Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Some weeks back, a former student sent me a message on Facebook, expressing conflict over the way her high school teacher was presenting evolution in her science class. My previous school was in a predominately LDS small town in Utah. Knowing that she is a very religious person, she didn't need to say very much for me to understand precisely what her conflict is.

Over the years, as I've worked with young teenage women in the LDS Church (and heck, their mothers and grandmothers too!) I am often discouraged by what a bad rap science gets. Too many religious women view science as something for men to glom onto, or as something whose purpose is to undermine faith. For the uber-religious, science is too often synonymous with atheism. Because I usually am in the context of a church setting when working with these kids, it is not always appropriate for me to challenge their thinking when it comes to secular knowledge.

My young friend gave me a perfect opportunity to both share my faith, and my own seemingly contradictory journey to marry science with religion. It also caused me to do some careful research. A generation before the years that had a strong bearing on my adult self--both religiously and intellectually--the Church also underwent a time of growing pains. When Dallin H. Oaks (now an apostle of the LDS Church) was the president of Brigham Young University, there were deep divisions in Church administration regarding whether or not the subject of evolution should be presented at BYU. Though the Scopes Monkey Trial had been fifty years earlier, there were statements by general authorities in place--both official and unofficial--that were problematic for determining a mainstream course of action at the Church University.

Oaks settled the question by offering his professional opinion to those who made such decisions for BYU (including President Hinckley) by making the following statement, "If we stopped teaching this theory, within a few years students from BYU would not be admitted to…graduate schools. At that point we would cease to function as a recognized university and would, in the eyes of the world (especially the world of higher education), be little more than a seminary with added courses in the humanities. I have no doubt whatever that our accreditation as an institution of higher education would be lost."

He then added, though I must say he hardly needed to, "The issue is just loaded."

For further information, there are a couple of really great websites I found. The first contains any statement the author could EVER find on evolution put out by the Church. It is important to point out, however, that only four of these statements are deemed "official." The most recent of these official statements was actually given in the 1930's, and though each builds on a First Presidency Statement made in the very early part of the 1900's, over the years, each statement becomes more and more general, in the end merely emphasizing that God created the earth and that Adam was the "first man" and prophet. The eternal progression of man in the world to come is also reiterated (talk about evolving). This softening of language is indicative of a view of science at odds with those who would use the Bible as a scientific manual to teach Creationism.

The second website emphasizes the official statements, quotes from faithful LDS people and scientists regarding knowledge and the attainment of it, and a wonderful talk from Hugh B. Brown under the "LDS Articles" link. There is enough here to keep you busy for days if you are interested. If you are not, well, you've probably already quit and I'm already over it.

Years before going to bat for evolution, Elder Oaks issued statements to the faculty at BYU strongly condemning those who would make assumptions about their colleagues' commitment to the Church based on their training in the sciences. As your read excerpts from the letter I sent to my former student, I would ask you to do the same for me.


"Dear K,

"My intention is not to convince you of a certain way of thinking: as always I want my students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions, but sharing my story might help you to see that any worthwhile journey of faith and knowledge takes time, and that some answers and conclusions don’t immediately reveal themselves.

“My first good life science class was my AP Biology class. It was a bit intimidating—I was a young sophomore and my teacher was the head football coach. He was loud and disorganized and sometimes lazy. But I loved him. His perspective was unique. He had arrived at an interest in science only later in life when he realized that if he wanted to coach high school ball, he was going to have to actually get a major in something besides PE. Though in his early 40’s when I first knew him, he had only been a member of the Church a few years.

“When he taught the chapter on evolution (he called it “evilution” just to nettle us), he presented the information in the book and I found myself very conflicted. Though it seemed to contradict everything I’d been taught at church, the theory deeply appealed to my sense of logic. Furthermore, that appeal was disturbing to me—wasn’t my faith already weak enough to be wondering about such things?

“Then, on the last day of the unit he gave us time to express our opinions and discuss discrepancies between the stories of creation we had been taught and evolutionary theory. Most of us, though not all, were LDS, but most of the other kids were Christians of some variety and the conversation was lively and fascinating. Though I’m pretty sure neither our science or our religion was very factual that morning, it was wonderful to have such a discussion in an atmosphere where we didn’t feel chided for our questions about God, or unsophisticated for our belief in something beyond biological chemicals. It was because of his class I became a science teacher.

“Fast-forward to college, where I spent much of my first year spinning my wheels both spiritually and intellectually. Gone were the days of Christian science teachers helping you navigate your way through tough concepts—evolution wasn’t merely a subject you studied in biology, this theory and its huge body of supporting evidence provided the entire foundation for most of my biology classes. There was no question of it being ‘just’ a theory, this was THE theory. (If you look at the word theory from a scientific standpoint, you know that 'just' doesn’t really apply anyway.)

“. . . . I spent a lot of time questioning. I didn’t think it was at all possible for religious doctrine to reconcile with scientific teaching. Some people are given the gift of faith. My mother is one of these, and so is my sister. I am not. In fact, quite the opposite. My own gifts of intellect, practicality, logic and curiosity sometimes seem to work in direct opposition to having faith.

“Then, halfway through my freshman year until about halfway through my sophomore year, I was faced with a series of unexpected and very serious challenges. The details here would fill pages, so I will spare you, but suffice it to say, I had to really find out for myself if the Church was true, or if all this eternal-families-stuff was just a nice fairy tale to make us feel better about death and trials.

“It took some time, but I’m glad I didn’t give up. I came to know for myself that the Lord had a hand in my life, that the Atonement was real and personal . . . once I was finally at peace with my own beliefs, I was able to compartmentalize the science. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined not to let my perceived inconsistencies between faith and science either deter me from my religion or from the subject I loved.

“Time passed, and as my spiritual faith and secular knowledge both deepened, I came to realize that I no longer had to compartmentalize the two. My study of science had given me a greater appreciation for God and His magnificent creation. My study of religion had given me the influence of the Holy Ghost which helped me to separate truth from error, or to be settled with the questions that weren’t answerable. I eventually became a missionary and recognized how simple the core message of the gospel is, how simple salvation is. The more questions I asked and more curious I became, the more I also realized how few of the questions really NEED to be answered in order for you to live a good, righteous life. . . .

"Deseret Book published a collection of essays some years ago called “Reflections of a Scientist” by Henry Eyring (the current apostle’s father) that says some amazing things about faith and religion. (Excerpts here.) I will not quote it directly—I loaned the book out and it seems I didn’t get it back. But I remember him saying that true science and true religion would never be in conflict with one another. That if they seemed to contradict, it was because we didn’t have enough knowledge. As a member of the General Sunday School board, he of course asserted the truthfulness of the Church, but readily acknowledged how little had been revealed to us by God about the majestic workings of the universe, and that human curiosity should be boundless in trying to figure things out. . . .

“When my husband took his core biology classes, he was taught the evolution portion by a wonderful professor named Dr. Frank Messina. (I’d had Messina for graduate level evolution years earlier—one of the best classes I ever took . . .) In the upper level class, Messina dove right in on day one with micro-evolution content, assuming that if we had made it to that level then we were all on board. In the basic biology class (my husband’s) he spent the first several days reassuring the students that his goal was not to undermine their faith in any way. . . though not religious himself . . . he understood the culture of the area and had no wish to be seen as a destroyer. . . .

“Dr. Messina came to the conclusion . . . that both religion and science were ways of knowing. Religion uses the 'evidence of things NOT seen' (Hebrews 11:1) and science uses evidence we can observe through our five senses. Interestingly enough, at the same time I attended a Utah State Science Teachers conference and one of our break-out groups was facilitated by a BYU professor who broached the subject of teaching evolution in a conservative community. Many of his conclusions were identical to Dr. Messina—who are we to say how God created life on our planet? It is enough for salvation to know that He did. For me, my own life would be incomplete if I had not learned to use both the seen and the unseen to help guide my decisions and stimulate my mind and spirit.

“As for specifics? I’ve come to some of my own (very un-doctrinal!) conclusions there, and won’t share them. In time, if the reconciliation seems important to you, the Spirit will guide you into your own truth. Or it will help you to know that NOT knowing (at least for now) is okay too. What I will say very specifically is I . . . believe whole-heartedly that Adam was the first prophet—the first man who in body and mind was created in God’s image and with potential to become like our Father in Heaven. I believe that same potential lies in each one of us as well. I know that having faith makes life richer, fuller and better. . . ."

I told you in my last post that I was bundle of contradictions.


tamathy said...

This is great Nan.You did a wonderful job of sharing your own journey and what you've learned while still being respectful. It wasn't preachy, but full of information this student can follow up on and find her own answers with.
I hope she does. It's fantastic that she's asking.
I hope my kids ask the questions that bother them- the hard ones they can't reconcile themselves. The questions maybe I don't have answers to or maybe every adult they know and love has a different answer to. I hope they ask. And when I don't have the answers....can I send them to you?

mstanger said...

Nice answer to a question that, as you point out, is really quite simple, and one that our young people desperately need to understand. Science vs. religion is not an either/or proposition that should cause people to leave the church. The gospel is true, and science is beautiful (or, if you will, virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy). And when all is revealed, we’ll see there are no inconsistencies between the two.

I love science, and will always be indebted to the science teacher you mention in your post for what was easily one of the best classes I ever took, including those at the university and graduate school levels. He was quite intent on harmonizing faith and science, not just to protect his backside from parental complaints, but for himself. I recall apprising him of the quasi-Mormon theory that fossilized dinosaur bones were not from thunder lizards that had roamed our Earth, but were instead remnants of other extinct worlds whose matter had been recycled as part of the creation process. He’d never heard that theory before and spent the lunch hour down at the seminary trying to find out whatever he could about it and reported back the next day on his findings. He was convinced that faith and science could sing in beautiful harmony, and was determined not to hear dissonance where there was none. I’ve tried to do the same, and never found my testimony of the gospel even remotely challenged by science; rather, it has been supplemented and strengthened.

After my mission, I ended up in an honors class at the U of U taught by a devoted Darwinian forensic anthropologist, entitled Creation Science vs. Evolution. It wasn’t a very balanced course, in that there aren’t a lot of real proponents of true Creation Science in Utah. He offered us extra credit if we could find someone who would come speak to the class from a Creation Science standpoint. I tracked down a pastor from Roy who actually owned up to being a Creation Scientist, but he declined to come speak to the class. Anyway, we spent some time in the class discussing the missing link(s) in the evolutionary family tree of homo sapiens, and at the conclusion of that unit, the professor made the point of expressing what I can only describe as a testimony of his belief that those links are out there, that they will be found, that we just need to keep looking, and searching, and someday, all the pieces will fall into place. The guy had a lump in his throat, and got a bit emotional as he explained to us how he felt about this. The next week, I had been assigned to do a class presentation on the similarities and differences between the thought processes of evolutionists vs. creation scientists. The point I chose to make was that the two weren’t as different as one might think. I couldn’t help but bring out Hebrews 11:1 and point out its application to the professor, who was accepting what we do know about the fossil record as evidence of “things not seen”, namely what he expected the full picture to look like after further discoveries, the things not seen being the fossils still unearthed. He admitted to me after class that I had made a valid point, and that he had new found respect for faith and its role in science.

mstanger said...

I recently watched Inherit the Wind again, and found it to be somewhat unfortunate in its portrayal of sincerely held religious beliefs. Some of the additional characters inserted by the playwrights are unnecessary, but the movie really is a must see for those interested in the Scopes trial and the history of evolution in America. The actual trial portions were, in many cases, lifted right from the trial transcript. And the cast is phenomenal: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan as the judge, and a young Dick York as the teacher on trial. The interesting point for me, though, re: Scopes, is that the trial strategy of Clarence Darrow, instead of challenging the constitutionality of the statute Scopes was accused of breaking, focused on the idea that there is no conflict between evolution and the creation account in the Bible. This view of theistic evolution has since been accepted by many of the major Christian churches.

As for the position of our faith, in 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, addressed the matter, and concluded:

Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church. . .

This doesn’t sound a bit like the condemnatory spirit I hear re: evolution in Sunday School class on occasion. But I don’t fight back, because I am much more interested in bringing souls to Christ than I am in butting my head against a wall while trying to convince old codgers that their world view could use a bit of an adjustment. For my part, the focus here should be exactly where you put it: on helping the youth of the church who may be struggling with these issues to understand that those who present faith and science as opposing viewpoints are pushing a false dichotomy. So many to save, so little time.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

C'mon! Old codgers in need of a world-view adjustment . . . I've never met any of those!

Haven't seen the movie, but I may have to check it out. PBS did a great documentary last year called "Darwin's Darkest Hour." It starred Desmond from LOST as Darwin, and the woman who played Fanny Brice in the 2001 (?) version of Mansfield park as Darwin's wife. It was a fascinating journey of faith and religion as well as some really cool naturalist science.

Darwin held onto his theory for a long time after he had enough evidence to publish; he was worried about what his conclusions would do to his wife's standing in the community, and to her faith. She is portrayed as a true help-meet to him: she had faith in both his integrity and study as well as God. A wonderful and moving character sketch of a remarkable man and family.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Here is the link if anyone is interested:


Sherry said...

One of the most frustrating moments in all of my BYU time was when I was in a lecture hall of nearly a thousand students. The class was Biology 100, and the discussion that day was about evolution. Some student raised his hand and basically questioned the testimony of the professor. It was incredibly irritating, and I wanted so badly to stand up and call him out on his ignorance and poor manners. But I didn't.

Melanie said...

Although I haven't studied science beyond high school and a few college classes, I don't have a conflict with science and religion. In our culture we've come to equate "science" with "fact," which is false. Science is using evidence and reason to come up with our best explanation for how and why things happen and work. God, however, is the real source of truth. As our Father, He has given us - His children - reason and intelligence so that we may learn and become more like Him. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't, and sometimes we're in the middle.

Isn't wonderful though, that He allows us to try! (I'm getting really emotional as this point hits me.) He loves us so much that He has allows us to discover the wonder and beauty of truth in all of its forms.

Desmama said...

The other night I was watching a fascinating piece on 60 Minutes about a skull found in Africa that is, they estimate, about 1.9 million years old. Amazing. It was wonderful and interesting to imagine the types of things we could know from studying that skull--even the teeth were intact--such as what they ate, where they ate it (like in a tree or on the ground, etc). At any rate, I loved watching it and I told Darren that I found no disjunction between believing that humans existed that long ago and my beliefs about the creation of man. Science and religion--both are about the pursuit of truth, no? They use different methods, to be sure, but both exist, as has been mentioned, in harmony with one another. I love the Hebrews scripture about things not seen to bolster the argument that we don't know everything there is to know about the evolution of man and creation. It's interesting to ponder on, and quite frankly, exciting to contemplate the things we'll discover.

Karin said...

I don't have time to read all of the comments, so I'm just going to jump in and hope you haven't already beat this to death. :-)

Jared was also a scientist (I think he still considers himself to be one) and had no qualms about science and religion being able to co-exist without contradiction. I wasn't so sure. Then I read the Eyring book and had lots of conversations with him about the topic. I remember my dad saying when I was a teenager that science was the closest thing we had to explain how God worked in the world; basically that science was the slow man's way to explain religion. I wonder if he had also read Eyring's work. I personally use the "evolutionary" standpoint in explaining moms and babies and it has never occurred to me to stop just because someone is religious. ;-) It doesn't contradict anything I know about God. I don't know exactly how it all came to pass, but I do *know* that God was the Creator. He did it using laws of science or He would not be a God of Order and we all know that He is. It no longer contradicts anything for me. The story of the Fall and Adam and Eve loses no significance. In fact, in the last year or so, it has gained significance in my life and I am grateful for all of its knowledge and implications.

I love the intricacy and the fact that I do not have to understand all of it intimately to work out my own salvation. However, it is something I can contemplate and learn about for many years. :-)

雅琳雅琳 said...

It's great!!..........................................

mstanger said...

This: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0974014/

was reviewed in the paper this morning. I'm going to have to give it a go. As an aside, one of the cast members, Benedict Cumberbatch, may have the best actor's name ever.

Katie and Sam said...

I found your blog via seriouslysoblessed's earth day post, and your comment cracked me up. And I went from amused to excited when I read this. I studied science in college and will begin a masters program this fall. My own experience in reconciling my belief in God and my trust in science parallels yours. Thanks for sharing. There is strength knowing that other women out there have a love for science and that this doesn't have to derail their faith.