The 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.)
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.
[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.
Well said, Mike. ..
Thank you for this. I’ve always appreciated Joseph Smith and the D&C for encouraging me to pursue truth unencumbered by any dogma. Having said that, I sometimes feel that some of the bretheren muddy the water a bit by things they say, but I remain confident that a gospel that includes a god who is not diminished in any way by an earth science says is 4 1/2 billion years old is one truly worth worshipping.
David H says
“Anti-science and anti-scholarship positions can damage us both physically as well as spiritually.” Saying that someone’s sincere position is anti-science is equivalent to calling them fools or worse. Most people who have concerns about vaccines come from a position of being loving parents, not from being anti-science. I went from being (briefly) anti-vaccination to being pro-vaccination, not because someone on the Internet called me “anti-science”, but because an actual scientist took the time to patiently, kindly show me the evidence and reasoning. His refusal to call me names or denigrate my intelligence made all of the difference in my willingness to listen to him. In my case, my brief anti-vaccination position was due to incorrect information which needed to be balanced with a surplus of correct information to counteract it. I didn’t have any particular distrust towards science. If someone does come from a position of lack of trust, perhaps because of bad experiences in their lives, a kind approach is even more necessary. How are you going to gain their trust? Please adopt a different tactic than labeling people anti-science, or using other belittling terms. Your consideration could save lives! A similar kinder approach would help you if you want to persuade people of any other controversial position, but vaccination is pretty important so that’s what I’m focusing on here.
Boanerges Rubalcava says
Anyone to be interested please go for my book “To be or not to be…a Believer” http://www.librosenred.com
Boanerges Rubalcava says
About the book “To be or not to be… a Believer” http://www.librosenred.com in “buscar” write the title of the book. Chapter two deals with the existence of God in a rational way.
Boanerges Rubalcava says
THE BOOK OF MORMON AND DNA
Before anything else, I want to show my credentials. This is not to brag about myself neither to show false modesty, but to show who is the person proposing what follows, since the people who made the DNA experiments are experts in the field, I am also expert in something:
I am a Doctor in Sciences, and actually a “membranologist”. The plasma membrane has been my research line all my life. The structure and function of the plasma membrane were generally speaking unknown when I started my research back in the 1960s. My research papers published in the field were cited thousands of times and the scientific evidences I gave were in great part the bases for what later on was known as the “mosaic fluid model” of the plasma membrane, which is the model used today to describe what we know now about this so important part of the cell. Afterwards I continued my research in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda Maryland, and I found the first solid evidences of what Martin Rodbell proposed as the “transducer” as a very important component in the mode of action of the hormones, mainly those that act through the adenylate cyclase system, an intrinsic component of the plasma membrane. This “transducer” was later on identified, isolated and was named G proteins. The plural came because these proteins were found to be in all signal transduction in all kind of systems. Rodbell received the Nobel Prize due to this discovery. This is not to say that I deserve anything related to this award, but to state the significance of my research, in the kind of experiments trying to obtain “the truth”, the answers to questions of a great scientific importance. I have many other papers published in the leading scientific journals, but with these two samples I think is enough for those who reading what follows do not assume that I am an ignorant and a person not involved in the scientific research.
We can summarize the scientific method as follows:
1. We have a question, a problem we want to solve.
2. We propose a possible answer. To this answer we call hypothesis.
3. We perform all the necessary experiments to prove our hypothesis.
4. If the experiments affirm, give evidences to support the hypothesis, this “answer” now is firmer and may be converted in a theory or in a law.
There may be infinite number of hypotheses, or sometimes maybe only one or two, either it is true or it is false. In any case we have to use all the information available to have hypotheses and then to choose the hypothesis that we consider is the one that have the highest probability to be true. It is also very important to know as much as we can relate to the problem to plan our experiments the best way possible.
Generally speaking the way described above is the way we develop our research projects. Now let’s discuss these problems about the DNA and the Book of Mormon.
First of all, when we start an investigation about anything and we choose an answer, a hypothesis, we should think that our hypothesis is correct. If you do not believe in what you try to prove, you are not to find anything. Most of the times we try to prove something as true, not the other way around; in other words, the search should be positive and not negative, we try to prove something to be true not to be false. Although sometimes we do the negative approach it is only to avoid wasting time in paths that maybe stop us in our work. However, the search looking for negative answers may make us to loose objectivity in our research. For instance if we had a recipient with one million pinto beans and we have information that among them exists a black bean, we can start looking for the black bean. If we have this in mind, we will start looking for methods to separate the pinto beans until we find the black one. If we try to prove that the existence of the black bean is false, we are going to be tempted to insist that “I have seen ten, a hundred or a thousand pinto beans and I have not seen a black been, therefore there is no black bean in this container.” This could be a completely wrong conclusion.
One more example: We are trying to set up a business and want to announce our product in a determined town through the radio (let’s assume we are in the 1950s and there is no TV). The town has a population of 10,000 people living in 100 blocks with 100 houses in each block. This is the information we have when we start our search. The question we have and want the answer to is: How many houses in this town have a radio? Depending of the answer, we will try to sell our product in the town or not. Our hypothesis should be a positive one, because we want to set up the business, if do not want this product to be sold there is no need to look for the radios. The hypothesis is that yes, there are enough radios in the town to start the business.
How are we going to find out the actual answer? We need all the information available and knowing some statistics methods, we may use one of the ways described below to get the answer (the list of course is not exhaustive):
1. We choose just one house in the town, any house we wanted and ask the question, do you have a radio in your home? The answer is yes, and we set up the business or the answer is no, and we leave and go to another town. This is of course stupid. Somebody that doesn’t want to sell the product in this town will do this and a no answer would be enough for him.
2. We go to 10 blocks and in every block we choose 10 houses and ask the question.
3. We go to one house in every one of the 100 blocks.
4. By random we choose 10 houses in every block
5. We visit all the houses in the town. This last “experiment” is going to answer our question with absolute certainty (if they do not lie to us) how many radios exist in the town.
Of course there are many other ways to find out the “truth” about our question, but for our discussion this will be enough.
Our hypothesis in the case of the Book of Mormon should be tat we really want to know that the Book of Mormon is true, not that it is false. This is what we the people doing scientific research do most of the times, and we are not looking for negative answers. Since we want to believe that the people using DNA want to find this truth, and it is not that they only want to continue to make a living attacking The Church, we have to start with this hypothesis, The Book of Mormon is true, and we are going to prove it with the DNA.
How are we going to do our experiments using the DNA? First, we need all possible information and use it.
The people doing this DNA testing started with the statement that ALL the “native Americans” are descendents of Lehi of the Book of Mormon. This is a mere assumption that should not be taken seriously, since they knew that there were many inhabitants in this continent of America who came from Asia through the Bering strait. It doesn’t matter that the assumption came from the Church, because then what they are trying to prove is that this affirmation is false not that the Book of Mormon is false. Two negative aspects already before they start. They are not trying to prove that the Book of Mormon is true, but that the Book of Mormon is false and starting from a false premise. This is too easy to prove, if the proportion of ALL the inhabitants of the continent versus the Lehi descendents is too big, then it will be enough to test few of the original general population and test them for the DNA and since they will not find the Hebrew DNA, then the conclusion will be the Book of Mormon is false, although the right conclusion should be NONE, or at the most that the statement that ALL the original inhabitants of the continent are Lehi descendents is false. This is as if we would go to just one house in the town (see above) and make the conclusion that THERE IS NO RADIOS IN THE TOWN, because they told us at that house that they do not have a radio. And this is because we did not want to sell our product in this particular town. But this is telling us something else, if we do not want the business there, or we do not believe that there are enough radios there, why are we wasting our time looking for them? This shows us why it is so important to have a positive hypothesis instead of a negative one. If we have the negative hypothesis many times we are going to miss many important facts, evolving from our research that may conduct us to the truth.
We cannot get correct conclusions starting from false assumptions. The very first members of the Church among them Joseph Smith himself, when they get the Book of Mormon, the book indicated to them that the descendents of Laman were the ones remaining here, after all the other descendents of Lehi were destroyed, and also when they had had in their hands the plates from where they translated the book, they concluded that ALL the original inhabitants of the continent were the descendents of Laman. However, the Book of Mormon does not affirm such assumption, and we have to remember that we want to prove that the Book of Mormon is true, not if the members of the Church are wrong. Those members did not have at the moment the knowledge, neither they needed to know the origin of other people living in the continent. The Book of Mormon deals just with a certain specific people, not with all the other. The starting assumption then was false, and the DNA researchers knew it, therefore knowing this, their experiments were under their specific agenda, meaning trying to prove the falsehood of the book not to find the truth.
The Book of Mormon encompasses a period of one thousand years about people that started with Lehi and his sons and Ishmael and his daughters. Just six men, the sons of Lehi and from them came ALL the Lamanites and Nephites of the Book of Mormon. The rest of the inhabitants of the American continent necessarily should be by far more numerous than the “remanent” of the Lehi descendents. This is obvious for several reasons. First the ones who were here first, came thousands of years before and we should assume continued coming for more years. Second, it is evident from the Book of Mormon that in those one thousand years of its history, AT LEAST two thirds of ALL the Lehi descendents were destroyed, since four of the Lehi’s sons were the fathers of the Nephites while only two were the ones giving birth to the Lamanites. Of course there may be many variables, but I am just using the data available. But nevertheless, they were fighting constantly among them and in the final war, the Nephites were exterminated, but many of the Lamanites also perished. From here we have to assume that the proportion of ALL the original inhabitants of the American continent versus the Lamanites should be tremendously more than the former. We do not know this proportion, although it can be calculated. We can assume for the sake of our discussion that the proportion may be 90+% versus around less than 1% (of course I do not have the data to affirm this but it is my conclusion with the information I have, and I accept that I may be wrong). With this data it is clear that they cannot perform experiments to prove that the Book of Mormon is true using samples of DNA coming from the original general population and trying to show in them the Hebrew DNA. What they are going to find there, is Asian originated DNA. The only way to find out the truth is if they have samples coming from people that we can affirm with some degree of certainty that they are the descendents described in the Book of Mormon. On the other hand if they tried to prove the negative hypothesis that the original inhabitants of the land are not Lehi’s descendents, this is very easy, get ten, one hundred or one thousand samples from the wrong people (pinto beans) and since they are not going to have the Hebrew DNA their conclusion is that the book is false. What is false is their conclusion.
The researchers gave us the data that the DNA of Hebrew origin that they found is around 0.6%, which is in the range I assume is right in the proportion between Lamanites and the general original population in America. They explained this saying that it is a contamination after Columbus, and support this assumption with the results of DNA samples obtained from pre-Columbus human remains with no Hebrew DNA. These samples have the same problem stated above that were obtained from the original general population. In the way they get the samples, if they had obtained Hebrew DNA either in these one or the other ones, (and they said they found 0.6%) this would prove precisely the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but if there is no Hebrew DNA this does not prove that the book is false. This is the kind of experiment we talked above with the radios, we went to one house and since we do not find a radio the conclusion is there is no radios in town. This is a false conclusion and we did not sell our product there.
What do we have to do to have good representative samples to have valid conclusions? First, we have to start believing our hypothesis; this means I try to prove that the Book of Mormon is true. Second, based in the proportions of the population (these should be calculated correctly) we will be able to know how many samples and where to obtain them. We should look where the Lehi’s descendents are. This is not going to be easy, but it can be done, although new problems will come with them.
We know the “House of Israel” is for reasons that we are not going to discuss now, the “chosen people”. Generally speaking then, they will be more receptive to the God commandments. Then we should think that if there is a “remanent” of the House of Israel as the Book of Mormon affirms, there should be a portion of this remanent that already have been taught and accepted to comply with the commandments. Since we are looking to prove the book to be true, we should take samples from them and analyze them for the Hebrew DNA. We should look for members of the Church with a valid temple recommend that we suspect due to their national origin to be descendents of Lehi, and for sure we will find in them the Hebrew DNA. I can assure this and I am here ready to be tested. However, these samples have the defect described above, although not as bad as the ones used coming form the general original population, and they may be contaminated with our assumed European origin. But, this is something we have to live with.
Besides after all I have said, I would like to ask this question, If God changed the appearance of their skin, don’t you think He did it through changes in their DNA to make the changes permanent? This leads me to say that as we say in Mexico, “no debieramos andarle buscando tres pies al gato sabiendo que tiene cuatro” (we should not be looking for three legs in the cat knowing that it has four), or to say it better: why are we looking to prove that the Book of Mormon is false when we know it is true? And we know this for many solid evidences we have and above all of them, for the personal revelation that we have received, mainly when we read the book and follow the counsel of Moroni at the end of the book: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”