Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted

From the time he was a child in Peru, the Mormon Church instilled in Jose A. Loayza the conviction that he and millions of other Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.

"We were taught all the blessings of that Hebrew lineage belonged to us and that we were special people," said Loayza, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "It not only made me feel special, but it gave me a sense of transcendental identity, an identity with God."

A few years ago, Loayza said, his faith was shaken and his identity stripped away by DNA evidence showing that the ancestors of American natives came from Asia, not the Middle East.

"I've gone through stages," he said. "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness."

For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error...

Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.

Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.

Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.

"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."


Interestingly, the person who made the discovery is a former Bishop in the church.

In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.

Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.

Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.

Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.

The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.

"They can't admit that it's not historical," Southerton said. "They would feel that there would be a loss of members and loss in confidence in Joseph Smith as a prophet."


Echoes of Orthodox Jews reinterpreting Genesis abound:

Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.

"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.

"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.

Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.

The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.

"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."

Southerton said the new interpretation was counter to both a plain reading of the text and the words of Mormon leaders.

"The apologists feel that they are almost above the prophets," Southerton said. "They have completely reinvented the narrative in a way that would be completely alien to members of the church and most of the prophets."

The church has not formally endorsed the apologists' views, but the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — http://www.lds.org — cites their work and provides links to it.


Reactions have varied among the faithful. One said, "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers. I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week." Phil Ormsby, a Polynesian who grew up believing he was a Hebrew had a different reaction: "Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity. I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."

(Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted, via digg)

16 comments:

Sadie Lou said...

That was an interesting article. I have always been fascinated with the history of the Mormon church. An elder at our church was a Mormon and then he started asking the "wrong" questions and then had to appeal to the church to "leave the faith". He showed my husband and I the letters that they wrote back to him and they are so weird. I can't even begin to describe how I feel when I read them.
I did a study, on my own (for my own pleasure) about cults and the Mormon faith totally qualifies. The deeper you get into their practices--the stranger it becomes.

Mis-nagid said...

Did you see my post on the article to The Frum Skeptics Group?

Jewish Atheist said...

mis-nagid:

No, sorry. I unsubscribed a while back. The group wasn't really that relevant to me anymore, being an un-frum skeptic. :)

(Also, I can't read the post you linked without re-joining.)

Foilwoman said...

Science and faith. I've got to give the Mormons credit where credit is due: they aren't (at least as you've described) trying to discredit the DNA evidence. They're trying to reinterpret their "inerrant" book to accommodate new facts. Good for them. Better than the Catholic Church or the new Earth creationists.

Mis-nagid said...

Foilwoman, what are you talking about? Of course they are.

Mis-nagid said...

JA, I'm sorry to hear that, but I understand. You can always subscribe and configure your settings to have it not send you any emails. That way, you can at least peruse the archives should the mood strike you.

Jewish Atheist said...

mis-nagid:

Okay, I rejoined and read your post. Wow. Your emails and comments are consistently as good or better than the best j-bloggers out there. You should consider opening a blog to at least simul-post your emails there.

The rest of you who aren't members should at least read this article which he links to which closely parallels the article I posted. It's about evidence that casts serious doubt on the Exodus story and the Jews' varying reactions:

After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua's leadership. To the contrary, the prevailing view is that most of Joshua's fabled military campaigns never occurred--archeologists have uncovered ash layers and other signs of destruction at the relevant time at only one of the many battlegrounds mentioned in the Bible.

Today, the prevailing theory is that Israel probably emerged peacefully out of Canaan--modern-day Lebanon, southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of Israel--whose people are portrayed in the Bible as wicked idolators. Under this theory, the Canaanites who took on a new identity as Israelites were perhaps joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt--explaining a possible source of the Exodus story, scholars say. As they expanded their settlement, they may have begun to clash with neighbors, perhaps providing the historical nuggets for the conflicts recorded in Joshua and Judges.

"Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we've broken the news very gently," said William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona and one of America's preeminent archeologists....

At Sinai Temple, Sunday's sermon--and a follow-up discussion at Monday's service--provoked tremendous, and varied, response. Many praised Wolpe for his courage and vision. "It was the best sermon possible, because it is preparing the young generation to understand all the truth about religion," said Eddia Mirharooni, a Beverly Hills fashion designer.

A few said they were hurt--"I didn't want to hear this," one woman said--or even a bit angry. Others said the sermon did nothing to shake their faith that the Exodus story is true.

"Science can always be proven wrong," said Kalanit Benji, a UCLA undergraduate in psychobiology.

Added Aman Massi, a 60-year-old Los Angeles businessman: "For sure it was true, 100%. If it were not true, how could we follow it for 3,300 years?"

But most congregants, along with secular Jews and several rabbis interviewed, said that whether the Exodus is historically true or not is almost beside the point. The power of the sweeping epic lies in its profound and timeless message about freedom, they say.

Foilwoman said...

Misnagid: Well, color me unsurprised. I was trying to find a positive thing to say about the Mormon church. In the past, I have made my disbelief in their dogma and teachings overly well known, and won't repeat myself. I was trying to be complimentary about one small thing, but was, as you have kindly pointed out, in error. Thank you, although it's nice to be wrong about stuff like that. It's a pity I was (wrong in believing they weren't attacking the actual science).

Ben Avuyah said...

>>"Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity. I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."


Yeah, that about sums it up...

jewish philosopher said...

I have done a little a reseach in comparative religion and in my humble opinion, the most irrational religion popular today is Mormonism [I am so tempted to take the second "m" out.]. The most rational is Orthodox Judaism. If anyone has other candidates, I'm all ears.

dbs said...

I think that what happens is that when organized religion is confronted with scientific evidence which contradicts a doctrine, the first reaction is usually to discredit the science. This was more effective in the good old days when you could just burn the scientists at the stake. As the science becomes more generally accepted, the doctrine will be tuned up in order to be non contradictory. I’m sure that the vast majority of the converted will continue to believe in their Laminite descent.

BTW, GH posted the same article this morning. Spooky.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Re the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt —

I'm surprised this comes as news to anybody. Scholarship departed from the biblical account of events decades ago: for example, by theorizing that the "twelve tribes" were not descended from Jacob, but were in fact twelve separate peoples who formed a political / military alliance and thereafter developed into a nation.

On the other hand, there's virtually no data to work from once you get back to David's era, let alone any further back than that. Even the archaeological evidence is negative: "We didn't find anything, so we conclude it never happened."

In the end, it's a question of onus. Is the onus on believers to produce evidence that it happened? Or is the onus on unbelievers to produce evidence that it never happened?

Scholarship always begins from a position of doubt. That is, biblical history is presumed false until scholars can produce evidence to the contrary.

Which is fair enough: science is, by design, a sceptical discipline. However, it's also perfectly fair for believers to adopt the opposite stance: that we will continue to believe until scholars produce evidence to disprove our faith.

There will likely never be any such evidence with respect to Israel's origins. Unlike the story in your post, which can point to DNA evidence to disprove one of the stories contained in the Book of Mormon.

Random said...

FW,

Actually if you read past the somewhat hysterical headline and go into the meat of the article M-N linked to, you'll see you were more or less right first time. The Mormon scientist linked to isn't attempting to discredit the DNA, he's just attempting to show why it doesn't automatically disprove the book of Mormon. This interpretation for example -

"Did the colonizers merge with an existing population? Intermarriage with a native population of unknown genetic origin would make it difficult to identify which genetic signature was passed to the descendants. A large native population might quickly swamp out the colonizers' genetic markers."

is perfectly good science and something that has been seen elsewhere in history.

Disclaimer - none of this is meant as an endorsement of Mormon beliefs, which I find to be eccentric in the extreme. It's just pointing out that when this guy says the science isn't definitive enough to disprove the book of Mormon he's essentially right.

LDS Patriot said...

It is scientifically unsound to claim "DNA science has disproved the Latter-day Saint assertion that the Book of Mormon is historical reality." Before you buy into that specious argument, get the facts first. Facts are our friends and shouldn’t be shunned.

Here is a summary of the scientific facts to date:

Those who make this claim have not done actual DNA studies that had the premise of being a litmus test the Book of Mormons historical claims. Rather, they have sloppily borrowed other research and cast out unwarranted accusations against the Book of Mormon. Clearly this hardly is a "scientific" approach, as I’m sure you would agree (if you know anything about science in the least, that is).

DNA has supported New World immigrations from Asiatic populace, and to that we say, "So what?" This falls short of disproving the Book of Mormon for several reasons.

1) The Book of Mormon doesn’t deal with all ancient New World peoples. Meaning, the geography and group in the Book of Mormon is very limited, and other peoples were present in the New World before Lehi’s family came over. Take this into account and that means "scientific" conclusions are impossible.

2) We don’t know what Israelite DNA from Lehi’s time looks like. Therefore, without a base line, without knowing what to look for, "scientific" conclusions are impossible.

3) DNA markers can and do disappear. Take into account the combined effects of Genetic Bottleneck, the Founder Effect and Genetic Drift, and that means "scientific" conclusions are impossible.

DNA evidence is not incompatible with a belief that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient document. That is the only "scientific" conclusion that can be confirmed at the moment.

Is An Historical Book of Mormon Compatible With DNA Science?
http://www.fairlds.org/apol/brochures/BoMDNA.pdf

DNA and the Book of Mormon
http://www.fairlds.org/apol/ai195.html

Antitheist said...

So the dude who dreamed up the Mormon thingy had the angel Moroni appear during one of his psychotic episodes? Shouldn't he have waited for angel Smarty to show up?? Perhaps?

So Orthodox Judaism is the most rational religion? As in "a thief being the most harmless criminal"?

So many questions, so little time.

Yours truly, a recovering religious mind-rape victim...

Anonymous said...

Joseph Smith said “The Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth… and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church, 4:461.) Note that he didn’t say it was perfect, only that it is the MOST correct. And he qualified even further: man would get closer to God by FOLLOWING ITS PRECEPTS than by any other book. Not history, archeology, genetics or anything else. The only purpose of this book is to communicate spiritual principles.

The Book of Mormon itself acknowledges imperfections. The prophet Moroni concluded his father’s record by excusing the errors, if there were any, to the faults of men. (see Mormon. 8:17)

There is a lot of things I don't understand in this world. I don't understand the pain and suffering, experienced by people everywhere: earth quakes, tsunami’s, hurricanes, tornadoes, draughts, floods, famine and pestilences. Nor do I understand the mayhem directly applied by people to each other and themselves: Over 50 % of marriages end in divorce, drug abuse is rampant, violent crime is up, and government is dysfunctional. Wars and despotic rulers are to numerous to list.

While the world is going to hell in a hand basket, I find comfort and direction by applying the precepts and principles of the Book of Mormon in my life. For example, it teaches that God lives, Jesus is the Christ. Although God seldom removes my challenges he does help me through them. The Book teaches priorities, humility, gratitude, and the importance of serving my fellow man.

I know those precepts and principles are true. The historical, archeological and genetic implications of the Book of Mormon may be interesting, (Yes, there are scientific evidences FOR the Book of Mormon) but they have l little impact on my heart and soul. I have no testimony of them.