The mosaic of apologetics

Personal note / update: earlier on I wrote this post about can I leave the church alone?, wherein I honestly discuss my ultimate goal to move on from Shawn’s Odyssey and live a healthy and authentic life. One could look at my blog therefore and ask “Are you moving on then? Why keep writing articles?” – which is a fair question.

One factor I discussed on can I leave the church alone? is that the church doesn’t leave us (doubters / dissenters) alone. The LDS church doesn’t just let highly active people slip out the back door. It has safeguards, mechanisms and social groups that reinforce and pull people back into belief. Quite frequently I find myself in random conversations with various church members I have met throughout my life, and these conversations stimulate further thought and processing about the journey and Mormonism generally, which engender the desire to write again. I write to process, to re-hash and understand the world. The articulation of thoughts is a great way to crystallise them. So writing is important for me.

Today I choose to write about a topic that I feel is critical to understanding the journey; the mosaic of apologetics.

The mosaic of apologetics — introduction

As I review my faith transition of last year and especially my time spent in intensive research, I can perceive two major factors that lead to my loss of faith:

  1. The discovery of abundant information and testimonies that clearly demonstrate that what we describe as the “Holy Ghost”, appears to be testifying to other people of other religions that their religion is true too. I have written on this extensively in my blog in the articles are spiritual witnesses reliable and guess the religion
  2. A large amount of time spent in apologetic research, looking into “all sides of the story”. This leads to the blog topic of today; the mosaic of apologetics.

I sincerely believe that when one considers a matter, one should consider as many educated viewpoints of that matter as possible. So, for instance, when re-evaulating faith three major (‘earthly’) sources should be considered:

  1. Faithful and Formal (LDS church literature)
  2. Apologetic (informal but supportive of the LDS narrative)
  3. Critical (against the church)

If one were to only read critical literature, that would not be a fair treatment of the subject. If one were to only read faithful & formal, that would not be fair treatment of the subject. It’s important to consider all angles of the story.

In about June 2015 I volunteered to become a member of FairMormon to assist them with SEO. (FairMormon are the de-facto apologists of the LDS church.) I had picked up a cue from one of their YouTube videos that they were looking for help. Since I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time in research, particularly on the FairMormon websites, I thought that I might as well volunteer to help them.

My time spent in reviewing apologetic research has ultimately been a part of my loss of faith. It is by “hearing this side of the story” that I, in my imperfect evaluation, determined that I cannot believe it is true anymore.

WHY? What about apologetics would do this?

Well, aside from the fact that apologetics is informal and not technically endorsed by the church, it actually comes down to the mosaic.

The landscape of critique and apologetic arguments

Apologetics is wheeled in as a defence to the doctrines of the church when a critical argument gains critical mass. Someone has to respond to that argument, and so apologists do. Believe it or not, to this day I have a lot of respect for apologists. Whereas the remainder of the church is content to sit in their belief without really challenging it, including many of the top leaders of the church, apologists are sitting in the front-lines of defence of church teachings, I think that deserves some credit and recognition. At the same time, I feel sorry for them – they are treated by the formal leaders of the church in a way that I think could be described as “abusive”– like a spouse that is being abused constantly justifying the abuses of their spouse. It is a love-hate relationship. They are not formally endorsed and if they screw anything up the church is quick to disavow them. However, they need them. I find this dynamic very much analogous to the kind of relationship we see developing between scientists and business leaders in, say a pharmaceutical industry, but I digress.

Apologetic arguments are responsive. That means they are launched in response to specific critique. Their format tends to be something like this:

  1. Criticism X is launched against church doctrine or the characters of church leaders
  2. Apologists evaluate X, with the hope to come up with an apologetic response
  3. Apologists come up with an apologetic counter-argument, Y, and apply it to X
  4. Apologists put up X and Y on their website

The aim of critical arguments

If, instead of a single argument X, we consider all possible critical arguments against the church as a set of X’s (let’s say, X1, X2… Xn). Let’s talk about these for a second.

Every critical argument against the church has but one aim: to attempt to prove it illegitimate; to attempt to discredit the fundamental truth claims of the church. There is really only one goal; to show that the church is not what it says it is. It could be anything else for them to be right, so long as it’s not what it claims to be.

Let’s visually represent this in the following fashion:


Each red arrow represents a critical argument made against the church. X1, X2… Xn. OK, so now we have a set of critical arguments, and apologetics wants to respond to these with a kind of “block” argument (An apologetic argument).

The aim of apologetic arguments

Now apologetics comes in, it wants to respond to each of the critical arguments. Because, after all, “the church is true” — so it can withstand indefinite scrutiny.

In the ideal world, where the church is true and apologetics is effective, the responses to the set of arguments X with set of counter arguments Y should look like this:


Each blue line represents a direct “response” to the critical argument. Effectively, the apologetic response should nullify the argument; showing it to be a misrepresentation of truth, or based on faulty assumptions, bad or unreliable historical data, etc. Whatever the critical argument is, the response should ultimately resolve the concern.

This is where my meta-analysis comes in.

The apologetic mosaic

It takes time and a lot of reading of both critical arguments and apologetic responses to come to this conclusion. I am not the first one to think this, John Dehlin wrote an excellent article on apologetics here and he has a lot more data to work off than my measly story.

The point I’m trying to make is quite simple. Returning to my mathematical language, while apologetic argument Ya may be satisfactory in addressing critical argument Xa on its own (I’ll grant that in many cases, some people won’t even grant that), the problem is that Ya can and does frequently not sit consistently with the remainder of the entire set of apologetic arguments of Y.

In other words, if you focus on just one critical argument Xa, and address it with apologetic response Ya, it may resolve it, by itself, (at least for the moment, pending further research into problem Xa) however, when you look at the entire set of apologetic arguments Y, you’ll see they do not present an internally consistent worldview of reality.

Or, to represent my thoughts in terms of the geographical picture, you get:


A situation where some apologetic responses are valid and do resolve Xa, but ultimately they do not “line up” with each other. To be fair, we should acknowledge that critical arguments don’t all line up with each other either, and that’s where the actual “straight” apologetic arguments become effective (in those cases).

This tendency to “mismatch” and the tendency of apologists to go deep in details of Ya by delving into obscure details and justifications is colloquially called “mental gymnastics” in ex-Mormon threads, I wrote about this in my article A tangled web of mental workarounds. Ultimately it refers to the overall complexity and self-contradictory nature of the set of apologetic arguments.

When I worked in FairMormon

Apologists are interestingly aware of this problem. When I worked in FairMormon one of the concerns was “how do we show a visitor the response to their current question without exposing them to other questions?”, in my terminology, it’s “how do we present Ya to Xa without exposing them to Xb and Yb?”


This article would be weak as an argument alone without examples to illustrate this. Now we delve into how arguments work and how inconsistency comes up.

Example 1: Inconsistency of historical standards

Inconsistency: FairMormon does not do historical analysis with consistent standards of rigour. Sources:

Critical Argument X1: The Book of Mormon contains translation errors unique to the KJV Bible that Joseph Smith had.

Apologetic Response Y1: First hand accounts by actual witnesses of the translation process clearly state no other documents were present during the process.

Apologetic methodology for response Y1: Relying on first hand accounts, some of them, like the Emma Smith one, were “later interviews”.

Note: This is all good and fine history. Using first hand accounts to make a point. Now we turn over to argument X2:

Critical Argument X2: Joseph Smith claimed a skeleton that he bumped into on Zion’s camp march was a righteous Nephite warrior named “Zelph”. The existence of Zelph is a problem because modern apologetic BoM geography does not place the BoM in central America (where Joseph Smith was at the time of making this claim).

Apologetic Response Y2: We don’t actually have a quote of Joseph Smith himself speaking about Zelph, only first hand accounts written years after the fact. (“If the history of the church were to be revised today using modern historical standards, readers would be informed that Joseph Smith wrote nothing about the discovery of Zelph, and that the account of uncovering the skeleton in Pike County is based on the diaries of seven members of Zion’s Camp, some of which were written long after the event took place.”)

Apologetic methodology for response Y1: 7X first hand accounts with a high degree of consistency are not good enough to prove Joseph ever claimed the existence of Zelph.

Review: This is an inconsistent standard of treating history. One “later” first-hand account by Emma was good enough to rebut argument X1, but six (some) “later” first-hand accounts by a number of individuals is not good enough to support argument X2 according to FairMormon, even though those six accounts were highly consistent with one another.

This is an example of a mismatch. In any case, I could even press the actual argument X1 and X2 themselves, but we don’t have to, the responses themselves reveal inconsistency. This is a weakness in the mosaic. 

The gut feel I get from reading this is “defend the church at all costs” / “use any argument that has the result of it being true”.

Example 2: Apologetics for forgeries, later reversed and removed

Inconsistency: We can show clearly how apologetic statements were issued for the Hofmann forgeries before it was known that they were forgeries.


This doesn’t even involve a critical argument really. It simply shows how two apologetic statements contradict as more evidence is mounted.

Short summary: Mark Hofmann forged a letter called the “Salamander letter” , and claimed it was authentic. The content of this letter is available in the Wikipedia article. The church initially purchased it and assumed it was true. It generated quite some controversy.

Apologetic argument Y1: 

Dallin H. Oaks spoke of this in a talk where he issued what one could consider an apologetic statement (though to be fair he may not have been avowing himself to it):

“Another source of differences in the accounts of different witnesses is the different meanings that different persons attach to words. We have a vivid illustration of this in the recent media excitement about the word salamander in a letter Martin Harris is supposed to have sent to W. W. Phelps over 150 years ago. All of the scores of media stories on that subject apparently assume that the author of that letter used the word salamander in the modern sense of a ‘tailed amphibian.’

One wonders why so many writers neglected to reveal to their readers that there is another meaning of salamander, which may even have been the primary meaning in this context in the 1820s. That meaning, which is listed second in a current edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, is ‘a spirit supposed to live in fire’ (2d College ed. 1982, s.v. ‘salamander’). Modern and ancient literature contain many examples of this usage. 41

A spirit that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the angel Moroni: a personage in the midst of a light, whose countenance was “truly like lightning” and whose overall appearance “was glorious beyond description” (Joseph Smith-History 1:32). As Joseph Smith wrote later, “The first sight [of this personage] was as though the house was filled with consuming fire” (History of the Church, 4:536). Since the letter purports only to be Martin Harris’s interpretation of what he had heard about Joseph’s experience, the use of the words white salamander and old spirit seem understandable.
In view of all this, and as a matter of intellectual evaluation, why all the excitement in the media, and why the apparent hand-wringing among those who profess friendship with or membership in the Church? The media should make more complete disclosures, but Latter-day Saint readers should also be more sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read.”

Fair enough, “Salamander” might not have meant ‘tailed amphibian’ but something else.

Apologetic argument Y2: 

Once the forgery had been detected, Oaks stated two years later:

“Now, over a year later, we know that some of the forty-eight are forgeries, because they were named in the criminal charges and confessed by Hofmann during his questioning by prosecutors.”

Review: Well, the Salamander letter and apologetic statements about it is are a quick and dirty example of an inconsistent mosaic. An apologetic statement had already been issued wherein the alleged “Salamander” could be explained away to mean something different before detecting that it was a forgery.

The church has removed formal records of this apologetic statement from church websites. I hope Scott doesn’t remove his 🙂 But it is authentic because the audio is still available.

I guess — sorry for not finding a more creative example 🙂 this one has been done to death. Even I am bored of it. But it illustrates the point. Apologetic statements, even some from formal sources, yield an inconsistent worldview. One might expect that apostles and prophets with the “gift of discernment” – a divine gift from God telling them what truth is – might be able to know that it was a forgery and not need to issue such a complex apologetic statement.

Conclusion: my personal “sigh”

I sigh inside, because this is so easy to fix. Well, not “easy” – gosh, admitting it’s “not what it claims to be” is not easy – but important. We just need to demystify our religion. But that’s the secret sauce that makes it work currently (The belief! The placebo!). By the time we’re done with that we’d be like modern Reform Judaism — where you can be an atheist and a Rabbi at the same time.

I wonder if Mormonism will ever evolve, or “grow up” to the stage where atheists can be bishops or even higher leaders (well, I should say “legitimately” be a leader, as I have heard of atheist Mission Presidents already, but they are in the closet). I’d love that. I’d love to be a part of that. But we’re just so young and immature as a religion, we have a long way to go.

Life is messy. Our religion is messy. I look forward to the day we shed the simple narrative and convoluted apologetic defences to hold it together and just embrace the messiness and vulnerability of it all. Just come clean! Just admit! Look at the Community of Christ — they managed to do it! Sure, it was a costly move to honestly evaluate the BoM and say “oh shucks, King Benjamin never existed anywhere but in our imaginations” — but it was bold, brave, and honest.

We can fix this. We can grow out of this phase. But I highly doubt it will happen within my lifetime. Nevertheless, we are seeing positive movements. Here’s hoping — for Mormonism!



  1. Dan Bid

    Hey Shawn, interesting post. Have to think more about it, but just on the second example, do the apologetic statements really yield an inconsistent worldview?

    It seems to be that the first (if i understood it) was “given the information we have, this letter *could* be true (it’s not invalidated by use of the word ‘salamander)'”

    But then when new information came to light, the argument is then “given the new information, it’s clear the letter wasn’t legit, and so it’s no longer reasonable to think this could be true”

    I would have thought it would only be inconsistency if nothing else changed bar the stance on it’s truthfulness, wouldn’t it?

    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hey Dan, thanks for stopping by!

      Well, you’re right — it could be asked whether example 2 is actually a good example of what I’m trying to illustrate and explain in this article. Look, it really depends on how generous you’re willing to be to the church.

      My experience with apologetics also suggests that the ability to “stomach” apologetic arguments really depends on how much generosity you’re willing to grant to the organisation.

      In this case, statement 1: “Salamander” could mean XYZ and ‘we can work with this’. Statement 2: This is fake. Critics frequently cite this example to illustrate how the “brethren lack discernment” (they paid a lot of money for the forgeries) — it seems to me based on stories I hear of Joseph Smith (for example, in the Truman Madsen lectures about him discerning people’s thoughts and intentions, or stories in the BoM) that the prophets, seers and revelators should be capable of detecting the fake, by the gift of discernment.

      In any case, they learned their lesson from this mistake. In future all apologetics was “outsourced” to informal organisations so as to not avow the primary church to apologetic statements and this talk was removed from church websites later on.

      Maybe I’ll do another post with some better examples 🙂 I admit that this one is not as strong as I’d like it to be. It is time consuming to research and write them up, especially time consuming to find so-called “neat” ones that clearly show a very clean contradiction.

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