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CES Reply: Reactions

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I offer this post as an interlude to my serialized reply to the CES Letter to recount some of the reactions I’ve gotten since publishing the whole thing last Friday. In retrospect, it might not have been wise to post the thing on April Fool’s Day, which, as a series of Facebook memes has reminded us, is the only day that people are actually skeptical of what they read on the Internet.

That said, I’ve been very pleased by the response. Most of it has been positive, so, of course, I thought I might take a moment to respond to unduly focus on some of the negative comments I’ve received, some of which have a great deal of merit.

Some, of course, but not all. An ex-Mormon group over at Reddit got ahold of it and produced the following merit-free evaluations, which have been edited to for community standards:

  • “This guy is one giant condescending piece of s*it.”
  • “Then yes, we are hung up with the rock and a hat, you ignorant pr*ck.”
  • “The condescending tone is outrageous.”
  • “All I could think reading this was ‘Oh you sweet summer child’.”
  • “So. Much. Cog. Dis. This guy is NUTS!”
  • “I’m not a CES director…. But I did stay at a holiday inn last night.”
  • “This guy is an intellectually dishonest f*ck.”
  • “This guy has managed to mind-f*ck himself.”
  • “Honestly this guy is full of himself. . . . . . frankly embarrassing.”
  • “Given the, ahem, quality of his response, April 1st seems perfectly appropriate.”
  • “That entire thing stinks of vinegar, because it came from a douche.”
  • “It is literally a rant from a cult member defending his cult in the most culty way he can muster”

Having spent a great deal of time in politics, I am wary of diving into discussions where people are determined to despise you, but reading this ex-Mo thread was far more delightful than it should have been. I laughed out loud at most of the above responses, so either I have a thicker skin than I used to, or something is seriously wrong with me. I also think that if my piece merits this level of hardcore ex-Mormon rage, I must have done something right.

That said, there have been some substantive criticisms that have come out of this. I thought maybe I’d address each of those in turn.

Criticism #1: It’s condescending. 

That seems to be a reaction many are having, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. Certainly it was not my intent to be condescending, and at the outset, I make it clear that I’m in no position to talk down to anyone. (You may not be as smart as I am, so I should tell you that “to condescend” means “to talk down to people.”)

In all seriousness, I repeatedly try to de-establish my credentials throughout in order to avoid appearing condescending. “I’m the ward Webelos leader, which is the limited extent of my current ecclesiastical authority,” I announce on page 2. Throughout the letter, I make no pretense of having any special academic or professional authority, either.  Yet it’s undeniable that some interpret my attempts at humor, which are liberally sprinkled throughout the piece, as condescending, which leads us to item #2:

2. It’s too jokey/silly/goofy, and therefore not Christlike. 

One friend messaged me to say that I announced from the outset that I was going to attempt to provide a “Christlike response,” but I spend so much time cracking wise through the whole thing that it was both “wittier” and “funnier” than a Christlike response should be.

Which raises a question I’ve asked many a time over the years – namely, is humor Christlike?

I firmly believe that it is, but I have scant scriptural evidence to support my conclusion. We certainly don’t have any record of Jesus cracking jokes (“A scribe, a Pharisee, and a Samaritan walk into a bar…”) and scriptural accounts aren’t particularly funny. Indeed, the complete absence of humor from the Book of Mormon is probably why Mark Twain referred to it as “chloroform in print.”

Maybe the problem is that perfection isn’t funny, either. For humor to succeed, it generally requires some admission or acknowledgment of human error.

But that said, my favorite moments in Church, both in General Conference and on a local level, often include elements of humor. One of the reasons I miss President Hinckley so much is that he was consistently hilarious, and his sense of humor put everyone at ease. The way he applied humor was the opposite of condescension and superiority. It was a demonstration that he didn’t take himself too seriously, so we probably shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, either.

That was my purpose for trying to make the tone of this thing as light as possible. Also, I think humor is less abrasive when people make themselves the butt of the joke. I tried to poke fun at myself more than anyone else, but many saw me as aiming too many barbs at Jeremy Runnells, so that leads to criticism #3:

3. It’s ad hominem/too mean to Jeremy Runnells; it spends too much time attacking the author of the CES Letter and not his arguments. 

This criticism disturbs me greatly, because I genuinely went out of my way not to attack Jeremy Runnells personally.

At all. Ever.

Whenever someone criticizes me for this, I ask them, in all sincerity, to point out a passage where I’ve gone ad hominem against Runnells, because if that happens even once in my reply, I want to take it out as soon as possible.

I’m pretty brutal with his arguments, and I make no apologies for that. But if you can find me a place where the person, not the argument, is the object of ridicule or attack, I would genuinely appreciate the opportunity to correct my error.

As of this writing, nobody has called any specific examples of ad hominem attacks in my piece to my attention. I hope that means those examples aren’t there, but maybe people are just avoiding the issue. Which brings me to number 4:

4. It avoids the real issues. 

On the ex-Mo thread at Reddit, someone who claims to know me in real life thinks part of the problem with my reply is that I shrug off all the hard questions about the Church so that “everything indefensible becomes a joke.” Except the sheer volume of the thing suggests that this can’t possibly be true. I go on for paragraphs and pages on single sentences in order to comprehensively address every possible permutation of Runnells’ objections. Surely some of those pages and paragraphs are substantively more than just comic relief – no comedian has that much material.

Yet this overabundance-of-info approach has also earned me the same criticism from a different source. “When it takes 7 paragraphs to explain away every one sentence of criticism,” this other critic said to me, “it winds up giving the impression that you’re using the old ‘ramble for a really long time in order to look like you know what you’re talking about’ method of Apologetics.”

It seems I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Either way, I can’t seem to change anyone’s mind. Which is the entirety of criticism #5:

5. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

That’s probably true, but I didn’t write it thinking it would. I readily admit that my reply is unlikely to persuade Jeremy Runnells to reclaim his faith, although I’d be delighted if that were the (unlikely) result. Nor did I write it for any who have already made up their minds that faith in LDS truth claims is incompatible with intellectual honesty.

Instead, I wrote it for those believers who read the CES Letter and feel like chumps. They still want to believe, but they think they can’t do that because there’s no other way to look at these issues than the way Jeremy Runnells has presented. I wanted to provide an example of a believer who has honestly and frankly confronted all of these issues head on with logic, intelligence, and solid information, and still come out with a testimony on the other side. Hopefully, someone who finds their testimony shattered by the CES letter can look at me and think, “well, if that Bennett bozo can read this and keep his faith, maybe I can, too.”

Anyway, I appreciate the reactions, positive and negative. Keep ’em coming.

 

CES Reply: The Joseph Smith Translation
CES Reply: DNA and Book of Mormon anachronisms

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11 Comments

  1. If it makes you feel any better, FairMormon gets the same criticisms – ad hominem and avoid the issues. But when asked for specifics, just like you experienced, there are never any offered.

  2. To start with, not all of the comments on reddit were negative:

    “Tone shouldn’t matter when dealing with evidence, and I’m willing to give this guy a fair shake at presenting it. ”
    “Some of his points are completely valid;”
    “But I actually agree with the author that…”

    However, I have to admit your selection of quotes is more representative of the overall discussion than are mine.

    You obviously put a lot of thought and effort into your response, and frankly, many of your responses are better than anything I’ve found before from the Mormon side. Admittedly, it’s a fairly low bar, and you justifiably acknowledge the shortcomings of other apologists’ arguments on some topics (e.g., tapirs as horses). At any rate, although I vehemently disagree with many of your interpretations, it was good to see another perspective and alternative explanations.

    I realize you didn’t expect your CES response to change the views of exmormons, and that is certainly the case with me. As I read your response, I realized it didn’t even matter if you could resolve every concern I had about church history. At the end of the day, using the church’s metric of feelings (i.e., promptings of the Holy Ghost), I feel way better out of the church than I ever did in. Consequently, I’ll stay where I’m at.

    I wish you the best in your endeavors. Who knows, if you keep studying the church doctrine and history, your conscience may lead you (as it did me) to the exmormon community. And I, for one, would welcome you.

  3. There are no issues , really . You’re stretching the false , and no amount of faith can reset the truth .

  4. Just so you know, I’m one of those who felt like a chump. Your thoughts gave me the space I needed to think through these issues and make it through to the other side with my faith intact (changed, but still intact.)

    Thank you.

  5. Jim-

    When I was a member of the church for 38 years I always believed myself to be an intellectual defender of the church. I would actively engage with friends and family who had left the church because I felt like I could resolve any struggle anyone has with the church, after all it was true. I took a very similar approach to you and other apologists, basically in my mind if i could find one plausible way in that a single issue could make sense (at least to me) then I considered it solved and anyone who struggled with it beyond that just couldn’t think as clearly, open-minded, creatively as me. Now that I have been on the other side for a couple years I can see how absurd this kind of thinking is.

    Though apologists want to argue that Jeremy’s concerns are a large collection of small issues and could easily be dismissed or resolved individually they are missing the larger point that a lot of us see as a major strength of the CES letter. That is individually maybe we can talk around any of these issues but when they are listed and written all together you can see a pattern emerge that you don’t see dealing with these issues one at a time. I think its easy to defend any single issue in the CES letter but when you see it all together you realize how much you have to twist and contort your mind to make it all work. See that tree over there? It’s actually a human. What you don’t see a human? Stand on your left foot and tilt your head 90 degrees, shake your head and squint really hard, see how it almost looks like a human?

    If the gospel was really the solid eternal truth, would it really require so much “if you look at it this way”? “Oh that? Well if you think of it this way it could be ok.” There was a point where I personally realized in order to square the church with everything I knew in the world it would take huge amounts of justification, ignoring facts and compartmentalizing information. Or I could consider something that would make it all make perfect sense and required zero justification. It wasn’t true, it was made up.

  6. If it makes you feel any better, Mormons swear at me, threaten me, put pictures of my five year old son on twitter and Instagram and call him retarded, say that my mom was raped by a homosexual (????) because I’m an open ex mormón.

    So yeah.

  7. I have spent the last 3 days “going down the rabbit hole” it all began with my discovery of Joseph Smith’s many plural wives via a podcast… I then stumbled upon the CES letter after reading it obsessively I sat in tears feeling betrayed and wondering what else I was missing… I then stumbled upon your response. Thank you. You helped me to begin rebuilding my foundation… I still have many questions but I feel I can look at them in a way that seeks truth. Your sarcasm, humor, and wit made reading through your response an enjoyable experience but I cannot deny the spirit testifying to me on numerous occasions the truth of your words. I feel you have saved my faith. I can now walk the ropes course knowing I will not fall to my impending doom…

  8. I’m really enjoying this. Perhaps because I am a convert and therefore skeptical to begin with, I find your explanations more along the line of reasonable, which frankly is what attracted me to the church at the start. Finally someone somewhere could give me a reasonable explanation of what God looked like or more to the point that I truly am His child and therefore look like Him. I embrace all skepticism but i recognize to be such and accept that there are always those looking for perfection when the whole journey is about being perfect. I think Joseph Smith embodied that principle as did other OT prophets. For whatever the reason, the BOM prophets do come off a bit preachy but then we only have 1/3. I will keep reading.