The evangelical atheists and Mormon anti-evolutionists have joined forces

My belief in God is not founded on evidence from the physical world. I believe because I am in a relationship with Him. I’ve gotten to know Him. I recognize his voice in others.

I want to argue that some of the suspicion that exists between certain Mormon Saints and science is grounded in not recognizing this relationship is the fundamental relation in knowing God. Oddly enough I see the fundamentalist atheists and LDS saints who fear evolution as arguing from the same flawed assumptions.

What both the evangelical atheists and those Mormons suspicious of science, have in common is that they argue for reading God off the features of the physical world. They’ve both made a category mistake. Russell’s quip when asked what he would say when be met God face-to-face at the judgment bar, “I will tell Him He just did not give me enough evidence.” Sums up this view nicely. That’s because both groups think that somehow God should be found inferentially in the physical facts of the universe—and when Russell, Dawkins, or Dennett don’t see evidence they howl at the believers. Then the believers scramble to give answer and you end up with things like Intelligent Design or the God of the Gaps aficionados, who look for God in what is missing from science—“Look you don’t have a fossil transition from Homo erectus to Homo heidelbergensis there’s where God did His work,” or “Science doesn’t have an answer of how life begin so that’s where God did his labor.” Then when science closes that gap, such theologians have to keep retreating into narrower and narrower spaces and the atheists make an induction that the gap is going to keep narrowing until God is gone. This results in inappropriate suspicions from both camps that science is against a belief in God. The trouble is both the fanatical atheists and the modern natural theologians have moved the battle to the wrong place.

The presence of God is found in inwardness, as Kierkegaard argued. God’s grace is his willingness to be known. Directly. Not found as part of a scientific deduction. This is where the fear of evolution goes astray. It’s granting to the physical materialists that God must be found as a certain reading of the physical evidence. But that’s not the way it works. God is only found by opening a relationship with Him, then, as He teaches you, you begin to recognize His voice in others who speak in His name, you recognize (or even find it first) His voice in scripture. You get to know Him directly. That is when He can open greater truths and views to your sight. These truths are often metaphorical, musical, found in gestures of grace in our lives, directions we take as we are led in unsuspected ways, and as suggestions to our mind though one of the greatest sources of knowledge about God: the scriptures. I’ve always pitied literalists because they miss so much of the depth and power the scriptures have to offer.

The naïve view that we must protect our belief in God from the physical facts of the universe (like evolution, big bang etc.) generates harm because it suggests that God can only work in our lives like we can—as a physical mechanic that intervenes in simple manipulations of matter (God took a handful of dust and made it into a body like an advanced claymation creature). No. Unlike the atheists, and those believers who have joined with them, in thinking the battle is fought in the physical world, I suggest that they look towards building a relationship with God in the inward reaches of their soul. That’s where the atheists will find the evidence they seek, and the believers will find they don’t need to protect our religion from the findings of science. And what they’ll find once they discover (the atheists), or trust (the threatened believers), this relationship with God in inwardness, they’ll find that God permeates the physical universe in ways they never expected.

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25 comments to The evangelical atheists and Mormon anti-evolutionists have joined forces

  • DB

    “But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” Alma 30:44

    Thank you for this post SteveP. Was Alma a scientist? Well, I don’t think we really can answer that but he certainly understood some of the principles of astronomy and probably knew a thing or two about the natural world. What would Alma have said about fossils, geological records, and the like? I think he’s already given us that answer. Could all things on and in the earth have been created how they are or placed on the earth as they are as a deception to try our faith? No! As Alma states, “all things denote there is a God”. If this is true (and it came from the mouth of Alma), how can science disprove God or be at odds with the gospel? It can’t and it’s not! The evidence and history contained in the rocks and in the earth are the evidence and history of the hand of God. No member of the church should fear having their faith tried when they visit a natural history museum. On the contrary, it should be a faith building experience as I’m sure your BYU classes are as well.

  • Great post. Thank you.

    You’ll probably want to fix the typo in the last sentence of the second to last paragraph (“death” ought to be “depth,” no?).

  • SteveP

    All fixed (And thank you!).

  • Nicely written, Steve.

  • David H Bailey

    Thanks, Steve. This is similar to the point made by Catholic writer John Haught: when creationist or “intelligent design” aficionados twist scientific evidence in an attempt to “prove” the hand of God, they unwittingly are affirming precisely the strict scientific materialism that they most detest from the likes of Dawkins and Harris — namely that only those propositions provable via science deserve the label “truth”.

    Besides, it is a common experience of most if not all truly religious persons that they came to their faith not while sitting in their easy chair reading some philosophical or scientific treatise, but instead while out ministering among the poor, elderly and unfortunate, and in living a truly honest, charitable Christ-like life.

    We can certainly stand in awe at the wonders of the natural world and universe around us, which modern science has revealed to be far more sophisticated, wondrous and enormous in extent than ever before realized in human history. We can certainly appreciate the meticulous manner in which our universe is governed by elegant laws. But beyond this we have to find God on our own.

  • John Willis

    Francis Collins who formerly headed the human genome project for the National Institute of Health has recently started a website http://www.biologos.org which attempts to answer questions concerning Scripture and evolution.

    While of course he is not LDS, he is an evagelical chirstian who takes his religion and his science seriously. Not all his answers to questions may satisfy LDS people but they have real scientific, theological and philisophical substance.

    I wish all LDS youth had access to this perspective instead of the fundamentalist views of the Church Educational System.

    I am sure people like James E, Talmage, John A. Widstoe and Henry Eyring Sr. are looking the website and saying this is what I was saying 30, 50 and 80 years ago. Of course this assumes they have internet access in the Celestial Kingdom

  • Well, Steve, for once I agree with pretty much everything you wrote in this post. True testimony is never rooted in empirico-rational evidence. Although your title linking of mormon anit-evolutionists and atheists is a bit of a stretch.

    You forgot to add one part:

    The naïve view that we must protect Latter-day Saints from the theoretical/theological inconsitencies between our belief in God and theories created to explain physical facts of the universe (like evolution, big bang etc.) generates harm because it suggests that LDS theology is completely consistent with ontological assumptions underlying certain sceintific theories. What then happens when those scientific theories change or are eventually rejected?

    No theory that makes ontological assumptions is entirely consistent with the gospel, not a one.

  • Tim

    I agree that the church need not embrace science as gospel. Widtsoe tried to do that with ether, and failed.
    But had Widtsoe said only that the gospel could be 100% compatible with ether, he would’ve been correct (actually, I don’t have my copy of “Joseph Smith as a Scientist” on me, so I may be misremembering what exactly Widtsoe said). Ether doesn’t exist, but if it did, there’s no reason that it would be incompatible with the gospel.
    It’s fun to speculate about how science and religion mesh, but as our knowledge of both is far from perfect, perhaps we should stick to “the gospel and science can be compatible, they are compatible now, and if our understanding of one or the other changes, there’s still plenty of room for compatibility.”
    As long as we don’t carry the false idea that people like Dawkins and co. propose–that science disproves God or religion (as well as the idea some religious people hold, that some areas of science must be false or else their religion is false)–and as long as we don’t try to use the scriptures as scientific text, I think we’re doing alright.

  • Tim,

    You are right to point out the example of Widtsoe and ether. I carefully read the part where Widtsoe talks about the Light of Christ and luminiferous ether. As I remember it, he said that no theory is more supported by the facts of science than the theory of ether, and ether is a vestige of the Light of Christ. Well, that has all fallen apart hasn’t it?
    We have to be warry of these sorts of claims. I have no problem with people saying that true science will never contradict true religion, but the tricky part is getting a firm grasp on true sceince.

    Theories are changing and being replaced with more sound theories. Thus we must avoid saying: “Theory A is completely compatible with the gospel!” To those who take issue with this caution I say that semantic games about what “compatible” means is not a worthwhile endeavor.

  • Cap

    Great post, Steve. While reading this a scripture came to my head: “…all things denote there is a God.” You look around you and you know this to be true. Science is real and it is great! Alma knew it.

  • Tim

    Dave,
    I think getting a firm grasp on religion is just as tricky, especially when we talk about the creation. Defining what “day” means in the first chapter of Genesis, for example…
    (I tried to mention this in NDBF, along with a quote from Henry Eyring about throwing the baby out with the bath, but for some reason it didn’t post…)
    Of course there are gospel truths that I do have a firm grasp on, because they’ve been revealed to me. But if we had a firm grasp on everything in religion, there would be little need for faith.

  • SteveP

    Thanks John, Would it be the Celestial kingdom without internet?

    Very good point Tim and Cap, Dave misunderstands both theory and science pretty badly “No theory that makes ontological assumptions is entirely consistent with the gospel, not a one.” Does he mean like assumptions about causality? Geometry? Spatial relationships? That there is an underlying, if only phenomenologically accessible, reality? Arn’t these consisant with the Gospel? What is he talking about.

    Dave is confusing a few strong materialists like Dawkins as being representative of science. Most science needs only an empiricist stance to get by. Very few are even making claims about ontology.

    Just because science continues to refine theories, does not mean they are always overturned. Dave is trying to reason by analogy that evolution is as weekly grounded as Ether was and so will someday be overturned (not explicitly but why bring it up if your aim is not to case suspicions, science knows this better than anyone that things change as we gain new information and instrumentation). As far as I know we still pretty much are holding to the Hilocentric universe theory (and it is a theory). I’m not holding out much of an overturn on that one. There are lots of refinements as we learn that Galaxies are in motion, etc. of course, but the idea that we need to hold inappropriate suspicions of science is silly, science is constantly attacking it’s claims. It was after all the scientific enterprise that figured out that Ether was unnecessary. It was science that began to find anomalies in the data that where hard to reconcile with the theory. The more we learned the more it became clear that ether was not going to work. Opposite with the heliocentric solar system and evolution. More data the more it is confirmed, and strengthened. And we have a lot of data supporting both those theories.

    To say that evolution is compatible with the gospel is important. Dave’s attempts to dismiss science as a way of knowing are subtile because he holds to fringe scientific ideas (ID) in order to make a space for his flawed version what he thinks the Gospel teaches (as in his recent silly claims that God used evolution up to man and than created Man out of the dust). He declares all that disagree with him as needing a course correction (like his claim that BYU has gone astray), but in truth this watered down version of science and misunderstanding of theory is horribly harmful, because it plays into the assumptions of the deep materialists as I argue above.

    I’ve seen so many good friends and students leave the church because they felt they had to choose between evolution and the gospel. Dave sets up this kind of choice because he refuses to allow a fully informed science and the gospel to exist. He compromises both.

  • Steve,

    You are sounding really arrogant, or you have problems with your self esteem.

    I am right here Steve! Are you ever going to stop referring to me as though I am someone out there. Why not talk directly to me?

    Steve is ignoring the philosophical underpinnings of scientific theories, including evolution. Steve is confusing the facts of science with theoretical explanations for those facts. Steve is not adequately separating the facts of common descent with the theory – he assumes they are on par in the domain of certainty. Steve forgets that I am not an IDer. Steve’s repeated claim that it is important to say that evolution and the gospel are compatible has no rational or theological import whatsoever (“OOOO! If our students find out that the gospel and evolution are no completely compatible then they will go into a faith crisis!” – absolute hogwash).
    Saying that God may have used evolution up to man is more theologically consistent with LDS theology than Steve’s theistic evolution.

    I have not seen one student leave the church because they felt they had to choose between religion and science. I HAVE had students thank me for my balanced approach to evolution and the gospel – an approach that points out the similarities and differences.

    Steve needs to get off his “evolution is perfect” dogmatic horse ride and consider the theoretical inconsistencies between the gospel and evolution.

    Steve’s attack’s on my credibility don’t scare me. Bring it on if you are prepared to discuss these issues in a scholarly manner. If you cannot discuss these issues in a scholarly manner then find someone else to use as your whipping boy.

  • Tim,

    Yes, there is plenty of uncertainty in gospel ideas not directly related to our salvation. I admit that I do not know how Adam’s body was created. We just don’t know. Yet theistic evolutionists like Steve seem to have it all figured out – God used random mutations and “undirected” environmental selection. Fine, maybe he is right, but I think he is wrong. But if you don’t drink the theistic evolutionist Kool-Aid then you are branded as an unscientific, know nothing, creationist.

    Not very scholarly, is it?

  • SteveP

    “If our students find out that the gospel and evolution are not completely compatible then they will go into a faith crisis!”

    um . . Dave, my argument is they are compatible. Your point is they are not. You’ve confused me with you here. And unlike you, I speak to many who are already in a crisis of Faith. That’s the reason for this blog. You don’t help.

  • Bringing it back to the OP, Steve, I think the problem is that most theists, Mormons included, take this inward experience and then make a materialistic statement from it, such as, “I know that God has a body of flesh and bones.” And these materialistic extensions of inward experiences are extremely influenced by cultural (material) experiences. If they weren’t, God would reveal the same Self to an petitioners. If Mormon concepts were true, We would expect Mormonism to be continually recreated out of whole cloth in multiple cultures across the ages–i.e. all inward experiences would lead to an understanding of the Plan of Salvation. Instead, inward experience is expressed in pantheons, ancestor veneration, child sacrifices, etc.

    I believe inward experience can only support factual assertions about inward reality. For example, “I know I like tomatoes, because I like them.” But as to the color of tomatoes, materialism has to be admitted into the discussion. God is no different

  • Thanks for this very thoughtful and well-written post!

  • Ken Reed

    Yesterday, my Gospe Doctrine teacher told us that 6,000 years ago the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County Missouri. He’s an MD who thinks Darwin was a good guy and evolution is true.

    To me, as a scientist (Ph.D. in systems ecology), such dichotomy is a mystery. I personally don’t remember a time when I believed in the literal Genesis story (or Noah’s flood, etc.).

    Genesis, Judges, etc., are old stories, some dating back to the Sumerians, and simply should be regarded as such. There is, for example, no archeological evidence that Moses existed, nor that the Israelites wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years – apparently nobody has ever lived there.

    So founding a testimony of God on the basis of the Old Testament is tricky for a person with scientific training. We’re taught to read critically and evaluate on the basis of evidence and consistency with known data. However, I believe there is empirical evidence for the existence of God.

    I recently presented a 6-part fireside series in my stake, where I presented an argument that the Book of Mormon is empirical evidence for the existence of God. I have also presented firesides on Science and the Gospel, illustrating that there is simply no need to compromise science to accept the Mormon view of creation.

    Logically, it goes like this: We do not believe in Original Sin. We do believe that all who have had no chance to hear the Law (accept the Gospel) will have a chance to accept the LAW and be “saved”.

    Therefore, unlike orthodox Christian theology, asserting that Adam’s sin condemns all mankind to hell except the elect, or baptized, or “saved” (depending on your theology), LDS theology asserts that nobody is condemned without an opportunity to make a choice.

    Now, consider evolution and archeology. Until man emerged, all was merely creation – through the laws of the universe and natural selection. No problem so far – this is very consistent with LDS understanding. Certain LDS instructional videos are quite accurate in this.

    Man is special – he is an embodiment of an eternal spirit and placed on this earth for a mortal experience. But the creation of the mortal body is not special – it is the result of a evolutionary process. This mortal body is MORTAL and we’re subject to the various infirmities, birth defects, IQ, lusts, and failings of the mortal body. Thus, the playing field is not equal – you play the hand you are dealt.

    So, Cro-Mangon, Neandertals, even prehistoric modern Homo, could not have understood the LAW. They were innocent – and sinless, according to LDS theology. They were living in the “Garden of Eden”, sinless, therefore they could not experience (eternal) Death. Not mortal death, eternal spiritual death. This is the death we fear.

    With the advent of civilization and invention of writing, we now get the LAW at the hands of the first PROPHET. The law exists, and those to whom the law is given are capable of sin, and potentially can achieve spiritual death (separation from the light).

    In this light, all makes sense, including the need for Prophets, and explains the need for missionary work, baptism for the dead.

    It simply takes a little thought and a paradigm shift – suddenly the instructional videos and the scriptures make sense to scientific modern man. You can have your cake and eat it too – you simply have to discard the child-like literalism of the fundamentalists and take a broader view.

    Works for this converted atheist, anyway.

  • If that works for you Ken, that’s a good thing. The challenge I find in that approach is that you are immediately in a very small minority at church (at least in wards outside of university communities (excluding BYU), by my experience). Not that I mind being in a minority, but I do not particularly like my children being taught myths as literal truths (which happens with Creationism).

    Most active Mormons that I know get very uncomfortable when the First Presidency’s approach to the Creation (as outlined in the 1909 statement, the Book of Moses, and much more recent apostolic teachings documented ad nauseum at NDBF) is dismissed as “child-like literalism.” While you refer to being “consistent with LDS understanding,” I don’t think you can dismiss modern LDS leadership’s views so simply and remain consistent.

    I’d like to think the church will “come around” on this, but it could take many generations yet.

  • Ken Reed

    Ujlapana – thanks for your comment. I am in a very small minority, but at my science and religion fireside in my ward, we had more than 100 people stuffed into the relief society room. My presentation was reviewed and approved by the Bishop. Same thing happened in another ward.

    I think many people are wondering how to reconcile science and the gospel. In my view, perhaps not clearly expressed above is that you only have to change your paradigm to make it fit just fine.

    I know that in my ward, many kids are asking the questions.

    It takes courage and a tolerant ward. My ward in SoCal is politically conservative and I was very surprised to see such a turnout.

    I think we scientists are simply too wimpy. Each of us has had to resolve these issues. I see no reason that others should not see how we view them. However, I’m (usually) silent when confronted with young earth creationism in church. But my kids have been taught my view and they’re both active former missionaries and temple worthy.

    So I think we need to be more open.

  • DB

    Ken -

    I agree that the dichotomy of the earth’s biological and geological evolution and the literal scriptural creation is an enigma. Unfortunately, most people see the two accounts as completely incompatible and will choose to belong to one side or the other in the science vs. scripture debate. Even more unfortunate is that those on either side tend to see the two as so incompatible that they will completely discount the other. Either science is wrong or scripture is wrong (or maybe just allegorical). Your interpretation of the scriptural creation account appears to be commonly held among the LDS faithful on the science side of the debate. The problem with this view is that the scriptural creation account is not just a narrative of the creation of the earth and its biological inhabitants. The creation and the fall are interlocking pieces of the plan of salvation and are very critical pieces of the plan of salvation. When the creation account is interpreted as anything other than literal, its role in the plan of salvation is lost and the plan of salvation itself is completely broken apart. This leaves us with the enigma we started with – an ancient earth full of evidence of biological and geological evolution and the scriptural account of the creation. For many people, it is too much to accept both. For a few, it’s not. Have you ever asked your Gospel Doctrine teacher how he thinks it all fits together?

  • Sarah Kendall Taber

    Gonna be flippant here-

    Maybe it all really comes down to which one you find scarier: God using evolution to get ‘r done, or God creating Plasmodium falciparum because he really wanted to.

    ; )

  • Ken Reed

    OK – I’ll try once more. Thanks DB for the comment. Here is my response. Science is about explaining what we see around us. This is “Theory”. Lay persons equate the word “theory” to notions, ideas, or hypotheses. If asked to rank “theory”, “fact”, “hypothesis”, and “law”, they rank theory at the bottom and law or fact at the top.

    However, to a scientist, facts are at the bottom – the millions of observations we make. Apples always fall. The sun is the center of the universe. Facts include direct and indirect observations.

    Hypothesis is an experimental design issue. We often design experiments to test a specific hypothesis.

    Law is a working system based on experiment and thought. Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are good workable laws. But they do not explain what gravity is. Yet we can use Newton’s laws to orbit a probe around Saturn.

    The highest achievement a scientist can make is to define a Theory. These achievements make one immortal. Einstein’s great theory of Relativity (special and general) gives is a new explanation of the nature of light and gravity. Relativity explains the cosmos.

    Quantum theory explains the nature of the very small (atomic and subatomic laws and forces) and has been the most successful theory in history.

    But we know that Relativity and Quantum theory are not final – physics is looking toward a grand unifying theory to explain both the large and the small. Superstring theory or one of its descendants may be that theory.

    Darwin is justly famous for the most comprehensive explanation of plant and animal speciation, evolution by natural selection. This beautiful theory explains the diversity of life on earth, with literally millions of supporting facts, observations, and laws.

    Science does not look to the supernatural for explanation. Thus, God is not called upon as the explanation of a particular observation. Acts of God cannot be tested or controlled.

    Creation science (so-called) or Intelligent Design, is not science. They call on God for an explanation of observation. Thus they call on the supernatural for explanation of observations. However, the best examples that Intelligent Design practitioners have come up have been shown to result from natural selection. To their chagrin, their assertions have acted to focus research on those questions and have actually strengthened evolutionary theory.

    Many of the arguments used by creationists today have been around for more than 200 years and have long since been explained by natural science.

    So to my kids, I say, well, go ahead and study science. This is how God got ‘er done.

    Now for the other side. The old Bible stores are the currency we use to explain the special nature of man and God. As a historically accurate, scientifically accurate explanation of the origins of man and animals, well, that dog don’t hunt. I’ll leave the reader to peruse the hundreds of books on this subject, but a good start is Before Darwin, and Finding Darwin’s God, both easily obtained from Amazon.

    So I simply do not accept as literal truth the Genesis story. But as an allegory it is perfect. Innocent man living in the Eden of time. The advent of the law (Oh God, hear the words of my mouth), and finally the spread of the law throughout the world.

    The fundamental pillars of LDS theology are intact. The Creation is the physical universe, world, and nature around us. The creation is not a one-time thing, worlds without number were and are being created.

    Sin is violation of the Law – the Commandments of God. Without the law there can be no sin (Eden). Since in our mortal experience, we have what we inherit from our parents and what we learn and accept we have a stringent mortal test. If I’m a mammoth hunter in 10,000 BC, my understanding is pretty limited. If I’m living in a present day hamlet in China, I have a rich Chinese heritage but may have no concept of the law as we understand it. As an educated LDS member, I have a much greater understanding of the law and have made certain covenants that must be kept. I am at greater risk than the Chinese peasant, but still lack the full and complete knowledge of the law, the universe, and everything.

    The atonement is necessary for each of us to have a chance to for eternal progression. With the atonement, each of us has an opportunity to achieve eternal progression. Without the atonement, we die in our ignorance and sin.

    So you see, there is no need for me to accept a literal Genesis story. In fact, I believe it is an impediment to understanding the law in the same sense that creationism (the pseudo-science movement) is an impediment to understanding nature.

  • Thank you for this Steve. Its a point that I sensed was there, but never completely crystallized in my head. I know a lot of people who could really benefit from understanding this. They really need to quit conceding the rules of the fight to their “opponent” from the very beginning. And then when they realize this fundamental mistake, they need to just stop the debate altogether because there really is none as you pointed out so well.

  • [...] Steven L. Peck, a professor at BYU, recently posted a very interesting look at the old debate/war between the hard-line creationist scriptures-are-litteral crowd, and the purist athiest-evolution [...]

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