Ask no man

No More Contention is the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding. Contention arises from the compulsion to have others agree with us. Seeking understanding in an environment of clarity and charity produces no more contention. As Joseph Smith said, "I will ask no man to believe as I do."

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Three broad categories

In a sense, contention is inevitable and unavoidable because every individual is unique, and no two people agree on everything.  Ideally, we...

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

No more contention over evolution/creationism

The origin of the earth (creationism vs. evolution) has generated considerable contention, debate, and animosity over the years. It's an ideal topic to discuss on this blog in the pursuit of "no more contention."

To identify the source of the contention, we'll clarify the opposing positions with a goal of understanding and recognizing multiple working hypotheses.

Then we'll propose a resolution.

Then we'll engage in a deeper dive into the way contention is generated and perpetuated, using LDS apologists as an example.


Different positions. Among Latter-day Saints, some believe prevailing concepts of evolution as taught by modern scientists, others believe in intelligent design, young earth, and other variations of creationism based on scriptural and prophetic teachings, and still others don't have an opinion and/or don't care.

For purposes of this post, I'll group these into evolutionists, creationists, and uncommitted.

Some people within each group are adamant about their positions. Not content with their own beliefs, they feel compelled to contend against those who disagree with them. Often they do so on behalf of someone else; i.e., they're arguing "for a friend," which comes across as insecurity on their part.

Some evolutionists claim creationists are dangerous because by insisting on a literal interpretation of the scriptures, the creationists undermine faith when people discover that evolution science is more credible than the creation accounts.   

Some creationists claim evolutionists are dangerous because by repudiating a literal interpretation of the scriptures, the evolutionists undermine the credibility of the scriptures and remove God from the creation narrative, leading people to reject religion altogether. 

The uncommitted have innumerable reasons for staying out of the debate (higher priorities, putting the issues "on the shelf" for later resolution/consideration, cognitive dissonance, lack of time or interest to be involved, etc.).




Creationists are dangerous because their literal interpretation contradicts science and leads people to lose their faith

Evolutionists are dangerous because their metaphorical interpretation contradicts revelation and leads people to lose their faith

People on both sides offer anecdotal evidence to support their claims (along with scientific, logical, and scriptural/prophetic citations).



This topic is a clear example of how contention arises from the urge to seek confirmation of one's own biases and beliefs by attacking alternative worldviews. Take away that urge, and we can all focus instead on understanding clearly what others think. 

Everyone has access to the identical facts, yet people reach completely contradictory, inconsistent conclusions.


Because of their own assumptions and inferences that lead them to create theories or explanations of the evidence that work for them. 

For some people, evolution makes sense. For others, creationism makes sense. By definition, neither group finds the counter evidence persuasive.  

When people in one group label the other as "dangerous," they are projecting from their own worldview. This should be obvious because there are people in both groups who are faithful Latter-day Saints, former Latter-day Saints, and never Latter-day Saints.

This is not to say that ambiguity or indifference is an effective resolution of the issue (although it may be for some). 

Instead, the ideal solution is the one offered by Article of Faith 11 and our modern Church leaders; i.e., believe whatever you want and take responsibility for your own beliefs, but, if you choose to have faith, focus on the two great commandments and temple worthiness.

Expecting someone else (scientists or prophets) to provide an unambiguous determinate answer is an abdication of personal responsibility and a forfeiture of an opportunity to gain one's own "degree of intelligence."   

For that reason, the resolution of the contention consists of seeking clarity, charity, and understanding of multiple working hypotheses. Then people can embrace a worldview that suits them without insisting that others conform to their worldview.

Then, as Brigham Young observed, "we shall feel much better than if we suffered a difference of opinion to make us enemies." 

Eliminating contention this way allows evolutionists and creationists to have lunch together, serve one another, love one another, and work together to establish a Zion society.


Deeper dive.

A few days ago, FAIRLDS posted a presentation from their 2019 conference on youtube. People have been sending me the clip in which Ben Spackman calls "heartlanders" "dangerous fundamentalists," which starts here:

It seems strange (but also typical) for FAIRLDS to post such a contentious video at this point (after President Nelson's "Peacemakers Needed" talk (, but we can use it as a good object lesson for how to identify, neutralize, and learn from contentious discourse.

It's also useful to contrast Spackman's contentious FAIRLDS presentation with a recent podcast on Mormon Book Reviews that covered the same topic of evolution.

"Mormonism & Evolution w/ Jon Perry of Stated Clearly"

In that podcast, both participants sided with the evolution worldview, but both also treated the creationist worldview with clarity, charity and understanding.

1:57:34 we as Christians we can come to the table with different beliefs and everything like that but we also have... just the most important thing is just to be able to be understanding of the different ideas and Views and not be afraid of the other which I think we do too much othering in the society.

The pursuit of "no more contention" involves identifying positive contributions but also obstacles to clarity and understanding. 


Brother Spackman's talk was titled "A Paradoxical Preservation of Faith: LDS Creation Accounts and the Composite Nature of Revelation." 

There's a lot to like in Spackman's presentation. I think he did a good job explaining an approach to scriptural interpretation and the process of revelation that everyone should be familiar with.

His views are one of the multiple working hypotheses that I like to understand with clarity. Separately, he published a thoughtful survey of the issue, here:

However, his approach at FAIRLDS relies on the type of contention that I discuss here on, as we'll discuss below.

Ben Spackman is  undoubtedly a fine scholar. He is the University of Utah’s Tanner Fellow for Mormon Studies, 2022-23.

His comments in this video were impromptu and succinct, and I assume he would have been more accurate and clear had he thought them through a little more.

I wouldn't have commented except that FAIRLDS, the Interpreter, and Book of Mormon Central have all promoted this same false narrative about Heartlanders for many years. 

I hope that, by calling attention to this presentation and its recent appearance on youtube, we can all use it as an example of the type of rhetoric to avoid in the future, as we seek "no more contention." 


Essentially, Spackman argues that, fundamentalist (literal) belief in the scriptures causes people to lose their faith when they encounter complexity and human error in the Church. Therefore, according to Spackman, "heartlanders" are "dangerous fundamentalists."

This strikes me as both arrogant and myopic on Spackman's part. Not to mention defensive, insecure, and acrimonious. 

As I showed above, some evolutionists and creationists blame each other when some third party loses his/her faith. 

Here's how Spackman sets up his argument (at 40:34) 

the more absolutist and fundamentalist the claim and the tighter we link it with the truth of the gospel and the authority of church leadership the easier we make it to reject scripture and Faith when that claim turns out to be more complex or have more Humanity than people have been led to expect.

If the Paradigm presented to me as a young believer or convert is a stark dichotomy between a human man-made uninspired church and a fully Divine inspired one lacking in humanity, then any Mark of humanity in that church or scripture leadership moves me from one box and to the other....  

We have to take his word for his claim that he was taught such a stark dichotomy. Apparently that experience blinds him to the reality that such a "stark dichotomy" contradicts the explicit language of the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets that he accuses "fundamentalists" of accepting too literally. 

in my view too many LDS are raised with absolutist assumptions that prophets are mere conduits or windows that Revelation comes through that no human reason is involved in interpreting understanding or implementing Revelation often they lose their faith but they retain those absolutist assumptions.

Spackman sets out this straw man argument to contrast with his own "more enlightened" approach, but he seems to overlook the irony that the people he is addressing (FAIRLDS) generally don't believe Joseph Smith translated the plates (because they advocate SITH instead), while the people he attacks (the "heartlanders") generally believe Joseph did translate the plates, which involved exactly the human input he accuses heartlanders of denying.

In my own experience, for example, my Interpreter critics complain because I've offered evidence that corroborates what Joseph and Oliver claimed; i.e., that Joseph did translate the plates into English (and did not merely read words that appeared on the stone-in-the-hat). I think God prepared Joseph from a young age for his role as translator and revelator so he could draw upon his own vocabulary to articulate the revelations he received and translate the engravings on the plates. 

BTW, I actually mentioned Spackman's comment in a post in 2019 because I had attended part of the conference (albeit not Spackman's presentation).

I discussed the repercussions of that post here:


Early in his presentation, Spackman explains his underlying premise and motivation.

4:46 many Latter-Day Saints that I encounter are much more like fundamentalists in fact I think many LDS are like fundamentalist Protestants and that they transfer the need for absoluteness about the Bible onto a need for absoluteness with church leadership.

Among LDS intellectuals, there is hardly anyone worse than a fundamentalist Protestant. This is so commonly understood that Spackman generates antipathy among the FAIRLDS crowd by merely comparing "many Latter-day Saints" to "fundamentalist Protestants." 

Next, in a parapraxis (Freudian slip) he needs to remind himself (and his audience) that he is not creating a straw man.

5:05 I keep a file of LDS statements I find in Publications and on blogs and on Facebook to remind me that I am not creating a straw man here although I do not really have any data on how widespread these assumptions are uh I do think that they are growing

As we'll see, creating a straw man is exactly what he does. 

there's one group that's pushing them that I find particularly dangerous but I don't want to name them.

By alerting his FAIRLDS audience to the "particularly dangerous group" that he doesn't name, he keeps them in suspense for the ultimate reveal. That's excellent persuasion technique. Maybe a little manipulative of his audience, but the FAIRLDS audience is accustomed to such manipulation from the scholars they follow. They love it, as we'll see.

Then another comparison to the dreaded "fundamentalist Evangelical." 

5:29 this is a conversation I had on Facebook with a fundamentalist Evangelical uh he really needed absoluteness for the Bible and I pushed him on it a little bit with some humor um I could have easily this this could have easily been a Latter-Day Saint swapping prophets instead of the Bible. I have had LDS tell me if I can't trust prophets absolutely how can I trust them at all? if they don't give us absolute knowledge then what good are they.

I realize his observation here is a generalization, but I want to comment here because my NPC critics have accused me of this form of "fundamentalism" when I point out that if we don't trust what Oliver Cowdery said were facts about Cumorah and the translation, it is not rational to trust what he said about other facts. For this reason, I ask those whose acceptance of what Oliver said is contingent on what they personally believe instead of Oliver's veracity and credibility to be clear and explicit about their reasoning. 

I'm fine with people choosing whether or not to believe what Joseph and Oliver taught as facts; that's inherent in the all/some/none framing. But to the extent Spackman and others conflate statements of fact with the separate problem of interpreting revelation, they are obfuscating and misleading, not clarifying and understanding.

Next, Spackman clarifies his terminology, which is helpful and conducive to understanding his points.  

6:03 now the problem with fundamentalism and all these contexts is that it's kind of come to be associated with polygamy and that's not the kind of fundamentalism I'm talking about so I'm going to use the term absolutism and absolute instead. And for my purposes I am defining this fundamentalism or absolutism with a couple characteristics. First absolute consistency. This minimizes differences tensions or contradictions in history or scripture as only imagined misunderstood or mistranslated.

6:43 often the word harmonize has been abused not to actually make Harmony but to make things sing in unison. Second absolute accuracy. That is in this fundamentalist assumption the idea is that Revelation speaks primarily in historical and scientific terms and is necessarily factually correct because it comes from the mouth of God.

That's a fair explanation of his premise and definitions. I don't have any problem with such clarity; in fact, I applaud and encourage it because it helps us understand his bias and motivation, which is an important element of understanding multiple working hypotheses.

Next, however, he gets into his straw man mode.

7:53 any coherent account of what Revelation means must involve an acknowledgment that God speaks through human beings and all their historical cultural and personal contingency 

7:58 for fundamentalists however all the words of the Bible must be understood as direct locutions of God passing through their human authors like sunlight through the clearest glass and the Canon of the New Testament must be understood as a flawlessly immediate Communication in its every historical and lexical detail.

8:16 and once again we could transpose this into an LDS setting in gospel Doctrine class and this would apply to a number of people in there um oops

8:29 don't want to go there yet.

Here he whets the appetite of his FAIRLDS crowd for the ultimate "reveal" of the identity of these "dangerous fundamentalists." 

Prophets would function like pure clear glass windows they transmit Revelation but they know they have no effect on it at all. Prophets are just the medium. They're the pipeline that it comes through

8:42 and last characteristic I would give for this absolutist approach to things is tends to be characterized by binary or polar rhetoric which assumes clear brightline non-overlapping distinction between these things and this simply doesn't reflect reality.

Well, by now we get the gist of his caricature. Those interested can read, watch, or listen to the rest of his presentation.


Spackman's presentation raises two questions: 

1. Are Latter-day Saints Christians?

2. What can we learn from Spackman's comments about contention?


1. Are Latter-day Saints Christians?

Usually this question arises in connection with doctrinal issues, such as the nature of God (trinity, etc.), the scope of grace, etc. But Spackman's comments prompt another variation on the question.

First, we recognize that when he gave this presentation, Spackman had "15 years of teaching experience at BYU and Institute" and was "one of the senior Personnel at BYU's recently made public reconciling Evolution project."   

What kind of Christians are Latter-day Saints who don't allow alternative faithful interpretations of the scriptures and teachings of the prophets? Or who don't even acknowledge that faithful, educated, and thoughtful Latter-day Saints can embrace alternative faithful interpretations?

Non-LDS Christians embrace a wide variety of beliefs. It's a big tent. Based on common belief in the Bible, they recognize as Christians people as diverse as BB Warfield, Ken Ham and the Pope. 

But a faction of LDS scholars, which I've called the citation cartel but more recently the hopefully less pejorative term the "Interpreters," think fellow Latter-day Saints who have different faithful interpretations are "dangerous."

Ben Spackman is in this faction. Based on his comments in the video and on his blog, he is firmly in the camp of excluding, castigating, and characterizing as "dangerous fundamentalists" fellow Latter-day Saints who interpret the scriptures differently than he does.

In my view, that exclusionary, doctrinaire, and contemptuous approach is anything but Christian.

And I say the same about any "Heartlanders" (or anyone else) who advocate a similar exclusionary, doctrinaire, and contemptuous approach toward Spackman and like-minded Latter-day Saints. 

The restored gospel is a big enough tent to facilitate unity in diversity.

If we profess to be Christian, Latter-day Saints need to act Christian. That's far more important than writing books and dissertations and filling chairs in Mormon studies.


2. What can we learn from Spackman's comments about contention?

As readers here know, I hope to see "no more contention" within the Church, or even with critics. Instead of contention, I seek clarity and understanding.


No more contention





As I often say, I'm fine with people believing whatever they want. Article of Faith 11 is still in effect, both inside and outside the Church.

11 We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

I favor the approach of "multiple working hypotheses" in which everyone has access to all the relevant facts, then explains their assumptions and inferences based on those facts, then articulates the theory they employ to weave together the facts to develop an overall hypothesis. This FAITH model produces clarity and allows everyone to understand everyone else.

Such clarity and understanding avoids the impulse to persuade or convince someone else, which is the root cause of contention. It trusts individuals to make their own informed decisions as they use their individual spiritual gifts in their unique circumstances. 


Now we get to the Q&A section of Spackman's presentation to the FAIR-LDS conference in 2019.

Here is the transcript of the Q&A session, followed by commentary.


all right we'll take the gloves off. Please name the group pushing fundamentalism. 

I'm sorry Scott.

There is a group that goes by the name the heartlanders. 

They marry a particular Geographic interpretation of the Book of Mormon, which is absolutely fine--you can think whatever you want about Book of Mormon geography--but they marry it with a right-wing constitutionalist politics, young Earth creationism, an authoritarian view of of prophets that is absolutely absolutist. 

It's like God said it I believe it that settles it, and they claim that anyone who disagrees with them is apostate.

Uh, they have taken to naming church history employees and BYU professors who are off base. Um I think the heartlanders are dangerous fundamentalists. Bottom line.



The enthusiastic applause at the end is probably the worst aspect of this presentation. Naturally, the FAIRLDS crowd loves this divisive, contentious rhetoric because it feeds their egos and confirms their biases.

Any reasonable, rational person who seeks "no more contention" could not possibly applaud Spackman's comments.

I would hope that, today, after President Nelson's April 2023 General Conference message, no Latter-day Saint audience would applaud comments such as Spackman's here.


To understand the animosity of the FAIRLDS crowd towards Heartlanders, you'd have to go back several years to when Rod Meldrum first started doing presentations about his Heartland model of Book of Mormon geography, based on his belief that there is one hill Cumorah and it is in New York.

Jack Welch's FARMS and its successors FAIRLDS, the Interpreter, and Book of Mormon Central have heavily promoted the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs (M2C) theory for decades. They are heavily invested in M2C, financially, culturally, and emotionally. 

There are several geography models that rely on what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah, but the Heartland model is probably the most widely accepted among modern Latter-day Saints. That means it's a direct threat to the M2C promoters, who have raised millions of dollars to promote M2C.

Consequently, there has been a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of the Heartland model by linking it to political and scientific theories that are unpopular among LDS scholars. This helps them persuade other Latter-day Saints to ignore and dismiss the evidence in favor of the New York Cumorah. 

Despite the efforts of the M2C advocates, there are Latter-day Saints around the world, in all walks of life, with diverse opinions about other topics, who still believe what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah. They find the Heartland model to be a reasonable, evidence-based explanation for the setting of the Book of Mormon that corroborates the teachings of the prophets.

In his Q&A, Ben Spackman professes indifference about Book of Mormon geography but nevertheless attacks "Heartlanders" for their views on politics, science, and the teachings of the prophets. He deliberately and dishonestly conflates a group whose common interest is belief in what Joseph and Oliver taught about Cumorah, with a subset of that group who promotes particular political and scientific views.

Hence the eager applause from the FAIRLDS crowd.


Let's look at what Spackman said and see whether he promotes clarity and understanding, or obfuscation and contempt.


all right we'll take the gloves off. 

[Obviously contentious language that sets the tone for his ensuing comments.]

Please name the group pushing fundamentalism. 

[This was a question from the FAIR LDS audience.]

I'm sorry Scott. 

[Not sure why Spackman apologizes to Scott, since Scott has said similar things himself, but to his credit, Scott has at least apologized for some of the things he has said about Heartlanders, although he refuses to acknowledge their positions or let them participate in FAIRLDS.]

There is a group that goes by the name the heartlanders. 

[Spackman starts by isolating a vague "group," creating the classic "other" for his "us vs. them" tribalism argument.]

They marry 

[Already a false framing because Heartlanders, to the extent it's an actual group, are united only on the idea that Cumorah is in New York, unmarried to any other ideology]

a particular Geographic interpretation of the Book of Mormon, which is absolutely fine--you can think whatever you want about Book of Mormon geography--

[He says it's fine, and maybe that's why he apologized to Scott, because it's not fine at FAIR LDS, which never allows a presentation about the New York Cumorah scenario at its conferences or on its website because Scott rejects the approach of multiple working hypotheses.]

but they marry it with a right-wing constitutionalist politics, 

[back to the pejorative "marry" framing to paint the entire group with a broad brush, as if there is no political diversity among Heartlanders and no Heartlanders who are not even US citizens who have zero involvement with "right-wing constitutionalist policies"]

young Earth creationism, [more pejorative framing and painting the entire group, as if there is no diversity among Heartlanders. Because this is his academic specialty, we would think he would be more precise and accurate, but because he's "taking the gloves off" he's contemptuous instead of charitable]

an authoritarian view of of prophets that is absolutely absolutist. [more pejorative framing, but also comes across as defensive]

It's like God said it I believe it that settles it, and they claim that anyone who disagrees with them is apostate.

[pejorative framing, making a false claim about Heartlanders as well, but also ironic because he's the one accusing "Heartlanders" of being "dangerous fundamentalists."]

Uh, they have taken to naming church history employees and BYU professors who are off base. 

[In what academic context is it improper or unacceptable to "name" authors in the context of critique and review? Obviously, Spackman resorted to vague, unverifiable charges here to appeal to his audience, but surely in his academic work he identifies authors with whom he agrees or disagrees.]

Um I think the heartlanders are dangerous fundamentalists. Bottom line.

[This is useful clarity, not about the heartlanders, but about Spackman's academic and emotional biases. Does he mean these "heartlanders" he castigates are "dangerous" because their ideas contradict his own? Or are they "dangerous" because they seek clarity and understanding to offset the obfuscation and contempt exuded by the FAIR LDS crowd?]


[Naturally, as discussed above.]


To repeat, this discussion of FAIRLDS and Brother Spackman is not intended to perpetuate contention, but instead it is intended as an object lesson in how to identify, neutralize, and learn from contentious discourse.

Hopefully, we can all do better.

Maybe someday even FAIRLDS will seek "no more contention."


1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I'm a newcomer to your site, and have been listening to both sides of this argument for some time now, and am trying to look at things from the standpoint of each side. I have the following suggestions:
    1) I see fault on both sides as far as making accusations that I think misread the intentions and motivations of the other side.
    2) It doesn't help when one side accuses the other of either being 'dangerous', in one case, or else 'not following the words of the prophets', in the other case. If one side (or both) treats the other with more charity in this regard, then I think that would encourage the other side to do the same.
    3) I think there is plenty of room for both views in the church, as I firmly believe Neal A. Maxwell's quote: “It is the author’s opinion that all the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, will remain in the realm of faith. Science will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ. However, enough plausible evidence will come forth to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to remove the requirement of faith. Believers must be patient during such unfolding”
    4) I think when we insist that our theory of Book of Mormon geography is 100% the correct one and then using the words of previous prophets as absolute proof, then we are setting ourselves up to be misguided. As Neal A. Maxwell said in the quote I provided, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is and should remain in the realm of faith primarily. For that reason, I don't think that Joseph Smith or any other early church leader knew for certain the exact location of Book of Mormon events and cities, etc., though I think we can tease those locations eventually from archaeology and research, but I believe that it will be gradual and subject to speculation. We need to be careful about insisting on 100% physical proof until we can know for certain. That time is not yet.