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Estimating the Evidence
Episode 6: On a Disagreeable God

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[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of 23 essays summarizing and evaluating Book of Mormon-related evidence from a Bayesian statistical perspective. See the FAQ at the end of the introductory episode for details on methodology.]

Reader be forewarned! This episode is going to feature much more commentary and much less actual analysis than others in this series. That’s because most of what we need to talk about is philosophical instead of statistical. I’m probably not the most qualified to discuss the essential nature of political thought or the metaphysics of divine belief systems, but I’m going to do it anyway. It’s going to be fun(?).

 

The TLDR

It doesn’t seem likely that a true God could teach things that people find personally and politically disagreeable.

Critics find no shortage of ways to be offended by mainstream LDS thought and philosophy, whether it’s in the policies of the church or the content of the Book of Mormon. But, from the perspective of information theory, it’s possible to see such disagreements as arising by chance rather than through the church or the book (or its critics!) being evil, parochial, or politically backward. Even if God himself authored all the politically relevant features of the book, and even if you were on the same general side as he was politically, the probability that you’d find something in the Book of Mormon to disagree with him about would be just over half (p = .56). Political correctness just isn’t a great barometer by which to measure the book’s authenticity.

Evidence Score = 0 (the probability of the Book of Mormon being authentic decreased by less than a full order of magnitude)

 

The Narrative

The pages of the book turn swiftly, and your eyes move across each line like a predator eyeing potential prey. You’re into the text proper now, and the stage of this tall tale is beginning to be set. The young man who had left you the book told you that it told the story of the natives of the American continent, but for now the story is focused on the land of Jerusalem, just before the Babylonian conquest. The hero, this Nephi, had fled into the wilderness with his family at the behest of his prophet-father, a man with so little foresight that he apparently forgot to bring along a few things for the trip. Now Nephi and his older brothers had to head back to pick up the family bible.

It’s here that your attention starts to waver. It reads like some tired morality play extolling the virtues of obeying your parents. Then your eyes catch something you didn’t expect. As Nephi confronts Laban, the greedy, powerful, and foolish owner of this scriptural record, catching him passed out and drunk in a dark alley, he feels the quiet whisperings of the Holy Spirit, except it doesn’t sound like any Holy Spirit you’re aware of:

“And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban…the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.”

Such whispers ring false in your ears—they sound more like the temptations of a demon than divine and holy exhortation. You have to pause for a minute to shake your head in disbelief. Surely no pretending prophet would have God tell the hero of his story to break the sixth commandment. You go back to the story—maybe this pious hero would recognize the devil in his own ears and turn his back on such bloodshed. But no:

“Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.”

You set aside the clumsy Davidic reference and try to move ahead, but your eyes keep coming back to those same words. You were reading skeptically before, but now you can almost feel your mind pulsing with waves of disbelief. It just doesn’t seem possible that the God you knew could ever condone or instruct something so obviously heinous.

 

The Introduction

Whenever I read through the Book of Mormon I always wonder how many first-time readers put the book down at 1 Nephi 4, never to pick it up again. God instructing Nephi to kill Laban—even for the greater good—has to strike many as contrary to their vision of a just and loving God. (Indeed, some might justifiably wonder why Joseph Smith would have allegedly put something so controversial into his founding scriptural text.) Never mind that the Old Testament goes much further than the Book of Mormon ever does; maybe it’s because it’s meant as new revelation, or that the book itself blends in many New Testament teachings and elements, but somehow many hold the Book of Mormon to a far higher standard than they do with Deuteronomy or Judges.

Even beyond the example above, the Book of Mormon—and the modern church that teaches from it—is full of things that can offend modern sensibilities, and in ways that cross political lines. Progressives predictably cringe at racist overtones and the reinforcement of traditional sexuality, while right-wing radicals might feel similarly uncomfortable with explicit denunciations of racism, or with a church that encourages compassion for the poor, support for immigrants, religious pluralism, or common-sense exceptions to abortion restrictions. And, of course, no one feels at ease with the ever-present specter of polygamy.

There’s no real point arguing here about whether any of these specific stances are true and correct. The question at hand is whether these offenses should serve as evidence—whether we should use them to guide our view of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon or of the church itself. Should we expect any book of scripture to only tell us things that we can wholeheartedly accept as true at first glance, or that align with our preconceived or newly adopted political views? These questions may seem a bit silly, but they’ve presented enough fodder for critics of all stripes that I don’t think I can just let them be. How likely would it be for someone to encounter something disagreeable in an authentic Book of Mormon? Let’s see if Bayes can provide us with some answers.

 

The Analysis

As I begin, it’s important to note what I’m not doing here—I’m not assessing whether the politics presented in the Book of Mormon are a better fit for a Mesoamerican setting or a nineteenth-century one. That question would be interesting and challenging in its own right, but it’s not the one currently under our microscope. We’ll tackle aspects of that down the road, especially with the help of people like Brant Gardner, Richard Bushman, and, more recently, Bruce Dale. This essay is less about the raw facts of historicity and more about the experience of encountering information that conflicts with your worldview—an experience familiar to any student of history, not just the Book of Mormon.

My analysis here is framed in terms of politics, but what we’re really talking about here is broader than that. Political stances are usually an expression of shared moral values. When I cast a vote for person X, it’s likely because he or she seems to care about the same things that I care about and will work to turn those values into concrete policies and actions that align with my own moral sentiments. Broadly speaking, this loose collection of shared moral sentiments would be a pretty decent definition for the word “culture." Growing up in the same area, being inculcated by a similar education system, and watching the same TV shows means that we’re going to share a lot of the same culture and, consequently, many of the same moral values and political stances. And when those values shift along geographical or generational lines, the resulting conflict can rightly be called a “culture war," a war of values, with politics being used as a handy rubric for identifying the combatants on either side.

When I talk about politics in this essay, I could easily replace the word politics with “morality” or “culture," but trying to disentangle those terms is probably out of scope for our purposes here. In our current era of rampant polarization, where politics itself is becoming almost indistinguishable from religion, I hope I can be forgiven for looking at these issues through a political lens.

The Evidence

Whether or not the Book of Mormon is authentic, hopefully everyone can at least agree on one thing—it’s controversial. The content within it doesn’t conform to mainstream standards of political correctness. We’ve already discussed its countenance of murder, its well-defined racism, and its traditional sexual ethics, but there’s other things we could talk about as well. There’s its scathing critiques of materialism, its depiction of a socialistic utopia, and its contradictory themes of militaristic authoritarianism and supreme pacifism. It’s of course possible to read these political stances into and out of the text depending on the prevailing rhetorical winds–none of these instances is without substantial nuance and complexity. But there’s no shortage of material that people could take issue with if they so desired. If you read the book closely and with a sensitive political lens, you’re going to be offended.

The Hypotheses

We’re going to keep things simple and only discuss two possible hypotheses—for the purposes of this episode, there will only be two possible sources for the political stances presented in the Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith or God Almighty. You might wonder why I’m omitting a much better hypothesis—that those stances reflect the decidedly foreign political landscape of several millennia past, a complex mix of Old Testament Judaism and New Testament Christianity, with a healthy dose of Mesoamerican political structure. I’m doing that as a favor to the critics—it would be much more likely that you’d find disagreement with any of dozens of prophetic figures far removed from your own social context than it would be to disagree with a single, timeless, fully enlightened divine entity. By insisting that the politics of the Book of Mormon ultimately stem from God, we’re giving this evidence the best possible chance against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

Some might argue that God isn’t describable by any modern political typology, and that might be true in the broad sense. I could imagine a divine being that would be hard to stick a political label on, and who cares little about fitting strictly within a conservative or progressive ideology. He also may not have much of a stake in the vast majority of political arguments—he may find it hard to care about who gets appointed to the local water advisory board, or the precise decimal placement of property tax percentages. But I don’t buy the argument that he’s above politics generally, at least in the Platonic sense of politics as a guide for ethical behavior and decision-making. There hasn’t been a religion in existence that hasn’t been all about that sweet, sweet doctrine. If God cares about his creations at all he cares about politics in some form.

Prior Probabilities

PH—Prior Probability of a Divinely-Inspired Book of Mormon—Our skeptic, while still decidedly skeptical, is now quite a few orders of magnitude less skeptical than he was before. He left our last episode with the probability of authenticity at a still formidably small p = 3.78 x 10-30. As we’ve seen, however, such opinions can change quickly in the game of Bayes. Here’s where we’ve been thus far in our quest:

PA—Prior Probability of an 18th Century-Inspired Book of Mormon—That leaves the remaining probability for our alternate hypothesis. For our purposes, the prior probability of the book’s political beliefs being non-inspired is p = 1 – 3.78 x 10-30.

Consequent Probabilities

CH—Consequent Probability of a Divinely Inspired Book of Mormon—Assume that God exists for a minute. Now, if you had to place God somewhere on the political spectrum, where would you put him? Would he be a progressive or a conservative? A centrist? A totalitarian socialist? Now, think about the last election you voted in, and then go ahead and try to complete the following sentence as honestly as you can: “If God voted in that election, he would have probably voted for blank.”

Go ahead. Give it a solid think.

Would he vote for the same person you did? I’m willing to bet so, and I’ll explain why.

Framing God’s Politics. If you really think that God would’ve voted differently than you did, then why on earth did you vote that way? Do you like being eternally and irrevocably on the wrong side of the universe’s highest moral authority? That doesn’t seem likely. We see God as archetypally true, good, and correct. If we were ever convinced about God’s actual position on a matter of almost any import, we would almost certainly change our minds to match that opinion. In fact, we could build a pretty airtight syllogism to establish that if we wanted to:

Major Premise: God knows the truth about everything.

Minor Premise: We hold positions that we feel to be true and correct.

Conclusion: We hold positions that we feel that God would himself hold if he was in our place.

This conclusion helps to explain the reaction many of us have when we encounter things in scripture or in the church that we disagree with. That feeling of having God (or Truth, or Reason) on our side can give our beliefs substantial inertia, even if we acknowledge that we ourselves might be mistaken. It would be much easier to discount the book, or the prophet, or the bishop who disagrees with us than to let go of the God we hold in our own minds. The problem is that such moral certitude is built on a rather unsure foundation. As I suggested earlier, our political stances are based much more on the happenstances of culture, economics, and even biology than they are on any rational connection to the absolute truth.

Let’s take abortion as an example. It might seem on the surface that there are two types of disagreement that separate the pro-life and pro-choice side: 1) disagreement about facts (e.g., on what life is and when it begins), and 2) disagreement about value (e.g., on how much we should care about sustaining fetal life). One seems relatively objective and the other relatively subjective, a matter of fact and a matter of taste. But both are, in my view, a matter of information. We, as human beings, have limited data at our disposal. Each of us has been exposed to a finite and incomplete set of experiences and arguments and have formed our view of the facts based on those things. That, itself, should be fairly straightforward. What may be less obvious is that our perception of value is based on those things as well. There’s no such thing as blind or arbitrary preference. If I like country music and you don’t, it’s because you have different experiences with it than I’ve had. You have information about it that I don’t and vice versa. If you perfectly evened out those experiences, you’d probably even out our stances as well.

This makes it possible to frame our political opinions in probabilistic terms. With our limited capacity and the circumstances of our birth and culture, what we’re essentially doing is randomly sampling from the set of all available information. I roll the dice and pull out one set of experiences, and everyone else does the same. Hopefully we can work on sharing that information through robust argument and political dialogue, and maybe we can work together to parse out the best available information, but those processes are always going to be imperfect. No matter how hard we try, your opinions and mine will never be fully reconcilable, and they’re never going to be fully correct, because there’s always going to be some perspective or set of facts that we either miss or interpret in different ways, or that are, in the end, unknowable.

But an omniscient God doesn’t have that problem. In the case of abortion, or same-sex marriage, or transgender issues, or anything else, God has access to perfect information. He can see the entire issue from all sides. He knows at what point life begins, and he knows how valuable a fetus is, in all the possible ways value can be assessed. He’s aware of all the downstream side effects of particular abortion policies and knows the true (and potentially negative) value those effects have. In short, whether it’s in terms of the overall stance toward abortion or on whether particular abortion policies should be implemented, there’s a right answer. If we knew what he knows and knew it in the way that he knows it, we’d have that right answer too.

Though it’s probably an inadequate prooftext, there’s an argument to be made that we eventually will have the same perfect information that he does. After all, we’ll eventually agree with God that his judgments (of us and everybody else) are just, and not because we’ve substantially altered who we are or the fundamental values that we’ve held, but because we’ll see as he sees and know as he knows.

But for now, we’re stuck. God has the right answer, and we may or may not also have that same right answer, even though we naturally feel that our stance is the correct one. Because of that, God is literally a disagree-able god—he’s able to hold political stances that you disagree with, even ones that you might presently find abhorrent or wrongheaded, because he knows things and sees things that you don’t.

Estimating Divine Disagreement. How likely is it, then, that you’d run into a disagreement with God, given a book of scripture that instantiates those political stances? Well, it depends on how picky you want to get. We could slice and dice political decision-points ad-infinitum (how many municipal mayoral races have occurred in the United States in even the last 100 years?), and the more potential political stances we consider the more the probability of encountering disagreement approaches p = 1. But 1) that doesn’t seem fair, 2) no book of any size could instantiate that many relevant political stances, and 3) your limited mortal comprehension means that you can only care just so much about just so many political stances for disagreement to have any impact. For those reasons, we’re going to stick to the basics.

And to get to the basics, we’re going to turn to the most popular political model available today, the Political Compass, which for decades has helped political scientists bifurcate political thought into a handy set of two dimensions: (economic) Left vs. Right, and Authoritarian vs. Libertarian. These dimensions were created by analyzing responses to 62 survey questions that cover a broad spectrum of political issues. Its general principles apply not only to the United States, but have been applied in a number of other cultural contexts, such as the European Union and China. It seems like as solid and empirical a place to start as any.

If an infinite number of political stances is too many, two is probably too few. For one, it’s often difficult to take real-life political issues and describe them cleanly with just those two dimensions. Take two stances as an example: anti-abortion and pro-death penalty. Both of them would be considered stances on the Authoritarian Right, but you’d find a lot of people who are anti-abortion but also anti-death penalty. Why? Because there’s another important political dimension that would divide those issues, in this case, the value of life.

So, if two dimensions won’t cut it, how many might? I took the 62 items from the Political Compass survey and used a method called analytic induction to figure out what sort of concrete political issues it might be tapping. Though using analytic induction in this way has its limitations (it’s necessarily subjective and interpretive, and can’t tease out many of the nuances within each category) the rough categorization it produces will be useful enough for our purposes. The result of that process was a set of seven different political bipolar stances, which, in this case, we’ll treat as binary categories. It also handily turns out that the Book of Mormon presents an identifiable opinion on all of these issues, which I include in parentheses below (though they’re obviously subject to interpretation):

From there, we could assume that you had a 50% chance of being on the same side as God on any given issue. If we did, we could just multiply those seven .5’s together to estimate the probability of getting complete agreement with God. But that would be a bit dumb. We know that these issues aren’t actually independent—if I know your stance on one, I can usually predict your views on the others with a reasonable degree of accuracy. How much accuracy? To estimate that, I’m going to rely on this study, which used stances on a number of political issues to predict yet another political stance: party affiliation. How accurate could they get at predicting party membership? Pretty dang accurate, it turns out—their model correctly predicted affiliation 88.9% of the time. That sounds like a reasonable upper bound for using one political stance (or many, in this case) to predict another. What this means is that even if you agree with God on one issue, there’s still at least an 11.1% chance that you’ll disagree with him on each of the other issues.

Given those values, we can get a decent estimate of the probability of disagreeing with God on at least one of those points. Assuming that you already occupy the same general left vs. right stance that God does, the odds of agreeing with him on all seven stances would be .889^7, or .438846, which means the odds of running into any form of disagreement would be 1 – .438846, or p = .561154. That’s the value we’re going to stick with for this consequent probability. Even if God himself authored the Book of Mormon, and even if you were of the same political orientation as he is, the probability that you’d find something politically relevant to disagree with him about would be just over half.

CA—Consequent Probability of an eighteenth-century-Inspired Book of Mormon—I’m not going to spend a ton of time worrying about this one. There are good arguments to be made that the Book of Mormon’s politics are a poor match for nineteenth century America, and in the case of Joseph Smith’s politics, it’s difficult to parse causality. Did the Book of Mormon get its politics from Joseph Smith, or did he form his opinions after spending months translating the book? Regardless, for the purpose of this analysis, we’ll throw the critics a bone and just assume that Joseph’s politics fit perfectly with the Book of Mormon, and that the probability of finding disagreement with Joseph would be p = 1.

Posterior Probability

PH = Prior Probability of the Hypothesis (our current estimate of how likely the Book of Mormon is to be authentic, based on the evidence considered thus far, or p = 3.78 x 10-30)

CH = Consequent Probability of the Hypothesis (our estimate of how likely we would be to experience political disagreement with the Book of Mormon, even if authentic, or p = .561154)

PA = Prior Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our current of estimate of how likely it is that the Book of Mormon is a fraud, or p = 1 – 3.78 x 10-30)

CA = Consequent Probability of the Alternate Hypothesis (our estimate of how likely we would be to experience political disagreement with a fraudulent Book of Mormon, or p = 1)

PostProb = Posterior Probability (our new estimate for the probability of an authentic Book of Mormon)

PH = 3.78 x 10-30
PostProb = PH * CH
(PH * CH) + (PA * CA)
PostProb = (3.78 x 10-30 * .561154)
((3.78 x 10-30) * .561154) + ((1 – 3.78 x 10-30) * 1)
PostProb = 2.12 x 10-30

Lmag = Likelihood Magnitude (an estimate of the number of orders of magnitude that the probability will shift, due to the evidence)

Lmag = log10(CH/CA)

Lmag = log10(.561154 / 1)

Lmag = log10(.561154)

Lmag = 0

 

Conclusion

Based on the above, it’s pretty safe to say that political incorrectness isn’t an unexpected feature of an authentic Book of Mormon, or, by extension, of a divinely inspired church. The Bayesian needle barely moves in this case, not even by a full order of magnitude, meaning that politics has essentially zero evidentiary value when it comes to the question of Book of Mormon authenticity.

But hopefully that point was obvious from the start. This particular episode goes a bit further than the ultimately narrow question of authenticity, and advances what I feel to be a useful framework for navigating the minefield of politics and religion. If politics is an information problem, then political stances can be fallible and relative even if truth itself isn’t. People of all political stripes can have more room to disagree civilly if they remember that the views they hold and the values they cherish are bounded by the limits of their own experience—that God, in his wisdom, might not be on my, or your, or anybody’s side. And if information is the problem, then information is, if not the solution, really really useful. The best way for all of us to resolve political disagreements is to seek out as much information as we can from the most reliable sources—to try to get consensus on what data are relevant and how to best interpret them instead of dying on hills of ideology.

But of course I’d feel that way. I’m a research psychologist and a data analyst, after all. I get that not everyone is interested or equipped to slog through primary sources, that emotions are hard to ignore, and that ideology or intuition—or, heaven forbid, revelation—can be a useful compass when wading through the thick and infinite jungles of rhetoric and data. Like you, I feel that my positions are correct and that the arguments supporting them are compelling. There’s no escaping that. My point, in the main (and largely unspoken so far), is that we shouldn’t allow politics, right or left, to drive our lives off a cliff—to let it color how we feel about our communities or our neighbors or our families or our scriptural texts. Those latter items are social ordinance—they’re the weapons we’ve been given to form our identity and to engage with a hostile world. They’re not easily dispensed with and not readily replaced. Politics, as capricious and uncertain as the wind and the weather, will always be a shallow substitute for the ties that bind us to the people we love.

I’ll end with this quote from Shalyssa Lindsay in her book, Answers Will Come:

“I only want to worship God if He understands everything I don’t. It’s good if He does things I wouldn’t think of doing. Or does them different than I would. If I am on track in worshiping the real, all-knowing, all-powerful God, then I necessarily (and happily) find times when His purposes are utterly incomprehensible to me. He may do things I don’t like at all for reasons I don’t yet accept or can’t begin to imagine” (p. 57).

 

Skeptic’s Corner

No one’s going to be able to do much to convince me that politics deserves any greater weight than this when determining the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. But it’s worth taking a minute to emphasize an important point made on the critical side of the aisle—that just because a policy or political stance is featured (or prooftexted) within the Book of Mormon or supported by the church doesn’t make it correct. There is real danger in allowing our (or, often, someone else’s) reading of scripture or our reading of (often past) church leaders to do our political thinking for us. The church, of course, has worked to reinforce the fallibility of its leaders—we’ll even have a future essay on that very topic—but some of the faithful have yet to absorb that particular message.

Thinking of the church as an all-or-nothing truth proposition gives rise to a host of troubles, no matter which side of the coin it falls on. The church can be wrong in its stance, as can its leaders, as can its members (as can its critics!). Balancing our political and civic beliefs and participation with those of the church, figuring out where it’s right, and where it’s wrong, and in what contexts, and to what degree, is and will always be hard work. In the meantime, maybe it’s helpful to know that such conflicts, when they arise, should be neither surprising nor faith breaking.

 

Next Time, in Episode 7:

In the next episode, we’ll tackle a bit of Old World evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon, discussing the probability that Joseph could have landed on an apparently authentic place-name for the tribal region of Nahom in southwest Saudi Arabia.

Questions, ideas, and severed horse heads can be laid gently in the bed of BayesianBoM@gmail.com or submitted as comments below.

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