CES Reply: Adding Up the Hominems

Since the first time I published my CES Letter reply, I have been accused of engaging in “argumentum ad hominem,” a logical fallacy in which the person making the argument, not the argument itself, becomes the focus of the discussion. In other words, I’ve been repeatedly accused of ignoring Jeremy Runnells’s arguments in order to attack him personally and call him names.

From the very first moment this accusation has been made, I have asked for specific examples of my ad hominemity, as I wrote it with the intention of avoiding this fallacy completely. And for years, nobody could provide me with any actual evidence that I had ever attacked Jeremy in my reply.

Until today.

I’ve been receiving a slew of kind emails and messages from people who enjoyed my conversations with Bill Reel. One such person, however, said that while he appreciated what I said in the podcast, he was “not impressed” with my CES Letter reply, as he “found [my] use of ad hominem attacks, particularly when dealing with the Book of Abraham[,] kind of nauseating.”

Not wanting to cause undue nausea, here’s what I wrote back:

While I appreciate your kind words, would you be willing to point out any areas where I relied on ad hominem attacks? I wrote my reply with the intent of avoiding such attacks completely, and I would very much appreciate having any such attacks pointed out to me so I can remove them. 

I didn’t expect to hear from him again, as this request has always been met with silence in the past. But to my surprise, he wrote back with a list of examples that I thought it appropriate to review.

A few formatting issues: this person – let’s call him Floyd – is quoting from the first version of my CES Letter reply, not the second. Floyd’s quotes were followed line-by-line with his commentary. I now want to follow Floyd’s line-by-line commentary with my own line-by-line commentary on his commentary.

To help you know who’s talking, I’m going to put all of Floyd’s text in red, the color of fire, and leave my text in black, the color of darkness. I will italicize and put in quotes all the stuff that I wrote in my first CES Letter reply that Floyd is quoting and add a cream background to it.

Let us begin:

“Jeremy Runnells just wants to tear down my Mormon faith and leave me comfortless in the theological rubble.”

Ascribing motive arbitrarily.  A form of character attack.

I ascribe no motive. Jeremy has repeatedly stated that his desire is to tear down the Church, and he has offered no theology in its place.  

“Jeremey Runnells – he seems to have pretty well made up his mind on this stuff”

Unless you can really get into his mind, it would be more effective to quote him or provide evidence of your opinion rather than just stating your opinion in this case.

This isn’t an attack or anything close to an attack. 

“some seem to delight in the spiritual misery of others.”

Again, you are assigning motive when there are other possibilities than that to which you ascribe.  It appears like a form of character attack.

This has reference to Latter-day Saints who enjoy seeing people lose their faith. It was written in defense of Jeremy’s character, certainly not as an attack on it.

“As Latter-day Saints and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can, and should, do far better than that”

So now not only are you attacking Jeremy, you are also setting yourself up as a disciple of Christ.  Hmm.

So far, you haven’t shown me attacking Jeremy and have misinterpreted my defense of him as an attack.

Every active Latter-day Saint takes the sacrament every week in order to affirm that they want to be a disciple of Christ. My point here is that there are times when Latter-day Saints do not succeed in living up to that standard and delight in the spiritual misery of others.

“Jeremy’s words will be reproduced here in forest green, the color of life. My responses will be in black, the color of darkness.”

You’re using sarcasm, but you’re inferring that Jeremy represents darkness or evil.

No, I’m explicitly stating that I represent darkness and evil and that Jeremy represents life. I’m actually trying to say that no one should think the font colors I use should be interpreted as an attack on Jeremy. 

“Their arguments, like your arguments, ought to be evaluated solely on their merits rather on the credentials of those making them.”

This is something that I fully agree with – but something that you later avoid in the paper.  It makes you look like a hypocrite.   You appeal to authority whenever you have a chance if it helps your case, but dismiss all authorities who do not support your case. 

That’s not accurate, as I show below. 

It seems very disingenuous. If you go to your section on Kevin Mathie, you note the following:

“I have at least as much musical theatre experience as Mr. Mathie does. I’ve even played Harold Hill in The Music Man – twice! By your standards, that makes me at least as authoritative an Egyptologist as Mathie, yes?”

In this case, you appear to be attacking Mathie.  

No attack whatsoever. Mathie is cited by Jeremy as his premier authority on Egyptology, despite the fact that he has absolutely no Egyptological credentials. Jeremy is making an appeal to authority with Mathie as his authority, and I simply demonstrate that Mathie has no more authority than I do. It is not an attack; it is a refutation of the non-existent credentials Jeremy erroneously cites to make his case. 

I agree that it is proper and correct to point out his credentials or lack thereof, but you appear to simply be making fun of him.

If I am, I’m making fun of myself as much or more than I’m making fun of Mathie. My intent is not to mock Mathie personally; it’s to highlight the absurdity of relying on him as an expert in Egyptology. 

“Oh, boy. Kevin Mathie again. Haven’t we beaten this dead horse long enough?”

Well clearly you don’t think so.  

I clearly do think so, which is why I make this statement. Jeremy repeatedly cites Mathie as the expert, which requires me to repeatedly demonstrate that he does not have the credentials to qualify as an expert.  

Why are you attacking Mathie rather than [Robert] Ritner, [the Egyptologist who wrote a rebuttal to the Church’s essay about the Book of Abraham]? 

Well, first of all, I’m not attacking Mathie; I’m saying he does not have the credentials to make the arguments Jeremy cites. Second, Jeremy does not even mention Ritner in the first version of the letter I replied to, and he only mentions him in passing in the second. Since I am responding directly to the content of the CES Letter, the mentions of Ritner correspond to Jeremy’s (non) citation of him as a source. 

And are you arguing that I should be making ad hominem attacks against Robert Ritner?

Ritner does the best work on the subject and is an authoritative source that has been plagiarized by the BYU Egyptologists (who appreciate his skill).  

I don’t see any evidence that Ritner has been plagiarized, but I do recognize Ritner is qualified to evaluate the Book of Abraham on an Egyptological basis and Mathie is not. Which is why, in the second version of my reply, I tell Jeremy that he ought to get rid of all the Kevin Mathie stuff and replace it with Robert Ritner’s stuff. 

It seems like you are going for low-hanging fruit and trying to win an argument rather than trying to establish an accurate understanding for yourself or your readers.

No, I am responding directly to the CES Letter, which does not cite any of Robert Ritner’s arguments. 

“Your A-Team of LDS scholars consists of a lawyer who did some fundraising for a private archeological group (Thomas Ferguson), the guy in charge of the animated Killer Tomatoes series (Boyd Kirkland), the musical director for the Salt Lake Acting Company (Kevin Mathie), and now this Keith Norman guy, whose entire contribution to LDS scholarship seems to consist of a couple of articles written for Dialogue and Sunstone almost thirty years ago.”

If you can’t figure out why this is offensive, then I can’t help you.

If you can’t figure out why citing these non-scholars as authoritative experts is absurd, I can’t help you, either. And if you are offended by accurate descriptions of the academic (non) credentials of these men, I’m not sure what description would be non-offensive. I don’t see how this can be characterized as an ad hominem attack.

“Unlike your previous impeccable scholarly source Brad Kirkland, however, Kevin Mathie has apparently spent no time involved in productions that feature killer tomatoes.”

The lazy Mathie interpretation…

What would be a non-lazy Mathie interpretation? Are you asking me to take his non-existent Egyptological credentials seriously? 

“I’m not going to review the arguments they make, as I’m no more qualified to authoritatively evaluate them than either you or Kevin Mathie, but I think it appropriate to point out that there are serious and significant scholars making such arguments, and that calling them names or pretending they aren’t there isn’t the same thing as discrediting them.”

An excellent point.  The problem is that this point appears hypocritical because you’ve just spent a couple of pages doing name calling…

What names do I call Kevin Mathie? 

 … and avoiding arguments made by other serious scholars (Ritner).

The avoidance of Ritner is Jeremy’s, not mine. In fact, in the second version of my reply, I engage directly with Ritner’s arguments even though Jeremy does not cite any of them. 

“How is that possible that Joseph Smith hit a bullseye so clearly that not even a hostile critic like Kevin Mathie can pretend otherwise?”

What makes Mathie hostile as opposed to well-intentioned and thoughtful?  Appears to be a character attack.

Hostile to Joseph Smith’s claims, not hostile in a sense of personal belligerence. One of the definitions of the word “hostile” is “opposed.” The point is that Kevin Mathie is making an argument in opposition to Joseph Smith, not that his motives for making that argument are thoughtless or ill-intentioned. 

“flying violinist Kevin Mathie cribs from Egyptologists and announces that it’s Min”

“If they did, you’d have a more credible source for them than Kevin Mathie.”

To quote you:  Their arguments, like your arguments, ought to be evaluated solely on their merits rather on the credentials of those making them.

The problem is that neither Jeremy nor I have the Egyptological education to evaluate arguments about Egyptian symbols on their merits. Jeremy therefore makes an argument from authority, citing Kevin Mathie as his authority.  My response is that Kevin Mathie does not have the authority Jeremy attributes to him. 

“I’ll even assume you always had 100% home teaching and that you paid tithing on your gross income and not your net.”

You are using sarcasm, but again, it appears to be a character attack.

It’s precisely the opposite of a character attack. My point is that I’m going to assume the best possible motives for Jeremy’s arguments rather than the worst. 

“someone named Cragun”

That “someone” who you seem to be dismissing is Ryan Cragun and is one of the top 10 scholars on the sociology of Mormonism and president of the Mormon Social Science Association.  In this case, you have a real scholar who you are dismissing as a “someone”.  Not good.  Not fair.  Ryan is brilliant and well published. 

I don’t dismiss him at all. I mention him in passing only when I’m setting up a lengthy quote from a Times and Seasons article that uses his name. His credentials and brilliance never come into question. I’m certainly not attacking him.

Other things that I noted

““salary” was only $599 per year. Another dollar and I would have had to declare it on my income tax. (As it was, they labeled the check as “reimbursement for expenses,” but, just to be safe, I still paid tithing on it.)”

Really?  You’re willing to pay tithing on something, but not taxes?  This made me feel like you were dishonest toward the government, but never mind, this is a side note and based on my biases against people who appear to me to be cheating the tax system.

At the time, I was a full-time student and wasn’t earning enough income to require filing a tax return, although I filed one anyway. 

“He’s raising his leg and waving his arm, which, as Nibley points out in the quote above, indicates that this guy ain’t dead yet.”

You are welcome to believe this, but it flies in the face of everything that honest, uninvested Egyptologists conclude on the subject.

It actually doesn’t. Even Ribert Ritner concedes that this is a live body, not a sarcophagus.

“The problem is that Elder Jensen said no such thing. The “leaving in droves” premise came from the questioner, not Elder Jensen.”

Strawman argument.  Jeremy actually stated it correctly, so you quote Dehlin (who is ambiguous) in order to show that Dehlin is quoting it wrong and then attack Jeremy for saying it wrong. 

I do no such thing. I explicitly point out that Jeremy says it right. This is praise, not an attack. From my reply:

“To your credit, you [i.e. Jeremy] make the proper attribution of droves to the questioner and not to the General Authority, but since so many others do not, I thought this issue bears mentioning here.”

It may make you feel good, but your argument is weak (which you later acknowledge).  


You would be better served by simply pointing to the most accurate data on the subject either at http://www.fullerconsideration.com/membership.php or http://ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com/  or by linking to articles written by Cragun pointing to 0 or negative growth in the US and Europe and higher growth rates in South America, Africa, and southeast Asia.

My point here is to respond directly to what Jeremy says, not to make any broader point about Church growth. 

“this graphic is irredeemably stupid.”

It might be, but I think that you would be better served by not calling names and simply pointing out where it is incorrect if this is the case.

I am calling the graphic stupid, not any human being. It is not an ad hominem attack until the graphic achieves sentience.

If anyone else has issue with any of these, or with any other possible ad hominem attacks, please let me know.