About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
The silliness of Mormonism
An interesting occasion to discuss Mormonism in particular has come recently because of a slight change in the Introduction to the Book of Mormons that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has just released. The new Introduction features an additional word to the canonical text: “among.” As in “After thousands of years all [ancient Israeli tribes] were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” You see, the previous version simply said “are” the ancestors.
The big deal is that apparently this is a (small) concession by Mormons to modern science. As the Church itself explains it in an article in the New York Times, “the scientific issues relating to DNA are numerous and complex.” Indeed, like the fact that American Indians have no direct relation whatsoever to any Israeli tribe, no matter what the good Book claims. Then again, said Book also claims that Jesus (of whose historical existence in Palestine we are not even sure, though it’s probable) came to America. The first time I heard a Mormon asking me if I was aware of this “fact” I thought he was joking.
Turns out he wasn’t, because Mormons believe that their Book is factually correct, in the same way, of course, in which many other Christians regard the Old and New Testaments as factual. But if it is about facts revealed by God, how can the Book change over time? Indeed, the Introduction itself only dates to 1981 (while the main body is much older: 1830). No problem, says former editor of the Mormon Dialogue, Bob Rees. You see, “'God speaks of the (Mormon) church as being a living church and if it is, that means it's not static, there's an opportunity for change. ... The history of science is the history of revising axioms. The things that we know and were certain of 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 10 years ago, we now have to say, 'Wow, we didn't know.''”
Well, Bob, the difference is that science is supposed to change because it is a human quest for knowledge about the universe, knowledge that ought to be revisable in the face of new evidence. But for a religion to be “living” in this sense, it must mean that God changed His mind about things. Could it be that when God talked to 19th century Mormons about the (alleged) relationship between the Lamanites and the American Indians he didn’t know about DNA evidence? Oops.
That’s what happens whenever any religion takes its “sacred” books literally. It sets itself on an automatic collision course with science, which will eventually show that God’s factual truths aren’t so factual after all. Why ask for trouble? Why not interpret scriptures metaphorically? On this, post-modernists have it right: if you declare the death of the author, and the fact that there is no right way to interpret a text, then you are automatically exempt from any critical analysis of whatever you say about said text. Of course, the price to pay for that trick is called relativism. Oh well, you can’t have your God and eat it too.