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Science fear

Let’s start the New Year by ridding ourselves of dilapidated ideas. Clean house on cobwebby perspectives that clutter and constrain our best thinking. To do so, poetry is a good place to start. Mary Oliver begins her poem, Mysteries, Yes:

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.

. . . she continues naming mysteries in us and nature and then concludes:

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
Who think they have the answers,

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

There are still those trying to separate science and religion. Who try desperately to dichotomize and put up barriers between the two. To rank order ‘ways of knowing’ into absurd hierarchies in which one trumps the other, or one is more important than the other, or where one wins always and the other loses always. Certainly science will never teach us all truth, but to ignore the things it does teach is a descent into superstition and foolishness. Likewise religion has taught us little about how the universe is constituted or provided models and theories of how material things work in the universe, yet it has provided the source of the reasons that such a universe exists, our place in it and what is expected of us.

These little minds that understand neither science nor religion are ever drawing lines trying to convince people that they must choose between the two and that one should hold one or the other in suspicion and doubt. These attitudes are based at their root, in a kind of fear that drives out faith. On the one side of the coin there are the vocal atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens who try to argue that they ‘know’ and have all the ‘answers’ and draw their lines in ignorance of genuine spiritual attunings. However, to me they are of little concern. I’ve seen few persuaded by their arguments. They misunderstand faith so badly that those who have experienced God in their lives find their arguments uninformed and based on hackneyed stereotypes and caricature. They poise little danger to those who have experienced the richness and depth of lived religion.

On the other side of the coin however are those that I’ve seen do much damage to faith. Like the ‘Judaizers’ of the apostle Paul’s time, who followed him around proclaiming that new Christians must be circumcised and follow the laws of Moses, these scientific decriers suggest that we should be afraid of science and that we need to choose between science and religion. They hold deep suspicions about science and suggest that scientists are in deep conspiracies out to destroy faith and undermine spirituality.

This hermeneutic of fear is uncalled for. We can embrace science in its fullness. We do not need to equivocate and talk about who beats who in the game of truth, or fear that science will undermine our faith. Nonsense. Science is a method to discover how the laws and patterns of nature are constituted. It is powerful. But it is nothing to fear. And it does not set itself in opposition to religion (although there are those who do, as noted above). Yet those who fear it, are acting out of a false dichotomy rooted in that very same fear.

It is a weak and immature faith that finds a threat in science. Fear can never produce faith and this is the danger. Time and time again I see those fear mongers who old up science like it was a graveyard ghost and proclaim that it is dangerous to faith actually undo tender faith struggling to find new growth. They squash that faith by demanding that one must be chosen over the other.

I hold both science and religion in a dynamic tension. Both reveal things about the universe—one exploring the material aspects the other revealing the author of that universe and His intents and purposes.

Those who go about proclaiming that we should be afraid of science do great harm. Reject these dichotomiziers. Join with the lovers of discovery, the probers of the universe who hold both faith and science as objects of wonder and delight and who say,

“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

Oliver Mary, 2009, Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, Boston, MA. p. 62

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11 comments to Science fear

  • “It should … be borne in mind that Joseph Smith’s instructors were heavenly messengers—beings of more than worldly scholarship; they doubtlessly lived on distant planets, and had explored the realms of space; they had viewed the mighty works of a Creator in various stages of development, thus possessing full cognition of the genesis of this earth.” (Joseph B. Keeler, “Foundation Stones of the Earth,” The Contributor, Vol. XI, Feb. 1890.)

    Yes! Except for God himself and His prophets, “Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.”

  • Ken Reed

    It is indeed sad to read the words of that poem and to realize that the faithful think they must embrace ignorance and eschew the complex. As we begin a new year of studying Gospel Fundamentals, I am concerned that by simplifying the gospel to the lowest common denominators, we will instantiate anew the ascendancy of unquestioning acceptance of a rigid orthodoxy.

    But I have been teaching higher concepts to my High Priest’s quorum, lessons on the anthropic principal, falsification and the rule of evidence, the power of the new theories of the cosmos, the big bang, and the beautiful reinforcement of LDS doctrine by these new discoveries, including anthropology and evolution.

    These lessons have been very positively received by people in our area (Southern California). I have had more than 90 people attend a fireside on science and the gospel in my own ward and nearly that many in another ward. This is a strong undercurrent of interest in reconciliation of modern science to our modern doctrine.

    All it takes is a little paradigm shift and voila, everything hangs together, to wit: The garden represents innocence, the inability to tell right from wrong. Adam and Eve represent the human race living in Eden, without sin because they were without knowledge of good and evil. They cannot know death (spiritual death, that is). Then at some point, they are given the law by the first prophet. The law, the priesthood, is symbolized by the fruit. And at that point there is sin on earth, potential spiritual death, and man is no longer living in a state of innocence. In other words the Fall is the fall from innocence and acceptance of the law. At this point there is a possibility of spiritual death.

    To me, this makes the conflict evaporate; the creation story become meaningful and I can enjoy the beautiful film of the creation story.

    Just a little paradigm shift.

  • Jack

    I find it strange that you should believe that militant atheists do less damage to religion than militant theists do to science. Science has already won the game. Religion is practically side-lined in policy-making while science, though all too often corrupted by politics, has become the Word in social progress.

    That said, you’re right. We should not be afraid of truth no matter where it comes from — and like Joseph Smith we should be willing to put our lives on the line in defending any true principle.

  • Stan

    Great post Steve! I do wish the “enlightened” faiths, those that tend to embrace science (like us!) would “clarify” on some, shall we say… out dated theology and statements from past leaders. There is, as you know, a good deal of confusion amongst the faithful which needn’t be the case.

    @Ken
    I envy your freedom to speak plainly. I dread the first few lessons of the year dealing with Genesis. Not that I’m confused, but I do feel somewhat restrained from breaching those very topics you described.
    As for your beautiful description and interpretation of the first part of Genesis, it breaks down when considering the official stance of the Church stating that Adam was *the* first man and we are all descended from him. I’ve not seen a good reconciliation on this point.

  • Love the essay. I am a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry on nature. I also appreciate Ken Reed’s comment above.

    This past fall semester I taught a university course on human evolution. The course integrated biological evolution, physical anthropology, and evolutionary psychology. I also teach the High Priest group in my Ward. I loved teaching both groups about equally.

    Sorry, but I see the palm print of God in fossils. To me, fossils are scripture in rock. There is beauty in the study of long extinct plants and animals that are millions of years old.

    To me, there is absolute beauty in knowing the connectedness of life. In broad perspective, we humans are just a special kind of fish.

    Are humans too different to be part of God’s continuous (not digital) creation (i.e., descendants of fish)? Not at all!!

    We are more than fish. All life is made from carbon atoms, which are particles made from the cores of exploding suns. We are suns. And, if we reach far enough back, we are sons and daughters of God.

    Our true evolutionary story comes from a synergy of both science & religion.

    Time boils down to change. Evolution is a grand synthetic principle. To ignore evolution is to make our existence rather colorless and two dimensional.

  • Ken Reed

    @Stan,
    It is unfortunate that the Church actually came forth with a definitive though false statement. This will serve to muzzle LDS scientists and confuse LDS members.

    Over the years, I’ve been asked to talk with the children of families who drop out of church because of their perception that the Church is anti-science. To me it is absurd to force a thinking person to choose between a simplistic message and a beautiful synthesis of the creation as we now understand it.

    A fundamentalist message is hard for many educated investigators to swallow, and we have a low conversion rate among the educated in my area. There are many reasons for this, of course, including our support of Prop 8 in California, but a fundamentalist position is a block for some.

    It is frustrating but as a lowly member, what do I know? However, I usually skip the lessons on Genesis material. Too hard to sit there and keep my mouth shut.

  • SteveP

    Ken, I would love to sit in your High Priest class! Thanks for your comments I’m glad you are able to teach these perspectives in your class.

    Jack, I just have more experience with the LDS evolution deniers doing more damage to students than I do the atheists, because their false dichotomy is taken seriously by students whereas the atheists are just so much noise. So my perspective is one of a specifically Mormon context where I haven’t seen the Dawkins crowd have that unmanageable of an influence. I’m not sure in America the voice of science is winning. Recent evidence suggests otherwise as fundamentalism gains ground.

    Thanks Stan. Always a pleasure when you drop by.

    S. Faux as always your voice is a breath of fresh air and patient wisdom. I love what you do!

  • CEF

    Ken, I agree with Stan, I think we would have to rewrite our scriptures and change everything that has been said about them to fit with your paradigm of creation. I am not saying that such a thing should not be done, but the way things are today, your view is not very LDS. But I am not here to say that it should be, just that it is not.

  • Rich

    You’ve expressed my own feelings perfectly here Steve — love this post.

  • DB

    Ken – it’s easy to make the conflict evaporate when you completely change one side of the conflict. All you’re doing is teaching that the scriptures and the teachings of the church are wrong. You call it a “paradigm shift”. That’s just a euphemism for “the scriptures are wrong”. You’re not doing anything that the anti-science side isn’t doing when they make the conflict evaporate by claiming that evolution and science are wrong. You can’t resolve any conflict that way. You’re not making the two sides work together at all – you’re just changing one so that it fits your view of the other. Anybody can come up with their own interpretation of either side to make it fit the other but that doesn’t resolve anything. If you can’t make the two sides work together without changing one so that it fits the other, go back to the drawing board until you’ve figured it out.

  • Gary Carlson

    When both religion and science reach their goals of providing us with the truth they must of course agree. But, both are admittedly imperfect and I think it is natural for a believing scientist to suffer over unexplained discrepancies like those we encounter when reading the first chapters of Genesis. Suffering helps us stay humble and there is too little of that virtue in society today. And, rather than grumbling about what we cannot reconcile it is more helpful to think about all we can. In the areas of scriptures and practical religion there are many secular evidences that support one’s spiritual testimony. For now humility, gratitude for what we have and patience are requisites for living with the passing conflicts between imperfect science and imperfectly understood religion. In time we are promised more answers – see D&C 101:32-34.

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