Episode 115: Apologetics and Apostasy in the Church

William Wilson lecture at the Southern Utah Post Mormon group on “How Apologetics and Apostasy are Working Together in the Church”.

Episode 115

23 comments on “Episode 115: Apologetics and Apostasy in the Church”

  1. G Reiersen Reply

    Long, but interesting discussion. I agree with his conclusion that apologists are very probably doing more harm to the credibility of the Church and its doctrine than good. I have heard or read from several people that going to apologists websites, in the hope of dispelling their troublesome doubts, had the opposite effect that they hoped for, and actually became what finally convinced them that the Church’s claims were bogus. I know that in my case, the basic irrationality of apologists’ arguments, and even, in many cases, official statements and admonitions by GAs have done far more to make me question the validity of Mormon doctrine than overtly anti-Mormon literature has. It never ceases to amaze me how they repeatedly “shoot themselves in the foot” (or, perhaps, even in a more vital or embarrasing part of their anatomy). BKP and Oaks, at least, have essentially said that it is more important that stories about the Church are “faith promoting” than that they be factually accurate. One high priest group leader I know once stated during a priesthood lesson said that no amount of evidence, whether pro or con, no matter how seemingly incontrovertible, has any legitimate bearing whatsoever on whether or not the BOM is true. This man, believe it or not, was a highly respected professor of bio-chemistry at a large university until he retired a few years ago! I almost spoke up and said to him, “In other words, you are bound and determined to believe it whether it is true or not!” Only the fact that I liked him so much and didn’t want to risk ruining what had been a good friendship kept me from doing so.

    • Snyder Braces Reply

      Wow. The funny thing is he would have been fired from his job if he conducted his research like this. Compartmentalization at its most obvious.

  2. brade Reply

    Over the years I’ve developed the view that a very large part of any apologetic project, including Mormon apologetics, is devoted to using a lot of words to point out that it’s at least possible that, despite some historical or other problem, the Church’s leader’s claims about the Church could be true.

    Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of useful and informative apologetic work. People make arguments against Church claims on the basis of evidence that’s mistaken or misconstrued, and a lot of apologetic work is devoted to correcting those sorts of mistakes. But, there’s also this further line of apologetic thought which simply amounts to pointing out that such and such is still possible, despite all these putative difficulties. True, it’s possible that all of the Church’s claims about its origins are true. But, really, that’s just obvious. It should be obvious, anyway.

    The interesting question is, when surveyed as a whole, does the best history on the Church tip the balance in favor of belief in the contemporary Church’s claims, does the history tip the balance in favor of disbelief, or is the evidence so perfectly balanced that one is unjustified leaning one way or another?

    This matter of always pointing out that some such claim or some such event is possible is really a distraction from the other question. As a whole, what does the best evidence suggest?

    I believe the best evidence is not suggestive of divine origins, and, to the contrary, is suggestive of rather more ordinary origins. That isn’t to say that everybody ought to just give up on Mormonism and that the apologetic project ought to be abandoned. Rather, I think what ought to be done is that apologetics ought to focus on a different matter entirely – i.e. the justification of belief on the basis of spiritual experience.

    To my mind, that’s the real issue. If I trusted in spiritual experience as a good grounds for forming the sorts of beliefs at issue here, then, despite all the history, I very probably would still believe the Church’s claims. Without sufficient trust in spiritual experience as a method of getting at truth I’m left to form my beliefs on the basis of the best evidence, which, as I said, is not suggestive of divine origins.

    You notice this trend in very well educated apologists or Church historians. They know all the same stuff about Church history as the critic. What’s the difference? My suggestion is that the difference is that one sufficiently trusts spiritual experience as a method for getting truth and the other doesn’t (there are certainly exceptions to this).

    So, while I think there is a place for the sort of apologetics that mostly goes on these days, I think that if defenders of the faith are really interesting in helping people stick around, they ought to focus their attention on the issue of religious epistemology. I think THAT is the real heart of the matter. Basically, I’m saying that the Church needs more philosopher apologists and less historical apologists.

    I know lots of people claim that the history takes them out of the Church. But, I suspect what’s going on is a combination of historical troubles and a growing distrust in what one is justified in believing on the basis of spiritual experience. And, again, my claim is that if apologists sufficiently shored up the needed epistemology, then history be damned.

    • G Reiersen Reply

      If you are saying subjective “spiritual experience” is a more reliable way to discern truth than objective, physical evidence and sound reason (which I am not sure you are actually implying), then I strongly disagree with you.

      I don’t entirely dismiss the value or desirability of subjective, spiritual or emotional confirmation, but unless it is consistent with the best available, hard evidence, it is worthless by itself. I like to look at it this way: I assign a value of “one” to objective evidence and sound reason and a value of “zero” to subjective faith or spiritual experience. In arithmetic (let’s assume binary arithmetic) “0” signfies “nothing” when used by itself, but when used in conjunction with “1” as in “10”, it signifies a greater quantity than “1” by itself. Similarly, if you have both hard evidence and reason and subjective, emotional faith or spiritual satisfaction supporting your convictions, you have more than if you have the “one” of evidence and reason alone. But if you have only that “one”, you still have something, while without it, you really have nothing–no matter how many “zeros” you have!

      There are only 10 types of people in this world, those who understand binary arithmetic, and those who don’t! 😉

      • Brade Reply

        I’m most definitely not saying that spiritual experience is a more reliable way to discern truth than established non-spiritual means. In fact, in my post I said that I don’t trust spiritual experience as a means of getting to the truth of the matter with respect to the claims at issue.

        Actually, it looks like you have a more sympathetic view toward spiritual experience than I do. You seem to say that spiritual experience counts for something (presumably in favor of some specific claim or other) only if you also happen to have other supporting evidence. My view is that spiritual experience (at least a certain sort of spiritual experience) doesn’t do anything with respect to getting at the truth of certain sorts of claims even when there’s good evidence.

        In any event, the point I was trying to make with my post was that I think people would be willing and able to tolerate non-faith-promoting history if there were more and better defenses of the Church’s sort of religious epistemology (i.e. relying on spiritual experience as a method for getting truth). I think if apologists want to help people remain in the Church as believing members, then they ought to ease up on the historical work and put more effort into defending the epistemological framework that’s necessary to support certain beliefs in the face of putative evidence against those beliefs. Really, this is going to require new apologists with robust backgrounds in philosophy – a rare creature among Mormons.

    • JT Reply


      You wrote: “The interesting question is, when surveyed as a whole, does the best history … tip the balance ……?”

      I appreciate your comment. While I have no time to offer a full comment, I can point you to some very interesting research by Yale University Law School Professor Dan Kahan. Kahan works on “cultural cognition theory” which explains how group affiliation leads to unconscious perceptual bias, particularly in the form of selectively seeking and listening only to experts that share the same core values (are part of one’s group). This has obvious implications in the apologetics/faithful historian scene.

      The following recent podcast interview with Kahan provides a nice introduction:


  3. Hermes Reply

    I did not realize what I minefield I was entering when (as a naive teenager) I read some of Hugh Nibley’s work and decided to become a scholar of Mormonism. I do sometimes regret having gotten myself into the business of “thinking about the past for a living” (particularly as the economy heads south and my most marketable skill is passing familiarity with a number of dead languages), but the journey really has been (and continues to be) a wonderful experience, with at least as many high points as low. I have learned much about myself and the interface I share with various human cultures existing at disparate points in time and space. I am grateful for that learning, even though it has ultimately cost me the simple (not to say hopelessly naive) testimony of correlated LDS Mormonism that I started out with.

    On the one hand, I agree with William: LDS apologists are definitely not helping the GAs defend their correlated vision of Mormonism as rationally respectable. This is not because the apologists secretly desire to bring down the church: it is because the position(s) taken by the church are not rationally defensible. As long as the church insists on making blatantly irrational claims and includes members of average intellectual curiosity (this is not rocket science we are talking about), there will be apologists out there helping the folks whose worldviews don’t work the way the salesmen said they would. Personally, I am grateful for apologists: without them, I might never have encountered some of the historical, moral, and ethical truths that have kept me from becoming either a raving fundamentalist or a bitter nihilist — two extremes to which I have been very open at different points in my faith journey. When I was an ardent young zealot, apologists reminded me that I did not know everything, that there were legitimate holes in the infantile worldview I had attained from a steady diet of the LDS standard works. As I matured and became more naturally skeptical, they reminded me that the flaws I found so rampant and distasteful in my former self were not unique to Mormonism. The result of their constant questioning (and/or inadequate answering) was to make me examine my own belief carefully and ultimately take personal responsibility for my own religion without trying to stuff it down anyone else’s throat.

    As a result, I currently believe that every organization needs heretics. We need someone to rock the boat, shake us out of complacency and inspire creative thought. In fact, (for me anyway) Joseph Smith proves the rule that all true prophets are heretics. Sometimes they are also potentially dangerous lunatics, but that is a whole ‘nother comment.

    • JT Reply


      I appreciate your two insights [with my interpolations offered for your consideration]:

      “ As long as the church insists on making blatantly irrational claims [which do not seem irrational to them] and includes members of average intellectual curiosity … there will be apologists out there helping the folks whose worldviews don’t work the way the salesmen said they would [but who, never-the-less, still depend on them to preserve meaning, purpose, and community in their lives].”

      “The result of their constant questioning (and/or inadequate answering) was to make me examine my own belief carefully and ultimately take personal responsibility for my own religion without trying to stuff it down anyone else’s throat [which is a more profound mark of humility than obedience to authority].”

      With regard to the role of apologists (partisan experts] in preserving world-views, you may be interested in the Professor Dan Kahan reference I shared with Brade.


      From the podcast introduction: “Most intriguingly—or, if you prefer, disturbingly—Kahan has found that deep-seated values even determine who we consider to be a scientific expert in the first place.”


      • Hermes Reply

        Thanks for the link to the podcast with Kahan! I really enjoyed it. I find nothing to object to in your clarification of my rhetoric.

  4. Joe Geisner Reply

    Wow, he has me at: “I really don’t like religion any more, after doing a lot of study.”

    I look forward to listening to the rest of the lecture. John thank you for taking the time to travel to Southern Utah and recording the lecture. This is a wonderful service.

    • William Wilson Reply

      When you put an institution or another person between an individual and their God all sorts of abuse can occur. My definition of religion includes a hierarchy. this can cause all sorts of problems. now, my study of archaeology and anthropology has shown me that all cultures from as early as we have evidence have had spirituality and/or religion. What makes one person’s “religion” any more true than another’s? All have a witness that theirs is true.

  5. George Miller Reply

    Of all of the episodes thus far presented on Mormon Expression, I must say that this has been my least favorite. William Wilson’s introduction of Biblical historicity was IMHO completely misleading. Citing modern day Jewish practices of propagating the Torah and discussions of the Dead Sea Scrolls are largely irrelevant to the historicity of the Old Testament narrative. The New Testament narrative is also horribly problematic from a historical perspective. William makes a good point when he notes that case for the Book of Mormon is even worse because we can’t even pin down its geographical location. The presentation also seemed unfocused and frankly seemed to wander aimlessly all over the place. That being said I would love to hear the ME crew take a shot at discussing this topic, as the topic itself is frankly very interesting. FWIW I would love to see a podcast on the Documentary Hypothesis or on the Historical Jesus.

  6. MJL Reply

    I was expecting a lively panel discussion about apologetics and apostasy in the church but I guess a talk by a professional ex-Mormon doing the lecture circuit is just as well I suppose.

    John, since you were there could you clarify that clapping at the 1:17 mark. I couldn’t tell if that was audience applause or William Wilson patting himself on the back.

  7. Matthew Reply

    Does anyone have a link to that Orson Welles quote? It was great but I don’t remember enough of it and don’t want to listen a second time. Thanks in advance.

  8. James Rogers Reply

    He raised some interesting arguments about the contradictions between statements made by LDS leaders and the claims that apologists are forced to make to defend traditional LDS doctrine and worldview. He really undermines his argument, though, by misrepresenting LDS doctrine about the role of prophets and prophetic infallibility.

    He argues that beacuse all members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 are sustained as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” the LDS church is bound by any statement made by any of them at any time as being official church doctrine, and that apologists are acting as apostates by coming up with justifications that contradict anything said by any member of the 1P or Q12 at any time on any subject. This is just ridiculous. I have to wonder if this guy has ever seriously studied LDS scripture or doctrine.

    Here is a quote from cannonized Mormon scripture which completely contradicts him.:

    D&C 28:2, 6-7:

    “2 But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.

    “6 And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church;

    “7 For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead.”

    Clearly the president of the church, the person who is Joseph Smith’s successor (which is only one person at a time), is the only person authorized to receive commandments and revelations for the church from God.

    Joseph Smith himself said that “a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such.” Harold B. Lee explained for a prophet to declare new doctrine “he will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church.” Joseph F. Smith taught that nothing said by any church leader needs to be taken as doctrine unless what he says can be backed up by the four standard works, and that nothing new can be added to the teachings of the standard works unless it is accepted by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the 12.

    His definition of apostasy is just crazy. Statements made by 1P counselors and Q12 members are not binding church doctrine. They never have been. For at least the last 60 years, the official position of the church has been that statements made by the president of the church are not binding doctrine unless the 1P and Q12 agree. I know some LDS leaders (like BY) have claimed that everything they say is revelation, but it seems like the height of intellectual dishonesty to omit mention that even going back to Joseph Smith himself, other church leaders have taught that not everything said by even the president of the church was to be taken as revelation from God.

    These concepts are not new or controversial. They are not difficult to find or learn about — all of the above quotes (except for the one I mentioned from Joseph F. Smith) are on the Wikipedia article “President of the Church.” How can William Wilson have spent this much time studying Mormonism and not learned them? Maybe he should spend some time reading Wikipedia before he gives his next talk.

    I am by no means a TBM. I think that it is fair game to criticize the intellectual dishonesty, doublespeak, and (sometimes) outright falsehoods propounded by Mormon apologists. But let’s make sure to stay intellectually honest ourselves. Wilson’s simplistic and absolutist portrayal of the role played by leaders of the church is just flat out wrong. With all of his claims of the time he has spent studying the church, he should know better.

  9. Lstevenkimball Reply

    I could use any information anyone could share about any exmo or postmo groups in southern utah. Tks

  10. FWAnson Reply

    I was delighted to “see” old friend William Wilson from my bygone days at PostMormon.org again. He was always very kind to me, and very supportive, and his scholarship always razor sharp.

    On the last point it appears that nothing has changed! Nicely done Grape Nephi.

    • Anonymous Reply

      Me too! I loved his posts on PostMo. Good stuff.

      And I’m glad I never went through a phase of trying to use apologetics to stay in the church. That stuff makes my head spin.

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