Thursday, February 11, 2010

Science and Religion – Can't we just all get along?


I had a friend a few years ago who suggested that he needed empirical evidence for anything he was to believe. Further, he suggested, science had, by then (I think this was the late 1980's) pretty much discovered everything there was to know.

So, my friend was a little short-sighted on both counts, I think. Clearly new things have been discovered since the late 1980's (Hubble telescope, Mars rovers, laser eye surgery, dismissal of Pluto as a planet...). And there are surely still things to be discovered. But he did highlight dramatically a tendency in humans: we think we know it all.

Which brings me to his second bit of shortsightedness, namely the need for empirical evidence for everything. I live differently. In some aspects of my life, I live by faith. Now, I like my gravity as much as the next guy. And I like the regularity with which the electricity in my house works. But I have to take on faith that my teenager will come home on time the first time he takes the car on his own. And I exercise faith in a whole range of religious pursuits.

I don't see a conflict with empirical evidence on the one hand and faith on the other. In some cases, one leads to another (the more often my teenager comes home on time, the more I trust him). In other cases the link may not be as strong. But I still rely on both.


My eighth grader came home a few months ago talking in favor of creation science (aka Intelligent Design) – that odd interpretation of scientific events that supports a six-day creation timeline and a 6,000 year old earth. Apparently he has a couple of friends at school who are evangelical Christians and they were sharing all they knew about creation science and why it makes so much more sense than Darwin.

I was dumbfounded. And I wasn't. When I was in ninth grade, we learned about Darwin and evolution in biology. My gut reaction was to oppose it. No one at home had told me to, but I lived in a conservative town with lots of religious folks, and there was plenty of chatter among my classmates and in the media opposing the idea of evolution, especially the evolution of man.

So I understood the idea that a kid who hasn't been around the block yet might resist the idea of evolution, especially if he has religious friends who show him an alternative. He and I argued creation science (he in favor, I opposed), but there's not a lot you can do to reason with an eighth grader, especially when you're just the dumb dad.


Another blog
cited a bit of work in a science class at BYU-I which asked students to respond to questions about the age of the earth and the King Follett address by Joseph Smith. I don't know any more about the science class than that it included these questions and apparently included at least some discussion of Joseph Smith's doctrinal teaching in a science class.

That seemed odd to me, as my view is that science class is for science and religion class is for religion. Now I suppose it's possible this class was a survey of religious topics in science, but the blogger referred to it as his "online science class at BYU-I."

Tying it all together: I'm a big fan of religion in general, and huge fan of Mormonism, specifically. I'm an active, practicing Mormon and I sustain my church leaders (and have served myself in leadership positions).

I'm also a fan of science. I admire those who work their whole lives to make sense of our world from a scientific point of view. I'm a little in awe of them because I did not have the discipline as a young man to master those subjects (though had I had the discipline, I suspect I could have). I'm grateful for the practical advances and continuing discovery in science.

I don't believe that the scientific world and the religious world are mutually exclusive, nor do I believe they are necessarily in conflict with one another, even if the methods of observation may differ between the two. I acknowledge that there are plenty of scientists who do not believe in God, but there are plenty of non-scientists who don't believe in God either.

But I am frustrated by the desire of some to superimpose religious teaching on top of scientific discovery. I mean those who would teach Intelligent Design in the classroom. And I mean those who mix religious doctrine with science in the university classroom. (Note, I am not criticizing the BYU-I curriculum; I don't know enough about it to know why those two subjects were mixed in the online course of the blogger. Nor am I suggesting that a science course may not also discuss ethical or even spiritual things, as long as it labels them as such.)

I do not believe that religion needs to defend itself in the face of science or that it needs to rewrite science to suit itself. Doing so smacks of the acts of the church at the time of Galileo. At the same time, assuming we have the final word on many scientific subjects is also naïve. But until we disprove the assumptions we have, assumptions that offer credible scientific explanations, we ought not to pretend they are wrong.

I am grateful for great scientists who are also believers who have helped to bridge the gap. I appreciate that there may be some who study science and lose faith in the process, but I'm also aware that there are others who study science and have their faith strengthened.

My teenagers helped me long ago realize that I don't know everything (that is why we have them – teenagers – isn't it?), so I'm not overly troubled by scientific discovery that does not immediately confirm revealed truth. I can allow those two schools of thought to exist in my brain for now. In my own case, as I grew up a bit from my ninth-grade self, I realized that my slavish devotion to a literal six day period of creation was misguided: it did not reflect the teachings of my church or a correct understanding of scripture, and it was inconsistent with modern revelation. And as I've grown older still, I've come to realize that members of the Quorum of the Twelve themselves (including distinguished scientists) discussed (and even disagreed on) evolutionary theory.

To be sure there will be plenty of ethical issues with advances in science, but that is nothing new. And as a society we'll take those as they come, and hopefully those ethical decisions will be informed by eternal truths where possible. But let us not decry or ignore science because we fear it, or even worse because we lack the faith to embrace it.

- Paul


  1. Excellent points. Re: creation science, the way I look at it, they aren't in conflict. First, like you say, science and religion are two separate disciplines--and we should study them separately. But, moreover, they don't contradict each other. "Science" really describes the laws and rules of mortality--is acknowledging a scientific explanation for something, therefore, denying the hand of Divinity? I can't see why. Genesis describes the same creation order as Darwin.

    Re: empirical reasoning, it has its limits. Sure, within the framework of what we currently understand, we can apply empirical reasoning--but Bacon, father of the scientific method, couldn't have "proved" or "disproved" the presence of seratonin in the brain, or the possibility of the internet--not because these things can't exist, but because his frame of reference simply didn't allow for the possibility. That doesn't mean either a) empirical reasoning is bologna or b) anything we can't prove or disprove therefore doesn't exist--only that our current frame of reference (which is all we have to work with) is limited.

    To some extent, scientists have to take things on faith--which is why the role of futurists is so important. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, is widely credited with inspiring such inventions as the cellular phone; he envisioned them before there was any way they could be a scientific reality. The same is true for PC's; Captain Picard, of TNG fame, was "using" what was, essentially, an Apple iPad long before they were conceived, let alone invented. Dreaming of a scientific future that currently "can't" exist within the framework of what we consider science...that's faith, isn't it? It's faith that there's more out there to be discovered than we can currently dream of--and that formerly "impossible" things (the laptop was, at one time, considered "impossible") won't be impossible forever.

  2. When I say creation science (aka Intelligent Design), I refer specifically to a group of Christian scientist who hijack the science and replace it with their own 6,000-year old earth theory based on a literal reading of the Bible. That's what I object to.

    And I object to giving equal time to religious points of view in science instruction. Not that there isn't a place for religious instruction; there certainly is, but it isn't in science class.

    That there is harmony between the scientific method and discovery and religion is clear (even as it relates to creation) and we are aligned on that point.

    And my misguided friend who was demanding "empirical evidence" was just wrong; wrong, as you point out, about his understanding of what empirical reasoning is, and wrong to demand it in matters of faith.

    (In fact, I think he was trying to assuage his own feelings about leaving the church at the time.)

    Your observation about the limits of empirical reasoning is very interesting. I left out of this post a section I had originally included on how thought changes dramatically throughout history as new information becomes available (think about Galileo, or the discovery of germs, or the discovery of antibiotics, and on and on). We only know what we know until we learn more. And then everything changes.

  3. I actually thought your post brought up so many good points, I responded to it a little on my blog. Since you already made all the good points, I didn't have too much more to offer--although I did share my own experience with so-called "intelligent design". Also, a friend of mine suggested that I read "The Mormon Scientist", so I'm going to suggest that for my RS book group.

  4. I highly recommend The Mormon Scientist -- what a great book! As much as I hated physics in high school, I would have loved to have taken a class from Henry Eyring.

  5. Paul,

    A small quibble. I don't think it is right to equate creation science with intelligent design. Proponents of intelligent design make much weaker claims. They claim only that certain features of the natural world are unexplainable by evolution through natural selection and are best explained by the existence of a creator. It may be that all proponents of intelligent design happen to be creationists, but someone could accept the arguments of the intelligent design movement without believing Genesis.

    I do agree that neither ID nor creationism belong in a science class. However, I wonder to what extent natural history really is "science". It seems there is a difference between the ability to understand the properties of matter and energy through repeated experiments and the ability to reconstruct the natural past through observation of damaged evidence. Perhaps evolution and historical geology should be more modestly taught than the properties of, say, electricity, acids and bases.

    Also, your friend may have claimed he needed empirical evidence to believe in anything, but I doubt that he intended to personally extract the DNA, drill the ice cores or build and operate the particle accelerator. No, I bet he meant he needed to see a second or third hand account of a discovery written by a journalist in some popular science magazine. In other words he is relying on the authority of people whose methods he cannot fully understand nor personally observe and whose credentials he cannot personally verify. He has faith in the Word as revealed in "Scientific American".

  6. jbjork,

    Hey, thanks for reading and for your comment!

    Here's why I equate Intelligent Design and Creation Science. The following comes from a discussion of the court case in Central Pennsylvania:

    "It was not "Creation Science" that was rejected by the US District Court, but it was Intelligent Design that was the center of the argument in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. First, creation science is an oxymoron. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that proves God created life. Christians (and those of some other religions) claim God created life. There is no scientific evidence that says God did not create life, either, and that's important. The bottom line here is that it is intelligent design (ID) that was rejected.

    "As regards ID, some individuals on the Dover School Board attempted to get the ideas of ID taught in public school. Their manipulative tactics sharply divided their communities, and eventually precipitated a civil suit. That suit ended up in US District Court (Middle District of Pennsylvania), and the petitioners said that ID was not science. They also said that it was just religious creation in disguise, and as religious doctrine, there are Constitutional restrictions on its being presented in public schools. The defendants said that ID has scientific support, and was not rooted in religious teachings. And the trial began.

    "As the plaintiffs had to make their case, they said that ID did not enjoy the support of credible science. They reeled out a story that would keep anyone who is interested in the subject of evolution (as a supporter or detractor) awake. They also produced documents that were written regarding the presentation of creationism, and (effectively) the "creationism" had been removed and "intelligent design" inserted. That was the smoking gun for many."

    I remember news reports on this subject when the court case was decided.

    My buddy who claimed a need for empirical evidence was trying to explain his way out of the church (he told me so). I think your assessment is correct.

    In matters of faith, of course, spiritual witness is also powerful evidence.

  7. While I whole-heartedly agree that ID has no place in a high school science class, i think college classes can be a different thing entirely.

    As a BYU alum, I really enjoyed having a few of these religious issues brought into the classroom. Here's why: I got a lot more out of hearing how an evolutionary biologist reconciled his belief in evolution with his belief in God, than I ever did from listening to a religion professor try to do the same. Would I go to my Microbiology professor to help me better understand the atonement, no... but for where the two realms of knowledge merge (like evolution/creation) the rewards from hearing the scientist talk about religion can be great.

    In a similar example, I took a class at BYU on the Peal of Great Price, from a prof who was previosly a professor of Physics and Astronomy... that made the study of Abraham fascinating. A similar thing happened when hearing a biologist talk about evolution and the gospel.

    Some of my friends at BYU in other fields had much more religious time in class, but in my major, it was a rare thing to have a class even start with a prayer, let alone to discuss the church much. But when something came up, it was interesting to see it taught from a believing perspective.

  8. CoriAnton,

    You raise a great point. I remember a discussion of evolutionary biology my freshman year at BYU that was similar. I have no issues with those discussions as long as they're clearly labeled as such. My concern is if one tries to pass off the religious as scientific (or the reverse). And I think you're right that the LDS church schools have a unique opportunity to help students find that place where faithful Latter-day Saints can also embrace science.

  9. Bro Beer - I'm heading out the door, but I haven't read your blog for a while so I took a print-out to read on my breaks today.

    I just watched a "West Wing" re-run (I think you mentioned watching re-runs of that in the middle of the night when you were Bishop once - LOL) on this topic. It's season 7 ep 4. A transcript is at this site (I hope I did that HTML correctly, if not, here's the URL again if the link isn't clickable -

    Hit "CTR + F" on your keyboard and search for "CUT TO: INT. – CLASSROOM – DAY" to get to the interesting part.

    This section of the episode is also interesting


    Congressman, you’re aware that this state’s Board of Education is questioning the teaching of evolution?

    That’s a state matter and I don’t think this is the right time. Thank you.

    He turns to leave.

    Congressman, can you tell us if you believe in Intelligent Design.

    I believe in God, and I like to think he’s intelligent.

    Does that mean you think it should be taught in schools, Congressman?

    He leaves.

    Does that mean you don’t believe in evolution? Josh, can we get a follow-up question, please?

    Josh and Lou look worried at what Santos has just said.

    ADE OUT.

  10. I saw that episode. (You know I was a big West Wing fan.)

    Would that we all could have someone as clever as Aaron Sorkin script our conversations... :-)