Sunday, February 22, 2009

Science and Religion

For those of you waiting for the blog entry on gay marriage, it’s on the way. In the meantime here is an entry that I had written some time ago. Before I could post it to my blog my wife suggested that I submit it to the Ensign. Haven’t heard back (and now that I’m rereading it I can’t say I’m that surprised) so now I’m going to post it here.

I think that it is finally time for me to come out of the closet. I believe in the Theory of Evolution.

Earlier drafts of this article included numerous direct references to the Theory of Evolution. These were removed at the suggestion of some of my reviewers in the hope that it would make publication more likely. Even though addressing evolution was the primary reason for the article, the principles also apply to other “contradictions” between faith and science, such as DNA evidence (or the lack thereof) for a historical reading of the Book of Mormon.

Now that I’m rereading this the flow seems kind of stilted in places. I think that those are places that I really had to force myself to be PC. Anyway, enjoy!

(Note that unlike other posts, because of my attempt to publish this I’ve written it more directly to Church members. For those of you who are not members of our church…well I’m sure you’ll figure it out.)

[so when I first posted this the footnote links worked, now they don't go figure]


Science and Religion

What is the proper relationship between science and religion? Can they work together? Do they contradict each other, and is it a problem if they do? Many people seem to believe that they do contradict one another and thus that belief in one necessarily excludes belief in the other. As members of the Church we have access to the additional light and knowledge brought by the Restoration. The truths of the Resorted Gospel can help us to understand the role that science plays in bringing forth and understanding truth. It can also help us to understand the underlying cause of what, to some, seem to be irreconcilable contradictions, and give us the tools we need to overcome those apparent contradictions.

In an October 1938 Improvement Era article entitled “What is the Attitude of the Church Toward Science?” the Church issued this statement:

The Church, the custodian of the Gospel on earth, looks with full favor upon the attempts of men to search out the facts and laws of nature. It believes that men of science, seekers after truth, are often assisted by the spirit of the Lord in such researches, indeed, whenever they appeal to the Lord for help. It holds further that every scientific discovery may be incorporated into the Gospel, and that, therefore, there can be no conflict between true religion and correct science. The Church teaches that the laws of nature are but the immutable laws of the Creator of the universe.

Likewise, the Church holds the methods and means used by science to discover truth to be legitimate. Indeed, all instruments and means developed for the exploration of nature are welcomed

Joseph F. Smith taught:

We believe in all truth, no matter to what subject it may refer. No sect or religious denomination in the world possesses a single principle of truth that we do not accept or that we will reject. We are willing to receive truth, from whatever source it may come; for truth will stand, truth will endure. ... True science is that system of reasoning which brings to the fore the simple, plain truth.[2]

He went on to teach:

The laws known to man as the "laws of nature," through which the earth and all things on it are governed, as well as the laws which prevail throughout the entire universe, through which heavenly bodies are controlled and to which they are obedient in all things, are all circumscribed and included in the gospel. Every natural law or scientific principle that man has truly discovered, but which was always known to God, is a part of the gospel truth. There never was and never will be any conflict between truth revealed by the Lord to his servants, the prophets, and truth revealed by him to the scientist, who makes his discoveries through his research and study.[3]

It is my observation that many faithful Christians of other denominations hold the view that science and religion are incompatible. It appears to me that this stems, at least in part, from four religious doctrines: 1) God created the world from nothing, 2) the Creation took place over the course of 144 hrs (6 days), 3) that this 6-day creation process began 6,000 years ago and 4) God is unbounded by law. All of these ideas conflict with the state of science today. And each of these doctrines conflict with Gospel teaching[4]. Brigham Young expressed a belief that some religions’ inability to accommodate scientific knowledge was causing problems for people.[5] As members of the Church we need to take care that we do not allow ourselves to follow down the paths that incorrect teachings will lead.

There are, however, some Church members that still object to science. Some feel threatened by, or are uncomfortable with, one scientific theory in particular, others Satan in his craftiness has caused to generalize their discomfort, which has led them to discredit, devalue, or dismiss science as a whole. A close look at the doctrines of the Church, however, will bring us the reassurance that fears of incompatibility are unfounded.

There are several doctrines of the Church that can help to calm fears and relieve discomfort cased by the apparent contradiction between science and the Gospel. While these doctrines are intertwined, they may be broken out as follows: the Lord’s standard of truth, the promise of continuing revelation and eternal progression, and the awesome power of humility and faith. For the sake of clarity the implications of each of these will be reviewed independently, but hopefully their interconnectedness will become apparent.

The Lord’s Standard of Truth

Science and religion are both concerned with Truth. Both seek to find and teach it. So it can be distressing when it appears that they contradict one another. What is the ultimate standard that should be used in determining the truthfulness of any particular idea? According to the Doctrine and Covenants, “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come; and whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.” (D&C 93:24-25) In other words, the test of truth is, “Does the conception accurately depict the way things are, were, or will be?” If so then it is true; if not then it is false. This standard bases the truthfulness of an idea on the accuracy with which it conforms to reality For example, Einstein developed a theory that made certain predictions about the way that gravity would impact the path of light, and he suggested observations that could be made to confirm his theory. Several years later the observations were made and Einstein’s theory was shown to be a more accurate description of gravity that the prevailing theory of the day.

Unfortunately, some have been deceived into using a different standard of truth. Their standard seems to be, “Do the things that I’m hearing confirm what I already believe?” To use one’s own understanding as a standard of truth is an example of the sin of pride. The Deceiver flatters individuals into believing that they already posses a perfect understanding. He tricks us into believing one or both of the following: that we have a correct understanding of the science, or that our beliefs (understanding of Gospel teachings) are perfect.

How can believing that our understanding of the Gospel is perfect be a problem? First, and most troubling, assuming that the we are already in position of the totality of truth can lead us to deny the truth of anything new, and thus progression or growth becomes impossible. Those who are thus deceived assume that they have all the truth already and don’t need any more. Second, making the mental processes of an individual the standard against which truth is judged makes truth subjective and accessible only to the one doing the judging. And third it places truth at the mercy of the whims, frailties and blindness of the individual doing the judging.

The errors of using any individual’s knowledge as standards of truth are further exposed by the next set of doctrines.

The Promise of Continuing Revelation and Eternal Progression

The Prophet Joseph Smith said the following (emphasis added):

When you climb up a ladder, you begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave. [6]

The 9th article of faith says the following (emphasis added):

We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

Brigham Young taught:

I want to say that we are for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; we are pursuing the path of truth, and by and by we expect to possess a great deal more than we do now; but to say that we shall ever possess all truth, I pause, I do not know when. We receive light and truth from the fountain of light and truth, but I am not at liberty to say and do not know that we shall ever see the time when we shall possess all truth. But we will receive truth from any source, wherever we can obtain it.[7]

Scientific knowledge also progresses. Each discovery or improved understanding either builds on or overturns the ones that came before. There are very few ideas or theories that will not be improved upon, have detail filled in, or be completely overturned in the future. For example, the mechanical physics of Newton appeared to be absolute truth, and all that was needed to explain all of the physical properties of the universe, and they are still very useful. However, as science continued to progress and more and better observations were made, it became apparent that Newton’s laws were not adequate to explain what was being seen. The work of Einstein and the follow-on work by many others have lead to quantum mechanics, which more accurately describes the workings of the universe than Newton’s laws.

The doctrine of eternal progression highlighted in Joseph Smith’s statement that “… it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.” and the obvious nature of scientific progression point to another fundamental flaw in the way Satan has attempted to get Church members to reject the truth of science. The first flaw was highlighted above; he tries to trick us into believing that we have a perfect understanding of both science and gospel doctrine at the point of the apparent conflict. The second flaw is that, even if we grant that we have a correct understanding of the current state of both, according to both the gospel and the principles of scientific reasoning our understanding is incomplete.

So in the worst case we are worried that our misunderstanding of a partially revealed doctrine is conflicting with our inaccurate understanding of incomplete scientific theories. And best case is that we have a condition where the current state of revealed religion and the current state of science appear to lead to differing conclusions. This leads us to the next set of doctrines, Humility and Faith.

The Awesome Power of Humility and Faith

After all of this we may still be left with what appear to be irreconcilable differences between the teachings of the gospel and a few aspects of some scientific theories. This is where the real power of humility and faith come in.

Humility in this context is a proper understanding of the limitations of both our own mental capacity, and the incompleteness of science and revelation. Humility allows us to drop the false pride of broad statements of absolute knowledge. Humility allows us to know the true limits of our knowledge. It takes a lot of humility to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” and even more to say “Maybe I understand much less than I thought I did.”

This type of humility can be found in the Book of Moses. Moses sees a vision of the creations of God, including all of the stars and planets. After which he responds, ‘Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” [8]

When the brilliant theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, his answer showed an example of true humility:

I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.[9]

In the Book of Mormon the Prophet Alma addresses the relationship between knowledge and faith. He asks that those listening to him try an experiment. They should plant the word of God in their hearts, and then if it begins to enlarge their soul or enlighten their understanding their knowledge will be perfect, but only in knowing that the word is good. He then goes on to say “…after you have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? ...nay neither must you lay aside your faith for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might…know if the seed was good.” [10] In other words we may have knowledge that the word is good, but that doesn’t mean that we automatically have a complete understanding of all of the workings of God.

Humility allows us to recognize the limits of our knowledge, and faith allows us to be comfortable with those limits. Humility allows us to say, “I don’t know.” Faith allows us to add to the end of that sentence, “but someday I will.”

Joseph Smith taught that faith is a principle of power. [11] Nowhere is that clearer than when it is combined with humility go give us the sentence “I don’t know, but someday I will.” Children are the perfect example of this type of faith and humility; they have no problem holding all sorts of contradictory ideas, because they don’t live with the delusion that they are all-knowing.

This combination of faith and humility is what allows us to hold ideas in our minds that by the light we currently posses seem contradictory. It is what allows us to simultaneously pursue knowledge by “learning and also by faith.”[12] It allows us the confidence that someday, somehow, all truth, both religious and scientific, will be circumscribed into one great whole. It allows the faithful scientist to not only study, but defend and further theories that at present appear to contradict gospel doctrines, because she knows that her work is a stepping stone bringing us closer to that day when our understanding will be complete. It gives us the assurance that through further scientific discovery and future revelation, eventually the courses of science and gospel doctrine will converge. It frees the scientist to pursue wherever the science leads her without wasting time trying to force-fit current scientific data to reconcile with incomplete revelation, because she knows that one day, someway, faithfully following the path of truth will lead to the ultimate truth. It also frees the scientist to continue to believe in religious ideas and teaching that, for the moment, appear to conflict with her science for the same reason, because one day she knows that the conflict will be resolved.

In our impatience to see all conflict resolved today, and our desire to have all knowledge and all answers right now, we can forget that the Lord is the source of all knowledge and that all will come to be known in His time, not ours. Apparent contradictions between the Gospel and science should not trouble us; indeed given where we are on the path to eternal life they should be expected. Our impatient demanding of all answers now reminds me at times of my children, who, ten hours into a twelve-hour car trip decided that they’d been in the car too long and wanted to turn around and go home. It is only by going forward through the wilderness of apparent conflict and incompatibility that we can reach the promised land of resolution and reconciliation.


[1] Evidences and Reconciliations . ..., Improvement Era, 1938, Vol. Xxxi. October, 1938. No. 10.

[2] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith, compiled by John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939],. 1, 6.

[3] Ibid. 86.

[4] See below for instances when each of these doctrines has been disputed by modern day revelation:

God created the earth from nothing:

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught “Now, the word create came from the word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship.” Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], 350.

Creation took place over the course of 144 hrs:

Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 14: 116 - 117.

See for example the creation story as related to Abraham in Abr chapter 4 where Abraham refers to the periods of creation as “times” rather than days. Also from the encyclopedia of Mormonism: “On the basis of the above passage, which clearly excludes the possibility of earthly twenty-four-hour days being the "days" or "times" of creation, some Latter-day Saint commentators have argued for one-thousand-year periods as the "times" of creation as well as the "time" of Adam's earthly life after the fall; others have argued for indefinite periods of time, as long as it would take to accomplish the work involved. Abraham's account does contain the interesting passage, in connection with the "organizing" of the lights in the "expanse" of heaven, "The Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed" (Abr. 4:14-18).”
(Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 342.)

See also John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 146-149, and Henry Eyring, "The Gospel and the Age of the Earth," Improvement Era 68 (July 1965): 608-9, 626, 628

This 6 day creation process began 6,000 years ago:

That this is a false doctrine can be extrapolated from the preceding statement. If the creation process took any amount of time over the six days claimed then it must have begun further in the past than 6,000 years. See also Brigham Young as sited above.

God is unbounded by law:

Alma 42:13, D&C 82:10

Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
“This is an age when faith and the power of God should be greatly increased, but to the contrary it is diminished and men boast in their own strength; yet we see every day of our lives, the greatest of miracles. The flying of the airplane, the voice on the radio, the picture on the screen and television. There are thousands of miracles performed today, wonders that would astound our grandfathers could they suddenly see them. These miracles are as great as turning water into wine, raising the dead or anything else. A miracle is not, as many believe, the setting aside or overruling natural laws. Every miracle performed in Biblical days or now, is done on natural principles and in obedience to natural law. The healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, giving eyesight to the blind, whatever it may be that is done by the power of God, is in accordance with natural law. Because we do not understand how it is done, does not argue for the impossibility of it. Our Father in heaven knows many laws that are hidden from us. Man today has learned of many laws that our grandfathers did not understand. It is small business for the critics to condemn the miracles in scriptures as though all the laws of God have been revealed, and there could be no powers which they do not understand. “
( Joseph Fielding Smith, Man, His Origin and Destiny [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954], 484 - 485.)

See also:
Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 433.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., edited by Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-1956], 2: 27.

Elder Orson F. Whitney., Conference Report, April 1911, Second Day—Morning Session 50 – 51
Orson F. Whitney, Saturday Night Thoughts [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1921], 271

Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 500.

An excellent summary of the LDS view of divine law can be found in: Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 810.

[5] “I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science, and which are generally understood…In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.” Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 14: 116 - 117.

[6] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], 348.

[7] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 14: 197 - 198.

[8] Moses 1:10

[9] Cited in: Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe [New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2007], 386.

[10] Alma 32:35-36

[11] Lectures on Faith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985], 1:13.

[12] D&C 88:118


danielle said...

Depressing...I happen to agree with everything, so there is nothing to argue about. Well written, in my opinion.

Hunter Family said...

Great job! I too agree with everything, I don't think there is a conflict between science and religion. I think you and Jesse would enjoy talking about this more in depth, although he comes down on the other side of not accepting evolution as truth. He thinks it's possible, but he hasn't seen any real science that has convinced him of it.

Hunter Family said...

Also, have you read Henry Eyring's "Reflections of a Scientist"? I found this link with an excerpt from his book, (hope the link works for you), anyway, it's a good read and you'd probably enjoy it.