we will probably lose. We need to build up rather than just meet the objections. Dan suggests several books.

– Richard Lloyd Anderson’s Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, showing they were sane, stable, reputable people.

– Opening the Heavens by Jack Welch, a deeply faith-promoting book.

– Remembering Joseph by Martin McConkie, which includes a CD with an additional 2000 pages of content that couldn’t be crammed into the book.

– Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon makes a powerful case.

– Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, showing the ties between the Book of Mormon and the Middle East and Meso-America.

Much depends on the attitude we bring to things. When we hear a negative report about someone, it depends what we have already known about that person. When we hear negative things about Joseph Smith, it really matters how well we know Joseph Smith.

Dan doesn’t object to the attempt to examine Mormonism, but the Letter to a CES Director does not do that. It doesn’t attempt to address the uncanny way Joseph hit on salient texts and resolved them, or how Joseph comes closer to the teachings of the primitive Church than the Augustinian fathers.

The shallow con artist portrayed by Letter to a CES Director could not have done what Joseph did, even if Joseph wasn’t what he claimed.

Those who have abandoned the Church over the Letter to a CES Director should re-examine the data. They have not studied enough.

Dan agrees that we must do a better job of teaching our history, so people know about things such as multiple accounts of the First Vision or the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He suggested that getting a controlled dose of such information, from people who have our best interests at heart, will protect us from the damage that occurs when individuals encounter these assertions in the wild from those who do not have their best interests at heart.

I would add that those attempting to challenge faith in Mormonism stand to gain from their attempts, as surely as Nehor or his like ever did.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

15 thoughts on “Fair Mormon Conf – Dan Peterson: Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director

  1. Thanks for the summary, Meg.

    I agree that the term “intellectually lazy” is appropriate in this context. I read parts of the letter awhile back and it was fairly clear that whoever complied it was just throwing out excuses and unwilling to do the heavy lifting that comes with true research (like your polygamy series) or with gaining a testimony of the gospel.

    Thanks again for the summary. You’re my favorite writer at M*.

  2. Well, there you have it. Same story, different day. Part of me wishes someone would come up with something new on occasion. I guess the DNA stuff is a modern objection as most of others date back to the founding of the church itself.

    Back in 1984, I got a copy of Dick Baer’s “53 False Prophesies of Joseph Smith.” Rather than cause me to bolt from the Church after 2 years of membership, I decided to research all the claims and write a response, mainly for myself. it took me two years to do it as there was no Internet at the time and I relied on asking questions, buying books and doing research in libraries (the old fashion way!) I even went to the Church Office building and spoke with Public Affairs on one claim.

    As a result, my testimony grew as I came to understand the Doctrine and Covenants and some aspects of Church History in the right light and by the right spirit. After years of confronting the critics of the Church, their arguments are old and tired, mostly inaccurate and in the end quite boring. Yet they persist and some poor souls buy into it without doing their homework and the benefit of prayer.

    I’m most frustrated these with the cookie cutter exit stories. Just like the anti-mormons of old that Hugh Nibley pointed out relied on one another for their proof and corroboration, the new methods use the same laundry of objections to leave the Church. And the sad part is they could just say they lost interest in the Church and leave it at that.

    Thank you, Meg for the post.

  3. My thoughts were the same as Jeff’s when I started to read the letter. It’s all been asked and answered before. Moreover, much it it was the same old hyperbole of false absolutes.

    Intellectually lazy, or plain lazy, is a very charitable description of the piece. Ill-intentioned and deceptive seem more accurate.

  4. I think intellectually lazy is an unfair accusation. The real reason why Jeremy rejected the church isn’t for any of those reasons. He rejected the church first, because it sounded and felt crazy, (which it does) and found a bunch of tired anti-Mormon objections to compile in order to justify his feelings. He never was a true intellectual, so you can’t expect him to engage intellectually with apologetics.

    The church’s truth claims present us with insurmountable (insurmountable but by faith) absurdities so striking that the temptation to simply dismiss apologetics is simply too overpowering. No true non-Mormon intellectual engages with LDS apologetics because he doesn’t feel that unfalsifiable religious absurdities are worth his time. If he did, he might be surprised at just how compelling the evidence actually is. But we must remember at the end of the day that our evidence, no matter how compelling, seeks to support propositions absolutely 100% backwards to the modern intellectual mindset.

  5. “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.”

    There are valid criticisms of the Church, and genuine unanswered questions. The cut and paste job of Jeremy Runnells doesn’t come close to any of those. Intellectual laziness is the tautology that “real intellectuals” are those who understand that God was created in the image of man, and therefore God was created in the image of man because the real intellectuals say so. Laziness is the ad hominem of dismissing the intelligence of those who believe in ghosts, demons, angels, devils, cockatrices, unicorns, or dragons. Laziness is the false premise of stating that believers simply state that “God did it,” when the history of science is the history of believers trying to understand the ways of God (but you, “as an actual intellectual,” are so far beyond the pathetic, God-bound visions of Copernicus, Brahe, Bacon, Galileo, Descarte, Pascal, Leibnez, Netwon, Bayes, Milner, Dalton, Boole, Faraday, Maxwell, Mendel, Joule, Hertz, Salmon, Kelvin, Cantor, Marconi, Bragg, Carver, Planck, Milne, Millikan, Lemaitre, Godel, Eyring, Rossini, Eccles, and Jaki — to name just a small percentage). If only they had sought out truth, honesty, and integrity the way you had instead of merely saying “God did it” — how much better would the human condition now be.

    You ask why we are not with you. I am not one of you because I seek out the truth, which cannot be found by intellect. As C. S. Lewis has said, if man is only a machine, and the brain only the mechanical controls, then why should we trust the results of this intellect which cannot transcend itself. I am not one of you because I have found the truth through the transcendence you deny.

    “We care about truth, honesty and integrity. Period.” Forgive me if I doubt your statement, as the derision and dismissal in your post ring too loudly.

  6. I think Dan Peterson was hoping for something other than the tired divel that has been flung (and countered) in the past.

    For those who consider religion drivel, I must presume you haven’t had the experiences I have had. It’s odd to insist, for example, that there is no such thing as a black swan merely because you have not seen one.

  7. Meg, your comment reminds me of my favorite line (and what I want as my life’s epitaph):

    “A man with experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument. “

  8. @Nate, “He never was a true intellectual, so you can’t expect him to engage intellectually with apologetics.”

    One doesnt have to be an intellectual to do rudimentary online research. nor is it a physical endeavor (other than typing). The accusation of “intellectually lazy” was not an accusation of being an intellectual. I understood it as an accusation that he didnt even bother to think through the anti-mormon claims and do _minimal_ online research, say at Farms or FAIR.

    one doesnt have to be an intellectual (putting human argument above emotions and spirit) to use his intellect.

    Would mentally lazy have been better? or just plain lazy?

    is this guy so new to online mormonism and anti-mormonism that he doesnt know of Farms and Fair?

    I do agree with your assessment that he likely rejected the church first, and then just went looking for convenient ammunition to justify his decision. but in that case, I still would say his shotgun approach of using “already answered” issues was lazy.

    farms, Fair, interpreter, Shields, JeffLindsay.com
    Are there any other links to give to beginner/amateur anti-Mormons when one responds to them with “Ho-hum. ASked and answered, go read….” ??

  9. I had originally merely said “lazy,” which evoked a response from kinglamoni (who apparently has gotten himself on automatic moderation, thus the comment never showed up here). So I amended it to intellectually lazy.

    A comment regarding moderation. I don’t think I’ve ever moderated my posts. But if someone is on automatic moderation already due to their behavior in the past, I may or may not approve the comment. If I detect language that suggests to me why the person is on moderation, I respect the “owners” here at M* and let them make the decision on approval.

    Sometimes comments go on a weird tangent that we collectively decide is inappropriate (such as commenting on someone’s appearance), and those will get taken down.

    And there are times when I’ve posted something and it’s been suggested that I modify what I’ve said, which I do.

  10. Regarding Brother Peterson’s recommended books, I heartily second Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon–probably the best thing I have ever read on the Book of Mormon. As a former English major, I have long had an appreciation for the literary complexity and structural sophistication of the BoM. Critics who think Joseph was cuisinarting the Bible, Apocrypha, and various 19th-century works (and dictating it all, no less) will have quite a job on their hands to explain away such a performance–the result of which is not only spiritually edifying, but very pleasing aesthetically.

  11. When the spirit of apostasy gets a hold of a person they become deaf and blind to the truth, that’s why they are always found kicking against the pricks, it’s like an illness that they don’t want a cure for because going to the hospital will mean they will have to acknowledge they are sick.

  12. I think you mean that sometimes we refer to comments, even though the comments are no longer extant.

    I will just say that I don’t think I’ve ever removed someone’s comment, but I just “rent space” here, if you will. Those with a vested interest in the tone and future of this blog have a right to do what they want. And sometimes what happens is folks gang up on the “owners” to defend someone, as happened with Nate over on the discussion regarding the survey results for SSM and tolerance for other sex-related behaviors, such as pornography.

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