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Wednesday, December 11, 2002
An interesting controversy has sprung up involving a professor who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and who sought to show genetic links between pre-Columbian Native American tribes and White Americans. I am no expert on Mormon theology, but as I understand it, the Book of Mormon, which was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith by a messenger of God, set forth a history of pre-Columbian America where Jesus visited and ministered to tribes after his crucifixion and resurrection in the Middle East, and those who followed him were fair-skinned and God's chosen people. (This explains the Church's resistance, until relatively recently, in according blacks the opportunity to attain the priesthood-- the theology was that darker-skinned people bore the "mark of Cain" in recognition of the darker-skinned tribes' rejection of Jesus' teaching when he visited the Americas.)

The professor, as I noted, looked for genetic links between native American fossils and Caucasians, attempting to prove that the Book of Mormon was truthful in recounting whites living in America before European settlement. Unfortunately, his research instead led him to conclude that Scripture was incorrect and that no whites lived in America before the Europeans came. When he made his conclusions public, the Church initiated proceedings to discipline, and perhaps excommunicate, the professor.

This is not the first clash between Joseph Smith's revealed word and scientific truth. One of the important Mormon Scriptures, the "Pearl of Great Price", contains the "Book of Abraham", which Smith claimed to have translated from Egyptian hyroglyphics using special lenses. However, what Smith claimed were the original Egyptian texts were examined by modern Egyptologists, and they turned out to be ordinary funerary offerings, not Mormon Scriptures.

Obviously, the Mormons should be heartily condemned for their assaults on academic freedom and the seeking of scientific truth. But beneath that, I feel a certain sympathy for the Mormons. Their Church is less than 200 years old and has grown very fast, now claiming millions of members. Salt Lake City, settled by Mormon Pioneers led by Prophet Brigham Young, is an extremely impressive, beautiful and vibrant city which just hosted a successful Winter Olympics. Brigham Young University not only has excellent academic programs but also boasts a top-rate athletic program; their football team has even won a national championship. And they have overcome their prior racial discrimination to become one of the most diverse of American religions; no longer are Mormons always white suburbanites from large families, as they once were. They have had an amazing run.

But the reason I feel sympathy is because the youth of their religion puts them at an extreme disadvantage with respect to the interaction of science and their religion. All religions, of course, clash with science to some extent; only the most fundamentalist Jews and Christians, for instance, still believe that the earth was populated in the sequence and in the timeframe set forth in Genesis. But younger religions have it worse, because not only does science call into question their beliefs regarding events at the beginning of history, but also the more recent events set forth in their texts.

To see this, imagine if Christ had been executed in the 19th Century, rather than 2000 years ago. That would likely mean that Christ would have identifiable living distant relatives. Bodies could be exumed, and DNA compared, to show that "the Messiah" was in fact still buried in the ground and no resurrection had occurred. The facts relating to miracles could be investigated, and secular explanations proffered. It would be possible to show (either through genetics or the fossil record) that animals who never made it onto Noah's Ark nonetheless survived the flood and reproduced. Contemporaneous reports of events set forth in Scripture would have appeared in newspapers and magazines, calling religious parables and legends into question.

This is what the Mormons face, not because their religion is any less true than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, but simply because it came around later and is thus more amenable to scientific scrutiny. These days, of course, they react by shutting down inquiry by practicing church members; that, of course, is just going to shift the inquiry over to more skeptical non-members. In the long term, the Mormons will have to adopt a more flexible view with respect to the truth of their holy texts, just as many Christians and Jews no longer believe in the literal truth of their Scriptures at least as to matters such as evolution and the fossil record. But there is also a certain smugness out there, especially among some evangelical Christians who view the Mormons as heretics and who are seizing on these findings as a way to bring Mormons "back to Christ". On a theolgical level, the problem for Mormons is not that science has proven their sacred texts to be incorrect; it is that science has that capability to a greater extent than it does with older religions.

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