Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Roles of Faith and Science

This is a continuation of two previous posts: What is God? The Mormon Version and Seeds of Doubt.

In retrospect, spiritual experiences have pretty mundane explanations once you understand a little bit about human psychology. I would highly recommend Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind for a very interesting exploration of the wonders of the mind. But I'm pretty comfortable that what I was taught were spiritual experiences caused by an external power were actually exceptional, but normal products of human consciousness.

I have always marveled and continue to be awed by the beauty and complexity of the universe and its origins are beyond my comprehension. But my life has led me to believe that even though you don't have the explanation, one can be found. Sometimes explanations are elusive. Some have taken lifetimes to find. But the history of mankind repeatedly shows that when sought, explanations to even the thorniest conundrums follow.

I was raised in a Mormon church that coexisted comfortably with science and knowledge and as a result I was always encouraged to ask questions. The truth has nothing to fear from questions and careful probing because it has nothing to hide. Errors and falsehoods can't hold up to inquiry, but the truth has nothing to fear. The church of my childhood was fearlessly and unapologetically true. My church heroes were James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe, educated and thoughtful men who fearlessly sought and defended the truth.

I highly recommend B. H. Roberts' book, Studies of the Book of Mormon. B. H. was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, the church historian, editor of The Comprehensive History of the Church, and author of many volumes that explained and defended the history and doctrines of the church. His unofficial title was Defender of the Faith. A person sent a letter to the church with some questions about the Book of Mormon. The questions were given to Mr Roberts to answer. Initially he assumed that it would be easy to answer these questions in a manner that would confirm the plausibility of the Book of Mormon as a history of the Indians. However the more he studied the more he realized that the facts were simply inconsistent with the story in the Book of Mormon. He was so concerned by the implications that he petitioned to discuss the issues with the highest leaders of the church. His concerns were dismissed. But he documented his concerns in the above book which was published posthumously. It is interesting that he concluded that there was good evidence that the Book of Mormon was a product of 19th century America and that Joseph Smith was capable of producing the book. While he never renounced his religion or his testimony, it becomes clear that he had serious doubts/concerns and that he felt that the questions were legitimate and that they needed to be addressed by the church. This is clear example of an honest man who understood that the truth needed to provide answers and not ask people to just have faith and ignore evidence against their beliefs.

The book is also interesting because the questions are really only problematic if you believe that the Book of Mormon is the history of the principle ancestors of the American Indians (the so-called hemispheric model). Modern apologists deal with the questions with a modern Mormon invention called the limited geography theory that states that the Book of Mormon is only the history of a portion (possibly quite small) of the original Americans that was possibly limited to an unknown, small geographical area which they suppose is in meso-America. Never mind that this directly contradicts the public teachings of every single Mormon prophet starting with Joseph Smith and the beliefs of most Mormons to this day; the educated Mormons realize that the hemispheric model is strongly contradicted by all available evidence and so the limited geography theory is the only plausible explanation unless you want to deny mountains of scientific evidence. B. H. Roberts was about as educated and knowledgeable as any person in the church in the early 20th century. If he had known of or accepted the limited geography theory or some variant thereof he would have mentioned it. But the fact that he didn't is pretty good evidence that he and others in authority in the church believed what the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith taught: the American Indians are direct descendants of Lehi and the primary ancestors of the hemisphere. Yet today's Mormon apologists pretend as if this is a simple misunderstanding of the church's founder and followers and that this is not and has never been doctrinal.

My point is, I was raised to believe that a belief in God and a belief in science are mutually compatible but somewhere I got the heretical belief that when faith and science are in conflict that science should win. Faith is belief without evidence, so when evidence conflicts with faith then the evidence should win out. My definition of faith was always a belief in things not proven that are true. If they contradict evidence then they are not true and thus can be rejected as true faith. I think that this is still a good definition to work with. I still believe in faith. I don't know everything, so I find faith very helpful.

The Mormon church today seems to have retreated into an intellectual siege mentality where the current president of the Quorum of the Twelve and next man in line to succession to the presidency has declarde that there are things that are true that aren't particularly useful and that those facts should be suppressed and that church members that publish those facts should be punished. Needless to say, this is not characteristic of the church of my youth and is not consistent with what I consider to be true faith. It is the worst form of dogmatism: blind belief.

Ultimately, I expanded my horizons and allowed myself to consider facts that contradicted my life long beliefs about the church. My core beliefs about faith and science didn't change, but they did force me to abandon my belief in the truthfulness of the Mormon church. In the end, its claims simply don't hold up to close scrutiny and its efforts to hide the facts just make it clear that it knows the facts aren't on its side.

1 comment:

Cynthia E. Bagley said...


I enjoy your essays. And, I was taught the same thing about faith and evidence. When there is evidence, then faith does not need to exist. Also, science (evidence) wins over faith.

So I have been surprised at the changes in the church. I have been out of it since 1988. So the childhood church I remember is totally different.