Category Archives: Atheism

Resolving the Conflict Between Science and Religion

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MAThe following is part of a fictional dialogue between Shane and Doug, two former missionary companions many years after their missions. Shane writes to his friend Doug who has posted comments about his on-going faith crisis on Facebook. The characters are fictionalized composites of members who have faced these same dilemmas but the issues are based on very real problems which have caused some to stumble. Likewise, the responding arguments are based on the author’s own personal engagement with these same concerns as well as his discussion of these issues with other members who have struggled. (By Michael R. Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt,and Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Director of Media Products for FairMormon.)

Dear Doug,

I’m glad you found value in my last letter discussing DNA and the Book of Mormon. I’m not sure, however, if you’ve accurately understood my position on the science vs. religion debate. So in this letter I hope to clarify my perspective.

I believe that conflict between science and religion really comes down to a conflict between the known and the unknown. LDS scientist Henry Eyring (the late father of current apostle Henry B. Eyring) explained: “Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.”[i]

Secular atheists claim that there is only the natural; what we call “supernatural” is simply the point where we have yet to fully explain the natural mechanics of the event or cause. Eventually, they argue, all of the “gaps” in such mysteries disappear and are replaced with naturalexplanations.

I actually sort of agree, but would phrase it a bit differently. God said, “all things unto me are spiritual” (D&C 29:34). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that your chair is simply spirit; what I believe it means is that everything—and that means everything—is part of a divine essence. So from God’s advanced perspective, all things are naturally spiritual. Natural and spiritual are simply different perspectives and descriptions of the same thing. As Brigham Young explained, “…God is a scientific character… He lives by science or strict law….”[ii]

Truth is truth. Joseph Smith once said: “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”[iii]

There is not spiritual truth or natural truth, there is only truth. The “gaps” that we fill with natural explanations are all part of God’s one truth. The problem, of course, is man’s arrogance in thinking that we have such great scientific vision that those things which believers call “spiritual” cannot be part of the same natural law.

While science is constantly advancing in our understanding of the world and cosmos, comparing what we know to what we don’t know is like claiming that a grain of sand understands the planet Earth because all it can see is beach. Science grapples with understanding the intricacies of the mind, the body, gravity, dark matter, multiverses, and countless aspects of what makes the universe tick. Knowledge is limited but progress is constantly being made.

Science is able to discover those parts of the God’s natural/supernatural world through tools which can measure some of those things which appear to have a physical presence. Revelation can discover those parts of God’s natural/supernatural world through tools which can glimpse some (but relatively few) of those things which do not have a physical presence.

Both science and revelation are able to lead us to truth. Both are liable to make errors because they utilize imperfect tools in the hands of imperfect humans. But both, combined, eventually will self-correct and teach us more about God’s natural/supernatural world.

We Latter-day Saints tend to focus on the feelings of the “heart” when determining God’s truth. We cannot test, with any currently known secular tools, if God exists, if Jesus is the Christ, or if Joseph Smith saw the Father and Son in a vision.

It’s all well and good to recognize the power of the heart in receiving testimony on life’s most important questions, but the appreciation for the “heart” should not come with an exclusion for the appreciation of the “brain.” God gave us both, and all of our thoughts (and the way our bodies react to spiritual manifestations) must be filtered through our brains.

In the ancient world people did not understand the purpose of the brain. They believed that emotions, feelings, spiritual impressions, and thoughts all came from the heart. We find numerous passages in the scriptures which reflect this ancient perspective. Following are just a few examples.

“Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heartmay be forgiven thee,” (Acts 8:22, emphasis added).

“And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38).

“And he said unto them: Behold, I, Samuel, a Lamanite, do speak the words of the Lord which he doth put into my heart; and behold he hath put it into my heart to say unto this people that the sword of justice hangeth over this people,” (Helaman 13:5).

The oft-quoted verse from Moroni expresses this ancient mindset: “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would …ponder it in your hearts” (Moroni 10:3).

We ponder in our minds, not in our hearts. We may feel the testimony (in part) in our hearts, but the thought process goes on in the brain.

When Oliver Cowdery tried the translate the Book of Mormon the Lord told him that the mind was part of the process: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8). As President Uchtdorf explained:

When we talk about testimony, we refer to feelings of our heart and mind rather than an accumulation of logical, sterile facts. It is a gift of the Spirit, a witness from the Holy Ghost that certain concepts are true.[iv]

I think that too often some Latter-day Saints tend to brush off science and scholarship as unreliable (the “arm of flesh”) when most of what drives our modern twenty-first century lives comes as the result of the power of that same science and scholarship.

In our search for truth we should embrace science and scholarship. Logic and historical precedence give us good reason why we shouldn’t demand the acceptance of all current points of scientific knowledge as final—we know that science can, has, and will make mistakes. Recognizing that mistakes have been made (and will undoubtedly be made again) is no excuse, however, to simply reject science when it conflicts with our interpretations of religious issues. Science is self-correcting and eventually truths are discovered.

Anti-science and anti-scholarship positions are not the paths to discovering truth and therefore are not, I believe, the way the Lord would want us to approach our quest for learning. The Lord suggested that we are to be “instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine”

“…Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth [geology, archaeology?]; things which have been [history], things which are [current events], things which must shortly come to pass [science]; things which are at home [local politics, culture, history?], things which are abroad [foreign politics, cultures, history?]; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:79).

Anti-science and anti-scholarship positions can damage us both physically as well as spiritually. It is an unfortunate fact, for example, that at least a few Latter-day Saints have joined with the anti-vaccination movement despite overwhelming scientific support for the benefit of vaccinations as well as an absence of scientific evidence supporting the myth that vaccinations cause autism. Those members who reject the science on the issue, also reject Church counsel which recommends that children should be vaccinated.[v]

Spiritual stumbling blocks can also be constructed of anti-intellectual bricks. The DNA topic we discussed earlier is a good example. For those members who reject science, which tells us that the Americas were populated 15,000 years ago (and that the Lehites would have been a small incursion into this larger population), the DNA argument can damage faith. For those who accept the anthropological and archaeological evidences, as well as modern DNA science, the basic premise of the Book of Mormon remains unscathed.

In closing this far-too-lengthy letter, I think it’s significant to recognize that all truth works line upon line and—if followed properly—becomes self-correcting. This means that both science and religious truths will run into dead-ends, or will make wrong turns. Prophets do not get a special handbook from God that contains the answers to all questions. Their revelation (like ours) comes typically by way of answers to prayers and then may come only piecemeal or through a glass darkly (1 Corin. 13:12).

We must be willing to shift or modify our religious paradigms to absorb the truths of science. Ourbasic spiritual foundation is immutable and can only be known through the spirit. God lives, Jesus is the Christ and atoned for our sins, and the Gospel has been restored and is led by modern-day prophets who hold keys to sacred covenants.

Most of the rest of the stuff—yes, even the religious stuff—is ancillary and can be better understood through the application of a combination of both spiritual and secular learning. Science (to use a general description designating the mass of intellectual insights) has taught me at least two very important points regarding my approach to religious beliefs:

1) There are secular evidences which support belief. The more we learn, the more convinced I am that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an authentic ancient text.

2) I, like every other human, have often assumed too much. As secular studies give us a clearer picture about the world and history of mankind, I have frequently needed to adjust my worldviews about ancient scripture and how God works with and through His children and through the physical laws which govern our planet.

While some members have resisted modifying their paradigms, or have painfully jettisoned false assumptions (and, at times, their testimonies), I find such modifications not only to be rewarding, but exciting. The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Each new bit of knowledge, however, as well as each new modification or liberation from a faulty assumption, increases my appreciation for God’s creations and how He accomplishes His purposes through the weakness of humanity.

If you like, we can discuss some of these examples in subsequent letters.

Your friend,
Shane

Notes

[i] Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist (SLC: Deseret Book, 1983), 2.

[ii] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (13 Nov. 1870), 13:302.

[iii] Joseph Smith, quoted in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (SLC: Deseret News Press, 1949), 5:499.

[iv] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Power of Personal Testimony,” https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2006/10/the-power-of-a-personal-testimony?lang=eng

[v] See, for example, the Church’s official website here:https://www.lds.org/church/news/church-makes-immunizations-an-official-initiative-provides-social-mobilization as well an official Church video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myA2SJha7G0&feature=youtu.be. See also non-official sites which discuss official Church quotes such as the one here: http://www.ldsliving.com/Church-Leaders-on-Child-Immunization/s/78000 and http://www.mormonpress.com/mormon_vaccination.

Keeping the Faith 14: Leaving and Returning–Lessons Learned pt. 1

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10680104_10101730586812129_1130540584652822496_oRich Milllar loved the Church as a teenager. He served a successful mission to Russia. After returning, he was fully committed to the Church and served as an elders quorum president. But he began to slowly lose his faith until, eventually, he decided the Church was not true and God did not exist. Find out why he left, why he decided to return, and what lessons he learned in his journey away from the Church and back into it.

Rich shared much of his story in a Facebook post that can be found here. He was later featured on a Mormon Channel video that can be found here, and a Deseret News article that can be found here.

The opinions expressed in this podcast and in the referenced books, presentations, podcasts and articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or of FairMormon.

Keeping the Faith 14: Leaving and Returning–Lessons Learned pt. 2

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This is part 2 of a two-part episode called Keeping the Faith 14: Leaving and Returning–Lessons Learned.

Why Do They Leave? III

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[This entry originally appeared at Forn Spǫll Fira and is reposted here with the author’s permission.]

Thus far, in my examination of the data from the NSYR I have looked at some of the scattered clues in the NSYR analysis. (The first post is here, the second post ishere.) The NSYR actually devoted an entire book to the subject of youth losing their religion and their way, called Lost in Transition. I have already noted that intellectual reasons play a smaller role in youth losing their faith than behaviors or events. I am here interested in only those intellectual reasons that the NSYR found for people losing their faith. This post will look at reasons assembled in the first chapter of Lost in Transition for why youth of all religions become secular. Continue reading

Working Together to Save Youth in a Secular Age

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[This post originally appeared at Difficult Run and is reposted here with permission from the author.]

The following trio of recent posts outline various perspectives on why Mormon youth and young adults leave the Church and what can be done about it.

The discussion has already become somewhat politicized, but I think that the similarities in Bokovoy’s and Wilson’s approach outweigh the differences. In this post I’ll talk about reconciling them, and also bring in Gee’s important, data-based perspective.

Bokovoy’s primary point is that the struggles young Mormons encounter with their faith are the result of encountering real, problematic facts from Mormon history. As a result, he asserts that:

We need to alter our approach and stop giving students the impression that there is never any good reason to doubt or question their faith. Instead, we need to help students incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey.

Wilson, as the title of his post indicates, begs to differ. His primary argument is that “It is not the facts themselves that challenge the youth, but the narratives through which the facts are presented and contextualized that challenge them.” Superficially at least, we have a contradiction between Bokovoy and Wilson.

According to Wilson there’s a deeper problem, however: “The more fundamental problem is that often our youth, not to mention many adults, lack the kind of nuanced approach to information that they require to be able to evaluate the facts in distinction to the narratives about the facts.” He later writes that “both apologetic and critical explanations… are merely provisional explanations.” It seems to me that the nuance Wilson is calling for, and the ability to separate facts from narratives, is primarily about being able to avoid taking academic or scientific claims as non-provisional and authoritative and instead “to incorporate questioning.” (Those are Bokovoy’s words.)

The chief difference, then, is that Wilson wants to prepare youth to question secular authority (“They [members] should feel free to take a cafeteria approach to the secular and scholarly information.”) and he blames Bokovoy for stating instead that they should question prophetic authority. But I’m not sure Bokovoy actually did suggest greater questioning of religious authority and, as Wilson admits, both apologetic and critical perspectives are provisional. The two views can, to a substantial degree, be reconciled.

First, however, let me point out that Wilson’s critique of the role academia and science play in society is absolutely correct. He writes that “’Science’ is functionally little more than an appeal to a culturally acceptable authority which they are expected to accept largely on blind faith.” This is true. Nibley’s words about “the black robes of a false priesthood” apply even more today1, and should be expanded to include the white lab coat along with the black graduation gown. This isn’t an attack on reason or the scientific method, but rather an observation that (not necessarily due to anyone’s intentions or desires) the combination of increasingly sophisticated and specialized scientific knowledge and increasing reliance of society on the results of that knowledge have conspired to create a situation where there is a serious risk that any sentiment packaged as scientific will be accepted as authoritative. To a lesser extent, this is true not just of science, but of academia in general.

This means that secularism now functions as a de facto religious outlook without being widely recognized as one. This allows narratives, philosophical claims, and normative judgments made under the banner of secularism to pass as objective and authoritative.2 This in turn means that secular critiques of religion have an unearned advantage (to Wilson’s point) and also that when religious people encounter troubling facts about their own history that don’t require any particular secular narrative to seem troubling (to Bokovoy’s point), secularism is always there on the fringes as the default fall-back position. In either case: the playing field is slanted towards secularism.3

Getting back to a partial reconciliation of Bokovoy and Wilson’s perspectives, Wilson’s central point is a general one about epistemology: “Few narratives can successfully assimilate all of the known data, which, as I have mentioned, is always only a subset of reality anyway.” Or, to use language I’m more comfortable with, we’re all busily engaged in the act of constructing models or narratives from the raw material of the facts and ideas we encounter in our lives. We never succeed in constructing models or narratives that successfully integrate all the facts and ideas that we’re aware of, and even if we could, we’re only personally aware of a very small number of the facts and ideas that are available to be known. Therefore, all our models and narratives are provisional.

Wilson directs this observation primarily at secularism and as a matter of practicality that makes sense. Secular authority is ascendant and its status as quasi-religious authority is largely unrecognized. It cries out for critique. But the observation that all models and narratives are provisional is not limited to secularism, and it includes not only auxiliary, apologetic arguments offered to bolster and positively contextualize prophetic and scriptural statements, but the religious conception of the prophetic and scriptural statements themselves.

Assume for a moment that prophets and scripture are infallible and sufficient. Even in that case, we would still have to go through the messy, error-prone, human process of interpreting and synthesizing their words to construct our own narrative or model. Which means that the resulting narrative or model—even in a world with prophetic and scriptural infallibility and sufficiency—would remain provisional. This means that one can affirm Wilson’s trenchant criticism of secular authority and still make room for Bokovoy’s argument that we ought to “incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey.” Not because we ought to necessarily question prophetic or scriptural authority more than we do, but because we need to be prepared to question the provisional models and narratives we construct from those authoritative statements.

This does not, of course, reconcile every difference between Bokovoy and Wilson. The greatest difference that remains is still the question of what is actually causing youth to leave. Is it, as Bokovoy asserts, the mere existence of troubling facts? Or is it, as Wilson argues, a nefarious suite of narratives which accompany those facts? The first response is that the common thread to Bokovoy’s and Wilon’s approach–espistemic humility and questioning–works in both cases. So there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter, since the solution to both diagnoses is the same.

It’s still essential to ask the question of what is really going on, however. And what we find is that from a big picture perspective it might very well be that neither Bokovoy nor Wilson are right about the primary problem. This is where John Gee’s post comes in.  Gee’s post is based on analysis of data collected by the ongoing National Survey of Youth and Religion. The project involves tracking the religious lives of thousands of American youths and conducting in-depth interviews with them about their religious lives. As Gee notes:

Unfortunately, the data published by the NSYR does not directly address the issue of why some Latter-day Saint youth become atheist, agnostic, or apathetic. It does, however, delve into the reasons why youth in general choose that path.

Gee then outlines the main factors that (for youth as a whole) tend to lead out of religion and into secular life:

  1. Disruptions to routine
  2. Distractions
  3. Differentiation (e.g. attempt to create separate identity from parents)
  4. Postponed Family Formation and Childbearing
  5. Keeping Options Open
  6. Honoring Diversity
  7. Self-confident Self-sufficiency
  8. Self-evident morality (i.e. moral truths are so obvious that religion is superfluous)
  9. Partying

He concludes:

What is interesting about this list is that for the most part, intellectual reasons play a secondary role in conversion to secularism. This is not to say that intellectual reasons play no role, or that certain actions have no intellectual ramifications. The list is mainly behavioral or event driven rather than philosophically driven. Doubts in religiously held beliefs do not show up on the list.

It’s possible that Mormon youth are very different from the general trend, and that while youth of other traditions leave because of behavioral reasons, Mormons leave because of doubts. But that’s not a good starting point given the data, especially since advances in understanding of human behavior4 provide us with a model where intellectual deliberation serves as an after-the-fact rationalization of decisions made non-rationally on the basis of psychological, social, and emotional factors.

Luckily, as I’ve noted previously, Mormonism stands out as a group that is able to transmit behavior and information to rising generations better than other faith traditions. Based on our existing relative strength at transmitting theology, culture, and behavior, we are in a good position to pivot and meet this challenge. So let’s get to work on teaching epistemic humility and questioning now. Let’s take Bokovoy’s critique to heart, and prepare our youth to deal with uncomfortable facts. Let’s take Wilson’s critique to hear, and prepare our youth to view secular authority with due skepticism and discernment. And let’s also keep an eye open towards the data-based approaches like Gee’s to see what other changes, especially related to behavioral considerations, we can take to meet the challenge of keeping the flame of faith burning in a secular world.

1. Leaders and Managers

2. This goes a long way towards explaining Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popularity and the rise of the New Atheists generally.

3. I’ve written more on the relationship between Mormonism and secularism that you can read here, here, and here.

4. E.g. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

 

Getting It Wrong: How Not to Save LDS Youth in a Secular Age

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lehis-dream_1440x9601-vision-tree-of-life-lds[This entry originally appeared at Sixteen Small Stones and has been cross posted here with permission from the author.]

By J. Max Wilson

For those of you who may not already know, during the last few months there has been a bit of an intellectual brawl going on among a handful of influential Mormon academics. The most recent verbal scuffles have revolved around significant changes at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, formerly known as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).

I may make some observations about the Maxwell Institute controversies in a future post, but today I have some thoughts related to a specific essay by one of the contributors to the recent debates:

Brother David Bokovoy is a brilliant young professor of languages and literature with a speciality in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. On December 26th, he published a blog post entitled “How to Save LDS Youth in a Secular Age“. Continue reading

Fair Issues 75: How did Noah’s ark and Jaredite barges get light and air?

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MAThe story of Noah, or some equivalent figure, is found in a wide array of ancient non-biblical literature and could have easily have been known to the ancient Jaredites.  Some of these traditions about the Ark – or “deluge boat” – contain details and oddities not found in the Bible.

In this podcast brother Ash talks about how the Jaredite barges along with Noah’s ark may have been built to not only withstand the strong winds of sea travel but to also allow proper ventilation and light during their voyages.

The full text of this article can be found at Deseret News online.

Brother Ash is author of the book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, as well as the book, of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both books are available for purchase online through the FairMormon Bookstore. Tell your friends about the Mormon Fair-Cast. Share a link on your Facebook page and help increase the popularity of the Mormon Fair-Cast by subscribing to this podcast in iTunes, and by rating it and writing a review.

The views and opinions expressed in the podcast may not reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that of FairMormon

 

 

A Mormon Reads a REAL Atheist’s Blog Post

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"An ostracon from the end of the eight century BCE. In the first line we have the ciphers 50 + 7 in Egyptian hieroglyphic forms used widely in Israel and Judah." (Shmuel Ahituv, Echoes from the Past, 36.)

“An ostracon from the end of the eight century BCE. In the first line we have the ciphers 50 + 7 in Egyptian hieroglyphic forms used widely in Israel and Judah.” (Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past, 36.)

[Cross posted from Studio et Quoque Fide.]

Many have probably already seen the post, “An Atheist’s Response to the First 31 Pages of The Book of Mormon.” I am going to guess that fewer people have seen “A REAL Atheist’s Response to the First 31 Pages of the Book of Mormon.” This “real atheist” appears to be an ex-Mormon named Benjamin V. (or else a Benjamin posted this on behalf the atheist). In any case, this “real atheist” (RA from here on out) is much less flattering than the first, providing a critique of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. (In keeping with RA’s own practice, I will not link to either of these blog posts.)

RA was respectful in his critique, no snarky remarks or sarcastic jabs, which I appreciate. I nonetheless found his critique to be somewhat naïve not only of LDS scholarship, but of biblical scholarship more generally. In RA’s defense, he (I am assuming gender here) does admit, “I’m not an expert on Christian theology or the Bible, and I certainly don’t believe in much of either, but I do have a passing familiarity with them.” In the spirit of promoting a more informed discussion, I would just like provide an informed Mormon’s opinions of RA’s objections.

  1. Pre-Exilic Jews: RA thinks Nephi’s frequent reference to “Jews” is anachronistic. He writes, “the term ‘Jew’ wasn’t coined until after the Israelites returned from captivity under the reign of the Persians.” RA then tries to predict the apologetic response:

Knowing a bit about Mormon apologetics, I’m sure some would like to explain this away by appealing to Joseph Smith’s imperfect translation skills. Perhaps Nephi used a word like “Israelite,” and Joseph Smith translated it as “Jew.” But there are clues in the text that would argue against this explanation. For example, in 1 Nephi 15:17 (on page 31, as it happens), Nephi refers to “…the Jews, or… the House of Israel.” Clearly Nephi was familiar with both terms, when only one would have been invented at the time of his writing.

Actually, a more simple solution is that Nephi used yehudi (יהודי); plural yehudim (יהודים), which is translated as “Jew” (or in the plural, “Jews”) in the KJV, and even in some instances in modern translations like the NIV and the NASB. In fact, it appears at a rather high frequency in the writings of Jeremiah, Nephi’s contemporary (e.g., Jeremiah 32:12; 34:9; 38:19; 40:11, 12, 15: 41:3; 44:1; 52:28, 30). Though it more properly means “Judean” or “Judeans,” the distinction was not made in 1830. So, there is really no problem with Nephi’s use of the term. In fact, there are arguably a number of wordplays in the underlying text on the Hebrew meaning of the word.[1] An interesting point to consider, since Joseph Smith did not know Hebrew.

  1. Egyptian Writing: RA’s next comments, “It’s hard to understand why someone who was born and raised in Jerusalem ‘in all his days’ would have known Egyptian at all.” This is not really a serious conundrum. Stefen Wimmer has documented several instances of what he calls “Palestinian hieratic,” an Egyptian script being used by Israelites in ancient times (cf. 1 Nephi 1:2).[2] According to Wimmer, this script was used in Palestine “probably over several centuries,” and its usage peaks in the late-7th century bc, coming to an abrupt end “after the Babylonian captivity.”[3] This is the very time period of Lehi, Nephi’s father (it probably would not have been his primary language, but nothing in the text requires it to be). Given that RA says he knows “a bit about Mormon apologetics,” I am little surprised he does not know about this, since it has frequently been commented on by LDS scholars.[4]

The idea that Lehi’s “children write their diaries in Egyptian,” is not really in the Book of Mormon. Nephi is not writing a “diary,” but an official record of his people, replete with an origin story meant to give them a sense of identity and meaning. Under such circumstances, Nephi was probably following the pattern of the Brass Plates, which were actually written in Egyptian (Mosiah 1:4). This resolves the contradiction RA creates by saying, “This document seems to have been written in Hebrew, but it is taken, in part, ‘that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers.’ So is the language (always singular) of their fathers Egyptian or Hebrew?”

  1. Clarity About the Messiah: The next strange thing, according to RA is “their portrayal of the Messiah.” RA goes on to explain that there are few explicit prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament, and the prophecies of the Messiah that do exist provide a very different picture than the Christian version. He states that most Messianic prophecies are taken out of context.

if you read the Old Testament and 1 Nephi back-to-back, 1 Nephi’s Messianic prophecies are wildly out of place. The Old Testament contains a few scant clues that (even if read the way Christians traditionally understand them) are so vague that they could only be understood in hindsight. Meanwhile, Nephi is receiving incredibly specific prophecies that could only apply to Jesus. The Jewish conqueror-Messiah of the Old Testament is nowhere to be found in 1 Nephi. In his place is a Jesus precisely described, right down to the time and place of his birth, his name, his mother’s name, and a description of John the Baptist. It also specifically refers to this Messiah as God, which would never have occurred to any Old Testament prophet. If anything like this had appeared in the Old Testament, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have questioned Jesus’ divine identity.(emphasis added)

Frankly, I think that RA answers his own question here. The prophecies are only “wildly out of place” if one rejects the idea of genuine prophecy. If we accept that God can, in fact, reveal the future, then there is no real barrier to believe that God could reveal even highly specific prophecies; nor can there be a reasonable objection to God revealing more specific prophecies to one group of people, and less specific prophecies to others. Within Mormon theology, agency is an all-important principle: people need to have the ability to choose. Thus, since highly specific prophecies like those in the Book of Mormon make it “hard to imagine that anyone would have questioned Jesus’ divine identity,” such specificity could not be revealed to those who would be there for his mortal ministry; otherwise it would be so obvious their agency would be compromised. Meanwhile, those who would not be there could have more specific details.

I get that this answer can come across as a bit of a cop-out. But the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to provide evidence that revelation is real. As such, it seems inappropriate, to me, to judge its historicity on grounds which rule prophecy and revelation out a priori. For what it is worth, some non-LDS scholars would dispute RA’s points entirely. Margaret Barker, for instance, has argued that Christianity was based on deep roots of pre-Exilic (i.e., before the Babylonian captivity) Israelite religion. When she commented on the Book of Mormon, she wrote:

The original temple tradition was that Yahweh, the Lord, was the Son of God Most High, and present on earth as the Messiah. This means that the older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah. Thus finding Christ in the Old Testament is exactly what we should expect, though obscured by incorrect reading of the scriptures. This is, I suggest, one aspect of the restoration of “the plain and precious things, which have been taken away from them” (1 Nephi 13:40).[5]

Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, has made a similar argument.[6] I have not yet read Boyarin’s book, but Daniel C. Peterson quotes him as saying, “The theology of the Gospels, far from being a radical innovation within Israelite religious tradition, is a highly conservative return to the very most ancient moments within that tradition, moments that had been largely suppressed in the meantime — but not entirely.”[7]

Nephi’s prophecies still might seem much too specific for those who refuse to believe in revelation, but in light of work by the likes of Barker and Boyarin, they really are not quite so “wildly out of place” after all.

  1. Law of Moses: RA states that, “upon a cursory analysis of the text, I could find very little evidence that these people even knew what the Law of Moses was, let alone that they lived it.” Many who have given the text more than a cursory reading, however, have found that the law of Moses permeates the text. John W. Welch, who is an attorney and a scholar of ancient Jewish and Israelite law, has provided numerous studies of the law and the Book of Mormon. Welch has shown that the text describing Nephi’s “particularly grizzly murder,” of Laban, as RA calls it, was in fact consciously written with an understanding of the Mosiac law as it existed and was interpreted in 600 bc.[8] Welch has also thoroughly examined 7 legal cases in the Book of Mormon, finding them consistent with the ancient law of Moses.[9]What about the “holidays or festivals that play such an important role in Jewish life,” which RA says, are never “mentioned in the Book of Mormon”? Several scholars have shown that major sermons like those of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6–10 and Benjamin in Mosiah 1–6 are examples of just such festivals.[10] Several other aspects of the law of Moses have also been found in the Book of Mormon.[11]

Then there is the fact that, “the moment Lehi and his (non-Levite) family leave Jerusalem, they immediately set up altars and sacrifice animals in the wilderness, which would have scandalized a family of Israelites raised in the Deuteronomistic Mosaic tradition.” This actually finds an interesting solution in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the Temple Scroll allows such sacrifices if you are beyond a three-day journey from the temple.[12] It also worth pointing out that some have argued that Lehi was not fully on board with the Deuteronomistic reforms going on in his day, and in fact spoke out against them; in which case, his not being in full compliance with the Deuteronomistic tradition is not a serious defect.[13]

  1. Miscellaneous Topics: RA states that, “there are so many other oddities that it would be ponderous to give an exhaustive list.” In that same spirit, I note that there are so many other responses, both to the topics I have chosen to respond to, and the ones I have not, that it would be a rather tedious task to keep going. He notes that, “structures that seem to be natively English,” and “phrases copied from the New Testament” which are, in my opinion, not surprising for an English translation made ca. 1830. He also notes “a pattern of prophecy that is highly unusual, consisting of uncharacteristically specific predictions from the time of Nephi to the time of Joseph Smith … followed by absolute silence about anything that’s happened since the early 19th Century, which would have been most useful to the stated audience of the book.” This, like the prophecies of Christ, are really a matter of accepting prophecy or not, and agency could again be invoked for the lack of specificity on details after Joseph Smith’s time—highly specific prophecy of events after its publication would have simply made it’s truth to obvious, and thus interfered with the exercise of true agency (which requires that competing explanations have seemingly approximately equal merit). I could go on with the issues I have skipped over, but will refrain.

Closing Comments

I appreciate that RA was willing to read and comment on the Book of Mormon, and his professional tone. I hope I have successfully engaged him with just as much professionalism. I realize that little of what I have to say is going to convince RA or any other atheist that the Book of Mormon is true. And, it is certainly correct that none of the above proves the Book of Mormon true. I have merely sought to add to the conversation, as I said before, with some reflections from a Mormon who considers himself well-informed. I hope that, at the least, I have shown some that the Book of Mormon merits a more serious reading. Much of what initially seems odd and out of place turns out to fit more comfortably than one would expect, and certainly more comfortably than what was known in 1830.

[1] Matt Bowen, “‘What Thank They the Jews’? (2 Nephi 29:4): A Note on the Name ‘Judah’ and Antisemitism,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 111–125.

[2] Stefen Wimmer, Palästiniches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräishen Schrift  (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).

[3] An English summary of Wimmer’s work, from which I have quoted, is  William J. Hamblin, “Palestinian Hieratic,” at Interpreter (blog), September 1, 2012, online at http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/palestinian-hieratic/ (accessed September 25, 2014).

[4] For example, Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications—Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 156–163; John S. Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 266–267; Aaron P. Schade, “The Kingdom of Judah: Politics, Prophets, and Scribes in the Late Preexilic Period,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 315–319; William J. Hamblin, “Reformed Egyptian,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 31–35.

[5] Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2006), 79.

[6] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012).

[7] Daniel C. Peterson, “Messianic Ideas in Judaism,” Deseret News, June 14, 2012, online at: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765582991/Messianic-ideas-in-Judaism.html?pg=all (accessed October 23, 2014).

[8] John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1 (1992): 119–141.

[9] John W. Welch, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: BYU Press and Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship, 2008).

[10] John S. Thompson, “Isaiah 50–51, the Israelite Autumn Feastivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6–10,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 123–150; John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).

[11] For example, John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), chaps. 16, 18, 24, 38, 39, 44, 50, 54, 56, 70, 72, 73.

[12] David Rolph Seely, “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 62–69.

[13] Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, “Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition,” in Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 143–172; Kevin Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 449–522; Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001).

The God-Science Conundrum (Part 1)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt would be so easy if science could prove religion in our quest for truth, and vice versa. Many people hold tenaciously to one or the other and won’t allow for even the slightest deviation in what they believe. Sadly, by doing so, they miss out on incredible possibilities that could broaden their understanding and illuminate truths that are right at their fingertips. The more study we put into this God-science conundrum, the more we discover that the two really do go hand in hand. They provide more harmony than dissonance and in those areas where it may appear that neither side has a conclusive answer, there is enough agreement to maintain a working symbiosis.

The Savior said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7). Science and religion can actually harmonize because both involve a spirit of inquiry that seeks out truth. Since the gospel welcomes and incorporates all truth, both science and religion have important roles in separating fact from fantasy.

God’s counsel to Joseph Smith opened a world of resources for learning truth: “Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; of things both in heaven and in the earth and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are upon the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:78-79).

Other prophets also have taught this principle. Brigham Young said, “All wisdom, and all the arts and sciences in the world are from God, and are designed for the good of his people.”[i] He also reminded us that we are obligated and indebted to God for the benefits that flow to us from the truths He has revealed, whether “scientific or religious.”[ii] President Harold B. Lee stated, “All truths, whether called science or religion, or philosophy, come from a divine source.”[iii] President Spencer W. Kimball said modern scientific findings “harmonize with revelation through the ages.”[iv] He also said, “No conflict exists between the gospel and any truth … All true principles are a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no principle that we need to fear.”[v] President Ezra Taft Benson once stated that Mormons “have no fear that any discovery of new truths will ever be in conflict with … any fundamental basic principle which we advocate in the Gospel.” He affirmed his comfort with “any new truths, whether discovered in the laboratory, through the research of the scientist, or whether revealed from heaven through prophets of God.”[vi]

It is clear that God sees no conflict in putting science and scholarship right alongside revelation and spirituality in establishing truth. It is also clear that mankind has assimilated elements of science over time in a kind of evolution of belief.

History shows us that flanking even the most rudimentary discoveries in science since early man, is evidence of various cultures in worship of a deity. Ancient Egyptians held such strong belief in their gods that they built massive pyramids to honor them. Ancient Greeks worshipped Zeus, early Romans worshipped Jupiter, and the Aztecs in Mexico offered human sacrifice to keep their god happy. Today, Hindus believe in the triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; Islamic theology espouses Allah as being above all comprehension; and of course, Christians worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and view him as the only true God.

Though only a few are mentioned here, the list of deities today and throughout history is enormous, to say the least. Why is that? What is it that pushes humans to seek out and ultimately devote their lives to a supreme being they can’t even see? Some argue that the ancients believed in a God because their limited world view and sometimes barbaric lifestyles easily led them to Pagan-type ideologies. In today’s modern world with its ever accelerating technological advances and scientific breakthroughs, some find it ludicrous that people still believe in a Supreme Being.

Those who adopt science as their main purveyor of truth simply can’t understand why any intelligent, rationally thinking person would continually look to the supernatural for answers to their existence. They can’t grasp why people so tenaciously hope that things they can’t see are nevertheless true. Could it be that we humans have always gravitated toward God because we are connected to him as his children? Could it be that as God’s literal offspring, we have a spark of the divine that makes us long for the filial connection we once had and a desire to find our way back home? Could it be that the longing, yearning, all-consuming need to know God is not because we are delusional people who need some outside support to get through life, but because we are connected like an umbilical cord to a Heavenly Father who loves us?

Atheists often suggest that belief in God exists to bridge the gap between what we can understand about life and what we can’t. They purport our use of religion is a crutch to help us limp through life, buoy ourselves up, and give our lives meaning. Science, they say, can now explain what has historically been inexplicable. Those gaps in information and evidence that supported the need for a belief in God in times past have now been filled, making a belief in God superfluous. And while this argument may seem logical on its face, scientists are usually the first to say they don’t know everything.

Historically, many scientists actually held a strong belief in God because they grew to acknowledge a spiritual element to the universe. Even Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of all time, couldn’t completely disavow the notion of God. While developing his general theory of relativity, his calculations led him to draw only one conclusion—there had to be a beginning. (Later, Hubble discovered the universe was expanding, which further verified this requirement for a beginning). This troubled Einstein because it meant the universe and all that it holds must have been created by a deity, something he had always rejected. Ultimately, he became a deist—a believer in an impersonal creator God, who “did not concern himself with fates and actions of human beings.”[vii]

The atheist, or just the simple Doubting Thomas who would like to believe in his heart of hearts, is sometimes duped into thinking the scientific method is the only way to investigate, research, and find truth. They limit their quest to only what they can see and touch. We can’t see and touch gravity. We can’t see and touch thoughts. We can’t see and touch atoms, yet we know through evidence that each of these things is real.

Think about it. For God to create the vast expanse of the universe, he, himself, would have had to exist far beyond the limitations of his creation and the science associated with it. Therefore, in our efforts to find him, we would likewise need to look beyond the laws of physics for more cosmic measuring devices that could lead to his doorstep.

Consider the account of Korihor in Alma 30, who antagonistically argued against the existence of God in the Book of Mormon. Gerald Lund, LDS author (Work and the Glory series), Church Education System director, and former General Authority, put it this way:

Korihor will consider only evidence that can be gathered through the senses. In such a system, it is much easier to prove there is a God than to prove there is not a God. To prove there is a God, all it takes is for one person to see, hear, or otherwise have an experience with God, and thereafter the existence of God cannot be disproved. But here is what it would take to prove there is no God:

“Since God is not confined to this earth, we would have to search throughout the universe for him. We assume God is able to move about, so it would not be enough to start at point A in the universe and search through to point Z. What if after we leave point A, God moves there and stays there for the rest of the search? In other words, for Korihor to say that there is no God, based on the very criteria he himself has established, he would have to perceive every cubic meter of the universe simultaneously. This creates a paradox: In order for Korihor to prove there is no God, he would have to be a god himself! Therefore, in declaring there is no God, he is acting on faith, the very thing for which he so sharply derides the religious leaders!”[viii]

It’s an astoundingly complex topic and one in which volumes of literature have barely scratched the surface. After pouring through these volumes, it’s easy to conclude there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God using empirical scientific methods. This methodology excludes anything that cannot be tested with our five senses. But while there is no scientific proof of God’s existence, there certainly is an abundance of evidence—evidence that can create fertile ground for a seed of faith to be planted and nourished (see Alma 32).

From a biblical perspective, God has not left us alone and without verification of his divine signature all around us. In fact, we learn that the world is replete with evidence of God, so much so that we are “without excuse” if we reject him (Romans 1:19-20). Paul said to “prove all things,” (1 Thessalonians. 5:21), and to use reasoning instead of blind faith in matters of God and his plan of salvation (Acts 18:4, 19). In essence, though we can’t see God, he is evident in every facet of life. In any court of law when there is no smoking gun, a preponderance of evidence will provide a conviction every time. It is that kind of evidence that helps establish the groundwork for the existence of God and the restored gospel.

As we explore the evidence of creation, we should understand that it is not only acceptable, but also beneficial, to look at science as a way of adding beauty and clarity to gospel doctrine. Evidence is always a great defender of truth by pointing out error, and provides broader meaning and perspective for the honest seeker of truth. Elder Neal A. Maxwell counseled that learning through discoveries would help “make plain and plausible what the modern prophets have been saying all along.”[ix] President Gordon B. Hinckley said that evidence derived from scientific and historical research can “be helpful to some” and “confirmatory.”[x]

It’s the melding of research with revelation that provides the confirmatory weight so many of us need for faith to flourish. Until we accept how interlocked science and theology are, even the explosion of information we enjoy today as compared with the ancients, will not be enough to provide sufficient answers to many of our questions. It’s amazing what we know, but equally amazing what we don’t know. As predicted by Paul, we are truly “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).

In our quest to meld what we know through science with the restored gospel, it’s important to acknowledge scholars are continually learning about our world. What was once considered truth in science in the past is often disproved as new information is discovered. As Christians, and Mormons in particular, we are instructed to seek out and embrace truth wherever we find it. But if scientists go beyond or fall short of what they can actually prove, we are not obligated to buy into their theories.

Some Church members may have no interest in what these secular experts have to say because their faith is sufficient the way it is. But others who grapple with the very existence of God will be keenly attentive to scientific and historical findings because their faith may require the added value of physical evidence. There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact, great blessings will surely come to anyone who sincerely seeks out God and Christ wherever they may be found.

–Notes–

[i] Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 247.

[ii] Brigham Young, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 17.

[iii] Harold B. Lee, Life under Control, Brigham Young University commencement speech, June 4, 1951, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 19.

[iv] Spencer W. Kimball, Modern Scientific Findings Harmonize with Revelation through the Ages (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1962).

[v] Edward L. Kimball, ed., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 391.

[vi] Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April 1958, 60.

[vii] Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 388-389.

[viii] Gerald Lund, “Countering Korihor’s Philosophies,” Ensign, July 1992, online at https://www.lds.org/ensign/1992/07/countering-korihors-philosophy?lang=eng.

[ix] Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 16.

[x] Gordon B. Hinckley, Faith: The Essence of True Religion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 10.

Archaic Hebrew in the Old Testament (And What It Means for the Book of Mormon)

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One of the Lachish ostraca (7th century BCE), written in paleo-Hebrew script.

One of the Lachish ostraca (7th century BCE), written in paleo-Hebrew script.

Some time ago I posted a blog entry at Interpreter on the atheist polemicist Richard Dawkins’ argument that the Book of Mormon is a fraud because Joseph Smith rendered his translation into Jacobean English. Dawkins’ argument is (and I’m not making this up) that “[the Book of Mormon] was a 19th century book written in 16th century English. That’s not the way people talked in the 19th century – it’s a fake. So it’s not beautiful, it’s a work of charlatanry.” Continue reading