Things That Don't Make Sense #3: LDS Ordinances as Vestiges of the Magic World View
NOM Song of the Week: The Seeker

If It’s Good Enough to Free Convicted Killers from Death Row . . .

Charles Irvin Fain was convicted and sentenced to death for the February 1982 kidnapping, sexual assault and drowning of 9-year-old Daralyn Johnson. Fain, who was unemployed and living with his parents in Redmond, Oregon at the time of the crime, had lived in Idaho until June 1981. He returned to Idaho in March of 1982 to look for work. Fain moved in with a neighbor of the Johnson family, and in September of 1982, police asked that he provide hair samples. Fain agreed, and those samples were the key evidence against him in his trial. The jury found Fain guilty, primarily on the forensic testimony of an FBI specialist about the hairs, and the testimony of two jailhouse informants who claimed that Fain made “incriminating statements” about the case.

With the help of new attorneys, Fain was able to get the physical evidence tested under a new DNA testing process known as Mitochondrial DNA Testing. Results of those tests not only excluded Fain, but pointed to two other suspects. The US District Court judge who originally would not consider Fain's innocence claims vacated the conviction on July 6, 2001 and ordered prosecutors to either retry or release Fain. Fain was released from the maximum-security facility in Boise, Idaho on August 23, 2001. 

What if you were a juror who sat in judgment of Mr. Fain at his original trial? How would you feel when you learned that DNA evidence had overturned the conviction that was based on your judgment made “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Would you maintain your belief in Fain’s guilt? Would you continue to tout the witness testimony you received almost 20 years earlier as worthy of greater weight and consideration than the new DNA evidence offered by Fain’s defense team? Or would you re-examine your verdict in light of this new evidence? And what on earth does this have to do with Mormonism?

Desert Vulture, a pseudonymous regular participant at the New Order Mormon site, recently sparked an interesting discussion on how New Order Mormons can reconcile profound personal spiritual experiences with their skepticism about Mormonism’s foundational truth claims.
DV’s post and the discussion that followed go to the heart of Mormon epistemology—how do we gain knowledge and how much faith can we justifiably have that the things we think we know are actually true? It is convenient to think in terms of burdens of proof and weighing of evidence in formulating a response to these questions.

The first question to ask with respect to the foundational truth claims of Mormonism is “who has the burden of proof?” (technically, I should probably refer to this as the “burden of persuasion,” rather than the burden of proof but the phrase “burden of proof” is popularly understood as synonymous with the more technical term).

Most, I think, would agree that in the context of religious claims, the burden should be on the party asserting the claim. For example, a Mormon missionary might say to someone: “the Book of Mormon was an ancient record written in Reformed Egyptian, inscribed on gold plates by a series of Israelite prophets who sailed to America more than 2000 years before Columbus. The gold plates, buried for millennia, were delivered by a resurrected ancient American prophet, now an angel, to a young farm boy named Joseph Smith who lived in upstate New York in the 1820s. Joseph Smith translated the record ‘by the gift and power of God.’” The burden of proving these assertions properly rests on the Mormon missionary.

The next question to ask is “how heavy is the burden of proof or, in other words, what is the standard of proof?” In American law, there are varying standards of proof depending upon what is being asserted and the context in which the assertion arises. Probable cause is the lowest standard, used to convince a judge to grant a search warrant, for example. In the criminal law context, this standard does not require that the assertion made actually be proven, only that there is enough evidence to suggest that a crime was probably committed. The preponderance of evidence standard (called the balance of probabilities outside the United States) is used in most civil cases and simply means that, given all the evidence, the proposition is more likely true than not. In some instances, a higher standard is employed: a showing of clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing means that, according to the evidence, a given proposition is substantially more likely to be true than not. Finally, there is the standard required to obtain a criminal conviction: beyond a reasonable doubt, which means there is enough evidence supporting the truth of a proposition as to render unreasonable the belief that the proposition is false.

So, which standard applies to the foundational truth claims of Mormonism? Skeptics are fond of the aphorism “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”  I think it is probably uncontroversial to state that the foundational truth claims of Mormonism are extraordinary. Can anyone seriously argue that such claims do not require extraordinary proof? Can anyone argue with the assertion that, at the very least, the foundational truth claims of Mormonism ought to be subject to a standard that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt? I suspect many faithful Latter-day Saints would have no problem accepting this standard. Many times I have heard testimonies borne in which the bearer claims to know “beyond a shadow of doubt” or “with every fiber of my being” or “beyond any doubt whatsoever,” statements which reveal that for at least some Mormons, proof beyond a reasonable doubt ought to be a standard that the foundational truth claims of Mormonism could rather easily hurdle.

It is important to note that I am not saying that the truth of a proposition depends on the standard of proof employed; rather I am saying that the acceptance of a proposition as true depends on the standard of proof employed. The Book of Mormon, for example, is either a literal history of ancient American Israelites or it is not. The truth of the matter does not depend on the standard of proof employed. But my acceptance or rejection of the truth of the proposition does depend on the standard of truth employed (as well as the weight given to the evidence in support of the proposition measured against the standard of proof.) As an epistemological matter, it is unreasonable to accept propositions as true that fail to meet the standard of proof—the proposition may be true, but for an individual to accept it, the burden must be met; otherwise, the individual acts irrationally and is epistemologically imprudent.

Desert Vulture’s original post was about how he should deal with the fact that he had had personal spiritual experiences that led him to believe in Mormonism but that he has had subsequent exposure to other evidence—external, or objective evidence—that causes him to question the LDS church’s foundational truth claims. I have also had spiritual experiences, the most powerful of which brought about my conversion and baptism into the church.
When considering how personal spiritual experiences fit into the body of evidence concerning Mormonism’s truth claims, it is good to ask the question: how is this evidence to be used? Is it to be used to persuade others or simply to convince the person who enjoyed the experience?
If the latter, it is noteworthy that in the American justice system, a person cannot serve as a witness and also sit on the jury. The two roles are separated: subjective evidence may be offered in the form of witness testimony, but the triers of fact—the jurors—are supposed to be detached, objective, impartial. We have this system because long experience has demonstrated that people who have obtained evidence through subjective experience, while they may make a good witness, invariably give undue weight to their own experience when balanced against other evidence. I submit that an individual’s subjective experience provides some evidence as to the truth of a given proposition, but its credibility and weight is determined not by the individual who had the experience but by objective triers of fact.

Not all evidence carries the same weight.  How much weight should be afforded to a subjective personal experience? Well, if it’s all we have, maybe a lot. For example, suppose a man robs a convenience store. The only witness is the store clerk, who looked the defendant square in the eye for a good 30 seconds, soberly noted his hair and eye color, height, weight, clothing, and getaway vehicle. No hard, or forensic, evidence is found. Can the defendant be convicted on the testimony of the store clerk alone? Yes, it happens all the time. But change the facts. Suppose that there are multiple witnesses to the robbery, all of whom identify a different suspect. Suppose also that video surveillance footage is available clearly showing this other suspect pointing a gun at the store clerk, leaving the store with a bag full of money. The police track down this other suspect and find him at home thirty minutes after the robbery, with a bag full of money. This other suspect was also foolish enough to leave his fingerprints on the counter at the store. Upon further investigation, the police discover that the man initially identified with absolute certainty by the store clerk has an alibi—he was at work at a restaurant on the other side of town during the time of the robbery and has 30 witnesses who can verify his whereabouts. Now how much weight do we afford the store clerk’s subjective testimony?

Why the change? Because in the face of overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to re-evaluate the evidence, and shift the weight we are willing to afford certain types of evidence—especially subjective, personal experiences.

So, what does all this have to do with Mormonism? Simply this: in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, a person might reasonably be justified in relying upon a spiritual experience as a barometer for truth. For some propositions that do not lend themselves to proof or disproof, it may be reasonable to grant some weight to a spiritual experience. However, when analyzing a demonstrably falsifiable proposition where a surfeit of evidence overwhelmingly points to a conclusion diametrically opposite that suggested by the spiritual experience, it is reasonable to re-evaluate the weight originally afforded the subjective experience in light of the new evidence.

I had a spiritual experience while reading and praying about Mormonism. I interpreted that to mean that the foundational claims of the church were true. I re-ordered my life around those claims based on that experience. In recent years, I have obtained a wealth of new evidence that calls into question my earlier verdict. This evidence applied to the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham is no less certain than the evidence that freed Charles Irvin Fain from prison. The same type of DNA evidence that overturned his conviction has demonstrated that one of Mormonism’s foundational truth claims—that the Book of Mormon’s Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the American Indians—is false. Like the jurors in the Fain case, I thought I could trust the witness testimony I had received. In light of new evidence, however, it seems reasonable to re-evaluate.


Doctrinal Engineer

Thank you Equality for this distinctive analysis. I wonder, though, whether the analogy with a criminal court case might be imperfect? I say this because in a court case, the witness that has the subjective experience is not the judge, and does not serve in the jury, as you stated. And as you pointed out, this means that if the objective evidence contradicts the subjective evidence, then the objective evidence wins.

But with subjective spiritual experiences, the witness, the judge, and the jury are the same person. That's what makes it more difficult to discount the subjective experience, and that is probably why people like myslef and Desert Vulture struggle so much.

Doctrinal Engineer

And maybe it's not correct to call a spiritual experience a subjective experience. It's very real to the person that experiences it. I think the question lies in how much weight we give the spiritual experience, like you stated in your closing paragraphs.

Watt Mahoun

I'm of the subjective opinion :) that the perceived reality of any given human experience, and the weight given to such an experience...have little to nothing to do with the objective reality of that experience.

This is why...I believe...physical/forensic evidence always trumps human testimony. We know from experience that the human perception of reality is fatally flawed.

What's that quote? The greater the claim the greater the need for proof? If it's my life on the line, I'll take verifiable, reproducible, physical proof...I'll demand it, before I will accept the testamony of human perception of reality.

Watt Mahoun

Eh, I should really read an entire post before commenting and looking the fool. :(

Just to show you how twisted this subject is...I recently participated in a thread over at M* which raised the same question about "who has the burden of proof". Believe it or not, there were many serious folks who claimed that the burden of proof is on the skeptic...and they could not be disuaded. Why? I think that once a person believes to hold certain knowledge of God's truth, that they are thereby indemnified from any responsibility to prove anything. In fact, this is what the Mormon Church teaches: you will receive it by the spirit and by no other way.

This is the reason that Mormons so readily place responsibility for proof upon the skeptic...and so readily assume that anyone who has not the same knowledge has certainly failed in some way to properly seek it out. It's that slippery gold thing again. JS was a master of the concept as Equality pointed out in a previous post.

Equality, your problem is that you approached the church from an evidence gathering perspective and this same approach led out away. Is there a better example of why so many religionist, particularly Mormons, disallow the scientific method for studying religion?

They'll stick with their claims that religiously/emotionally gained "knowledge" is beyond the grasp of physical evidence. And this is the same argument that is always appeal to higher authority...and it's a fallacy.


Equalty, once again you express in clear prose what I cannot, and yet you seem to be able to express it in a way that perfectly explains how I understand it. This essay is very good. It's definitely a keeper.

Let me pose a question, though. I have a had a spiritual experience similar to yours and DV's. If it wasn't a divine manifestation or a confirmation of truth from God, what was it? I ask this sincerely. I vacillate between thinking I was halucinating under stress and wishful thinking, to thinking that I genuinely had a divine experience but interpreted it incorrectly. What is the "spiritual experience"?

Doctrinal Engineer

I will second what Domo said about your fine talents of expression. This is a fantastic essay.


Excellent Equality, even though you are a lawyer...:-)

This issue is at the core of people trying to make sense of the church. Their cultural conditioning and training tell them one thing. Their analysis, reasoning, and intellect tell them something different. How does one reconcile these inconsistencies. My bishop told me at one point that once I had a spiritual experience, no facts or arguments could ever change my mind. That never settled well with me. The greater weight should be given to objective facts, recognizing that the science behind those facts could change and evolve, just as our knowledge regarding DNA and its application has evolved over the past couple of decades. It would be amazing to have a good understanding of the spiritual experience, how it happens, and what it might mean. We are gaining new insights into it regularly, but still to most of us, the detached scholarly analysis seems to minimize the experience and its perceived importance.

Thanks, as always for a well written, thoughtful piece Equality.


DE: I agree with your first comment, it is an imperfect analogy, and it is more difficult when we are playing the role of judge, jury, witness, plaintiff and defendant. But I think it works in terms of shedding light on the problems inherent in subjective experiences evidence for factual assertions. On your point about my use of the term "subjective," let me just clarify that when I characterize an experience as subjective, I do not diminish its power or call into question its reality. Subjective experiences can be accurate or inaccurate, but are real in either case. The witness who saw the man robbing the store in my hypothetical had a real experience--he was just inaccurate in his belief about the identity of the perpetrator. Likewise, our spiritual experiences vis-a-vis Mormonism were both real and powerful. But do they accurately inform us about certain foundational truth claims that appear to be contradicted by objective evidence that has since come to our attention?

Watt: Thanks for your kind remarks again and for letting me play in your sandbox at Purim--I hope I don't drive Jonathan or Stevero away with my snark. And, I am not at all surprised about the response you received at M*. Not at all surprised.

Domo: You ask the $64,000 question. If our spiritual experience was not God sepaking directly to us and imparting to us an absolute knowledge, what was it? To recognize the experience itself as genuine but question the conclusions we draw from the experience is not an inconsistent position to take. To question the traditional LDS epistemological model is not to say that the spiritual experience was a mere "Pavlovian" response. There are myriad possibilities and scientists are studying and writing about this very issue. Perhaps this will be fodder for future posts.

GDT: I guess it is a good thing your bishop was not the judge in the Fain case.

Doctrinal Engineer

The answer to your last question in your response to me is a definite NO. This is your best essay yet, IMO. It really strikes at the heart of so many issues that I constantly mull about in my head. Thanks so much for writing this.

Joseph's Left One

Very well written and well though out. The longer I am away from Mormonism, the more I realize that it is based on emotion, poor reasoning, and abandonment of critical thinking. I was told yesterday that facts and science change, so only the spiritual witness is constant.

Anyway, I thought I had added your blog to my links, but hadn't, so I just rectified that.

I really enjoy reading your stuff.

Hellmut Lotz

This is a fascinating discussion. I encourage those who have trouble making sense of their spiritual experience to reread Alma 32, Moroni 10, and D&C 9.

It becomes clear fairly quickly that a testimony is an autosuggestive technique. Testimonies are the product of wishful thinking (Alma 32), selective perception (Moroni 10), and self-fulfilling prophesies (D&C 9).

These segments of Joseph Smith's scriptures are probably the most authentic. Smith had figured out how to get yourself to believe a story.

By the way, Smith's approach is verey different than the New Testament's. In Matthew 7, Jesus teaches how to tell false prophets: by their fruits. That's about evidence, not feelings. The business about feelings is a clever innovation of Smith.


JLO: "I was told yesterday that facts and science change, so only the spiritual witness is constant."

This reminds me of a paper I read by John Pratt (Meridian writer) about the date of the Exodus. It is truly wacky. Anyway, he dismisses using Egyptian dates, because they never show an exodus, and they have a written continuity back to 3,000 BC, without a break for The Flood. By his thinking, that means the Egyptian dates are so messed up that they are completely unreliable. The fact that they have been inscribed in stone for thousands of years doesn't mean anything, but let's take The Bible as literal truth instead.

I would post a link but that kind of thinking is pure madness.

Joseph's Left One

Hellmut, that's exactly right. The first step in Mormonism is developing a strong desire to believe. It seems to me that once you desire to believe something, you probably will believe it.

I read some FARMS thing about how Alma 32 is really a Kuhnian approach to truth. WTF? Some of that apologetic crap has me shaking my head.

Joseph's Left One

John Pratt, author of my favorite all-time article headline: "Uranus Testifies of Christ."

What a maroon.


Meridian, now that's some funny stuff there. They make the guys GDT was dealing with at M* look like geniuses.


I have considered this analysis before and I think it might explain some experiences but not all. In my case, when I prayed about the Book of Mormon, consciously I expected either no answer at all or a "no" answer. What I received was an answer that I interpreted as a "yes" (to my surprise). Now, it may be that subcoscious forces were at play. If so, though, the explanation goes deeper than a simple auto-suggestive exercise.



I think you have an interesting discussion going here on the spiritual experience. I see Helmut's insight into the autosuggestion as being an 80/20 rule. I suspect about 80% of the feelings and experiences labeled as spiritual are autosuggestive, but what of the other 20%. I recall one my "confusing" experiences. I was sitting at a remote Buddhist temple in Korea on my mishie gig and I had this profound, overwhelming sensation overcome me. As a mishie I was trying to figure out if it was the devil or what. Why did I have that experience in one of the churches of the devil. I look back on that experience and have no idea what it was or wasn't. I don't think it was the devil, nor do I think it was god. I don't know what it was, but it was something that I will always remembers. Any clues?


GDTeacher, my experience was in a rented missionary house, three doors down from a nightclub/whorehouse, and across the street from a prison. I was on my 2-inch-thick mat, that some jokers called a bed, praying to find out "the truth" when I had an amazing experience. I have never felt anything like it since, even in a chapel or a temple. Shouldn't one be able to feel that feeling more readily in a temple? I've only felt sleepy in a temple.


I once took NoDoz to stay awake in a temple session, but kept falling asleep anyway. Maybe I was being inspired to get some sleep instead of wasting my time otherwise...

Watt Mahoun

I've also had "that feeling", but it has either been in times and places so random as to call into question the one true source (I share this with you all, and the temple was also never one of them for me) or at the end of such a tortured process as to certainly be that 80% auto-suggestion.

Equality, you have brought a much needed balance to the discussions over at Purim...I sincerely hope that you keep coming back. Stevero actually thanked you for helping him see the alternative, and is considering it for the first time. Jonathan...well, there must be a reason why he is so over-wrought. I think that the ones that fight the hardest are often times the ones that have the most to lose. :)


I am not a geneticist or a biologist, so I am not sure I understand the implications of the DNA studies for the Book of Mormon.

I can understand that the lack of semetic DNA in the study leads to an inference that these results must disprove the Book of Mormon as a literal history of a real people, but how conclusive are these results for all "indigenous" peoples on both American continents?

Is the DNA study really as dispositive to the assertion that some group of people in ancient America came from the Middle East as the mitochondrial DNA testing done on the evidence collected from the victim was in Fain's case?

(Fain's case, by the way, is one major reason why I am against the death penalty, but I digress...)

Does the DNA sampling done in the Native American DNA studies cited really encompass all possible DNA for all classes and subclasses of aboriginal peoples who have lived on the American continents?

These are not rhetorical questions, and if we ever get around to meeting perhaps you could explain them to me.

I can agree for the sake of argument that we could place the burden of proof on the Church, but I disagree about the standard of proof you advocate (and, assuming that God really lives and that this life is to "prove us" as stated in many scriptures, then perhaps that allocation of the burden of proof on the Church is also not right, but I recognize the circular reasoning inherent here...)

Is it really OK or appropriate to place a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof on religious claims, many of which are a matter of faith or belief in things not seen (though perhaps evidenced, perhaps not)? I agree that some members do (inappropriately, in my opinion) dwell on "knowing" certain things "beyond the shadow of a doubt", or (*gag*) "with every fiber of my being," but just because they say that does not necessarily mean that the reasonable doubt standard is an appropriate one with which to judge religious claims.

The criminal trial is the only context in our justice system which utilizes a standard of proof requiring the fact-finder to decide what happened "beyond a reasonable doubt," as you have pointed out. This is because it is only in the criminal context where a defendant's life or liberty is threatened, and we as a society want to preserve those rights to the utmost, hence we require a very vigorous standard of proof.

Though some over at RFM may argue to the contrary, the Church is not seeking to take away anyone's life or liberty in the same way as the criminal justice system. Besides, where many of the truth claims of the Church (or any religion, for that matter) must be taken on pure faith/belief that they are true, I do not believe that the proper standard for evaluating any religious claims is "beyond a reasonable doubt."

If we must apply a legal standard to matters of faith, I would have to argue for either "probable cause," or at the most a "preponderance of the evidence". I believe that almost any religion or set of beliefs, when examined under a more rigourous lens than those two standards, would not hold up to scrutiny of objective facts. There will always be many "Reasonable doubts" about the existence or nature of God. Many TBMs and ardent Christians, whether they admit it or not, harbor "reasonable doubt" about such things, but they feel they still have "probably cause" to believe anyway. That describes my situation.

One other interesting note- those alleging fraud in our justice system must usually prove those claims by clear and convincing evidence. Also, those seeking to invalidate an official document issued by the United States government must also do so by a clear and convincing evidence standard. (This means the trier of fact must be persuaded by the evidence that it is highly probable that the claim or affirmative defense is true.

Does this mean that accusations of fraud levelled against Joseph Smith and others should be backed up by "clear and convincing" evidence? If it does, then I am not certain that the evidence of fraud is "clear and convincing" from a legal standpoint, though you may disagree with this assertion.

The point is that you are right- it is a matter of where the burden of proof lies and what that burden is. In religious claims, I am not certain that you have properly allocated the burden or shown what that burden ought to be.

And I am not thoroughly convinced that the DNA sampling of native Americans is as dispositive to the Book of Mormon claims as DNA evidence has been in proving the innocence of falsely convicted prisoners. For one thing, the DNA testing done for the prisoners is on a one-to-one basis: the DNA taken from the victim is directly compared to the DNA taken from the defendant. Whereas the Native American DNA is randomly sampled and statistically analyzed to extrapolate conclusions about ancestry for a complex and diverse group expanding across two continents. Someone who knows how this works- please explain to me why that is so dispositive.


Jordan, your argument seems to state that the government uses "beyond a reasonable doubt" as a standard in criminal cases, where life or liberty is at stake, and that religion shouldn't be held to that same standard because life and liberty are not at stake.

I would beg to differ with you. Religion constricts not only our diet, dress, but those with whom we may want to live and be happy with. Religion regulates birth, marriage, and death. Religion is given claim over our very souls. To claim that the burden of proof should be lighter for religion than governments is to deny the power of religion in society and in an individual's life.

To give religion an easier burden of proof negates the importance of religion. Religion shapes our attitudes, our actions, and our families. Religion has control over almost everything in a religious person's life. I do not accept your assumption that religion has a lower burden of proof.



I can certainly understand your rejection of my assumption. And religion can "impose" a lot of requirements on a person- but I think it is more a matter of choice by the individual to accept the imposition of the requirements in the case of religion than it is a matter of choice to accept a prison term in the criminal justice context.

If religious claims had to be subjected to such a high burden, then no religion would survive. I believe that, unless one actually sees God, it is impossible to prove his existence beyond a reasonable doubt. Regardless of how one feels about the foundational truth claims of mormonism, are we really prepared to so glibly throw all religion, organized or not, out the window? Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water! In my opinion, that would be necessary under such a rigorous standard.

Besides, religion is a matter of choice, whereas detention in a state penitentary is a matter of the State imposing punishment and forcibly depriving you of life and/or liberty.

Religious adherents can still choose not to believe in certain things, and can still choose not to adhere to certain doctrines. But prisoners cannot choose to leave a prison.

Nobody forces a person to be Mormon, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise (I will cede the point that in some theocratic societies where the criminal justice system is inextricably intertwined with the government's religion, this may not be the case, but Utah has not reached that point!). Therefore, although one may "wear out one's life" in the service of what he/she supposes to be God/God's church, that "sacrifice" is not one unilaterally imposed by the State, but it is because of a promise entered into willingly by the adherent.

I still think that the highest standard of proof that ought to prevail in this context is a preponderance of the evidence, and would be willing to consider probable cause, since the belief system is willingly entered into and not forcibly imposed like criminal punishment.


Also, once I am convinced that the religion I adhere to is more likely right than not, I would require clear and convincing evidence to show me that it was actually a fraud.

This is in line with our justice system. For example, if the United States patent office is convinced by a preponderance of the evidence that the subject matter of a patent application is patentable, original, and non-obvious, it will grant the applicant a patent.

However, to invalidate the patent based in "inequitable conduct" (for example, fraud) before the patent office, or to invalidate based on non-patentablity, non-uniqueness or obviousness of the invention at the time the patent issued, the party seeking to invalidate must prove the invalidating facts by clear and convincing evidence.

By the same measure, I would subject religion to a preponderance of the evidence, and require clear and convincing evidence to convince me that it was fraudulent.

This measure may actually lead to several religions clearing the preponderance hurdle and surviving the clear and convincing challenge. So long as a religion passes the initial burden and survives the challenge, I see no reason why someone should not be able to choose to believe in it- in my opinion that would make belief in several religions reasonable, while not disturbing my own subjective beliefs.

In any case, the point of my original comment was to note that, based on my limited understanding of DNA, the comparison between the exonerated prisoner and the DNA connections between certain Native American samples and some of their ancestors as asserted in Mormonism is not a very good comparison.


Jordan, once again I reject your assumptions. You say that religious claims should not be held to the same standard because it is a voluntary association. I think you are confusing the actual power of an institution with the burden needed to validate it's claims.

If I am a believer in mormonism, I don't have the power to commit major unrepentant sin and still expect to go to the CK. As a believer, I would be bound to do whatever the church says. Ask someone who believes, who has been on the receiving end of an excommunication about if the church really holds power over them or not. It's easy to say, "Oh, then don't believe." But for a believer, there is no choice in accepting the fate the church deals out, whether that fate is temporal or eternal.

Your argument sounds a lot like the "America - love it or leave it" slogan. As an analogy, if I find something I disagree with in our government, I should then immigrate to Canada? No, I am free to protest, vote against, publish newspapers, etc. But if a religion offers no place for dissent, I am stuck either toeing the obedience line or chucking it all out of the window. That black/white thinking promoted by the church is a false dichotomy, and is wrong.

You ask if I am willing to throw out all religion. I am willing to throw out all literalist, fundamentalist, authoritarian religion. I think that kind of religion is the cause of many, if not most, of the modern social and political problems in the world today.

Extreme, absolutist claims, like the claims of the LDS church, demand extraordinary evidence.


I would never advocate a "love it or leave it" type of philosophy for the United States, and I think protest and making your voice be heard are very important parts of our society. I place a very high value on an American's right to "free speech" and protest.

However, in a way, a "love it or leave it" mentality has to apply to a church- membership in a church is inherently voluntary. It is not entrenched in the land you live on, as is citizenship or residence in the United States. Church occupies a metaphysical sphere, much like various schools of thought. If one does not agree with Kant, one need not be a Kantian thinker. That is a choice.

Belief is a choice. My arguments about burdens and standards of proof are simply to evaluate the objective reasonableness of a choice, which I think Equality was getting at in his post. His thesis was that sometimes, it is objectively reasonable to re-evaluate a former conclusion based on new evidence. I agree. However, I differ on the standard to be used.

I still think reasonable minds can differ on this.

And I am willing to accept the notion that it is perhaps I who am being unreasonable. That is always a possibility I am willing to consider, though hesitant to accept :).

In the end, though, I suppose my belief is a choice. How objectively reasonable that choice is depends on what standards you use to judge it.

So I may be completely reasonable and proper in believing as I do, or I may be crazy as a loon. And in that case, any further pontificating on my end regarding the proper standard of proof is just crazy babble.



Thank you so much for your many thoughtful comments. I appreciate your contributions very much. You have said much and I have little time to respond. For that reason, I'd like to lay aside for now a discussion of the credibility and scope of the DNA evidence vis-a-vis the genetic history of Native Americans. I would ask, though, as a precursor to that conversation that I would like eventually to have: if the evidence were to show to, say, 99% certainty that no Native American population had Semitic ancestry, would that fact cause you to re-evaluate your understanding of Mormon doctrine as it relates to the "Lamanites?" If not, why not and is there a quantum of scientific data that could, conceivably, cause you to so re-evaluate?

Now, onto your other points. I echo Domokun on the reasons why I think imposing a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard to the foundational truth claims of Mormonism is justified. If the church is correct that acceptance or rejection of these foundational truth claims has eternal consequences, i.e., those who "reject this glad message" will suffer at the very least 1000 years in hell for their own sins such pain that it caused Christ himself to bleed from every pore while those who believe and follow will become gods, it seems to me the consequences of the decision one makes with respect to the foundational truth claims of Mormonism (if not all religious claims) are far more grave than the consequences meted out by the American criminal justice system.

Incidentally, I think you have engaged in some deft sleight of hand in arguing against the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. You say that there are always going to be some reasonable doubts about the existence of God. First, I think this is actually NOT an orthodox LDS statement--as I understand it, the church teaches that a person CAN know beyond a reasonable doubt, that the spiritual witness imparted by the Holy Ghost provides a witness more sure than if an individual were to see an angel. I would also submit that the foundational truth claims involve far more than the philosophical question of God's existence. There are, among those claims, things that can be tested empirically--objective claims that are subject to verification. One of these is the claim that the Lamanites are of Jewish descent. Another would be the claim that the Book of Abraham was written by the hand of Abraham upon papyrus.

But I digress. I am willing, for the sake of argument, to meet you halfway and apply a preponderance of the evidence standard. In my original analysis of the foundational truth claims of Mormonism, I gave great weight to my spiritual experiences as applied to the facts I had learned about the scriptures, the church, its history, doctrines, and practices. I am not sure at the time waht standard I was applying, but I thought it more likely than not (and I would have said beyond a reasonable doubt) that the foundational claims were true. If I were to undertake the same analysis today, I would not make the same judgment. Of course, you make the excellent point that once a verdict is rendered and judgment entered, it requires a HIGHER standard to overturn it. In some cases, in our criminal justice system, a prisoner must show "actual innocence" to win his freedom--even new evidence, which, if presented at the original trial would have engendered reasonable doubt, is not necessarily sufficient to meet this standard.

But this is the real point of my post. Getting past all the legal techincalities and jargon, my point was simply to raise the question about when new evidence is sufficient to justify a re-evaluation of an earlier decision regarding the foundational truth claims of Mromonism. I used the "mistaken juror" as an example. The juror examined the best evidence available at the time and, applying whatever legal standard, reached a conclusion. It may be that the juror was "certain" that he or she had reached the correct decision. In the Fain case, the DNA evidence was enough to convince the prosecutors and the judge that an error in judgment had been made. I have found a wealth of new evidence (new to me anyway) in recent years that has led me to re-evaluate the earlier conclusions I had reached with respect to Mormonism's foundational truth claims. What results from that re-evaluation depends, in part, on the standard of evidence employed and the weight and credibility I afford the evidence I am now considering.

Finally (for now), I agree that the analogy between the individual DNA and the DNA studies of indigenous populations is imperfect. I employed it mainly as a rhetorical device. I have heard Mormon apologists reject DNA studies that appear to contradict LDS ideas on the Lamanites as unreliable or untrustworthy. The point is if we as a society have enough confidence in DNA evidence to free from prison a man convicted of murdering a 9-year-old girl, why would we not have confidence in the same technology when it raises questions about some our previously held beliefs regarding the American Indians?


Incidentally, I think you have engaged in some deft sleight of hand in arguing against the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. You say that there are always going to be some reasonable doubts about the existence of God. First, I think this is actually NOT an orthodox LDS statement--as I understand it, the church teaches that a person CAN know beyond a reasonable doubt, that the spiritual witness imparted by the Holy Ghost provides a witness more sure than if an individual were to see an angel.

I can agree with this statement. Actually, I believe that too. I believe that subjectively, a person can "know" that God lives beyond a reasonable doubt, and this is what the Church teaches. However, until God actually manifests himself to everyone, if that actually happens, in an objectively clear manner (such as the scene which is claimed to have occured in the Americas in 3 Nephi with Christ descending from the heavens and allowing the people to touch the wounds in his hands and feet) such that all can undoubtedly experience him, there will always be reasons that would force any hypothetical "juror" operating based on the objective facts to have a reasonable doubt regarding the existence of God. That is what I meant.

That has nothing to do with the hypothetical juror's subjective experience which tells him, beyond the shadow of a doubt (in his mind), that God lives. But jurors are supposed to separate themselves from their prejudices and concentrate on the facts allowed into evidence, and subjective experience isn't.

(Is that cognitive dissonance?)


Jordan, you said, "Also, once I am convinced that the religion I adhere to is more likely right than not, I would require clear and convincing evidence to show me that it was actually a fraud." Recognizing that with that position in mind, nothing is likely to change you mind. You have made up your mind and are highly unlikely to change your position. As a normal human, you will be subjected to confirmation bias. You will see those things that confirm this belief as confirmation and disregard those things that disconfirm your belief as anamalous. In my mind, one way to avoid this problem is to take the position of a third party. I am speaking of an honest, truth seeking person, who just wants to understand and know the truth. This person would not have bias against the church, nor would the person have a bias towards the church. What would an objective, honest, truth-seeking individual think when presented with information?

The spiritual witness argument is circular logic. It would not hold up under scrutiny by an honest, objective, truth-seeking individual. The scriptures tell us that if we pray about something and have a burning in the bosom then it is truth. How do we know the scriptures are true? Because we prayed about it and because the leaders of the church have told us it is true. Well we can't pray about the scriptures to know that they are true because that is what the scriptures tell us to do. That would be circular logic. What about the leaders of the church? We know the leaders of the church are right because the scriptures tell us they are right and because we may have prayed about it. Wait... There is no way out of this circular trap. If praying about something to know whether or not it was in fact objectively true really worked, I suspect that the BYU science department would be hard at work teaching this infallible method of discerning truth to answer mysteries of the universe. What do we find in actuality?

That being said, I'm quite certain this argument will not hold any water with you because you have already decided and you seek only to confirm your beliefs, while eschewing information which would tend to disconfirm what you already believe. This is like many of the early Saints who were sure of brother Joseph's prediction of the second coming late in the 19th century. Also brother Brigham was quite convinced of brother Joseph's prophecy that the Civil War would bring the end of the American government, with the Americas being governed by the church at that time. Brother Brigham had a testimony that included brother Joseph's first vision of an angel, not of God and Jesus Christ. Brother Brigham taught that Adam was our God with great certitude and conviction and many had a testimony of this doctrine because God revealed it to them through a witness of the Holy Ghost. John Taylor had a conviction and a spiritual witness that polygamy would never be taken from the church on the earth. Many Saints of the 19th century had great spiritual conviction knew that they would serve a mission to the moon, because their patriarchal blessing told them so and they had received that spiritual witness of it's truthfulness. Certainly orthodox LDS teachings tell us that we can know these things for certain. But just as many Saints in the past had that unshakable spiritual conviction of things that were false, so too can we experience that same spiritual conviction of things that may be true or may be false. Now this is not what is taught over the pulpit in sacrament meeting, but it is truth and you too can find that it is true through investigation and study of primary church documents or those documents as summarized by honest, objective historians. The choice is yours, stick to your spiritual witness, that has a high probability of not being true, or couple that spiritual witness with true research. Hugh B. Brown, an apostle and member of the First Presidency for many years said, "We should be scientific -- that is, open-minded, approaching new problems without prejudice, deferring a decision until all the facts are in. Some say that the open-minded leave room for doubt. But I believe we should doubt some of the things we hear. Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one's self." You decide. You can be true to your current beliefs and not subject them to further scrutiny, or you can be true to yourself by evaluating your beliefs from the viewpoint of an objective, honest, truth-seeking individual.


Well said, GDTeacher.

I don't know why it is- maybe I am intellectually dishonest, but I have done lots of research on these issues. Maybe I am too much into looking for only "confirmatory" evidence.

I actually have had a pretty unusual upbringing in that I was taught many of the things that tend to bother people from a young age, in addition to the research I have done on my own.

Perhaps you chalk that up to intellectual dishonesty, and perhaps that is what it is. Maybe it is cognitive dissonance. Maybe it is pure stubbornness. Who knows.

I am not here to "defend the Church" or something- the whole point of my posts was simply to point out that I had a difference of opnion regarding the standard of proof that should be used in evaluating things.

It is entirely possible that an objective review of the known facts would not meet the lower standard of preponderance of the evidence regarding certain events at the foundation of the Church.

Whether those things happened or not was not the point of my post. Though I do believe that "objective, honest, truth-seeking individuals" can look at the same set of facts and draw wildly different conclusions.

At any rate, GDTeacher does make a good point. Several, in fact! :)


Jordan, my intent was not to say that you were intellectually dishonest. I apologize if I conveyed that. My intent was really just to point out that we should be open minded and challenge our own assumptions regularly. It seems to me that evaluating our views from the perspective of an unbiased onlooker would help us to unlock some of the built in biases that we have. This is true of any topic or issue, not just religious issues.

Good luck on your journey. For you and all of us, I hope we find peace.


"I am not here to 'defend the Church'" or something-"


Feel free to do so if you think it appropriate or necesarry. I welcome allpoints of view here and will not edit comments for substance. As you know, this does not mean I will never edit a comment, but I want you to know you are welcome to express "pro-church" positions here without worrying that you are stepping on toes or going against this blog's policy. Unlike the NOM board which has a stated goal of providing a safe haven for people to express views critical of the church (without vehemence) and unlike M* which has no tolerance for views that come close to questioning foundational Mormon truth claims, my blog is a place where divergent views and opinions are welcome.

"I actually have had a pretty unusual upbringing in that I was taught many of the things that tend to bother people from a young age, in addition to the research I have done on my own."

Jordan, it sounds like you might be a case study for GDTeacher's "Inoculation Theory" that he has proposed the church might be adopting going forward, and which he suspects Bushman's book was part of a planned PR campaign by the church to begin to inoculate members against the less faith-promoting areas of church history.


I realize this thread is quite old, but I wanted to point out for anyone stumbling across it that the DNA argument against the BoM is weak, genetically speaking. It is quite possible to have descendants that have no genetic relationship to you -- especially if your group's contribution to the gene pool is small relative to the existing population. (Admittedly not all TBMs accept the theory that Lehi, et al joined a larger indigenous group upon arriving.)

That said, there are many more solid reasons for discounting the authenticity of the BoM. Personally I accept it as a work that is universally true but specifically false.

As for evidence, I agree that one must continually re-evaluate the "truths" one holds dear in the face of new facts. Ironically one of the quotes my mission prez has us use on stubborn perspective converts basically said the same thing...



Thanks, raw.

I agree that the DNA argument against the apologetic re-interpretation of the Book of Mormon text does not provide a slam-dunk against the new theories advanced attempting to save some form of literal historicity for the book. But DNA does serve as a powerful refutation of the most plausible reading of the express language of the text of the Book of Mormon, and against the express language of the Doctrine & Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and numerous prophetic statements uttered by every Prophet from Joseph Smith to at least Ezra Taft Benson. Only by rejecting the prophets can apologists save the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I agree that DNA is just one of an abundance of evidences the most reasonable evaluation of which (in my opinion) argues convincingly against literal historicity.

Thanks for commenting, even on an old thread. If I didn't want people to comment on old threads, I'd close them!



What exactly does "the most plausible reading of the express language" actually entail? To assume that the three small colonies which came to America, as documented in the Book of Mormon, are the sole ancestors of the entire populations of indigenous people in both American continents is hardly plausible. If that were hard-and-fast doctrine, the Book of Mormon could be easily refuted without resorting to DNA evidence. I believe calculations of birth rates and infant mortality in a primitive society kill that theory dead in the water. Nibley repeatedly argued against that assumption, and over twenty years ago a series of Sorenson’s articles were published in the Ensign outlining his “limited geography” theory (“Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture,” Ensign, Sept. 1984, 27). They, and many others, have subsequently produced reams of literature dealing with the topic, most of which does not even come close to contradicting the prophets. I doubt one could seriously argue that Sorenson rejects the standard works and the leaders of the church.

Now I realize that neither Sorenson nor Nibley are considered prophets, by any means, nor are their writings doctrine, but the fact that there is no explicit mention of the colonies merging with native populations does not expressly discount assimilation theories. I can’t recall scripture or modern prophets expressly denying the possibility of other civilizations in the Americas, and I think it’s slightly disingenuous to consider their work “apologetic re-interpretation”. Perhaps you could point me to some verses or talks I’ve missed.

At the risk of inadequately repeating what many more capable people have postulated before, consider if Lehi’s group, for example, merged early on with indigenous peoples. Very quickly the Hebrew genes would become scarce in the overall population – to the point that after more than one hundred generations one could be almost certain (at least according to my limited understanding of population genetics) that even groups living in the heart of what once was Lamanate civilization would not show evidence of “Hebrew” DNA.

It is highly likely that some native peoples in North Eastern Canada have Norse ancestors, but I am not aware of any DNA evidence supporting that (of course there is much more compelling archeological evidence for Norse in Newfoundland than Hebrews in the Yucatan, but I digress). And in over one hundred generations migrations and interbreeding would naturally mix the Lamanites with neighboring ethnic groups in which case one could truthfully say that large numbers of Native Americans are in fact descended from Lehi, and yet they share none of his DNA. William the Conqueror is my direct ancestor, but I seriously doubt a DNA test would prove it. For that matter I suppose in theory a Neanderthal could be my “principal” ancestor, even though DNA evidence suggests that there was no significant genetic mixing between humans and H. neanderthalensis.

I see very little correlation between DNA as forensic evidence and using it to study the origins of groups of people (although both scientific pursuits are valid and enlightening, when guided by the appropriate caveats). What’s more, even the use of DNA in criminal trials is not rock-solid and without a margin of error. I wouldn’t trust it with _my_ life.


PS: I would like to correct a typo in my previous comment – I meant to write that my mission president HAD us use William George Jordan’s quote from "The Power of Truth" – past tense – I’ve been a recovering missionary for well over ten years. Don’t want to give the impression I’m writing this from the mission field. :)

By the way, that quote in its entirety, if you’re interested, goes thusly:

“The man who has a certain religious belief and fears to discuss it, lest it may be proved wrong, is not loyal to his belief, he has but a coward's faithfulness to his prejudices. If he were a lover of truth, he would be willing at any moment to surrender his belief for a higher, better, and truer faith.”

…kind of like what happened to me when I read “the Blind Watchmaker” for the first time.



Thanks for posting. "What’s more, even the use of DNA in criminal trials is not rock-solid and without a margin of error. I wouldn’t trust it with _my_ life."

I bet you would. If you were accused of, say, rape, and a DNA test showed that the bodily fluids collected from the crime scene did not match your genetic profile, I hazard a guess that you would use that information greatly to your advantage.

Here is something mind-blowing to consider: "If a historical figure who lived more than 1,600 years ago had children who themselves had children, that person is almost certainly among our ancestors. Everyone in the world today is most likely descended from Nefertiti (through the six daughters she had with Akhenaton), from Confucius (through the son and daughter he is said to have had, (and from Julius Caesar (through his illegitimate children, not through Julia, who died in childbirth). One need go back only a couple of millennia to connect everyone alive today to a common pool of ancestors." That's from Mapping Human History by Steve Olson, page 47. I highly recommend this book. It is not written specifically about the Book of Mormon issue at all and is probably the best intro into the subject of genes, race, and human origins. Since you mention The Blind Watchmaker, I would say this book is to genetics what that book is to evolution. Of course, saying that we are all related in some degree to everyone who lived and had children and grandchildren 2000 years ago is both uncontroversial and really beside the point. What DNA proves or disproves (or, if you prefer, renders likely or extraordinarily unlikely) depends on the proposition being asserted. Assuming that Lehi was a real person and he had children and grandchildren, then, sure, the American Indians are "among" his ancestors, the position the LDS Church is apparently now retreating to in the introduction to the latest Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon. But so is everyone else in the world. So any claims to "specialness" for Native Americans and the people of the "isles of the sea" is rendered moot with such a watered down claim. If the claim is that the inhabitants of the American continents who were here when Columbus arrived are direct descendants of Lehi and are a "tribe of Israel," well, that's something else entirely. And that's exactly what has been claimed by Mormon Prophets from Joseph Smith to Gordon B. Hinckley. And it's all over the Book of Mormon, the D&C, the Pearl of Great Price, General Conference addresses, official proclamations from the leading councils of the church, church magazines, and lesson materials. And it's that claim with which Nibley and Sorenson and the FAMRS crowd stand in direct opposition with their limited geography theory and their new "genetic drift" and "swallowed up" theories. I've been planning a post on this for some time. I will speak more to this issue in the future. For now, you might consider reading Southerton's book and Thomas Murphy's works as well. But start with Olson as that entire book can be viewed as an answer to your statement that there is "very little correlation between DNA as forensic evidence and using it to study the origins of groups of people." Again, I agree that DNA does not provide a knock-out blow to all theories about the Book of Mormon, but it does strike a significant blow to statements made about the Lamanites in Mormon scripture. And with the Church's quiet change of the word "principal" to "among the" in the latest Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon, it appears that the Corporation of the First Presidency agrees.


“If you were accused of, say, rape, and a DNA test showed that the bodily fluids collected from the crime scene did not match your genetic profile, I hazard a guess that you would use that information greatly to your advantage.”

Obviously. And if I were a juror I think I would be more inclined to have reasonable doubt if the DNA evidence proved for the defendant, than the other way around … especially in the case of the death penalty. But I think I see what you’re getting at with regards to your original post. IF there were a preponderance of archeological evidence supporting a Hebrew colony in the Yucatan (or Great Lakes, or wherever), and the DNA didn’t match up with the claim of ancestry a stronger argument could be made for genetic drift or whatnot, but as it isn’t, it ain’t.

I completely agree that any claim to birthright is rather ridiculous in light of what you were saying above, but then again according to modern genetic theory, as you mentioned, we’re also all of us descendants of Abraham, one way or the other, so I guess there’s no Gentiles left after all. ;)

Admittedly I never thought about how the “new” theories serve to unintentionally neutralize the core tenets of the Promise to the Lamanites specifically or the Abrahamic Covenant in general. Bloodlines take on little meaning if globally shared ancestors can be found as recently as a couple millennia ago. I look forward to reading Olson’s book – his essay on “Why We’re All Jesus’ Children” was quite amusing.

Interesting bit about the change in the introduction – I wasn’t aware of that. They haven’t updated the online version with that edit yet. Is it special for the Doubleday edition?

Looking forward to reading your treatment of Nibley, Sorenson, and the FARMS crowd.

Thanks again for the speedy replies. I can’t fathom how you have the time.


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