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“Is That Your Final Answer?” Guest Post by David Bailey!

Most of us have watched at least one episode of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” show. The rules of the show specify that the subject be allowed to take as much time as he/she wishes to ponder his answer, may consult one of his/her “lifelines” if desired, and may even think out loud on the camera. But no response is considered official until the subject answers in the affirmative to the moderator’s question “Is that your final answer?”. After that, there is no going back.

It seems to me that the “Is That Your Final Answer” principle also applies in discussions of science and religion.

Imagine for a moment that a dear friend or relative, or even a member of your own family, comes to you in great distress over what unfortunately is a very common dilemma: He/she has been taught since youth by well-meaning Sunday School teachers, Seminary teachers or even Priesthood leaders that evolution (or science in general) is an enemy of faith, and that one cannot possibly seriously affirm the scientific worldview and remain a “good” member of the Church. Yet he/she is now enrolled in a college or university course that makes it very plain that there is considerable evidence for these theories. What’s more his/her professor, or even perhaps a fellow student, belittles this person’s reluctance to accept the conclusions of science, and dismisses religion as both antiquated and unnecessary in our modern scientific era. As a result, this person faces a major crisis of faith.

I might add that such crises are certainly not limited to college students. It is not uncommon for a middle-aged adult, after reading some semi-popular scientific book or even Internet posts, to realize that cherished beliefs held since childhood can no longer be defended.

Imagine such a person, who dearly needs some answers, has come to you for guidance. So what do you say? Here, for instance, are two possible responses:

a. Science can sow doubt and disbelief, as evidenced for instance by some prominent scientists who have publicly proclaimed atheism and derided those who hold religious beliefs. From the Church’s perspective, any secular theory that denies the hand of God in the creation, or which denies doctrines such as the Fall or the Atonement, is false doctrine. At least one general authority has specifically taught that one cannot accept the modern scientific theories of evolution and still pretend to believe in the Atonement. Besides, these scientific teachings are theories – subject to future research and potential falsification – and thus need not be accepted as absolute fact.

b. Throughout history, religious fanaticism has led to horrors such as the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo and centuries of religious wars. In our own day, similar fanaticism has been behind the horrors of September 11 and suicide bombers. Science, on the other hand, continues to advance forward, with remarkable new discoveries being announced on almost a daily basis. The scientific picture of a several-billion-year-old earth, with countless biological species arising through the eons via the natural processes of biological evolution, is extremely well grounded in experimental evidence, using the best high-tech equipment available. As a result, any religious precept (LDS or not) that is in open conflict with such well-established principles of modern science is out of date and should be discarded.

First let me point out that each individual sentence of these two paragraphs is quite defensible. It is true that a handful of scientists and scholars, themselves self-declared atheists, have recently derided religious beliefs, citing the authority of modern science. It is true that at least one past general authority opined, in writing, that the theory of evolution is incompatible with LDS doctrine. It is true that scientific theories should not be taken as absolute eternal fact, since they are subject to modification by future research findings. It is true that religious fanaticism has resulted in many tragedies through the years, not the least of which was the disgraceful persecution of Galileo. It is true that the theory of evolution, including the associated picture of a very old earth with millions of species leading up to all present-day forms, is extremely well attested. And I personally agree that any religious precept, LDS nor otherwise, that is in conflict with well-established principles of science needs to be re-thought.

But, to return to the original theme of this note, when your friend or relative says, “Is that your final answer?”, are you really willing to leave this person with the stark choice of science or religion? Even a moment’s reflection should confirm that an all-or-nothing response is both unnecessary and potentially damaging.

For those scientists and others who identify more with (a), ask yourself the following: Is the defense of some scientific precept, no matter how well established you may feel it is (or no matter how established it really is), really worth the personal damage you might do to a long-time devout religious believer? What is the point of waging a battle against a viewpoint that you yourself presumably believe will eventually prevail? Wouldn’t it be more gentle and effective to direct this person’s concern in a positive direction? For instance, it is an indisputable fact that modern science reveals a world that is far more wondrous and awe-inspiring than ever before recognized in human history. So why not respond with a sense of awe?

For those devout religious believers who identify more with (b), ask yourself the following: Is the defense of a literal interpretation of some scriptural passage, or the defense of some religious leader long deceased, really so important that you are willing to let a questioning youth or loved one walk away with only the sternest all-or-nothing choice? What is the point of taking such an inflexible stand? The Church at the present time certainly does not make a big deal of scientific issues – to the contrary, there is strong evidence that the Church is studiously avoiding scientific controversies, as evidenced by the short, open-minded statement on evolution that it approved for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (and which it now distributes from the First Presidency’s office).

In searching the vast literature of LDS commentary, I found one clip that I believe, more than any other, summarizes the essential idea I wish to make here. This is from a speech given in 1952 at BYU by Pres. David O. McKay (who by the way personally believed in evolution):

“For example, evolution’s beautiful theory of the creation of the world offers many perplexing problems to the inquiring mind. Inevitably, a teacher who denies divine agency in creation, who insists there is no intelligent purpose in it, will infest the student with the thought that all may be chance. I say, that no youth should be so led without a counterbalancing thought. Even the skeptic teacher should be fair enough to see that even Charles Darwin, when he faced this great question of annihilation, that the creation is dominated only by chance wrote: “It is an intolerable thought that man and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long, continued slow progress.” And another good authority, Raymond West, said, “Why this vast [expenditure] of time and pain and blood?” Why should man come so far if he’s destined to go no farther? A creature that travels such distances and fought such battles and won such victories deserves what we are compelled to say, “To conquer death and rob the grave of its victory.”
[David O. McKay, “A message for LDS College Youth,” speech to BYU studentbody, Oct. 10, 1952, p. 6-7. Extension Publications, BYU. Also published, nearly verbatim, in Conference Report, April 1968, pg. 92.]

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23 comments to “Is That Your Final Answer?” Guest Post by David Bailey!

  • I would like to relay an interesting metaphor Francisco J. Ayala uses in his book: Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion.

    On April 28, 1937 Nazi airplanes under Franco’s command bombed Guernica leaving 1,654 of it’s 7,000 inhabitants dead. In response, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso painted his famous Guernica, a huge painting (25’8″ X 11’6″).

    “Suppose I list the coordinates of all images represented in the painting, their size, the pigments used, and the quality of the canvas. This information would be interesting, but it would hardly be satisfying if I completely omitted aesthetic considerations and failed to reflect the painting’s meaning and purpose, the dramatic message of man’s inhumanity to man conveyed by the outstretched figure of the mother pulling her killed baby, the bellowing human faces, the wounded horse, and the satanic image of the bull. The point is that the physical description of the painting does not tell us anything (by itself it cannot tell us anything) about the aesthetic value or historical significance of Guernica; nor, on the other hand, do aesthetics or intended meaning determine the physical features of the painting.”

    “scientific knowledge, like the description of the size, materials, and geometry of Guernica, is satisfying and useful, but once science has had its say, there remains much about reality that is of interest: questions of value, meaning, and purpose that are forever beyond science’s scope.” (Ayala ppg 162-163)

  • DB

    Perhaps I’m a bit naive, but is it really that common for LDS to suddenly develop this type of crisis of faith as an adult? I ask because the conflict between science and scripture has been apparent to me since childhood. LDS children are taught the creation narrative (including the creation, disobedience, the fall and the 6,000 year timeline of humanity) in Primary, Family Home Evening, and church literature like the New Testament Stories. They also learn about dinosaurs and other pre-historic creatures that lived millions of years ago in elementary school, museums, television, and children’s literature. When they are a bit older and are attending seminary they are taught the same creation narrative but are also taught how it fits into the plan of salvation, the pre-mortal existence, the council in heaven, agency/choice, the two deaths, etc. In high school they are taught biology, evolution, geology, and the formation of the earth over billions of years. When they are even older and attend the temple all that they were taught before is reinforced and additional gospel truths are learned. In college all that they were taught in high school is reinforced and additional biological and geological facts are learned. At what point does a crisis of faith suddenly develop? Like I said, maybe I’m naïve but it seems odd that this would be very common.

    For those who do develop such a crisis of faith, and for those who are simply questioning how science and scripture can both be true, I agree that an inflexible, all-or-nothing stance is not correct no matter which side of the argument you’re on. However, it’s rare to find a flexible, understanding stance in this debate. The scripture side will usually say that science is false and the science side will usually say that scripture is just an allegory. Those who side with the scriptures should open their minds and realize that nature is God’s creation and thus all natural scientific evidence is evidence of the hand of God. Those who side with science should also open their minds and not be so quick to assume that this scripture or that scripture is figurative simply because they cannot understand how it can all be true. The allegory of the creation makes absolutely no sense but the story of the creation fits perfectly into, and is an integral part of the revealed gospel of Jesus Christ. The creation story is also quite compatible with science so there really is no need for a crisis of faith. That’s my final answer.

  • Doc

    Dave,
    You just never know when one day your carefully built wall over many, many years will develop one chink too many and collapse in a heap. Some may ignore the problems for a very long time, only to have them press on their minds at inopportune times.

  • DB

    Doc,

    Was that last comment in response to mine? It was addressed to Dave so I wasn’t sure. Anyway, you’re saying the exact same thing that I’m saying. This is something that would develop over time. This type of uncertainty, doubt, and unanswered questions is not something that just sneaks up on someone out of the blue. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone enrolling in biology 101 in college and learning for the first time that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago or hearing about evolution for the first time. They already know about these things and have probably known about them for years. Someone may not have openly entertained their doubt or questions (and may have been suppressing them for years) but I’m certain they were already there before the crisis hit. Like I said before, people (including LDS) will generally choose one side in this debate and will strengthen that choice by convincing themselves that the other side is false. The crisis was always there but is fully revealed not when they realize that they were wrong but when they finally accept that the other side isn’t wrong.

  • Doc

    Dave, (DB) apologies-
    You are quite right that the issues are long standing. However, I do believe that the side you take can reach a tipping point where you change overnight, whether wrought by discussion with someone else, reading a popular magazine article, or whatever. I guess I’m saying you are both right, hence the sudden crisis despite holding a view strongly all your life previously. Dogmatism is funny that way. What is certain will not always remain so.

  • Tim

    I got through AP biology, and still believed evolution to be false. I had no crisis of faith at that point.
    I imagine many that take college biology courses have the same experience.
    But I majored in biology, and was required to take a course in evolution. It’s hard to ignore that much information. Despite what many believe, evolution has a lot of support behind it, and that evidence is overwhelming. Had my testimony not been strong, and had I had the belief that evolution and Mormonism were not compatible, I would have, as Henry Eyring put it, thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Tim, I think your experience is not untypical. When it’s been set up that you have to choose between the two it really causes damage (and invariably those who set it up the dichotomy, know absolutely nothing about evolution and its evidences). I’ve seen it too much in graduate school and other places where people genuine believe that you have to make a choice. I’m glad your testimony was strong.

    DB and Doc, I’ve seen it too often not to think it is real. People come to crises at different times and places. I remember teaching on my mission that evolution was false and being so surprised when I got to BYU and found the teachers believed in it fully. At BYU I think we do a good job for preparing those about to enter graduate school with the tools that will allow them to understand that, yes evolution is true, and yes the church is true. And you can absolutely, unapologetically, accept both. I’ve seen too much damage done by the well-meaning people that think they need to protect the youth from evolution, but invariably set up the false choice that one or the other must be embraced forcing a choice that too often leads to mistakes. The attitude seems to be “so what. they chose wrong. ”

    But it was a false dichotomy and those that set up up seem culpable to me for harm.

  • I had my faith vs evolution crisis when I was 13. In my case it was resolved in a dream in which I was told “Science is part of my divine plan.” I was then commanded to study science, which resulted in my ultimately getting a graduate physics degree and a view of the nature of God that does still thrill me with wonder almost a half century later.

    Now I see evolution as God’s SOP, not just in the physical realm, but in the spiritual as well. I don’t see God the way I did as a boy, but I hope I’m learning to understand Him better.

  • I’d like to reconsider Ayala’s metaphor.

    Guernica is a very spiritually powerful painting in large part because it represents an actual event. If you learned that Guernica was never bombed, and that Picasso painted it as part of a propoganda campaign to encourage Spain to invade Germany, it’s meaning to you would probably change significantly.

    I remember reading an essay about a woman losing a young sister to polio. I cried while I read it, and only at the end did I realize it was fiction. My empathetic sadness turned to fury almost immediately. I hated feeling duped. (And yet, when I read it to my wife later that day, I cried again. Which just goes to show that being a human is a complex experience.)

    Questions of morals and values may lie beyond the scientific method, but they ought to be grounded in accurate perceptions of reality. For example, people used to justify racism because blacks were “not quite” human. The scientific method could have been used to disprove that, which would have undermined that (bad) value. To value that a single man in Utah is the ultimate mouthpiece for God puts a lot of trust in another human–presumably because the premise of his prophetic mantle is true. I’d like to think about religion in a purely metaphorical way, but we all come back to reality in the end. I like metaphors when I know they’re metaphors, not when they’re presented as literal.

    That’s ultimately why I don’t think the science/Mormonism debate is so easily brushed aside. As much as he’s dismissed on this blog, NDBF’s Gary unquestionably shows that many Mormon prophets (including Presidents) have decried evolution in any form (in the face of evidence). So if the evidence in favor of it is “overwhelming,” then there is “overwhelming” evidence that church leaders mislead people about reality. I believe the ramifications of that are significant.

  • SteveP

    “then there is “overwhelming” evidence that church leaders mislead people about reality”

    This is a bad mischaracterization of General Authorities’ takes on the world. We are all children of our times. Most of those quotes come from people who lived when evolution was seen in a different light. To use ‘mislead’ like that, is to say things like “Hildegard of Bingen” misled us in the 12th century because she said spelt would heal us inwardly.” She was mistaken, not misleading. My grandfather would have said similar things about evolution as what’s found in these quotes Gary likes to repeat. I don’t resent church leaders past state of knowledge about evolution. I remember the context for thier beliefs and allow them purchase in such a world.

    We have to grow out of the stage where we hold people in the past libel for not understanding what we understand today, or being slow to understand the changing face of science. One of my favorite General Conference talks is Elder Scott‘s in which he talks about science as a way of knowing. He references quarks and I can see the GaryR’s of the future running a blog called “Why quarks are real!” in an imagined future where our understanding of physical reality runs deeper and it’s been discovered that what we now call quarks are just configurations of “umpas” and “lumpas.” The runner of that site will say, “If Elder Scott believed that quarks were real, then they were real!” In parallel, other people will argue, like you just did, “If he really was an apostle why didn’t he know that quarks aren’t real? He has mislead us!” Both are mistakes.

    The General Authorities lead us to Christ and Salvation. Their opinion of tax law, political movements, the finest sushi restaurants, and yes current science will be interesting but irrelevant to their testimony of spiritual matters.

    We are all children of our times. My opinions will one day appear quaint and uninformed (umm . . . granting they may already be so). But I hope that people will remember when I lived and not hold me to standards that I can neither see nor guess are coming.

  • SteveP

    “For example, people used to justify racism because blacks were “not quite” human. The scientific method could have been used to disprove that, which would have undermined that (bad) value. ”

    But science, under eugenics, was used to prove that they were not! The science was bad, because our values were bad. Science cannot produce values and our values arise in cultural contexts that plays out in the ways we study with science. This is why science cannot provide an ethics. It can be used to inform ethics and the great thing about science is it is self examining and it did not take long to recognize the bad eugenic science, but values come from somewhere else.

  • I understand ujlapana’s point, and I feel frustration at times. But I also agree with Steve and I try to remember:

    1. Jesus’s teachings about judging and the golden rule.

    2. That usually General Authorities only seem to care about evolution insofar as it influences people’s choices and behavior.

    3. That my conviction about science is in large part a result of education. If I had chosen a different path, I probably wouldn’t care much about science.

  • “Mislead” was not the best word choice. I don’t think there’s a deliberate attempt to deceive. Let’s say, “err in describing reality.”

    I don’t think eugenics was applied to learn whether blacks were equal to whites. The inferiority was assumed as a guiding principle, and eliminating it was approached scientifically. That’s very different than saying science warped the worldview of racists. We obviously have to be asking the right questions first, not accepting our biases as facts, as the eugenicists did. Asking “right questions” (which, right ones not being known in a prior, means “any question”) is difficult, and I don’t think LDS culture encourages it.

    Applying these observations to our times suggests that at one point we will look back and feel the same shame towards our treatment of gays and women that we (or a few of us, at least) feel towards erstwhile racist priesthood/temple policies. Do you believe it possible that GA’s were in error in mobilizing against gay marriage in CA? Not from a political or PR standpoint, but actually morally wrong? I would say that there is (apparently) “overwhelming evidence” that they could have been mistaken. Which in turn suggests that singing “Follow the Prophet” would be better sung as “Follow your Conscience.” But that’s not the song, is it?

    Finally, I don’t think your view of GA’s is in harmony with President Benson’s, based on his “14 points” speech. As much as we might agree that that speech is incorrect in content, it has reappeared in the Ensign and was even the HC speakers’ theme in my stake one month last year.

  • DB

    ujlapana is right about R. Gary and I would add that he is dismissed here much more than he should be. Although I don’t agree with everything he’s put on NDBF, I believe he’s right about the doctrine of no physical death before the fall, and clearly, the General Authorities agree as well. General Authorities are usually not experts on any field of science, it’s not their calling to preach science to the world, and they could probably care less about the validity of scientific principles and theories. They are called to preach the gospel to the world. I would argue that they’re not really attacking science but rather they’re defending the gospel. After all, the best defense is a good offense, right? Now, I admit that attacking science is not the best way to preach the gospel, but what do you do when science teaches something that appears to invalidate part of the gospel? And after all, in the eternal scheme, falling away from science is less serious than falling away from the gospel. Are they wrong in their defense of the gospel? No. Are they right in their attack on science? Not really. But like I said, they are really just preaching and defending the gospel. However, it is a poor way to preach the gospel and as has already been acknowledged, these misguided attacks on science do result in harm in the form of faith crushing doubt for many LDS. The best solution, of course, would be for everyone to seek to understand the gospel and to understand how scientific principles and theories work with all of God’s creations without contradicting each other. Unfortunately, there’s been very little effort to do this. We humans tend to discard something we don’t understand rather then invest the time to fully understand it, but that’s understandable as some things take a lifetime or more to understand.

  • David H Bailey

    Everyone has raised some valid points.

    I think it is important to recognize, however, that beginning about 1985 as I recall, the First Presidency, increasingly almost about reports of petty theological contention within the Church, decided to issue a declaration instructing general authorities to henceforth focus only on basic principles (I saw a copy once, but can’t find it). In part this is reflective of numerous passages in the scriptures, both ancient and modern. Examples:

    D&C 19:31. And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.

    3 Nephi 11:31. Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will declare unto you my doctrine.
    3 Nephi 11:40. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil…

    Matt 7:21-23. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

    Thus you will notice that for the past 20 years or so, the overwhelming focus of general conference talks and Ensign articles have focused on basic principles and morality, and that the Church has studiously avoided doctrinal and scientific controversies.

    In this light, it is certainly reasonable to read older statements where general authorities were commenting on evolution (or any other arena of speculative theology), etc, but hardly any in recent years.

    To me personally, this seems like a very healthy development. In looking at history, most religious wars have been fought over entirely petty and speculative points of theology (or politics, which is even worse). And all of the great, long-lasting religions have focused on morality and charity, not arcane theology. Thus the Church is heading in the generally right direction.

  • David H Bailey

    In the second paragraph, I meant to say “increasing concerned about”..

  • lummox n. any dead and scientifically uneducated Church leader who didn’t believe in evolution, or any blogger who quotes him.

    Count me in.

    Although I have noticed that, during the past 20 years or so, two of the most senior current apostles have spoken out regularaly against evolution.

  • Hi Gary, who got called a lummox? Neither I or David have said such a thing. Hopefully you’ll find find nothing but respect for the brethren here. I honor them as apostles. We’ve never implied in anyway that I find them unintelligent (although commentors who I don’t control might have said such things I disagree with them when they do). Your definition of lummox above seems to imply it came from the content of this site. It has not. Don’t put words in my mouth that aren’t there.

    Are you arguing that the brethren are infallible? I think you are confusing them with the Pope. :) And I don’t think they make that claim about themselves.

  • SteveP,

    In your comments, you speak of “church leaders past state of knowledge about evolution [and] the context for thier [past] beliefs.”

    “We have to grow out of the stage,” you said, “where we hold people in the past libel for not understanding what we understand today.”

    The definition given above does not include the word “unintelligent.” It says “dead” (as in the past) and “scientifically uneducated” (as in not understanding what we understand today).

    I like how you claim to “honor them as apostles” but at the same time insist that their opinions about science are “irrelevant.”

  • SteveP

    My comment on BCC is relevant here:

    Gary, you’ll never convince me that I don’t honor the Brethren, because I do. You remind me of the anti-Mormon literature I used to get on my mission that told me I could not believe in Christ because I did not interpret the scriptures like they did. Despite their claims, I did believe in Christ, and honor and love him. Same things holds here. Truth is, I love the brethren, read their words and try to live by them. I pray for them and have made the decision the let them lead me to knowing my Savior. Their words are studied by me and my family and treasured. Your words suggest I am less than faithful, just as the anti’s words suggested I was not Christian. None of your words will remove me from my love for them no matter how hard you try to argue you have exclusive access to understanding their words–you do not. There is room for believing evolutionary biologists in this church. Your attempt to marginalize us and paint us as less than faithful will not touch what I actually believe. The trend is in a more open discourse with all deep believers. I invite you to explore this diversity of thought. Whether you do so is your prerogative. But don’t try painting me in non-faithful colors.

  • Steve, your response is a great example of the core problem of any symbolic (word-based) communication. You believe you honor GA’s because you obey them and feel honor, Gary says honor requires believing their doctrinal teachings on evolution as well. The Mormon/Christian thing is no different. A good thing to keep in mind if one doesn’t consider a self-identified Mormon a “true” Mormon because he doesn’t think GA’s are more inspired than, say, the Pope.

  • Tim

    ujlapana,
    Do you believe Elder Mark Peterson’s teachings on race?
    How about President Brown’s statements about the evils of nuclear weapons (and how we shouldn’t have dropped them on Japan during WWII)?
    I clearly disagree with some of the things Peterson said. And I think most conservatives in the church would disagree with some of President Brown’s statements.
    GAs have said some pretty wacky things in the past. They have also contradicted one another. This doesn’t mean they’re not inspired to lead this church–it just means that they’re human, and make mistakes.
    Henry Eyring (President Eyring’s father) said that he and the prophet at the time didn’t always see eye to eye (with things such as the age of the earth, etc.) but, despite that, that the prophet is prophet, and if one followed the prophet’s teachings, one would make it to heaven. Eyring was never convinced that the Earth was young. But I’m fairly confident he made it to heaven anyway.

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