When faith is frightened by science, both lose (A response to those who want us to choose between them)

This entry was precipitated by Gary over at the No Death Before the Fall blog. Obviously I don’t need to point out that Gary and I disagree. Actually, I like his blog and he makes an interesting foil for my thought. I find it useful in exploring how things need to be clarified in the debates about a faithful view of evolution. While I disagree completely with his outlook, I do think discussion is important and opposing views can often end up coming to some sort of dialectic synthesis. There are points on which we agree–Creation, Fall, Atonement for example. I will, however, continue to bicker about the details. And I do find his approach flawed. He relies exclusively on selectively quoting general authorities in order to perpetuate and support deep-seated suspicions of science. It’s not that suspicions about scientific findings are unhealthy, it’s that these kinds of suspicions take a form that plays out in unhelpful ways. By repeatedly emphasizing suspicions, it seems to pit General Authorities, and thereby the church, against all science. Not against TRUE science, they might argue, suggesting that only that science which lines up scripture and verse with their interpretation of reveled religion, is TRUE. This an extremely unhealthy way of viewing science. Science is not a monolithic bureaucracy that can be dichotomized into ‘True’ vs. some other flavor of science. It is an approach to hard empirical problems, a tack into an underlying physical ontology. Science involves complex methods of discovery and justification; using reason, experimentation, trail and error, but in everything and despite it’s flaws, it self-corrects, reexamines, and reinterprets. It constantly realigns itself with the facts and data it gathers. It is a powerful way of knowing that has been preeminently successful. It’s findings are always open to question, but never ever should be taken lightly, especially about those things that are repeatedly and consistently putting themselves forth as the way things work. Good science provides explanatory and unifying power. As evolution does for all of biology. Science, as a way of knowing, is an invaluable tool (think back to the Middle Ages if you want a vision of the world without science). To dismiss it’s most potent and well established findings you had better engage with the data and the empirical facts at hand. Don’t selectively quote your favorite statements by GAs–we can play “My General Authority can beat up you General Authority” all day. You don’t like evolution? Then offer something that is as equally unifying and explanatory in its scope and power. Intelligent Design tried to tout itself a science by listing anomalies that it thought evolution could not explain (and in no instance did they hit on anything that evolutionary theorists had not tackled long ago), but other than the dictum, “Then a miracle occurred” it offered nothing in the way of explanation or unification (see this post). It was scientifically still-born. So, bottom line, don’t quote out-of-context strings of general authorities and suggest that this line of argument somehow dismisses the fossil record, the patterns found in DNA, the developmental pathways found in embryology and other numerous such things that demonstrate and support evolution. Give me something explanatory on which I can hang my hat. Selectively quoting GAs to piece together a preconceived belief (on which, moreover, one refuses to accept any contrary evidence) is exactly the same method used by anti-mormons to try and show that the church is racist, or sexist, or non-christian, or whatever. That tactic is no more effective or meaningful in that arena than it is in these science attacks. Those that use that method think they are defending the church by raising suspicions about science, I defend the church by embracing both science and my faith fully and unapologetically. If one really thinks the Gospel can’t stand up, arm in arm with (not against!), the best science . . . then it is a weaker Gospel than the one I believe in.

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23 Responses to When faith is frightened by science, both lose (A response to those who want us to choose between them)

  1. R. Gary says:

    Hi Steve, I’m R. Gary. also known as NDBF Gary. My current post (to which you’ve linked) is about human evolution. Three times in your article, you accuse me of selectively quoting Church leaders on the subject. But that implies they’ve actually lined up on both sides of the question. So why don’t you just tell us, Steve: Where and when has the Church published even one apostolic statement endorsing the idea that organic evolution explains the origin of man?

  2. S.Faux says:

    I VERY much appreciate Gary over at “No Death Before the Fall.” He has been very nice to me when I have written pro-evolution remarks on his blog.

    I don’t mind that there are anti-evolutionists in the Church, as long as I can be a full fledged LDS member as an avid Darwinist.

    Actually, I kind of suspect that most General Authorities would resist evolutionary ideas. Gary is probably correct about that.

    The Church has taught me so much about domains of authority that I have ended up dividing my world in those very terms. So correct me if I am wrong, but here goes:

    I cannot remember learning much science if ever at Church. Church is definitely NOT an efficient place to learn science. If Church authorities speak about claims of “natural science,” then I think they are speaking outside of their domain of authority. Their authority is priesthood and theology, which does NOT give them omniscience about the natural world.

    Conversely, I scoff at scientists who make firm claims about the non-existence of God. Science is definitely not an efficient place to learn about religion. Scientists who attack the divine are definitely outside their domain of authority.

    So, I divide up my world into science and religion. Their paths do not cross much, but a little at times. I seek the best in both worlds. But, I know the priority: the gospel is second to none.

  3. Cap says:

    I can not see how you can believe in religion, (any religion, not just Mormon), and say there is no evolution. This takes away from nothing. Evolution had only added to my beliefs and helped me to understand Gods plan better. There is no argument that stands up to evolution, and I am constantly surprised that anyone could fall into the trap that ID could be true.
    The only time in my life that I can honestly say that I didn’t believe in evolution is when I did not know anything about it. (My teenage years).

  4. steve says:

    Hi Gary! It is good to make your acquaintance! S.Faux I think says it well above. I cannot muster any nice clear unequivocal quotes to go up against yours in a head to head quote fest. I don’t, in fact, see that many general authorities believe in evolution. However, I think that most of them have other concerns about building the Kingdom and this isn’t something they’ve looked into deeply. Even so, I do not think they harbor the deep suspicions of science that I glean from your writings. The quotes you select are accurate descriptions of their beliefs. But the selection comes from a minority, and the fact that most don’t talk about science at all is telling. Like S.Faux says above they just leave it alone, so I don’t know what the majority think on the topic. But for those who do talk about it we know they are not popes, and thereby not infallible. Nor do they pretend to be. It’s just that often we take them that way. The selection of quotes you provide are a good gage of what some of them believed. Granted. The question is, is what they believe reprehensive of church doctrine? Should the church really declare itself as anti-science as I take it from your blog you are (or at least human evolutionary biology). My experience at BYU is that there really is room for both science and faith–including human evolution. The fact that we teach it here at BYU without apology or compromise suggests its OK from someone’s perspective high up. Maybe it’s just tolerated to keep some sort of credentialing, but it doesn’t feel that way. A knowledge of evolutionary biology is a part of the complete undergraduate education. It represents as good a science as anything we have in any other discipline.

    However, I concede the point. Your general authorities really can beat up mine.

  5. kenjebz says:

    you can believe in the gospel teach by the Church and yet believe in Evolution? Strange.

  6. Chase Tingey says:

    Science is religion….and religion is science. What is so wrong about enmeshing the two and when one of them finds something that hasn’t been proven wrong why can’t the other say they were wrong and they yield to truth?

    If science says the earth is hundreds of millions of years old and it’s irrefutable, why can’t we just take hold of that truth and think of the huge possibilities and knowledge that that can yield? It was JFSmith, and the ridiculous book, Man, His Origin….
    Great minds like Talmage, Widstoe, and Merrill were all for evolution, and I think McKay was at least open to it. But ideas that McConkie and his father-in-law proposed only took real root when the above three died.

    Some truths die with the believer while the falsehood remains to become the sentiment of the whole.

    The belief in the infallibility of both the Brethren and Science is the most dangerous exercise a thinking and a truly faithful man can adopt.

  7. Chase Tingey says:

    P.S. I need to get out more. After more than 40 years of study I didn’t think BYU would allow professors to teach many scientific truths after the JFS and BRM era. The CES is still messed up but perhaps BYU is making some progress:)

  8. R. Gary says:

    Chase Tingey: After more than 40 years of study a person ought to know that Elder James E. Talmage was NOT “all for evolution.” This is what he said just two years before his death:

    “Man is the child of God…. He is born in the lineage of Deity, not in the posterity of the brute creation.”  (“The Earth and Man,” 1931 pamphlet, p.14; emphasis added.)

    And after more than four decades of study a person ought to know that Elder John A. Widtsoe was NOT “all for evolution.” This is what he said only a year before his death:

    “One of the theories of evolution based largely upon the work of the great scientist, Charles Darwin, was that man was only a product of changes in organic life, throughout long periods of time….  Today,… ‘we are more keenly aware than in Darwin’s day of our ignorance as to the origin and affiliation of the greater classes.’

    “Clearly the theory of evolution has added nothing to our understanding of the beginning of things. The ancient view that God is the Creator of all things is still the best, because it is true.” (The Improvement Era, July 1951, p.531; emphasis in the original.)

    Other than that, Chase, I admire your yours of study and searching. I just don’t agree with your some of your conclusions.

  9. Cap says:

    R. Gary,

    1st quote – Of course we are the children of our Heavenly Father. Spirit Children. The first beings to be inherited with a spirit child of our Heavenly Father. This quote does not say anything indicating that there was not evolution, and that it didn’t happen. It says that a man has a higher purpose than a dog.

    2nd quote – Where in this quote does it say that the theory of evolution is false? Where does it indicate that we were not apart of the creation process that it brings? I agree with it. God is the creator, his plan was to create the heavens, the earth, animals, plants, and man. Evolution doesn’t change my beliefs of this at all. It adds to it, and helps me to understand it. It goes along with scripture, and what modern science has given us.

  10. Chase Tingey says:

    In the late 1930’s Widstoe affirmed the First Presidency’s feelings that evolution is one of many possible explanations (see Evidences and Reconciliations by Durham).
    I’ll restate that through the efforts of JFSmith, and his son in law (BRM), the subject of evolution being a possibility was thrown out the window. They would not even entertain the idea.
    What is interesting is that these two did not have a science background and yet their uneducated opinion is what the Church has predominatly taught and believed since the 50’s (or post McKay).
    R. Gary, I can’t say it any better than Steve did in his opening paragraph, so I’ll quote:
    “He relies exclusively on selectively quoting general authorities in order to perpetuate and support deep-seated suspicions of science…” You do the same thing on your blog…you pick and choose what to post or you end all further comments to a post.
    I’ll also quote, ironically, JFSmith when he said that “it is wrong to take one passage of scripture and isolate it from all other teachings dealing with the same subject. We should bring together all that has been said by authority on the question….”
    But, of course, this was a “do as I say not as I do” statement.

  11. R. Gary says:

    Cap: Talmage says there are no beasts among man’s ancestors. Widtsoe says evolution does not explain the origin of life.

  12. R. Gary says:

    Chase Tingey: Three years ago, I posted a four thousand five hundred word exerpt from Elder John A. Widtsoe’s Evidences and Reconciliations wherein he answers two questions: “What Is the Origin of Life On Earth?” and “To What Extent Should the Doctrine of Evolution Be Accepted?” I said at the time (click here) that it would be a good read for those who criticize President Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man: His Origin and Destiny.

    I would challenge you to tell us the page numbers in Evidences and Reconciliations or any other Widtsoe speech or book where we can read that he “affirmed the First Presidency’s feelings that evolution is one of many possible explanations.” You can’t do it, because he didn’t do it.

    Furthermore, the First Presidency has NEVER expressed the feeling that “evolution is one of many possible explanations.” And so I would likewise challenge you to tell us where and when the Church has published even one apostolic statement endorsing the idea that organic evolution explains the origin of man.

  13. Cap says:

    R. Gary,

    “…Not in the posterity of the brute creation.” – We are God’s posterity. His spirit children. This quote says nothing, and it obviously can be taken different ways.

    Widtsoe says, “…the theory of evolution has added nothing to our understanding of the beginning of things.” – I understand that God created this world, I understand that there was a process to it. I understand that Men are ordained of God. I understand that we are the spirit children of our Heavenly Father. I don’t see how it took anything away either. With my belief of evolution, I still believe all that I listed above. (And yes, even more technical stuff, but I didn’t want to make a long list).

    However, these quotes do not prove anything in the way of that these two men did not believe in evolution. They simply accredit to the fact that God is the creator of all things, and that we are the spirit children of Him.

  14. smwaters says:


    Your challenge to Steve to identify “Where and when has the Church published even one apostolic statement endorsing the idea that organic evolution explains the origin of man?” is misplaced and even saddens me as a member of the church. While I don’t believe that one can prove the veracity of organic evolution or any other scientific question by an appeal to general authority quotes, it saddens me that the comments on this topic by general authorities seem to move us in a distinctly anti-intellectual direction. The quotes suggest that we are to close our eyes and our minds to anything beyond what general authority A or B has said.

    Of course, our Mormon community is quick adopt any scientific finding that supports our position on the word of wisdom, or the archeological findings that writing on metal plates is not uncommon, or that an earthquake may have happened around the year 33 AD. However the moment science finds something that is inconsistent with the Mormon world view, then we start to bring out the ad hominem attacks on scientists (well, you know, that scientist is an atheist and has an agenda) and the retrenchment with general authority quotes.

    The fact is that the evidence keeps lining up with organic evolution. I don’t believe that organic evolution has to shatter one’s faith in a creator God, but our definition of what it means to create may need some revising. The Mormon community does not believe in creation ex nihilo and, while that may put us at odds with other denominations’ interpretation of sacred writ, we don’t find that this belief diminishes God’s presence or power or perfection.

    What about the scriptural statements regarding first flesh, etc.? Even independent of organic evolution, it is clear from the fossil record that there was flesh on this earth long before 6,000 years ago. Now, we can stay with a literalistic interpretation of scripture or we can think deeply about what this means. Does our theology rise or fall on a 6,000 year old earth? Did Catholic theology rise or fall depending on the earth being the center of the universe? I’m not troubled by these questions. I am troubled by the near “head in the sand” response to the questions. I was taught that the gospel embraces all truth. That includes true science. If you want to produce a persuasive argument against organic evolution or any other scientific finding then do so by engaging the evidence. Providing a quote either from scripture or a general authority to say it isn’t so is not an argument. That is like the experience one of our missionaries had when he pointed out a singularly Mormon doctrine in the bible to a non-Mormon Christian. This person’s response was to rip that page out of his bible and say, “It’s not in my bible.”

    I am not insisting (to quote your blog) “that science is right about man having come in the posterity of the brute creation,” but I am acknowleging that is certainly where the evidence is pointing. And if it is true, all the interpretation and appeal to scripture and church authority isn’t going to make it otherwise.

  15. richard sherlock says:

    Steve, it is you who are asking people, especially students to make a choice between science and religion and if my mormon students here at USU are any indication they will choose faith 90% of the time. Your Blog and your op ed are full of so many errors I scarcely know where to begin so here goes. !. no serious philosopher of science today would say we have solved the demarcation problem i.e what is science and what isn’t. Positivism is clearly wrong and so is Popper. 2. as Kuhn and Feyerabend have decisively shown science is not always self correcting and most scientists are wedded to worldviews like articles of faith. 3. The idea that science can only study material causes is false, SETI is science but the radio astronomer cannot know before hand whether the message is from a material creature or not. There is a growing body of literature showing that non material causes like prolonged and explicit forms of meditation can cause changes in the physical structure of the brain ( references from places like PNAS on request). For mormons the greatest power in the universe is the power of the priesthood and it is not physical 4. Religion, at least mormonism makes truth functional claims about the external world e.g. Jesus Christ rose physically from the dead. So did Lazarus. So did the person Nephi rose from the dead in the B of M. So our faith is about the actual physical world. These claims are in principle testable. Mormonism also claims that specific miracles have happened and are happening today. These can be interpreted in many ways but 2 are relevant here. One is the view that God is simply using a more advanced physical law. The other is that God is simply intervening without using any higher law. The former undermines science far more than the latter. The former says ” we dont know squat about the laws that regulate nature, God does” I prefer to say that we know a hell of a lot about nature and we mostly have got it right so far. But God can intervene because nature is not a closed system. 5. What you say about intelligent is mostly wrong. ID says nothing about the age of the earth . I think its very old. ID says nothing about death before human beings came on the scene. This too is true. ID says nothing about common ancestry. This too is true. What ID says is that the best explanation for complex biological structures that look like they are designed is external design. inference is invoked every day in science e.g. paleontology, archeology, SETI, forensics. SETI, archeology, and forensics require invoking intelligent causation. Any competent molecular biologist can calculate the probability of a complex code like a complete human DNA coming randomly from scratch. The improbability is so staggering that unless you are completely wedded a priori to the idea that an immaterial cause i.e. Divine agency, cannot do it ( which we reject in the case of miracles ) the best explanation is agent causation

  16. richard sherlock says:

    Just another note for others. Widtsoe may have endorsed common ancestry but there is no evidence of this. BH Roberts did to some extent. Widtsoe did think the earth is very old and that life and death were present way before Adam. Talmage did endorse both of these. But neither Widtsoe nor any other authority has ever endsorsed natural selection as the mechanism of biological evolution. Not ever.

  17. richard sherlock says:

    one further point that I have made over at NDBF. Can anyone name any physical scientist who doubts Newtons law of gravity. I did not think so. Yet I can name hundreds of biologists who do not think that the mechanism of evolution, natural selection, can explain all of biological diversity. These are very well published biologists not bible college people. One member of the national academy of science who I know whose work was on antibiotics has said directly that evolutionary theory was never relevant to the work for which was elected to NAS, Finally , 40% of MD’s, who are as well trained in the life sciences as anyone are Young Earth Creationists ( which I am not) and they treating patients, prescribing drugs and doing surgery just fine with out believing in the idea that is supposedly the foundation of modern biology.

  18. steve says:

    Hi Richard

    I’m thrilled that you are even reading my blog. (For those of you that don’t know him, Richard is a respected philosopher and ethicist)

    I’m not following your claim on how my arguments that both, a fully formed science and fully formed faith, forces people to choose science? I suppose I do insist that science and faith both be taken seriously and if that is asking people to choose science, that’s true, but not at the expense of faith certainly.

    I follow your numbered points in my numbering below:

    1. How can my statement, “ Getting at what Science is exactly, has not exactly been easy” be construed as a claim that that the demarcation problem has been solved? Where did you get that I believed that? I don’t.

    2. Actually I don’t think Kuhn or Feyerabend has ‘decisively shown’ anything. Kuhn has proven largely irrelevant in philosophy of biology because his revolutions and ideas on incommensurablity have not really played out in the way that biology has unfolded in the 20th and 21st century. He’s helped drive the science as social construct industry, but his direct ideas haven’t really found purchase in biology the way they did in physics. Feyerabend with his view of scientific anarchy really hasn’t been influential either as there does seem to have been genuine progress in biology.

    3. SETI is a science? Humm . .. I’m going to have to think about that. Aiming radio telescopes at the sky seems a bit of a stretch to call science, but then I think about the massive search for the neutrino and think . . . well, Ok, Maybe. (And plus who doesn’t love SETI, I’ve run their search algorithms as a screen saver for years holding onto the secret hope the it would be on MY machine that advanced civilizations first made their presence known.) But what do you mean “the radio astronomer cannot know before hand whether the message is from a material creature or not”? What would a message from an immaterial creature mean? What’s an immaterial creature? (and as Mormons we certainly don’t even believe in immaterial creatures, even spirits are material).

    I don’t know anything about the physicality or nonphysicality of the Priesthood. It is a power in my life and I use and am blessed by it, but I’d be hard pressed to understand or make claims about its ultimate nature.

    4. Yes there are truth claims about physical things, but that’s not the source of our claims. Can you give me examples of what science you are talking about doing that demonstrates the truth of the resurrection and the Book of Mormon? Even an ‘in principle test’? I’ve come to know these things through faith. You can know truth through subjective experience (I’ve got a whole paper on this in “Zygon” which you can find right). But this isn’t science as such. You’ve misconstrued my argument. I’m not claiming our faith claims are without physical presence, I’m saying we learn these things through prayer and faith rather than through scientific test. There is no physical evidence for the resurrection (with apologies to the Shroud of Turin) on which to run a scientific test. But that does not invalidate that there are things we can run tests on, like molecular biology, nor does it mean that it’s not knowable in other ways based on faith and the spirit. Both of which I believe are valid ways of learning truth.

    5. ID is just a disguised version of Born Again Christian Fundamentalism. And yes I think it is worthless as a science. I’ll be posting a blog latter today addressing this in part. Also no Biologist that I know claims DNA popped from scratch into the universe and these probability arguments are a distraction at best. For a very nice take on this ID strawman and canard that people keep claiming that biology says, see Philosopher of Science Elliot Sober’s new book “Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science.” I make a modest attempt at this also in my Blog, The Monkeys are Typing Again.

  19. richard sherlock says:

    You are wrong about Kuhn and Fyerabend having no influence. The destroyed Popper and no one thinbks that testability is a demarcation point anymore. They have shown that science is not always self correcting. They were not ttrying to give biologists the tools to make progress. Just because scientists ignore them doesn’t mean they are wrong.
    My point about truth functionality was simply to note that in our religion Galileo was wrong. when he was alleged to have said ” science tells us how the heavens work. Religion tells us how to get to heaven.” or Gould’s idea that science deals with facts and religion meaning. Religion does deal in facts.
    Faith is crucial and we cant have too much of it. But we can have as much confidence in the resurrection from New Testament witnesses as we can about the assanation of Cesear on a certain day.
    Science can be descriptive , i.e. giving a description of the way the world is , i.e. inferring from the world a theoretical structure, isn’t this what string theory is doing and some of the brightest physicists and mathematicians around are involved. You haven’t shown me that design detection is not necessary in many sciences. It is. archeology for one. and arrowhead or primitive toll is designed a rock is not. the SETI example was to show that in a science established by non-theist the whole enterprise is based on design detction. You did not respond to the data on non-physical causes altering brain structures. But the larger point is this . Is all reality material. If one means matter as we know it of course not. To say that it is would be what Wittgenstein calls a stipulative definition and that is no way to win an argument. Think of resurrected beings and what we know. They shimmer in extreme whiteness and brightness, they hover in the air, they can enter and leave locked rooms with ease. Can any physical object do these things . NO. What the claim about materiality seems to me to amount to is this ” Jones: all the sheep in my field are white. Smith: you are wrong I see a black sheep in the corner. Jones: you dont understand. Black is really a special form white. I know it doesnt look like white and doesnt act like white but it really is. This sound like trying to win an argument with a special definition. You also haven’t answered my point about miracles. Finally, about ID. Elliott Sober is the best critic of ID around but many eminent philosophers disagree with him e.g. Alvin Plantinga and Robert Koons. Sober does not believe that ID is fundamentalist young earth creationism. Before ID ever came along many biologists were using information theory to understand DNA as a complex information code. Once you do this the probability arguments are there for all to see. Do you think it is wrong to use information theory to understand DNA. If so you are taking on far bigger fish than me. What is wrong with probability arguments? Why is ID not science. We already know that many sciences use inference to the best explanation. When paleontolgists believe that common descent best explains fossil strata they are inferring. When molecular biologists argue that the genetic overlap between between is best explained by common descent they are inferring. Lets get to the real issue I believe that there is no good ground for excluding God as a possible causal agent in the physical world. We can infer that there are complex structures that could not have been developed by any known method. You seem to say we should keep God out of science. But this is metaphysics not science and I if i am interpreting you right you have the wrong one, one that will drive more talented students away from science. Leting design in does no stop inquiry it adds to it something that has been missing: teleology. What is the purpose of this object being designed in this way. Aristotle, who was the greatest single biologist ever would have thought that exclusion of teleology or final cause was just bad for empirical inquiry. Why do you think it is good By the way Dan Peterson at FARMS Review would love to publish a response to my article on ID why dont you write one. And can you show me how salisbury’s classic article in Nature in 1969 is wrong

  20. steve says:

    To be honest Richard I don’t know who you are arguing with. Almost all of the claims you are attributing to me I’ve never made. In fact, I just reviewed a paper for a philosophy journal that I criticized because they claimed there was no design in nature. Of course there is design in nature. No one can look at a fishes fin and not think it was designed for swimming. It’s just evolution explains the design better than anything.

    I like string theory. Yes Popper was trounced. Yes angels can pass through walls. Who are you arguing with???

  21. richard sherlock says:

    if you admit that about angels then they cant be matter as we know it.
    Why precisely does evolution explain design better. It explains the appearance of design but design requires a designer. What about my fundamental point that since as a metaphysical point will not involve God or any designer in their explanations. The dont want teleology a point made by Bacon and later by Hume

  22. richard sherlock says:

    Appendix show me how Salisbury’s argument is wrong.

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