polemics: The art or practice of disputation or controversy, especially on religious subjects; that branch of theological science which pertains to the history or conduct of ecclesiastical controversy. (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996.)
Although I am often entertained by bad apologetics, I am equally amused by bad polemics. I find it simply fascinating when I see both camps use exactly the same faulty reasoning, but to prove exactly the opposite point. In those sublime moments, it’s almost as if I can hear someone performing a long-overdue introduction between two mutual friends: “Bad apologetics, meet bad polemics!”
The most oft-used method of flawed reasoning I’ve seen used by both proponents and critics LDS claims is to make comparisons at a 30,000 foot level and then conclude that, because general similarities exist between two things, they must somehow be linked or causally-related to each other. Of course, the problem with that line of reasoning is that you can find parallels between just about any two things if you make comparisons on a general level. At 30,000 feet, the cars, houses, and people way down below all look the same.
Case in point: A few months ago, my wife and I watched a video produced by a well-known Mormon apologetics group in which they attempted to demonstrate that Meso-America was the most likely setting for the Book of Mormon. This was primarily accomplished by pointing out general similarities between the peoples described in the Book of Mormon and what scholars have thus far been able to discover about ancient Meso-Americans. For example, some scholars found it noteworthy that there is evidence of a system of lower kings subject to a high king in ancient Meso-America, which we see in the Book of Mormon with the relationship between King Lamoni (lower king) and his father (high king). But, of course, this sort of arrangement is also known to have existed in feudal Europe and Japan, and in numerous other locations of the globe throughout the history of mankind. (Source.) So this general lower-king, high-king similarity falls short of demonstrating a unique similarity between the Book of Mormon peoples and the peoples of ancient Meso-America.
Likewise, we often find critics of the Book of Mormon using a similar flawed methodology in their attempts to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from other sources. For example, in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, Grant Palmer points to general similarities, while ignoring numerous specific differences, to argue that the Book of Mormon story of Alma the Younger was copied from the New Testament story of Saul/Paul:
1. Both men were wicked before their dramatic conversion.
2. Both traveled about persecuting and seeking to destroy the church of God.
3. Both were persecuting the church when they saw a heavenly vision.
4. Their companions fell to the earth and were unable to understand the voice that spoke.
5. Both were asked in a vision why they persecuted the Lord.
6. Both were struck dumb/blind, became helpless, and were assisted by their companions. They went without food before converting.
7. Both preached the gospel and both performed the same miracle.
8. While preaching, they supported themselves by their own labors.
9. They were put in prison. After they prayed, an earthquake resulted in their bands being loosed.
10. Both used the same phrases in their preaching.
(Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, p. 50.)
Sounds pretty compelling, right? The problem is that the list above is a classic example of the same type of flawed analysis frequently employed by unsuccessful plaintiffs in copyright cases. They try to prove their works were copied by seizing upon general similarities while ignoring numerous specific differences.
Under Copyright law, identifying generalized similarities between two stories is simply not sufficient to demonstrate that one work has been copied from the other. For example, if it were possible to prove plagiarism based on general similarities, the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien should sue George Lucas for copyright infringement immediately due to the following similarities between Lord of the Rings and Star Wars:
1. In both works, the protagonist (Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker) is an unassuming lad living with an uncle in a relatively remote area.
2. In both works, the protagonists learn that an evil lord of darkness (Sauron and Darth Vader) is bent on conquering all free peoples.
3. In both works, there is a special weapon (the Ring and the Death Star) that, if employed by the forces of evil, will spell the doom of all free peoples.
4. In both works, the protagonist is given a risky mission that requires him to venture into the heart of enemy territory (Mordor and the Death Star).
5. In both works, the protagonist is assigned to destroy the dark lord’s special weapon (by dropping the Ring into a the heart of a volcano, or by dropping a photon torpedo into the heart of the Death Star).
6. In both works, the protagonist shares a psychological connection with the dark lord (Frodo can detect when Sauron’s eye is upon him; and Luke can “sense” Vader’s presence).
7. In both works, the protagonist is assisted by a wise grey-haired mentor who wears a robe and carries a staff-like object that can glow (Gandalf and his staff and Obi Wan Kenobi and his light saber).
8. In both works, the mentor sacrifices himself to allow the protagonist and his companions to escape a certain death (Gandalf falling into the abyss with the Balrog, and Obi Wan allowing Vader to slay him).
9. In both works, the mentor ultimately becomes stronger by sacrificing himself for the others (Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White; Obi Wan becomes a seemingly omniscient spirit who can accompany Luke and give him much-needed guidance in pivotal moments).
10. In both works, the protagonists are assisted by a rugged, handsome wanderer (Aragorn and Han Solo) who assists the protagonist’s party in escaping from danger on numerous occasions, and who eventually marries a princess. Perhaps most tellingly, the names Aragorn and Han Solo both consist of seven letters, and “just so happen” to share the same two vowels!!! Coincidence?! Hmmmmm . . .
The list above is by no means exhaustive. I haven’t even gotten to the similarities between the variety of unusual creatures featured in both works, the use of genetic manipulation to create the evil forces in both works (Orcs and Stormtroopers), etc., etc., etc.
The point here is simply that critics who attack the authenticity of the Book of Mormon often engage in bad polemics by using the same flawed methodology that gets kicked out of court in copyright cases all the time, i.e., they point to general similarities between the Book of Mormon and some other work, while ignoring the obvious and numerous specific differences between those works.
But just because it’s bad polemics doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. To the contrary, this particular method of bad polemics is highly successful because although the average person has seen both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and is therefore able to quickly detect the obvious absurdity of the allegation that Star Wars was plagiarized from Lord of the Rings, the average person has not read the books that critics allege Joseph Smith plagiarized to write the Book of Mormon (i.e., View of the Hebrews, the Spaulding manuscript, etc.) For that reason, the average person is unable to critically examine and rebut arguments that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from other pre-existing works.
As a result, critics who attack the Book of Mormon with these generalized comparisons are able to convince the undiscriminating reader that the revered Mormon scripture was copied from a collection of obscure sources that they know the reader will likely never have the time nor means examine for himself.