Updated: Oct 13, 2020
The CES Letter dedicates its final pages to setting up Mormonism in terms of scientific truth versus Mormon myth, which really focuses on the greater Judeo-Christian concepts of biblical literalism versus scientific reality. The easy answer to this setup is to eschew Biblical literalism in terms of absolute exegesis, which is really a language problem at heart, not necessarily a problem of Biblical doctrine. Of course, the stakes are raised when the Book of Mormon introduces similar ideas such as the Tower of Babel, which many historians have completely discounted. We already discussed the Book of Mormon translation challenges and would refer someone to that section to digest the problems a person will encounter when they make assumptions about the Book of Mormon translation processes.
In the Mormon binary, scripture is either literal or a total myth, even simple propaganda. But there are ways we can take scripture seriously, even somewhat literally, without conforming to textual exegesis, or textual literalism/originalism. It’s all part of “seeing through a glass darkly.” When we can do this, much of the scientific/religious divide simply falls apart. The greater and more powerful controversy for religion in general has been the attempt by both sides to set up stakes that neither have the right to set up, pitting science against faith, using scripture in terms of textual literalism. This modern debate goes at least as far back as the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920’s, which was an outgrowth of a backlash against Darwinism. Even the LDS Church weighed in on the topic, through its Origin of Man Proclamation, written in 1912. While downplayed today and not considered revelation, it has the same sort of tone as the 1995 Proclamation on the Family. It was the beginning of a long process of the Church seeming to be at odds with the scientific consensus.
Evolution and the Dawn of Scientism
When Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, nobody had any idea how it would rock the world over the next 50 years. Darwin’s theories came alongside Karl Marx’s theories and they grew up together for a time. In fact, Marx’s ideas are said to have been heavily influenced by Origin of Species. The science of Darwin married the philosophies of Marx, Hegel, and Mills as the West was stirring from its pre-industrial slumber. For the first time in history, mankind was starting to truly conquer the Earth. God and religion were often defined as constructs to explain the problems of the world to an agricultural system riddled with death, disease, and hardship.
Now, with the ability to travel, talk, and create artificial light, man was in many ways, becoming god. Religion was increasingly being viewed as an outdated relic, an opiate for the masses that would be replaced by the virtue of the new system of human progress based upon a scientific framework. While for most of the 20th Century, this was a sentiment of elites and academics, it has now increasingly crept into the Middle Classes.
Understand that this sentiment of human progress is apart from any processes of science, but is simply a philosophical attachment, a new dogma, if you will, to regulate social groups of people using ideas within science. It’s a worship of science as a guiding principle for governing life and people. It’s called scientism. The critique of scientism is that while science is good and increasingly better at telling us how things work, it’s not so good at dealing with the whys and the why nots. Ethics remain quite challenging under a purely scientific rubric. When scientism was first promoted at the beginning of the 20th Century, it latched on to progressivism as a rider to implementing a vision that included ideas such as socialism, prohibition of alcohol, social Darwinism, eugenically-derived abortion, sterilization, and setting up centralized technocracies in place of decentralized democracies. Some good. Lot’s bad. Taken to extremes, scientism was practiced at some level in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Both experiments show us the limitations of scientism as an ethical value. Ideas such as the value of life and personal freedom are often left on the roadside of scientistic thinking. The United States, on the other hand, was a married blend of scientific reasoning that was tied to ideas of the Enlightenment, along with a religious arc that carried from the Magna Carta and Ten Commandments. America has typically embraced the healthy connection of science and religion, the secular with the spiritual, that together has either formed good governing policy skeptical of power structures, or has helped move along cultural darkness (such as slavery and racism) into relics of history. It’s not perfect, but it’s been better than the alternative.
Modern application of scientism has been used to find ways to cover controversial political topics in the clothing of science to make it immune from discussion, or to give it greater weight in decision-making, or to make it impervious to democratic processes (technocracy) by an appeal to the “experts.” Thus, in scientism one sees the attempt by many to hijack true science processes and place a cover of scientism over an idea that’s not science in totem. For example, simply because there is a theory or practice or consensus about an idea taught in a university and academic environment does not make something science. It may surprise people that archeology and history, as well as psychology and economics, aren’t true sciences, but arts. Sometimes they are called soft sciences. An historical consensus, for example, is only about compiling a narrative about the forensic evidence we have from the past. It’s quite limited and speculative, more than we wish to think, because there are so many holes to fill and it’s based on individual human perception. This is even more so for softer studies such as divinity studies, humanities, and gender and sexual studies. Yet increasingly, these social justice constructs are being pasted over harder disciplines at the university level. It is not uncommon to see a hard science married with one of these humanities (ex. feminism and climate). Again, not science, but sold increasing as such. Science as a practice is quite limited, quite careful, and very rarely certain about anything. It has a curious detachment to absolutes, a skepticism about consensus. It is careful to elaborate the range about which its conclusions reach. Scientism, on the other hand, is very conclusive. It appeals to field experts as the final arbiters, an appeal, it appears, that has had difficulty in predicting human behavior. It demands a secular answer to all problems, reduces all knowledge to the material, and defines the gaps through a consensus narrative that has been culturally defined over a century, operating inside of a hedgehog mentality.
In a way, it’s another religion.
In order to protect faulty science or biases conclusions or data mining to support pre-existing conclusions, the business of science has come up with the idea of peer review. It can help remove biases in research and “check the work of other scientists.” But it’s got swiss cheese holes in its methodology, primarily because it’s self-regulated, and second, it’s publications and productions are opaquely hidden behind paywalls. Self-regulation that is inherent in peer review is only an assumption. There is no guarantee that the review can be free of biases, personal profit, or other reasons that aren’t related to the rational. There have been dozens of articles in the past several years that have anguished over the utter failure of modern peer review. For example, most science that has been peer reviewed and published cannot be replicated in the laboratory, despite being peer reviewed. Why? Well, often scientists are encouraged to bring something new to the table. They are motivated to publish. They get paid for what they find. It’s a very human endeavor. And the reviewers are finding out that much of it is smoke and mirrors. What we also know is that peer review is as much about gatekeeping as any other system. Peer review, like apostolic or priestly review in Mormonism and Catholicism, or ecumenism in Protestantism, have constraints in the human condition, but aren’t readily acknowledged. When you add political constraints (such as in climate change or sexual studies) that correlate to personal reputation or profit pressure (such as with medicine or energy), the peer review process may turn into a rubber stamp of “accepted science” that moves the needle on behalf of the policymakers and profiteers, or a stop gap to keep science from undermining an industry or a popular political view. It’s all about where you allowed to dig in the sand, who will pay for it, and who will approve it. The dollars and policies driving the process are the true king.
Of course those who batter peer review in the same breath talk about how it’s still the best way to do this. They may be correct as far as how it has been done to date. But it doesn’t meant that it can’t be improved. There are two things among others that can make it better right now:
Open Source review, allow anybody to review science and create a wiki-style system of cascading reviews with lots of checks and balances.
Getting out from behind the paywalls, publish it for all to see. This way, we aren’t reliant upon the filters. Get rid of the scientific journal racket.
Publishing science is also rooted in career motivation. A scientist today must publish a certain amount and peer review a certain amount in order to be considered tenured. There is a possible motivation, therefore, to cut corners to check boxes, so that these publishing hoops are accomplished, and a professor achieves “tenure” which is really the ability to do what you want in the university environment without getting reprimanded. Those aspiring tenure say they need it to be free from the undo pressures to study and research what they want without the biases that can flavor their research. But it’s just as well to say that tenure can put someone into a position where they aren’t held accountable for performance and can therefore collect a paycheck without accountability. Regardless, the personal financial motivation is front and center, whether it’s used to color research, or to motivate someone to go in a direction free from those pressures. Of course, there is no guarantee that once relieved of the motivation of money, that someone will do anything at all. That’s the nature of the market and humanity. It doesn’t simply go away because you work at a university and have a PhD.
As was explained, one problem is that science experiments aren’t free. They take money, often in the form of grants. Grants are given on the hopes that a certain outcomes occur to one extent or another. Other problems, such as a cancer cure, are rooted in the idea that a cure for a terminal disease doesn’t make money in the long-run, and it could devastate the industry that treats this disease, and so the motivation to fund a cure is curtailed substantially, and thus there is no money being thrown behind cures, particularly affordable ones. Some would say that is a very cynical outlook, but it’s hard to see the rationale why any terminal illness-related industry would be interested in destroying their retained earnings. Individual doctors and scientists may wish to see a cure for a disease, but the administrators or stockholders in medical equipment and drug manufacturers don’t see it the same way. Conversely, there is a robust industry in treatments that will alleviate the symptoms of a disease, by keeping the disease around to ensure that the treatment is always needed and the person alive and healthy enough to live a long life to receive that treatment. That’s because if a treatment can be monetized into perpetuity, that’s the gold standard. It’s like a Netflix subscription.
In both circumstances, we see that we are forced to trust the motivations of the hearts of people simply because they are technocrats and know something about something. That’s not very scientific. It relies upon a sort of faith in motivations and in the system. And it’s why so many people are increasingly skeptical of what is being produced as science, even when they know nothing about the scientific field they are criticizing. They smell a rat.
To take it one step further, alarmingly, one study shows that the more you are educated on a topic, it has more impact on your own confirmation bias. In fact, sometimes you get enough knowledge on a topic to feel even more certain that you know everything about it. Thus, when you find information that correlates to your preconceived notions, you add it to the pile, and reject other information that would change your preconceived position. The reason is because as humans, we often get so invested in an idea, with the time and effort we put into something, that the effort it takes to dislodge that person from their perch of knowledge takes more effort than say, someone who understands a topic from an amateur perch, or someone who knows nothing at all about a subject. Thus, having a PhD in physics may mean that you’re less able to accept new theories about physics with new evidence that goes against the grain than say, a cattle farmer. This is all related to our humanity irrespective of our knowledge!
Finally, because the public isn’t privy to much of scientific publishing, we are subject to heavy filtering by stakeholders. Science magazines, political sites, and the mainstream news will comb over the science to find the data to fit their agenda, provide for click bait, and otherwise hype up conclusions. Often scientists are pressured to strengthen their published abstracts against more circumspect data in the body of the research piece. These sites get picked and amplified by stakeholders, shared on social media, and end up getting pushed around in arguments as an “appeal to authority.” Yet was have six degrees of communication between the actual science and the flippant science-affirming tweet on Twitter.
One may ask, how is this any different than trusting the motivations of the practitioners of religion? Because of the Mormon binary, when people leave the comfort of church direction, they often keep the idea of the authority with them, but simply transfer it to another institution. The new form may have more pretenses of checks and balances, but, are driven as much by power and profit as any church or business operation. We may learn to distrust the motivations of LDS apostles, but instead trust the motivations of the science, political, or academic institutions. We begin finding problems with Joseph Smith or Thomas Monson or Russell Nelson, but share memes and quotes from Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who are prophets of the scientism industry, whether they acknowledge it or not. When you knock over all the Mormon dominoes in the binary, people often fall right into the hands of scientism or politics, because they haven’t learned the central problem with the binary, that no matter where it resides, left or right, a corporation with a religious mission, or a corporation with an academic or political motivation, that authority shouldn’t be trusted automatically.
To help someone who may not be grasping the similarities, this chart illustrates how these institutional ideas relate:
As you can see, the processes have some similarities, and while it may be oversimplified, the point was to show that the ways to look at institutional authority are almost the same. When people get sideways with the Church, instead of examining the processes involved, they simply go to the assumptions and motivations of the leaders being wrong. They maintain the dignity of the other aspects of institutional operations and move their loyalties, often to a scientific or state construct. By examining the entire process, however, one could conclude that all institutional processes have limitations, are broken at some level, and deserve scrutiny across the board. In doing so, perhaps people can learn to rely more upon their own intuition, and move towards a more empirical approach to life, testing all truths from their own viewpoints, and being less certain about absolutes, no matter the source. They also ought to demand reform in their institutions to make them more internally democratic, with greater checks and balances, and more transparent as to do better at ruling out motivations that are less than ethical. They ought to skeptical of all sources that claim to deliver the “truth,” and be more circumspect. They should work toward a system of open sourcing all scientific knowledge and not have it locked behind paywalls. In terms of living in the world, all of us must conform to some institutional truth claims . . . that’s practical. But on the belief side, skepticism is completely within the realm of authenticity to self. We need to develop a better sense of awe at looking at the universe, absorbing the idea that what we know in the universe can sit on the head of a toothpick.
Religious Certainty and Literalism
Much of the certainty that gets bottled up in secular dogma is in opposition to the even more certainty that has been promoted in the religious world. This is where the two "isms" are created. The other side of the certainty binary is made up of people who are looking for truth claims in scriptural and religious authority and wish to see conclusive statements in those documents and persons. That's been the impetus and the secular certainty that arises is often in response to this earlier tradition of religious certainty.
That idea of having a bona fide book or authority figure is tempting. It means that we don’t have to question through the deepest and most difficult questions through our own fear and trembling. We can simply find the resource and get the answer. In terms of the debate against science, there is no question that the resolution in Biblical literalism is the foil to what gave rise to scientism. To insist that the world is exactly 6,000 years old means we need to trust in a story-making process that has gaps wider than the grand canyon. Many scholars debate the accuracy of the biblical stories and even place markers going earlier than 600 BC. Margaret Barker has done some fascinating research in this area, showcasing that there was a school of scribes around the time Israel was captured and sent to Babylon, who were intent on reworking the oral stories to fit a narrative that would later capture the spirit of the priestly class. While written prophesies of the Old Testament, mainly Isaiah and after, were contemporary at the time of the exile, the history of the Jews had been passed down from generation to generation all the way through the time of Josiah, king of Judah. One of the motivations of these scribes was to showcase the exactness of the law and how breaking it could awaken an irate Jehovah, punishing wayward Israel and exacting justice upon the heathen alike. It was set up as a schoolmaster to keep the wayward Jews in check after their defeat by Babylon. The Old Testament must be understood as a rubric against Jewish defeat.
Likewise, the New Testament wasn’t established at the time of Christ, but most likely 100 years or more after when certain ideas had won out and a written text was needed to combat heresies. That’s why you have forbidden and lost gospels with some very strange ideas that didn’t get canonized. It was already in the throes of trying to set up a belief system that would end up dominating the doctrine of Christianity, but would take another 300 years to cement.
People who encounter the Bible for the first time, or begin to see cracks in their faith, often find that it cracks deepest in the stories of the Old Testament, where Israel was committing genocide on the auspices of God’s command. They then conclude either that the Bible is evil, or that the God of the Bible isn’t the kind of god they can trust because he is evil and inconsistent. However, there is another way to look at the stories as quasi-authentic, taking them seriously, but not too literally. The way we can do this is to see the Bible edicts, not always as God’s will, but as a cautionary tale of those who have made God in their own image, sometimes perverting the tales and actions of a religious people to fit the character of God made in their image. Mormons do this with their own history as well. They preach of God leading the oppressed Mormon Saints crossing the plains to settle the desert as a miracle and act God’s divine will. A careful read of D&C 124, however, gives another picture, of a people who were cursed by God because they didn’t do His will and had to suffer the wilderness. However, now we honor the noble, scrappy pioneers as diligent and obedient disciples instead of a group that were basically forced to do their own version of a 40-year Israelite penance in the arid West. If we can do that with a printing press, how easy would it to have happened with oral tradition among ancient Jewish scribes?
The scriptures are stories that we ought not take literally in terms of textual exegesis, not that the events didn’t happen or people didn’t exist. One can believe there was a literal Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. But what we are told about them either could be allegorical (in terms of the Garden of Eden and the serpent, tree, etc.) or exaggerated (such as Noah or Moses), or twisted into good (as the case of King Josiah) when it’s possible it wasn’t quite so good. Finally, you have those that came later, such as the Catholics, who rejected certain texts, redacted certain texts, and put their stamp upon an arbitrary binding known as the Bible by a dictator/pope. There are dozens of biblical texts that never got included in the final count. The original texts sit in catacombs in the Vatican where they aren’t viewable for forensic examination. While we can put some faith in the foundation of the Bible, it would be foolhardy to put any faith in its binding or final edits. It's a launchpad for religious history and prophecy. But that's where the certainty ends.
We could find divinity experts to interpret all this for us, but that gets us back to tribalism and thousands of sects vying for followers. The best way to read the scriptures, therefore, is to use it as a basis of question in our prayers to the divine, in order to understand the context of accessing the divine. The term for that is hermeneutics or eisegesis. We ask questions of God about the true underlying story. We ask questions about how to behave based on Biblical prescripts. We ask questions to God about His very nature. The Bible, as well as all scripture, are great starting tools to getting our own stories and finding our own path, relative to our relationship with the divine. Trying to follow all proscriptions or figuring out everything we should be doing based on 1,000 pages of text translated three ways from oral stories that came thousands of years after the original experience showcase how difficult it can be to take these texts as literal as we sometimes do. As Mormons, we understand this to some extent in that we “believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” Yet we also ought to be a little more careful about the Book of Mormon, “as it was punctuated and abridged correctly,” and the Doctrine and Covenants “as it was redacted and assembled correctly.” The Book of Mormon even admits that it has imperfections. We ought to examine that more circumspectly, since 200-year old language meanings can also drift. Modern revelation is the process by which divine truths are reestablished with mankind. We aren’t looking for new theology in modern revelation, but that the original gospel is manifest anew in our hearts. We understand the apex of our Christian faith through the rediscovery of Jesus through servants, first, and then as becoming servants, sons, and friends to God. But at the end of the day, the eisegesic understanding is incumbent upon the individual, not any text or any prophet.
An Appeal to Language
In conclusion, our ability to think and rationalize is highly dependent upon language. If one tries to think or comprehend an idea without words, they will find it is extremely difficult to do so. One can almost imagine what it would be like as an animal without a system of analyzing complex ideas. Language is a system, a contrast to bring us to the divine. It is also the way in which we describe the scientific world around us. Both systems of religion and science are highly dependent upon language. When you hear an idea expressed, rational or spiritual, the strokes and ideas are comprehended in language. And it’s not simply the spoken language, say English or French, but in how you uniquely understand English or French or any other language.
It will be different than anyone else will understand that spoken language. The way you think an idea in language will often be different than how you will speak it or write it, which will be different than how others hear it or read it. Then if you interpret it into another language, it will multiply the difference in understanding by another two factors. When you add cultural nuance to language that shifts over time and distance, it multiplies by other factors. When you read scripture, by the time you understand the words on the page, you will have had a major loss in understanding. The only way you are ever going to learn what was originally taught is to take the gnostic road, which can and should align itself to all truth, to all science, not science necessarily as it is filtered, but science as it is experienced. True religion and true science at the empirical epicenter, are the same. They are different ways of understanding the universe from different directions, the objective, and the empirical/intuitive. The binary problem becomes unitary in this way and it solves the puzzle. If it does not, the gap in understanding will need to be bridged. The best way to do that is an appeal to your own sense of awe, your diligence to empiricism, and an ability to hypothesize on a grand scale.
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