Like scientists, historians use a dependable methodology to ensure their findings are reliable. Assertions of historical fact can properly be based only on empirical evidence. Historians then use their critical thinking skills to assess the trustworthiness of this data.
Lately, however, a vogue called postmodernism has challenged all claims to knowledge, including the work of scientists and historians. Science and empirical research supposedly are approaches that elites insist upon in order to strengthen their own standing. There are ways of knowing other than the rational. There is no one reality, only different perceptions and paradigms, all equally valid.
My favourite example of such thinking is the lecturer who told me some Polynesian students think the Earth is flat and that I deserve to be charged with harassment if I tell them they are wrong.
As a historian of the United States, I encounter postmodernism a lot when I teach and research the history of the Mormon church.
This church was founded in the state of New York in 1830 by a young man called Joseph Smith, who tried to use his interest in the amazing to make money. Smith claimed he had found a magic stone that let him see buried treasure. After hiring himself out as a treasure diviner, he was convicted of fraud by a New York court and largely gave up the practice.
Smith then started to claim that angels had been visiting him for years. They had led him to a buried box that contained golden plates. The history of ancient times was inscribed on these plates in “reformed Egyptian,” which Smith could translate by using magic stones. His translation of the golden bible went on sale as The Book of Mormon.
According to the Mormons, the book gives a divinely inspired account of ancient events in the Middle East and America. It treats the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as factual and adds a twist. A man called Jared, his brother and about 100 others were saved by the Lord from having their language confounded. God commanded the brother of Jared to build eight submarines and to load them with their friends and families, as well as their flocks and herds, including elephants. After travelling on and under the ocean for almost a year, the Jaredites discovered America. There they built great cities. After several centuries of civil wars among the Jaredites, one man was left out of millions of people. This adventure took place about 2000 BC.
The Book of Mormon is full of tales that belong to the same fantasy genre as The Lord of the Rings. But the Mormon church insists this fiction is fact and that historians and scientists have got things all wrong. Mormon leaders are hostile to evidence-based scholarship. They claim that their revelations trump research.
Church leaders claim to speak as the voice of God and to be infallible. They place great pressure on members to accept their teachings. For example, someone who leaves the church and becomes an apostate supposedly will lose his or her family for eternity. Even to question the teachings is a sin. So controlling is the Mormon church that some observers consider it a cult.
Last year, at Waikato University, I presented a seminar on Mormonism in which I outlined the tales in the Book of Mormon and said they obviously are not authentic history. Imagine my amazement when a professor who is not a Mormon leapt to her feet and denounced me. She quoted post-modernist theory, and said The Book of Mormon might be accurate. We cannot prove what is not true, she said. Some of my fellow academics gave her enthusiastic applause. The seminar left me sad about the state of education at New Zealand universities.
Even international, academic presses recently have published Mormon pseudohistory. Last year Oxford University Press published By the Hand of Mormon, by Terryl Givens, a Mormon who is Professor of English at the University of Richmond, Virginia. Givens says an angel really did reveal the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, and that its history of ancient America really is divinely inspired and true. Shame on Oxford University Press. And they are not alone.
I suspect many academics have not spoken out against the challenge from the Mormon church because they are not informed about Mormon ideas. Others may feel reluctant to criticise a religion. But when a religion claims to be the supreme fount of fact, when it contradicts research and opposes freedom of inquiry, then it should be challenged by academics. Although students can be victims of this church, universities should fail students who use unsound methodology to believe in pseudoscholarship, such as Creationism or the Book of Mormon, as history. If they do not insist on competent thinking, then universities are a joke.