Patterico's Pontifications


When Religion Meets Science

Filed under: General — DRJ @ 9:28 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

Like me, you probably studied world history in school and learned about the recurring conflicts between religion and science. For instance, many religions and religious leaders rejected scientific concepts such as the heliocentricity of Copernicus and Galileo and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Similarly, many modern scientists doubt(ed) that religious belief and prayer can miraculously cure illness.

These subjects came to mind when I read an article from today’s Salt Lake Tribune. The article reported a one-word change in the introduction to the Book of Mormon that was made in part because of advances in DNA research:

“The LDS Church has changed a single word in its introduction to the Book of Mormon, a change observers say has serious implications for commonly held LDS beliefs about the ancestry of American Indians.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe founder Joseph Smith unearthed a set of gold plates from a hill in upperstate New York in 1827 and translated the ancient text into English. The account, known as The Book of Mormon, tells the story of two Israelite civilizations living in the New World. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as the Nephites and Lamanites.

The book’s current introduction, added by the late LDS apostle, Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, includes this statement: “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The new version, seen first in Doubleday’s revised edition, reads, “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

Historically, Mormonism taught that its patriarch, Lehi, was “the ancestor of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea.” However, DNA testing cast doubt on this claim since tests on more than 12,000 Indians suggest “that the continent’s early inhabitants came from Asia across the Bering Strait.”

Alternatively, many modern Mormons have adopted the “limited geography” theory that their ancestors lived separate from native Americans:

“Mormon researcher John M. Butler and DNA expert further argues that “careful examination and demographic analysis of the Book of Mormon record in terms of population growth and the number of people described implies that other groups were likely present in the promised land when Lehi’s family arrived, and these groups may have genetically mixed with the Nephites, Lamanites, and other groups. Events related in the Book of Mormon likely took place in a limited region, leaving plenty of room for other Native American peoples to have existed.”

The interplay between science and religion is both interesting and eternal.


21 Responses to “When Religion Meets Science”

  1. This is a non-event. The _INTRODUCTION_ to the Book of Mormon is simply a short blurb that is intended to give an overview of the book. It IS NOT considered to be an actual part of the scripture. Yes, Bruce R. McConkie was a high official of the church, and yes, the introduction was written for an official church publication, However, the introduction does not constitute the official doctrine of the church. There is a very specific set of documents that are considered to make up the canon of the gospel, but this is not one of them. Heck, if you really want to start snarking about the Mormons, you should look at the thousands of changes they have made to the actual text of the Book of Mormon since it was published in 1830.

    This is a total non-story, and I am a little confused as to what the point of it is at all, unless you are trying to drum up some sort of anti-Mormon activity. Seems a bit out of place here.


    David J Harr (6dba95)

  2. David J Harr,

    I have no agenda concerning Mormonism and I don’t think the Mormon religion is even central to the post. I had to deal with one aspect of Mormon beliefs so the article would make sense, but what I found interesting is the way science and religion sometimes overlap. I may be the only person that finds that interesting. If so, that’s okay, too.

    DRJ (5c60fb)

  3. OK, rereading the article again, I may have reacted a tad defensively. One gets a bit sensitized after years of attacks. Anyway, my point still stands. I don’t actually think that this is much of an issue. The introduction to the BoM is a non-canonical layman’s explanation of the contents. Nowhere in the book does it make the claim that the peoples portrayed are the primary ancestors of the American Indians. It was a widely-held opinion for many years in the church, but the book itself is silent on that point.

    I suppose that you could say that the change came about as a result of new DNA testing, but the incorrect assumption is that a change to introduction indicates a change in the official doctrine of the church. It doesn’t because the introduction is not considered part of the canon.

    That was my main point.


    David J Harr (6dba95)

  4. David,

    I agree. I think the article made that clear but I didn’t. It’s a good thing you commented to point that out.

    In addition, I realized that there is another aspect of this that intrigued me. Lawyers often need to carefully analyze words in things like pleadings, statutes, regulations, and contracts. We can even end up debating something that seems silly like Clinton’s definition of “is.” It’s not often that you run into similar issues in non-legal settings, where changing one word makes a difference (although not a doctrinal difference), and I thought that was interesting, too.

    DRJ (5c60fb)

  5. I agree with David. This is a non-event. For years the dominant theory has been the limited model you mentioned. However, I think it has much less to do with DNA than with demographic and geographical attempts to localize a Book of Mormon geography.

    You may not know, but the Tribune has historically been adversarial towards the church. The tone of the article suggests to me that they were looking to get attention. I know of few Mormons that would find this article at all surprising, or even newsworthy.

    PS While I understand David’s reaction (Try being a Mormon in GA, we get a lot of crap) I appreciate your even tone.

    DrT (b1f404)

  6. It takes time for a religion to compartmentalize and segregate its fundamental religious precepts, sacred traditions, ordinary traditions and mythology. Mormonism is a young religion. David’s comment #1 that, that the Book of Mormon started being revised from almost the beginning was also my understanding (from the little I know about it).

    Ptolemy of Alexandria determined that the Earth was round and accurately calculated its circumference with a sextant around 300 B.C.. It was still a debatable question in 15th century A.D..

    nk (597e8b)

  7. Eventually there will be a clean disconnect between science and religion, I think. One of purposes for religion, historically, has been to explain the inexplicable, in both the physical and metaphysical realms. For good reason, science has been turned to more and more for explanation of the physical world.

    Whenever there have been direct conflicts between religion and science in such matters, science has come out on top. That is as it should be, of course; tangible evidence is much more convincing than a collection of translations and intepretations of ancient texts (written by people) and saying “nuh-uh.”

    I think religions always do themselves a disservice by trying to dismiss clear scientific evidence. By trying to be authoritative over the physical world, and subsequently being proven wrong, is weakens their credibility in the metaphysical realm where it is proper. Then again, they may just be in a lose-lose situation in that regard, but usually covering up a mistake just makes it worse.

    Justin (ac5fc4)

  8. As a clarification to #6, the revisions in the Book of Mormon have been almost exclusively of two types. Grammar and style (Joseph Smith didn’t translate into king James English, but the first published edition was). There have been a few other changes, but the only changes that have any doctrinal or more than cosmetic depth are in translations into other languages than English. An early translation into Spanish had some errors that would lead to misunderstanding, that was corrected in the 1993 Spanish edition.

    Unlike Muslims, Mormons do not believe scripture (Bible or Book of Mormon) to be letter for letter the word of God. Any act of receiving Divine communication is of necessity an act of translation, and as any translator will tell you, there are many ways to form a translated idea.

    For Justin, my dad always used to say, and I agree “between true science and true religion there is no disagreement” I think that the two should complement and support each other, not act as enemies. IMHO

    DrT (b1f404)

  9. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that the earliest migration talked about in the Book of Mormon was of a people who came across the Asiatic steppe before coming to the Americas. Which happens to fit the DNA evidence quite well.

    r8ix (55b217)

  10. I must be the only one to comment here who understood what DRJ was trying to note. I once, as a 10 year old, asked my preacher why it was that scientists were always trying to disprove the Bible. His reply was the first thing in my life that made me understand that learning is a life-long event, and that everything should be questioned. He told me that scientist were NOT trying to prove the Bible wrong, but that all scientific evidence would do was to show that the Bible was possible, and that since the Bible was “a story” to give us belief in God/Jesus, we should not look at science that way. I am so very thankful that he did not steer me to a literal translation of the Bible, and yet he gave me the insight to know that I can believe in God without reservation while knowing that everything God could do is very possible….IN CONTEXT with believing…

    Thanks, DRJ, for reminding me of just that….

    reff (bff229)

  11. “There have been a few other changes, but the only changes that have any doctrinal or more than cosmetic depth are in translations into other languages than English.”

    This is not entirely true. When the Book of Mormon was republished, Joseph Smith did change at least one notable doctrinal part. In Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life he changed the language enough to make it plain that it was talking about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rather than God himself. I also believe he made an annotation about one verse meaning baptism. On the other hand, these are theologically not changes as much as clarifications if you understand Mormon theology beyond stereotypes.

    Joseph Smith stated that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on earth and a person can get closer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other book. Now, Evangelical Christians of the “The Word of God is Perfect” kind, although I am not aware of any other in that category, have misinterpreted this in their own theological image. This isn’t a textual claim, but a doctrinal one for Mormons.

    DrT. said it correctly, I think. “Unlike Muslims [or inneranist Bible believers], Mormons do not believe scripture (Bible or Book of Mormon) to be letter for letter the word of God. Any act of receiving Divine communication is of necessity an act of translation, and as any translator will tell you, there are many ways to form a translated idea.” That is why Mormons also believe that the Bible is correct so long as it is tranlated correctly. I believe that means both transmission and interpretation of any Scripture.

    Statements in “The Book of Mormon” corroborate the sometimes problematic nature of writing even by revelation. The prophet Mormon who was said to be the editor of the translated book wrote, “and if there be faults they be the faults of man.” He then warns that anyone who rejects the words of the book because of imperfections should be careful. They could be, “in danger of hell fire,” for too harsh of criticism.

    His son Moroni (the same person as the Angel) had his own concerns about the lack of language skills exhibited in the record. Like his father, he was editing some writings of ancient religious history. During the process he started to worry how others would perceive the translation. The records he had were far more impressive than anything he could put on constricted metallic plates.

    He lamented, “Lord, the gentiles will Mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou has not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them; And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.”

    The implications are that that abilities of the human revelator and translator are part of the overall production of religious communication. If Joseph Smith’s ways of speaking and seeing this world are easy to follow in his religious writings, that is only because he is acting as an individual. This is not much different from the Biblical record where each book of the Bible often has a different flavor and articulation in the readings. In an odd way, both the text and the translation process of “The Book of Mormon” bring up the idea of authorial deconstruction in an almost modern sense. Where current studies of the Biblical text have sought to recover redaction by multiple authors, the Mormon scriptures takes such an approach for granted. There can be as many as three layers to the text. The first layer consists of the original words, the second is the redaction and editorializing of Mormon, and the third is Joseph Smith’s own contributions as translator. Any one of them can bring not only the author’s own voice into the text, but any mistakes and biases. Mormonism rejects the idea of perfect inerrant Scripture even when translated by the Power of God, so long as a human agent is involved.

    I am hoping to expand on the Mormon concept of the Book of Mormon as scripture and history at my blog some time in the future. For now most of the critisisms about the changes (both in the text and understanding of that text) come from preconcieved notions of what Mormons believe (or should believe) about Scripture, prophets, and history or science. Those beliefs are surprisingly closer to Biblical Higher Criticism than Evangelicalism.

    Jettboy (fa2e37)

  12. #7 – “One of purposes for religion, historically, has been to explain the inexplicable, in both the physical and metaphysical realms.”

    Apropos of this comment by Justin, one of my high school science teachers drew a line down 1/3 of the blackboard. In the smaller space he wrote “physics” and in the larger space, “metaphysics.” He said that was the situation of human knowledge in 1600. Then he erased the two words, and switched them, writing “physics” in the larger space and “metaphysics” in the smaller, telling us that was the situation today. He then told us that the goal of science was to erase metaphysics entirely.

    In college, following this thought to its logical conclusion I wondered what people would do when they understood everything. I decided that they would be bored and, like gods, would create something to enjoy. For a while I had a sign on my door that said, “Our Universe is somebody else’s hobby.”

    JayHub (0a6237)

  13. mormonism is a cult. it wouldn’t matter to me except that one of the cultists is running for president.

    joseph smith’s gold plates, angels, israelites in america and magic underwear are no different in character from l. ron hubbard’s evil galactic dictator, body thetans and e-meters. they’re both crack visions peddled to fools. this particular cult has changed its doctrine before, it went from polygamy good to polygamy bad as the price of utah’s admission to the union, and it went from black people bad to black people ok after irreconcileable differences with the court of public opinion.

    assistant devil's advocate (de0181)

  14. I always love the thoughtful and considerate review that ADA gives to topics. Thanks for telling me that 13 million people, including myself believe in “a crack vision peddled to fools”. The biggest distinction between LDS belief (not doctrine) and that of other, older religions is just that, age. Belief is based on…wait for it, faith. If you feel that Jesus was a chump, Buddha a fat bag of gas, and Mohammad a smelly camel thief, then your assessment of Mormon theology is at least consistent. (Note I didn’t say correct) Otherwise, there is little difference in the function of faith in any religion.

    As for the changes in “doctrine”. Two points. One, practice does not equal doctrine. I won’t go into specifics, since I don’t have the time. Suffice it to say that Mormons don’t believe in a changeless church. The second point is directly related. We proclaim an OPEN cannon. We believe that divine revelation still exists. Within this basic tenant of the church lies the obvious possibility that things will change. You ascribe the changes to “the price of utah’s admission to the union” and “irreconcileable differences with the court of public opinion”. Feel free to do so. I see it differently. It all depends on perspective.

    DrT (69c4b2)

  15. As a PS I don’t want to get into a religious shouting match so I’m going to withdraw from this thread.

    DrT (69c4b2)

  16. It always amazes me that people who would be horrified at vicious, ad hominem attacks on Jews, Catholics or Evangelicals seem to have no problem whatsoever with mean-spirited, ill-informed, vicious attacks on members of the church. I suspect one of the reasons is because Mormons typically don’t bother to dignify such people with recognition, and we have all learned from an early age that attempting to answer such attacks merely encourages the perpetrators since they have managed to attract some attention. I really should follow DrT’s example and shut up, but I have never been known for my smarts.


    David J Harr (d22474)

  17. Well, personally I think that god is the worst serial killer of all time! He’s killed every single person that ever lived…good or bad. He’s such a jerk he even gives little kids with cancer…what an ass!

    I hope there is no heaven, because I would never bend the knee to someone who lets all the evil in the world exist…if god was human no individual in their right mind would worship such a selfish jerk, why should I just because he’s magical and spooky?

    Give me science any day of the week…it’s science that saves little kids with cancer. It’s science that stops our loved ones from dying prematurely…I won’t bow down before anyone.


    Stacy In Tucson (b99466)

  18. I regret there were statements here that offended some commenters and readers. That was certainly not my intent. Like Reff, I don’t see science and religion as antagonists, although I admit there are times they may be at odds. I think they both try to move humanity to a better place.

    DRJ (5c60fb)

  19. Yeah, Stacy In Tucson. I stopped taking Communion when I saw a Nazi film of passers-by in Prague stepping over the bodies of Jewish kids who had starved to death begging for food on a sidewalk.

    Build temples to Eisenhower, Marshall, Patton and Zhukov. I’ll worship there.

    nk (597e8b)

  20. Yes, NK…I agree. The military has done a tremendous amount of good for the world.

    The problem with the split between science and religion is ‘the God of the Gaps’…anytime science can’t explain something it MUST be a point where a god stepped in…until the science comes along that explains it.

    Stacy In Tucson (b99466)

  21. DRJ:

    Actually, I thought your posting was (to coin a phrase) fair and balanced. 🙂 It was also pretty well informed. As someone who has studied the Book of Mormon heavily for several decades (and will be teaching it to the adults in our LDS congregation all next year), I welcomed the change because — as I note in this blog post — it more accurately reflects what the Book of Mormon text actually describes. And, as others have noted, it is not a change to the Book of Mormon itself, just to an introduction that was written about 25 years ago. ..bruce..

    bfwebster (2f56b4)

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