Thursday, August 2, 2012

Archaeology-Mormonism smackdown

When I was an undergrad I think I read everything Michael Coe wrote about the Maya.  I didn’t realise until now that he had an engagement with Mormon archaeology (as in archaeology driven by Mormon beliefs).  I don't know very much about Mormonism, no more than your average person.  I have of course been plagued by Mormon missionaries, spent a few days in Salt Lake City, and have a sketchy comprehension of their history and, through various second-hand sources, the historical claims of the Book of Mormon.  I know there is Mormon archaeology, but since I don’t work in Mesoamerica, I have never encountered it. 

John Sorenson, a Mormon anthropologist and emeritus professor at Brigham Young University, has written an open letter to Michael Coe, chastising him for statements in an interview in the Mormon Stories Podcast.  The interview (Dr. Michael Coe—An Outsider’s View of Book of Mormon Archaeology) seemed surprising to me given that it was on something called Mormon Stories.  It’s over three hours and I have only listened to the first one so far, but what I heard was friendly and reasonable.  The preamble to Sorenson’s letter notes that Mormon Stories “has a bias that is ultimately hostile to the truth of the Book of Mormon,” which may explain the host tolerance of critique. I enjoyed the hour I heard and will listen to the rest as time permits.  I especially liked that The Golden Bough was the catalyst for Coe’s loss of religious faith.  I remember poring through The Golden Bough in my high school library.

As an side, when I checked there were 201 comments on Coe's interview, and all of them, as far as I could tell, civil and literate, with not one in all caps. It was if I had left the internet. Can you imagine the reaction if a similar piece was done on the Bible?

The central arguments in the podcast and Sorenson's response are over items mentioned in the Book of Mormon that are not found archaeologically.  These include iron and steel weapons, chariots, animals such as horses, pigs, and  elephants, and crops, such as wheat and barley. There is also the broader issue of identifying who among the known archaeological and historical cultures are the Jaredites and Nephites, and why there are no indications of Western Asian origin Middle East among the likely suspects.   

Sorenson's rebuttals take four main forms.

1) Arguing there is in fact archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon where Coe said there was none.  The evidence is usually from hopelessly outdated sources or Mormon apologetics.  As an example, no anthropologist would take a 1950s radiocarbon date on bone seriously, but Sorenson argues for the possible survival of mastodons (as the "elephants" in the Book of Mormon") using just such evidence, and, to all appearances, does so quite seriously. 

2) Arguing that the mention of these things in the Book of Mormon actually refers to the nearest American thing (e.g. "pig" means peccary, "horse" means "deer" etc.).  So the literal reading of the Book of Mormon is safe whether there is archaeological evdidence or not.

3) Arguing that the mention of these things in the Book of Mormon does NOT actually refer to American things.  In this argument Sorenson does not want groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon to be identified with known groups such as the Maya.  Again the purpose here is to insulate the book of Mormon from negative physical evidence.  

4) Arguing that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  He does this in the case of the lack of evidence for iron and steel manufacture in Precolumbian America.  By his own count "no more than 200 Mesoamerican sites have been seriously excavated.” without evidence of iron- and steel-working.  Bear in mind we’d be seeing more than just "chemical traces," especially if we are talking about steel. We'd be seeing mines, charcoal burning, furnaces, etc.  This is a substantial amount of work that hasn’t found any evidence, so the probabilities are dropping. While we need to be open to the possibility that solid evidence may show up,in the mean time there is no evidence nor any reason to consider a serious probability of future evidence.

In sum the letter was disappointing.  I don’t know Dr. Sorenson’s work, but he does have  a Ph.D., he is an anthropologist, and he was a professor in an anthropology department (at BYU which is an actual university).  I guess I was expecting a response that would reflect that. If anyone could give a really good archaeological defence of a literal reading of the Book of Mormon, it would be this guy.  But what we got was something any Creationist or ancient alien proponent could pull together--outdated sources, anomaly hunting in the grey literature, explaining away the lack of evidence, and insulating one's claims from evidence. It looks as if it doesn’t matter how educated you are, when it comes to certain topics there is just a ceiling of dumb you can’t break through.  Using archaeology to defend a literal reading of religious texts is one of those topics.  

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