One of the greatest benefits to religion (and one of the greatest selling points) are the answers. Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Certainly, science gives questions such as these a wide berth, leaving the philosophers, theologans and prophets to provide their theories and argue amongst themselves. Only rarely do these prognosticators venture into scientific territory, whereon they are usually summarily slapped on the wrist and sent packing back to their corner of the “human knowledge” party.
Certainly, Mormonism provides a whole bunch of answers to all sorts of questions. The very foundation of Joseph Smith’s history was his desire to question and receiving an answer to that question. Early Church members had many powerful experiences of having their questions about God, Jesus, the Gospel, and the world around them answered in a powerful way.
One of the vehicles of answers for the early Church members was the infamous Book of Mormon. Not only does it illuminate on topics such as the atonement and the fall of man, it also precisely fills in many key gaps of colonial knowledge regarding the history of the Americas, and the strange brown-skinned peoples running around in loincloths upon European arrival. Who are these people? Why are they here? And where are they going? Early thoughts on these questions have been well documented by Dan Vogel in his book Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (read if free at that link.)
But recently, it seems this entire scope of Book of Mormon questions and answers is slowly and methodically getting dismantled at the hands of Mormon scholars and apologists. No longer do we learn of the initial colonization of the Americas following Noah’s flood (i.e. the post-Babel Jaredites). No longer is the Book of Mormon a record of the principle ancestors of the same natives early Church members were familiar with. Instead, Lehi and his group are only insignificant contributors to the New World gene pool.
This shift has been a necessary retreat from the growth in knowledge regarding the history of the Americas. As more and more becomes known through all avenues of investigation, readers of the Book of Mormon will slowly (or quickly) realize that the book they are reading is not describing the civilations and people being discovered by those who discover such things. To this realization, the believer can only respond “Yes, but we really don’t know that much about ancient American history.” Statements such as this are meant to present evidence by implication, as if by implying that we may find evidence in the future, we should ignore the evidence we have found already that points in a different direction.
But the issue isn’t whether we know everything about the history of Central and South America in order to find Book of Mormon evidences. No, what’s disturbing is the trend.
175 years ago, pre-Columbian history was relatively unknown, and the field was ripe for rumor, myth, and supposition. You could create any kind of theory imaginable, with little fear of being “proven” wrong (unless you made some artifacts to go along with your theory). But over the last 175 years, quite a bit of research has been done. Certainly, not all of it. There remain many questions. But that’s not the problem.
The problem is, not even the questions are pointing in the direction of the Book of Mormon. In other words, the Church presents the Book of Mormon as the “answer” to questions about ancient America, but no one can seem to find any questions that it answers.
The Book of Mormon was once thought to explain the question of where these people (the Indians) came from, and why they had dark skin. Not anymore; even if the events in the Book of Mormon hadn’t happened, we’d still have dark-skinned Indians.
Some people thought it answered the question of where the great mounds of the mid-East came from. Not anymore.
Some thought it answered the questions regarding the great cities of Central America. But does anyone today really think those cities resulted from Book of Mormon migrations, and without Jaredite or Lehites, those cities wouldn’t be here?
So what we find ourselves with today is a shrinking book. As research and knowledge increases, the claims of the Book of Mormon must shrink to get out of their way. Theories once thought supported by the Book of Mormon are discarded when the unimaginable becomes possible: falsification.
As long as apologists can insist that we shouldn’t expect any evidence of the Book of Mormon, as well as refusing to develop any theory which may possibly be falsifiable, people will comfortably believe. And with the present state of research and technology, that may seem possible.
But where will we be in 50 years? If you look at the progress of one area, DNA research, over the last 50 years, can anyone imagine where things are headed? The last refuge of Book of Mormon supporters is that current DNA analysis isn’t precise enough to detect such a small migration so long ago. Perhaps. But what happens if the tools have improved to the point that such as migration would be easily detectable?
How many gray areas are there in the Book of Mormon today that are fuzzy enough for faith, that will one day be subjected to clear, unambiguous light? Can apologists change their tack quickly enough to keep up with new research, and will they ever find that the Church “parade” has continued down main street, while they’ve turned left on 3rd, and no one is following them, no matter how much they wave their baton?
If you don’t believe me, I can only offer you this experiment. Find your nearest and most knowledgeable Book of Mormon scholar, and ask them this simple question (with these simple follow up questions):
“How would the New World have been different when Columbus found it if there had been no Jaredite or Lehite migrations? How would they people have been different? Would they have looked or acted differently? Would their language, culture, or religion be any different? Would there have been more or fewer natives?”
A century ago, the Book of Mormon answered all of these questions definitively. Today, with the help of Mormon scholars, it answers each of them, but negatively and in the smallest way possible. The Book of Mormon peoples didn’t make a noticeable difference in the long run. If Lehi’s boat had been lost at sea, the New World circa 1492 AD wouldn’t have been noticeably different. Why that is seen as progress in apologetic circles, I have no idea.