Mormon Fideism: A Primer

Posted: August 18, 2019 in Brian Horner, Confirmation Bias, Mormon Studies, Testimony Bearing

An excerpt from the song “I Believe” from the Book of Mormon the Musical that illustrates how fideism is often applied in Mormonism.

by Brian Horner
Fideism is the core of the Mormon experience.

The highly predictable rejoinder from the Mormon who cannot substantiate the falsifiable claims of his religion (such as matters of history or the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics) almost invariably is to reduce the dialog to the puny dimensions of personal, subjective belief. A good example is easily found every time I ask Mormons why someone should believe the objectively testable claims of their religion pertaining to such mundane issues as the mere existence of a particular human civilization, the Book of Mormon’s “Nephites” or “Jaredites” or “Lamanites”, etc.

Invariably, any claim that a particular human civilization existed is easily recognized as the kind of claim that is subject to rudimentary tests based on comparisons of such claims to the facts of history in and around the region where the civilization in question is said to have existed. In short, claims about the existence of historical civilizations are rightly subject to the normative methods of historical research. It is on this basis that all of the relevant fields of study (archaeology, history, historical anthropology, etc.) always proceed. No legitimate historical confirmations of historical claims can be produced apart from this very basic method. Even Mormons routinely apply this rudimentary and highly reliable historical method, at least when examining human civilizations, such as, for example, the Mayan or Yanomamo people of South America or the Tasady tribe in the Philippines. Everyone, even Mormons, will rightly seek out evidence of these peoples when dealing with the claim that they simply exist or existed. And it is perfectly reasonable to use the same methods to gain insight into the details of their existence.

The reason why is as simple as it is obvious: Real human civilizations invariably leave physical, documentary and linguistic evidence of their existence as a kind of “language” describing and explaining the existence of the peoples in question and even sometimes providing deep insights into their culture and their way of life. Again this is absolutely rudimentary and historians never question this method because it always leads to actual understanding and the verification of, at the minimum, the existence or non-existence of the civilization being investigated.

Wait… did I say, “never”? Okay, well there are, of course, the exceptions. There is always the lunatic fringe. The most obvious exception in the entire world is the Mormons when they are trying to provide an apologetic for their claims about the material world, such as historical claims found in their “scriptures.” Other examples include the claims of their “prophets”. As predictable as the sunrise, when the Mormon is pressed to answer for the falsifiable (i.e. objectively testable) claims about even something as simple as the mere existence of the human civilizations described in their Book of Mormon, he or she will quickly and with breathtaking predictability, retreat to pure fideism.

A valid definition of fideism is: “an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths.” Indeed, in some things, fideism is the only means left for a person to claim to “know” the truth of some things. The belief that God will heal a sick child, for example, may easily slip into fideism, since no one can have any other means of “knowing” whether or not the child will indeed be healed. Faith may be all that is left to the praying mother or father. But it crosses into fideism when that faith isn’t backed up by anything.

Calvin and Hobbes illustrate fideism of another kind.

Fideism is to be distinguished from “faith” in the biblical sense. “Faith” in the Bible is synonymous with “trust”; it is not a claim to objective certainty or Cartesian knowledge. In the Bible, the word “faith” refers to an informed and rational trust. It is backed by valid reasons to trust. This is in contrast with fideism, which is rather a repudiation of reason and the assertion of blind faith as the means to obtain knowledge. Fideism is functionally indistinguishable from superstition. A person believes what he or she believes… because they feel that they should or they believe what they believe because they believe it.

This page is replete with numerous examples of Mormon fideism. When asked to provide valid reasons to think, for example, that the so-called, “Nephite” civilization simply existed, Mormons will, when their attempts to borrow evidence from the Mayans has failed to impress the informed questioner, retreat to fideism. Whatever words are chosen, it is clear that they will be something that communicates the idea that you cannot know the “truth” of the Book of Mormon apart from an appeal to the supernatural – a “faith” in “God”.

The problem is, this is both hypocritical and specious. It is hypocritical because claims about the mere existence of a civilization are not a matter of religious faith. As described above, all of us, including Mormons, will easily turn to the domain of objective facts to see if any other proposed human civilization ever simply existed. But when it comes to the claims of the Book of Mormon, suddenly the Mormon retreats to his or her fideism – a kind of uninformed superstition: one must “ask God” if the “Nephites” (or any other Book of Mormon people group) simply existed. This rhetorical maneuver is specious because while it may sound pious and pure, it is utter nonsense to try to downshift to appeals to belief simply because one believes their own belief.

Furthermore, there is a serious conundrum in this methodology. When facing questions normally about the mere existence of a Book of Mormon civilization, Mormons will routinely appeal to the “Moroni 10 challenge” (Moroni 10:5-4) and encourage someone to take the advice of this “Moroni” character and pray to God to see if the “Nephites” (or any other BoM people group) actually existed. The conundrum is that in following this advice, the person must first already believe the Book of Mormon’s claims. Otherwise, why would anyone follow the spiritual advice from a fictitious character? That just makes no sense.

Continuing with the example of the existence of the “Nephites”, it should be obvious that this is a historical question and historical questions are normally resolved by means of evaluating historical evidence and using a proper historical logic or reasoning. As anyone who has ever questioned the historicity of the Book of Mormon (not it’s alleged spiritual or religious doctrine) has found, the Mormon answer is always the exception to this otherwise universal rule of all forms of historiography. In Mormonism, historical claims (or any other kind of claim that is objectively testable) is moved over into the realm of the subjective. How do we know that the Book of Mormon is telling the truth about the Jaredite voyage to somewhere in the western hemisphere? Pray to the Mormon God (or …Gods). How can you tell if Joseph Smith was a true prophet? Pray to the Mormon God(s). How can you be sure that “Nephi” actually did build a ship in the Arabian desert and sail it to the Americas? You can’t know this, apart from a revelation from God. The problem is consistent: Mormons will move questions that are normally answered by objective means into the column of the purely subjective … if those questions are aimed at things claimed by their religion. Otherwise, Mormons will happily appeal to objective facts and valid reasoning to determine the truth of any and all claims that have nothing to do with their religion.

This double-mindedness is troubling. Few people want to relinquish their natural, God-given ability to reason properly. To do so is to tickle one’s toes in the pool of total insanity. But Mormons, when defending the claims of their religion, will give up their ability to reason or think clearly with almost instant and mechanically predictable regularity. They will even dive headlong into the deep pool of fideism. Behind the scenes, I think this is really just a way of dealing with their own recognition of their inability to substantiate even the most mundane and non-supernatural or spiritual claims upon which their religion was founded.

The song “I Believe” from the Book of Mormon the Musical performed on the 2011 Tony Awards

Perhaps if Joseph Smith had found a way to invent a religion that cannot be tested by comparing the real, observable world to his claims (as so many New Agers do today), his credibility would have been easier to establish, at least with some people. As it is, he made the mistake of making claims to supernatural revelations all of which, when compared to reality, has failed to win in the minds of anyone who is not prone to indulge themselves in pure fideism.

About The Author
Brian Horner graduated with a Master’s Degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He now sails around the Caribbean serving various ministries and teaching apologetics when he isn’t writing articles like this one.

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