Science and Religion

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In the late 1800s Edwin Abbott wrote a satirical novella called Flatland. While written as a commentary on Victorian society, physicists and mathematicians have used the concepts of the story to help explain higher dimensional space. In Flatland there are only two dimensions. Imagine the world as 2D – there are x and y axes but no z. The world would be like an infinitely thin sheet of paper. While such a world could be beautiful and rich, there is a depth missing that those of us who live in a three spatial dimension world (like we all do; 3 dimensions suffice for our discussion now unless we want to get into a discussion of some of the theories or propositions of theoretical physics, in which case there are some who believe that our universe has a number of other dimensions than the viewable three {and non-viewable one of time}). We, in our 3D world, can easily comprehend all of the 2D Flatland. However, Flatlanders cannot comprehend 3 dimensions. If a 3 dimensional being passed through Flatland, the Flatlanders would only see cross-sections of the 3 dimensional being. This would allow a glimpse of the being but not a full comprehension of him or her.

My point with all of this is that science is like Flatland. Religion turns the world of Flatland into our world – a world of 3 rich dimensions. The three dimensions fully encompass the 2 dimensional world of science. Science and religion are complementary. Let me qualify that statement – true science and true religion are complementary. Science has breath and height; religion adds depth. Science teaches us much but religion allows us to understand the world from a greater perspective. Having the 3rd dimension offers a perspective of and purpose for science that science cannot achieve by itself.

If (true) religion is inclusive of (true) science, why do we need science? Why then does religion not answer all the questions about the world and universe around us? Why does science provide so many answers that religion does not answer?

This stems from science and religion asking different questions. Science asks “Why?” and religion asks “What for?” Science uncovers knowledge, religion teaches wisdom. That is not to say that knowledge cannot be obtained from religion – it can, even to a greater extent than from science – but wisdom are seldom drawn from science.

Science teaches us about the world, the universe, our bodies, and all that is around us. Religion does this but with added meaning and morality. Science does not address meaning; it is also inherently amoral. That is one reason with human and animal research we have ethics boards to review research. Ethics are philosophical replacements for morality and religion. It is telling of science that we require additional philosophical frameworks (e.g., ethics) to provide guidelines for what is appropriate science when applied to human and animal research subjects. This shows that science without a foundation of morality (ethics are a branch of morality; someone can personally be amoral or immoral while still being ethical but ethics would not exist without morality; morality only exists because of religion and inspiration from God. Morality exists because of our consciences given unto us by God).

Science is important. There are few things in life that I love more than science. Science is what I do. However, I recognize its limitations. Religion, particularly the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, adds a richness to my life that science never could add. My religion and my faith teach me to be a better person, science just teaches me. I see no contest between science and religion – they are parts of the same whole. Science adds to my faith and my faith adds to my science. They are not separate spheres, they are overlapping and inseparable. For me, science would lose much richness without religion and my life would lose much richness without science.

The more I learn about the world, particularly the human brain – my own particular field of study – the more in awe I am of what God has created. Can we really fathom the human brain? Can we truly understand the 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between neurons in the human central nervous system (brain and spinal cord)? What’s even more amazing is the ability of the brain to change – to learn and grow. It has infinite storage capacity. Think of that, our brains have the ability to continue to learn new things indefinitely. That does not happen in this life because of degeneration due to age but there is still no limit on what we can learn. In the post-mortal life we will have the ability to continue to progress in knowledge infinitely – spirit and body inseparably connected in an immortal form will be able to learn more faster than we now can.

I believe that science and religion go hand in hand. When there are clashes, that just demonstrates that we have more to learn doctrinally or scientifically. This means that if I ever had to choose between my faith and my science, I would choose my faith. Thankfully, I get to choose both because both add to my understanding of life. This is all why ongoing revelation and sensitivity to the Spirit of God is so important – it will guide us in all things. All things will be revealed at some point, most likely not in our lifetimes but in the post-mortal world. Then we will see with eyes unfettered. As our faith and even science are founded upon the rock of Christ we can continue to grow and progress to become more like Him, including knowing what He knows.

Brigham Young on Science and Religion

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I have two Brigham Young quotes about science and religion. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in general feel no hostility towards science, in fact, most embrace it. That does not mean we accept everything science seems to tell us as Truth but we believe that God blesses us with scientific knowledge and technological progress.

Brigham Young said, “There is no ingenious mind that has ever invented anything beneficial to the human family but what he obtained it from the one Source, whether he knows or believes it or not. There is only one Source whence men obtain wisdom, and that is God, the Fountain of all wisdom.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, Edited by John A. Widtsoe, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1998, p. 259).

It is also important to understand when these quotes were given – in the mid to late 1800s. Just as there are many religionists who are hostile to science today, there were many religionists then who were hostile towards science. Mormons do not exhibit this hostility because we believe that scientific knowledge comes from God.

Brigham Young said, “I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science, and which are generally understood. You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth had been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has; and they say, ‘If the Lord, as religionists declare, made the earth out of nothing in six days, six thousand years ago, our studies are all in vain; but by what we can learn from nature and the immutable laws of the Creator as revealed therein, we know that your theories are incorrect and consequently we must reject your religions as false and vain; we must be what you call infidels, with the demonstrated truths of science in our possession; or, rejecting those truths, become enthusiasts in, what you call, Christianity.’ In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its processors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts – they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways we would say that he took of this matter and organized this earth from it. How long it has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant. This we know by what we have learned naturally since we have had a being on the earth. We can now take a hymn book and read its contacts; but is we had never learned letters and knew nothing about type or paper or their uses, and should take up a book and look at it, it would be a great mystery…. But this is no mystery to us now, because we have learned our letters.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, Edited by John A. Widtsoe, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1998, pp. 258-259).

The Pew Religious Knowledge Survey: How Did Mormons Do?

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A Religious Knowledge Survey was recently conducted by the Pew Research Center of 3,412 Americans. The full report can be read here (all of the survey questions are in the Appendix of that report). Out of 32 questions, the average number correct by all people was 16, so 50%. You might view that as positive or negative, depending on your expectations. What subgroups performed the best? Athiests/agnostics (mean = 20.9), Jews (mean = 20.5), and Mormons (mean = 20.3). Rounding out the bottom of the groups are Hispanic Catholics (mean = 11.6).

Here’s a general overview (not just Mormons):

Now on to how Mormons did. I thought this section of the report was interesting:

“27% of Jews, 22% of atheists and agnostics, and 20% of Mormons score in the top 10% of all respondents in overall number of correct answers to religious knowledge questions, getting at least 26 questions right. As will be discussed in detail later in this report, these groups display greater religious knowledge even when education and other factors are held constant. Mormons outperform Jews as well as atheists and agnostics on questions about the Bible but do not perform as well as the other two groups on questions having to do with world religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.”

So, 20% of Mormons in the survey scored at or above the 90th %ile, which is an encouraging result.

Who knew their Bible the best out of all groups? It was…Mormons. I bet that might surprise a lot of other Christians.

Mormons also had the highest knowledge of general Christianity (Catholicism & Protestantism plus other religious figures), getting nearly 8/12 questions correct on average.

About Judaism, Jews had the highest average (5/7) with Mormons a close second (4.8/7). However, it should be noted that the distribution was skewed: “Mormons also do well on these questions (4.8 correct on average), though many more Jews than Mormons get all seven questions right (29% among Jews, 6% among Mormons).”

Mormons also knew their own religion the best with and average of 2.7/3 correct answers. Atheists and agnostics came in second with 2.1/3 on average correct.

Outside of Christianity, Mormons came in 3rd for knowledge of world religions with 5.6/11 correct on average. For knowledge of religion’s role in public life, Atheists/agnostics had an average of 2.8/4 correct and Mormons were tied for third (with Evangelicals) with 2.3/4.

It goes on; the report is quite fascinating (although light on the statistics, which some people find comforting, others of us, not so much).

Those who were more educated tended to do better on the quiz but even controlling for education and other demographic factors, atheists/agnostics, Jews, and Mormons still did the best on the survey.

One issue I saw with the interview questions was what was asked it the respondent said he or she was Mormon: “Which of the following Mormon churches, if any, do you identify with most closely? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ, or some other church?”

Ignoring the incorrect usage of referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Mormon Church, it is even more incorrect to refer to any of the splintered groups as Mormon. That’s sort of like lumping Methodists and Catholics together because after all, Methodists (and all other Protestant religions) are an offshoot of Catholicism. So no, those other “Mormon churches” are not “Mormon churches.” That’s not just being pedantic, it’s being accurate.

In any case, after looking over the 32 questions, there was one I might have missed (although it was multiple choice so even a completely random guess would result in a 20% chance of getting it right). The question was about what religion Maimonides was. I am familiar with the name but frankly have never studied about him. Two of the five choices are obvious rule-outs (for me), which leaves three choices. Who was he? Here’s the answer.

How did I do on the shortened 15 question quiz online? I bet you are dying to know.

You can take the quiz here.

Overall, those who identified themselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did very well on the survey. They did better than any other religious group. Being Jewish is not necessarily a religious thing; for many Jewish Americans (and elsewhere) it is a cultural thing. It’s almost like being Catholic in a Latin American country or in Italy, it’s cultural more than religious for most people. Mormons did well but there certainly is room for improvement.

Truth, Freedom, and Religion

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In the early days of the Revolutionary War one of the American generals, Nathanael Greene, expressed his desire for America to be an independent nation from Britain. His sentiments echoed that of many others of his day. Gen. Greene wrote:

“Heaven hath decreed that tottering empire Britain to irretrievable ruin and thanks to God, since Providence hath so determined, America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons…. Permit me then to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety and rectitude thereof.” (as cited by D. McCullough in 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005; emphasis added).

Contrary to the beliefs of many who are foes of organized Christian religions, the United States of America was founded upon religious principles and to some extent, religion. Our nation was not founded upon a particular religious sect but it certainly was never meant to be “free from” religion. There are movements that would remove any mention of religion from public discourse, especially in government. This is completely at odds with the Constitution. I recognize that Gen. Greene was not one of the Founding Fathers, per se, but his sentiments were in line with many others of his day.

Brigham Young stated: “How can a republican [freely elected] government stand? There is only one way for it to stand. It can endure; but how? It can endure, as the government of heaven endures, upon the eternal rock of truth and virtue; and that is the only basis upon which any government can endure” (Source).

Our government was founded under the inspiration of God. It will only endure, as Brigham Young said, when those who govern and those who are governed enact and support truthful and virtuous laws with truthfulness and virtue in their personal lives. The Book of Mormon prophet and king Mosiah taught that nations only prosper and endure when righteousness prevails:

“Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord. Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people. And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land” (Mosiah 29:25-27; emphasis added).

Pres. Young said: “If a nation transgresses wholesome laws and oppresses any of its citizens or another nation, until the cup of iniquity is full, through acts that are perfectly under its own control, God will hurl those who are in authority from their power, and they will be forgotten; and he will take another people, though poor and despised, a hiss and a by-word among the popular nations, and instill into them power and wisdom; and they will increase and prosper, until they in turn become a great nation on the earth.” Brigham Young also said, “No matter how good a government is, unless it is administered by righteous men, an evil government will be made of it.” He taught that the influence of righteous citizens can save a nation: “Government in the hands of a wicked people must terminate in woe to that people, but in the hands of the righteous it is everlasting, while its power reaches to heaven.” Lastly, Brigham Young taught about the type of leaders we should seek: “We want men to rule the nation who care more for and love better the nation’s welfare than gold and silver, fame, or popularity” (Source).

I am grateful for the great nation The United States of America and for the freedoms I enjoy. I am grateful to live in a land where we can choose to live in righteousness. While we have strayed from our great nation’s foundation, there is hope for the future. It is never too late to choose righteousness and to encourage righteousness in others!

Gods of Science and Religion

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A recent opposing viewpoints article on the Wall Street Journal online pits “man” and God against each other in a verbose battle of words and ideas. The two authors wield their inky swords in a contest defending their theistic and atheistic ideals. However, there is no victor and no captive because their battle is not against each other; instead it is merely a clanging of swords and a rattling of shields in a feat of intimidation. Whose god will win? God of Christians or the god of science and evolution? [Note: please read the end of my post – I believe all truth comes from God, including the truths of science. Belief in God and belief in science are not mutually exclusive categories. Actually, I believe that with a belief in God that one can more fully understand and appreciate science, including its shortcomings].

The first author, Ms. Karen Armstrong argues from the theistic perspective. The second author, Dr. Richard Dawkins, argues from the atheistic perspective. It is a confrontation like that between Elijah and the priests of Baal but Dr. Dawkins’ god is not one of wood, stone, and gold but one of science and humanism. His is a dead god whereas Ms. Armstrong’s is a living God with real power (I’m certainly not calling Ms. Armstrong Elijah though!).

This is a religious blog and so I will only critique Dr. Dawkins’ arguments (and I am only really focusing on one particular part of his essay). That is my bias at this time. I am currently choosing not to critique Ms. Armstrong’s post. Dawkins wrote:

“What if the greatest show on earth [Darwinian evolution] is not the greatest show in the universe? What if there are life forms on other planets that have evolved so far beyond our level of intelligence and creativity that we should regard them as gods, were we ever so fortunate (or unfortunate?) as to meet them? Would they indeed be gods? Wouldn’t we be tempted to fall on our knees and worship them, as a medieval peasant might if suddenly confronted with such miracles as a Boeing 747, a mobile telephone or Google Earth? But, however god-like the aliens might seem, they would not be gods, and for one very important reason. They did not create the universe; it created them, just as it created us. Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable —and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe—the miracle-free zone that is physics.”

With this paragraph, Dr. Dawkins reveals his biases and short-sightedness. He gives a good example and asks a good question: What if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? What if life evolved to the point where those beings appeared god-like to us? Within Mormon theological tradition the answer to this question is, yes, there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. We claim that we here on earth are only some of God’s children. He has children on other planets who are also part of His Plan of Salvation. So for Latter-day Saints the question of life on other planets is moot. Further, God Himself dwells in a Celestial world, a physical place elsewhere in the universe (or multiverse in our dimensional space or a higher dimensional space; but that is speculation and is not the point of this article). There is a God dwelling elsewhere in the universe. Even Dawkins cannot definitively say “There is no God!” He can only state that he does not believe there is any supporting evidence for God.

Returning to Dr. Dawkins’ example: “But, however god-like the aliens might seem, they would not be gods, and for one very important reason. They did not create the universe; it created them, just as it created us.” This is where his example falls short and is limited by his atheism. He does not continue his example like he could with an evolved race of beings who developed to the point where they have all the attributes and characteristics we ascribe to God, even eternal life. They may have evolved to the point where they can in fact create life. We have scientists who try to, by experiment, recreate or encourage evolution in the lab. Some scientists are “forcing evolution” (see also this article) whereas others are trying to create new life. We have the curiosity and desire to create life. Surely, an evolved race of god-like beings would also have the desire to control and create life! It might be faulty logic to state that but on the other hand, to deny some beings some where at some time both the desires to create and the power to create, goes against evolutionary principles. Even as “statistically improbable” it may be, there is still that minute probability, according to Darwinian evolution.

At least one race might even have evolved the ability to create life and “drive” evolution. They might have evolved the ability to create entire worlds or universes. To deny this possibility from an evolutionary perspective is to limit evolution in such a manner that destroys its basic tenets. Placing this limit codifies and canonizes a limit that is not inherent to evolution. How can you argue that it is not possible for a god-like race to evolve god-like powers yet argue that we evolved from a lower state and will continue to evolve to a higher state (or at least something more fitting to survival will out-evolve us)? If there has not been “time enough” in our universe, why could there not have been enough time in a different universe (and then that race of god-like creatures – even just one of them – created our universe by acting in a way that “forced evolution” or even started it outright)?!

Dr. Dawkins stated: “Making the universe is the one thing no intelligence, however superhuman, could do, because an intelligence is complex—statistically improbable —and therefore had to emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings: from a lifeless universe—the miracle-free zone that is physics.” With this statement he lets his atheism limit his argument (plus he equates Darwinian evolution with physics, which it is not). He does not believe there is a God so he cannot conceive that some being somewhere could create the universe using the power and knowledge of scientific principles to create life. “Darwinian evolution is the only process we know that is ultimately capable of generating anything as complicated as creative intelligences.” So in the end Dr. Dawkins is not atheistic after all! Yes, he might be traditionally atheistic but his god is evolution and science. Dr. Dawkins exhibits faith in his god of mathematics, physics, biology, Darwinian evolution, theory, and statistics. His god is changeable and not well-understood. Our understanding of evolution has changed significantly since the days of Darwin. As new evidence of evolution is discovered we modify the theory and laws of evolution to fit the new data. Such is science. One thing I’ve learned as a scientist is that the more I do science, the less sure I am about my results or data. That does not mean they are wrong but they might be. Science is wonderful but flawed too. We humans are also flawed as is our understanding of science. But we can have unshaken faith in and knowledge of God – a faith that is neither misplaced nor flawed.

In His beautiful and powerful intercessory prayer, Jesus said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Our goal, our purpose, in life is to know God and Jesus Christ. Dr. Dawkins does not know God. He does not even fully know his god of Darwinian evolution. He knows a lot about them but science and evolution are abstract principles and as such are immaterial (while founded upon the philosophy of materialism) and unknowable. Evolution raises as many questions as it answers. We do not fully know God either, but we can know God. God is material and knowable (fully in the next life). Even in this life we can know God with a greater surety than we can know science. God testifies to us through His prophets and through the Holy Ghost. Science has its prophets but it has no testator like the Holy Ghost. Science is great and powerful. I am not anti-science. I am a scientist. But more importantly I am a man of faith. True science and true religion have no conflict.

I do not fully understand how the earth was created but I know that it was by a loving Heavenly Father who did so in order for us to progress – to evolve – and become like Him as we are faithful to His laws and ordinances and through the grace of Christ.