Atheist demigod Richard Dawkins has said that in the face of science, religion always retreats. This is probably true to some extent. For example, a century or two ago, few of us would have worried about the historicity of the global Deluge. Confronted by the overwhelming evidence from geology and archaeology (and all manner of other -ologies), most of us have learned to project some nuance on to the Genesis account. The same might be said of evolution, Big Bang cosmogony, brain science, ancient history, etc. We are rational creatures: when science shows beyond reasonable doubt that the earth is many billions of years old, we adapt our theology to fit. Mormons are generally pretty good at doing this.
Some people cry foul, mostly because in making these adjustments, something is invariably lost. The global Deluge may be shown to be an Iron Age myth (or semi-myth, if you prefer), but where does this leave our notion of scripture, and for Mormons, the ideas supposedly supported by modern scripture and modern prophets? Conservative believers justifiably worry over these theological adjustments.
They are not alone. Some writers, for example, have expressed their displeasure at what they see as the cavalier approach of Mormon apologists to the DNA question. In short, Book of Mormon defenders claim to lose no sleep over the East Asiatic DNA of American Indians because the Book of Mormon espouses only a limited infiltration of ancient America by Near Eastern migrants. In Sunstone, Metcalfe, Southerton, and Vogel have cried foul over this paradigm shift: Southerton, for example, has blasted the “uber-apologetics” that he claims inflicts all manner of collateral damage on Mormonism. If the Limited Geography card is to be played, he argues, it cripples the cherished (and prophetic) notion that the Indians are genetic heirs to the Lamanite promise. By making theological adjustments in the face of science, the tail allegedly ends up wagging the dog (Metcalfe’s phrase).
I would be interested to know what BCC readers think about these issues (and I recommend the Sunstone link above; Blake Ostler’s responses offer a counter-view to Southerton et. al.). In my own research I have found a case where Book of Mormon historicity can be supported, but only by relaxing a fundamentalist view of the Bible and embracing some form of the Documentary Hypothesis.
Kevin Barney has stated that Murphy and Southerton hold “the Book of Mormon only to a lowest common denominator, populist, folkloric reading.” Is Kevin playing fair? Is it really no sweat to brush aside what the introduction to the current Book of Mormon states (that the Lamanites are the “principal ancestors” of the Book of Mormon)?