This is an archived copy of a post written by Conflict Of Justice (conflictofjustice.com). Used with permission: Conflict Of Justice may not agree with any alterations made.
After writing 300 articles defending the gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints online, here is what I have learned.
Keep A Notebook Of Thoughts – Divide a notebook into categories of issues where you write down ideas and information as they come. This is your brainstorming area. I often find myself chatting with friends and running to grab my notebook because somebody said something that will be useful for an article. If the notebook is not around I’ll jot things down on my phone, but I find it best to move everything into a physical notebook where I can easily diagram, sketch, and organize. This is where each article germinates.
It starts with a list of ideas–a few pages worth. When I see someone ask about something that I haven’t addressed or I have an idea I want to investigate I’ll add it to the list. If an idea is fruitful, I will dedicate a few pages where I jot down information that I happen to come across. I’ll create a “draft” article page if I need to remember internet addresses or lengthy paragraphs of text.
The list of ideas can quickly grow very long unless you consolidate some ideas. It is a matter of balancing length of the list of ideas versus the length each article will probably be. If my notebook requires more than a few pages per idea and my drafts include a lot of material, I will break the idea up in multiple articles, or that means it needs to be a book. When I was preparing an article about how the Sed Festival proves The Book of Abraham, I found it quickly got much too large to fit in an article, and yet if I broke it up into multiple articles it would be very fragmentary. So, I decided to write a book about it.
Limit Your Scope To Your Information – The biggest hurdle defenders of the faith encounter is biting off more than they can chew. For example, you may set out to “prove the Book of Abraham” and then find that the idea is so complicated and involves so much information it would take a lifetime to figure it out. You would have to have at least a basic knowledge of several ancient languages and ancient cultures. Or sometimes there is no information to be found and the question seems un-answerable. This is not something to get frustrated about. If you were to set out to explain the physics of fluid dynamics, how easy would that be? Why should theology be a simple science? Admit that you are not a PHD of every subject in the world, and limit your discussion to what you know about. It’s okay not to know everything having to do with religion. Just make it more specific.
It is obvious to readers when someone is trying to talk about something they don’t really understand. I see it all the time, and usually the answer is not to avoid the issue completely but to simply avoid making such sweeping claims. For example, if you want to talk about some cool archaeological evidence of the Nephites among the Mayans, stick to that specific evidence and do not make it part of a larger idea unless you have a full knowledge of the Mayans. Do not claim it proves the Mayans were the Nephites or that this “proves the Book of Mormon” unless you can truly back that claim up.
I suppose I am guilt of biting off more than I can chew, aren’t I? Well, it is also wrong to limit yourself because you don’t feel like you are expert enough. The fact is nobody is expert enough. As with anything in life, the “experts” are just people who had the guts to put themselves out there and dedicate a lot of effort to their subject. Your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in yourself will motivate you to take on the difficult subjects that a lot of people are afraid to honestly take on. You become an expert by taking it on. Just do not get frustrated if it takes many years to adquetly get there, or if you never get there. I have plenty of things on my list of ideas that I haven’t published because I have not gathered enough answers. Lots of ex-members got frustrated about “items on the shelf” piling up to a breaking point, but again, religious belief is the most complicated and involved subjects there is. It takes much longer than a lifetime to figure out each detail. If your college major is physics, do you angrily give up if you don’t understand every little detail of fluid dynamics? The reason the “items on the shelf” come crashing down is an identity crisis, where you are not confident enough in your religious identity, and religious apologetics will never solve that because there is a hopeless depth and you will never answer every little issue. Settle your religious identity before you take on these issues.
I find that this compartmentalized approach also gives me more time to dedicate to this effort, because I’m not doing it all at once. You’ve probably noticed that I divide each article into 3 or 4 headers and divide those into categories which start with bold text. I can prioritize my time on family and real-life things that need to take priority. If I have only 10 minutes to write, I can use my notes as a guide and pick up where I left off. It also helps me take complicated and complex issues and simplify it down.
Talk About What Are Issues For People – As you start thinking about your idea, look at first page Google searches and what Wikipedia are saying about it. Those links will likely be very poor sources of information, and you’ve got to be careful not to just assume they are authoritative sources for your solutions. The purpose is not yet to find solutions, but to see what people tend to think about this. These days, alternatives like Bing and DuckDuckGo might be a better search engines for this. What people pass around on social media might be even more accurate, though you’ve got to be careful not to get fooled by bots and fake chatter from Anti-Mormons trying to hype their literature. CES Letter was never on my radar, for example, because I didn’t think people had the attention-span for lengthy PDF’s with recycled old arguments, but I kept seeing people talk about it on social media and realized it was a big fish that I needed to target. I may think it is a sad propaganda piece that deserves little attention, but the point is many people out there are reading it, and that means it is an issue for us to talk about and take seriously.
I scan these links quickly to gather the main points of what people are talking about. With Anti-Mormon literature, my trained eye seeks three things:
- Main Arguments – Antimos attack with a litany of small arguments that lead back to an overall big argument. For example, the main theme behind CES Letter’s many arguments about polygamy seem to be centered around their argument that Joseph Smith violated the consent of others. I made this the focus of my rebuttal, like an axe swinging at the trunk of a tree rather than the individual branches.
- Each Meaningful Argument – Once the big argument is settled, keep track of each of the smaller arguments that seem to trip people up. These are like shards of a bullet that each need to be extracted from a wound so that they don’t fester. Each needs to be addressed in order to soundly put down the big argument. This is why I went through and addressed every single part of CES Letter, sentence by sentence. With general issues for which you are looking around Google and social media, just pick out a dozen or so important things that need to be talked about. Sometimes several can be talked about in one section of an article, sometimes it needs to be individually.
- Discern Tactics & Logical Fallacies – As I get in the head of the person writing Anti-Mormon literature, I start to figure out their tactics and the strategies of the demons motivating them. With CES Letter, I made a spreadsheet with a couple dozen tabs of logical fallacies to keep track of how often each logical fallacy was being employed and in what context. Patterns started to emerge and I could see the persuasive techniques that made it an effective piece of propaganda. This greatly enhanced my ability to respond to it in a way that reaches people, and I consider to be a major contribution that I have brought to the community of defenders of the faith.
Change The Frame Of Discussion – Focus on what matters to people, and yet you’ve got to hold your own frame. That’s the really challenging part. When you intensely study and consider someone’s argument you tend to respond directly to the argument as it is given you, but that is often a losing strategy when it comes to Anti-Mormons, because it’s all about the frame for them. If you remain in the frame they have set, you are not really answering anything. For example, if you try to downplay the racism involved in the pre-1978 priesthood exclusion policy by correcting logical fallacies and filling in missing context, that may help a little bit, but you will never win as long as you do not address the overall frame of the church being ill-intentioned racists. The image of racism is the issue and that is what needs to be addressed.
Some complain that I generalize and attack the Anti-Mormon community, but this useful for changing the frame even if it is unpleasant. The pre-1978 priesthood policy is an example: how are Anti-Mormons going to call us racists when their community was founded on preserving slavery, they committed genocide on us because we opposed slavery, and they continue to exhibit casual racism? Lots of Anti-Mormons are not racist today, and of course it would be unfair to generalize them as such (even if they generalize the church all the time), but that is the legacy of the community and they need to own it. This reversal of attack forces them to change their frame away from Presentism and innuendo, and now they must discuss the issue rationally.
Perhaps this is why The Salt Lake Tribune removed the photos of their staff instead of answering my questions about their racial diversity?
It is a difficult thing to hold your frame of an issue in the face of another person’s strong outlook. We usually accept the opponent’s frame without even thinking about it–the best apologists make this mistake. Once you realize everybody is talking about an issue all wrong, you feel like a lighthouse beating against the storm when person after person on Twitter keeps saying the same narrative, and especially when you see BYU professors and the “experts” repeating it. You need to have a well thought out rationale and a strategy for how to present your different frame. It could start with a shocking statement, like “Anti-Mormons passed an extermination order on the church because we opposed slavery.” It could be a subtle deductive string of arguments. And if you can’t defend it well, maybe you should re-consider your frame.
If someone talks about an issue from left-field, I sometimes find it is worth listening to just for the sake of approaching from a different frame. If their frame opposes the gospel or promotes apostasy, of course it is nonsense and should be disregarded, but otherwise maybe there is something to be gleaned from someone looking at things a little differently. Be able to understand and empathize with someone’s convincing perspective while still finding it wrong.
Gather Authoritative Sources – Google Books is an important tool that I use to gather information. Published books tend to have well reasoned ideas, while with mere websites I could get lost in wacky conspiracy theories. Just query a few words of what you’re looking for into Google Books and you will likely find some great quotes to use.
Now, of course you’ve still got to practice scrutiny:
- Look into the author and publisher. I try to stick with authoritative authors, such as E.A. Wallis Budge if I’m talking about Egyptology, and books published by Harvard rather than some no-name conspiracy publisher. People tend to put weight on non-Latter-day Saint authors when it comes to physical evidence for scriptures as there is no conflict of interest.
- Be suspicious of big claims that have little citation. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
- Get a variety of sources. A claim that was made in a 19th century book may be abrogated by later research.
- Look for circular citation. For example, I often find that when Wikipedia articles cite a source, that author is simply repeating what another author is saying which is the very same author the article cites elsewhere–so effectively the entire article is based on just one or two sources. Guess whether that one source is pro-church or Anti-Mormon? Follow through on people’s citations.
- Consider how they gathered their information. Did they repeat someone else without thinking about it? Do they just say “this is the way it is” without explanation how they got to their conclusion (this drives me crazy)? It should make sense why your source is saying what they are saying.
- Be honest about the context of the quotation. A certain BYU church apologist who became an Anti-Mormon critic of Conflict of Justice would say some pretty neat stuff back in his apologist days. But there was little citation and little explanation of the sources he did cite. When I followed the sources I found that the quote came from a different context than what he was talking about. This is an easy mistake to make with Google Books because you might see in your search results an awesome snippet that would look great in your article and really back up your claim, but then when you open up the book and read the surrounding paragraphs you find that it isn’t really talking about the same thing. Remember, it is Anti-Mormons who take snippets of quotes out of context. They do it all the time! It’s their schtick! They almost never take a snippet of quote in correct context. If that’s what you are doing, you are using the Anti-Mormon strategy of deception, not the pro-Christ strategy of light and truth. Take the time to read at least a couple pages before and after the quote you come upon. I find that when I do this I often either discover it is a bad source or come across even more good material I can use.
- Outside of books, I use pro-church journals and scholarly sites, such as FairMormon.org as I have gotten adept at research and analyzing. I now like to look at FairMormon.org when I am 3/4 along composing an article in order to compare my approach and see if I’m missing any important point. There is plenty of stuff that I disagree with or approach differently, but I always marvel at how harmoniously we have gotten to basically the same place independently through scholarship and prayer. This boosts my testimony and my confidence that I’m on the right track. “By the mouths of two or three witnesses.” If I disagree with them on something major, that probably means I need to go back and re-consider my approach.
Critics have accused me of copying the arguments of sites like FairMormon and explaining the same thing in my own words, but that truly is not the case. I mostly use such sites to find necessary historical quotes, and once in a while to help gather some ideas, but the value I bring to the table is thinking through something with fresh eyes and my own perspective. What is the point if I’m just copying someone?
BYU’s archives offer some great research papers, but I find I have to be wary of a lot of that material. The lowest-quality papers tend to be the most hyped, and scholarly journals from non-members offer great insight as well. I look at a variety of journals, and many high quality papers are offered for free on university websites. Jstor.org is a site that shows up at the top of a lot of Google search results, but I find they are not discriminating enough about the quality of papers, and there is a paywall to see more than a short portion–including the portion I saw in the Google result snippet. I find that deceptive and unethical, so I ignore Jstor.org results.
Use A Format That Fits Your Purpose – I started as a typical blog but soon changed to an encyclopedia format. The blog format is fit for sports and celebrity gossip, but religious discussion is not isolated thoughts you post every once in a while. It is a book you continually add to and arrange. Nephi updated his record as one continuous narrative, and so I have learned to treat this like one massive book with many related chapters. The Book of Mormon would not be nearly as effective as a blog.
Luckily, the blog easily adapts to the encyclopedia format. Each blog post is an encyclopedia entry. Blogs are most effective with short and frequent entries, but I have found that an encyclopedia should be longer and less freuquent. The length of your message should fit the medium–quick memes and blurbs on Instagram/Twitter, ten page explanations on a website, and lengthy investigations in books. If I have something quick to say, I’ll say it on social media. Conflict Of Justice is for long and substantial ideas.
It was Jeff Lindsay who pioneered this kind of website, and though it seems to severely hurt my SEO with Google Search, I think it is still worth it. Google has pushed my website far down their rankings, but I refuse to lower the quality of my website just to suit Google’s bad algorithm. There are other ways to get it out there than Google. Others will probably develop great formats that suit similar purposes for spreading the gospel online, and hopefully those can fit Google’s search algorithm to find greater access.
Internal Connections – Soon, I am going to go through and improve internal linking on all previous articles. Go back and update your previous articles to link to more recent articles so everything is interconnected. This helps visitors navigate and (theoretically) boost SEO. This also helps me organize my thoughts and arrange the website as one massive book. Unlike physical books, websites come with the massive benefit of internal linking. Users of the church’s scripture app have found how convenient it is to click on scripture references instead of flipping pages. It saves a lot of time when you are researching topics. Likewise, internal links are vital time-savers as people drudge through my long-winded articles.
My biggest gripe with blogs is that it’s hard to get to a particular page and hard to move on to other relevant pages. Encyclopias like Wikipedia adeptly include many internal links so that someone researching “rocks” quickly get to whatever kind of rock they are interested in. it’s like having a house connected via a road in a neighborhood rather than sitting in the middle of a field. If someone is reading about Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham, they need to easily access each article I have written about each Figure of Facsimile 1. The blog may suit other styles of defending the gospel, and there are yet many other formats a person can use, but always make sure to consider your internal and external connections. Be kind to pro-church sites you reference by including links to them high up in your article (Google reportedly punishes websites that are linked to at the bottom of long web pages.)
I used to be more careful about SEO optimization, but now I don’t stress about it. If Facebook is going ban links to this site and Google is going to plunge my ratings anyway, what’s the point? My greatest traffic comes via word of mouth, and I am not going to insert cumbersome keywords or limit my post lengths just to please Google–I refuse to. If Google wants to be a good website aggregater, it is up to them to recognize my excellence in writing, not up to me to adapt my writing to their poor standards of excellence. If I build a great website that defends the gospel effectively, and if I link to it as I address people’s questions on social media, the people will come. The strength of this site’s format is people can drop a link to an article when someone asks a question that is complex to answer. Much like people use Wikipedia. It is like a set of pamphlets you could pull out of your pocket as a missionary. That makes it all the more frustrating when Facebook arbitrarily censors links to this site–but that is the world we are living in. They are never going to make it easy for us, and we need to always keep adapting and overcoming.
Pleasant Writing Style – I’ve never been good at writing, honestly. It was one of my weakest subjects in school. A lot of people avoid doing something if it involves reading or writing–whether that is because of insufferable English teachers in public school, the repression of good authors in the publishing industry, or addictiveness of alternative media such as video games and movies. I find this avoidance unfortunate, because writing is still the best way to communicate outside of talking face to face. This is why the scriptures are writings. It is hard to be a proficient Latter-day Saint if you avoid reading or writing. You’ve simply got to jump in to the freezing water and learn how to write by practicing.
If my writing has improved at all, it is by criticism. When people make fun of something dumb-sounding, I don’t get defensive about it, but take it seriously as an opportunity to improve. If someone misunderstood what I said (and not intentionally because they are avoiding the issue), it is an opportunity for me to better communicate my ideas. If someone quickly gets bored, it’s because I did not write for my audience well enough. Anti-Mormons are always trying to discourage me by making it seem like I’m a terrible writer, so I’ve got to be careful of what I deem constructive criticism. But it frequently is provided, for which I am grateful.
I’ve also never been an academic. I now have this reputation of being erudite, but honestly I didn’t like college. I can’t stand puffy professors who indignantly mark you down if you don’t regurgitate the opinions they want or if you try to figure things out your own way. I guess I’m a bit like the janitor in Good Will Hunting, but I’m not really very smart either. You don’t need to be erudite to do this. As a kid, I remember chuckling at Steve Young at a fireside he delivered comparing the prophet to a football coach, but now I respect the man for putting himself out there and defending the gospel on his terms (I wish Steve Young would still treat the prophet like his football coach, but anyway…) You don’t need to be a genius. You don’t even need to compare yourself to others–just put yourself out there the way you are.
I think the most important element of writing style is that it should be pleasant to read, and that means having a good attitude when you write. Face to face, do you enjoy hearing someone angrily rant about something stupid? No, and nobody enjoys political Facebook rants either. And it’s not really a matter of being positive–I also get annoyed when people go off face to face about how they idolize a dumb political candidate. You can certainly be negative and have a pleasant writing style. It’s simply about crafting something cool that people are going to like. I love going back and reading articles I wrote months ago. I especially like bits of humor or irony that I throw in there.
Focus On Your First Sentence – The first sentence should be like something you would overhear in a conversation that would be interesting enough to make you stop what you are doing and join the conversation. It could be a summary of the topic, an intriguing aspect of the topic, or just some interesting off-hand remark. Robert E. Howard often started his Conan fantasy books with an intruging visual contradiction about something natural that sparks the audience’s interest, like a travelor disrupting the stillness of a forest. This first sentence is most important, as people are loathe to start reading a lengthy article about religion.
I make my titles short enough to fit in a Twitter card (the thing that pops up on Twitter when you enter a link to my site, showing the title, description, and image). Long titles are for news articles, not religious or social writing. Make it short and to the point. “Discrepancies Between The Book Of Mormon & Bible Debunked.” No more than 8 or 9 words. I try to shorten down the entire content of my articles as much as possible, as they are long enough as it is. Sometimes I end up deleting half of the text, which is a shame but it’s what needs to be done.
I avoid the label apologetics, even though that is the label generally accepted for defenders of the faith. People struggling with faith aren’t going to search for the term “apologetics”–I could be wrong–and it isn’t really about me defending the faith. It is about people finding resources that help them strengthen their testimonies, motivation to improve their relationship with God.
This isn’t my own little play-set where I rant about people I don’t like and postulate about random stuff. This is my elegant display room where I place my most well-crafted works of art–the best of my best, crafted to serve those who walk into my store. My biggest flaw is I don’t proof-read good enough. But I take very seriously the spiritual mission and my hope that it will change people’s lives. I do this very prayerfully, studiously, and intently. If I make a mistake, I will humbly admit it and seek the answer. Maybe nobody will end up reading any of this–if that is the case, it is still worth it because I will be learning all about the gospel and improving my relationship with Christ. It helps me become a better friend, family member, husband, and father. Folks can come to me for answers. Perhaps one day I will be a wizened monk dwelling in a mountain-top shrine, or more likely I will still be just another guy you sit next to at church and don’t think twice about. No matter how minimal this contribution, it is worth it, and I hope more members of the church–faithful and doubting alike–take part pioneering this new missionary landscape.