An LDS View on Science and Religion

September 3, 2010 | 36 comments
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Continuing the conversation begun in my earlier post (God and Science), let’s look at the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry titled “Science and Religion.” It provides a good summary of what might be termed the conservative LDS position on the topic.

The article opens on a positive note: “Because of belief in the ultimate compatibility of all truth and in the eternal character of human knowledge, Latter-day Saints tend to take a more positive approach to science than do some people in other religious traditions who also claim a strong foundation in scripture.” While it is true that “Latter-day Saints” (you and me) take a positive view of science, the rise of Correlation has seemingly pushed most pro-science commentary out of LDS curriculum materials and periodicals. That, plus the striking absence of General Authorities with a scientific as opposed to a business or professional background, means there is very little LDS institutional support for pro-science views. Only the legacy of apostles Talmage and Widtsoe, plus the well-established science departments at BYU, keeps the Church from fully developing the anti-science mindset that typifies many other conservative Christian churches.

[S]cholars today recognize that older descriptions of “conflict” or open “warfare” between science and Christianity are often mistaken. Nor could LDS thinking about science be described in this way. The Church is distinguished by its acceptance of ongoing revelation and the view that divine revelation underlies its scriptures and teachings. Consequently, Latter-day Saints assume that ultimate truths about religious matters and about God’s creations can never be in conflict, as God is the author of both. They look forward to a time when more complete knowledge in both areas will transcend all present perceptions of conflict.” I think it is correct that LDS commentators largely avoid a conflict approach and stress the ultimate reconciliation of religious and scientific truth.

The article goes on to state that Latter-day Saints “believe God expects them to use all forms of knowledge, including the revelatory and the scientific. Yet, revelation is always primary, and there is little sympathy among Latter-day Saints for the emphasis on science that leads to a rejection of scripturally based understanding.” On the other hand, science is very helpful in leading to a rejection of scripturally-based misundertanding. Modern science has created institutional mechanisms that, in the long run, allow contrary data to modify scientific misunderstandings. My impression is that organized religion, including the LDS Church, tends to develop institutional mechanisms that entrench rather than correct religious misunderstandings.

The article closes with a paragraph that praises LDS members and scientists for maintaining a postive view of science while, at the same time, rather indirectly noting how little support for that approach exists within the present ranks of senior LDS leadership.

Talmage, Widtsoe, and B. H. Roberts, writing in the first half of the twentieth century, probably have contributed more than any other LDS authorities … to scientific topics and their assumed general harmony with the gospel. That this attitude continues and is presently sustained within the larger Latter-day Saint culture, particularly among LDS scientists, is also supported by recent studies that suggest that the LDS community has produced more scientists per capita than most religious groups in twentieth-century America.

36 Responses to An LDS View on Science and Religion

  1. Joseph Smidt on September 3, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Well, I’m a scientist and I’m LDS and I love being both at the same time. I think you will find that Mormonism and science will continue to have a long healthy friendship with each other.

    “recent studies that suggest that the LDS community has produced more scientists per capita than most religious groups in twentieth-century America.”

    Exactly, and I know of another study that says Utah produces more mathematicians per capita than any other state so again, science has a healthy relationship in the church, whether some members understand/believe that or not.

  2. Aaron R. on September 3, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Utilising science as a means of casting doubt upon an institutionally engrained Hermeneutic that merely promotes unitary approaches to the scriptures is a important role that has not been fully explored in our curriculum or culture.

    Steven Peck’s and David Bailey’s excellent articles, both in recent issues of Dialogue, demonstrate how this approach can be incorproated in LDS discourse.

    The tension between revelation and science is a difficult interface, though I suspect that privileging one above the other (as the article suggests) might lead to forms of dogmatism that could be damaging for some.

  3. Adam Greenwood on September 3, 2010 at 11:23 am

    “Only the legacy of apostles Talmage and Widtsoe, plus the well-established science departments at BYU, keeps the Church from fully developing the anti-science mindset that typifies many other conservative Christian churches.

    This claim is as unsupported as it is unlikely, IMHO.

    In general the article you cite strikes me as bland and meaningless more than anything. Certainly not worthy of the fisking you contrived to deliver.

  4. Owen on September 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I dunno, I know an awfully lot of people who are pretty well educated (in Utah), but who are still utterly anti-science. It’s no secret how hostile Utah county has started to be toward BYU academics. For some locals I would say this would turn into self-loathing if they didn’t compartmentalize their different spheres of thought so well. I have a hard time not thinking that we aren’t headed for something really bad as a people given how obvious many of the scientific truths are that many of us just close our eyes to. We’ve been blessed with such a flexible, enlightening religion that it’s a real shame all the centuries old Protestant and Catholic baggage we’re still carrying around. We have this amazing set of latter-day scriptures that clears up so much of the medieval nonsense we inherited, but still people feel like they have to cling to dogmatic interpretations of who-knows-how-many-hand accounts of prehistoric events.

    Is it really so hard to make the leap from the revelation that no, in fact, nothing is ever created out of nothing (a huge, HUGE break with previous dogma), to accepting that no, in fact, we don’t really know anything about how God created the world? Not the time it took, not the methods employed. All we know is an order and that God made it happen. That’s it. Science has already confirmed the scriptural order, and God being at the bottom of it isn’t something anyone should expect to be able to detect (with a minimum of what, 6 total interventions in the natural processes over billions of years?), so why, why is it such a big deal to just go ahead and accept evolution as the best explanation so far? Is it really comforting to people in the face of the horrors and complexities of our world to believe in the cartoon version of God?

  5. Chris on September 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    “Only the legacy of apostles Talmage and Widtsoe…”
    I also thought that was stretch.

    I’d also take issue with the suggestion that, “science is very helpful in leading to a rejection of scripturally-based misundertanding”

    Modern science tells me there is no way you will be able to restore my pile of bones, when I die, back to life. Where is the misunderstanding? In scripture or science?

    Science, modern or ancient, should never be used to reject any part of the scriptures. Now I’m not sure if I’d have any disagreement if you were to say, “an understanding of scientific theory and the observed laws of the universe can help us can help us to discern truth from error as we interpret the scriptures, but only as we use that knowledge in conjunction with the necessary guidance of the spirit”.

  6. Tim on September 3, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    #3–
    My personal experience is that that quote is true. Talmage and company, and the science departments at BYU, are the only things keeping anti-science at bay.

    Meanwhile, church leaders who probably accept modern science usually remain fairly silent on the subject (besides supporting BYU’s excellent science programs and research), while those more old-school sometimes publicly reject modern science. See, for example, some quotes by Elder Packer (and the subsequent comments that show that, as far as biology goes, Elder Packer could stand to do a little homework–it appears as if he doesn’t even know that a bird is an animal).

    http://www.mormonsandscience.com/1/post/2010/03/vote-on-statement-about-mankinds-ancestors-by-pres-boyd-k-packer.html

  7. Mark Brown on September 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Ada, I agree that the article might be a bit overblown, but I am uncomfortable with your easy dismissal of it. While it is true that there will always be many LDS people who earn PhDs in science, we also must realize that as a people we have a strong anti-science strain sometimes. Here are two points to consider:

    1. As president of BYU Dallin H. Oaks was forced into a showdown with the board of directors by a powerful faction on campus which wanted the science department to cease and desist teaching evolution. President Oaks told the board that if they ruled against him he would resign. That faction still exists at BYU.

    2. The increasing number of LDS who homeschool often use a science curriculum that is based on young earth creationism. I personally know three families in my ward who do this.

  8. Mark Brown on September 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Ada, duh.

    Sorry Adam.

  9. Tim on September 3, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    I had a good friend at BYU who took a religion course from a prominent professor at BYU and came home with a packet of anti-evolution material. I’m pretty sure this professor belonged to the anti-science faction mentioned in comment #7.

    On the other hand, another professor (who is now in the church’s Sunday School Presidency) told us to attend an evening lecture by a prominent LDS biologist regarding conservation. If I remember correctly, the lecture was co-sponsored by the religion department at BYU.

    I think things will slowly improve as certain anti-science individuals are replaced by more moderate voices. It’s just a matter of time.

  10. Ardis E. Parshall on September 3, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    It’s just a matter of time.

    I wish it weren’t such a long time. There is a woman in my ward — a school teacher, yet — who regularly makes anti-science remarks. Not just the garden variety “science says X, but revelation teaches us Y” remark, but “Science is wrong. Science is bad. Science doesn’t know the truth about anything. Science is always changing. I tell my students not to believe what scientists say” brand of remarks. It’s going to take a loooooong time before people like her fade away.

  11. Adam Greenwood on September 3, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Mark Brown,
    no worries, I’m comfortable with my feminine side.

  12. Adam Greenwood on September 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    My chickadees, nothing in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article impels one to teach that science is racket or that Young Earth Creationism is not poppycock.

    Now, if we wanted a threadjack on those topics, and whether we should tolerate them, we could. I would be arguing for tolerance, as I am a well-known advocate for the strengths of diversity.

  13. dangermom on September 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    One of the prominent members of our stake–and a wonderful guy, a friend of ours–shocked us one day by saying at the pulpit that Darwin and Freud were the scourges of the 20th century. My mom and husband both wrote him emails about it. But AFAICT, most of the folks in our ward are pretty much OK with evolution. If America as a whole was happier about science, I think Mormons would be too–we absorb a lot from the people around us.

    We homeschool, and this year is biology, and this week is evolution week. I’m almost-entirely for freedom in home education, but the whole YEC thing drives me nuts. I worry that the anti-science voices will not fade away; in evangelical circles they seem to be getting more strident, not less. We shouldn’t have that problem, since we don’t have to cling to Biblical literalism in their way. But it seems to transfer over anyway.

  14. queuno on September 3, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    There is a woman in my ward — a school teacher, yet — who regularly makes anti-science remarks. Not just the garden variety “science says X, but revelation teaches us Y” remark, but “Science is wrong. Science is bad. Science doesn’t know the truth about anything. Science is always changing. I tell my students not to believe what scientists say” brand of remarks. It’s going to take a loooooong time before people like her fade away.

    Whenever someone makes a statement like this in Church, I’ve been known (particularly when I’m teaching the lesson) to make a gentle comment like, “I’m not so sure the Church leaders would agree with you on that”, and leave it.

    One of the prominent members of our stake–and a wonderful guy, a friend of ours–shocked us one day by saying at the pulpit that Darwin and Freud were the scourges of the 20th century.

    They were the source, or those that misunderstand them were the scourge?

  15. afaict on September 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    As a BYU biologist, I make it a point to teach students that many of the great figures in our discipline pursued science in part to discredit religion. Francis Crick and Jacques Monod were particularly vocal about this, yet they were absolutely pivotal in our current understanding of how life works at a molecular level.
    I don’t blame those who understand this for being a little skeptical about the motives of scientists. Fortunately, many scientists are either religious or sympathetic towards those who are. Around colleagues of other (or no) faith, I am perfectly comfortable mentioning my religious convictions. It’s when I confess my contribution to population growth that things can get a little awkward.

  16. dangermom on September 3, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Queuno, he was talking about the men themselves.

  17. Clark on September 3, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Certainly there are people with what I’d call a practically undue cynicism towards science. I met them at BYU and there are even some who post at various blogs. However I’m skeptical they are quite as dominate as some portray. Isn’t much of this a generational thing with the rising generation much more open towards science as a practical matter?

  18. queuno on September 3, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    One of the greatest professors I had at BYU, John Higgins (a mathematician who was in the computer science department), said that he often got into debates with scientists who asked him how he could continue to have faith in God in the fact of conflicting scientific information. He said his reply was always that he was losing his faith in science, instead.

  19. kurofune on September 4, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Great article and some great comments, especially 1, 3, 17:

    We’re talking about the effects LDS culture/doctrine/religion has on ‘anti-science’ and ‘pro-science’ opinions. Therefore, just because anti-science thought exists in the church doesn’t mean the church fosters it or fails to fight it. The real question is, how much would exist without the church’s influence? (Full disclosure, I graduated from BYU-Provo, BS Biochem and am now in medical school) In my experience and opinion, the LDS culture and doctrine are effective at blunting and reducing the ‘anti-science’ that might exist otherwise. The debate on evolution culturally, religiously and scientifically was the most enjoyable, genuine, and edifying I’ve ever experienced.

    A caveat however: there has often been the suggestion that religion should conform to modern scientific understanding to some degree. And to some degree this is true. However, science almost always gets things wrong long before it gets things right. (Boy is biochemistry an example of this!) So, where science and my religion expressly disagree I’m going to go with the religion because of faith. In most cases, many things have not yet been revealed and I see no problem pondering the gray areas with science as a useful metric.

  20. Joseph G. Dion on September 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Hugh Nibley commented that science and religion was on the opposite side of the same coin. They compliment each other and bare fruit

  21. Owen on September 4, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Afaict,

    Isn’t the religion those scientist were debunking false religion? Many of the things that are so ridiculous about religion in general are why the church was restored.

  22. DavidH on September 5, 2010 at 1:16 am

    There is some debate about whether “the LDS community has produced more scientists per capita than most religious groups in twentieth-century America”. Against the claim: http://www.lds-mormon.com/scientistsborninutah.shtml A response defending the claim http://www.lds-mormon.com/abriefanswer.shtml

    I am skeptical of the claim that Mormonism produces proportionally more scientists than other religions. In any event, I am fairly certain that one can affect different rankings fairly easily by adjusting definitions of the numerator–”scientists” and the denominator–the relevant population.

    I am curious about the study mentioned in comment 1 regarding Utah and the relative number of mathematicians it produces. I am not familiar with the study, perhaps someone can point me to it. (I would note, though, that mathematics is not regarded by most anti-science people as hostile toward religion. To my knowledge, none of those who have condemned evolution have had much at all to say about non-Euclidean geometries or the continuity hypothesis, which some people might regard as heresies.)

  23. Brother Darwin on September 5, 2010 at 7:08 am

    I appreciate this blog post. Very well done! It’s an uncomfortable topic: science and religion. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed. I agree that our unscientific views in the Church come from a top-down unfavorable view. It’ difficult to hold some of our religious views in light of what science is revealing about our origins, or about human nature in general.

    What is unclear is how scientific minded the LDS community is. If you look at the most illuminating issue in biology (evolution), only 22% of Mormons accept evolution as the best explanation of human origins. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses have a more “unscientific” view on this matter. Even Evangelicals are more “sciency” than us. That’s embarrassing given the mountains of evidence in support of evolution that has continued to pile up in support of Darwin’s theory from all areas of science over the past 150 years. Here’s the link:

    http://pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Religious-Differences-on-the-Question-of-Evolution.aspx

    If revelation is anything other than simple human opinion of the day, all dressed up in religious language, then why have past prophets and leaders mislead us so badly on science? Sure, today they are rather silent on the issue. But why were they so vocal against science (especially evolution) in the past?

  24. Bob on September 5, 2010 at 8:38 am

    I think the Mormon Church has done a good job in not being anti-science (or at least not appearing to be). But I don’t believe that they are as pro-science as they think. The divide between pure Mormonism and pure Science is great. This is particularly true in the origin of Man.

  25. dangermom on September 5, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Kurofune, how is biochemistry a good example? I’m curious!

  26. Jader3rd on September 5, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Having grown up LDS my whole life (still a short life at 28) I have yet to see any noteworthy conflict between science and the LDS faith. I think where most of it comes from for LDS members is that they watch the news (or some other media) that mentions how main stream Christianity has issues with some scientific principle (primarily evolution). They then take this, think “I’m Christian”, and begin to have issues with it too.
    While I don’t think that we should be teaching science in church I would hope an increased focus on recognizing truth regardless of the source would help.

  27. Bob on September 5, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    #28: ” I have yet to see any noteworthy conflict between science and the LDS faith.”
    Science has no God in it, nor any Plans.The LDS faith has a God and has many Plans___ That’s the conflict (IMO).

  28. Dave on September 5, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Brother Darwin (#23), I don’t quite trust the survey results as a measure of what Mormons think about science. First, survey questions can unintentionally frame questions in such a way that they mislead or bias the supposedly objective responses. I think the evolution as “the best explanation of human origins” questions implies an either-or choice as to evolution or God, which obviously incorporates an assumption that many believers and many scientists reject. That survey result does not mean what you think it means.

    Second, the survey results only pick up the attitudes of members. One must also compare the institutional policies as well. The Church supports BYU science departments, including a strong evolution specialty within the biology program. Evangelical colleges take a much different course. So it’s wrong to conclude, on the basis of the survey results, that Evangelicals are more “sciency” than Mormons.

    And if the general LDS population does trend more anti-science than it should, that’s the fault of Correlation pushing their dated anti-science agenda in our curriculum materials. We’d be better off, I think, to just destroy all existing manuals and tell teachers to teach directly from the scriptures. Think of it as a jubilee year for manuals — forgive all past errors, tell the Correlation people to go home and spend some extra time with their families, and start from scratch with a better approach. The glory of God is intelligence, not correlation. We need more intelligent manuals.

  29. Ben S on September 5, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    “We’d be better off, I think, to just destroy all existing manuals and tell teachers to teach directly from the scriptures. ”

    Amen and amen.

  30. grego on September 5, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    “Correlation pushing their dated anti-science agenda in our curriculum materials”–examples?

    Both are nice and helpful. Religion can lead science, and science can balance and help interpret religion, or lead to more correct scientific answers.

    I believe the three two main sticking points: God, creation, evolution. Well, both religion and science are pretty unclear about most of those. And which “science”?

    The accepted mainstream views of science have problems, and conflicting scientific views seem quite valid, too–yet many LDS have a rough problem accepting anything scientific that is not mainstream–and I think that is the main problem.

    Of course, that happens on the religion side, too.

  31. Bob on September 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    #30: I think Science and Religion are very clear on where they stand on God, Creation, and Evolution _____there is no agreement. There are people who will continue to try to work around this, but it’s not going to happen (IMO).

  32. grego on September 5, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Which science? Which religion? Which group of thought, which data, which interpretations, which problems that are being ignored, etc.?

    “Mainstream” of each–I agree, Bob, it’s not going to happen. Ever, in this world as it is.

  33. Bob on September 5, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    #32: A lot depends on your field of study as to what Science, Religion, or Magic means. To me___ Science means Man has figured out how things work, and that gives him his power. In Religion, your power over things comes from God. Magic gives you power by special gifts, items, words, over which you have control.

  34. kurofune on September 8, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    dangermom: Clinically many diseases are treated before we understand them perfectly. There are many instances of toxins being used as medicine, do all harm and no good (mercury as an example) by the best of clinical practitioners of the day.

    As far as the more core science goes: we guessed that proteins carried genetic information before DNA, we’ve totally missed the mark on a number of required intake of some minerals recently (within decades) and many think that we’ve not yet ironed out all of the errors (Vitamin C and Calcium?), and finally we’ve constantly been rewritting the ‘central dogma’ of DNA->RNA->Proteins with epigenetics, imprinting, RNA silencing, RNA world hypothesis and a number of other caveats.

    Scientists have always had a way to explain everything in the world and scientists have always been learning. These two facts suggest that at many points the new things learned MUST change the explanations.

  35. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 9, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    One of the main points of the original post is that we human beings should have humility about what we know, and recognize the limits of our knowledge and our need to be constantly learning new things and revising what we think we already know. That is supposed to be the essence of the scientific method, but all too often scientists, or those who claim to speak for them, assert that they possess The Truth, and that if you disagree with them on any point, you are denying The Truth. For some scientsits, like Richard Dawkins, they assume an Ex Cathedra voice even outside their own narrow range of expertise.

    If the realm of new discoveries in science were truly narrowing, if there were nothing substantially new to learn, the whole need for scientists and the investment we make in research should be questioned. The truth is that, in their own work, scientists are aware of the large questions that come attached to any answer they find. That is especially true of physics right now, but we are also still learning new things about genetics and evolution, including in the field of epigenetics and evolutionary development (EvoDevo).

    The LDS view of knowledge about God is a perfect complement to the true scientific method. We start from the premise that we don’t know much, but God wants us to ask and learn more, and that we have multiple promises that more will be revealed. Much of the exposition of the gospel specifically parallesl the scientific approach to learning: Search, seek, ask, knock. Experiment upon the word. Invest faith in God’s word and see the proof grow over time. Stufy the knowledge in the world in preparation for further enlightenment from God. Accept all truth as cominig ultimately form God. Recognize that God can inspire us with scientific knowledge as well as spiritual knowledge.

    Knowing this principle, we should not get too arrogant about thinking we have the complete truth about any point of God’s truth, but should be humble and teachable–meek. We are freed from the dogma that a single book, the bible, contains all the truth that God will ever reveal about Himself. That dogma tends to lead many of its followers to be closed-minded about learning new truths, from God or scientists.

  36. Bob on September 9, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    #35: “The LDS view of knowledge about God is a perfect complement to the true scientific method”.
    No, not for Science. The scientific method begins by ruling out “God did it”.

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