Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dawkins vs. the Book of Mormon

I remember walking down the streets of Santa Maria in southern California as a week-old missionary. One afternoon a twenty-something in a convertible with his friends drove by and shouted,
"The Book of Mormon isn't true because it's written in old English. They didn't talk that way when John Smith wrote it!"
Elder Root, a sturdy, dark-haired, Canadian held his hands out and looked at the sky, "I guess it's not true! Thanks for letting us know!"

I've heard the archaic English argument several times since then, most surprisingly from the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins used this as his opening challenge to the Book of Mormon in an interview with Brandon Flowers on a Norwegian talk show last week.

There are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about the veracity of the Book of Mormon (and the existence of God) but that one is the religious equivalent of challenging an evolutionary biologist by asking, "if humans evolved from monkeys then why are monkeys still around"?

Yes the Book of Mormon was translated into archaic English not current in 1830. This was a choice (conscious or not) of the translator Joseph (not John) Smith to match the style of the the King James version of the bible. In fact the KJV itself was translated into archaic rather than contemporary English for the time, taking the Book of Mormon's linguistic style further back in time. "Thou," "thee," "verily," and "it came to pass" were nary heard on the bonnie streets of London in the 17th century. The translators chose to use old-sounding language to lend reverence and mystery to the text.

So why does such a shallow question resonate with such a highly intelligent man? Why doesn't he choose one of the many sophisticated and relevant arguments against the book?

One answer might be that he doesn't care. This may have been the first anti-Mormon observation he encountered, and since he knew from the beginning he wasn't going to believe in the book, this argument seemed like a slam dunk. But Richard Dawkins does care, to the point of writing books about why people believe in God.

I think that Dawkins has fallen prey to the fallacy of the single cause (also causal oversimplification). Dawkins believes that people believe in God for only one reason: to explain mysterious processes (lightning, earthquakes, the human mind etc.). In this worldview, because science explains (or will explain) all natural phenomena, it eliminates the need to invent God. Dawkins is an excellent evolutionary biologist (though I side with Gould on matters of contingency and morality) and his scientific explanations for seemingly impossible natural patterns are good and sound. From Aurora Borealis to human consciousness, we are learning more and more that seemingly impossible complexity and beauty can arise naturally, making it less compelling to say "there must be a God, otherwise how could an ... angler fish exist?"

Cool fish no doubt, but not the primary reason I believe in God.

While Dawkins has effectively shown how asymmetric natural pressure can push us up "mount improbable," how has he overlooked other foundations of faith? I think that because he believes his position is so obviously correct, he can't empathize with the believer. This assumption of ignorance or irrationality has rendered him culturally autistic, unable to imagine the minds of believers to explore the basis of their belief. Because of this, he hasn't touched on the thousands of other reasons why people believe in the reality of a spiritual world.

I believe in God (and the veracity of the Book of Mormon) because of personal experience and the sensations of joy, gratitude, wonder, and universal love I feel when I consider and investigate these topics. Part of my belief does stem from an inability to explain certain mysterious events in my life (see my post on Coincidence) and as such that part of my belief is vulnerable to explanation. I like that. I like being vulnerable to new information and understanding. I like how doubt provides a humble and empowering lookout from which to examine my beliefs.

For the record I believe that evolution by natural selection is the mechanism by which all animals (including humans) arose, and I believe that God knows each of us and desires our happiness.

So Dr. Dawkins, if you read this, consider these two links my rebuttal. Here's a post my cousin Brigham wrote about Why we need the Book of Mormon. And here's a song my friend Matt and I wrote up at Toolik Field Station on the North Slope a few years ago called The Mormon Code. Matt is from North Carolina and had heard that Mormons owned the Nintendo codes and that we funded the church by selling them to school children.

This picture was in the background slideshow at the talent show while we played the song. In case you were wondering, we won the talent show that year. And the year after. And the year after that.


  1. Dawkins can be a dick. As you so nicely point out. And faith, like love, is personal. And I do love you.

  2. I don't know you, but I wanted to thank you for articulating my exact thoughts about Richard Dawkins. After I saw the interview on the Norwegian show, I searched for him on Youtube, to see if he ever had anything more intelligent to say on the subject, and I was surprised to see that that is his only argument. For such an intelligent person, it's surprising that he can't come up with a more cogent argument.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  3. up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, b, a, select start...yeah...now I am wondering who was the Mormon that told me this when I was a kid. It is very archaic nintendo language.

  4. I was born of goodly parents who leaned toward the metaphoric and symbolic in their gospel teaching. It wasn't until HS Seminary that I heard arguments for the Book of Mormon being literally true, scientifically and historically. For a while the apologetic stuff I read was compelling. Unfortunately after a lot of examination and soul-wrenching investigation the last little while, the apologetic arguments for BoM historicity/BoAbraham veracity, etc., just had too many holes. And I've gone back to my roots, so to speak, by believing in my religion on a metaphorical level. I don't need it to be true in the realist sense. As long as my religion does what it's supposed to (create a community, provide a moral framework for interactions within a community, and help individuals connect with the divine) then that's good enough. Or at least I'm trying to let that be good enough. And meanwhile, the things that REALLY bug me about my religion I can work to change.

    That's something I don't think Dawkins would understand. But lots of other smart folks do, like moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and many others.

  5. I love me some Ben Abbott and I love finding Mormons who believe in science AND God. Great blogging sir.

    You reminded me of one of my favorite teachings from Elder James E. Talmage in "The Earth and Man", he said,

    "The creator has made the record in the rocks for man to decipher, but He has also spoken directly regarding the main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts can not be fundamentally opposed; one can not contradict the other, though man's interpretation of either may be seriously at fault."

    If God spoon-fed us all the details of why everything is the way it is then we would have nothing to interpret, nothing to discover, and He wouldn't have needed to give us a brain. I'm glad He went with brains. (Insert zombie joke. Braaaaiiiinnnsssss)

  6. I have recently been going through a process that is probably familiar with most science loving people of faith after they start to acquaint themselves with Richard Dawkins. I have started a bit of an infatuation with him.. Sort of like stopping to get a good glimpse at a car crash, or like I used to watch Fox news just to get all hot and bothered. I am fascinated by him no doubt, and there is no denying his intelligence and ability to express complex ideas and critique "foolishness," but in the end.. what an unpleasant guy :) I think your spot on Ben. Richard doesn't seem to know much beyond logic, either because of a troubled childhood or because he explains all altruism away as his genes acting selfishly to preserve themselves... I guess its our two paradigms slamming into one another. I get the agnostic approach, but borderline militant atheism is harder to understand. Neil deGrasse Tyson says it well, noting that he keeps his mind open to all truth, he doesn't see conclusive evidence of God yet ...but he doesn't golf either.. and wouldn't join a group dedicated to disillusioning all golfers. In my relatively uneducated and simple context I like to think of a God of order who uses elegant and eternal principles to "create." Oops.. yes Create.. I have said too much now.

    1. I love Neil deGrasse Tyson. His sense of wonder about the cosmos is so infectious.