by John P. Pratt
Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (11 Dec 2002)
©2002 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.
|1. Traditional Turf|
|1.1 Loss for Science|
|1.2 Loss for Religion|
|2. Science and Religion Overlap|
|2.1 Physical Evidence of God|
|2.2 The Resurrection|
|3. Theories & Truth|
|3.1 Science: The Scientific Method|
|3.2 Religion deals with Truth|
|4. Science and Religion Test|
|4.1 Confidence Levels|
Ever since the introduction of atheism into science a few centuries ago, the fields of science and religion are often perceived to be enemies, in battle to win the allegiance of followers. In the past decade, however, there has been a trend attempting to synthesize science and religion. One article in Scientific American summarized it as follows:
Now, at the turn of the millennium, comes a movement bent on reconciling science and religion. New books hail the divine in physics, biology, even computer information theory. Last year 'SCIENCE FINDS GOD' emblazoned the cover of Newsweek, and other leading news magazines picked up on the theme. More conferences than ever feature dialogues between 'the two ways of knowing.' By one report, U.S. higher education now boasts 1,000 courses for credit on science and faith, whereas a student in the sixties would have long dug in hardscrabble to find even one. Scientists who are older and tenured, it is said, feel it is time to give witness to their once closeted or newly found faith.
That article went on to say that today there are still 40% of scientists who believe in a Creator, even as there were nearly a century ago, as noted in an earlier article in this column. But some scientists, less than enthusiastic about this new marriage, are eager to remind everyone about certain traditional ground rules that separate the two disciplines into distinct camps.
Science and religion only get into conflicts when they differ in opinions in the same field of study. Let us then call a truce, realizing that each only gets into difficulty when it invades the territory of the other. The field of science should clearly be restricted to investigations into the laws governing the physical world, whereas religion deals with moral and spiritual matters. As long as each discipline sticks to its own turf, they should be able to coexist in peace. Therefore, let it be resolved that each restrict its research, discoveries, beliefs and declarations to those respective fields and peace will surely prevail.
Doesn't that sound wonderful? Science sticks to science and religion sticks to religion and everyone is happy. Clearly two disciplines, two separate areas of dominion, without overlap should be able to get along without quarreling. How does that sound to you? What is the cost of this peace treaty? (Please pause here and ask yourself if there are any problems? Would you sign off on it?)
Let's think about the ramifications of this treaty. Suppose we believers sign this truce, that is, suppose that we actually accept and believe that the boundary line between science and religion is between the physical and spiritual. And for those of us who are scientists, suppose we sign it also, where does that leave us? Just what must each side give up in order to keep peace?
As another example of limiting science, consider the scientific theory of creation. If science is not allowed to consider the spiritual in its theories, then it could be at a huge disadvantage in explaining the origin of life. What if all things were created spiritually before they were created physically, as the Lord told Moses (Moses 3:5)? What if the time it took for the physical creation of the first man from the particles of the earth to develop from a single cell into a living, breathing human was only nine months, just like it was for all of the rest of us? If science is not allowed, for fear of violating the truce, to consider the possibility that all the hard part of the creation was done in the spirit world, then it might be forced to come up with some really implausible explanation for how things happened.
To consider concrete examples, it is as if the treaty is demanding the following:
It is okay to believe in a Creator, but don't let that story about the Garden of Eden make you think there may have been a real garden located somewhere on this real earth where lived two real people named Adam and Eve from whom we all really descended genetically.
It is okay to believe in the Book of Genesis, but all that part about the antediluvian patriarchs living hundreds of years should not be taken seriously, nor that story of a Great Flood which covered mountain tops. All evidences for real floods and real lifespans lay strictly in the domain of science, well outside the realm of religion.
It is okay to believe that Moses wrote a wonderful moral law, but don't take all those plagues seriously. Even if descriptions of those phenomena are found in Egyptian papyri, assume they are fabrications about impossible occurrences. And, of course, the parting of the Red Sea, and that statistically improbable story of edible manna falling every day for forty years, but never on the Sabbath day, are both accounts which are out of the question in the real scientific world.
It is okay to believe in Jesus, as long as you don't think that he was actually a real person who physically lived on earth, and who might actually leave traces which could be verified scientifically or historically. And of course, all physical miracles must be either explainable by natural causes or disallowed. The only miracles which believers are allowed to discuss are the spiritual ones, such as conversion. And even some spiritual miracles, such as casting out evil spirits, which result in any change in the physical behavior of the one healed, must be explained by psychiatrists. After all, the idea of evil spirits is, by definition, not scientific according to the truce.
It is okay to believe that people resurrect if that helps a believer to have hope, but don't expect to find empty tombs which real physical bodies have vacated. Empty tombs imply grave robbers.
It is okay to believe that Joseph Smith had a vision which gave him insights to write a book of spiritual commandments, but don't take that part seriously about golden plates which could be seen and hefted by others, with characters which could be transcribed and verified.
It is okay to believe in the Book of Mormon as long as you don't think any archaeological evidences could be left, that any real geographical places could be identified, or that correlations with real historical dates could be made.
And I can't resist throwing in one from my own field of research,
It is okay for several LDS prophets to declare that April 6 is the anniversary of the Savior's birth, but their testimony is of no value in case any real secular historical records disagree.
What all this sounds like to me is that the proposed treaty from the scientists is, "Go ahead and believe in your fairy tales, restricted to a realm which cannot be verified in any physical manner, that is, of spiritual and moral areas which we don't even believe exist, and we will leave you alone. We will take the 'real' world, which we equate to the physical world, and you take your imaginary world of religion, and we shall be content."
If that summarizes the proposition, then I for one don't buy it because it is a lose-lose proposition. Moreover, it has been my experience that there is another implied clause in this treaty as understood by a small group of militantly atheistic science advocates that goes something like this:
The moment you believers step over the line into our turf of the physical world, you will have a full-scale war on your hands, for we will sound so learned, intelligent, and logical that no one will dare to question our authority. We don't even need experiments, which are the heart of true science, for we shall make even unfounded speculations sound so convincing that everyone, including the very elect, shall accept them as proven, even though God himself has revealed otherwise.
Without getting into this militant aspect, let us just consider the basic truce, which is problematic enough. These examples point out that something is apparently unacceptable with the truce, because the religious turf is trimmed down so much as to be practically non-existent in the "real" world. Before discussing what a better division between the obviously different disciplines of religion and science might be, let us see whether the scriptures support this truce.
Of course we should live by faith, and we should not reject the word of God just because it conflicts with scientific theories. But if we find that science does not conflict, but is a second witness to his word, let us not disallow the witness of science only because the results did not come by revelation. As a scientist, some of my best friends are atheists and I love them and want to provide any means I can to help them see that God really means what he says (and that he exists, for that matter). Moreover, I'm a curious fellow, and I'd like to learn to tell time using the Lord's clock. Who knows, we might actually learn something that the Lord expected us figure out. After all, he went to the trouble to tell us that the heavens didn't just happen by chance, but they were created with the purpose of being used for "signs and for seasons, and for days and years" (Gen. 1:14). I would feel ungrateful if I didn't try to figure out just how his great clock works.
Consider two concrete examples in the scriptures where we are told not only that we may include the physical world in our evidence in support of religion, one prophet was actually chastised for not including a physical proof.
" . . . all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator." (Alma 30:44)
This witness was considered so legitimate that when Korihor denied it, he was struck dumb (Alma 30:50). What if all modern atheists were struck dumb who refused to acknowledge that the perceived order in the universe should be sufficient proof of God's existence? Korihor was gathering quite a following, and had he not been silenced, the believers in Alma's time would probably have become as misled as many are today, being deceived by Korihor's same arguments.
And many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many. (Helaman 14:25)
When Jesus appeared in person to the Nephites, he reprimanded them firmly for not having
recorded the fulfillment of that prophecy:
And it came to pass that he said unto Nephi: Bring forth the record which ye have
And when Nephi had brought forth the records, and laid them before him, he cast
his eyes upon them and said:
Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he
should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his
name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should
appear unto many, and should minister unto them. And he said unto them: Was it
And his disciples answered him and said: Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy
according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled.
And Jesus said unto them: How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many
saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?
And it came to pass that Nephi remembered that this thing had not been written.
And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should be written; therefore it was written according as he commanded. (3 Nephi 23:7-13)
Why did the Lord feel that the fact was so important that he actually commanded them to include it? It must not have just been a nice detail to include to round out the story. It apparently was such an important observation that the Savior felt it had to be included. Why? What was so important about it?
To me the answer is that real physical proofs of the fulfillment of prophecies are important to stand as witnesses that he can indeed correctly prophesy the future and that his words are true. One of the most important accomplishments of the Savior was the Resurrection, the overcoming of physical death. Knowing that death has no sting can give real comfort to everyone. The Book of Mormon was designed to be another witness of Jesus Christ. It was apparently important to the Savior to provide us with yet another witness of the reality not only of his Resurrection, but of the resurrection of others. It was witnessed that graves were literally opened and many of the righteous came forth as resurrected beings. The Lord wants us to know that his teachings are real, not just some unfounded fairy tale hope which does not exist in the real world. Some have suggested that the greatest newspaper story might report that a resurrected being came back from the dead. Well, that happened to the Nephites and they forgot to include it. Thus, it is not only okay to look for physical proofs of religious prophecies, the Lord apparently expects us to publish them when found.
These examples suggest that the synthesis of science and religion is indeed a true principle, and that they can be "two ways of knowing" just at the above quote from Scientific American said. The coming science may again be much more like that of Louis Agassiz, perhaps the greatest naturalist of the nineteenth century, who said,
"It is the job of prophets and scientists alike to proclaim the glories of God . . ."Okay, given that the Lord feels it is not only permissible for religion to use examples from the physical world, but that he commands it to be done, let us reconsider the truce. Clearly there is some sort of very fundamental difference between science and religion. What is it? What are the legitimate realms of science and of religion? Once we clearly understand where the turf of each is, and any areas of overlap, then we shall be better prepared to see where each discipline could potentially aid the other, rather than hinder each other.
The scientist is not concerned that his theories may not be absolutely true. Whether or not electricity flowing through a wire is really carried by negatively charged electrons is not as important as the observed fact that the phenomenon of electricity powers so many wonderful devices. Scientists can accurately predict results using models, and it usually doesn't even matter to them if their models are "correct." Thus, the entire field of "truth" is outside the realm of science. Here I am using the word "truth" to mean how things "really" are, as well has how they have been and how they are to come (D&C 93:24). Truth is what really is going on, and the scientist has no way of knowing ultimate causes.
Although we often don't think of it this way, true science is all about predicting the future. The engineer uses scientific theories to predict that his bridge won't collapse in the wind, that the TV will be able to pick up the satellite signals, or that the rocket can land on the moon. Much of science results in useful inventions.
Consider another example which occurred this month. The total solar eclipse of 4 Dec 2002 in Australia was predicted over a century ago. It made our evening news as it was, but if it had not occurred precisely as predicted by the theories of physics, then it would have made the front page. Other areas of science don't have the 100% record that eclipse predictions have enjoyed. For example, astronomers have much less confidence in their ability to predict the size and positions of new planets to be discovered, even though Neptune was discovered that way. Meteorologists now usually include a percent chance of correctness with their weather predictions. But even though they are often wrong, it is wonderful they are so often right, and that they can even warn of potential tornadoes and hurricanes, and just where they will probably strike. Other disciplines on the fringe of science make no verifiable predictions about the future, and to the extent that they cannot, they are not really scientific in the strictest sense.
In summary, the scientific method is the heart of science, which allows us to understand nature so well that we often can predict the future accurately. The domain of science really centers on the "theories of men" to explain nature. That phrase is not used to belittle science in any way, for science is very dear to me and the theories often have near 100% success in predictions. The theories of men are often wonderful, and I fully believe that the Lord gave us a mind so that we could deduce a lot of his laws of nature by ourselves. Surely he doesn't want to have to tell us every little thing, so he expects us to use science to tell us all it can about the world we live in. I believe that in many cases scientists have truly discovered the laws of God, such as the one he gave to keep planets in their orbits (D&C 88:42-43), and that the scientists who did so will be honored by the Lord in due time for their discoveries. The phrase "theories of men" is used only to distinguish the turf of science from that of true religion.
As an example of the two realms, consider a sociologist wondering why people have a certain behavior. She could study a group of subjects, observe their behavior, and come up with theories which predict specific future behavior. All of that is science, and is in the realm of theories and models.
The "truth" approach to the same study might be to simply ask the people why they are behaving that way. Our course, for some behaviors, the people may not tell the truth, or perhaps not even know why they do, even if they are honest. But God could reveal the absolute truth of why they really acted as they did. The strength of religion is that when the Lord tells us something, we know it is true because he does not lie and that he understands all. The strength of science is that we can learn an amazing amount concerning other things about which God has not spoken.
God tends to reveal only things which we could never find out for ourselves. Consider the following truths which God has chosen to reveal, which science either could never figure out, or would be too slow in discovering. Notice that almost all of them include the physical world:
When the Lord tells us that there is a God, that he is our loving Father, and that we should worship him, then worship becomes part of religion.
When the Lord tells us there is an afterlife, and that we will be judged and rewarded according to how well we obeyed him, then obedience becomes part of religion.
When the Lord tells us that all mankind today are descended from Adam and Eve, who were created in the image of God, then all of genetics and genealogy relating to discovering ancestry become part of religion.
When the Lord tells us to avoid using tobacco incorrectly, then not abusing tobacco becomes part of religion.
When the Lord tells us to store food to prepare for the coming tribulations, then storing food becomes part of religion.
When the Lord tells us to flee a wicked city which is about to be destroyed because of immorality, then fleeing becomes part of religion.
Note that some revelations are clearly in the realm of science. For example, the Word of Wisdom warned that tobacco has an adverse effect on health over a century before scientists would eventually link it to cancer. This emphasizes that in the Lord's mind, religion can clearly overlap into the realm of science.
If a scientist refuses to listen to what the Lord has revealed on these subjects, then he is free to make his models of nature without God. But of course, he should always remember that they are only models, which should never be considered to be true.
On the other hand, the scientist who listens to the Lord might discover wonderful things which would otherwise have been overlooked. For example, for what purpose did the Lord create tobacco? The Lord confided in us that it can be used for the treatment of bruises (D&C 89:8). When is that last time that you treated a bruise with tobacco? Are LDS scientists actively investigating this use of tobacco? It turns out that Native Americans had long been familiar with this use, but apparently we haven't rediscovered it yet, even with the Lord explicitly telling us. We finally gave up tobacco when it became a commandment, rather that only a word to the wise, but I can't help wonder if the Lord is disappointed in us for not having followed up more on the many other health hints he shared with us in the Word of Wisdom.
Perhaps the fact that the Lord so often restricts his revelations to subjects beyond scientific inquiry explains why believers so easily accept the truce. The problem with the truce is defining the line of separation to be between physical and spiritual/moral. To me, the realm of religion is whatever God wants it to be. The fact that the Lord usually reveals things which science could never figure out is, to me, a big clue that the Lord expects us to use science to deduce everything else possible.
The correct distinction between religion and science appears to be that religion deals with absolute truths revealed by the Lord on the subject of his choice, whereas science deals with the theories of men. Whatever the Lord tells us can become part of the religion of the believer. To the extent that the Lord speaks on things amenable to experiment, there is overlap between the areas of science and religion. This division between science and religion is truly a win-win proposition because each discipline can actually testify in favor of the other, rather than constantly being at war.
As for the past, those of us locked into the physical world cannot go back into the past to verify any claim made. Thus, any belief about the origin of things, or of whether or not Christ really resurrected or even whether there was a Civil War, must be taken on faith or belief, unless we receive a spiritual witness of their reality. What physical basis do we have to believe in either religion or science? It can be based on how they do in the other two areas of present and future.
As for the here and now, we can try the claims of both science and religion. We can perform the scientific experiment and see if it works as advertised. We can live the laws of religion and see if we get the promised blessings which are predicated on living those laws (D&C 130:21). If those experiments in science and religion work, it may not prove that they are true, but at least they work, and it increases our belief. And if one experiment or one prophecy fails, it doesn't mean that all of science is useless, nor all of religion.
In defense of the science which I so dearly love, however, I must add that some of the best descriptions of the past come from studying physical records from the past. The Lord provided us physical copies of the Bible and Book of Mormon to read the history of his people in the past, that we could learn from them. Of course, interpreters have been required to allow us also to read the record.
The rocks also contain a record of the history of the earth, and in some places, like the Grand Canyon, the Lord has graciously exposed many layers of strata to be read. Rock strata, sometimes filled with fossils, got there somehow and they have a story to tell. But again, a good interpreter is needed to read the record. Were the layers of rock deposited slowly over vast time periods or quickly as in a great flood? There are some layers which were laid down slowly as can be measured in similar layers forming today, and others laid down quickly as when huge dinosaurs were instantly buried alive with mud while eating. The Book of the Earth is there for us and cries out to be read. Some of us scientists are as eager to have that book read correctly to know how the dinosaurs perished as were the people of Zarahemla eager to have the golden plates translated to know how the Jaredites perished. They were "desirous beyond measure to know concerning those people who had been destroyed" (Mosiah 28:12). Fortunately they had a seer to translate the plates. I will rejoice in the day that a seer will read the pages of the Book of the Earth for us; until then we must read it as best we can using the methods of science, attempting to correlate our interpretation to our understanding of the Lord's summary in the scriptures.
Another example of a scientific book describing the past comes from dendrochronology, which involves the study of tree ring thicknesses. During the lifetime of a scientist, the rings have be studied and found to have their thickness highly correlated to the annual weather. One can predict that during drought years the rings will be thin, and thicker in moist years. Once a scientist establishes the correlation of thickness to annual weather, then growth rings in trees thousands of years old can be examined to provide a continuous record of weather conditions for precisely known years. To me that record is as sacred as scripture because both were created and preserved by the Lord. But again, as with the scriptures, the trick is to read it correctly and to understand the truth of what really happened. The point here in both examples is that even science in the present can tell us a lot about the past if we can only read correctly the record of the past.
A final example comes from astronomy. With its 100% record for predicting eclipses for the last century, we can have great confidence in its ability to retroactivity "predict" eclipses in the past. The table of eclipses which predicted this month's total eclipse also predicted all eclipses back to 1200 BC. Because the success has been so good in the century since it was published, one can be confident that the eclipses described at the time of Christ are also accurate.
On the other hand, the Lord likes to maintain a 100% confidence level in his prophecies. Part of the law he gave Moses stated that if anyone claimed to be a prophet and made a prophecy which was not fulfilled, then he should be put to death as a fraud, because the Lord's prophecies always are fulfilled (Deut. 18:20-22). That's pretty strong, and it sounds like the Lord wants to leave us without excuse for not believing his prophets. If we executed every weatherman when the predictions failed, it would be tough to fill those positions. Actually, in astronomy, it is said that two astronomers were executed in ancient China when an eclipse failed to occur when predicted.
Here are examples of three types of misunderstanding which have caused people to stumble:
Symbolic Language. Sometimes the Lord uses symbolic language, which if taken literally would be disasterous to understanding. In the story of the creation in Genesis he speaks of seven "days" of creation. The Hebrew word for "day" can be taken figuratively, just as in English when we say we live in the "day of the internet." When "day" is interpreted to mean a usual 24-hour period, the conflicts with science are so major as to entirely discredit the Bible. There is evidence that the Egyptians whom Abraham taught may have understood the day of Creation to be a period of 365,000,000 years, which is amazingly close to modern scientific dating of our solar system.
Literal Language. The reverse problem can also occur, that the Lord means literally what he said and we interpret it to be symbolic. An example from my field of study is where apparently the Lord stated that the Church was founded 1,830 years from the birth of Christ (D&C 20:1). Did he mean only that the year was called 1830, or that it was really 1,830 years to within a year, or that it was 1,830 years to the very day? At first I assumed with most LDS scholars that he only meant that the year was A.D. 1830 and that Christ was born about 5 BC as is commonly believed. This is a good example of where a living prophet can clarify the confusion, and we have had three prophets declare that the Lord intended it to be interpreted literally to the very day. It was only after I had done several precise astronomical and calendrical calculations that I became converted to the idea that the Lord meant literally what he said, and that Christ was born on the evening preceding Thu 6 Apr 1 BC, exactly 1,830 solar years prior to the founding of the Church on Tue 6 Apr 1830.
Double Meanings. Sometimes a word has at least two meanings, and when it is translated to another language, only one can be selected. If the wrong one is chosen the meaning can be entirely lost. An example of this is the Greek word for "sign" which has some of the same multiple meanings as the word "sign" in English: it can mean miracle, sign, token, or wonder, according to one Greek dictionary. It is generally translated sign in the King James Version, but in Rev. 12:1 (and 12:3) it is translated wonder: "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven. . ." So who cares about that detail? Well, the Prophet Joseph Smith did, and changed the word back to the more usual translation "sign" in his inspired translation. So what's the difference? It turns out that our word "sign" also has another meaning as did the Greek, which is "constellation of stars" as in "sign of the zodiac". To me a better translation of "great wonder in heaven" is "large constellation in the sky." Thus, if the translator does not understand the original meaning, it can easily be garbled.
Of course, there are many other ways that misunderstandings can arise, such as words changing in meaning after a correct translation. The main point is to be extremely careful before rejecting all, or even part, of the word of the Lord based on a single interpretation of a single scripture.
And what about when science and religion disagree? That is something each reader must decide, but I'd really recommend that you include the success record at predicting the future in the criteria on which you base your judgment. As for me, I'm impressed with the Lord's 100% record, and you'll see in this column that I never knowingly go against anything the Lord has stated to be true. As Jacob said,
O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. (2 Nephi 9:28-29)