A com­mon obser­va­tion of Mor­mon apolo­get­ics, and Fair­Mor­mon in par­tic­u­lar, is that their expla­na­tions are rarely inter­nal­ly con­sis­tent. The expla­na­tion for one issue con­tra­dicts or con­flicts with the expla­na­tion for anoth­er issue. Some­times, it does­n’t mat­ter much that they con­tra­dict each oth­er. Oth­er times, they real­ly do dam­age to their arguments.

One case in par­tic­u­lar is when Fair­Mor­mon addressed the sur­vey the Open Sto­ries Foun­da­tion con­duct­ed about under­stand­ing Mor­mon dis­be­lief. In this address, Fair­Mor­mon point­ed out prob­lems with the sci­en­tif­ic nature of the sur­vey and whether the results could be con­sid­ered valid or sta­tis­ti­cal­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple who leave the Mor­mon church. For this post, I don’t care if the prob­lems are valid or sig­nif­i­cant. Instead, I want to focus on Prob­lem #2 and its impli­ca­tions for the mul­ti­ple First Vision accounts.

Here is what Fair­Mor­mon said about Prob­lem #2 (empha­sis and col­or added).

Problem #2: Difficulties with memory and retrospective accounts

Mor­mon Sto­ries’ efforts to use the sur­vey to con­struct a nar­ra­tive of why some Mor­mons dis­be­lieve high­lights a sec­ond dif­fi­cul­ty: “Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­o­ry is a con­struc­tive process:….Peo­ple’s cur­rent goals and knowl­edge influ­ence rec­ol­lec­tions.” [46] This applies to every­one. One author makes the same obser­va­tion in his analy­sis of sec­u­lar and sec­tar­i­an ex-Mor­mon nar­ra­tives: “after-the-fact nar­ra­tives are inher­ent­ly unre­li­able in estab­lish­ing the authen­tic­i­ty of actu­al occur­rence.” [47]

Mor­mon Sto­ries’ ques­tion­naire asks peo­ple to describe why they made a deci­sion in the past. What were the fac­tors that led them to con­clude the Church was not what it claimed to be? A change in reli­gious world­view can be a major life event, so mem­o­ries might well be vivid. How­ev­er, the psy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture is clear that con­clu­sions about our past men­tal state based upon ret­ro­spec­tive report­ing are also high­ly unre­li­able. “We often edit or entire­ly rewrite our pre­vi­ous experiences—unknowingly and unconsciously—in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed ren­der­ing of a spe­cif­ic inci­dent, or even of an extend­ed peri­od in our lives, that says more about how we feel now than what hap­pened then. Thus, with­out know­ing it, we can mod­i­fy our own his­to­ry.” [48]

Unfor­tu­nate­ly,” not­ed the Nation­al Acad­e­mies Press in 1988, “ask­ing peo­ple about the past is not par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful: peo­ple remake their views of the past to ratio­nal­ize the present and so ret­ro­spec­tive data are often of uncer­tain valid­i­ty.” [49] As a recent pop­u­lar­iza­tion put it, “Today, there’s broad con­sen­sus among psy­chol­o­gists that mem­o­ry isn’t reproductive—it doesn’t dupli­cate pre­cise­ly what we’ve expe­ri­enced— but recon­struc­tive. What we recall is often a blur­ry mix­ture of accu­rate rec­ol­lec­tions, along with what jells with our beliefs, needs, emo­tions, and hunch­es. These hunch­es are in turn based on our knowl­edge of our­selves, the events we try to recall, and what we’ve expe­ri­enced in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.” [50] A vari­ety of bias­es affect such efforts to estab­lish past views, beliefs, and influ­ences, espe­cial­ly about a sub­ject as emo­tion­al­ly-freight­ed as reli­gion. [51]

Some­one in the Open Sto­ries Foun­da­tion has had instruc­tion on social sci­ence research tech­niques. This is evinced by the inser­tion of a dis­claimer stat­ing that Mor­mon Sto­ries’ sur­vey is not sta­tis­ti­cal­ly rig­or­ous. Despite this, Mor­mon Sto­ries still wish­es to use the sur­vey to con­struct nar­ra­tive, and encour­ages the audi­ence to draw con­clu­sions based upon the respons­es. But, as the experts warn, “hind­sight bias…is ubiq­ui­tous: peo­ple seem almost dri­ven to recon­struct the past to fit what they know in the present. In light of [a] known out­come, peo­ple can more eas­i­ly retrieve inci­dents and exam­ples that con­firm it.” [52]

It is thus not clear what can be con­clud­ed from such a sur­vey, save that Mor­mon Sto­ries’ audi­ence now agrees with Dehlin.

So, let’s com­pare this to the First Vision accounts. The first one we know about was writ­ten by Joseph Smith in 1832 — 12 years after the First Vision was pur­port­ed to have tak­en place. Oth­er accounts of the First Vision (dic­ta­tions or sec­ond­hand accounts) were record­ed in 1835, 1838, 1840, 1842, 1843, and 1844. Clear­ly, the gap in time falls into the “after-the-fact nar­ra­tives are inher­ent­ly unre­li­able in estab­lish­ing the authen­tic­i­ty of actu­al occurrence”.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the details of the var­i­ous accounts vary dras­ti­cal­ly. In one, he sees Jesus and is for­giv­en of his sins. In anoth­er, he only sees angels. In anoth­er, he sees God the Father and Jesus Christ and is told to not join any church but that he will start a church instead. These chang­ing details con­ve­nient­ly fit with changes in Joseph’s the­ol­o­gy, and needs he had in keep­ing con­trol of the church he was run­ning. Grant Palmer’s “An Insid­er’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins” does a much bet­ter job detail­ing this than I can do in a blog post. This fits with “We often edit or entire­ly rewrite our pre­vi­ous experiences–unknowingly and unconsciously–in light of what we now know or believe”. Also, “peo­ple remake their views of the past to ratio­nal­ize the present and so ret­ro­spec­tive data are often of uncer­tain validity”.

Con­grat­u­la­tions, Fair­Mor­mon, you’ve suc­cess­ful­ly proven why we should­n’t trust the dif­fer­ing accounts of the First Vision. Oops!

(cross post­ed from uncor​re​lat​ed​mor​mon​.word​press​.com)

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December 7, 2015 11:27 am

Actu­al­ly, this cute lit­tle blog post is a great exam­ple of what hap­pens when you only have pass­ing famil­iar­i­ty with the lit­er­a­ture you are attempt­ing to address. Steven Harp­er has dis­cussed the issues asso­ci­at­ed with mem­o­ry and the First Vision in his book, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the His­tor­i­cal Accounts (Deseret Book, 2012). It is not real­ly as prob­lem­at­ic for the First Vision as you make it out to be. I would rec­om­mend read­ing it before jump­ing to conclusions.

Wes Trexler
Reply to  Quinten
December 7, 2015 11:42 am

Good to know, Quin­ten. I’ll look into it. Could I hear your key take­aways from the book as a tease for why oth­ers should read it?

Wes Trexler
December 6, 2015 11:35 am

This is such a great exam­ple of the apol­o­gist mind­frame. Each event or issue is addressed in a vac­u­um from every other.

I’m not sure what their response to your cri­tique would be, but I imag­ine it would go some­thing like: “we don’t need to be inter­nal­ly con­sis­tent because we are sim­ply pro­vid­ing poten­tial answers, not defin­i­tive answers. We are pro­vid­ing options, not doctrine.” 

As such there is no respon­si­bil­i­ty, no account­abil­i­ty, they can pro­pose every poten­tial­i­ty that sup­ports their cause, and dis­card all evi­dence to the con­trary since they are only look­ing for a way to show there is a chance (how­ev­er insignificant).

Well done on this. I would love to see them actu­al­ly respond! 😀