The Darwin Seminar at BYU

Cross posted at BCC

This semester over thirty faculty members gathered for a reading group sponsored by the BYU Faculty Center. I led the group in its reading of Conor Cunningham’s book Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. Cunningham is a Catholic theologian at the University of Nottingham. The thesis of the book is that both the evangelical atheists (e.g., Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) are wrong in their attacks on faith and that their arguments are based on a caricature of religion that are largely incoherent. Conversely, he argues the Christian Fundamentalist creationists, including the cleverly-named, but silly, pseudoscience, Intelligent Design movement, is a religious and spiritual disaster. Cunningham argues that we can have a faithful religious embrace of evolutionary biology. In short, we can do both good science and good religion. BCC’s own BHodges gives a wonderful review of the book here so I won’t go too much more into the book, but instead focus on the seminar itself. I think it marks a historic moment at BYU and deserves a little attention.

First thing of note was the wide diversity of disciplines represented. Faculty members from English, Humanities, Linguistics, Psychology, Physics, Philosophy, Geology, Anthropology, Biology (of course), Religious Studies, as well as current and former members of the Administration are a few of the departments there. No discipline dominated and the group was split fairly evenly between the humanities and the sciences. There were names that many of you would recognize among the faculty—and some that would surprise you I’ll be bound.

Next, the reason most of them were there was the perception that we are losing youth over the issue of evolution and that an evolution-friendly LDS response is in order. The literalistic readings of scripture borrowed from Christian fundamentalism in the 1950’s and which has come to dominate much of the way people think bout evolution within the church is becoming untenable vis-à-vis discoveries in modern biology. Most felt that it is time to think, and think hard, about discovering just how we can go about refining our discourse to allow views that permit students to embrace both our faith and science fully—without compromising either. Related to this was the idea that we need to communicate to religious educators that the war between Darwin and our Faith was unnecessary and its continuance destructive to the faith of some of the saints.

The discussions were some of the most profound I’ve experienced in a group setting in my life. They were open, honest, faithful, and friendly. There were strong differences of opinion, which were fully expressed and explored. This was no Sunday School discussion with the answers all provided at the end of the chapter and injunctions to stay away from certain topics. We opened many cans of worms and dissected them as best we could (Darwin would be so proud. His later years were devoted to the study of earthworms).

We looked at the evidence for evolution. We explored at the history of evolutionary thought and the rise of fundamentalism. We read the scriptures. We challenged each other to think in new ways.

We came to few firm conclusions. But by the end everyone that I was aware off, came to see that evolution was no threat to our faith. We also came to the conclusion that we understand very little about things like the Creation and the Fall and that new interpretations must be entertained some that fundamentalisms and literalisms that became popular in the 50s disavow. We also realized that Mormonism and evolution are compatible in surprising ways—perhaps more so than any other religion. That we do not believe in an ex nihilo creation, that we believe that this earth and its inhabitants will be saved and indeed this is our place of final destiny, all speak to a hope that the two are complementary. There are sticking points of course. There are problems that will have to be sorted out by further revelation, closer and more open readings of scripture, and a humility that any interpretation of our scriptures is tentative and subject to further revelation from prophets or the book of nature.

What was most encouraging to me was the optimism present that these problems could be sorted out. That we can communicate the need for the saints to not embrace the anti-intellectualism and in appropriate suspicions of science that drive some collage students away from the Church.

It’s an exciting time to be a Mormon evolutionist.

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10 Responses to The Darwin Seminar at BYU

  1. Karmen says:

    Good News! Maybe we can coax folks out of the darkness.

    Yes, I’m sure there are some who would surprise me!

    You know this is going to bring the wrath of SoL, and our favorite BYU alums?

  2. Brad W. says:

    Educators should aim to educate, and not to indoctrinate or wage a propaganda campaign. Evolution is an important topic, and students certainly should learn the theory and the reasons why so many scientists think it is true. It is also a controversial topic, and students should learn why. How can they be skilled in public discourse if they do not learn why so many millions of people find the theory of evolution unconvincing? Real education requires that students be exposed to dissenting views about evolution in their strongest form, rather than merely to some caricature written by a scientific materialist. The truly educational approach is to teach the controversy, presenting students with the evidence and arguments that will permit them to make up their own minds.

  3. SteveP says:

    “rather than merely to some caricature written by a scientific materialist” Ha ha ha. Conner Cunningham a materialist? That’s funny. He’s a catholic theologian who often argues against materialism.

    “The truly educational approach is to teach the controversy, presenting students with the evidence and arguments that will permit them to make up their own minds.”

    Pity the children brought up in such a system. No teach the best science of the day. Let parents teach their beliefs (trust me I don’t want a Zeusist being given equal time no matter how much controversy we need to cover under your model” Teach the children they don’t need to give up their brain to be religious. That’s where the atheists and the fundamentalists agree, you have to check your brain at the door to be religious. That is nonsense. Do good science and religion. Evolution is a threat only to dogmatic scriptural literalists.

    “why so many millions of people find the theory of evolution unconvincing” for the same reason millions of people believe Elvis is still alive. Should we teach that too?

    When we give up on reason. We give up faith.

  4. Brad W. says:

    Science educators (especially at BYU) should be more candid about the religious implications of the materialist theory of macroevolution. Many educators rely upon banalities to explain away the religious implications of Darwinism because there is a tension between God and Darwin. Why else would people who wish to mock the Christian fish symbol on their automobile bumpers choose as their counter-symbol a fish with feet?

    A materialist theory of evolution aims to prove that matter and natural law can do the creating without requiring any assistance from God. People have every right to question whether the available evidence (such as finch beaks and colored moths) supports such broad claims for the power of natural selection, and they can’t help noticing that Darwinist authorities like E.O. Wilson promote scientific materialism as the foundation of all knowledge. No wonder many people suspect that evolution is a package containing a lot more than scientific fact.

    Attempting to silence such pervasive skepticism with claims of authority and evasive denials is the worst kind of science education. If educators want religious people to trust them, they need to take those people’s concerns seriously.

  5. SteveP says:

    All science contains the materialist assumption not just evolution, but cancer research, food science, mechanical engineering, etc. No science makes religious claims of unknown occult forces. That’s just what science does. The mistake that Dawkins makes in mistaking science’s materialist assumption, for a materialist ontology. The implications of the materialist assumptions for macro evolution are exactly the same as the materialist assumptions of the chemistry of plastics research.

    I’m sensing some misunderstanding of science here. Look at this post it will help clear things up for you:

    Science, whether evolutionary science or the science of crop protection, are no threat to religious faith except by those who misunderstand how science works and misunderstand faith.

  6. Brad W. says:

    In your view, what role does God play in the history of life on earth? In the Darwinist view, which you seem to embrace and which is the official view of mainstream science, God had nothing to do with evolution. Theistic or “guided” evolution has to be excluded as a possibility because Darwinists identify science with a philosophical doctrine known as naturalism.

    Naturalism is not something about which Darwinists can afford to be tentative because their science is based on it. However, positive evidence that Darwinian evolution either can or has produced important biological innovations is nonexistent. Darwinists know that the mutation-selection mechanism can produce wings, eyes, and brains not because the mechanism can be observed to do anything of the kind, but because their guiding philosophy assures them that no other power is available to do the job. The absence from the cosmos of any Creator is therefore the essential starting point for Darwinism.

  7. SteveP says:

    You keep saying the same thing over and over without responding to what I”ve laid out for you.

    “Naturalism is not something about which Darwinists can afford to be tentative because their science is based on it.”

    News flash. This is true of all science. Pick up the latest text book on physics see if you can find God as an explanation of how cannonballs fly. Science makes no claims to anything but natural phenomenon.

    “However, positive evidence that Darwinian evolution either can or has produced important biological innovations is nonexistent.”

    Such a statement belies a refusal to look at the evidence. Pick up Coyne’s book, Why Evolution is True and speak to the copious evidence presented. Specifically.

    “The absence from the cosmos of any Creator is therefore the essential starting point for Darwinism.” That evolution makes no theological claims is not evidence for anti-theological claims. Astonishing how much you and Dennett and Dawkins agree on this point. Fundamentalists and Evangelical Atheists lie in the same bed in this claim which is based on ignorance of both science and religion.

  8. Brad W. says:

    What I’m saying is that evolution is especially controversial because many prominent Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson have frequently proclaimed evolution as a kind of materialist religion that substitutes biochemical processes and natural selection for God as our creator and draws agnostic religious conclusions from that premise. That a solid majority of Americans either doubts or flatly disbelieves the ambitious claims of Darwinism is a fact regularly reported in newspapers and confirmed by opinion polls. Science educators trained to believe in Darwinism may wish that the public were not so skeptical, but that is all the more reason why they should be addressing the controversy in the classroom. The educators can hardly hope to answer the public’s persistent doubts if they will not frankly acknowledge why the doubts persist and if they refuse to prepare their students to be informed participants in public discussions of evolution.

    Any honest classroom discussion of the subject will eventually have to admit that what the Darwinists call “evolution” can only be demonstrated at a relatively trivial level. Populations of bacteria do become resistant to antibiotics, for example, but this “micro-evolution” is a cyclical process that does not illustrate bacteria in the process of becoming something different, certainly not something more complex. The grand story of macro-evolution from single-celled organisms to complex plants and animals is purely speculative. Its elements cannot be demonstrated in the laboratory or observed in nature. If anyone believes that natural selection acting upon random mutations can produce new complex organs, then he or she holds this belief on the basis of faith rather than observation or experiment.

  9. Jason Porter says:

    After reading the the remarks by both Steve and Brad is the argument that tries to either disseminate theology, faith, and science is bizarre for me, and from my experience unique to the Mormon community and fairly isolated to Utah, and its territories. I attended Scottsdale Community College, Sierra (CA) College, then Utah Valley State College, Utah State University, Truckee Meadows (NV) and Coconino (AZ) community colleges. I want to barf every time I encounter this. It (any discussion of science and faith spoken in the same room) stirs feelings of seizure accompanied by frothing from every orifice of my being. The forum you attended Steve at BYU is precisely why I will never send any of my children there or any other school in Utah, or its territories. As I write this I wonder how long it will be before I have to excuse my self to the bathroom. I hope it is after I can make a point. Stop. Stop. Guy at church: bring up science or Romney again and I will pop you in the mouth with my quad. Guy in class behind me carrying on a conversation about how the lecture on (pick a topic…science, basket weaving) reminds him of a time on his mission…I bite, and I will bite you if you open you mouth again. Professor beginning the semester with a disclaimer about how concepts of science or basket weaving need to be studied no matter what your belief is (Mormon), it’s required for the course and if it becomes offensive or damaging to your beliefs (testimony, come on just SAY it, if you are going to say it) to meet with him during his office hours, I will walk out and speak ill of you, your wife, and your children FOREVER. Why bitter, you ask. Because as Steve points out, an argument of/for/against undermines a honest pursuit of both science and faith. BYU needs to figure out what it wants to be- fully committed to academia or religion. Opening a history, math, or basket weaving class with a prayer is wrong. Scriptural God doesn’t care to have to sit through a boring lecture on 16th century Iberian prose, and doesn’t appreciate requesting His presence to it. Blessing a lecturer, a volley ball court, a batch of brownies and all the hands that prepared these things has to diminish the significance of performing the same thing with the same vernacular on a sick, dying, mother stricken with breast cancer. A Cultural God that likes to Linger Longer and is doing everything on His end to bust up the tyranny of the BCS, I hope for the sake of mankind, does not exist. There are plenty of universities affiliated with a church. What separates BYU from TCU is the belief that The Glory of God is Intelligence– that a engineering class on fluid dynamics helps to explain how the universe is created, how it can be used as collateral proof of God, its role in the Plan of Happiness and how a higher level of understanding of the physical characteristics and dynamics of hydraulics will help one to be better prepared for godhood and will serve that person well when creating his own universe someday. Abstractly– Isn’t that weird? Test that thought out imagining for a moment what a paper presented on that would be received at an annual meeting of professional fluid engineers. Imagine how a paper presented on petroleum hydrology would be received at the next General Conference. As a culture we have married both the material, physical universe to the ideal metaphysical world as a sort of ‘complete package’ and is included in the Plan of Salvation. This is a function of social evolution, cultural adaptation, a defensiveness to protect and shield a testimony and is not a way to foster or grow one. Proof is not faith. Truth is not proof. Let Truth reside in the dominion of Faith, or cultivate Faith in the Seeking Truth. There are no scientific truths, a proof is the best quotient, the beast measure of the highest degree of probability a theoretical instrument science can provide to solve a puzzle, an answer to a question, at the time that question is asked. My battery is dying. I’ll be back hopefully with better organization of thought. If nothing else, Please read T. Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

  10. Jason Porter says:

    I just read my meandering rant and apologize for the lazy grammar, typos, disorganization. As a student of anthropology and an aspiration of critical and empirical thinking, I was left very frustrated of the quasi-academic culture of LDS students and faculty in Utah. Some people can rationalize what is at USU a very heavy-handed presence of the Institute on campus and the interruption it has by its staff and students in the pursuit of an education there. I was also left frustrated by the non-Mormon community of students and faculty with a determination to challenge TBMs, to be the inverse of a Mormon in what seemed to be a very obvious way. I grew tired of listening to both sides complain, be defensive, over-reacting, to proselytize their message to be right. It is so refreshing to not be in Utah and not have to deal with this heated argument over nothing.

    Which has a better role in determining the outcome of the Superbowl, praying to God or statistics? While statistics and computer modeling will provide the best quantifiable prediction– it does not determine the outcome (unless you are a betting ref.) Those that relied on statistics to choose the eventual winner will use that same formula next year and affirm the accuracy of the computer model. Those that used statistics and lost will blame the statistician and the inaccuracies imparted by the computer and will chose another system next year. Then it must be God, for He controls the weather, stirs the passion in man’s heart, He is in fact the creator of all things, which must include football. It is for us impossible to know, for sure. Those that will pray for the eventual winning team will go with God, and thank Him. Those that will pray for the eventual loser will go with God and quickly pray for forgiveness for their sins that caused God to choose the other team and promise to do anything and change their ways for next year’s big win.

    All are wrong though. The only thing that can determine the outcome of this year’s Super Bowl is the final score. That determination is made in the rules of the game of football. Everything the fans do prior to the outcome, a best guess, analysis, prayer, whatever are not included in the rules of football as a way to determine the outcome. Just the score. We don’t watch the big game on Fox and then after the final whistle watch some kind of debate or analysis or prayer meeting to find out who the winner is– the score board tells us.

    The point is if we go to school to learn how tings work, to think critically and abstractly, to pursue intellectual enlightenment, to get a degree, to then get a job continuing on what we learned– we should do the best we can at doing that. It’s a secular pursuit. If we want pursue Truth and spiritual enlightenment, we should go to church. But it is a waste of resources and accomplishes little to try to mix the two to get a better result. All the religion in the world will not make for a better engineer. All the engineering in the world won’t bring salvation to one’s soul.

    What does it take to make a good, strong church?

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