In defense of religious ‘brainwashing’

Originally published at the USU SHAFT site.

Ive enjoyed several of the videos produced by The Thinking Atheist. This video, however, should make them reconsider their (already rather smarmy) name.

In the video, several atheists relate their Christian upbringing, which they now not-so-fondly remember as brainwashing. Dawkins has sometimes gone so far as to claim that religious education is a form of child abuse. It can be, but the complaints made by the atheists in the video struck me as petty. There are too many grave injustices in this world for me to care about your being dragged to church every Sunday as a child. (Though Ill admit that my religious upbringing wasnt very strict, and I generally dont regret my experience in Mormonism.)

The main point of the film is that its wrong for religions and religious people to target the youth. But if you believed in a real, literal Hell, youd be obligated to do all you could to ensure that your kids averted it. Just as you wouldnt let your kids drink poison to find out its lethal, you wouldnt expose them to or let them hold poisonous (read atheistic) beliefs that would imperil their salvation. If that requires a degree of so-called brainwashing or indoctrination, then so be it. Were I ever to have kids, I would of course try to teach them to be open-minded, critical thinkers. Id even encourage them to investigate the worlds religious traditions. But thats a luxury I have as someone who doesnt believe in the threat of Hell.

To be sure, I think the degree to which religious parents inculcate religious beliefs in their children is often detrimentalespecially when those beliefs are terror-inducing, like the concept of Hell. But this video misidentifies the problem. The problem isnt the indoctrination so much as its content. It doesnt make sense to ask Christians to stop steeping their children in their respective religious faith or to stop proselytizing. To ask this of a Christian is to ask them to be a hypocrite. Again, if you believe in a real Hell, its imperative that you save people from it. No, the only appropriate response is to challenge the very belief (in this case, Hell) that is motivating the actions.

And another thing: Isnt everything you teach children a form of brainwashing? Kids are evolutionarily primed to be sponges for information. Kids may be born atheists, as the video asserts, but they are not born critical-thinkers. Theyre curious, granted, but theyre nonetheless impressionable. Critical thinking is a skill that requires a fully-developed brain and years of intellectual exercise. Even were you to teach your children skepticism, they would accept those lessons unskeptically.

Whats more, I have a hard time believing that the people interviewed here are not raising their kids to be atheists, just as the religious parents raise their kids to be religious. Why is the latter brainwashing, but the former not? Because Christians host concerts and pizza parties (how nefarious!)? Give me a break. Were not talking about a pedophile luring kids into his van with candy, but sincere religious people concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children.

Im very supportive of the movement for nonbelievers to come out of the proverbial closet, but it seems many new atheists expect religious people to go into one. Id rather everyone have a voice in the public square, the marketplace of ideas. The more debate and discussion, the better. This video, though, trades in the kind of lazy accusations and caricatures of religious people that do little to advance our dialogue.

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150 Comments

  1. 101
    wayne says:

    98.
    Parental strategies vary from parent to parent, for various situation, and age of the child.
    Most of us(parents) save our strongest emotions, approval and disapproval, for the most important situations. To a kid what is probably more important to them is how the parent feels about them after a given action not whether the parent gives a rational argument. If being able to rationally justify an action is presented as important kids, will get that eventually.

    Kids will believe in God if it is important to the parents and community they are in. The nature of their belief will mirror the parents belief. If the belief is presented as black and white, with little room for doubt, the belief is more fragile when an individual is exposed to different points of view. Now if the parents and community present the belief in God as nuanced and flexible with room for doubt, probably belief is much stronger.

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  2. 102
    chanson says:

    Parental strategies vary from parent to parent, for various situation, and age of the child. Most of us(parents) save our strongest emotions, approval and disapproval, for the most important situations.

    Of course. In my case, the strongest and most immediate emotional reaction they’ll get from me is from being careless on or near a road or train platform. That’s the place of ferocious zero tolerance from me and their daddy. Of course, even there, there’s clear reasoning behind it, which I explain to them directly: you could be crushed by a moving vehicle and that would be the end of you.

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  3. 103
    Seth R. says:

    Kuri, the facsimiles don’t present a problem for faith precisely because they DO NOT “debunk” anything.

    I’ve read the whole debate. I find the criticisms of the Book of Abraham to be, on the balance, unable to contradict the faith claims at stake.

    The translation of the facsimiles into Egyptian doesn’t matter one jot, because they probably weren’t meant to be read in an Egyptian context in the first place. This is not a “faith vs. science” argument.

    It’s a “I think your science is wrong – and mine is right” kind of argument.

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  4. 104
    kuri says:

    Seth, you’re just proving your own point. Joseph Smith said the facsimiles said one thing; scholars have since learned to read Egyptian and proved that they say something else. Believers say that doesn’t matter. So that’s some pretty good evidence that science probably won’t hurt religion very much no matter what it finds out. You were right and I was wrong; I don’t know why you’re still arguing with me after I already conceded the point.

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  5. 105
    Seth R. says:

    We’re still arguing because you’ve conceded the wrong point. One I was not making.

    I’m saying the author of the BoA was a Canaanite, not an Egyptian. So saying what the images would mean in an Egyptian context is irrelevant.

    The key to understanding the facsimiles is to ask what they would have meant to the Canaanite redactor who basically cut and pasted the popular Egyptian imagery into the Abraham story.

    When you look at it from that light – Joseph Smith nails it.

    Those who were asking what the images meant to the Egyptians were asking the wrong question. As a result, all critiques that proceed from that basis are pretty-much irrelevant.

    So to repeat, this is not a case of “faith vs. science” where faith triumphs anyway – in spite of the science.

    This is an instance where the science backs up my position and does NOT back up yours.

    That’s what I’ve been arguing. Does that clarify the situation for you?

    And I’m not intending to do a blow-by-blow of the Book of Abraham. But I do want my own argument to be understood here. I feel the science is on my side in this instance. I hold my beliefs in harmony with that science – not in spite of it.

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  6. 106
    kuri says:

    I know. Religious people will do whatever they need to do — including the invention of vaguely plausible-sounding nonsense — in order to continue believing. I get it already.

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  7. 107
    Seth R. says:

    Right kuri.

    And online ex-Mormons do whatever they need to do to justify their own exit story.

    So right back at ya.

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  8. 108
    kuri says:

    I actually kind of agree with you, Seth, because I think that human beings are probably no more capable of genuine rationality than they are of genuine free will (which is to say, probably not at all.) But if people are going to pursue the ideal or pretense of rationality, they should do it right. And when people cast off the simpler explanation “this is an Egyptian artifact” for the more much more complex explanation “this is a ‘Canaanite redaction’ of an Egyptian artifact” for no particular reason except that it supports a pre-existing belief, they’re obviously doing it wrong.

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  9. 109
    Seth R. says:

    Considering when the scroll was written, and the interaction of cultures, I don’t think the hypothesis is all that unlikely. Especially considering that writings about Abraham would have been a Canaanite, and not an Egyptian concern at that time.

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  10. 110
    Daniel says:

    I think it’s fascinating to watch a true believer in action. Anything anyone says to them just confirms their beliefs more. What we consider to be bloody-minded clinging to fables is to them the resilience of faith. Do they not realise that they’re using the same self-deceptive mechanisms as alt-med believers, young-earth creationists, or 9/11 truthers? Apparently not.

    This thread started with a discussion of parental ‘brainwashing’ (or indoctrination), but for me, it’s highlighted the other side of the issue — the end goal of parental indoctrination is to convince the child to take over the job that the parent started, and to become their own indoctrinator. For a great many people, it’s tragically effective.

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  11. 111
    Seth R. says:

    Try not to dislocate your shoulder while you’re patting yourself on the back Daniel.

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  12. 112
    Daniel says:

    Oh, I’m just as capable of being mistaken as anyone else. But I hope I never again engage in elaborate apologetics for some mythology. Our discussions always make me want to be on guard against that very human tendency.

    Let me ask: Is there anything that could conceivably convince you that you’re mistaken about your religious beliefs? What would it take, hypothetically?

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  13. 113
    kuri says:

    Considering when the scroll was written, and the interaction of cultures, I dont think the hypothesis is all that unlikely.

    If Joseph Smith had never handled them, what reason would there be to think that those particular facsimiles are more likely to be Canaanite than to be Egyptian? What reason would there be to think that those particular facsimiles were about Abraham and not typical funerary texts? If the answer is “none,” then your belief is clearly rooted in faith in Joseph Smith, not in sciencey reasoning. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My objection isn’t to faith but to trying to call faith science.)

    Especially considering that writings about Abraham would have been a Canaanite, and not an Egyptian concern at that time.

    That’s a circular argument. They’re only about Abraham if they’re Canaanite documents.

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  14. 114
    Seth R. says:

    Daniel, that’s a pretty broad category, and vaguely defined.

    There are specific beliefs that I have come to disbelieve or question already. But I get the sense that you are asking for more a “package deal” rejection here.

    Since I’m not much of a fundamentalist, disbelief in part of the package does not automatically lead to rejection of the whole. Maybe that’s how it worked for you, but not for me.

    Kuri, I haven’t been claiming that you independently get to these claims with archeology/history/liguistics alone.

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  15. 115
    Daniel says:

    Okay, keeping it on topic — what could you discover that would make you decide that the Book of Abraham was just made up? Hypothetically.

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  16. 116
    Seth R. says:

    Daniel, it would be a two phase thing.

    1. You’d have to prove that what was on the scroll had no reference to the content Joseph Smith was asserting.

    Egyptology work on the few tiny fragments of the scroll we have left does not currently do this. Nor is it likely it ever will.

    But if the scroll unexpectedly turned up and could be verified as the actual scroll, that might do it.

    But that’s not enough.

    2. You’d have to prove that Joseph Smith was not inspired after establishing this. Just proving his writings had no reference to the scroll does not automatically get us to “he made it all up.”

    So you’d have to prove he wasn’t being inspired in any way when he wrote it. Ways to do this might be to compare the content of the Book of Abraham with other records we have of Abraham and see if there’s a commonality that indicates authenticity.

    If you can demonstrate no commonality, then I would likely be willing to relegate the story to the realm of “inspiring fable.” But even then you haven’t established a lack of divine inspiration.

    I guess at that point the only thing left would be a gut check over whether you actually still find the thing inspiring. Which would likely be personally compelling – but wouldn’t really prove anything. But maybe at that point you can’t be bothered to care much anymore – maybe you’ve got other things on your mind that seem more pressing.

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  17. 117
    chanson says:

    Seth — There are Egyptian Hieroglyphs written all over facsimiles 2 and 3. Joseph Smith put little numbers by specific groupings of hieroglyphs to indicate which translation text corresponds to which hieroglyphic text.

    Today, scholars can read ancient Egyptian as easily as Latin or Greek. A person who is fluent in ancient Egyptian can read the texts on the facsimiles and tell you what they say — and Joseph Smith’s translations are wrong.

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  18. 118
    Jonathan says:

    Seth, in effect, you’re saying that you’d never change your mind. You’ve set your bar so high that no evidence will probably ever meet that standard. That would be a rational stance if the factual evidence supporting Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated an ancient record were as strong as the evidence supporting General Relativity or the Pythagorean Theorem.

    But that’s not the case. I think you would have to agree that judging by facts alone, the simplest explanation is that Joseph Smith did not translate an ancient record to produce the Book of Abraham. It takes something outside the factual evidence to motivate that belief. That puts it in the same evidential boat as astrology, homeopathy, and alien abductions.

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  19. 119
    Seth R. says:

    Jonathan, that’s the “simplest” explanation if, and only if, you have already made up your mind that God, prophets, and miracles don’t exist.

    If you don’t have such prejudices however, it is not the “simplest” explanation, and claims that it is smack of mere question-begging.

    Chanson, re-read my argument.

    The Egyptian interpretation of the facsimiles is irrelevant. Asking for a strict Egyptological read on them was the wrong approach from the get-go.

    It’s like this whole argument is stuck in the 1970s, and hasn’t even bothered to engage the more modern Mormon scholarship at all.

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  20. 120
    chanson says:

    Seth — I’m not talking about interpretations of pictures. Open up your PoGP and look at facsimiles 2 & 3. They are covered with writing. They are written in a language that people can read. It’s not a question of a handful of isolated characters or of using the heiroglyphic writing system to write some other language.

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  21. 121
    Daniel says:

    Jonathan, thats the simplest explanation if, and only if, you have already made up your mind that God, prophets, and miracles dont exist.

    I wouldn’t mind believing in those things (as I used to), but they entail some pretty extraordinary claims, and they’ll require some extraordinary evidence.

    If you dont have such prejudices however, it is not the simplest explanation, and claims that it is smack of mere question-begging.

    Is it prejudicial to assume that unicorns and Bigfoot don’t exist until evidence for them has been presented?

    You seem to have misunderstood, on a very basic level, the kind of evidence that is necessary to establish a claim.

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  22. 122
    Seth R. says:

    Chanson, the Semitic adaptation theory suggests that the hypocephalus was simply a cut-and-paste job re-using a popular Egyptian pictogram for a completely different purpose in the Abraham document. In which case, the Egyptian text would be beside the point.

    And I’m not even touching arguments that this particular facsimile may have come from a portion of the scroll that didn’t even deal with the story of Abraham – which gets into debates about scroll length/thickness that I don’t even want to bother with in this particular discussion.

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  23. 123
    Seth R. says:

    Daniel, the tooth-fairy/bigfoot/unicorn/spaghetti monster argument misses the point.

    None of those concepts are meant to be taken seriously in the first place. So comparing them to God is pretty-much an apples and oranges comparison.

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  24. 124
    chanson says:

    If only Joseph Smith had realized that those Egyptian texts were beside the point. Then he might not have bothered to publish (erroneous) translations of them.

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  25. 125
    Jonathan says:

    Jonathan, thats the simplest explanation if, and only if, you have already made up your mind that God, prophets, and miracles dont exist.

    If you dont have such prejudices however, it is not the simplest explanation, and claims that it is smack of mere question-begging.

    That ignores the fact that the billions of people in the world who believe in those things would agree with me. It takes more than factual evidence and beliefs in God, miracles, and prophets to cause people to believe in Joseph Smith’s claimed translation. Even if a person believes in those things, the simplest explanation remains that Joseph Smith made up the translation.

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  26. 126
    Daniel says:

    What you’re doing, Seth, is called ‘special pleading‘.

    You’re saying that concepts like Bigfoot and unicorns are not to be taken seriously, but God is, when in fact the evidence is the same for all those entities.

    Let alone the fact that some people do take Bigfoot seriously. And the Loch Ness monster, and phantom cats, and UFOs. Your deity is only one of a number of entities that people believe exist, and construct elaborate apologetics to defend. How are your attempts different from theirs?

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  27. 127
    Seth R. says:

    Belief in God tends to be quite a bit more potent than any of those concept Daniel.

    Which is proof enough that you are talking about something completely different.

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  28. 128
    kuri says:

    Kuri, I havent been claiming that you independently get to these claims with archeology/history/liguistics alone.

    Then your claim that science supports your argument doesn’t hold up.

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  29. 129
    kuri says:

    Jonathan, thats the simplest explanation if, and only if, you have already made up your mind that God, prophets, and miracles dont exist.

    If you dont have such prejudices however, it is not the simplest explanation, and claims that it is smack of mere question-begging.

    Seth, are you familiar with Occam’s razor at all?

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  30. 130
    kuri says:

    Belief in God tends to be quite a bit more potent than any of those concept Daniel.

    I don’t think so. More widespread, sure, but not more potent. You should try talking with some (self-described) UFO abductees some time. Religious believers have nothing on them in terms of life-changing strength of belief.

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  31. 131
    Daniel says:

    Exactly, Kuri.

    Seth — You’re just describing how people feel about the belief, which has nothing to do with how true it is. People can have ‘potent’ feelings about things that are wrong. This is special pleading again.

    Anyway, if belief in a god is more ‘potent’ than other beliefs, then that just means that believers should be able to give more ‘potent’ evidence.

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  32. 132
    Seth R. says:

    Yes, I’m familiar with Occam’s Razor.

    It’s an online favorite of people who have already begged the question in their underlying arguments, and are now looking for something impressive-sounding to top it off.

    Also, look up the difference between the word “establish” and the word “support.”

    Daniel, you’re shifting the goal posts to “truth” now. I wasn’t talking about that. I was saying that God and the tooth fairy are two entirely different things. I don’t have to even touch the topic of “truth” to establish that.

    Incidentally, I’ve noticed that no one else on this blog fights harder than you do in the defense of commonly-used cheap atheist insults.

    Just found that interesting.

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  33. 133
    Parker says:

    The next thing you know kuri and Daniel will try to convince us that the rapture will not occur on Oct 21, in spite of Harold Camping’s deep potent faith that it will.

       0 likes

  34. 134
    Daniel says:

    Now, now. I’m not insulting anyone, or moving any goal posts. I’m trying to discuss factual issues here, because I think what’s true matters. I thought that was a given — if not, just let me know.

    What I’m saying is that people can muster a lot of complicated arguments to defend a counterfactual narrative. People do it all the time. I think you’re doing it with Mormonism, and the tactics you use are very similar to other alternative-reality folks: take your conclusion as a starting-point, defend the belief system against allegations of implausibility, use semantics and uncertainty to create wiggle-room, and (in a pinch) claim that no one knows what the truth is (or that truth is incidental) and say that you’re being maligned.

    What scientifically- or skeptically-minded people do is different: they educate themselves about how our minds can fool us, they stay wary of minority or fringe views, they require evidence for extraordinary claims, and most importantly, they change their minds when the evidence requires. Even though I’m not great at this, I take it as an ideal.

    Again, I’m not trying to insult you. I’m pointing out your errors — which anyone can make — so your reasoning will be stronger and it’ll be easier for people to agree with you.

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  35. 135

    [...] idea has come up elsewhere. In a post that challenges the common complaint that religious teaching is “brainwashing” that Jon Adams originally posted at USU SHAFT(ooh! remind me to write about thattoo!), [...]

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  36. 136
    kuri says:

    The reason I bring up Occam’s razor is because it provides us with an easy guide to what “simpler” explanations are. A “simpler” explanation in essence just means one with fewer components, with fewer “moving parts,” if you will.

    The conventional explanation of the facsimiles requires only that Egyptians wrote Egyptian documents in Egyptian. Your explanation adds to Egyptians writing Egyptian documents in Egyptian an entire system in which Canaanites “redacted” Egyptian documents by copying them while completely ignoring the meaning of the words in them and giving them entirely new meanings. It also adds specific Canaanite(s) who worked on specific document(s). Since you can’t arrive at these conclusions based on “archeology/history/linguistics alone,” it also necessarily adds “God, prophets, and miracles.”

    The only way your explanation works, in other words, is by taking perfectly commonplace and straightforward phenomena and adding a boatload of additional factors to them. Without even arguing about their dubiousness, your explanation is far more complicated.

    So for you to make a claim like

    …thats the simplest explanation if, and only if, you have already made up your mind that God, prophets, and miracles dont exist.

    If you dont have such prejudices however, it is not the simplest explanation, and claims that it is smack of mere question-begging.

    Is just plain weird. If we’re trying to decide what’s “simpler,” it doesn’t matter if gods, etc., exist; their addition to the story obviously complicates something that can easily be explained without them.

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  37. 137
    Seth R. says:

    “The conventional explanation of the facsimiles requires only that Egyptians wrote Egyptian documents in Egyptian.”

    Woah there. Hold the phone.

    That’s not a “conventional” explanation at all. It’s an explanation born of complete ignorance of Egyptian archeology.

    The Egyptian language and culture was used all over the freaking place when they were a powerful culture and civilization. People borrowed from it, mixed and matched with it, cut-and-pasted it, and used it all the time – whether they were Egyptian or not.

    Any Egyptian archeologist knows this Kuri.

    You’re frankly just making things up at this point.

       0 likes

  38. 138

    [...] a recent (perhaps ongoing) discussion of faith (among other things), we found that the four people in the discussion are using four different [...]

       0 likes

  39. 139
    chanson says:

    The Egyptian language and culture was used all over the freaking place when they were a powerful culture and civilization. People borrowed from it, mixed and matched with it, cut-and-pasted it, and used it all the time whether they were Egyptian or not.

    Yeah, and that might be a reasonable explanation if it weren’t for the fact that the (well-known) text Abraham copied is significantly more recent than Abraham’s time (on the order of millenia).

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  40. 140
    chanson says:

    (But it still wouldn’t explain why Joseph Smith claimed to translate specific passages written in Egyptian language in hieroglyphic script.)

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  41. 141
    kuri says:

    Oh for fuck’s sake. So change it to “people in the Egyptian cultural sphere wrote documents in Egyptian.” Same difference. Simple explanations are simpler than complicated explanations. Complicated explanations are more complicated than simple explanations. &_&

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  42. 142
    Seth R. says:

    Chanson, I’m re-reading my own sources to formulate a response to your remarks about actual hieroglyph translation. I don’t want to misrepresent what proponents of the theory are actually saying.

    As for your remarks about the dating of the scroll… yes, I was aware of the date – much later than Abraham’s time.

    However STILL in a time when Egypt was a big deal – militarily, economically, and culturally. So I don’t think it changes much. In fact, it makes the Canaanite redactor idea more plausible, not less.

    Kuri, one thing I did want to throw out -

    I’m just not sure I really buy into the whole notion of Occam’s Razor in general. Certainly not in the expansive way you seem to be applying it – to all human truth.

    This just doesn’t jive with my experience. Simple explanations are NOT always better, are not always more useful, are not always more likely to be true. I’ve had that demonstrated to me throughout my undergrad and graduate studies.

    Occam’s Razor is a cute saying and seems to have explanatory force in some situations. But I would never go so far as to call it a universal law or maxim.

    And at any rate, it’s hopelessly overused and abused in debates where atheists hang out. It’s almost always accompanied by problematic question-begging in the underlying arguments as well.

    It’s gotten bad enough that someone using it in an online debate has almost become code for “please tune out whatever I’m saying – I’m just being cute.”

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  43. 143
    chanson says:

    Seth, to be honest, I’m kind of surprised that you’re arguing this point. I thought all the savvy Internet Mormons had moved on to “the papyrus inspired Joseph Smith to receive the BoA text as a revelation.”

    Out of curiosity, do you also believe that the Masons continuously passed down a (corrupted) version of the endowment ceremony from the time of Solomon?

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  44. 144
    kuri says:

    Seth,

    I don’t regard Occam’s razor as anything more than a useful rule of thumb. Making it into a “law” of some sort would basically mean that complicated things never happen. That’s obviously a stupid idea.

    But in this case I was only applying it as a way of defining “simple”: explanations with fewer “entities” — components, parts, requirements, or whatever one wants to call them — are “simpler” than explanations with more entities.

       0 likes

  45. 145
    Seth R. says:

    Chanson, that’s an approach I’ve heard of. I leave it as an option, but I see no need to resort to it at present.

    There are plenty of intelligent Mormons out there who haven’t moved on to that argument.

    Honestly, I get the sneaky suspicion that to some people on the Internet “savvy Mormon” essentially boils down to “whatever John Dehlin thinks.” I’m not accusing you of it, but it’s an annoying theme I’m getting overall.

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  46. 146
    kuri says:

    I thought the two main apologetic arguments were “there were a lot more scrolls, which have been lost” and “Joseph Smith was only inspired by the papyri, he didn’t translate them in the usual sense.” Have those been generally superseded, or is “Canaanite redactor” just your personal preference as an explanation?

       0 likes

  47. 147
    chanson says:

    Honestly, I get the sneaky suspicion that to some people on the Internet savvy Mormon essentially boils down to whatever John Dehlin thinks.

    It’s possible, but I recall people were already using that explanation more than twenty years ago, as I recounted in 2006 — long before I’d ever heard of John Dehlin.

       0 likes

  48. 148
    Jon A. says:

    Wow. I’m flattered that my post sparked such an intelligent discussion.

       0 likes

  49. 149
    Seth R. says:

    Chanson, let me know if I’m getting too biting.

    Kuri, the “Semitic adaptation theory” was something I first read from Kevin Barney who published a paper on it. Link is on my other computer, so I’ll post it later.

    I think another argument that I’ve heard is that Joseph Smith actually did get at least aspects of the Egyptian meaning right. I think Nibley took this approach, and I’ve heard it mentioned more recently. I don’t know enough about the topic though to advocate for it here – one way or the other. I’ve also had faithful LDS scholars whom I respect state reservations about some of Nibley’s work. Not to say the wholsale dismissive tone you hear about NIbley on the DAMU is appropriate either.

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  50. 150

    [...] even parents who dislike indoctrination may do. Jonathan suggested that instead of indoctrinating, parents couldencourage…there’s that word: critical thinking. If you teach children critical thinking skills and allow them the space to exercise them, then [...]

       0 likes

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