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Answering critics

Annual conference helps members respond to critical questions about faith

At the conclusion of remarks given at a conference staged to defend the Church against criticism, Ryan Parr offered Church members simple advice:

"We really need to be thoroughly skeptical of the skeptics and critical of the critics," he said.

Brother Parr, a researcher who holds a doctorate in biological anthropology, joined other faithful Latter-day Saint scholars Aug. 4-5 at the two-day conference sponsored by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. The organization is comprised of Church members acting on their own without Church sponsorship.

"FAIR is there to help members find faithful answers to critical questions," said Scott Gordon, the organization's president. "We try to look at questions that occasionally challenge members and give them answers from a faithful perspective."

More than 270 people attended the annual conference, listening to 12 presenters who addressed topics appearing recently in the press or on Internet chat rooms. During the organization's 7th annual conference, Brother Parr addressed the topic "DNA and the Book of Mormon."

"Just simply looking at the population genetics and making conclusions about what it means to a group of people 2,600 years ago is precarious," he explained. "Most genetic signals can and do disappear over time."

Also speaking at the conference were John Clark on "Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology"; Wendy Ulrich on " 'Believest thou. . .?' Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience"; Darius Gray on "Blacks in the Bible"; Greg Kearney on "Masonry and Mormonism"; Blake Ostler on "The Fallacy of Fundamentalist Assumptions"; Richard Bushman on "A Joseph Smith Miscellany"; Boyd Petersen on "What I Learned about Life, the Church, and the Cosmos from Hugh Nibley"; Marvin Perkins on "Reaching Black Saints"; Davis Bitton on "George Q. Cannon and the Apostates"; John Tvedtnes on "Authentic Ancient Names and Words in the Book of Abraham and Related Kirtland Egyptians Papers"; and Daniel Peterson on "Secular Anti-Mormonism."

"We are all believing members of the Church," said Brother Gordon on the organization and FAIR's members. "We are supporters of the Church. We support the Brethren in all things."

Still, he said, they hope to help new Church members and others, who may be bombarded with anti-Mormon literature, find answers. And many people are noticing the group's efforts. Last month, for example, the FAIR Web site (www.fairlds.org) received 1.7 million page views and last February the organization had to increase its bandwidth to meet demand.

For the conference, Brother Gordon said, organizers tried to address a "wide variety of topics on a variety of levels." Although the Church News does not have space to cover all the addresses, brief excerpts of three are included below:

  • Speaking on archaeology and the Book of Mormon, Brother Clark noted that quarrels over lack of archaeological evidence to support the sacred text is "based on a fallacy of proof."

    "No quantity of archaeological evidence will ever suffice to prove beyond reasonable doubt that either the Bible or the Book of Mormon is true — or false," he said.

    While some have chosen to judge the Book of Mormon on archaeological evidence that has not been found, Brother Clark said a better question to study is, "What has been found?" He said, "Please remember that if the book were a hoax there should not be any evidence to support it.

    "The hypothesis of human authorship of the Book of Mormon demands that truth claims in the book be judged by what was believed, known or knowable in Joseph's backyard in the 1820s. The book's description of ancient peoples differs greatly from the racist notions of rude savages held by 19th-century Americans. The book's claim of city societies was laughable at the time."

    In contrast to what critics say, numerous archeological evidence supports the Book of Mormon, he continued, including metal records in stone boxes; ancient writing; warfare; cities, temples, towers and palaces; cement houses and cities, and the list goes on.

    "(The Book of Mormon) is an ancient book, its history is intriguing, and its message of Christ is true and redeeming," he said.

  • There are times in every member's life that they may "wrestle with God over many issues that surround faith," said Sister Ulrich.

    Speaking of how to free oneself from self-doubt, doubts about the Church, or doubts about the existence, nature or trustworthiness of God, Sister Ulrich called faith an imperfect knowledge. "We believe," she said, "because we are trying to learn object constancy with God, to trust that He is still there even when we cannot feel Him, and that He will tell us the truth, even when that seems improbable.

    "The brother of Jared's answer to this question is, 'Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of Truth and canst not lie.' "

    Sister Ulrich said the brother of Jared believed God because he had learned through the "long struggles of a committed relationship" to trust the Lord.

    "He has learned that He is a God of truth and He does not lie — not about painful things like mountain waves and torrential seas, and not about hopeful things like a land of promise on the other side of a long journey."

  • Secular anti-Mormons typically criticize the Church on two broad grounds, said Brother Petersen. First all, they say that its claims are untrue. Second, they accuse it and its leaders of wrongdoing, he said. "But it is not clear that on a purely secular and naturalistic basis, either form of critique can be coherent," he added.

    He recalled years ago, as a missionary in Switzerland, meeting a Yugoslavian-born physician who had once been a Melchizedek Priesthood holder in the Church. The former member recounted stories of a priesthood leader who, on numerous occasions, received revelation for members of the Latter-day Saint congregation in Yugoslavia, warning them of danger as the communists were consolidating their power.

    The man, however, told the missionary and his companion that he left the Church and concluded that the former priesthood leader had acted with "brain chemistry and chance."

    "If there were powerful arguments compelling us to forsake religious belief, and if there were no persuasive arguments for such belief, we might feel ourselves obliged to accept what I, at least, regard as the bleakness of the secular, naturalistic world view," Brother Petersen said. "But we are not so compelled, and there are persuasive arguments for belief."

    Brother Petersen then spoke of the classical tale of "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp." After finding a magic lamp and a genie, an impoverished Aladdin achieves unparalleled wealth and marries a beautiful princess. However, not knowing of the lamp's power, the princess surrenders her husband's nicked, old lamp for a bright and shiny new one.

    "We would, I firmly believe, be just as mistaken as she was to trade the lamp of the gospel for a new lamp that lacks its miraculous power," he said.

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