If I could ask them one question . . .
Come Follow Me, Lesson 43
For Come Follow Me, lesson 43, Nov 2-8, Mormon 7-9
If I wanted to encourage thought and try to understand devout believers better, I might ask:
“Is lack of DNA evidence a major challenge to Book of Mormon truth claims?”
Things to consider:
- In the Book of Mormon reading for this coming week’s lesson, about 1,000 years after Lehi and his group left Jerusalem, Moroni claimed descent from Lehi (Mormon 8:13).
- Lehi was a descendant of Jacob (Israel) through Joseph (1 Ne 5:14 and 2 Ne 3:4) and Manasseh (Alma 10:3). Furthermore, “Another refutation of the apologetic detour that we don’t know anything about Lehi’s lineage is the fact that one of the reasons Nephi had to decapitate a drunken man was to get his father’s genealogy that was written on the plates” (1 Ne 3:2-4 and 1 Ne 4:17-18, and a big thanks to Hagoth of NewOrderMormon for pointing this other refutation out to me).
- Lehi’s offspring married and presumably had children with the offspring of Ismael. It is claimed that Ishmael was of the Tribe of Ephraim. “The Prophet Joseph informed us … That Ishmael was of the lineage of Ephraim” (Apostle Erastus Snow, Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, 184). And, “we know that Ishmael, who was the other founder of the colony, was a descendant of Ephraim. This we learn from the Prophet Joseph Smith” (Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 3, 197 according to FairMormon). Since Ephraim was the other son of Joseph, Ishmael too was descended from Jacob (Israel).
- As if that were not enough to tie the Book of Mormon people to the House of Israel, the book says the Mulekites came to the Americas from Jerusalem separately from the Lehites after king Zedekiah was taken captive. Presumably all the Mulekites would have been of the House of Israel. Certainly, Mulek was since he was the son of king Zedekiah, an Israelite king. Zarahemla was a descendant of Mulek (Mosiah 25:2), and more than 500 years after the Mulekites left Jerusalem, Coriantumr is identified as a descendant of Zarahemla (Helaman 1:15).
- These assertions that Book of Mormon characters were descendants of the House of Israel are throughout the book. There are even references where groups of thousands of individuals are claimed to be descendants of Israel (Alma 24:29, Alma 56:3, and 3 Ne 10:4).
- The problem is that there is no genetic evidence to support the claim that Israelites migrated to and established any colonies in the pre-Columbian Americas.
- But, what of the saying, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”? In other words, “not having DNA evidence for such a migration is not evidence the migration did not occur, right?” Wrong. Unfortunately for the Church, this apologetic argument holds little weight. It is true that the lack of evidence for this Book of Mormon claim does not prove there were not Israelis in the pre-Columbian Americas, but it is definitely strong enough evidence to justifiably conclude this amazingly extraordinary claim is false.
Absence of evidence, or the failure to observe evidence that favors a hypothesis, is evidence against that hypothesis. This is because we are significantly more likely not to see evidence for a hypothesis when it is false than not to see it when it’s true — some assertions demand that the universe be screaming with supporting evidence, so when that evidence is not actually observed, it counts against it.”
~ RationalWiki, Absence of evidence
- So, the more common you would expect the evidence to be if the claim were true, the more justified you are to conclude the claim is false, if there is no evidence for the claim. With all the assertions in the Book of Mormon that so many different individuals were descendants of Israelites even hundreds of years after the Lehites are said to have arrived in the Americas, we would expect genetic evidence to support the claim of Israelis in pre-Columbian Americas to be common.
- It’s outside the scope of this post to cover the strength of the DNA evidence against the claim that Israelites came to the Americas thousands of years ago. If you’re interested in that evidence, I recommend the work of Simon Southerton at his blog, Simon’s DNA Musings, and his newer site, Simon’s DNA Snippets.
- Suffice it to say, I understand the genetic evidence well enough that the apologetic arguments reveal to me ignorance or dishonesty are probably at the bottom of such apologetics. When I first came out as a non-believer, my bishop asked me to tell him why I could no longer believe the Church’s truth claims. I wrote 19 pages of issues without much background or citations, because he’s an intelligent man with a doctorate degree. If he had been interested, he could have Googled any of it or asked me about it. There was only one of my points he tried to argue against – the DNA evidence. As background, he explained that though he was not a geneticist, he studied a hard science during his undergraduate work. He then tried to give a common apologetic argument at the time for the DNA problem. I listened, and when he was done, I explained that I too was not a geneticist, but that I had a bachelor’s in Biology, and I pointed out how that would be more germane to the subject he chose than his undergraduate studies. I then quickly pointed out the flaw in the apologetic he tried. He backpedalled by admitting he knew the argument he had used was bad even before using it. o_O
- Like my former bishop, it seems the Church recognized the weakness of its stand because of DNA evidence, so it changed the introduction to the Book of Mormon in 2006. It used to say the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Since the 2006 edition of the book, the Introduction says the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians” (Introduction). The new version of the Introduction does fit a little better with the evidence.
- However, the previous claim that the Lamanites are the principal ancestors of the American Indians fits much better with the:
- Teachings of the prophets and apostles until 2006,
- Doctrine and Covenants Revelations about Lamanites, and
- Narrative of The Book of Mormon itself.
- Here’s how the case was asserted in 1842:
In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country
~ Joseph Smith, Wentworth Letter, Church History, p. 707
- So, who’s “teaching the philosophy of men mingled with a few scriptures” (language borrowed from President Ezra Taft Benson, lest you think I mock the temple endowment)? The prophets of days gone by, or the prophets of today? Either way, how can you trust they speak for God, given their story seems to change?
- But I can see how the old teachings of prophets would be uncomfortable to accept in spite of the problems it creates to deny the old teachings. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that you just are not able to accept this teaching of the scriptures and prophets, that the Amerindians are actually blood descendants of Lehi and company. There is no way to get around the fact that the Book of Mormon at the very least describes a people that is culturally descended from a group of Israelite Christians. In other words, even if the vast majority of people described in the Book of Mormon were not blood relatives, their culture, as described in the book, was dominated by Lehi and company. Even if you can convince yourself that the actual blood lineage was so small as to be presently undetectable, there still should be an abundance of evidence of a people whose language, culture, and technology would have left an indelible mark.
- I hope you can indulge me as I borrow from the rhetorical style in Elder Holland’s talk, Safety for the Soul.
Evidence from various fields of study like paleontology, archaeology, metallurgy, linguistics, and genetics demonstrate that the Lamanites are not ancestors (literally or figuratively) of Native Americans. As one of a thousand elements of my own conclusion that the Book of Mormon is fiction, I submit this as yet one more evidence it is the work of man. In this day when access to information contrary to the LDS Church’s claims is at its highest, I ask you: would reasonable evidence fail to support the existence of Book of Mormon peoples if the book were true?
Never mind that the Book of Mormon is filled with 19th century anachronisms. Never mind that the Book of Mormon is said by the Church to be translated by putting a peep stone into a hat. Never mind that the Book of Mormon recounts as actual events impossible tales like the Jaredite barges or the global flood. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether reasonable evidence for a large population completely dominated by an Israelite people would be nonexistent or undetectable? It would not be that way! The peoples of the Book of Mormon are described as so large and so influenced by the Israelite group of Lehi that the evidence would be voluminous.
Other observations about this lesson’s reading:
- Mormon speaks to the remnant of his people, but no one knows who that is anymore (Mormon 7:1).
- Apparently, if you believe the Bible, you will believe the Book of Mormon (Mormon 7:8-9, see also my If I Could Ask … Lesson 10 where I ask, “Could this one weird trick let you discern if someone is really a Christian?”).
- Moroni sees no fault in the Book of Mormon record and fearmongers threats of hell fire to those who condemn. I think Moroni has some serious confirmation bias going on here (Mormon 8:17-18).
- I wonder whether it makes sense that someone who believes in the Lord would operate on the basis of trying to destroy the Lord’s work (Mormon 8:21).
- Again, the magnitude of Book of Mormon miracles seems to contrasts sharply with those in the modern Church (Mormon 8:24 and Mormon 9:15, see also my If I Could Ask … Lesson 24 about how amazing Book of Mormon prophecies seem compared to what today’s Church leaders offer), but if we take Moroni at his word, perhaps the less than amazing miracles of the modern Church are because today’s Saints lack faith (Mormon 9:20)?
- The book condemns forgiveness of sins for money, but wouldn’t that also condemn, in principle, paying money in order to receive salvific temple ordinances (Mormon 8:32)?
- I point out that the modern Church may not be aligned with the Book of Mormon priority of taking care of the needy and afflicted before adorning churches (Mormon 8:37).
- I wonder what is meant by endless happiness and misery which never dies since the God of the Doctrine and Covenants uses words like “endless” to trick people (Mormon 8:38 and D&C 19:6-12).
- An allusion to a sword seems anachronistic (Mormon 8:41, see also my If I Could Ask … Lesson 31 about lack of swords in pre-Columbian America).
- Calling Jesus the Lamb of God seems anachronistic (Mormon 9:6, see also my If I Could Ask … Lesson 22 about sheep in the Americas during Book of Mormon times).
- It asserts that those who don’t believe in spiritual gifts don’t know the gospel of Christ, but I observe that most Mormons these days do not believe in these gifts as described in the early 19th century Church or in the Bible (Mormon 9:7).
- I promise that I’m not nihilistic, but I can see nothing marvelous wrought by the hand of God as Moroni rhetorically asks about (Mormon 9:16).
- Moroni quotes the Gospel of Mark, but it seems the quote was not part of the original Gospel according to a BYU professor (Mormon 9:22-24).
- I think the entire chapter (Moroni 9) is an appeal to fear, again encouraging cognitive biases rather than sound reasoning (Mormon 9:27, see also my If I could ask … Lesson 28 about how the Book of Mormon encourages cognitive biases that could work for any religious claims).
- Moroni claims they were still writing in reformed Egyptian and altered Hebrew 1,000 years after Lehi and Co. left Jerusalem, yet there is no evidence for any languages related to Egyptian or Hebrew in the pre-Columbian Americas (Mormon 9:32-33).
If you could ask believers questions about the scriptures for this lesson, what would you ask?
Have fun studying!
If I could ask them one question, Lesson 43