The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
Science and Mormonism: A Review Essay
Craig J. Oberg and Gene A. Sessions
[p.283]The volume of writings in Mormon literature on the subject of science and religion seems prodigious. If nothing else, it illuminates the depth and breadth of concern about the issue. While by no means exhaustive, the following review includes some of the more noticeable works that have appeared on the subject, particularly in recent times.
A vast portion of LDS literature on science has sought to debunk notions of organic evolution and the geologic timetable. Akin to the “creation science” prevalent among fundamentalist Christian groups, many Mormon writers have attempted to present their own “scientific” evidence against current biological and geological paradigms in order to reinvigorate literalist ideas about the Creation. A leader of this group is Melvin A. Cook, longtime professor of metallurgy at the University of Utah. In a series of three works (the last co-authored with M. Garfield Cook), Cook proposes a much younger earth by putting forth a number of new scientific models against standard ideas of evolution and earth age, particularly in his Prehistory and Earth Models (London, 1966). Cook’s thirty-six-page pamphlet Creation and Eternalism (Salt Lake City, 1970) argues that the Mormon books of Abraham and Moses are antagonistic to the Lyell-Darwin-Wallace-Huxley doctrine. In Science and Mormonism (Salt Lake City, 1973) the Cooks use a comprehensive literalist approach to analyze correlations, conflicts, and conciliations between science and [p.284]Mormonism, again demonstrating “proof” for a much younger earth than contemporary science suggests.
An earlier work that followed the same tack is Gilbert Green’s Science Uprooted (Salt Lake City, 1938). While not as sophisticated in its creation science, it argues that modern science is off-track and that there was no life on earth 50,000 years ago. Similar to Green’s approach is Dean R. Zimmerman, Evolution: A Golden Calf (Salt Lake City, 1976), which examines scientific arguments for evolution and dating of the earth, then uses standard anti-science rhetoric to show that the theories are false. In the guise of attempting reconciliation, R. Clayton Brough and Rodney D. Griffin, Scientific Support for Scriptural Stories (Bountiful, UT, 1992), present rather standard creation-science arguments reminiscent of similar efforts among fundamentalist Christian organizations. More overtly anti-science is Clark A. Peterson, Using the Book of Mormon to Combat Falsehoods in Organic Evolution (Salt Lake City, 1992), who classifies the theory of evolution as one of the “works of darkness” against which the Book of Mormon warns.
More typical of anti-science works among Mormon authors are those based on the incompatibility argument, such as Reid E. Bankhead, The Fall of Adam, the Atonement of Christ, and Organic Evolution (Levan, UT, 1978), in which the basic doctrine of the Fall and the Atonement comes forth to deny the possibility of the evolution of humankind. Similarly crafted, Ernst Eberhard Jr.’s The Origin: A Mormon’s View on Evolution (Salt Lake City, 1981) compares divine creation and organic evolution and concludes that the latter is a doctrine of the devil that denies the fatherhood of God and the need for a savior. Hyrum L. Andrus, BYU religion professor, follows much the same tack in a chapter on the Creation in God, Man, and Universe (Salt Lake City, 1968).
Most examples of recent LDS literature that might be classed as antagonistic to science take their lead from Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man: His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City, 1954) which affirms the most literal interpretation of the scriptures relative to creation and states unequivocably that evolution is a trick of the devil. Smith’s son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie reinforced this view in Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City, 1975) and “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” BYU Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT, 1980), which assert that any attempt to reconcile organic evolution with gospel truth is heretical and [p.285]impossible. Using basically the same frame of reference, Boyd K. Packer’s October 1984 conference address, “A Pattern of Our Parentage,” and his address at BYU in October 1988 detailed his own notions of a special creation for humankind while allowing science to propose tentative answers for the rest of nature.
Other church authorities have cast doubts on contemporary science without the direct anti-science tilt. For example, Alvin R. Dyer’s The Meaning of Truth (Salt Lake City, 1973) includes a chapter entitled “Scientific Concepts: A Part of the Gospel in All Ages,” suggesting that evolution is not adequate to explain the origins of humankind. For another, David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals (Salt Lake City, 1953), 49-52, outlines the limitations of science and challenges Darwin’s concept of humans as mortal animals. Ezra Taft Benson’s April 1958 conference address similarly calls into doubt science’s answers to questions best posed to God and the scriptures.
Not all recent mainstream church leaders have been so anxious to debunk science. Spencer W. Kimball, Modern Scientific Findings Harmonize with Revelation through the Ages (Salt Lake City, 1962), recalls an earlier epoch when church doctrine was shown to coincide with scientific discovery, although Kimball’s focus is away from biology and geology and toward astronomy, electronics, and the like. The unpublished work of B. H. Roberts on the immutability of scientific discovery is chronicled in Richard Sherlock, “‘We Can See No Advantage in a Continuation of the Discussion:’ The Roberts-Smith-Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Fall 1980): 63-78, and Jeffrey E. Keller, “Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts-Smith-Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Spring 1982): 79-98. Earlier, Roberts had tackled the seeming inconsistencies between scripture and science in The Gospel and Man’s Relationship to Deity (Liverpool, 1888) by constructing a pro-science yet anti-evolutionary set of ideas surrounding the Creation. Roberts suggests that the earth was made from fragments of an earlier world. Later editions include a series of articles Roberts wrote for The Contributor on “Man’s Relationship to Deity” that further extrapolate his theories for an alternative scientific explanation of the Creation.
Anxious to defend both faith and science was a trio of twentieth-century apostles who were also professional scientists. [p.286]Joseph F. Merrill, The Truth-Seeker and Mormonism (Salt Lake City, 1945), consists of a series of radio addresses which dealt with science and religion. Perhaps the most prolific was John A. Widtsoe. Volume 1 of his Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day (3 vols., Salt Lake City, 1943-51) contains a chapter devoted to science, including a charitable view of the church’s attitude toward science, discussions of the age of the earth, of the origin of life, and of evolution, which reveals Widtsoe to be an evolutionary creationist. His In Search of Truth (Salt Lake City, 1963) gives insight into his views on science and his faith in its methods while stressing how hypotheses change over time. In a Sunlit Land: The Autobiography of John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City, 1953) illuminates clearly his feelings about the importance of science, as does his Joseph Smith as Scientist (Salt Lake City, 1909) and “Science and Religion” in Man and the Dragon, and Other Essays (Salt Lake City, 1945). While not as publicly outspoken on the subject, James E. Talmage expressed similar devotion to science, as revealed in John R. Talmage, The Talmage Story: Life of James E. Talmage, Educator, Scientist, Apostle (Salt Lake City, 1972), and Dennis Rowley, “Inner Dialogue: James Talmage’s Choice of Science as a Career,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Summer 1984): 112-30.
A collection of writings and talks of prominent Mormon scientists who defend their adherence to both faith and reason is Paul R. Green, Science and Your Faith in God (Salt Lake City, 1958). Among such scholarly-inclined Latter-day Saints are several who published their own reconciliations, including Eldon J. Gardner, Organic Evolution and the Bible (Logan, UT, 1960); William E. Harris, From Man to God: An LDS Scientist Views Creation, Progression, and Exaltation (Bountiful, UT, 1989); Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist (Salt Lake City, 1983), and The Faith of a Scientist (Salt Lake City, 1967); Nels Nelson, Scientific Aspects of Mormonism (New York, 1904), and What Truth Is (Salt Lake City, 1947); Frederick J. Pack, Science and Belief in God (Salt Lake City, 1924); Frank B. Salisbury, The Creation (Salt Lake City, 1976); Richard P. Smith, “Science: A Part of or Apart from Mormonism?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 106-22. All of these scientists affirm the compatibility of scientific and religious knowledge and typically come down on the side of “evolutionary creationism.”
[p.287]Writings about specific Mormon intellectuals and their reconciliations include Ralph V. Chamberlin, The Life and Philosophy of W. H. Chamberlin (Salt Lake City, 1925); Steven H. Heath, “The Reconciliation of Faith and Science: Henry Eyring’s Achievement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Autumn 1982): 87-99; Edward L. Kimball, “Harvey Fletcher and Henry Eyring: Men of Faith and Science,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Autumn 1982): 74-86, and “A Dialogue with Henry Eyring,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (Autumn/Winter 1973): 99-108; Erich Robert Paul, “Early Mormon Intellectuals: Parley P. and Orson Pratt, a Response,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Autumn 1982): 42-48; Clyde Parker and Brent Miller, “Dialogues on Science and Religion,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (Autumn/Winter 1973): 109-33.
Hugh Nibley occupies a unique position along the spectrum with his many works on the subject, including “Before Adam,” Old Testament and Related Studies (Salt Lake City, 1986), and “Treasures in Heaven: Some Early Christian Insights into the Organizing of Worlds,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (Autumn/Winter 1973): 76-98.
A later generation has written in defense of the scientific method in the face of growing antagonism. Perhaps most prolific among these has been William Lee Stokes, a University of Utah geology professor, whose works include The Creation Scriptures: A Witness for God in the Scientific Age (Salt Lake City, 1979); “An Official Position,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Winter 1979): 90-92; The Genesis Answer: A Scientist’s Testament for Divine Creation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1981); Evolution? The Scriptures Say Yes! (New York, 1988); So God Created Man: Latter-day Alternatives (Salt Lake City, 1988); Joseph Smith and the Creation (Salt Lake City, 1991). In league with Stokes’s ardent defense of science and its harmony with true religion are J. L. Farmer, W. S. Bradshaw, and F. B. Johnson, “The New Biology and Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Winter 1979): 71-75. Keith E. Norman, “Adam’s Navel,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Summer 1988): 81-97, suggests that a simple understanding of myth unlocks the mystery. More tentative in their defense of science but just as anxious for harmony are Rodney Turner, The Footstool of God (Orem, UT, 1983); [p.288]and R. Kenneth Walter, Science, Saints, and Sense (Salt Lake City, 1973).
In addition to several articles mentioned elsewhere in this essay, a special issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Autumn/Winter 1973) contained introductory essays by Robert Rees, “Science, Religion, and Man,” James L. Farmer, “Science and Religion: Introduction,” and Richard F. Haglund, Jr., “Religion and Science: A Symbiosis.” It also included three brief notes on science/religion subjects by William E. Dibble, “The Book of Abraham and Pythagorean Astronomy,” William Lee Stokes, “Geological Specimen Rejuvenates an Old Controversy,” and Benjamin Urrutia, “The Structure of Genesis, Chapter 1.”
In 1979 a two-volume collection of pro-science essays came forth entitled Science and Religion: Toward a More Useful Dialogue (Geneva, IL). The first volume, edited by Wilford M. Hess and Raymond T. Matheny, Background for Man: Preparation of the Earth, contains a series of articles written primarily by BYU professors hoping to show how science and religion interface, earth chronology (methods of geological and fossil dating), evidences for evolution throughout the earth record, and astronomy. Volume 2, edited by Hess, Matheny, and Donlu D. Thayer, The Appearance of Man: Replenishment of the Earth, is a continuation of the first volume in three parts. Part 1 contains five essays searching for reconciliations between science and evolutionary findings, while Part 2 involves a closer examination of the evolution of life on earth. The last portion consists of four essays about human evolution. Similarly valuable to students hoping to find a path to harmony are Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana, IL, 1992), a comprehensive analysis of the “intimate connections between the development of modern science and the shaping of Mormon theology”; and David H. Bailey, “Scientific Foundations of Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Summer 1988): 61-80.
While the writers in the Hess-Matheny collection seem to find no difficulty harmonizing Mormonism and science, other authors chronicle the challenges. The teaching of evolution at BYU, for example, created an early nineteenth-century crisis, discussed in Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985). In connection with that episode, see [p.289]also R. V. Chamberlin, The Meaning of Organic Evolution (Provo, UT, 1911), and “The Present Attack on the Doctrine of Evolution,” Bulletin of the W. H. Chamberlin Philosophical Association 1 (1922): 1-46.
Although Ann Weaver Hart, “Religion and Education: The Scopes Controversy in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 51 (Spring 1983): 183-98, demonstrates that a strong fundamentalist reaction to evolution did not occur in Utah, others have chronicled the considerable angst generated among Mormons. Among these are Cedric I. Davern, “Evolution and Creation: Two World Views,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Spring 1984): 44-50; Duane E. Jeffery, “Seers, Savants, and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (Autumn/Winter 1973): 41-75; Keith E. Norman, “Mormon Cosmology: Can It Survive the Big Bang?” Sunstone 10 (Oct. 1985): 18-23; Richard Sherlock, “A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Reactions to the Darwinist Legacy,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 33-59; Erich Robert Paul, “Science: Forever Tentative?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24 (Summer 1991): 119-23. A good example of contemporary concern over the challenge evolution presented to late nineteenth-century Mormonism is Joseph Stanford, “Evolution and Creation,” The Contributor 12 (Sept., Oct. 1891): 409-15, 451-56.
Interestingly enough, official church magazines have occasionally joined in the search for harmony between science and Mormonism. See, for example, Jay M. Todd, ed., “In the Beginning,” The Improvement Era 73 (Jan. 1970): 33-48; George R. Hill III, “Solutions from the Scriptures,” Ensign 18 (May 1988): 72-73; Morris S. Petersen, “I Have a Question,” Ensign 17 (Sept. 1987): 28-29. According to Petersen, conflict between Mormonism and science “arises only when we assume that God has revealed all he is going to reveal on the subject or forget that scientific theories change as new discoveries are made.”