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It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Mormon apostle goes full anti-science

Times come and times go, but religion provides an anchor of constancy (if an anchor’s what you need). So it’s good to see Mormon apostle Russell Nelson engaging in the time-honored religious tradition of slagging science.

Well, that’s not fair. If there’s science that they like, then it’s a gift from god. If they don’t like the science, then it’s either Satan’s deception, or some irrelevant wild guess that will get resolved in the fulness of time.

Here’s the clip (from 7:12).

“Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’ The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions.”

The printer’s shop analogy is extremely tired — evolution is not ‘by chance’! Mutation is, but natural selection is non-random. So yes, if books could reproduce and if only the fittest books survived to reproduce, then yes, we would see books that could heal torn pages and update themselves. Nelson is making a false analogy between a living being and an inanimate object, and the two have different qualities.

Analogy aside, what Elder Nelson has done must be very strange and uncomfortable for Mormons. He’s waded into science, and sneered at ideas from biology, physics, and cosmology that he doesn’t undertand, and that there’s real evidence for and no real reason to disbelieve.

To see why this is such weird territory he’s in, let’s take a look at mentions of ‘evolve’ or ‘evolution’ in General Conferences.

Predictably, the most mentions came when evolution was a new theory, and religious people were scrambling to figure out what to do about it. It popped up again as more young people started attending universities, and horrifying their religious parents with the science they were learning. Since then, things were calming down to background levels. The two words ‘evolution’ and ‘evolve’ weren’t even mentioned in all the 1990s! The last time Darwinian evolution was mentioned in General Conference was in 1984, when Bruce McConkie and Boyd Packer both had a bash. That’s 28 years of letting it lay.

So the scene was set for the LDS Church to let the issue go, accommodate evolution, and claim that they were never really against it, which is how they seem to resolve all their old conflicts. Instead, Nelson has recycled his old material, and renewed the attack. That’s going to take some time to walk back.

And just for comparison, no GA has ever trashed the Big Bang — the phrase doesn’t appear in the entire GC corpus. Nelson is really in deep water here.

What must intelligent Mormons be thinking?

a. Oh, Grandpa!
b. Um, are we not supposed to believe in the Big Bang now?
c. He spake as a man.
d. Let’s go shopping!
e. We just heard how not everything from the pulpit is doctrine, so no problem!
f. Holy fuck. This guy is a leader of my church, supposedly getting revelation from god, and he’s completely and unambiguously wrong. What else is he wrong about?

Because he is wrong. He’s proudly ignorant, making a joke out of something he doesn’t understand, and expecting the audience to laugh along. (Which of course they did, nervously.) He’s coming off as really dumb, and he’s considered one of the smart ones! (He was a doctor, doncha know.)

The takeaway: A major LDS leader just put himself (and the church) up against science. Are Mormons creationists now? Or is it possible to ignore an apostle?

Will this shake some educated Mormons up? The likelihood is most remote! But I think it should be a really big deal, and I’d like to hear from some smarter Mormons to see how they’re coping with this.

10 Comments

  1. My boyfriend is a physics grad student at the University of Utah, where some of his fellow grad students are LDS.

    Today in conversation with them, one reported: "The only thing that bothered me about conference this weekend was what Elder Nelson said. Good thing we don't believe our leaders are infallible." In other words, it bothered him but he shrugged it off.

    • Gah!

      And the very next thing they should say is, "Yeah, and what else?"

      How can they have confidence in their leaders? The cognitive dissonance should be making heads explode in big meaty chunks.

    • This doesn't make sense. How can anyone have confidence in anything then? Science and God should go hand in hand. How can you have complete confidence in all science? Scientists use to be absolutely sure about one thing, then 10 years later they change their minds.
      Here's a great thought from Henry Eyring Sr. You know him, President Eyring's dad, the man who formed the absolute rate theory. "People ask me how I can be a scientists and believe in God. I tell them, while their is so much we know about science, there is still much we do not know. I haven't become an apostate from science just because I don't know, so why would I become an apostate in the church just because their are things I don't know?"

    • Scientists use to be absolutely sure about one thing, then 10 years later they change their minds.

      This isn't quite correct. Scientists know (or they should, and so should everyone) that current hypotheses are the best we have now, but they may change as more evidence comes in. Scientists are right to change their minds when more evidence is available. That's why you can have confidence in science — you're always getting the best of what we know.

      Eyring's comparison is not apt. Scientific ideas change when they don't match with the facts, and then scientists publish the new results. Religious ideas (in the LDS Church, at least) change when people find them unpalatable, and then they quietly bury them and hope no one will remember in 40 years.

    • So, how does this differ from "further light and knowledge"? The apostle know what they are given now, just like I know what I am given now. Further revelation may change this. I don't think that God and science should be separated, for they work together.
      I don't discredit science, it has given us so so much. However, we are getting the best of what they "know" may change. How can you use the word "know" if it is a hypotheses? I'm just saying that having full confidence in everything current science is saying can be hard because, while much of it is fact, much is also an educated guess that will change in the future. So how is this different from what you claim the LDS church does?

    • This is a really good question. It's so good that it's my next blog post.

  2. Yay! you managed to squeeze City Creek Mall into your blog after all.

  3. Mit, I am VERY interested in what you have to say about science and the big bang theory.

  4. Lets see, god has had about 25 billion children upon this earth. Say 100 million of those make it to the celestial kingdom. That is 0.4% success rate at bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Hmmm.

    There are 10^88 particles in the visible universe. So it would take about ten generations or cycles of gods having children and populating their own worlds before there would be more resurrected humans than there are, in reality, particles in the known universe.

    A new cycle starts every 10,000 years or so. So the universe becomes overpopulated in the first 100,000 years.

    Does god know any of these by name? After ten generations of gods it would take about 8×10^82 years to acquaint himself with this number of offspring allowing each, one second of his time. But it only took 10^5 years to create this many offspring. So god would never have time to get to know his offspring. He could never catch up.

    Now consider that mormon theology embraces a process like this that has been going on _forever_ and you get an idea of hopelessly out of touch with reality it all is.

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