Joseph’s Caricature of Egyptian “Caractors”

6 Apr

The Historian Dan Vogel recently presented an interesting three-part analysis of the “caractors” Joseph Smith claimed to have copied form the gold plates. Vogel has made a couple dozen of videos covering Joseph Smith and early Mormon history (see below).

What makes Vogel’s analysis particularly interesting is that he identifies internal textual features that suggest a progressive degrading in Joseph’s ability to create novel caractors as he proceeded.  This moves beyond finding parallels of potential scripts that Joseph may have altered. [1]

Part 1.  Joseph Smith Makes a Sample of Characters

Part 2. Book of Mormon Characters Examined

Part 3. How Joseph Smith Invented Reformed Egyptian


[1] For example, see the analysis of the “Detroit Manuscript” by Richard Stout and William Moore:


A Strategic Witness for the Mormon Right

29 Mar

The Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks recently gave a talk, “A Witness to God,” at BYU-Idaho devotional [1, 2]. I learned of it was through an interesting panel discussion on the Mormon Expositor podcast, which prompted my own reading (after 2 minutes of trying to watch). [3]

Here is my outline of his talk, interpreted through the lens of a pigeonholed “anti-Christ.”  Yes, sadly, I am now a bone fide Christian bogeymen courtesy of the apostle John as reconstituted by the apostle Dallin.

I. Welcome all Christian-like Mormons.

  • You too are fundamentalist Christians (So get ready to join forces with them).

II. The true threats to the fabric of your beings are atheists and secular humanists.

  • Atheists are the true anti-Christs (not those whorish apostate Christian sects).
  • They want to replace our true absolute morality with unbridled moral relativism (even though they have done much good in the world).
  • By glorifying reason they subvert the wisdom of God (most of which we admittedly don’t comprehend).
  • The “Great and Abominable Church” is no longer the collection of whorish apostate Christian sects. It’s everything atheists and secular humanists associate with (and I’ve got a single New Testament verse to prove it).

III. Here’s what you got to do.

  • Ramp up the god-talk through your private prayers and greetings  (particularly with Christmas and sympathy cards).
  • Ramp up your god-talk in public settings (like public schools and town meetings).
  • Demand your “free exercise of religion” (which means imposing ours on others using our collective political influence).

IV. Conclusion

  • Let us us join forces with the Christian right to battle the anti-Christ (and stop gay marriage).


So, what’s going on here?

I’ve recently noticed Mormon leaders making Christian right-sounding noises. Perhaps it’s been going on for a while – but Oaks was sure trumpeting it here. Feels like the transformation is almost complete.

It’s interesting to see an “apostle” of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”(D&C 130)  sidling up to the sects whose clerics were used to represent the devil not so many years ago [4]. Indeed, this was the whole point of Oaks redefining the “great and abominable church” in terms of atheists/secularists. Pretty clever move – very strategic. But his “making a deal with the devil” seems like an act of desperation and weakness.

While there are relatively few overt atheists in the US, they do dominate the intellectual landscape and are winning arguments that play by the rules of reason and evidence [5].  In that regard, think Oaks and other conservative Christian leaders are justifiably scared – and, perhaps, suffering from beaten egos.

Indeed, despite the massive herds they can so easily persuade to fall in behind them, they don’t get much respect at the “grown-ups” tables – unless they can deliver votes. And this is because they are not growing up. Their dogmatic views are stuck in the information-poor past. They bring nothing new or useful to broader conversations about the future – their “spiritual method” of producing “knowledge” is good for little more than confirming ancient dogma and buying up properties. And it doesn’t take much surface scratching to reveal that their lip-flapping is mostly about preserving the narrowly circumscribed interests of their own oligarchies [6].

And so, Falwell-esque bombasticisms is all Oaks can muster as he seeks to make – or pretend to make – Mormonism into just another fundamentalist Christian bubble [7]. The strategy seems to be to find shelter and support in their frothy midst.[8]

Bubbles of the world unite!


[1] The video:

[2] The transcript:


[4] The Mormon temple endowment ritual used to portray the devil dressed up like a 19th century Christian cleric.

[5]  We should keep in mind that many religious people are secularists with respect to how the public and government institutions of a pluralistic democratic society should be run.

[6] For Mormons, democracy and  the U.S. Constitution are provisional, serving to protect the the institution until the time when the priesthood can take the reigns of a true theocracy.

[7] I count the acceptance of Biblical literalism through the added support of its exclusive scripture (e.g. the Book of Mormon and Book of Moses confirm the Tower of Babel and the Flood as historical) as a defining feature of Fundamentalism.

[8] One commenter used the wagon train analogy: “Mormonism is once again circling the wagons and holding their head low.” Yes, and I would add that their strategy is to first paint their own wagons to look more like the more dominant Christian Right wagons and then find an inconspicuous safe spot among them. (See

Satan Takes the Heat Off – But Solves No Problems

12 Mar

Satan appears to accomplish both theological and psychological work for religion, both for the individual believer and for the institution.

Theologically, Satan could take some of the problem-of-evil heat off God. But perhaps this ends up generating more heat when its implications are thought through. This is likely why it serves this function implicitly and is seldom brought up in the debate.

Psychologically, Satan give believers someone to project their disposition to be selfish or to be subsumed by in-group imperatives – mostly others’ in-groups – that cause harm. In other words, Satan takes some of the problem-of-evil heat off ourselves, allowing us to maintain an illusion of being a essentially good and integrated-self and justify nasty thoughts and actions against our antagonists.

The Satan delivered by preachers – institutional proxies -  is a useful bogeymen – a means of scaring people into obedience and inducing them to seek shelter in the church. Of course it doesn’t feel like this to a person for whom Satan is real.

More and more people are seeing Satan as a blunt instrument and difficult to abide his real existence, even without dressing him up with horns and a pitchfork.  Recent surveys [citation needed] show significant differences in levels of belief between god and the devil and between heaven and hell. Hopefully this is a consequence of people coming realize that a demon-haunted worldview hinders the advance of a real understanding about the human condition and, in doing so, is an obstruction to progress toward a lasting remediation of evil.

Meanwhile, modern cognitive science and social psychology are developing empirical evidence that our intuitive feeling of being autonomous free agency-wielding selves is largely an illusion cooked-up by distributed unconscious cognition modules that aren’t accessible to introspection and don’t always communicate with each other. Furthermore, the normally functioning human brain has evolved environmentally sensitive capacities for altruism in inverse proportion to its personal owner, then immediate kin, then household pets, then social group, then strangers, and finally other animals. Simultaneously, these same brains have evolved the flip side inclinations toward selfishness, exclusion and the violent expression when stressed, threatened, or zero-sum games are set up between these levels .

Embracing the project of objectively understanding human nature and treating morality as a project – or developing social technology – to be thoughtfully and collaboratively engineered in full recognition of the complexities of ourselves and our societies will do more to solve the problem of evil than metaphysical musings about its supreme author.

Reproving betimes with sharpness, ….

24 Feb

… when moved on by modernity and reason. [1, 2, 3]

Here is a bit of a polemical push back to King Benjamin’s “famous” sermon in the Book of Mormon’s Book of Mosiah, mainly in chapters 2 and 3 ( The point is that it’s as easy to choke on the pits of scripture as to pick the tasty cherries.

As I see it, the point of King Benjamin’s protracted sermon is that Jesus’ magic blood atonement will reverse Adam’s magic fruit transgression (3:16) mostly for dead babies (2:34) and counterfactually righteous grown-ups lucky enough die in ignorance (3:11).

For the rest of us, it’s awfully tough going because it’ll work only if we regress into childlike helplessness (3:19), drop all pretense of self-esteem (2:25), and count our lives as chronic debts (2:23-25) that we still must try paying off by begging (4:20) and blindly obeying nepotistic (1:9), self-serving (2:28) prophet-kings who traffic in empty threats (2:33, 3:25) and promises (2:22).

All this casts KB’s most famous line,“when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God,” (2:17) in a rather dehumanizing light. Yea, if his imaginary blood-besotted god (3:15-18) actually existed, I hope I’d have the courage to tell him:

“Dude, back off! Stop insinuating yourself into every expression of our innate goodness. Stop demanding we bounce every compassionate act off you. We don’t need your name to “distinguish [us] above all people” (1:11) – that just ends up  dividing us to the point of killing each other. Am I right?

And another thing, stop demeaning and distracting us with threats of torment if we don’t love and obey you (2:39). That’s just twisted. Oh, and while you’re at it, call off your self-righteous prophet-kings (2:11-16) – that would be the current ones – who enjoy doing market research (5-1) and taking names (6:1).  Let us grow up for goodness sake (3:19).”

[1] D&C 121: 43: “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost …”

[2] King Benjamin’s speech is found in The Book of Mosiah, see:

[3] All references refer to chapter and verse in the Book of Mosiah

Evolution and Mormonism

14 Feb

Here is a summary of the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey with regard to belief in evolution (

The precise question was:

 “Now, as I read some statements on a few different topics, please tell me if you completely agree, mostly agree,  mostly disagree, or completely disagree: Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

 The result was that 76% of Mormons either mostly disagree or completely disagree. That percentage climbs to 82% for those that attended church at least weekly.

I can see a potential for a forced bias toward “disagree” for those who interpret both “agree” choices as necessarily excluding god from the process entirely. On the other hand, it is interesting to compare active Mormons to other religious groups for whom I can think of no reason for why they would interpret it any differently.

Disagree or completely disagree with evolution …

 Atheist: 9%

Agnostic: 11%

Jewish: 17%

Religious unaffiliated: 37%

Catholic: 35%

Orthodox Christian: 36%

Mainline Protestant Churches: 42%

Historically Black Churches: 51%

Muslim: 51%

Evangelical Protestant: 70%

Mormon: 76%

Jehovah Witness: 90%

So, once those who answered “don’t know” or “refused to answer” are excluded, that leaves 22% of all self-identifying Mormons “believing” in evolution.

My guess is that Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Evangelicals simply suffer from a strong positive association between evolution and atheism. Few people understand evolution well enough to evaluate it on the evidence. They are simply going with what they are told by church authorities. Similarly, my guess is that most theists that do accept evolution don’t understand evolution either – and don’t know the evidence. Neither have they worked out thoughtful theological harmonizations. They too are  going along with their ecclesiastical authorities who assure them there are no problems (and, perhaps, hope they won’t ask tough questions). This, I would guess, is what is going on with the Catholics. They do not understand that they are accepting a Catholic-dogma version of evolution, not the scientific one.

Possibilism and Bayes, Part 1

7 Feb

Daniel Midgley, on his Good Reason blog, recently posted a commentary on the “The LDS statement on DNA and the Book of Mormon.” [1], [2]

Reading between the lines, he sees a church hedging on its historical claims, indulging in “mealy mouth vacillation,” and obscurantism. But what I was most impressed with was his discussion of what he calls “possibilism,” the hallmark of which  is insisting that if an idea cannot neither be proved or disproved the probability of it being true remains about 50-50. He identifies this as possibilistic reasoning, by which he means”a tendency to look only at the possible, holding onto one’s preconceptions until they [have been] conclusively disproved, one hundred and one percent.”

This made me think of how possibilistic reasoning might be explained in terms of Bayes Rule. Here it is in the context of DNA evidence and the Book of Mormon.

First, let

  • H = the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon (BoM) is True
  • H* = the hypothesis that the BoM is False
  • B = the Pre-DNA background evidence
  • E = the new DNA evidence (containing no Israelite markers)

Second, the relevant prior probabilities (with LDS-friendly assignments) are

  • P(H|B) = probability BoM is true given pre-DNA evidence = 0.5
  • P(H*|B) = probability BoM is false given pre-DNA evidence = 0.5

Next, the relevant updated probabilities are

  • P(E|H,B) = probability of the DNA evidence given the BoM is True = 0.1
  • P(E|H*,B) = probability of the DNA evidence given the BoM is false = 0.9

Note that this gives an LDS-friendly 0.10 (or 10%) chance that no Israelite DNA would show up in the Americas even if Lehi, Ishmael, etc. had as many offspring as the text suggests. This 10% forces the other to be 90%, since they must add to 1oo%

This leads us to what we are after, the probability the BoM is true after updating the prior probability (50%) with the new DNA evidence

  • P(H|E,B) = updated probability that BoM based on new DNA evidence

This final probability is determine completely by the previous ones through Bayes theorem. It is the only rational conclusion that can follow that honors evidence.

.                                              P(H|B) x P(E|H,B)
P(H|E,B)  =    ______________________________
.                         P(H|B) x P(E|H,B)  +  P(H*|B) x P(E|H*,B)

.                                       0.5 x 0.1
.                  =      _____________     =  0.10
.                           0.5 x 0.1 + 0.5 x 0.9

A necessary drop.

We can play with the inputs, but the important point is to look at the simple structure of the theorem. Possibilistic reasoning is a failure to rationally account for the right term in the denominator, P(H*|B) x P(E|H*,B). This amounts to ignoring the influence of new evidence on the alternative hypothesis (in this case that the Book of Mormon is false).

More specifically, if possibilistic thinking means implicitly assigning trumped up possibilities (i.e., ad hoc hypotheses) with a 50% probability, then prior belief will not budge – as shown here.

.                                     (0.5) x 0.5
P(H|E,B)  =    _______________  =  0.5
.                          (0.5) x 0.5 + 0.5 x 0.5

Possibilistic reasoning goes even further down the pseudo-reasoning hole. It substitutes hypotheses for evidence. This is perhaps an even more delusion-enabling aspect of possibilism.




Mormons and Evolution

19 Jan

I ran across a By Common Consent blog post  written by Benjamin Knoll, a political science professor at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky and the Elders Quorum President in his ward.

From the post:

The “bottom line” of all this is that there seems to be clear empirical evidence for the following conclusions:

1. Mormonism is one of the least “evolution-friendly” faith traditions in the United States when measured in terms of popular acceptance among its members of evolution as the “best explanation of human life on earth.”

2. This finding is not simply due Mormons’ higher-than-average levels of religious belief and behavior. There is something uniquely Mormon about antipathy toward biological evolution that is more intense than in other Christian faith traditions.

Thus, despite the more agnostic approach that the LDS Church has taken on the subject of evolution in recent decades (see herehere, and here, e.g.), as well as the plethora of Mormon intellectuals and academics who frequently argue for the compatibility of Mormon doctrine and evolution (see here and here, e.g.), popular Mormon opinion in the United States is decidedly in the anti-evolution camp.


I am reminded of a quotation by Ken Ham, President and CEO of the Creation Meusum.

“If you’re saying this part [of the Bible] that said God made land animals and man on the same day is not true, then ultimately why should I believe this bit over here?”

Perhaps this quotation points to the nature of the problem. For Mormons it is exacerbated by how its scriptural literalism (Garden of Eden, The Flood, Tower of Babel, Lamanites, etc) is leveraged by exclusive modern revelation. It makes it that much harder for its adherents to accept and integrate empirical evidence about the world into theology. And that problem is further exacerbated by “prophets, seers and revelators” who offer no guidance.

I would be interested in knowing the relative difference in “accepting” evolution among the different religious groups if the outcomes were controlled for level of education.  My prediction is that the margin widens, with Mormonism having the lowest of any group, particularly for those with the most education (college degree or less).


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