Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On the Order of Creation

So the other day, I had a discussion with a TBM friend about religion. This person wasn’t originally in the church, but actively decided upon mormonism later on. He is also a grad student getting a PhD, and is very, very smart; I respect him quite a bit. He has told me several times (and I never had any real reason to question) about how he only decided upon the church after careful research; he considers himself to very well-versed in the scriptures, and loves to debate. He also says he’s looked at plenty of anti-mormon info out on the web, and never found any of it to be well-documented or to hold water very well. (If he didn’t find any well-sourced information, then I suspect he didn’t look very hard; I’ll come back to that later.)

He’s good in a debate because he is very confident, and quick on his feet. In that regard, he’s a lot like a friend of mine down in Cali; when you are in front of them they sound incredibly reasonable, and whenever you find the flaws in their arguments it’s not until long afterwards. It’s one of my main problems with debating in general; there’s no real burden upon actual truth, only upon things that take long enough to discredit that people have moved on to something else. But that’s a discussion for another day.

I wasn’t really trying to talk him out of his religion but just wanted him to know my current stance, so I didn’t really bring up any evidence on my end. He specifically brought up a couple of things, and his well-rehearsed responses admittedly are quite convincing at first glance. In regards to the DNA evidence against the peoples in the book of mormon being the principle ancestors of the Native Americans, he specifically owned up to this in a well-rehearsed way that certainly seemed to absolve the religion of any responsibility. According to my friend, this belief is not an actual doctrinal claim from the church, but was put at the front of the book of mormon by a specific apostle (Packer, I think?) who was admittedly wrong. Speaking of being wrong, the other related thing he specifically brought up was that while other churches claim infallibility from their leaders, the mormon church is the only one that specifically admits to the fallibility of their leaders. They admit that their leaders and the people running the church are only human, and that as a result mistakes do get made.

I had a couple of problems with this statement. It’s been a while, so I cannot say for certain, but this may actually be the currently held doctrine. But I’ve also been told contradictory things many, many times. These claims range from the prophet being struck down before leading the church astray (which heavily implies infallibility upon a prophet that still lives) to a restoration of the “truth” (being the One True Church, and containing Truth, kind of requires that mistakes were not made along the way, else it’s not really True). Mormons also seem to deny fallibility in the phrases they use when talking about scriptures. They believe the bible as far as it is translated correctly, but simply believe the book of mormon outright, with no claims to translation quality. (To his credit, he specifically mentioned the possibility of translation errors in the book of mormon.) But the point is this; if most wards out there are teaching that the church is completely true and their prophet essentially infallible, then the technicality of “it’s not actual doctrine” is about as useful as pissing into the wind. Actions speak louder than words, and the words mean nothing if that’s not what is primarily taught. If a religion truly is the One True Church, you wouldn't expect it to have translation errors, or to teach things that aren't actually doctrine.

Another issue with the fallibility of the church’s leaders is that it completely undermines the entire concept of a living prophet. How many times have we heard something untrue said by a prophet,  only to have it retconned into “he was speaking as a man, not as a prophet”? For their leader to be able to speak as a man completely destroys the foundation of accepting him as a living prophet. And to my credit, I was quick enough on my feet to mention this. But being the experienced debater that he is, he didn’t bat an eye at it, and managed to steer the conversation away so that he never really had to directly confront the idea. It is an idea worth thinking about, however. Their current answer is that each individual person will know if it's true based on personal revelation, but this exacerbates the problem. A prophet is not needed if everyone already receives personal revelations. Furthermore, the admission of fallibility in their leaders directly contradicts any claims they make towards being the One True Church.

This friend wasn't finished, however. One specific claim he made during this discussion (that sounded so reasonable at the time) is the claim that the Genesis creation story exactly matches current scientific theory; that is, the order in which things were created within Genesis matches with what is known about current planet formation and life evolution (life starting out in the ocean, and only moving to land later on, correct order of fish vs mammals vs birds, etc). I had never heard of this argument before, and I must admit it sounded interesting. It probably would have sounded convincing as well, were my mind less made up about religion.

Unfortunately for him, it interested me enough to actually look it up. And of course, the claim turned out to be completely false; the actual order of creation within Genesis is easily, laughably dis-proven. It’s so far off in fact, that the bible has photosynthesizing plants existing before the sun, moon, and stars! It has the earth existing before our sun, and other things that are in direct opposition to current scientific knowledge.

Discovering this did make me sort of sad, however. This is a person that I have respected and admired quite a bit in the past, but those traits diminish a little every time I find out more about him. He is very confident and very adamant about his having studied all of the scriptures that he uses in such debates, and that he knows that the mormon church is the right one because of all of the personal research he has conducted. So what do I get from him from the single solid, verifiable claim in the discussion? Something that didn’t even take ten minutes to rip to shreds; something that he clearly is parroting back without ever bothering to look it up himself. If this is the level of his personal research, then it’s no wonder he believes; he looks no deeper than anyone else, despite his claims to the contrary.

It’s always sad to see your opinion of someone you look up to die upon the altar of increased knowledge. The Man, no matter who they may be, never lives up to the Legend.

UPDATE: When I told him about the actual order of things within the Genesis creation story, his reactions were quite interesting to see. At first he got testy and upset but later apologized, saying that his faith wasn't worth much if it couldn't withstand earnest discussion. The really interesting part, however, was his specific response to the order in Genesis being as backwards as it is. His response? "Well, they did the best that they could with the knowledge that they had on hand." To that statement, I wholeheartedly agree; they had limited information, and that's the best that they could do at the time. From my point of view however, this clearly shows that the bible didn't come from divine sources. A divinely inspired (or dictated) account wouldn't have been so wrong; after all, if the 'divine' sources are this wrong, why follow them at all? But if there were no divine intervention, then the order within Genesis makes perfect sense. After all, they were only trying their best with the information on hand. I found it disheartening that he couldn't see this. There were no claims from him that the bible is not meant to be taken literally, he just simply didn't see how such a contradiction could call the authenticity of the work into account.

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