The Mutual Exclusion of God and Science

I wrote most of this a while ago, I decided to post it after the following words were recently used in reference to me and my religion: pedantic, airhead, dumb, sh*t, and idiocy. Oh, I was also told to “piss off” and inaccurate internet memes were used to belittle me and my religion. Sad thing was, I wasn’t surprised.

I am constantly amazed by the amount of effort and energy spent on atheist forums attacking, disparaging, ridiculing, and trying to disprove religion. Instead of talking about what they believe and uplifting each other, they focus on their disdain for religion. The continuation of this trend and it’s seemingly increasing intensity, and even hatred, is what encourages me to write this post.

But let us be clear on a few things first:

  1. Several of the best, most important people, in my life are atheists. They continue to have lasting positive effects on my life. I am not painting all with the same brush, but I am sure most everyone is familiar with the large and vocal group that I reference above.
  2. I will not be “proving” anything here, if you are looking for that you might as well move along.
  3. Christians, and other religious folks, you aren’t getting off the hook in this post either.

During the 500 years that the bible has been publicly available there have been a lot of scientific advances, such as: the invention of the microscope, the first real understanding of the existence of dinosaurs, mapping of the flow of blood, the control and use of electricity, and Newton’s laws of motion, and so on.

Christianity has also progressed during this time. Moving from essentially a single denomination, often officially associated with a state, to many denominations of varying beliefs but with the same basic principles.

As science and religion have progressed we have gained greater understanding of the world, and universe, around us. But we have also arrived at a point of contention between science and Christianity – a situation that I think is just plain silly, and that says more about us as people than about science or religion.

The Big Bang Theory, or at least the basis for it, was first presented in 1927- less than 100 years ago. The theory is really pretty amazing and has some very strong supporting evidence. It is, however, a theory that can not be proven or recreated (which is really too bad because I love a good explosion). As we continue to make new discoveries we continue to hone our understanding of the Big Bang and other scientific theories. Sometimes these advances support our current understanding, sometimes they change our understanding. This is true for all of science.

Before the big bang theory, there was no strong scientific, widely known, theory for how the universe was created. The only explanations came from religion.

For about 1,500 years (exact time is debateable) the Catholic church was the primary Christian church and the majority of the Western World’s understanding of the creation came from the church. For the last 500 years, our understanding has changed because of the public availability of the bible and the emergence of other churches.

As science has progressed, reasons to question the details of the bible’s account of the creation have arisen. But really only for about the last 150 years. This is where things get silly.

As I visit the forums of the internet, and talk to people, the debate between religion and science about the creation has become more and more absurd to me. Many times this debate is based on one simple thing: “God created the earth in 6 days, and on the 7th he rested”.

A literal interpretation of the the bible’s account of the creation would lead one to the conclusion that the world was created only several thousand years ago, and was done so in six-24 hour periods. From a scientific point of view this just simply isn’t possible and is in fact directly opposed to the evidence. This is where the contention starts.

Lately I have seen a lot of comments like “…as stupid as modern day Christians…” or “…you mean that book written by a hallucinating drunk in the near east…”. These comments almost always lump Christians into one big stereotype and then are usually followed up by some berating that tries to establish the beliefs of all religions as “mythical” and “based on fables”. And it is always done by someone who claims to be more intelligent, more educated, more “enlightened”.

No one questions when scientist advance their theories. No one baucks when science finds it’s previous theories were wrong in light of new evidence. No one throws out the entire science book when a single part of it turns out to be less than perfectly accurate. No, we call that “progress”. But a different standard is held for religion. Religious views aren’t allowed to advance, there is huge controversy if a religion decides that a previous theory needs adjusting, and it has been suggested many times that the entire bible be thrown out simply because of the translation and interpretation of the word “day”.

But really the simple fact is this: Neither religion, nor science, have a complete knowledge of all things.

Any legitimate scientist knows full well that we are entirely in the dark concerning some things. Other things we understand to a degree, but not fully. Still other things we have nailed down. For many Christians – I’d contend the majority of them – religion is the same way. Some things haven’t been revealed at all, some things we understand to a degree but not fully, and some things we have nailed down. This is certainly true of the LDS religion that expresses the doctrine of continuing revelation and unrevealed truths.

Science is accepted as an ever advancing quest to understand the world around us, but religion is suppose to already know everything – otherwise it can’t be true. Science is allowed to be fluid, but religion is supposed to be already carved to perfection. And this diametric standard sometimes holds true for both non-religious and religious people – just from opposite viewpoints.

Many Christians seem to be slow to trust science, to allow it to be incorporated into their beliefs – expecting that anything that doesn’t “jive” is just a wrong theory and will some day change.

Many atheists seem to think that science some how discounts, and proves wrong, all of Christianity’s beliefs.

These types of extreme views only prove to slow our actual understanding of our own existence and create debates that can essentially be summed up with: “I’m not wrong, you are wrong.”

What if I told you that God and science are not mutually exclusive?

Could it be completely possible that God used the properties of nature in his creation of the world? Could it be that God used physics, and a big bang, and extended periods of time, and even at least some amount of adaptation or evolution in his creative process? I believe so. What exactly he used, I don’t know for sure, but it would seem illogical for the God of nature to not use nature.

Maybe, just maybe, God is more of a scientist than a magician.

If you want to believe in a strict literal interpretation of the bible, I am ok with that. If you want to believe only what has been, or will be taught by science I am ok with that too.

However, no matter what you want to believe we should all, from either side of the debate, finally admit: We don’t know it all.

We like to act like we know everything, saying things such as: “Science has proven…” and “The bible says…” but if we are actually being honest – we’ll look around and humbly admit that there are a lot of things out there that we don’t understand.

And let’s stop throwing around disparaging comments about “stupid Christians and their fables” or “heathen atheists and their damned souls”. These types of comments, this type of “debate”, really shows just how undeveloped we are – spiritually, evolutionary, whichever you prefer.

Instead let’s all work together to better understand our existence. We won’t always agree on everything, but that is ok because if we always agreed we’d never progress. But there is a difference between disagreeing and schoolyard name calling. There is middle ground between having diversity in our understanding and tearing at one another because of our differences. We can be honestly educated about things and not have to agree with them or believe in them – but we also don’t have to attack them.

On the Topic of Faith:

I have seen several posts about “faith” not being a reason to believe in something. Comments such as  “…does religion have no other claim than faith?” are often found in atheist forums. It seems that many people do not realize how much faith they actually have in science. Some person, in some country, whose name we don’t know, whose credentials we’ve never checked, can perform an experiment we don’t understand, and write a paper that we will never read, and then when we skim over the blog post summarizing it with a cool picture and 3 paragraphs we are suddenly ready to accept it as truth without any verification – simply because the person is a “scientist”. That is some serious faith! I do it too, we all do. Lay followers of science exercise a lot of faith regularly. How many times have you heard the words: “Well you know THEY say…” when the person has no idea who “they” are? Two of the biggest theories in science (the creation of the universe though an explosion, and the divergence of a myriad of species from a single common ancestor) can’t actually be proven. They have strong supporting evidence, we can observe parts of the entire theories, but they can’t not be recreated or observed entirely – therefore, to a certain extent, accepting these theories requires some level of faith. There is nothing wrong with this.

On the other hand, for some people it is very hard to even consider that something might be true if it in anyway challenges what they were taught in Sunday school. Instead of allowing our understanding to grow, and our faith to stretch, we shut out new ideas. We ignore them, or dismiss them with a casual gesture. We can’t allow our faith to be challenged, or for it to wrap around and embrace a better understanding of life. Faith is meant to grow. Sometimes that means it gets stronger, sometimes that means it expands.

I would challenge anyone who believes science automatically discounts all of religion to really look a the situation and consider what you are saying. What you are saying is that the entirety of religion should be thrown out because some small part of it doesn’t match up perfectly with your understanding of the current claims of science. You are saying that none of it can be true because science hasn’t proven it, when the whole basis of science is the quest for better understanding. What you are saying is that you “know it all”.

I would challenge anyone who is afraid that their religious beliefs can’t abide science, to allow their beliefs to grow and strengthen and to embrace a more full understanding. Your faith doesn’t have to be threatened by science. Can you believe that God created the world and still accept the canon of science in general? Absolutely. If you try to say that science is all a bunch of theories of man that are probably wrong, simply because science doesn’t match up perfectly with your religion then what you are really saying is that you “know it all”.

Humankind is a complicated species, our history is complicated, our present is complicated, our future will be complicated and the universe that we live in is even more complicated. It is doubtful we will ever understand everything through religion or science.

Whatever your position on science and religion, whatever you believe, I’m OK with it, just remember – you don’t actually know it all.

Post Script:

Below is the comment area, if you are the type of person who feels the need to disparage, attack, belittle, or mock regarding ones belief in science and/or God – please move along without commenting. Regardless of your position I will freely trash any comment I deem as trash. If you like to discuss, ask sincere questions, or enjoy an honest discussion please continue.

In regards to the LDS faith, of which I belong:

  • Official doctrine on the length of time taken to create the earth: none
  • Official doctrine on the big bang or evolution: none
  • Doctrinal understanding of the actual process of creation for man or earth: very little, other than God was the creator.

 

Sometimes “Doctrinal Problems” Are Actually Our Own Problems

Recently I have been digging deeper into some of the more debated doctrines of the LDS church. I have been using various sources for my research including LDS doctrine, scripture, historical events, science, scholarly research, and even the beliefs of other religions. This isn’t the first time I have done this, but each time I have, I have arrived at the same conclusion: sometimes doctrinal problems, are actually our own problems.

Sometimes we have an issue with a gospel doctrine, church policy, religious practice, or scriptural interpretation. The issue can vary from simple wondering, to confusion, to outright offense. We tend to place these problems at the church’s feet, or the feet of its leaders. As I have read articles, listened to podcasts, and had lengthy conversations with others, I have come to realize that sometimes we see a problem when none actually exists. Instead what is wrong is our own lack of study and understanding, compounded by assumptions.

A Story to Illustrate

Brother Teller was a faithful member of the church. He had grown up in the church, he had gone to primary and sunday school and seminary. He served a mission and taught the truth to many people in a foreign country. He returned and began attending college and serving in his student ward. Everything was fine, he was happy and content, and enjoyed his life.

But then something happened. He learned that in general scientists theorize that horses were brought to the America’s by the Spanish. For Brother Teller this was a moment in time that many others have experienced, a moment when a sudden doubt has no immediate answer. He knew that the Book of Mormon references “horses” existing in the America’s long before the Spanish every arrived.

Uncomfortable showing doubt to his LDS friends, Brother Teller Turned to online forums and critical websites. The voices there were loud and extremely varied. It was difficult to sort through all of the “facts” and opinions. Some of these voices brought up more concerns which compounded his doubts. He continued to try and work out these concerns and doubts, but Sunday school didn’t really deal with his questions and he just didn’t have a lot of other places to turn. Eventually, Brother Teller stopped studying, stopped going to the temple, and stopped going to church as often. Suddenly one day he realized that his faith was shattered, and trying to piece it back together seemed like an overwhelming task. He eventually left the church.

This story, or some variation like it, plays out regularly in the lives of individual members of the church. Unfortunately, I believe, it often plays out not because of a problem with the doctrine, but because of a problem with our personal study and the way we react in the face of doctrinal opposition and doubt.

In Brother Teller’s case he suddenly found an apparent conflict between doctrine and science. He also found little help in the resources he relied on. Eventually leading to more issues with doctrine.

But the problem really began with Brother Teller’s understanding and assumptions. See, in Sunday school and seminary, we often deal with the basics. We deal with messages of hope and faith and the understanding of the commandments and the most central doctrines of the gospel. The same is true of General Conference and church publications. We deal very little with things like horses in the Book of Mormon and similar subjects. Thus, when some unexpected information comes to our attention we can suddenly feel conflict or doubt. But there are several really good reasons that the church deals with basics – and part of those reasons is because we as a people don’t put in effort.

Our effort

Lets be honest, how often to we put in an hour worth of study to be ready for this week’s sunday school lesson? How often do we really study the church publications and manuals? How often do we do more than read our scriptures daily? How often do we even read our scriptures?

The church is a vehicle to dispense the gospel and to teach what is necessary for salvation. Thus the doctrines that are most important for salvation are given the priority in church teachings. True gospel scholarship is our own responsibility. And problems can arise when lack of scholarship allows for doubts. The doubts are usually exasperated by our natural emotional reactions to the doubt.

Often I have witnessed doubts arising because a particular scripture teaching appears week in the presence of a scientific theory, a historical account, or some other contradiction. And in these instances I have found that often times the person’s doubt really begins with the fact that their scholarship of the subject is limited to what they were taught in a primary or early sunday school class. And that no additional study, or meditation, or understanding has ever occurred since that first basic rendering of the subject.

Our Problem

“Doctrinal problems” are really our own problems when we learn just enough to have doubt, but not enough to actually fully understand the subject causing doubt.

They are our problems when we allow our emotional reactions to overcome our faith.

They are our problems when we give a source or critic more credit than is due, simply because they present themselves as more “objective” or having gained “greater understanding”.

They are our problem when we chase controversy instead of seeking faith.

They are our problems when we rely on what we know from Sunday school alone, and don’t admit that our gospel scholarship is weaker than it could, and probably should be.

If our “scholarship” consists of the stories we learned in primary, a few daily verses, and the occasional reading about a particular subject then our ability to deal with conflicting information, previously unknown details, or our own internal conflicts will be diminished. However, our “right” to really have any doubt is also diminished. If we are willing to be casual in our understanding of the gospel, then we must also be willing to be casual about our doubts. This is, however, rarely how we respond to doubt – and not a great way to live the gospel.

Dealing with Doubt

All too often, a person with 100 reasons to believe can have their faith jeopardized by one reason to doubt.

Our reactions to a doubt are often magnified with intensity, while our reactions to inspiration are often subdued and undernourished. We are slow to believe, but quick to doubt. It would appear that in this battle we see doubts as the David, and our belief as the Goliath. When actually, if our faith was a David it would be able to withstand any Goliath of doubt.

Faith like a David

President Uchtdorf discussed this very phenomenon in the October 2013 General Conference address “Come, Join with Us”.

Two sentences in this adress really stood out to me, they were:

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith”

and:

“A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others”

Some have taken issue with this first quote, which is not completely unique to President Uchtdorf, but I would say they are falling for the very trap he is warning against. They doubt his words about doubt, before looking at it from a faithful viewpoint.

The second quote sums up almost every experience I have personally had with doubt. I see some eventually thrive in testimony and faith after experiencing a doubt, and others fall and crumble at the mere suggestion of the same doubt.

If we are going to look beyond basic doctrine, if we are going to dig deeper, if we are going to give ear to critics, then we must also be willing to look beyond doubts, dig deeper than the controversy, and give ear to faithful discussion.

Often, people stop when doubt arises and fail to take a deeper, faithful look. When really we should be willing to “first doubt your doubt”, and continue in faithful study to acquire more light and knowledge (D&C 50:24; Moroni 10:5). It is likely that what was once a doubt will later “build faith”.

My dear fellow saints, please don’t fall for this trap. Hang on to your belief with a firm grip while you work to figure out your doubts. Your final position on the subject will still be yours to make, but in the mean time give faith the benefit – and doubt the suspicion.

Faithful Study

As I said before, almost any “doctrinal problem” we might run into has probably already been explored, investigated, debated, and had had various opinions offered. If we have doubts, we must patiently search out faithful discussions. In Brother Teller’s case, a little additional study and faithful analysis would have certainly given him the opportunity to increase his faith, instead of lose it.

It is imperative that, before venturing into deeper water, we learn to sail. A strong testimony in, and solid understanding of basic doctrines provide us the ability to navigate against unexpected currents, and can be essential to a successful voyage. But above all, we need to resist the urge to abandon ship, just because we see a little water on the deck.

I encourage the study of history and science and doctrine. I encourage an honest inquiry. But I encourage it with a focus on faith not doubt, with a good measure of patience, with careful thought, and with a consistent diet of prayer and personal inspiration.

P.S. Here are a few places to find faithful discussion: