Mormon Strategies: The Categorical Error

Posted: October 27, 2019 in Mormon Studies

Inside the Shrine of the Book in West Jerusalem. This museum houses the famous Isaiah scroll and other Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts dating back to 150BC.

by Brian Horner
Like Christianity, Mormonism is deeply rooted in claims about allegedly true events, real people and actual places. In both cases, we have scripture allegedly revealed as the word of God. For the Christians that revelation is contained in the pages of the Bible. Mormons make similar claims regarding the Bible, on which Mormons and Christians generally agree when it comes to the historical aspect, for the most part. But Mormons add the Book of Mormon (BoM, the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) and the Pearl of Great Price (PGoP), collectively known as the “standard works” of Mormonism.

For our purpose here, we will concentrate on a comparison between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, due to the fact that both present us with historical content, that, when compared, will demonstrate the validity of my argument.

In the pages of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, there are countless specific historical claims made. Both books contain details about human civilizations and empires and the people who populated them. They also contain claims about actual locations and events such as wars and migrations. Both also recount numerous interactions between God and his people. The Bible, of course, describes those interactions primarily between God the Jewish and Christian peoples. Similarly, the Book of Mormon is composed largely of accounts of God’s interactions with the BoM’s civilizations including the Native American descendants of Jews who supposedly migrated to the Western Hemisphere shortly after the fall of Israel to Babylon in the late 6th century B.C.

The Bible uses its accounts of these historical events as examples of God’s interactions with His people. From creation and God’s interactions with Adam and Eve, through the Exodus, the Hebrews move into the Holy Land, the accounts of the rise and fall of the kings of Israel and Judah, the revelations of the prophets to guide their people, through the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, his teaching, death and resurrection and on into the church age, the Bible is all based on many actual events that happened to real people in known locations and at recognized times in the real world.

Hezekiah's Tunnel

A recent photograph of Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Which is exactly as described in the Bible: “As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?” (2 Kings 20:20 NIV)

Similarly, the Mormons proclaim that their “Book of Mormon” is also a historical record of God’s interactions with his people. It records alleged events that are portrayed as historical – that have supposedly occurred in the real world at particular locations and times, involving real people and actual events. From the alleged, “Jaredite” migration after the fall of Babylon to the Western Hemisphere, through the voyage of Lehi’s sons, the rise of the “Nephite” civilization, their various wars and struggles and on to the appearance of Jesus Christ after his resurrection and then the final war of extinction all recorded by the BoM’s “prophets”. All of this is represented as truthful accounts of real people and actual events.

In both cases, therefore, we have alleged revelations from God concerning his direction and provision for his people. But critical to the present topic, both sets of claims proffer themselves to be truthful accounts of actual people, in real places experiencing true events.

So what’s the difference?

The difference is profound. In fact the difference is rooted deep in a critical, life-and-death matter for the veracity and credibility of each religion: Since the historical claims of Christianity and Mormonism are both put forth as “the word of God”, these religions can only survive as the actual revelations from God they each claim to be if we have good reasons to think that either or each one is telling the truth. If one of these is not telling the truth, then it cannot be reasonably received as the word of God, whom the Bible repeatedly describes as the very “God of Truth”. Divorced from the truth of their historical accounts, each is merely a fable conveying generally accepted moral values, much like the literature produced by so many of the world’s religions.

City of David Digs

One of several City of David excavations taking place in Jerusalem. These excavations have yielded artifacts dating back to the time of the Canaanite habitation of this ancient city.

Now, before going on, I realize that the Bible contains lots of claims that have not been confirmed by historical facts. But there is a key, essential difference between the state of the evidence for each book. The Bible presents historical claims that date back as far as ~5,000 years or so. So while there is much in the Bible that is not supported by any relevant evidence, the fact is there is a huge volume of every possible kind of evidence (archaeological, documentary, biological, linguistic, etc.) that confirms much of the Bible. From small pottery shards to entire cities, the list of historical artifacts supporting various narratives found in the Bible is huge. Today there are literally thousands upon thousands of biblical artifacts virtually littering various libraries, universities, and museums around the world. It is estimated by some to be as high as 25,000 separate pieces of evidence – documents, architectural buildings, battle sites, weapons, tools, wells, agricultural plots, idols, coins, etc. The list goes on and on and it keeps growing year after year.

By contrast, not one New World historical claim found in the Book of Mormon has yet been positively confirmed by comparison to any kind of historical evidence. There is a total poverty of evidence of any kind supporting the many, many historical claims found in the Book of Mormon. In fact, Mormons cannot even agree on where to look for such evidence. The range of possible locations stretches across all the continents of the Western Hemisphere. From the area of modern-day New York state all the way down through North America, into Mexico, Central America and South to Peru, Mormon speculations cover the entire area. Yet still, not one single piece of evidence has been discovered.

It gets worse. There is also no linguistic evidence. Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was written in “Reformed Egyptian”, a language that has never been shown to have ever existed. The state of the evidence for the Book of Mormon, despite wide-ranging speculations by Mormon “experts”, remains utterly indistinguishable from pure fiction.

So any contrast between the evidence supporting the historical claims of the Bible and the Book of Mormon is profound. The Bible is supported by a literally immeasurable volume of every kind of relevant evidence whereas the Book of Mormon lacks any support whatsoever from historical facts related to the New World history and geography that it claims to portray.

A map from the December 1975 Ensign Magazine from the article, “Who and Where Are the Lamanites?” by Lane Johnson. Ensign magazine is an official, correlated LDS Church periodical.

How do Mormons respond when confronted with the lack of evidence supporting the mundane, historical claims of their scripture? They usually and reflexively respond with a logical trick. First, they usually ignore the challenge to present evidence in support of their own scripture and launch a fallacious counter-challenge asking the Christian to present evidence to support such Biblical accounts as Balaam’s donkey speaking, Jesus walking on water, or the Hebrew migration from Egypt to the Levant. This is a textbook-quality example of the “Red Herring” fallacy.

The careful reader will see the problem. There are actually two logical fallacies here. The first one is obvious – the aforementioned red herring fallacy. The trick here is to obscure the Mormon’s inability to answer the challenge presented to him. The second fallacy is a little more clever. The Mormon’s red herring contains a challenge to the Christian that simply doesn’t make sense to begin with. They are asking to see “evidence” left behind by the kind of things that could not possibly have left any evidence at all (such as words spoken by a donkey) or at least no evidence that could have survived after five thousand years in the desert.

This logical fallacy is known as the “category error”, or the “categorical error”. The categorical error is a semantic and/or an ontological error that attempts to compare two claims belonging to different categories as if they belonged together. In this case, one category is the kind of historical event or object that we can rightly expect to have left evidence for itself. This would include such things as cities, coins, geographical locations, documents, weapons, cisterns, tools, inscriptions even languages. In the other category are those things which we should have no reasonable expectation to have any evidence remaining.

When the Mormon avoids the challenge to present historical evidence to support the mundane, historical claims of his scripture (such as the existence of the “Nephite” civilization, or one of the Book of Mormon’s 100 cities) he or she is demonstrating that they know that they have no answer. When they try to obscure that rather concrete demonstration of their lack of a cogent answer behind a counter-challenge, they are trying to hide what they have just proven – the fact that they have no answer. Even further down this path or irrational argumentation, when they use the categorical error fallacy, they demonstrate that they do not understand the difference between the category of mundane, historical claims in their “scriptures”, pertaining to the kinds of things that do leave observable evidence behind, and the category of those supernatural interventions which, generally speaking, cannot, by their very nature have left leave any measurable evidence in their wake.

“Jesus Christ visits the Americas” by John Scott, a Latter-day Saint artist. Notice how Scott incorporated Mayan and Aztec elements into his imagining of this scene from the Book of Mormon (see 3 Nephi 11–28).

To the Mormon, everything in their “scriptures” must be accepted on blind, unquestioning “faith” – including those kinds of things which, in the Bible, provide us with a solid grounding in reality upon which to base our faith. But is the Mormon version of faith, really “faith”? No. That is a misnomer. “Faith”, in the Bible, is derived from the Hebrew and Greek words for “trust” (אֵמוּן and πίστις respectively). But if “trust” is not built upon something objectively real, it is rightly called “fideism” – “the idea faith is, in some sense, independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason” (Stanford Encyclopedia). Another word for such “faith” is “superstition” – an unjustified belief, usually in some kind of supernatural force.

Mormons will routinely try to obscure the fact that the object of their faith is not really God, but Joseph Smith, the one and only indisputable source from which all of the distinctive doctrines and practices of Mormonism came. The fact is that Joseph Smith produced “scriptures” which inform them about their Gods and which make unfounded claims about the objective, mundane world. When, for example, we challenge the Mormons to show us a connection between the Book of Mormon’s tales of “Nephites” building a large, anachronistically advanced civilization somewhere in the Western Hemisphere they invariably fail. They fail because there simply is no such evidence. If they respond at all, it will usually be by referring to evidence of other ancient civilizations, presenting it as evidence of Book of Mormon peoples – a trick worthy of a whole new discussion.

A LiDAR image from Tikal, the most important Maya city. Mormon Apologists are now claiming that the Mayan civilization may tightly correlate to the Book of Mormon people – a claim that’s dismissed by Meso-American Archaeologists as patently absurd.

From this failure to substantiate Mormonism’s objectively testable claims about Native American history, it remains obvious to most people that the Mormon “prophet” is simply not worthy of our trust. Since Smith’s “revelations” have failed to tell the truth about the natural world, we have no grounded reason to trust his “revelations” about the supernatural world. The distance between the observable reality of the mundane world and Joseph Smith’s “revelations from God” pertaining to that world demonstrates that Smith is simply not trustworthy.

Joseph Smith would probably have done better to have refrained from proffering alleged, “revelations from God” that included objectively testable claims about the material world, such as the mere existence of entire civilizations. Keeping one’s “revelations” entirely in the subjective domain is one of the tricks that help charlatans and con men achieve the results they are seeking. One need only consider the Scientology truth claims of L. Ron Hubbard to see how this works. Had Mr. Smith followed the same type of non-material, esoteric model, that Hubbard used for Scientology there would be no basis to compare his claimed “revelations” with observable reality and thus no way to easily discredit them.

In responding to challenges to the Book of Mormon’s supposed revelations about historical claims concerning the objectively testable world, I think that Mormons subconsciously realize that they are trying to stand their religion on something that is indistinguishable from pure fantasy. That is why, when they know that they cannot answer such reasonable questions they then try to hide their flight from them behind deflective red herrings and damaged reasoning, such as the categorical error fallacy.

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’s now writing articles like this one.

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