Monday, November 2, 2015

10 Lessons About History I Learned From Comments on Posts About the CES Letter.

Recently, a few bloggers who are smarter than I am have undertaken to write about the Letter to a CES Director, a document that collects and sums up dozens of thorny historical and theological questions facing Mormonism today.

I don't really care to weigh in on the CES letter in much detail, except to say that the problems it outlines are perfectly valid for discussion, and are, well, exactly as important as your perspective on Mormonism demands them to be.

Who am I to argue with Tim and Bradley?

Instead, I'm more interested in the comments posts like those tend to attract, particularly from the disaffected/ex-mormon side. While I don't think those comments are necessarily representative of exmormonism as a whole, I think I've spent enough time writing about my issues with certain faithful Mormons to shift gears and talk about...

10 Lessons About How History Works

What I learned from comments on posts written about the CES Letter.

With Parks and Rec gifs, because why not.

1. History cannot be problematized or complicated. Attempting to reframe historical questions is a dishonest apologetic exercise and is inherently illegitimate.

 2. History is a science, driven by truth and evidence. It should also be used to make unequivocal normative judgements.

3. Vis-à-vis sacred history, all religious narratives must be interpreted strictly on empirical, which is to say, historical, grounds. Any other method is illegitimate.

 4. The motives and attitudes of historical actors can and ought to be easily discerned by modern readers.

 5. Reddit is a primary source.

 6. It is a grave historical fallacy to interpret a historical actor in terms other than those they presented for themselves. Thus, if an actor posits something as true, historical analysis must proceed solely in terms of affirming or disproving that claim.

 7. Historical debates are won by appealing to the evidence. Not specific anecdotes, stories or data points, of course, but The Evidence, a univocal corpus of knowledge that points to an unambiguous, self-interpreting conclusion.

 8. Questioning, ignoring, or dismissing The Evidence is an apologist exercise, and also unscientific.

 9. Commenting on religious and historical controversies in a manner not intended to affirm or discredit prescribed narratives (see #2) is illegitimate apologetics.

 10. Joking about any of this is illegitimate too.


  1. Awesome. Now do a global warming version with The Mindy Project

  2. Well done. I learned some of the same things in my process of publishing a CES Letter review The most interesting thing to me was that Ex-Mormons seem to be more mad than fundamental, believing Mormons about the idea of viewing some historical challenges with a nuanced view.

  3. What I'm getting from your post is that history is whatever we want it to be, whatever makes us feel the best, whatever keeps the church afloat, for the love of God please keep the church afloat, please don't let me think that the church might be false, it's a sin just to think it, the church is true, the church is true, the church is true. That's what I got from this post.

    I have never had a Mormon debunk the issue's in the CES Letter related to Joseph's hunt for Captain Kidd's treasure. Captain Kidd was a man who actually did bury treasure in New York State, and suffered a loss of most of his crew in the Islands of Camorah, where the largest city is Moroni. This seems to me pretty solid evidence that Joseph was making it all up, in case you're not willing to accept the DNA evidence, the debunking of seeing stones, or the debunking of the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook plates, or the idea that black skin is a curse, or the idea that there was no death or reproduction more than 6,000 years ago.

    But, I guess this prophet was just a man of his time. I don't know where I would have gotten the idea that he was somehow capable of receiving special knowledge from the source of all truth. He was just a man of his time. I shouldn't expect his claims to actually be true.

  4. Dave, it's interesting that you jumped right to the conclusion that I care about defending the LDS church or its truth claims at all. Consider rereading the post (I'll give you a hint: start with #9) and you might realize why your comment is exactly the attitude I'm making fun of.

    1. Hmm. I could have sworn the first 6 lessons in your post were saying history is too fuzzy to come to any conclusion. Was that not the point? It's a silly claim and one used by people who defend the church against every issue.

    2. Dave, I'm afraid you've badly misread the post if that's what you took from it (and maybe you haven't ever taken a higher level history course?). Try reading it without assuming that my intent is to defend the church at all--again, that assumption is *exactly* what I'm parodying. I'm really not the apologist you're looking for.

    3. Well I guess I missed the point then. When you sarcastically say things like "History is driven by truth and evidence," it seems like you're trying to weasel out of something. So how are we suppose to reconstruct history without evidence? Why can we never make unequivocal statements based on the evidence we have? Can you not fault me for seeing that as more apologist bullcrap.

    4. I appreciate your sticking around to follow-up here. At the risk of ruining the joke by overexplaining it, I'll break it down a bit more to clarify. Here's what I wrote, sarcastically:

      "History is a science, driven by truth and evidence. It should also be used to make unequivocal normative judgements"

      I think you're interpreting that to say I'm denying the importance of evidence in history. But I agree that history is all about evidence! However, since it’s impossible to recreate the past, history isn’t about “truth” per se, but rather, developing a narrative or framework that explains the past based on available evidence. And it’s definitely not a science because sifting, weighing, and interpreting evidence is always a subjective process. Bad history is one-sided or incomplete, but even the best history is “fuzzy” to some extent.

      In my experience, some exmos adopt an ultra-rational persona and demand that church be judged on strictly “scientific” or empirical grounds, and in doing so come across as very naive about the discipline of history. You can legitimately use historical tools to argue, say, that the BoM is a 19th century document. And you can demonstrate that Joseph Smith presented it as ancient. But neither history nor science can answer the question of whether it’s capital-t True in any larger sense.

      Ultimately, it’s fine to decide that the church presents its history dishonestly, or that you reject the truth claims. But that decision is a step beyond doing history; there is no single mass of Evidence that “proves” anything. Truth, in that sense, is not a mathematical theorem. And it’s not really important for doing history. That’s why Greek historians don’t really care whether Greek gods existed—it doesn’t matter when they're trying to understand the culture and religion.

      So when someone looks at the church through a historical lens that sets truth claims aside and exmos accuse them of “apologetics”, I roll my eyes. And of course, some Mormon apologists do the exact same thing in reverse: they accuse historians/religious studies folks of being unfaithful for ignoring the truth claims. Both sides strike me as equally lazy, and that’s why I write blog posts making fun of them.

    5. So, if we're examining Mormon culture, then of course the truth claims don't matter. It doesn't matter to me if the Pope is actually infallible if I'm interested in learning about Catholic people. But, that's not what Jeremy Runnels is looking at in the CES Letter.

      It's one thing to say history is fuzzy, but to say that we don't have enough evidence to objectively and definitively say that Mormonism is false, is wrong. We have mountains of historical artifacts that show Joseph Smith to have been a liar and a predator. To say otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest. It's not like he lived in the 2nd century. We had 7 US Presidents by the time the church was founded.

      Just because I don't have an advanced degree in history doesn't mean I can't objectively look at the evidence and make a legitimate determination. Joseph Smith lied about being able to see things in a rock. He built his stories around pirate lore and treasure digging. He claimed to be able to translate Egyptian by the power of God and has been shown to be completely wrong. To say that we can't look at this evidence and be able to say whether his claims are true or false is nonsense.

      At some point, you should be able to make a determination and you make that determination using historical artifacts. It's not going beyond the scope of history to say that we can build a legitimate foundation of facts, and that those facts tell a true story. In the case of Mormonism, the facts tell a story of fraud, deception, and an egregious abuse of power.

    6. And to take us back full circle, the posts I linked to originally were explicitly framed in terms of trying to understand *why* the church has presented its past dishonestly, beyond the simplistic Scooby Doo narrative of "they were all scheming liars the whole time." In other words, they were asking historical (and sociological/religious studies/philosophical) questions. And in response, many of the comments--much like yours here--accused the posts of being apologetic, only interested in defending the church, because they refused to acknowledge that a framework of historical understanding exists separately from the framework of proving/disproving the church's truth claims, even though apologetics/counter-apologetics can use historical tools.

      And hey, if counter-apologetics matters to you, go for it! Preach far and wide that the church is a fraud; that's completely legitimate if you feel it's important. But you won't get far yelling at people who are interested in commenting on Mormonism from other frameworks.

    7. And having said all that, I'm not in a mood to give the church the benefit of the doubt today anyway; not for the historical stuff, but for the shitty way it insists on treating some people.

  5. LOL. Dave. I love it one someone comes along and proves the point for you.