My Rebuttal to a Critic of Critics

Michael Ash is Mormon, an author, a member of the team of FAIRlds (an LDS apologetics group, as is another group like it called The Maxwell Institute [formerly FARMS], neither one of which is officially recognized by the LDS General Authorities as speaking for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and is an outspoken Mormon critic of outspoken critics of Mormonism. In a recent article in a MormonTimes publication, Mr. Ash made several comments that I wish to challenge.

Michael Ash: Critics frequently state, or imply that:
1. LDS scholars are not real scholars.
2. “Real” scholars (by which they mean, “non-LDS” scholars) reject LDS scholarship.
3. LDS scholarship is biased.


These claims are designed to “poison the well” of LDS scholarship. The phrase “poison the well” originally applied to the ancient practice of poisoning wells before the arrival of an invading army.

Bob Betts: Then, this application does not apply to LDS critics, since the Mormon invasion into society arrived 180 years ago.

With Mr. Ash’s use of the analogy against Mormonism critics of “poisoning the well,” which “originally applied to the ancient practice of poisoning wells before the arrival of an invading army,” Michael Ash inadvertently implicated “Mormon scholarship” as the invading army. I concur.

But, while Michael Ash accuses Mormon “critics” of “poisoning the well” against Mormon apologists, LDS leadership and apologists have “poisoned the well” against Mormonism critics so that we are deemed “anti-Mormon” and “Mormon bashers” and “hate-mongers” before we even open our mouths. Such “poisoning of the well” is also known as “The Zion Curtain.”

Michael Ash: Today, it means to preemptively discredit an opponent before their arguments can be heard.

Bob Betts: As of today, the Maxwell Institute has been around since 1979, and FAIRlds since 1998. No one can “preemptively discredit” arguments that have already been made.

Michael Ash: By casting doubt on Mormon scholarship from the start,

Bob Betts: The start of what? Collectively, FAIRlds and the Maxwell Institute, and other such Mormon groups or individuals have been around for decades.

Michael Ash: Critics hope to dissuade people from listening to LDS scholars or giving credence to their arguments.

Bob Betts: This accusation against critics is unreferenced, unsubstantiated, and at least for some, not true. I’m a critic, and I have never tried to dissuade anyone from listening to LDS scholars. I don’t know of anyone that has. But, how can credence be given to LDS scholars, when FAIRlds has announced on its home page, no affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? “FAIRlds is not owned, controlled by or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All research and opinions provided on this site are the sole responsibility of FAIRlds, and should not be interpreted as official statements of LDS doctrine, belief or practice.”

And, every writer/contributor to the Maxwell Institute has this disclaimer at the beginning of every article: “The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Michael Ash: This appears to be effective among the critics themselves, many of whom totally dismiss LDS scholarship without giving it a fair hearing.

Bob Betts: Decades of a fair hearing, and what are we subjected to? A steady diet of lengthy dissertations, filled with speculations and opinions by those whom the CoJCoLDS leadership, itself, won’t even officially stand behind.

Michael Ash: Mormon scholars are not real scholars

This charge is blatantly false.

Bob Betts: Webster’s Dictionary definition of “scholar” is, “a specialist in a particular branch of learning.” We know that numerous Mormon “scholars” write on topics and issues, whether scientific or theological, about which they are not specialists. Michael Ash wrote a book entitled Shaken Faith Syndrome, in which he psychoanalyses why Mormon’s faith in Mormonism can be shaken, even to the point of leaving Mormonism. Is that a branch of learning of which he can claim to be a specialist? Yet, he speculates on numerous possibilities of why people leave Mormonism. Of course, there’s one possibility that he doesn’t allow for – the possibility that Mormonism might actually be false, and the reason for so many defections could be because the defectors are right.

Michael Ash: Numerous Mormon scholars have advanced degrees from prestigious institutions such as the universities of Michigan, California (and California-Berkeley), Virginia, Princeton, Yale, UCLA, Duke, Brown, Cornell and more. Several LDS scholars have expertise in specialized fields that relate to Mormon studies such as archaeology, anthropology, Near Eastern Studies, biology, DNA sequencing, Egyptology, Hebrew Studies, linguistics and history.

Bob Betts: Yet, for all those University-level degrees, there is no defense against the complete absence of any definitive archaeological evidence for a thousand years of Book of Mormon history. There is no scientific loop-hole in the fact that neither Christian nor Hebrew civilizations are known to have ever thrived in the Western Hemisphere during the period of 590 BC to 421 AD. Therefore, the opinions and speculations of any of the degreed Mormon researchers will never result in a substantiation of Book of Mormon history, or a substantiation of Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham translation from his own fabricated Egyptian alphabet and grammar.

Michael Ash: Some LDS scholarship is of such high caliber that two Evangelical critics of the church acknowledged that a number of LDS scholars have training in the fields pertinent to LDS issues.

Bob Betts: Yes, but what good is the training in those fields, if the LDS issues have no chance of being resolved even with the help of their training. Will such training help make true, Smith’s faulty interpretations of Facsimiles 1, 2 and 3? Or, the lack of historical evidence for a thriving Hebrew-Christian society in the Western Hemisphere during the thousand-year Book of Mormon history? Or, the lack of substantiation for any Book of Mormon person, place or event?

Michael Ash: They also acknowledged the often rigorous and “immense amount of scholarly literature” that LDS scholars have produced in both LDS and non-LDS venues.

Bob Betts: The sheer volume of literature is irrelevant, if the facts clearly don’t definitively support the premise or the conclusion.

Michael Ash: “The significance of these facts,” they note, “is simple: Mormons have the training and skills to produce robust defenses of their faith” (Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, Trinity Journal 19:2).

Bob Betts: Yet, to my knowledge, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen never claimed that any such robust defenses were the least bit successful in substantiating the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Abraham (along with the facsimiles).

Michael Ash: LDS scholarly arguments can’t simply be brushed aside.

Bob Betts: The LDS leadership’s expectation that no layman Mormon scholar’s writings be affiliated with the CoJCoLDS, or be interpreted as representing official statements of LDS doctrine, belief or practice, has the definite appearance of scholarly arguments being brushed aside.

Michael Ash: ‘Real’ scholars reject Mormon scholarship

Certainly, some non-LDS scholars disagree with LDS scholars on issues that relate to the Book of Mormon.

Bob Betts: Wouldn’t it be nice if Michael Ash would actually name names of those non-LDS scholars who agree with LDS scholars on issues regarding the Book of Mormon? In the absence of any definitive evidence for its history, what is there for any non-LDS scholar to agree with?

Michael Ash: Disagreements — especially in the “soft sciences” such as archaeology, anthropology, and history — are common in academia. There are two important things to note, however, regarding how LDS scholarship affiliates with mainstream scholarship: First, LDS scholars apply the same methods and techniques accepted by mainstream scholarship — not fringe scholarship — to Book of Mormon issues;

Bob Betts: Vague, as vague can be. What Book of Mormon issues? Historical events between 590 BC and 421 AD, which cannot be substantiated? Locations, which cannot be substantiated? Important people’s names, which cannot be substantiated? A thriving Hebrew-Christian society that cannot be substantiated? What are the results of LDS scholars applying the same methods and techniques accepted by mainstream scholarship? Is there any definitive substantiation for the Book of Mormon? No. Then, what’s the point?

Michael Ash: and second, most non-LDS are not sufficiently conversant with LDS issues to make informed and qualified pronouncements on LDS topics that can be analyzed by DNA, archaeology and so on. As Dr. William Hamblin explains, in the discourses of scholars the “only opinions that matter are informed opinions.”

Bob Betts: Dr. William Hamblin is Mormon. Would non-LDS scholars agree with him? And, even the most “informed opinions” of LDS scholars can’t make any definitive evidence for Book of Mormon events, Hebrew-Christian societies, locations and names, suddenly appear. What good is an “informed opinion” on non-existent historical evidence? Speculation is speculation. If there WAS any definitive historical evidence for the Book of Mormon, then there would be something to have an “informed opinion” about. In the absence of any definitive information, the best that LDS scholars can do is to have an “informed opinion” about their speculations.

Michael Ash: Even if 100% of New World archaeologists rejected the historicity of the [Book of Mormon], it would be irrelevant unless they had carefully read the [Book of Mormon], and studied the secondary literature. The vast majority of scholars have never read the [Book of Mormon]. Their opinions on the matter are therefore irrelevant…. Uninformed opinion, even if unanimously held, is still uninformed.”

Bob Betts: If reading the Book of Mormon could lead a New World Archaeologist to find any definitive evidence for any Book of Mormon person, place, event or Hebrew-Christian society in the Western Hemisphere, from 590 BC to 421 AD, then surely Mormon scholars would already have done so, and the leaders of the LDS religion would be shouting it from their temple-tops. And, surely those LDS scholars and LDS leaders would have taken their definitive finding(s) to the New World archaeologists to use their scientific methods and techniques to substantiate the finding(s). That would, in turn, create certain interest on the part of the New World archaeologists to read the Book of Mormon, and expand the research done by the LDS scholars, and work in tandem to uncover more substantial evidence beyond where the original findings were made.

The only reason that will never happen is, LDS scholars have not, and will not find any such definitive evidence to excite a single New World archaeologist to take the time to investigate. LDS scholars have only their “informed opinions” about their own speculations. Therefore, Mormon scholars will continue to write their “informed opinions” about nothing definitive, and cling to their speculations with the most admirable, but false hope that one day something definitive will show up and surprise even them.

Michael Ash: Most — not all, but most — non-LDS scholars have little interest in Book of Mormon studies and are therefore unfamiliar with the LDS scholarly studies that have been published in favor of the Book of Mormon.

Bob Betts: If only there was a nugget of definitive truth to be found in the field, which would get the attention of non-LDS scholars, LDS studies would not be so ignored. What is there that would excite any non-LDS scholar to invest the time to study the “informed opinions” of Mormons with a desperate need to validate their religion?

Michael Ash: Even among those few non-LDS scholars who are familiar with Book of Mormon studies there are extremely few who have actually addressed Book of Mormon scholarship head-on.

Bob Betts: Yet, LDS scholars have nothing to give the non-LDS scholars a reason to address anything head-on. Instead of trying to dazzle everyone with their literary brilliance, LDS scholars should shock the world of non-LDS scholars with even one definitive piece of undeniable evidence for anything in the Book of Mormon. After 25 years of research by Mormon researcher, and Mormon church-funded Thomas Stuart Ferguson, he came up empty-handed and without further faith in the Book of Mormon. Then, after 21 years of FARMS’ existence, and 12 years of FAIR’s existence, still no definitive evidence. Is the lack of definitive evidence due to a lack of money to fund the research? Definitely not. Is it for a lack of desire and determination to find evidence? Definitely not.

Michael Ash: Is the opinion of an uninformed non-LDS scholar who rejects Book of Mormon studies superior to the opinion of an LDS scholar who accepts the Book of Mormon? This is answered in the final issue.

Bob Betts: What kind of a reasonable question is this? All the Book of Mormon studies would have to produce is substantial, definitive evidence on the field for theBook of Mormon, THEN the non-LDS scholars would have a reason to read the Book of Mormon. What would non-LDS scholars get out of reading the Book of Mormon, if there is zero, definitive archaeological evidence to substantiate any of the stories?

Michael Ash: LDS scholars are biased

According to critics, the opinions and writings of LDS scholars can be dismissed because they are biased. Such a claim, however, is both naïve and over-simplistic. It is now widely recognized within virtually all fields of scholarship that there is no completely objective non-biased observer. There are no completely disinterested parties who approach a topic with an empty mind. Even in the “hard” sciences scientists use techniques (such as “randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled” tests) to help avoid the inherent bias that is part of humanity. In areas such as archaeology and anthropology, data must be interpreted — it doesn’t simply speak on its own. Claiming that an archaeologist’s interpretation can’t be trusted because she’s Mormon is like claiming that an American history book can’t be trusted if it’s written by an American.

Bob Betts: The fallacy of Michael’s logic culminates in the summary statement of the paragraph. He complains that a Mormon archaeologist’s interpretation of theBook of Mormon shouldn’t be any less trustworthy just because she’s Mormon, than an American author who has written a book on American history should be untrustworthy, just because he’s an American. The blatantly obvious problem is, ANY author, man or woman, from any country, could write a book on American history, given the available, definitive evidence to document the history. The problem for the Mormon archaeologist is, there IS no definitive evidence to documentBook of Mormon history. What evidence exists for Western Hemispheric history does not support the Book of Mormon story.

Michael Ash: With these thoughts in mind, we’ll turn our attention to Book of Mormon geography and archaeology before we examine supposed Book of Mormonanachronisms.

Bob Betts: Without definitive evidence for Book of Mormon geograph and archaeology, there IS no Book of Mormon geography or archaeology to turn anyone’s attention to.

Questions or comments?