The good news: There is more room for dialogue between science and Mormonism than between science and other conservative Christian viewpoints. Most Latter-day Saints don’t feel threatened by science. The bad news: Some Latter-day Saints do come to see the relation between science and Mormonism as one of conflict rather than dialogue, and sometimes science wins that debate in their head. Why do some Mormons see science and Mormonism as an either/or choice rather than a helpful partnership?
And yes, there’s a book: The Science and Religion Debate: Why Does It Continue? (Yale Univ. Press, 2009) presents a set of Terry lectures on science and religion by five different authors: a physicist, a biologist, a philosopher, a historian, and a sociologist. The upshot of their collective commentary on the issue is that it is more complex than presented in much media and even scholarly commentary, and that there is more opportunity for productive dialogue and discussion between science and religion than is generally recognized or pursued. I’ll give a paragraph or two to each chapter, each of which seems to be quite helpful for relating science to Mormonism (which the book did not do directly, of course) as well as to religion more generally. The book is less than 200 pages — go find a copy if you like this topic or find the discussion helpful.
Ronald Numbers (the historian) makes the point that the perception of conflict between science and religion is not inherent in the two disciplines but is largely a historical development of the last couple of centuries. It is tied rather closely to the professionalization and changing self-definition of science fields as they struggled to achieve methodological naturalism by eliminating appeals to the supernatural as part of their (and their colleagues’) work. Nineteenth-century harmonizers were eventually displaced by those pushing the conflict model, particularly Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, carried forward in our day by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett and opposed by “peacemakers” like Stephen Jay Gould and Michael Ruse. Numbers’ conclusion:
Despite the many controversies over science and religion, it would be misleading to describe their relationship as a war. The most intense conflicts, we have seen, often pitted Christian against Christian, scientist against scientist, skeptic against skeptic. Over the years most scientists, at least in the United States, have remained theists of one kind or another, and religious organizations have fostered science more frequently than they have inhibited it.
Kenneth Miller (the biologist) testified as an expert witness in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case that rejected the claim that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory and held that teaching ID in public schools violates the Establishment Clause. Miller’s view: “[W]hat is called ID in the United States is nothing more than old-fashioned scientific creationism, dressed up in the new language of biochemistry and molecular biology in an attempt to masquerade as a scientific theory.” But Miller is not anti-religion, and the defeat of ID is not a defeat for religion, it’s an opportunity. Mormons who think ID is a good way to think about the science/religion issue really ought to read this chapter. Miller concludes:
For people of faith, the failure of the intelligent design movement is hardly the disaster that ID proponents might suggest. It is, rather, a genuine opportunity to come to grips with the science of our times. That science, no question about it, presents genuine challenges to religion, but it also provides religion with an extraordinary opportunity to inform and enlighten the scientific vision of our existence.
Alvin Plantinga (the philosopher) discusses methodological naturalism (“MN”) as a type of “objectifying inquiry” that brackets moral judgment, teleology (the sense that there is meaning in the physical universe), and our manifest human tendency to personify aspects of the physical universe — all in order to do better science. This he contrasts with philosophical or ontological naturalism, which holds that such considerations should be not merely bracketed for the purpose of scientific inquiry but simply scrapped as irrelevant, of no particular use for understanding life, humanity, and the universe. Ontological naturalism hold that secular science is enough; it’s all we modern humans really need. This distinction between methodological and ontological naturalism is a basic one that we all ought to be familiar with. My sense is that almost all LDS scientists adopt MN but reject ontological naturalism. Plantinga concludes:
It is crucially important to see that science itself does not support or endorse scientific secularism or the scientific world picture. Science is one thing; the claim that it is enough is a wholly different thing. It is not part of science to make that claim. … There are scientists who make this claim; but there are as many who reject it. One can be wholly enthusiastic about science without thinking objectifying inquiry is enough. Indeed, that is the sensible attitude toward science from a Christian perspective.
Lawrence M. Krauss (the physicist) heads the chapter with a provocative quote from Albert Einstein: “Blind respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” He registers his objections to Intelligent Design, laments the sad state of general scientific education in US schools, then closes with this thought:
Science is not the enemy. But faith also is not the enemy. The enemy is ignorance. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear is the source of much conflict, including the skirmishes between science and religin that I have described in this essay.
Robert Wuthnow (the sociologist) points out the preference of most Americans for a “both/and” approach to science and religion rather than an “either/or” approach. But those at the extremes, who push an either/or view but differ on which to choose, get more attention in media and academics. While some claim science and religion operate in separate spheres and should therefore not properly be in conflict, Wuthnow describes science and religion as occupying “overlapping and ambiguous domains.” In other words, there is an objective basis for disagreement on these issues, even between reasonable people. This is the ground on which informed discussion should occur, rather than evading that important discussion by invoking independent domains or assigning religious beliefs to the personal realm rather than the objective public realm. Wuthnow argues:
The value of such dialogue [between scientists and theologians] does not lie in eradicating the historic grounds on which the battles between religion and science have been fought. It lies instead in delineating more thoughtfully what each as to offer and how each may influence the other. Interaction of this kind requires scientists and religious leaders to speak beyond their own disciplines and in ways that engage the wider public.
Five authors, five different approaches — one or another of these has to work for almost every reader.