Let’s Talk about Science and Religion – A Review

Back when I was studying biological engineering in college, I remember one Sunday where a stake high councilor came and spoke in our ward. He based his remarks on Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk “Lamentations of Jeremiah: Beware of Bondage”. When he discussed how “Turning from the worship of the true and living God and worshipping false gods” results in forms of “spiritual, physical, and intellectual bondage,” the high councilor decided to add his own embellishments and examples of what those types of bondage looked like. His first example of intellectual bondage was the belief that organic evolution was real. Given my field of study and life experiences, that went over like a lead balloon.

And yet, I at least understood where he came from. I can remember talking with an evangelical farmer at the edge of his property in rural Iowa on my mission and talking about evolution. The farmer was accusing Mormons of believing in evolution, which was a grievous sin in his eyes, and I was trying to convince him that because Bruce R. McConkie said that belief in evolution was wrong, Latter-day Saints were required to reject evolution (since he was sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator), so the farmer didn’t need to feel concerned about that aspect of our religion. While I was very conflicted about rejecting evolution, at the time I was also in the camp that essentially believes that Bruce R. McConkie is our god and the only god with whom we have to do, so I felt obligated to reject it, against my better judgment. 

Not long after that discussion, however, I had dinner with a member family in the area and asked the father of the family (who had graduated from the same program I was starting back home and was studying to be a doctor in Iowa City at the time) and asked him what he thought about evolution. He responded, hesitantly at first, that we read in the Book of Abraham that “the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed” (Abraham 4:18), which seemed to be describing a prolonged process of things happening before the creation was to the point that they wanted (which could very well be a description of evolution). With that simple statement, he had demonstrated to me that there were ways to reconcile evolution with our religion and that it was okay to believe in both at the same time.

I’m hopeful that Let’s Talk about Science and Religion–the latest addition to Deseret Book’s fantastic “Let’s Talk About…” series–will be able to fill a similar role for people in the Church to what this good brother did for me. Ostensibly geared towards giving parents the intellectual tools to help their children grapple with questions about perceived conflicts between our religion and science, the book is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on understanding what science is, the limitations of science, and mindsets that are helpful in approaching science with a Latter-day Saint paradigm. The second half focuses on addressing several notable topics from biology and earth sciences that have caused concerns among the students that the authors have taught. I felt that it succeeded in hitting the mark with its goal of giving tools and guidance for grappling with science and religion in a brief and accessible way.

I was particularly impressed with some of the models they shared that have been helpful for religious students studying science (and which can apply to anyone). While I am familiar with methods for evaluating sources, I hadn’t heard of the CRAAP Test specifically and appreciated being introduced to it. They also offered a Reconciliation Model that seems like it could be helpful in talking about a topic that is prone to cause cognitive dissonance. This RM consists of acknowledging the existence of the perceived conflict; addressing the differences between science and religion (i.e., their natures), address the topic from a religious perspective; discuss the cultural history that has led to the perceived conflict; and offer ways to reconcile the science with religious belief without compromising either and allowing for unknowns. I liked both of these frameworks for talking about science and religion.

Going into this book, I expressed some concerns about whether it would be able to address the topic sufficiently. My fellow blogger Ivan Wolfe did as well, noting that “it looks like it’s just a ‘grab bag’ of various scientific issues like evolution, rather than … a serious reconsideration of our assumptions, cultural conditioning, and first principles when it comes to what science really is and does and how the scriptures relate to it.” I also harbored some concerns that being a publication from the Church’s book store that the science might be compromised in an effort to bolster religious belief. I’m happy to report that it did a lot better than I expected in those areas. While it treads carefully on the side of learning through faith and religious beliefs, the science is solid, both in general concepts, and in referencing credible, data-based research about hot topics like evolution, global warming, and vaccinations. They also spend a lot of time reconsidering assumptions, cultural conditioning, etc. to help members of the Church have a helpful paradigm with which to approach science. 

Given the brevity of the book, it is not a comprehensive effort to address all potential conflicts between Latter-day Saint religious beliefs and scientific thought. Rather, as already mentioned, it focuses more on developing a paradigm or tool kit for the reader and then applying it in a few key issues. I felt like the approach worked pretty well. My main concern was around their efforts to address gender and sexual identities in the space of a few brief pages. While they stressed that it is a complex topic and that members need to be accepting of all of God’s children, it’s such a sensitive and polarizing topic with so much research on various aspects of the subject that you cannot do it justice in the amount of space they had allocated to address the topic. Granted, given the nature and limitations of the book, there was no real way to really win in that area, and they did pretty well with the general goals they laid out.

Thus, Let’s Talk about Science and Religion by Jamie L. Jensen and Seth M. Bybee is an important addition to Latter-day Saint thought that I think could have some very positive impacts. It is very accessible (and affordable). It draws on the experience that both authors have gained through teaching biology at BYU through feelings of cognitive dissonance as they learn about science, without leading those students to choose between their study and their faith. The book has its limitations, but successfully achieves its core goal of providing tools and paradigms with which to accept both science and religion.

4 comments for “Let’s Talk about Science and Religion – A Review

  1. I’m about halfway through the book, and my worries have, thankfully (at least so far), been alleviated.

    The worst I can say (so far), is that the initial chapters on science are a bit too rosy about how awesome science is (there’s not acknowledgement of things like the replication crisis, or how a large percentage of scientific papers appear to be false), but at the same time, I acknowledge that they aren’t doing a “deep dive” there, just giving a popular, somewhat simplified, general overview. So, as a starting point, it’s pretty good (so far – but I doubt things will change that much once I finish it).

  2. Yeah, I can definitely see that. I think the closest they got to addressing anything like that was to try and create a dichotomy of “big S” Science (established scientific thought that has achieved general consensus among the scientific community) and “little s” science (ongoing research that is still very debatable and, at times, messy), which doesn’t seem to be a real dichotomy in my experience, but like you say, giving a popular, somewhat simplified, general overview.

  3. “at the time I was also in the camp that essentially believes that Bruce R. McConkie is our god and the only god with whom we have to do”

    Seriously funny line, but if you were a little older like me you would know that BRM was the son, Joseph Fielding Smith was the father.

  4. Considering the problems specific to McConkie’s era I believe that, even though he was wrong about the science of evolution, he was right about it being an heresy–that is, insomuch as it was embraced as evidence that there was no Eden and, therefore, no divine heritage or premortal life and so forth.

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