“More Than One Witness”

Alma 8–12

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to be appropriately open-minded.


Alma’s ministry continues, but now he’s joined by a sidekick: Amulek! It seems people weren’t too impressed when Alma told his story alone…

Alma 9:6 And they said: Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man among this people, to declare unto them the truth of such great and marvelous things?

But when there was another deluded loony, that settled everything!

Alma 10:12 And now, when Amulek had spoken these words the people began to be astonished, seeing there was more than one witness who testified of the things whereof they were accused, and also of the things which were to come, according to the spirit of prophecy which was in them.

Unfortunately, folie à deux is a real thing.

Shared psychotic disorder, also known as folie a deux (“the folly of two”), is a rare condition in which an otherwise healthy person (secondary case) shares the delusions of a person with a psychotic disorder (primary case), such as schizophrenia.

Shared psychotic disorder usually occurs only in long-term relationships in which one person is dominant and the other is passive.

That Amulek. Bit of a sub.

Thing is, it’s certainly possible for two people — or ten people, or a million people — to be wrong. What matters is the strength of the evidence.

But this is lost on the lesson manual, which recommends this attention activity:

4. If you use the attention activity, bring to class an object in a box or bag. Bring an unusual object, one that class members would not expect or believe you to have. Make sure that the box or bag conceals the object from class members.

Display the box (or bag) with the object inside it (see “Preparation,” item 4). Tell class members what is inside the box, but do not show them the object. Ask if they believe that such an item is really in the box.
After class members have had a chance to respond, invite one of them to come and look inside the box. Ask this person to tell the other class members what is inside the box. Then ask class members again if they believe the item is in the box.
• Why was it easier to believe that the object was in the box after someone else came and looked at it?

Probably because we’re inappropriately swayed by social relationships. This has been demonstrated by the Asch conformity experiments.

Notice, however, that if the group can sway what we’re willing to say, having a non-conformer in the group can be enough to help us break out. That’s the role that we postures are playing in the church, and that’s why it’s important for us to speak out.

An elder in my mission told me (anecdote warning) that a seminary teacher of his used this attention activity for a lesson. The seminary teacher was a medical guy, so the “object” was a stillborn foetus, which he showed to one of the students! Isn’t Mormonism wonderfully creepy sometimes?

There’s another story about a lawyer named Zeezrom, whose name probably should be spelled Zeëzrom, just to remind everyone that it’s three syllables. But that’s a rather boring and pointless story. Let’s stick to the good stuff.


Ask: Why don’t more people accept the church?

This one’s multiple choice.

a. The church teaches things that don’t make any sense.
b. The claims of the church have no evidentiary basis.
c. Church activities are largely irrelevant, serving to build members’ belief in itself rather than helping them.
d. The church teaches bad values, like discrimination, parochialism, and social and ideological insularity.
d. People have hard hearts.

Ask: Which of the above does the church teach is the right answer?

Before responding, consider: which of the answers would require the church to go through some self-analysis and work? Which of the answers allows the church to blame outsiders for the church’s lack of success?

Well, according to the Gospel Doctrine manual, it’s the last one.

• What did Alma teach about how the condition of our hearts affects our understanding of God’s word? (See Alma 12:9–11.) What blessings come to those who do not harden their hearts? (See Alma 12:10.) How can we develop hearts that recognize, understand, and accept the word of God? (See 1 Nephi 2:16; 15:11.)

Here’s Alma, going to town on the people.

Alma 9:31 Now it came to pass that when I, Alma, had spoken these words, behold, the people were wroth with me because I said unto them that they were a hard-hearted and a stiffnecked people.
9:32 And also because I said unto them that they were a lost and a fallen people they were angry with me, and sought to lay their hands upon me, that they might cast me into prison.

They didn’t like that? You don’t say.

The church teaches that people don’t accept the church because there’s something wrong with them. This is convenient; it allows the church to ignore concerns and contradictions.

There’s a closely related belief that members rely on, as well. It’s the idea that non-believers are closed-minded.

  • They just want to argue.
  • They just want to be right.
  • They’re not sincere.

And this one’s a treat:

  • Even if you gave them evidence, they still wouldn’t believe it. They could see (the Gold Plates, an angel, Jesus), and they still wouldn’t believe it.

That’s a switch — I’ve had believers tell me that if God were to give iron-clad evidence for the church, it would remove our agency and turn us into robots! But it also seems that we could see any evidence and still disbelieve. Which is it?

Let’s talk about open-mindedness. A good skeptic has the responsibility to stay open-minded to new evidence, and to change their minds if the evidence points that way. It’s all too easy to only accept the kind of evidence we’re looking for.

It’s ironic, then, that members sometimes hit us with this charge. They’re the ones who have perfected confirmation bias — for example, noticing when someone gets better after a blessing, but accepting a death as “God’s plan”; or accepting something that they prayed for, or in a patriarchal blessing, as a “hit” when it happens, while ignoring all the things that don’t happen — perhaps imaging that they’ll come true later (what I call “kicking it upstairs”).

In my experience, Latter-day Saints are very good at deflecting evidence against the church with a variety of cognitive defence mechanisms:

  • it’s anti-Mormon, and therefore to be dismissed
  • it doesn’t mesh with their feelings and experiences
  • it’s not uplifting, or they have a bad feeling about it
  • they don’t understand it, but they’re sure that the contradiction will be ironed out in the fulness of time.
  • they “just know” that the church is true

That said, we skeptics and unbelievers need to do better. We need to approach evidence in an unbiased way, even though that’s really hard. Maybe we could remember that thing we wish Mormons would do — not be afraid of what’s true.

Okay — so what about that evidence thing? If I had the Gold Plates in front of me, or if an angel appeared to me, would I accept this as evidence?

Well, no — not immediately. We need to remember an important point: when we examine evidence, we don’t automatically accept the first explanation we come to.

There’s a joke about some scientists on a train. They pass a field, and see a black cow.

One scientist says, “Oh, look — they have black cows in this part of the country.”
The second says, “Ahem: There is at least one black cow in this part of the country.”
The third says, “Ahem, ahem! There exists in this part of the country a cow — one side of which is black!”

It’s important that our descriptions don’t include more than can reasonably be observed!

So if an angel appeared to me, it could be that an angel is appearing to me. It could also be that I’m having a hallucination. I may be undergoing sleep paralysis. These are valid explanations that should be explored — and the fact that they’re natural and well-known actually gives them a bit of an edge over a supernatural explanation, like angels.

If someone showed the Gold Plates to me, it may be that they’re the Gold Plates that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. (It then becomes tricky to explain why Smith didn’t actually use the plates in translating, opting to stick his face in a hat instead. But anyway.) However, it could also be that someone sat down and made the plates recently. (James Strang had his plates. He showed them to people, too.) We would have to examine them, and it should probably be by a team that knows more about this than I do.

If those natural explanations can be ruled out, then that might boost our confidence in a supernatural explanation — unless a better natural explanation appears. Am I biased against supernatural answers? Well, I don’t think they’re very good, but this isn’t prejudice. It’s because supernaturalism has a terrible track record. Everything we know — every explanation we’ve ever used to successfully explain or understand something — has been natural.

So my mind is perfectly open to new evidence, but that’s not what the believers want. They want us to be open to no evidence. They want us to believe, in defiance of the evidence. They want us to believe the list of things — emotional reasoning, confirmation bias, bad sampling — that they offer in place of evidence. And that’s not good reasoning.


Religious superheroes

From time to time, I’ve heard members of the church express the belief that God would have destroyed society by now, if not for the righteousness of the church members. Here’s a scripture that expresses this.

Alma 10:22 Yea, and I say unto you that if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction; yet it would not be by flood, as were the people in the days of Noah, but it would be by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword.
10:23 But it is by the prayers of the righteous that ye are spared; now therefore, if ye will cast out the righteous from among you then will not the Lord stay his hand; but in his fierce anger he will come out against you; then ye shall be smitten by famine, and by pestilence, and by the sword; and the time is soon at hand except ye repent.

This lets members imagine theselves as superheroes, staving off the Lord’s wrath with the sheer force of their faith. But does it work like that? What really happens when there aren’t a lot of believers?

Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies

It is said over and over again by religious conservatives: without faith in God, society will fall apart. If we don’t worship God, pray to God, and place God at the central heart of our culture, things will get ugly.

It is an interesting hypothesis. Perpetually-touted. And wrong.

Consider, for instance, the latest special report just put out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development…, which lists the ten states with the worst/best quality of life. According to this multivariate analysis which takes into account a plethora of indicators of societal well-being, those states in America with the worst quality of life tend to be among the most God-loving/most religious (such as Mississippi and Alabama), while those states with the best quality of life tend to among the least God-loving/least religious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire).

Religious folk imagine that when the righteous are removed during the Rapture, it will be the beginning of the Great Tribulation. But to me it sounds ideal.


This idea that the religious people are protecting us all by their faith is absolutely backwards. Their faith is actually hurting us by creating a less-rational society. If there are a few irrational religious people, then society can sort of absorb it, but once they take over — as the USA is seeing with the rise of its batshit religious wing — then public policy goes to pot and everything gets crazy. It’s way past time to stop thinking religion has any kind of benefit for society.

Additional ideas for teaching

Evidence for Nephite coinage

Things get a little bit bookkeepy in chapter 11. There’s a bit about their money.

Alma 11:4 Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. And the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem; neither did they measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges, they having been established by king Mosiah.
11:5 Now the reckoning is thus–a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold.
11:6 A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver.
11:7 A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain.
11:8 Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine.
11:9 And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon.
11:10 And a limnah of gold was the value of them all.
11:11 And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums.
11:12 And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums.
11:13 And an onti was as great as them all.
11:14 Now this is the value of the lesser numbers of their reckoning–
11:15 A shiblon is half of a senum; therefore, a shiblon for half a measure of barley.
11:16 And a shiblum is a half of a shiblon.
11:17 And a leah is the half of a shiblum.
11:18 Now this is their number, according to their reckoning.
11:19 Now an antion of gold is equal to three shiblons.

Everybody got that? There’s a test afterward.

If there was a society that produced coins — pieces of gold or silver — then we should be able to find evidence of either the coins themselves, or the society that smelted them.

So far, there’s no evidence of any Nephite coins.

But we shouldn’t really expect to see them, should we? By now, any coins would have disintegrated.

Oh, wait.

Massive 600kg haul of ancient Roman coins unearthed in Spain

Construction workers have found 600kg (1,300lb) of ancient Roman coins while carrying out routine work on water pipes in southern Spain, local officials have said

“It is a unique collection and there are very few similar cases,” Ana Navarro, head of Seville’s archeology museum, which is looking after the find, told a news conference.

Dating back to the late third and early fourth centuries, the bronze coins were found on Wednesday inside 19 Roman amphoras, a type of jar, in the town of Tomares near Seville.

LDS apologists respond by saying that Alma 11 was never intended to refer to coins as such, but to a system of weights and measures.

This is a distinction without a difference. Verse 4 refers to “the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver”, and if that’s not a coin, then it’s a tangible object that could be found just as easily as a coin could be found — if it ever existed in the first place. This is another example of the apologetic tendency to create wriggle room by redefining words, while ignoring the lack of evidence.