For the next installment in this set of posts, let’s consider the relation between science and religion. In a mildly tedious but well-organized book, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (HarperCollins, 2000), Ian Barbour lays out four basic forms that the relation between science and religion can take: Conflict (either science or religion is correct, but not both); Independence (science and religion refer to different domains or aspects of reality); Dialogue (where discussions about method, metaphysics, and metaphor can enlighten both scientists and theologians); and Integration (natural theology or theology of nature approaches try to unite some or all aspects of science and theology). Which of these views or models correspond to the LDS approach?
Conflict. It’s not hard to portray science and religion as being in conflict. This way of looking at things receives the most airtime in the mainstream media as it fits a journalist’s need to create conflict in order to drive a story. Interestingly, both the New Atheist wing of science and many conservative religious figures adopt the Conflict model, one seeing science as the only relevant paradigm and the other seeing religion as the sole touchstone for truth. Elder McConkie seems to use the Conflict model. I don’t own a copy of Mormon Doctrine, but in his lecture The Seven Deadly Heresies, delivered at BYU in 1980, he lists as the second heresy the idea that “organic evolution and revealed religion … can be harmonized.” In fairness to Elder McConkie, in the same section he sounds a note for (ultimate) integration of religion and science: “May I say that all truth is in agreement, that true religion and true science bear the same witness, and that in the true and full sense, true science is part of true religion.” He also leaves the door open for other approaches:
These are questions to which all of us should find answers. Every person must choose for himself what he will believe. I recommend that all of you study and ponder and pray and seek light and knowledge in these and in all fields.
Independence. The best-known exponent of the Independence model is the biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In his essay “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” he writes:
The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains …
The substance of the short “Evolution” entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism seems to be in agreement with Gould’s approach, including these 1931 comments from the First Presidency (ellipsis in original):
Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church ….
Dialogue. The Independence model is both attractive and useful, not least for avoiding the false dichotomy so often announced by those embracing the Conflict model. But if you are someone who takes both science and religion seriously, it’s hard not to feel that they ought to have something to say to each other. There ought to be some profitable dialogue between the two. The growing science and religion shelf at your local bookstore suggests many qualified authors agree. The Biologos Forum runs a sparkling blog with the tagline “Science and Faith in Dialogue,” with posts such as “Finding Harmony” and “Making Sense of the Natural World.” The entry on “Science and Religion” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism takes what sounds like a carefully worded Dialogue position:
[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.
Integration. It’s hard to get past Dialogue to Integration. Natural theology doesn’t get much purchase these days. Some think process philosophy offers a unifying approach, but nothing I’ve read on process philosophy makes much sense to me. What Barbour in his book calls the theology of nature offers more promise for an approach to Integration, I think. He describes it as follows (emphasis in original):
A theology of nature does not start from science, as natural theology usually does. Instead, it starts from a religious tradition based on religious experience and historical revelation. But it holds that some traditional doctrines need to be reformulated in the light of current science. … If religious beliefs are to be in harmony with scientific knowledge, more extensive adjustments or modifications are called for than those introduced by proponents of the Dialogue thesis. … Theological doctrines must be consistent with the scientific evidence even if they are not directly implied by current scientific theories.
The LDS biology prof who posts at The Mormon Organon makes admirably tentative forays into Integration territory, such as this post excerpting a few paragraphs from his Dialogue article titled “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step Toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution.” Moving LDS theology toward compatibility with science is exactly what Barbour calls a theology of nature, starting from within a religious tradition and showing how some doctrines can be profitably reformulated in view of current scientific knowledge.
So the somewhat surprising conclusion is that responsible LDS thinking about the relation between science and religion spans the entire spectrum of possibility, from conflict and independence to dialogue and integration. That either means our theology is so underdeveloped that it cannot formulate a distinct position on this important question, or that Mormonism is more like a broad religious tradition (think the Jan Shipps thesis) with a spectrum of views on important questions rather than narrow views like a sect or denomination.
Other posts in this T&S series: