The debate is relevant here because science is the main reason why so many LDS scholars and educators reject what Joseph and Oliver taught about one Cumorah in New York.
Well, not science, actually; it’s their perceptions and assumptions about science that lead them to the conclusions they wanted to reach in the first place.*
Two worldviews are competing for influence. They are not exclusive to one another; plenty of religious people who believe in the Bible (as well as the latter-day scriptures) are scientists who study and utilize scientific theories, the laws of nature, etc.
However, most scientists are materialists, and, by definition, materialists do not believe in God, spirits, or any reality that cannot be measured or detected by senses (augmented with instrumentation). They think there are physical explanations for everything, without God.
From a persuasion standpoint, materialism is succeeding in modern societies around the world. When science claims to explain everything, what need is there for God? Or faith? Or adherence to religious doctrines and practices? Especially when these are perceived (because they are portrayed) as limiting freedom and expression?
Some LDS scholars and educators hope to “thread the needle” by using science to explain everything, pursuant to the materialism philosophy, while assuring youth, missionaries, investigators, and members that there is really no conflict between religion and science. “All we have to do,” they say, “is adjust the scriptures to comply with what science is telling us,” and we’re good. We can still believe in God, keep the ordinances, obey the commandments, etc., and we’ll find happiness in this life and eternal life after we die.
I understand that worldview, and I’m not writing this to say it is “wrong.” However, I don’t think it’s the only way to reconcile science and religion, and I don’t think it is sustainable because once we pull some threads out of the scriptures, what remains can unravel pretty quickly.
(It’s similar to my point that once our scholars say Joseph and Oliver were wrong about so basic a matter as what they claimed was a fact that Cumorah was in New York, we’ve embarked on a never-ending assessment of what else they may have been “mistaken” about.)
Instead, I suggest that the “modern science explains everything” approach is not the only viable working hypothesis, and that people can consider multiple working hypotheses.
I propose that there remains a place for literalism, meaning a literal interpretation of the scriptures, and that current science may not explain everything quite as well as it thinks it does.
A key issue is the creation of the Earth and humanity; i.e., is the Earth 4.3 billion years old, with humans evolving 200,000 years ago after eons of evolutionary development, or is humanity only 6,000 years old, starting with Adam and Eve who lived in an unchanging Garden of Eden before the Fall?
As I mentioned, some LDS scholars thread the needle by reconciling religious beliefs in spirituality and God with concepts of materialism by observing that everything in our reality can be explained without God’s involvement, but that God does subtly guide people and provide a Savior to compensate for their mistakes.
A well-known advocate of this view is BYU Professor Steven L. Peck, whose 2017 book Science the Key to Theology, Volume One: Preliminaries, addresses evolution and intelligent design in Chapter 7. In my view, he caricatures and ridicules intelligent design (ID), but you can read his argument for yourself.
Here’s how he summarizes his point (page 164).
“Keep in mind if evolution is true, that’s the way the world works. We have to deal with it. We may need to readjust how we think about creation, but evolution certainly does not negate that the world was created, that the universe has a purpose, or that God is intelligent. Evolution does not touch our doctrines. We may have to reinterpret some of our literalisms. Sure. But I think that’s part of what it means to have an open canon.
“So if you don’t want to believe in evolution, fine. Just don’t buy into letting ID be taught in the schools unless you really, really, want your children to find that invisibility cloak.”
Do you see how this is essentially the same approach taken by the proponents of the Mesoamerican and two-Cumorahs advocates?
They, too, think we “have to reinterpret some of our literalisms,” such as Letter VII, the Wentworth letter, and everything else Joseph and Oliver actually said about Book of Mormon geography. Plus, we have to reinterpret the text to find references to volcanoes, jungles, Mayan temples, etc.
As one of them wrote, the Book of Mormon is evidence of what Joseph said was on the plates–what he dictated–but we don’t have evidence of what was actually on the plates; i.e., a Mesoamerican expert would have translated the plates differently, giving effect to the undoubtedly Mesoamerican context of the undoubtedly Mesoamerican codex.
This is the rationale for BMAF’s mission statement, the goal “to increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex.” BMAF owns Book of Mormon Central and integrates with FairMormon, etc. They all share the BMAF mission statement, although some are less forthcoming about that than others.
To borrow Brother Peck’s term, the proponents of evolution and the Mesoamerican theory are blind to their own invisibility cloaks. They literally don’t see, or at least don’t acknowledge, that they are engaging in circular reasoning; i.e., they make assumptions that their premises (stated and unstated) represent reality, and then they build their approach to confirm those premises.
Many people have written many books about science vs. religion, even within the subset of LDS culture and beliefs. My interest in the topic focuses on the impact of capitulating to the scientists.
It seems strange to me that a person who interprets the scriptures literally can find little if any support, let alone additional knowledge and training, at BYU or in CES.
It’s a big challenge for missionaries to teach Bible-believing people, not only because of squabbles about whether God has a body and other interpretations of Biblical passages, but more fundamentally, because there is little room in current LDS media/publications for literal beliefs in such basic Biblical teachings as the creation of the Earth and Adam and Eve. This is all the more challenging because those basic Biblical teachings are corroborated by the Book of Mormon, the D&C, and the Pearl of Great Price.
Maybe this capitulation to the scientists reflects the “open canon” that Brother Peck alludes to. Maybe we have rejected a literal belief in the scriptures because we’ve deferred to the latest scientific theories and discoveries. But if we haven’t, we ought to at least give a voice to literal interpretations as one of multiple working hypotheses.
*For example, the Mesoamerican advocates claim the destruction in 3 Nephi must have been caused by volcanoes because there are scientists who say so. It doesn’t matter that volcanoes are never mentioned in the text because, they say, there is only one scientific explanation for “the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth,” as well as the “vapor of darkness” described in 3 Nephi 8.
Except the science doesn’t actually say there is only one explanation.
In fact, each of the phenomena described in the text also occurred during the New Madrid earthquakes along the Mississippi River in the early 1800s.
But that evidence doesn’t fit the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory, so it is rejected in favor of the “scientific” explanation that relies on volcanoes.
Do you see how this works? The assumptions (that Joseph and Oliver were wrong about Cumorah because Cumorah is in Mexico and the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica) drive everything.
It probably is true that the only scientific way to explain 3 Nephi 8 in Mesoamerica is by pointing to volcanoes. But those who read the text can plainly see zero references to volcanoes. That alone would exclude Mesoamerica from consideration if we accepted the text for what it says. Scholars would look elsewhere if they were being rational. But as they say, because of Mesomania they can’t unsee Mesoamerica when they read the text. They read into it what they want to see.
This is all the more exasperating because what the text actually describes is what actually happens along the river valleys in the Midwestern U.S. It’s a matter of historical record, not speculation.
I use this example to show that it is not science that leads people to the Mesoamerican theory, but the underlying assumptions that then drive a search for a scientific explanation to corroborate the preordained conclusion.
Source: Book of Mormon Wars