Mormon genealogy and DNA

ldsdnaAccording to Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon was brought forth when God provided 22-year-old church founder Joseph Smith with special glasses and seer stones that enabled him to translate writings — from “Reformed Egyptian” — on golden tablets found in New York. Mormons believe these scriptures restored the church and left the rest of Christianity in apostasy.

The Book of Mormon has a compelling narrative about a tribe of Jews who sailed from Jerusalem to the Americas before the time of Christ and split into two factions. The Nephites were the good guys. In 1981, the word for them was officially changed from “white” to “pure.” The Lamanites received the “curse of blackness.” The Los Angeles Times provides the background:

According to the Book of Mormon, by 385 AD the dark-skinned Lamanites had wiped out other Hebrews. The Mormon church called the victors “the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” If the Lamanites returned to the church, their skin could once again become white.

This is not just a 19th-century teaching. Current Mormon president Gordon Hinckley has told Native Americans they are descended from one of the factions. The Times ran a story yesterday on DNA evidence that puts the story about the lost tribe of Israel in question.

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.”

My wonderful future in-laws are Mormon, and I have Mormon ancestors myself, so I’m always fascinated by tales of the Latter-day Saints. And this story is no exception. But it also provides fodder for thinking about how to treat the meeting of faith and science.

The headline of this piece is “Bedrock of a Faith is Jolted.” But as Slate‘s William Saletan quickly summarizes (with a bit of attitude), the Latter-day Saints have worked around the problem with ease:

DNA evidence is rattling Mormonism. The church converted millions of Latin Americans and Polynesians with its scriptural story that they came from a lost tribe of Israel. DNA says they came from Asia instead. Old Mormon argument: The scripture is literally true. New arguments: 1) DNA evidence is being twisted by enemies of the church. 2) Maybe the folks who came from the lost tribe were few, and their DNA was “swamped” by immigrants from Asia. Try falsifying that! 3) “The Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science.” 4) We’re “willing to live in ambiguity.”

This DNA kerfuffle has been going on for years, long enough that I was wondering why the Times was covering it yesterday. The Latter-day Saints even put up a site for media specifically dealing with DNA and the Book of Mormon. I got the image above from a Mormon magazine article about the issue. One of the Mormon critics quoted in the Times piece published a book last year about the topic.

history of churchAnyway, Mormonism is a large and growing religion and the DNA evidence problem isn’t the only issue being dealt with from its scriptures:

For instance, the Mormon scriptures contain references to a seven-day week, domesticated horses, cows and sheep, silk, chariots and steel. None had been introduced in the Americas at the time of Christ.

But these issues have been discussed by Mormons for a very long time. Go to the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, a Mormon apologetic group, today and you can get the answer to this (declarative) question of the week:

The mention of windows that could be “dashed in pieces” in Ether 2:23 seems to be anachronistic, since glass windows were not invented until the late Middle Ages.

I really do think this is a fascinating story, but the notion that this is jolting the bedrock of the Mormon faith might be overstating it. I couldn’t find any recent coverage in Utah papers, for instance. However, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Salt Lake Tribune‘s religion reporter, likely covered it years ago. It would have also been helpful if reporter William Lobdell interviewed outside critics of Mormonism instead of just Mormons and ex-Mormons (and Mormon scholar Jan Shipps). It would also be great to see a follow-up that explores specifically how the DNA story relates to Mormonism’s concern with geneology and lineage. Let us know if you see any coverage.

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What creationists look like

creation 2In his recent opinion in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board, Judge John Jones accused members of the Dover Area School Board of being closet Christian creationists. In fact, he more or less painted the entire Intelligent Design community as creationists. And I bring this up because one wonders what Jones and his bedfellows would call folks like Ken Ham, profiled yesterday in the Los Angeles Times.

The story is written by Stephanie Simon, who we’ve praised for her reporting on pregnancy issues. This is not written in as much of her trademark spare style, but she still permits her subjects to speak for themselves:

“Sometimes people will answer, ‘No, but you weren’t there either,’” Ham told them. “Then you say, ‘No, I wasn’t, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.’” He waved his Bible in the air.

“Who’s the only one who’s always been there?” Ham asked.

“God!” the boys and girls shouted.

“Who’s the only one who knows everything?”


“So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?”

The children answered with a thundering: “God!”

A former high-school biology teacher, Ham travels the nation training children as young as 5 to challenge science orthodoxy. He doesn’t engage in the political and legal fights that have erupted over the teaching of evolution. His strategy is more subtle: He aims to give people who trust the biblical account of creation the confidence to defend their views — aggressively.

That, my friends, is what creationists look like. And reporters, and others, would do well to see the difference between those who advocate teaching the literal biblical account of creation in government schools . . . and those who think the complexity of the universe points to a designer.

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Tip: follow the money

Jesusbus2So evangelical leaders are front and center in a public relations campaign launched this week. Editors and reporters are giving the campaign heavy coverage because the evangelical leaders are surprising them by calling for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times story yesterday hit the major points:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

This is obviously a worthy news story, even if it is an orchestrated PR campaign (more on that later) and Goodstein writes a good account, even if it is lacking in explaining the religious motivations of both the the signers and those who oppose the effort. However, I find it interesting how news coverage of religious adherents is biased in favor of political action. If a religious group does something political — be it protesting cartoons published in Denmark or signing a petition for reduced carbon dioxide emissions — it is ensured heavy coverage. And this makes it seem like the groups have a large relative size and impact. But what about those religious adherents who are more focused on, well, religious notions of salvation, eternal life, doctrine and creeds? They simply aren’t noticed unless they engage in politics. Not that we haven’t discussed this gripe before . . .

In any case, the Chicago Tribune‘s Frank James covers the religious angle a bit more than Goodstein but struggles with accurately conveying evangelical views on the issue. Check this paragraph out, for instance:

But environmental issues have proved divisive within the body of believers who identify themselves as evangelicals. Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

Got that? You either believe Armageddon means environmental issues are meaningless or that God wants humans to protect the earth. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure many prominent evangelicals actually hold the first view (and he doesn’t name any who do), James surely doesn’t think he’s accurately conveyed the views of evangelicals.

Both stories quoted the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I remembered his name from the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign of a few years ago. During research for my book on the interfaith movement, I found that the idea for the evangelical network came from non-evangelical interfaith environmentalist activists who strategically decided to reach out to the politically powerful group. The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign was run by Fenton Communications, which is also responsible for the Alar apple scare of the 1980s and, more recently, advertisements. The Evangelical Environmental Network itself, which has many evangelical partners, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which isn’t really known for funding evangelical efforts.

I haven’t done research on the Evangelical Climate Initiative, but it definitely has ties to the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign run by Fenton Communications. Hopefully some reporters covering this story will not just parrot the press releases being issued and will look deeper into the genesis of this campaign. And no matter what they find, following the money is always a good idea.

Update: Through a completely egregious error on my part, for which I have nothing but excuses, I missed the fact that Goodstein does mention the funding:

The Evangelical Climate Initiative, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, is being supported by individuals and foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

The initiative is one indication of a growing urgency about climate change among religious groups, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a clearinghouse in Amherst, Mass., for environmental initiatives by religious groups.

Interfaith climate campaigns in 15 states are pressing for regional standards to reduce greenhouse gases, Mr. Gorman said. Jewish, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders also have campaigns under way.

My earlier mention of Pew was with regard to the Evangelical Environmental Network. So it would be interesting to see how, exactly, the two groups are related. It would also be interesting to see what, if any, ties there are to the Tides Foundation and Fenton Communications. Precisely who is orchestrating this interfaith campaign?

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Coming soon to The New York Times

Darwin1Here is a story that I predict will draw quite a bit of coverage. At least, I hope it will.

It seems that 412 congregations in 49 states have decided to observe “Evolution Sunday.” You can click here to see a letter for the clergy who are leading the charge.

Most of these congregations are members of oldline Protestant church denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Episcopal Church, etc. etc. However, there also are some Roman Catholic parishes in the list and a Baptist church or two, including one in Georgia.

Now, as most GetReligion readers have noticed, I have stated several times that I have many close friends who are at the heart of the whole science and free speech debates in academia. You all know that and you know that I am interested in seeing the press carry a wide range of stories about these debates.

Three cheers for diversity and balance. This is why I think that this event could be a wonderful chance to let progressive people in modern and postmodern pulpits and pews explain what they believe and why they believe it.

It will be interesting to see how many of them say that they believe, when push comes to shove, that God has guided the process of evolution. This, of course, raises questions about whether they believe that mankind is the result of a random and unguided process that did not have, well, us in mind (or words to that effect). In other words, it will be interesting to see how many of these believers believe in Darwinian orthodoxy, as defined in almost all academic and legal settings.

A Google search for “Evolution Sunday” does not yield much at this point. Please keep us posted if you see any worthwhile coverage.

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How reliable is a piece of rock?

stone reliefOne of the things that I have always been fascinated with is archaeology. Especially archaeology that uncovers things we did not know or could not confirm about the past. Such is the case here in an article on the China Daily Web site that describes an artifact that could be used as evidence that Christianity spread to China as earlier as 100 years after the death of Christ. The reporter Wang Shanshan has the details:

A Chinese theology professor says the first Christmas is depicted in the stone relief from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). In the picture above a woman and a man are sitting around what looks like a manger, with allegedly “the three wise men” approaching from the left side, holding gifts, “the shepherd” following them, and “the assassins” queued up, kneeling, on the right.

As he wandered into the dimly-lit gallery, he was stunned by what he saw. Was he standing, he asked himself, in front of the famous Gates of Paradise in Florence?

Wang Weifan, a 78-year-old scholar of early Christian history in China, said he saw images from Bible stories similar to those engraved in the doors of the Baptistry of St John. But in Florence he didn’t.

Even so, the art objects could be more precious in their own way if the early Christian clues that Wang believes he detected can ever be confirmed. They are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China’s parallel to the Roman Empire, and almost a millennium older than the gilt-bronze gates of Florence. …

Before Wang’s discovery tour to the Han Dynasty Stone Relief Museum in 2002, no one seriously believed that, merely 100 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, his teachings could have reached as far as to China.

The veracity of these types of archaeological finds from a historical basis always perplexes me. Call me a skeptic, but the discovery of a piece of stone proves something as significant as the spread Christianity? Apparently, this rock provides us with some — pardon the pun — hard evidence:

There were myths. There was legend. But hardly any evidence.

But now Wang says the early Christian connection with China no longer seems entirely groundless. “It really happened,” he said.

The reliefs were carved on the stone tablets from two tombs, discovered in 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or “Terrace of Nine Women,” in suburban Xuzhou. Many stone reliefs were found when tombs at the site were first excavated in 1954.

Art historians have long believed that the stone carvings portray the tomb owners in their life after death in ancient China. The styles and the themes were similar to those found in Shandong Province.

GetReligion reader David Buckna, who provided us with the link to this story, said that he found it incredible that the Chinese government would even report on these stone tablets. But could this report be exclusively for Western consumption, Buckna wonders.

As I said earlier, I am no archeological expert, nor will I attempt to play one on the Internet, but I’m sure some faithful readers could provide some insight into this subject. The piece contains some good back-and-forth between sources debating exactly how established Christianity was in the first centruy and how effectively it was spreading. And you have plenty to work with. The article is 1,500-plus words long and finishes with a dramatic pronouncement:

Despite the many objections of the other scholars, Wang’s discovery will definitely arouse the interest of historians in the Chinese Christian community, who will take up the research, said Qi, of Yanjing Seminary.

“They are not going to say no to Professor Wang without making investigations, because he is the ‘flagship’ historian in the Chinese Christian community,” Qi said. “He is a master not only of the Christian history in China, but also of Chinese art and culture.

“There could be an earthquake in the world’s Christian community and probably outside it if Professor Wang is right.

“World history could be rewritten.”

Is it time to rewrite world history? Call me a skeptic on this one.

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Cue the judge

BeheCoverA busy time of travel prevented me from seeing “Darwin in the Dock,” Margaret Talbot’s crackling New Yorker narrative of the intelligent-design debates in the courtroom of federal judge John E. Jones III.

Talbot’s essay, which appeared in the December 5 issue, has not appeared online, though The New Yorker did offer this Q&A with the author. Her reporting is impressive in its breadth, though there are a few clunkers in the narrative.

For one, she sounds smitten with the judge:

During the trial, which did not have a jury, Jones sometimes joked, in his appealingly growly baritone, about all the science he and everyone else in the courtroom were contending with. One morning, he deadpanned that stopping for an early lunch break would allow for a “nice, long afternoon of expert testimony.” . . . Jones has the rugged charm of a nineteen-forties movie star; he sounded and looked like a cross between Robert Mitchum and William Holden. (According to a local paper, the Judge’s wife thinks that Tom Hanks should play him — a not entirely idle bit of speculative casting, since a representative from Paramount Pictures sat through the whole trial, filing dispatches to a potential screenwriter.)

At another point, her report sounds like one of those breathless Supreme Court back-and-forths that Nina Totenberg rat-a-tat-tats her way through on National Public Radio. Here she describes an exchange between the plaintiffs’ attorney and biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University:

When [Eric] Rothschild added “the entire human body” to his list, saying, “Now that’s an amazing biological structure,” Behe gazed upward dreamily and joked, “I’m thinking of examples.”

“Hopefully, not mine!” Rothschild responded.

“Rest assured,” came the reply.

Oh, the hilarity!

Then there is this paragraph, which reads more like a parody of a New Yorker writer wandering into flyover country and living to write about it:

At the diner on route 74, where I stopped for a milkshake one night, a rack of books for sale featured Christian marriage manuals and Tim LaHaye novels. At a revival meeting at the Mt. Royal Full Gospel Church, I saw a woman, white hair coiled atop her head, speak in tongues and recall an episode when God had dangled her over Hell. At the same time, many of the town’s residents shared [biologist] Kenneth Miller’s definition of science and the Supreme Court’s current understanding of the separation of church and state.

Nevertheless, Talbot understands the cultural stakes in this debate, and she delivers an especially damning paragraph about the Discovery Institute’s confusing stance toward teaching I.D. in public schools:

If intelligent design is defeated in the Dover case, its backers will undoubtedly find subtler ways of promoting it. The Discovery Institute, a pro-intelligent-design think tank based in Seattle, has distanced itself from the Dover case, saying that it prefers a “teach the controversy” approach to the blunt advertisement for intelligent design that Dover adopted. Indeed, during a public forum at the American Enterprise Institute last month, Mark Ryland, the director of the Discovery Institute’s Washington, D.C., office, said that his organization had “never set out to have school boards or schools get involved in this issue. We’ve never encouraged people to do it . . . We have unfortunately gotten sucked into it because we have a lot of experts in this issue that people are interested in. When asked for our opinion we always tell people, Don’t teach intelligent design. There’s no curriculum developed for it. Your teachers are likely to be hostile towards it. . . . If you want to do anything, you should teach the evidence against Darwin’s theory. Teach it dialectically.” Ryland was being disingenuous: Two Discovery Institute fellows, David DeWolf and Stephen Meyer, are co-authors of a book called “Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula,” which concludes, “School boards have the authority to permit, and even encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution — and this includes the use of textbooks such as ‘Of Pandas and People.’”

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An “amen” to what Mollie said

Supreme Court 03I am somewhat afraid to do this, but let me briefly comment on something Mollie said in the, as usual, lively GetReligion wars over media bias on evolution, creationism, naturalism, fundamentalism and various other terms that the media cannot get straight, in terms of using definitions that ring true to the activists being quoted (sometimes accurately and sometimes not).

In defending her “We’re not religious” post, Mollie wrote, concerning David Klinghoffer’s National Review Online piece about Intelligent Design:

… (If) you read the Klinghoffer piece — who doesn’t fit YOUR stereotype of ID supporters being Christian, I might add — he specifically said he had been collecting quotes from evolutionists ABOUT religion, especially Christianity. ALL I AM TRYING TO SAY is that this story is important enough to at least cover fairly, accurately and with a critical eye in all directions. I’m sure we can agree about that.

Actually, GetReligion readers will remember that some in the journalism establishment (and some readers of this blog) do not agree that Intelligent Design is a subject that deserves neutral, fair, balanced coverage. That is one reason why — as a journalism issue — this story is so important.

But if you are interested in hearing both sides, you can watch for some interesting reactions to recent events. The blistering words of the opinion written by Judge John E. Jones III can be read in all their glory by clicking here. There is a wide-ranging interview — done after the ruling — with biochemist Michael J. Behe in the same online package.

And finally, the Washington Post did a second-day story on what might happen next. There was, for example, this rather hot-tempered response from a key leader in the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention:

“This decision is a poster child for a half-century secularist reign of terror that’s coming to a rapid end with Justice Roberts and soon-to-be Justice Alito,” said Richard Land, who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and is a political ally of White House adviser Karl Rove. “This was an extremely injudicious judge who went way, way beyond his boundaries — if he had any eyes on advancing up the judicial ladder, he just sawed off the bottom rung.”

Wow, that’ll sure help calm things down at the Alito hearings.

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We’re not religious

Sherlock Holmes OI’m a rather disinterested party in the whole intelligent design versus evolution debate so I don’t follow it as much as I should. But there is something so bizarre about the federal judge in Pennsylvania’s ruling yesterday, and attendant coverage, that I feel forced to comment. I think we could write on various aspects of this story for weeks to come, but here’s a start.

The ruling basically says that intelligent design is religion-based and therefore false science. Why is it that people have such an easy time seeing into the hearts of intelligent design proponents and discovering nefarious religious motivations but never question the religious motivations of evolution proponents? I think I used to be more sympathetic to the view that evolutionists were religiously-disinterested scientists before I spent a portion of last year reading the excited claims of secular humanists, and others, around the fin de siecle that evolution would triumph over Christianity. That’s a theological statement, to put it mildly.

For instance, Open Court, a “fortnightly journal” around from the 1880s through 1930s (of which I read much too much) was devoted to science and a leading proponent of evolution that constantly attacked Christianity. The fact is that evolution’s proponents makes theological statements. The belief that natural events have natural causes is a theological belief. The idea that the origin of the species and the origin of the universe has a natural cause is inherently atheistic. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught in the science classroom. But neither let us deny that religious belief swirls all around here.

David Klinghoffer over at National Review raises the question well:

“We conclude that the religious nature of Intelligent Design would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child,” wrote Judge John E. Jones III in his decision, Kitzmiller v. Dover, which rules that disparaging Darwin’s theory in biology class is unconstitutional. Is it really true that only Darwinism, in contrast to ID, represents a disinterested search for the truth, unmotivated by ideology?

Judge Jones was especially impressed by the testimony of philosophy professor Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Professor Forrest has definite beliefs about religion, evident from the fact that she serves on the board of directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, which is “an affiliate of American Atheists, and [a] member of the Atheist Alliance International,” according to the group’s website. Of course, she’s entitled to believe what she likes, but it’s worth noting.

Klinghoffer goes on to mention other prominent evolution prononents: Daniel C. Dennit (wants Christians put in zoos), Richard Dawkins (“faith is one of the world’s greatest evils”), Steven Weinberg (“science is corrosive of religion”), P.Z. Myers (believes Abraham is worse than Hitler), and on and on and on.

Would not debates about the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory be better waged if everyone admitted that evolutionists have very serious theological beliefs, such as those mentioned by Klinghoffer? Then, as members of a civilized society, we could ask ourselves whether — and which parts of — evolutionary theory have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt and whether intelligent design provides a reasonable alternative to fit the scientific data.

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