In late January 2014, the LDS Church responded to challenges to Book of Mormon historicity from DNA science in an essay entitled “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”. I have previously commented on the scientific content of the DNA essay on my blog, but this essay raises another important issue. In their hour of need church leaders have turned to LDS evolutionary biologists to help defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The principal scientist used to defend the Book of Mormon (Ugo Perego), and essentially all of the other LDS scientists who have written DNA apologetics, are committed evolutionary biologists. They accept evolution as a fact. Yet these same evolutionary biologists have been the subject of ridicule by senior church leaders from the pulpit at General Conference. It is also particularly disingenuous to suddenly expect ordinary Mormons to be satisfied with the DNA essay when those very members have been conditioned by their leaders to believe evolution is one of the most evil concepts ever taught. It is not only mixed messages about evolution the essay conveys; the essay reveals that Church leaders have been giving mixed messages about scientific discoveries that challenge other key LDS beliefs.
A Hidden Book of Mormon Geography
“You do know that plenty of LDS leaders and members believed the hemisphere was inhabited by a lot of other people when the Lehites arrived before your book, right? The church has not "changed it's tune" as a result of any DNA research. The limited geography model, or something like it, was first proposed back in the 1840s. There have been many, many statements from leaders of the church over the last 100 years that state that there were plenty of other people here when Lehi arrived. These authors include Sjodal, Nibley, Sorenson, Smith, Reynolds, and many others, including members of the First Presidency. It is very irritating to see you so consistently act as if your book shook the church from any consistent belief about the Book of Mormon events. I suggest a look into the history of the limited geography model and the research from other sources.”
I can understand Brother Anonymous’ irritation, but since when have Nibley et al. been installed as church leaders? I have never heard the authors he names speaking or being quoted by church leaders in General Conference. Their work is rarely acknowledged in official church literature and they have never published anything on behalf of the church. More importantly, I have heard numerous conference talks by apostles and other church leaders that clearly support a hemispheric view. Why should I take any notice of unofficial writings of Mormon apologists, especially when they don’t square with what church leaders publicly teach?
The vast majority of ordinary Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is hemispheric, meaning its people arrived in a vacant Promised Land prepared for them and went on to inhabit most of the two continents. That’s why we have the descendants of Lehi mentioned in many dedicatory prayers of temples in Central and South America and Polynesia, some as recently as last year. And it’s why we have thousands of “Lamanites” receiving patriarchal blessings telling them they are members of Lehi’s tribe, Manasseh. Hemispheric views have been widely taught in seminary and institute classes and promoted in the Ensign and New Era for decades. These views are openly taught in Sunday School, Institute of Religion, and LDS Seminary classes and by proselytising missionaries preaching throughout the world. Church leaders have been reluctant or powerless to curtail these beliefs which are woven into the fabric of the faith. From the security of the pulpit at General Conference church leaders have preferred to teach these very traditional views to the broader membership because they know that's what they want to hear.
LDS scholars, however, believe in a very different Book of Mormon narrative to ordinary Mormons. They have known for decades the hemispheric model is simply not possible given the abundant evidence about America's true founders from a range of disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, geology and genetics. Given their impossible situation they have had little choice but to shrink the geographical claims. This is why the limited geography model appeared several decades ago. When the DNA evidence arrived it placed severe limitations on an already strained model, to the point where a vanished model is now the most harmonious explanation for the evidence. However, church leaders have rarely given clear public support for anything LDS apologists have said. This, I believe, goes to the heart of the problem with the essay. Out of sight of the general membership, the church has supported a small army of LDS scholars whose job has been to fend off attacks on the church and the authenticity of LDS scripture. Church leaders must have known the difficulties these scholars have been dealing with, yet they have rarely acknowledged them publicly. Yet when a member raises difficult questions with their ecclesiastical leaders, they are now invariably referred to these apologists. Consequently, the public words of the leaders do not align well with less publicised views of LDS scholars. The LDS.org essay exposes a kind of corporate doublethink that has been going on for decades.
Revolving Views on Evolution
“Yet some people erroneously think that these marvellous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’ The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions.”
— Apostle Russell Nelson LDS General Conference April 2012
It is inexcusable for a man in Nelson's position, with his level of medical training, to display such ignorance, particularly when his audience is prone to accept every word he says without question. The tradition of mocking evolution by LDS leaders has had a major impact on what most Mormons believe. The Mormon Church is now arguably one of the most anti-life science institutions in the United States. We can see the impact of the Church's doublethink in levels of public acceptance of evolution in Utah. The state ranks 47 out of 50 in the United States, beaten to the bottom by Tennessee and Arkansas. These are statistics that church leaders should view with shame because they are largely responsible for them. To make matters worse, the United States ranks 33 out of 34 western countries (beaten to the bottom by Turkey).
"God has left messages all over in the physical world that scientists have learned to read. These messages are quite clear, well understood, and accepted in science. That is, the theories that the earth is about four and one-half billion years old and that life evolved over the last billion years or so are as well established scientifically as many theories ever are.
We should keep in mind that scientists are as diligent and truthful as anyone else. Organic evolution is the honest result of capable people trying to explain the evidence to the best of their ability. From my limited study of the subject I would say that the physical evidence supporting the theory is considerable from a scientific viewpoint.
In my opinion it would be a very sad mistake if a parent or teacher were to belittle scientists as being wicked charlatans or else fools having been duped by half-baked ideas that gloss over inconsistencies. That isn’t an accurate assessment of the situation, and our children or students will be able to see that when they begin their scientific studies."– Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist 1998
“Scientists embrace evolution because it is the central underlying concept in all of biology, and it provides us with an extensive set of tools to address real-world problems such as devising strategies to rescue threatened species and protecting humans against infectious agents. There are few scientific theories that have so successfully summarized such an abundance of observations with such an economy of descriptive processes. This is why evolutionary theory is unabashedly not just good science but great science.”
Towards the end of the seminar Whiting talks about how ordinary Mormons respond when he tells them he studies insect evolution. “How can you do that at BYU? Isn’t evolution diametrically opposed to the teachings of the church?” These Mormons are surprised because the public statements of church leaders don't match the more "private" actions of the church.
Shades of Young Earth CreationismThe low levels of acceptance of evolution by members of the church are increasingly accompanied by Young Earth Creationist beliefs that earth and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of God between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. Many believe additional LDS scripture reaffirms these literalist beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a global Flood about 4,500 years ago. Again, members hold these beliefs because church leaders have reinforced them publicly for many years. One particularly egregious example that I was personally troubled by was an Ensign article from 1998 on the Flood and the Tower of Babel which argued that it was a poor understanding of science that led some Mormons to lose their belief in a global flood. The author, Donald Parry, is a BYU Hebrew scholar with no scientific training beyond high school. Parry was roundly criticised by several BYU colleagues for the ignorance displayed in the article. Since then Duane E. Jeffery, a highly respected BYU professor has written a much more scientifically informed article that can be found on page 27 of the October 2004 issue of Sunstone.
It is likely that the church, much as it was with its past racial doctrines, is influenced by the culture in which it finds itself. Young Earth Creationism is largely an American "bizarrity" where it claims almost 50% of the population. That is a staggeringly high proportion of the population who hold on to this delusion. In the UK it is less than 15% and in Australia the figure is less than 10%. Levels of Creationist belief in other Western countries hardly merit a mention.
In contrast to the LDS Church, many mainstream churches are much more accepting of evolution and the sciences in general. Consider the Catholics. The Catholic Church established a Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936.
|Casino Pio IV, the home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences|
The academy’s membership includes eighty eminent scientists—many of whom are Nobel laureates—from diverse disciplines, nationalities and religious beliefs. Every other year the academy meets to discuss and debate important issues such as environmental concerns, the implications of genetics, and the origins of life and the galaxies. Each time they meet, the Pope has the undivided attention of some of the world’s brightest scientific minds. Those who attend are expected to display respect for the work of the church, but speakers choose their own topics and debate issues with complete freedom. The Academy almost certainly influenced the Pope's declaration in 1996 that evolution “is more than just a theory." It's hard to imagine the First Presidency and the apostles establishing anything resembling the Pontifical Academy or seeking the advice of scientists, especially non-Mormon ones.
“The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Similar difficult questions could be asked in response to the other essays. The fundamental problem is that leaders of the church have been giving mixed messages to the members. What the church risks losing most with the essays is the trust of its members. Many will be disturbed by the apparent doublethink at the highest levels of the church and will think twice before accepting what the leaders say in the future.