As a believing Mormon and practicing Mesoamerican archaeologist, I’m frequently questioned by strangers and neighbors about physical evidence and proofs of the Book of Mormon. I try to dissuade both friends and foes alike from going down this path, because absolute proof is a logical and philosophical impossibility. I have frequently made three claims that may at first glance appear at odds: (1) archaeological evidence will never prove or disprove the truth or falsity of the Book of Mormon, (2) the amount of physical evidence that potentially corroborates claims in the Book of Mormon has increased as a function of more and better archaeology, and (3) evidence gets interpreted according to one’s prior belief or disbelief in the book. Belief is sight, and disbelief is blindness. This is a well-known social and psychological phenomenon not limited to religious, political, or scientific topics, and I will not explore it further. Antecedent beliefs account for most of the shouting about the Book of Mormon I have read or heard (except for that by disgruntled or excommunicated Mormons). Belief of some sort precedes any parade of evidence, and believers of all stripes tend to see what they look for.
My own belief is primitive in the sense that it long preceded any knowledge of archaeology and was not based on analysis of external evidence. My belief is visceral rather than inferential. It came from reading the book and living principles it expounds. I was raised in the LDS Church, so a compelling argument can be made that my beginning belief was more cultural than logical. I accept this as likely the case. My initial immersion in Mormonism, however, does not account for my persisting beliefs after having been subjected to the skepticism of philosophy and science for three decades. Everything about the Book of Mormon still feels good to me, down to my bones. Intellectually, I am aware of most arguments against the book’s veracity, and I accept them as interesting challenges but not as proofs against it. I have extensive experience with how archaeologists recover, manufacture, and interpret evidence, so I am not concerned with their claims against the book. Again, it is not the evidence that matters most with this question but the assumptions the arguments begin with.
I have acknowledged in print that many items mentioned in the Book of Mormon have not been found by archaeologists and may never be found. Other things have been found. The situation that confronts the logical empiricist is that the evidence is a mixed bag, and will forever be a mixed bag, so it becomes a matter of deciding how to weigh positive and negative evidence, specify default assumptions, decide who will bear the burdens of proof, and delimit the degree of proof needed. This is where my upbringing comes in. As someone who believes in the Book of Mormon, I have not seen anything in my extensive studies of archaeology to dissuade me of my belief. Legalistically, this is about the strongest claim I could make under oath. It is appropriate to say here that I have not been looking for contrary evidence, or ignoring evidence. Belief is not an excuse for ignoring issues or for applying lax standards of logic to arguments. Archaeological evidence does not make me at all uncomfortable with my faith and confidence in the Book of Mormon. My message to fellow members is that archaeological evidence should not make them uncomfortable either. On the other hand, it should not give them a false sense that evidential matters have been decided in the book’s favor. The physical evidence simply cannot decide the matter of the book’s truth. I urge those interested to pray to God about the matter. I suspect that many of my colleagues are more upset with my belief in God than with my belief in the Book of Mormon—but the beliefs are inseparable.
My archaeology does not concern the Book of Mormon and never has. I would never attempt to prove the book’s message by science, and I think such efforts are a foolish waste of time—not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence cannot make a difference in the ways imagined. I tell Mormon friends that if I found an artifact that would make a significant difference, such as the golden plates, I would bury it and keep my mouth shut. This is rhetorical exaggeration, of course, to drive home the point that, as a practicing Mormon, I would have no credibility on the matter. I would be the last one in the profession to be believed if Book of Mormon related artifacts were found. In reality, I would not dream of spinning the data found in my archaeology even if confronted with such an artifact. This hypothetical example does make the point that having an object is not the same as having a fact or having a legitimate argument. Those interested in these issues should investigate how artifacts get transformed into acceptable facts.
It is not my intent to write a treatise on Book of Mormon arguments and philosophical approaches. My message to those who might be interested is the simple one that I know the Book of Mormon well and the archaeological data from Middle America very well. The juxtaposition of the two causes me no intellectual heartburn or loss of faith. For those interested in such things, it would be useful to keep a couple of facts in mind. First, the lands of the Book of Mormon have not been securely identified, and, second, archaeology keeps adding facts to stories of what happened in particular pasts. This is to say that Book of Mormon lands are an unfixed target and that archaeological claims are a moving object. The two are like two unknowns in a binomial equation. One has to nail down one to evaluate the other in making arguments about physical evidences of the Book of Mormon. Such arguments require one to be in the right place at the right time. Time is specified in the book, but place has not been established. The best arguments have settled on Mesoamerica as probable Book of Mormon lands, but it should be realized that all such arguments are circular and should not be taken as definitive.
Mormon colleagues have argued with me, vehemently, that, with enough of the right kind of evidence, objective seekers of truth will be persuaded of the book’s truth and cover story. I tell them that their model of science and objective seekers does not approximate my experience with scientists. My closest non-Mormon academic colleagues accept or tolerate my Mormonism; others are annoyed with it. They think I must be doing something nefarious on the side. To deny such a charge would be to give it credence. The issue at stake is whether I can be an “objective” scientist and Mesoamerican archaeologist if I believe in the Book of Mormon. I try my best to be. Since I’m not selling Mormonism, and they’re not buying it, there has been no reason to attempt discussion of personal biases or to explore the parameters on which such a discussion could even occur. Some colleagues think that I must compartmentalize my religious beliefs and my archaeological queries and avoid mixing them for fear of explosion. This explanation comes close to accusing me of double-mindedness. My own cognitive model for how I think is that I treat both topics in the same way, and with the same logical standards. I don’t tolerate nonsense from Mormons or non-Mormons, whatever their credentials. I have not attempted a rigorous self-analysis of my belief à la Descartes or C. S. Lewis. I know what I believe, but I can’t recover the steps leading to the beliefs arrived at so long ago. Nor can I prove through logic that my beliefs are correct, and I would never attempt it. My belief goes beyond deduction or induction. I can say that living by faith is harder than living by skepticism. I am not convinced that being eternally suspicious of everything is a sane way to live. My faith and belief in the Book of Mormon brings me joy, and it makes me want to work at becoming a better person. I’m hard enough to get along with as it is. Without the Book of Mormon’s constraining influence, I’m afraid I could be a beast.
John E. Clark earned his B.S. and M.A. in archaeology from Brigham Young University, and his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1994. He is currently a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Brigham Young University where, for many years, he directed BYU’s New World Archaeological Foundation. At BYU, he was awarded the Karl G. Maeser Excellence in Research Award in 2005 and, in 2008, was chosen to deliver the Martin B. Hickman Outstanding Scholar Lecture for the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.
Among his numerous publications are, with Michael Blake, “El origen de la civilizacíon en Mesoamérica: Los olmecas y mokaya del Soconusco de Chiapas, México,” in El preclásico o formativo: Avances y perspectivas (1989); “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon (1989); “Olmecas, olmequismo, y olmequización en Mesoamérica,” in Arqueología (1990); “The Beginnings of Mesoamerica: Apologia for the Soconusco Early Formative,” in The Formation of Complex Society in Southeastern Mesoamerica (1991); with Michael Blake, “The Power of Prestige: Competitive Generosity and the Emergence of Rank Societies in Lowland Mesoamerica,” in Factional Competition and Political Development in the New World (1994); as editor, Los Olmecas en Mesoamérica (1994); “Los olmecas, pueblo del primer sol,” in Los Olmecas en Mesoamérica (1994); “Antecedentes de la cultura olmeca,” in Los Olmecas en Mesoamérica (1994); “Mesoamerica Goes Public: Early Ceremonial Centers, Leaders, and Communities,” in Mesoamerican Archaeology (2004); “The Birth of Mesoamerican Metaphysics: Sedentism, Engagement, and Moral Superiority,” in Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of Mind with the Material World (2005); with Michelle Knoll, “The American Formative Revisited,” in Gulf Coast Archaeology, the Southeastern U.S. and Mexico (2005); “Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon Origins,” BYU Studies (2005); “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (2005); as editor, with Mary E. Pye, Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2006); with Mary Pye, “The Pacific Coast and the Olmec Question,” in Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica (2006); with Michael Blake, Richard G. Lesure, Warren D. Hill, and Luis Barba, “The Residence of Power at Paso de la Amada, Mexico,” in Palaces and Power in the Americas: From Peru to the Northwest Coast (2006); with David Cheetham, “Investigaciones recientes en Cantón Corralito: Un possible enclave olmeca en la costa del Pacífico de Chiapas, México,” in XIX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2005 (2006); “Mesoamerica’s First State,” in The Political Economy of Ancient Mesoamerica: Transformations During the Formative and Classic Periods (2007); “Who’s Minding Production?” in Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association; “In Craft Specialization’s Penumbra: Things, Persons, Action, Value, and Surplus,” in Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association (2007); “La Alba de Mesoamérica,” in Procesos y Expresiones de Poder, Identidad y Orden Tempranos en Sudamérica (2007); “The Arts of Government in Early Mesoamerica,” in Annual Review of Anthropology (2007); with Arlene Colman, “Time Reckoning and Memorials in Mesoamerica,” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal (2008); “Teogonia Olmeca: Perspectivas, Problemas y Propuestas,” Olmeca, Balance y Perspectivas: Memoria de la Primera Mesa Redonda (2008); “Las Sociedades Complejas del Occidente de México en el Mundo Mesoamericano,” in Homenaje al Dr. Phil C. Weigand: El Origin del Estado en Mesoamérica (2009); “Hands and Hearts: How Aztecs Measured Their World,” in Mesoamerican Voices (2009).
Posted January 2011