Thursday, May 5, 2011

Faith, Dinosaur Bones and Cavemen

When I went to my high priests’ group a few weeks ago to discuss Elder Hales’ talk on Agency and Bishop Edgely’s talk on Faith (both from the October 2010 conference), I did not expect we’d also be talking about dinosaurs and cavemen.

I love my high priests’ group. I have lots of friends there who truly are my brothers. We laugh together, we help each other, we mourn together and comfort one another. Our gospel discussions tend to stay in the middle of the road; it’s a “stick to the manual” group for sure.

So this week, our instructor (who really does a great job with the Teaching For Our Times lessons -- he prepares carefully, asks thought provoking questions, and leads good discussions), wandered into a discussion of dinosaurs and cavemen and their relationship to gospel teaching. His point was delivered by a bishop of his years ago: This is something you don’t need to worry about as it’s not essential to your salvation.

Then I stuck my foot in it. I commented that my fourteen year old son was wrestling with the perceived battle between religion and science and that we talked about it often. It was not something he was willing to put on the shelf or stop worrying about. I had hoped to hear helpful suggestions and ideas about how to teach faith to a teenager, and I did get some of that. But I also heard:

1. Various theories of how dinosaur bones came to the earth (including cosmic dump trucks bringing in material from other worlds and that Adam may have been an alien)

2. That Science was written in today’s world by atheists specifically to exclude God, and if one carefully reviewed the facts, he would see that the scientists are manipulating data to their own ends

Fascinating (and just a little disturbing). What I realized is that we come to these questions with our own level of knowledge and our own experience. No one in my group meeting that day is a scientist; most are folks with business or engingeering degrees, though one is a medical technician and another a social worker. I was, therefore, not terribly surprised that we didn’t have any serious students of geology or biology or zoology among us (at least none who were willing to speak up). And most are around 50 years old or more, like me, so unless they’ve made a specific effort, their impression of church teachings is likely based on 30+-year old seminary lessons.

One group member suggested (as he always does; his faith is rock-solid, and well protected by his particular approach) that we need to teach our kids to remember what they know when they find questions they can’t answer right away.

I agree with that idea. But I also agree that there’s value in understanding what my church teaches and what the scriptures teach. (I’ve mentioned to my son half-jokingly that if he’s going to leave the church, he ought to be sure he’s leaving the right one, and not leave his church because he disagrees with what some other church teaches.)

We also came around to the idea that there are many in the church who have carefully studied the science and continue to be faithful latter-day saints. There’s value in learning how they’ve done it.

In the end, not every issue is important to every person. And what’s important to me now is different from what was important when I was younger. But the things that are important are important. It’s ok to ask questions, and to seek answers. And, as my friend said, it’s good to remember what we already know in the face of what we don’t.


  1. When such ill-informed, though well meaning comments come up, I sigh (remembering my own pleasure and excitment in hearing Nibley's eye-opening "Before Adam" talk from 1980), and point out such phrases as "let the earth be prepared that it might bring forth", which, as Nibley points out is "future potential tense." I like to point out that the command to reproduce after "their kind" leads to a subsequent observation that the creatures are "very obedient," very permitting variation, and variety contributing to beauty. And Nibley observes that the use of "until" in Abraham means "take all the time you need." Not stopping there, he also later discussed Abraham as a "ritual drama" script.

    There value in understanding that a range of opinions exist, and that some have a clearer idea of which options are supported by our texts, that a wider range of LDS thinking exists than dubious, highly unofficial, speculation about dump trucks, and that bright LDS scientists do important work.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  2. Kevin, thanks for your thoughtful comment, especially the last clause, "that bright LDS scientists do important work."

  3. It is interesting how much solid scientific work is done at BYU.

    BYU folks are doing lots evolutionary biology work on dinosaurs, diseases, plants, prehistoric mammals, etc.

    Their paleontology and geology programs are excellent . . Sauropods in Dinosaur National Monument, Mexican dinosaurs, work in Southern Utah and Idaho, etc.

    Of note, none of the BYU embrace questionable theories like Intelligent Design, Earth mash-ups, etc.

  4. I have talked to a couple of the BYU professors who believe in evolution and they can't honestly state where, how, or even "if" God actually orchestrated the creation according to some plan that would bring about intelligent life.
    What I have come to conclude is that just because someone teaches at BYU doesn't make them official voices on matters of official doctrine. In fact, BYU professors believing in evolution will teach exactly the same as if they were teaching at any accredited university.

    Just because it is taught at BYU shouldn't make it more acceptable to believe- they can teach false teachings along with the best of them.

  5. Anon, I agree with you -- BYU profs can be as wrong as anyone else, regardless of their field of study.

    That said, there are great scientists who honor their God, their religion and their church and still do great work at BYU, including in the fields of geology, paleantology, zoology, biology and so on.

    Would you expect a pure scientific explanation to explain how God participated in the creation as suggested by science? I wouldn't.

    What I would expect is that people who study the science will understand the science, and people who study the doctrine may understand the doctrine and people who study both hopefully will find some harmony (for themselves) between the two.

    I particularly enjoyed Henry Eyring's view on this matter as recorded in his biography Mormon Scientist. He and JFS went round and round on the matter of the age of the earth and did not agree, yet Dr. Eyring was a faithful Latter-day Saint who sustained his church leaders and practiced his religion, and his science.

  6. I had two other meetings to go that day, but I thought I should go to the faculty scolarship committee conflab. Luckily I did. The Sience Deparment's Bank America Outstanding Science Student award was announce to be a certain young man. There was no question he was brilliant in Chemistry and Physics. However the Deparment did not know he was a "young earth" and "man and dinasaurs walked at the same geologic time in Texas." proponent. He also excoriated athiest scientists for proposing evolution.

    Luckily we were able to switch him and the Outstanding Math Student.
    Embarrasment was avoided.

  7. The perennial debate between science and religion is the result of ignorance on both sides of the issue, both arguing from a flawed paradigm. The answer lies outside mainstream thought on both sides. True science and true religion are really two sides of the same coin. But we are working with neither in the current dustup; truth is absent in both. This is a topic I cover at length in the first lesson in my online course, "The Ancient Skies and the Restored Gospel." You might want to investigate that by attending.

  8. Adam was the first human free from genetic coding.