February 17, 2006

When DNA evidence controverts your sacred text.

What can you do?
For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error....

Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.

Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.

Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.

"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."
And that is the classic response in the encounter between religion and science. It's intended to end the conversation.


goesh said...

Hmmm - I hope there will be no cartoons of old Joe Smith published in this blog...you may be unknowingly encouraging some of the wags that come around here

Meade said...

That makes me think of this.

Pete said...


You sound a little prickly to me at the end of your post but how can you discern the intent of someone who can't, or won't, reconcile their view to the other side of an argument? How do you know their response is intended to end the conversation? Why can’t there just be nothing left to discuss?

But let's say you're right. Let’s say the rejoinder is intended to end the conversation. What else is there to talk about? How should the conversation continue if neither side can, or will, budge from their view? Isn't this just one of those "agree to disagree" situations where, really, no matter how much you talk about it, the other side simply won't be persuaded?

I don't see what the big deal is about the often irreconcilable differences between science and religion. God and His universe is far greater than any explanation humans can come up with so it shouldn't come as a surprise that sometimes our science is at odds with our faith. Neither our science nor are faith are perfect, though God is. That's not news.

hygate said...
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MadisonMan said...

Yes, it is nettlesome when science contradicts faith. I don't what I'll do when science shows the Earth to be more than 6000 years old.

The LATimes story reminded me of the story of the sacred gold plates though. Even when I was young I thought "Well, where are the plates now? Why can't people see them? How could you lose something as valuable as that?"

Cynic then, cynic now, I guess.

hygate said...
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hygate said...

"And that is the classic response in the encounter between religion and science. It's intended to end the conversation."

And it pretty much should since arguing with people about there deeply held religious believes is a complete waste of time. I don't care if Mormons think that Native Americans are one of the last tribes of Israel (which would make me one-eight Jewish, despite having blond hair and hazel eyes) and DNA evidence isn't going to change their minds about it. They'll just "adjust" the interpretation and get on with their lives. What I find amusing is the call by "critics" to apologize to the millions of Native Americans who "it has converted". This sounds like PC anger over a "white man’s religion" luring the Native Americans away from their ancestral, and therefore authentic, ways.

About the four deletions. It's early and my editing skills don't seem up to snuff.

goesh said...

- and the finest minds of the time debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin and later gave clear proof that the earth was flat and bleeding a patient was state of the art medicine - neither religion or science can make the other go away

Rhett said...

As a devout Mormon, I'm glad you didn't go anti-Mormon in the post, irrespective of what may end up in the comments.

The issue of whether science can now disprove Mormonism is correlated to the question of science's ability to prove, or disprove Christianity. There are more examples found within the Bible that science cannot prove and that those who practice science as religion constantly try to disprove (e.g., Adam as first man, the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, Jericho falling, the fall of Sodom, Elijah's miracles, a virgin birth, the many miracles of Christ, Christ's resurrection, etc.)

In my opinion, if one seeks to use this latest science news to debunk Mormonism, they must also accept the same scientific theory and reasoning that questions the foundations of general Christianity.

The underlying point for me is that I don't know how God works, I just know that He is and the He does -- those issues do not change how I believe I need to live my life nor affect how I should treat others.

James M said...

As a Mormon, I guess it doesn't bother me too much. Once I got passed the idea that a 14-year old boy could see God and Jesus Christ in a miraculous vision, the rest was pretty easy. I've learned to accept certain things on faith and my religion has served me well.

Michael said...

I'll keep my science out of your religion, if you'll keep your religion out of my science.

Gordon Freece said...

People believe lots of questionable things. There was an editorial in the Guardian the other day claiming that the Soviet Union under Stalin was really not such a bad place. And take a look at these chowderheads.

If you think people are going to stop believing what they want to anytime soon, or that religions are somehow fundamentally different from other faiths, you're kidding yourself. But if that's what you really want to believe, go for it.

Bruce Hayden said...

Not to get a religious discussion going here, but to our Mormon friends, how really central would that fact be to Mormonism?

As a Christian, I am not the least bit bothered by a discovery that the world is most likely over 6,000 years old. I take esp. the early books in the Old Testiment primarily as analogy instead of as literal truth - esp. since the creation stories there probably rattled around verbally for at least a millenium before being written down.

Akiva said...

Sometimes those scientific facts are indisputable, but often they're just the theory dujor, science's best understanding _as of today_. Last week low fat diets saved and extended lives, whoops, this week they don't.

Last month human stem cell therapy was at hand and in trials. This month we learned that was a complete and total fabrication.

Last year there was no evidence, whatsoever, of the biblical kingdom of David, this year they found the biblical palace of David, and it moved from biblical fairy tale to archeological science.

I don't know anything about the Mormons or their beliefs, but I know that currently we're doing DNA testing on about 3% of the genome. Next year that may be double or quadruple and the results may be significantly different.

Since very few of us actually know any real detail about the science we're discussing, you are choosing to believe the science and the scientist. How's that different?

price said...

I wish people would just have the courage to say, "yes, my religion is almost completely ridiculous, but that's why I love it." That's what it comes down to with religion... which set of fables moves you best. Or more likely, which set of fables moved your parents best.

There is so much beauty in faith and imagination. I just wish people would get real about trying to invalidate the scientific method.

mtrobertsattorney said...

Unless the L.A. Times writer is a Mormon, I don't think he has much credibility when he starts telling us about "long standing Mormon teachings". More likely, he's like Dave, a secular fundamentalist.

bearing said...

What about the collision between religion and history?

I mean, at bottom, many sects --- all Christian sects, and some other ones as well have something to say that is not at all mystical, but rather
"Such-and-such a thing actually happened once." Occasionally their whole belief system rests, logically speaking, on a series of historical claims.

You know, like "During the governorship of Pontius Pilate, this one particular guy was crucified, and a few days later he rose from the dead."

Or "In the year such and such the Prophet Mohammed received a revelation from God..."

Or "Sometime in the first or second century, all the Christians went apostate and the true apostolic teaching along with the priesthood instituted by Christ completely died out, only to be restored by Joseph Smith after an angel appeared to him on such-and-such a date in the nineteenth century."

That's not mystical. Those are all historical claims, and in principle they are testable. Certainly they can all be compared to the plausible historical record as we know it and evaluated with respect to their compatibility with said historical record.

Joan said...

"But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."

Funny. My experience is that the more we know about the universe, the greater the reflection on the glory of God.

There's a great article in the Catholic Encyclopedia about the intersection of the Church and science. It's long, but it boils down to saying that when science reveals a conflict with established doctrine, the doctrine must be examined, and our error in interpretation must be corrected. In other words: we make mistakes all the time, and as we learn more about how things work, we're going to have to make adjustments.

Obviously there's a lot more to be said on this subject, but my time is limited this morning -- I'll be back later.

mtrobertsattorney said...

I think the Mormons should take a page from the neo-Darwinists: get a federal judge to prohibit any mention or discussion of any "gaps" or "problems" with their belief system.

BDemosthenes said...

Reading this article and expecting to come away with a meaningful understanding of LDS belief and practice would be like listening to Ann Coulter's CPAC remarks to learn what Islam is all about. The author of the piece may only be guilty of well-intentioned bad journalism, but the article itself is carefully slanted so as to downplay meaningful discussion in favor of attacks on LDS belief and practice.

'Critics point to science rocking the foundations of the faith.' Strangely, only these self-appointed critics seem to be questioning their faith. Of course, being excommunicated for 'unrelated matters' doesn't hamper their credibility--just like Al Gore's criticisms of the Bush administration's foreign policy are completely objective, and have nothing to do with the 2000 election.

And since we're on the subject, let's drag out all the other standard LDS anti tropes! Look--archeologists haven't confirmed every detail of BoM culture--it must be a fake! Ancient cultures used racial metaphors that don't make modern Americans feel comfortable (or 19th-century Americans, for that matter)! The humanity of it all...

Will LDS riot over such nonsense? No, we're rather used to it. But we do hope that most people aren't taken in by the attempts of a few disgrunted apostates to stir up hostility and ridicule. People who base their understanding of the universe on journalism's attempts to explain science (and too explain society, for that matter) generally get what's coming to them without the need for my intervention, though.

On a somewhat related note, everyone believes something unprovable and rather ridiculous--we don't have any choice. If it suits you to believe that nothing exploded into something for no reason and randomly organized itself into self-aware matter in a way that no one quite understands, be my guest. The immortal soul is not (yet) scientifically provable, but neither is the theory that we're organic pain collectors randomly hurtling toward oblivion. Either theory can be emotionally comforting for various reasons, and each sounds preposterous when described properly. Neither theory can be objectively verified, either (though there's a fairly simple way to come to a subjective knowledge of the truth, if you're so inclined).

Ben Ellsworth said...

I too am a Mormon. I see no problem with this scientific study in that it is really difficult to say that all Native Americans are 100% descendants of jews, or even 1% descendants. That's a silly proposition in every aspect. If the first family spoken of crossed the sea to the Americas, couldn't others?
Also, the Book of Mormon's authors state many times it is a religious record of the people it talks about. Not a complete historical record. Apparently there were other records set aside for that purpose. Those other records could explain many other things involved with the rapid growth of the civilization. So no, this finding doesn't "conflict" with my beliefs.

One thing I do believe is science is not perfect and religion is never completely understood.

I'm sure there are cynics out there that would say "That's a cop out," but so is being cynical. Hope this sheds some light on religious perspective and science.

Last, I'm very impressed by the lack of knee-jerk reaction in the comments here. Good stuff.

price said...

The reproductive cycle of griffins is not completely understood either. Until the rickety institution of science can explain how griffins reproduce, I'm just going to assume that they multiply when you throw water on them. Because that is my belief and because I believe it, it is more accurate than anything you can say or any evidence you will point to, because that evidence will be specious or wrong if I don't agree with it.

sonicfrog said...

How science and religion are NOT like a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup:

"Hey, you got your science in my religion!"

"Well YOU got your religion in my science!!"

"Mmmmmm! Delicious!!!"

NOT! :-)

Dave said...

"And that is the classic response in the encounter between religion and science. It's intended to end the conversation."

Ann, your statement above, refers to the statement made by Jan Shipps (who I regard highly). Remember that she is not a Mormon. There are plenty of Mormon scholars willing to take on the question of DNA and how it may relate to the Book of Mormon. For example check some of the articles here: http://farms.byu.edu/publications/jbmsvolume.php?volume=12&number=1

Michael said...

Sonicfrog said, "How science and religion are NOT like a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup:

"Hey, you got your science in my religion!"

"Well YOU got your religion in my science!!"

"Mmmmmm! Delicious!!!"

NOT! :-)"

Yay! Someone got it. ;)

JackOfClubs said...

I am no fan of Mormonism since I consider that the missionaries lied to me (or at least misrepresented some of their doctrines) and got me to join at a young age.

That said, I think this scientific finding could be reconciled with the book of Mormon. The narrative of that book starts with a single family of Jews who journey to the Americas and establish a civilization here. Throughout the course of the story, there are a faithful group (the Nephites) and a rebellious group (Lamanites?). At one point in the story, the latter group is cursed by God, much as Ham was cursed by Noah in Gen 9:18-27. At the end of the book, the Lamanites massacre the faithful Nephites and their last descendent Mormon (and his son Moroni) bury the plates as a record for future generations. Thus the current Native Americans would be descendants of the Lamanite group.

Many interpretations of the passage in Genesis mentioned above see it as an explanation of the various "races", i.e. the Semites (descendants of Shem), the Japethites (which would include most of Europe) and the Hamites (Africans and Asians, and I think the Slavs). I don't actually buy into this theory, but I don't see why a Mormon who wanted to reconcile the lack of "Jewish" DNA couldn't postulate that God had altered the genome as a part of the curse.

This wouldn't be a scientific explanation, of course, because there is no actual data to examine, but the point would be that the data is consistent with the Mormon theory. And, technically, this is the same approach most evolutionists take to the question of origins. There is no direct evidence for the Darwinian theory, but current scientific data is thought to be consistent with it.

Ben Ellsworth said...

"I was raised Mormon, and here's how it works: science is used when it's helpful to the cause, but ignored when it's hurtful. It's a clear double-standard."

I do not think this is hurtful at all to "the cause." The problem with this kind of study is just like all the other ones out there. Wine helps prevent heart attacks... but so does grape juice. The whole point is what is not said in this article. Just like every other news story in the LA Times.

Now the other fun part of this is everyone will pick out what they want to see in this type of article. I naturally noticed the sentance or two at the very end that spoke of the posibility of others mixing into the civilizations in the Book of Mormon.

To me this study is not a big deal. There's roughly a 1400 year gap between the time of burial of the record and the time it was translated. Even longer for the pacific islanders (1800+ years). A lot can happen in that amount of time.

Also, I don't think it is healthy to assume that it is typical of all religions to scoff science. Not gonna fly. Science definitely has a place in the world just as much as religion, and the two are not completely opposed to each other. To reject science completely is rediculous, just as it is to reject religion completely.

Isn't questioning a controversial study like this healthy?

Jinnmabe said...

Boy, Ann, it looks like you've got quite a few Mormon readers (I am too). Does that mean anything?

This kind of story is much more powerful for people who already believe "well, if 'science' has said so, it must be true!" I sometimes find it odd when people who are very cynical about religion's claims become doe-eyed believers because the LA times said that some scientists said something.

I felt like there were some misrepresentations in the article that are at the crux of the "contradiction." The author refers to "longstanding Mormon teachings" which are "refuted" by the DNA stuff, but while I think I know which ones he's referring to, I don't think they say what he thinks they say. As is the case with most things, the actual teachings are bit more complex than can be satisfactorily explained in a newspaper article.

"For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science." Actually, it seems fairly minor to me, but then, I don't think the Book of Mormon makes the claims that he thinks it does.

chuck b. said...

Note to self: When starting a new religion, vague it up as much as possible, and scrub out any claims that can be tested and/or disproved. Think long-term: what's not disprovable today may be disprovable tomorrow.

OhioAnne said...

Another devout Mormon here ...

My reaction was much the same as several of the more recent comments. The newspaper article did touch on some familiar things, but interpretations were somewhat different than what I've heard in my 25 years of membership. I don't consider it a "hit" piece, but do think the author failed to do his/her homework well.

Religion does require faith and I chose this one not because I got every question answered, but because it made more sense than any other theory that I had heard.

As to the ability of Mormons to question ... Mike Wallace of CBS interviewed President Gordon B. Hinkley in the mid-90's for 60 Minutes. Despite their obvious differences, the two became friends and Wallace even wrote the forward for one of the Prophet's books. I don't questions bother President Hinkley much.

OhioAnne said...

The last sentence should have read:

I don't think questions bother President Hinkley much.

OhioAnne said...

Let me see if I understand you correctly ...

Anyone who doesn't hold the same interpretation as you lacks reason?

Your post certainly is ironic.

chuck b. said...

Um, yeah. Religion's never given the world anything nearly as bad as eugenics.

Finn Alexander Kristiansen said...

Interesting how the various Mormon voices here dispute or ignore the findings.

My general feeling is that science is God's magic, and that ultimately, and perhaps when we are dead and in the afterlife, faith and science will then be seen in harmony.

But for now, we are like toddlers, trying to figure out the world, and all we can understand is that food comes from mommy (faith) and not daddy (science), or vice versa, when in fact both work hand but we are too young to fully understand.

I suspect that many things that seem to contradict science now, will prove in harmony later as I believe sciene and faith have the same root source.

That said, I think this DNA find still leads Mormoms into interesting twists as they continue to revise and refine their message (which leads to the question of how divinely inspired the original message was).

I am reminded of the time when my mom had invited two young Mormons in for pizza (in a spy versus spy attempt to convert them before they converted us). One of them proceeded to tell us that there had never ever been any restraints upon blacks being involved in all levels of the Mormon church. I just looked at him with eyebrow raised, as did his co-worker (who seemed a tad more honest and less willing to gloss over the evolutionary nature of the Mormon message).

OhioAnne said...

Interesting how, if you don't throw yourself down on the ground at the news of any scientific findings exclaiming that you have been duped by your religion, people proclaim that you diputing or ignoring findings.

I have no problem with someone questioning my religion. I find it interesting that I am expected to not question science.

Can science not take the scrutiny?

AlanDownunder said...


Science is all about scrutiny. It's about skepticism, peer review, testability, falsifiability etc.

Science cannot and does not deny the supernatural. It admits that is beyond its power. By rigorous self-definition science is only capable of making sense of the natural world, not the supernatural.

Science does however show how many religions diverge in their various idiosyncratic ways from core divinity - especially religions with authoritarian leadership that espouses scriptural inerrancy.

Anne is a bit rude to religionists whose faith is not dependent on the fetishisms of inerrancy, but I got the impression that the cap fits where you're concerned.

OhioAnne said...

Anne is a bit rude to religionists whose faith is not dependent on the fetishisms of inerrancy, but I got the impression that the cap fits where you're concerned.

I copied this to comment on your attack on Ann. I have no problem with her comments at all. She has not ignored the statements made by the Mormons in favor of attacks on them personally as other have.

What I, and a number of others, ACTUALLY SAID was that the article in question takes a few terms and comes to conclusions about the faith that are not actually what the religion professes. Therefore the scientific study is claiming to disprove something that has virtually no relevance to the actual practice of the faith.

If I witnessed someone rushing to you to proclaim that the world is indeed not flat and you brushed them aside because you never believed the world was flat, should I assume that you fear science and are unwilling to face anything that challenges your beliefs? Of course not - because it was never your belief that the world was flat.

Science is all about scrutiny. It's about skepticism, peer review, testability, falsifiability etc.

And, of course, about who paid for the study .... ;-)

Charlie Carnevale said...

After reading this report in national geographic:


I suggest you change the title of this post to: New research makes my blog post defunct.