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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Real science, truth coincide with real Mormon scholarship

By Michael R. Ash , For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Feb. 22 2010 12:19 a.m. MST

Before we get to Book of Mormon geography, archaeology and anachronisms, (as well as related issues such as DNA) we need to take another side-trip to a general topic that relates to the studies of these issues — Mormonism, science, and truth.

Joseph Smith explained that "One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may."

"We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up," he said another time, "or we shall not come out true Mormons."

While science is unable to answer the questions about the purpose for life, the hereafter, or many other things that must be taken on faith, accurate science is necessary for telling us about the world in which we live. As Elder John A. Widtsoe said: "Truth is truth forever. Scientific truth cannot be theological lie."

Dr. Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an atheist who became a (non-LDS) Christian, explains that "Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world."

" ...Yes, experiments can fail spectacularly, interpretations of experiments can be misguided, and science can make mistakes. But the nature of science is self-correcting. No major fallacy can long persist in the face of a progressive increase in knowledge" (Francis Collins, The Language of God, 228).

It's my opinion that there are at least a few immutable laws that govern all things in all places, and that even God adheres to these laws (some would argue that he is part of such laws or created these laws). Other laws may be specific for individual realms or spheres and cannot typically be broken (or broken frequently) without causing havoc in that sphere. Science is the tool by which we can learn something of these laws as they pertain to our mortal existence.

Through the years some members have claimed that God gives us false information through science to test our faith. To apply a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, I believe "God is subtle, not malicious." Other vocal members have made anti-science comments or have implied that science and intellectualism are at odds with faith and truth.

While it's OK to believe that science doesn't have all the answers, we need to be careful not to turn healthy skepticism into cynicism of the methods and knowledge that make our world a better, safer, and healthier place. We must remember that God is also the author of science.

What does this have to do with the Book of Mormon? First, we should be careful not to conflate folklore, opinion, and tradition with revelation. In the absence of revelation (on any topic), we are left on our own to form theories and conclusions. Second, our intellectual efforts should utilize the tools of science and scholarship — such as evidence, analysis, and argument. Third, we should also be wary of those who claim that science has "proven" the Book of Mormon.

Years ago, LDS anthropologist Dr. John Sorenson wrote an article lamenting the myths contrived and perpetuated by LDS writers using bad logic and even worse science. Such approaches, Sorenson wrote, are naïve, logically inconsistent, and in the end are harmful to the church and members. How could supposedly "faith-promoting" material be harmful? Sorenson gave three reasons:

First, they train the reader that serious, critical thought is unnecessary and maybe even undesirable, that any source of information will serve no matter how unreliable, and that logical absurdity is as good as sound analysis.

Second, the reader gets the false impression that all is well in Zion, that the outside world is being forced to the LDS point of view, and that the only role LDS scholars need play in Book of Mormon-related studies is to use scissors and paste effectively.

Third, the underlying complexity and subtlety of the Book of Mormon are masked by a pseudo-scholarship to which everything is simple.

Such pseudo-scholarship, Sorenson points out, sets up "a straw-man Book of Mormon to attack based on what Mormons have said about it instead of what it says itself." As Hyrum Smith once said, "It is better not to have so much faith, than to have so much as to believe all the lies."

When we examine issues like Book of Mormon DNA, geography, and archaeology, we need to approach these topics with real science and scholarship — not pseudo-science and soft assumptions. We need to be prepared to change our views from what we've been taught through non-revelatory sources such as tradition and folklore. In doing so, we can gain new insights on those things that have been restored by the power of God.

Copyright 2014, Deseret News Publishing Company