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Context:

Having just barely joined History.SE after participating in several other SE communities, I've been struck with how closed the community seems to be to newcomers and casual participants - there seems to be a "serious academics only" sign on the clubhouse. In particular, the negative response to this answer sourced from a religious text seems quite aggressive - it answers the question perfectly, but has been thoroughly down-voted by the community, with the most up-voted comment being that the religious source quoted is categorically "not considered a reliable historical source by independent scholars". That statement applies to practically any religious text; indeed, there is a well-written question on whether (specific) religious texts are acceptable sources for this community that points this out. The lone answer says, roughly, "probably no for answers, but yes for questions [if they're worded right] because they might be interesting."

Perhaps a bit of a double standard, but it makes sense given that this is a History forum, and it's consistent with what I've seen so far on the site. Since SE sites are each their own community with their own self-defined and self-enforced rules - so be it. However, I haven't found a clearly stated stance on this, in the FAQs, question guide, or Meta; I'd like to understand what the community stance is on referring to the content of religious texts as a reference, independent of claiming those texts are 'true' in the religious sense.

Observations:

Browsing the site to understand community attitudes turned up other hostile exchanges on other topics, and reading other History meta questions on sources (e.g Should we include sources in answers?) indicates that religion has come up before. One excellent answer to a meta question regarding a religious topic (itself spawned by aggressive treatment of a religious-themed question) summed things up quite well:

Some topics are known to cause flamewars on the Internet. [...E]xtremely polarizing topics have a strong tendency to attract the wrong sort of audience: people who care more about the subject than they do about the study of history.

The top of religion-oriented questions has come up before; but what is the stance on answers to non-religious questions that include material from a religious text? It appears to be that religious texts are rejected as primary sources, often with dismissive or sneering remarks. A few thoughts about this:

  1. Religious texts are generally unverifiable, have little or no concurrent historical material given their age, and contain controversial material that is nearly impossible to discuss objectively. Accordingly, religious texts are basically useless for the purposes of the academic historian, so I can see why they're being frowned on here.

  2. Because they are not generally useful for scholarship, religious texts seems to be completely disregarded, even if they contain content relevant to the original question (as in the answer I referenced). This rejection is often quite blunt and even derisive - comments rejecting that answer use phrases like "sci-fi", "in-universe", "mythology", "a derivative work that cites no other sources" [quite an oxymoron, that one], "historical fiction", and "[as valid as] a Tom Clancy novel."

  3. My experience has been that very few scholars/historians have put much effort into researching the content, authenticity, or background of religious texts [edit: before rejecting them], unless they actually focus on religious history specifically. This leads to extremely divisive opinions on any given text, reinforcing the inability to use the text in "serious", non-religious research. This creates a feedback-loop that perpetuates the exclusion of religious texts from "serious" historical scholarship. "I don't believe the source from a religious standpoint, and it doesn't have enough scholarly research to verify it, therefore there is no more reason to leave my ivory tower to do scholarly research on it than on the latest NY Times novel. QED." Based on the phrasing used, I sincerely doubt any of the downvoters/commenters on that answer have read the text in question, any impartial research on it's authenticity [beyond Wikipedia, which suffers from this same problem], or even a single apologist's work on the text - just self-reinforcing, mutually cross-referencing dismissals of it.

  4. The acceptance or out-of-hand rejection of religious texts as quotable sources in an answer has a lot to do with the self-definition of this community. Is this site for academia-level historic scholars only? Armchair historians? Casual participants? SE sites in general are certainly not for the random drive-by Googler, but where and how does History.SE set the bar participation? This is, of course, a separate topic but relevant to the discussion.

  5. Hopefully stating some concrete criteria for referencing religious texts will allow the community to moderate them categorically without being [or pretending to be, explicitly or by inference] authorities on a given text. The History.SE How to Ask FAQ states "Keep an open mind" about unexpected answers, yet responses to religious texts seem to mark them as an exception to this rule.

Goal:

I'm not interested in discussing the specific question or the validity of the quoted religious text here, although it's an interesting topic. I'm hoping to get answers (possibly a community wiki) that clarify the community stance on when (if ever) it is appropriate to refer to religious texts, or even community source standards in general.

  • Not entirely sure what's the point of this? This is History.SE, do we really need to discuss why religious texts aren't acceptable as references in answers? – yannis Jan 22 '16 at 23:09
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    @Yannis I understand the sentiment, and have browsed the site enough to get a sense of the community feeling on the topic. However, I think there are occasions when religious texts could be relevant, and the response to newcomers is generally prickly, carte blanche rejection without ever stating why or providing useful feedback. I'm hoping that an authoritative, stated stance on the matter to refer to will be less hostile and encourage more participation. – brichins Jan 22 '16 at 23:14
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    @Yannis It comes up a lot. If it's not clearly spelled out in the help, then it should be so if nothing else we can easily reference settled policy. There's also the more interesting question of what makes a good source. – Schwern Jan 22 '16 at 23:55
  • Precisely - I thought maybe putting "clarify the community stance on religious texts" in bold would indicate that I thought the community needed to explicitly state its stance on religious texts somewhere. In other SE sites meta is the place to have that discussion, and later add it to the FQA. – brichins Jan 23 '16 at 1:04
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    Excellent. Well researched, well reasoned, well written. Technically it is more of a suggestion than a question, but it is a suggestion I'd back. May I request that you draft a suggested text to be incorporated into the help center? And thank you for calling us to task on our manners. I acknowledge that I'm one of the offenders, but I/we are trying to do better. I think it is easier to do better when we're called out as you have in a non-judgemental but wholly accountable manner. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 23 '16 at 3:07
  • @Schwern If it does, then I must have missed it. A list of answers referencing religious texts would help show that this is indeed an issue worth discussing, and not just a rare hiccup. We can't really clarify everything in our help center, it's already too long to read. – yannis Jan 23 '16 at 8:56
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    The problem with that answer is that it cites quotes from a religious text as though it is a credible account of history. It is not, at all. That said, religious sources can be legitimately used to gleam insight into their period of origin. For instance, one might cite Exodus 12:12 as evidence that the ancient Israelites acknowledged polytheism. Note how this would be different from citing Exodus' account as literal history. – Semaphore Jan 25 '16 at 5:37
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I continue to believe this is a useful discussion - I'm anxious about "discussion" in answers. I'm going to try to redirect to what I think is the consensus.

The Question is about community criteria for referencing religious sources. I assert:

  • If there is such a criteria, it is not clearly articulated.
  • The site would be stronger if such a criteria were articulated clearly.
  • Everyone accepts that all historical sources have intrinsic bias.

I further suggest that:

  • Religious sources can be cited as evidence that the author of the source felt/believed/perceived the statement to be true.
  • The authorship of a religious source (and the concomitant analysis of bias) is the person who transcribed the source. For example, and with all due respect to the traditions involved, although it is my understanding that Allah dictated the Quran to Mohamed, for the purposes of historical research, we will treat Mohammed as the author. For the purposes of historical research we will treat the author of the Golden Tablets as Joseph Smith.

Analysis of a historical source requires research and understanding of the source's context and reference framework. I do not believe that it is responsible for me to analyze the context and reference framework of either Allah or the Angel Moronai. I can however research and understand the context of either Mohammed or Joseph Smith.

Speaking only for myself, I do not feel that it is appropriately respectful for me to analyze and discuss either Allah or Moronai. My reluctance to discuss their involvement in these works is not an attempt to argue any point, but instead a desire to ensure that my discussion stays within a shared context. I recognize that co-religionists who share a context and reference frame can conduct analysis of those sources that benefit from the shared context, but since I don't share that context, I won't pretend that I am competent where I am not.

Repeating for emphasis; I respect both traditions, I intend no insult to either. I am using those traditions as examples only because I have friends who profess those traditions, and I hope that my respect for my friends will ensure that I am respectful to the respective traditions

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I'm hoping to get answers (possibly a community wiki) that clarify the community stance on when (if ever) it is appropriate to refer to religious texts...

IMO it is appropriate to use religious texts as sources if they qualify as good historical sources. If they don't you're going to need good historical sources to back up their claims.

Whether it's a book, a speech, a web page, a Wikipedia article, something someone said... they all undergo the same criterion to determine if they're a good historical source.

What those criterion might be for the community, I don't know, but I've laid my basics out below.


As for whether History.SE is for historians or not, that's the wrong question. It is for producing high quality answers. Ideally academics and armchair historians can work together to make this happen. I regularly suggest improvements and sources to answers with potential. For example, if someone knew of independent verification of the Jaredites that could be added.

Or, another example, I misspelled "Herodotus" all over this answer and @Yannis quietly fixed it. :)

But there isn't verification. It's a low quality answer. It gets appropriately down voted and buried. This might not make you feel so good if you're attached to the answer, but it's a necessary part of maintaining high quality answers. A good down vote comes with suggestions for improvements, like providing a better source.

Stick around. I'm firmly an armchair historian, guilty on many an occasion of leaning too heavily on web pages and Wikipedia articles as sources, and I contribute plenty.


For context, this is the answer which sparked this and it uses The Book Of Mormon (referred to as the BoM) as its sole reference. It's about the Jaredites for which there is no evidence for existence.

One thing I'd like to point out is the comments remain very civil and on the topic of the BoM as a source. A few flip comments about "sci-fi" aside, nobody in that comment stream started bagging on Mormonism. It stuck to its utility as a source.

The BoM was not rejected out of hand. Several people, including myself, gave reasons for why it's not a good source. I judged the BoM with the same criterion as I would any source, religious text or not. It is a derivative work...

  • Written millennia after the fact (written in 1830 covering as far back as 2200 BC).
  • Written by a non-historian.
    • With a clear bias (founding a religion).
  • His claimed sources have never been reviewed (ie. the golden plates).
    • He hid his sources.
    • Claims divine guidance.
  • Regularly contradicts accepted history.
  • Not accepted as a valid historical source by the academic community.

This is, I feel, quite restrained. It avoids the question of it being a religious text and judges it only as a historical source. Any one of those points is bad, all five puts it solidly in the realm of historical fiction. Blunt, yes, but necessary because it was continuously pushed as a valid source, and restricted only to it's value as a source.

In short, "some guy said so" is not good enough for History.SE, even if they wrote it down.

As a parallel example, consider another answer to that same question using Herodotus' Histories as a source. That's also a problem, but it's on firmer ground. Herodotus is not the most reliable historian, but much of what he's said has been independently verified... ignoring the odd furry, gold digging giant ant.

Histories, as a source, is generally...

  • Written as a contemporary (or within living memory).
  • Written by historian.
    • ...albeit the first historian, but laid out principles of objectivity.
    • ...but prone to being duped (see also giant ants).
  • I don't actually know if Herodotus cites sources.
  • Usually conforms to known history.
    • Many claims have been verified by modern historians.
  • Accepted, with many caveats, as a valid historical source by the academic community.

Histories is somewhere between BoM and a valid source. It can't be accepted on face value, it's claims need have been verified, and that work has already been done. Sometimes the claims pan out, sometimes they don't. In short, an answer relying solely on Histories should probably back it up with a firmer source.

Two very different texts, both controversial to historians in their own way. Same objective criterion applied. You get a good first order approximation. I'm measuring The Father Of History and The Book Of Mormon with the same yardstick.


I'd like to address points 1-5, and #3 in particular, which I sum up as "what do we do about poorly researched sources"?

My experience has been that very few scholars/historians have put much effort into researching the content, authenticity, or background of religious texts

I don't believe this is true, quite the opposite, but for argument's sake let's assume it is true that the BoM has not received serious academic attention. The reasons for that are out of scope for determining if something is a good source (though it might make a good question). Regardless of the reason, your answer is still using a poorly researched source making unverified claims.

A source doesn't get a pass just because nobody's looked into it.


I also commented that "we wouldn't accept an answer out of a Tom Clancy novel either". Now I have some more space to expand on that.

I've often used Tom Clancy as an example why just because some things are true in a story doesn't mean they're all true. For example, if you dug up a copy of Red Storm Rising 1000 years in the future you'd note that the United States and Soviet Union were real countries, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were real, the Cold War was a real thing, the military technology checks out, Tom Clancy was alive during that era... it's written by a contemporary and the setting fits with other accounts of the 20th century.

But then you'd note that while the setting might be correct, the story contradicts with known history. Nizhnevartovsk was not blown up. The Soviets didn't invade the Middle East. Nobody else mentions a European war in 1986. Etc...

More to the point, we know Red Storm Rising was fiction. In that same manner, we know the BoM is fiction. We know it was published by a guy in the northeast US in 1830 who could not have known what happened thousands of years before. In contrast with most other religious texts that are an amalgamation of stories over many years and many authors which might mix in oral histories and contemporary accounts.

By asking us to accept the BoM as history is asking us to accept "God told me" as a valid historical source. This opens the door to having to accept other, contradicting, religious texts. Not to mention ESP, mental projection, past lives, seances... and History.SE becomes AlternativeHistory.SE.

Telling someone their religious text is historical fiction is pretty rude, but here we're being asked to judge the BoM as a historical source. So I will be fair and judge it as a historical source: the BoM is historical fiction. I don't know how to cushion the blow any more and still be academically honest.

Hey, at least I picked a good author for the analogy. ;)


A final note. Consider that you're not the first person, by a long shot, to attempt to argue that the BoM or other religious text should be accepted as history. These are discussions that many of the users here have had over and over and over and over and over and over again. So yeah, there will be a hint of frustration in having to have it yet again with a new user.

I hope that helps you understand both why you're going to get a dismissive tone, but also to understand how much restraint and effort the people here are going through to fully address these concerns... again.

(And when we're done there should be a FAQ.)

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    Well written and very acceptable answer - you addressed many of the points I hoped would be stated. Particularly the point about merely "judging [texts] as a historical source" (rather than as works with or without independent / religious value). Re: #3, edited the OP slightly to clarify the point on researching religious texts; there is plenty of research on the BoM (and probably any other controversial texts), pro and con, I just doubt it gets read by anyone who brushes the topic tangentially before they draw conclusions. – brichins Jan 22 '16 at 23:59
  • @brichins Thanks! I cited Smithsonian and NatGeo earlier to show it's not just me, but two highly rated institutions say it's not valid, which is plenty for History.SE. As to the idea that there hasn't been research done, the old Smithsonian statement on the BoM cited a whole list of contradictions. The time and territory covered by the BoM is well researched, and continues to be examined, and that clearly contradicts the BoM. If you want to debate the BoM's historical validity, those could make good questions if asked well. – Schwern Jan 23 '16 at 0:12
  • Nitpick - still find it contradictory to say BoM is a "derivative work" and say it "cites no sources". Whence is it derived then...? I would prefer to strike that line, your argument stands without it. For anyone wishing to read up on the 'derived BoM' theory (separately from this post), the Wikipedia article on the Spaulding/Rigdon theory is informative, as is a scholar's rebuttal to it's foremost supporter. – brichins Jan 23 '16 at 0:16
  • @Schwem I wonder how such questions would fare here vs Christianity.SE, given the flamewar potential. I think it would be an interesting experiment that would end up consolidating a lot of information on the topic, but ultimately be poorly received either place, given mainstream opinions on Mormons and the fact that they are a world minority. Pretty sure it would end up like the Wikipedia articles on religious topics - hotly debated, over-constrained by community guidelines, and ultimately inconclusive from a religious standpoint. – brichins Jan 23 '16 at 0:29
  • Insufficient rep to suggest edits, but Joseph Smith lived in the Eastern States, and no one but Native Americans lived in Utah in 1830. ;) Re: your final note - I deliberately tried to keep this as generic as possible, and at no point did I argue that the BoM should be an accepted souce on this forum. Except honestly asking "why not" in my first-ever comment, followed by some site browsing to understand the hostility. Followed immediately by the creation of this question,inviting a generic, dedicated, civil explanation of "why not" to those wanting to reference any religious text. FAQ plz! – brichins Jan 23 '16 at 0:42
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    @brichins If you believe Joe Smith it's derivative of the golden plates (a translation). If I'm going to be flip it's derivative of the Bible and thus "Jesus fan-fic". I admit I may be misapplying "derivative work" from intellectual property, but I think it stands as "not an original source". I've clarified the source issue and I'll correct Joe Smith facts. As for how your questions would do here, the trick will be how to ask a question that is focused, historical, and non trivial and to take feedback for how to knock them into shape. – Schwern Jan 23 '16 at 0:47
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    Chat room! Chat room! My rep points for a chat room! :) I get it, the community isn't planning to codify the BoM as a source, nor am I implying it should - we can drop the BoM entirely from this discussion already. Probably several edits ago, really. I have no intentions of asking questions about it here, not even willing to debate whether a translation is derivative work or not. Honestly trying to contribute, not debate, I just wanted to formally (and abstractly) discuss the reasons for excluding religious texts; clearly it needs addressing. – brichins Jan 23 '16 at 1:01
  • The problem with this answer is that it washes the BoM together with other religious texts, and while it makes valid points regarding the BoM (like being written in 1830 but writing about things 2200 ago no other source writes about), it later uses those points against religious texts in general. For comparison, the Bible can be much better used as a source, because many parts of it were written not long after the events, and even if you disregarded everything else, it is still very useful to learn how people though in that period of time, how they lived, and what values they held important. – vsz Jun 17 '16 at 15:41
  • @vsz I never argue "against religious texts in general". Right up front I state "it is appropriate to use religious texts as sources if they qualify as good historical sources." I'm not going to get into whether or not the Bible is a good historical source in the comments, but if you want to argue that it is (please not here) go ahead. The point is this: being a religious text is irrelevant, all sources should undergo an evaluation as a historical source. – Schwern Jun 17 '16 at 20:55
  • @brichins Calling Mormons a world minority is a bit misleading. No religion has a world majority. Christianity (the biggest) has a plurality. It is true that Mormons are a minority in many regions where some other religion has a majority, but there are regions (such as Utah) where Mormons are the majority. I would consider the world "minorities" to be those under 10 million adherents--Mormonism has over 12 million. (Here by "minorities" I mean those that are sufficiently small relative to other religions to be notably so.) – called2voyage Jun 21 '16 at 16:58
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    @called2voyage What's your point? Obviously no one religion has a >50% majority worldwide. Mormons: 16 million worldwide, or about 0.2% of world population (source). Christianity as a whole: 2.2 billion (31%) (source). So Mormons are < 1% of even Christianity. In spite of (probably the only) localized exception you point out (60% Mormon), I can't think of any meaningful definition of "minority" that doesn't apply at the world scale. – brichins Jun 21 '16 at 18:04
  • @brichins So you mean that Mormons are a world minority within Christianity? If so, that is more clear than what your earlier comment lead me to believe. – called2voyage Jun 21 '16 at 18:05
  • @called2voyage I meant that they are a minority, e.g. significantly less of them in a general community, whether that's the entire world, Christianity in general. or Christianity.SE in particular. Specifically, as I said, that any discussion or debate about Mormons (or any statistically small religion) or their texts on an open platform - such as on an SE site - would necessarily consist almost exclusively of people who are not members. Like any topic with a small number of supporters and any degree of controversy, there is really only one way that discussion could conceivably go. – brichins Jun 21 '16 at 18:17
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Follow-up to Schwern's answer (too long for a comment):

It occurs to me that stating "we know <given religious text> is fiction" really gets at the heart of the friction that comes up between historians and religious proponents, especially as a parallel between a religious text and a modern fictional work. There is a fundamental difference between the nature of (and personal/emotional investment in) a work specifically written & acknowledged as entertainment, and one viewed as having religious meaning. I fully understand the point of the comparison as "can't accept as a basis for discussion on secular history" but it strongly implies "historians know your sacred text is a lie and you're an idiot." Whether historians actually believe that about the religious or not, it's an abrasive way to put it (as acknowledged). I hope any FAQ article is worded more diplomatically. :)

By its very nature in discussing ideas or non-transferable experiences outside document-able or common human experience, religion cannot be understood or discussed in the same framework as recorded history. The fact that much of surviving history is tied so closely to religion makes this a difficult topic; it's really only in the last few centuries that science has been viewed as having meaning without religion, so historical documents are riddled with religion and vice versa. The scientific method & its results have pretty much replaced religion for many people as the source of truth in modern times though. Again, no debate here about whether that's good or naive or whatever, just stating the dichotomy that they are not viewed as compatible - the framework of the discussion is entirely different.

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