Most of us are familiar with the words of the primary song, “Follow the Prophet.” The beat of this song sounds like a military cadence which, when repeatedly played, drives home the message that we should obey the teachings of the prophets. The analogy between primary and the military may be a bit much, but the message is clear: follow the prophet or you might go down the road of personal apostasy.
In my association with scholars and academics, there is no straighter road to personal apostasy than embracing tents of a theory that contradicts the teachings of the gospel. I am not suggesting that everyone who embraces contradictory theories is in the throes of personal apostasy. I do think, however, that the road to apostasy lies open before them. If they chose not to go down the path and keep the commandments of God, then all is well. Unfortunately, too many choose to walk down the path and end up questioning gospel beliefs.
Personal enticements to apostasy are everywhere. Interestingly, things that lead to apostasy are not necessarily bad. Sometimes they are good. Take, for example, the internet, television, and other modern technologies. Doing family history work on the New Family Search website in the comfort of our own homes is a blessing, as is watching general conference on television in our pajamas on Sunday morning. But when people misuse the blessings of television and the internet, those blessings become a curse in their lives.
Education is a great blessing, but it can also be a curse. When does secular learning become a curse? When it leads Christians to question teachings of the gospel. The Lord’s counsel is as follows: to be learned is good, if one hearkens unto the counsels of God. So study the theories of mankind. Acquire as much secular knowledge as you can. Do personal research into a secular hypothesis. Those are good things, as long as you hearken unto the counsels of God while acquiring knowledge.
Let’s take evolution, for example. Now there’s an important theory. I’ve been told that it is a fundamental theory underlying most of biology, so it must be a good thing to learn. I can think of a healthcare application. Given the rate at which pathogens like viruses and bacteria are mutating and circumventing our ability to prevent and fight off diseases, it is really important that we have a good understanding of evolution.
For some people it is important to study evolution in order to have a better understanding of the origins of species, you know, how we descended from ape ancestors. Although I find such endeavors meaningless, it is important to others. Even a Mormon can research the origins of species; that’s fine, as long as he or she hearkens unto the counsels of God.
So, what are the counsels of the Lord on the theory of common descent? Let’s take a look at what the living prophets say.
Here is counsel from a living apostle, Elder Nelson.
“Others have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been a natural selection of the species or organic evolution from one form to another. . . . To me, such theories are unbelievable. . . . It is incumbent upon each informed and spiritually attuned person to help overcome such foolishness of those who would deny divine creation or think that man simply evolved.” Source: The Power Within Us
I find it interesting that Elder Nelson encourages informed and spiritually attuned members to help overcome beliefs that contradict divine creation.
And here is a comment from the current president of the quorum of twelve apostles, Elder Packer.
"The rules and principles [of creation] are in the scriptures. The revelations make it very clear that mankind is the offspring of Heavenly Parents. We have in God our Father and a Heavenly Mother the pattern of our parentage. . . . No lesson is more manifest in nature than that all living things do as the Lord commanded them in the Creation. They reproduce after their own kind. They follow the pattern of their parentage. Everyone knows that. Every four-year-old knows that! A bird will not become an animal nor a fish. A mammal will not beget a reptile. . . . Each is a child of God. He is not a monkey; neither were his ancestors." Source: Children of God. www.byub.org/talks/Download.aspx?id=1774&md=pdf
In my opinion, those who embrace common descent but do not follow the counsels of the Lord fall prey to godless notions about creation and morality and end up in the atheistic camp. On the other hand, those who embrace common descent while following the counsels of the Lord often end up in the theistic evolutionary camp. And finally, those who of us who reject common descent while following the counsels of the Lord end up in the “we really don’t understand science” camp, or at least that is what I’ve been told by ardent evolutionists.
Now I realize that many of you readers fall into the “I couldn’t care less”, “It doesn’t matter to me”, or the “I wasted my time reading this blog post” camps. (Apologies sent.) Whatever camp you fall into, just remember to follow the counsels of the Lord - if you do, you won’t go astray, regardless of your evolutionary beliefs.
Atheists and agnostics are kind of in the same boat when it comes to the supernatural. Atheists reject a supernatural being while agnostics claim that there is no way of knowing if such a being exists, so they go about their business as if he doesn’t. How many scientists are atheists? How many are agnostic? The answers depend on what area of science we’re talking about. The following data may surprise you.
According to a 2005 Rice University survey by Elaine Howard-Eckland, about 34% of all scientists surveyed said that they are either agnostic or atheist. When the researchers divided the survey responses by area of expertise, namely natural vs. social science, they found that natural scientists are much less likely to believe in God than social scientists.
In a 1998 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), nearly 95% of biologists declared that they were either atheist or agnostic, much higher than all scientists in general! (SOURCE: Larry Witham, Where Darwin Meets the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.) Similarly, according to a 2003 Cornell survey, a whopping 87% of evolutionists deny the existence of God, 88% disbelieve in life after death, and 90% reject the idea of evolution being directed toward an “ultimate purpose!” (SOURCE: Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine, Evolution, Religion and Free Will, American Scientist, vol. 95 (July-August 2007.)
Finally, according to a 2007 national survey of faculty at colleges and universities, more than 60% of all college biologists consider themselves atheists or agnostics. (SOURCE: Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, How Religious are America’s College and University Professors? Feb. 6, 2007.)
Why are people in the biological and natural sciences more likely to be atheists or agnostics? Oh . . . could it have something to do with evolution?
Here is how evolution contributes to atheism and agnosticism.
At a fundamental level, evolution is mechanistic. By mechanistic I mean that evolution makes two ontological assertions about the fundamental nature of the natural world, namely that materialism and efficient causation rule the world. Materialism is the belief that the fundamental nature of the world is physical material. Everything that truly exists is made up of matter. In a manner of speaking, what matters is matter. There is no such thing as the non-physical. Spirits are not real, neither are your thoughts, emotions, and personal sense of identity - these are nothing more than the actions of electrochemical processes in your nervous system. And efficient causation is the belief that events or change result from natural laws acting on physical material. There are no supernatural, spiritual, or cognitive sources of change. Also there is no purpose or agency in events; there are just the unintentional forces of nature which determine how matter is to behave. Mother Nature is like a blind watch maker that creates a beautifully complex world without a purpose or goal in mind.
There are no inherent problems with interpreting natural world events using a mechanistic-laden theory like evolution, as long as people recognize the limitations. Evolution has its faults, but so does practically every other scientific theory. If we restricted science to only perfect theories, there would be no science.
Problems arise when impressionable minds embrace evolution’s mechanistic underpinnings, when they accept mechanism as reflecting the way the world really is, as a sort of ontological reality. When President Ezra Taft Benson said that “Students at universities are sometimes so filled with the doctrines of the world they begin to question the doctrines of the [Lord’s] gospel,” I think that he was partly, if not wholly, referring to evolution’s atheistic allure.
The antidote to evolution’s and any theory’s atheistic allure: Faith in the Lord.
Secular learning is a blessing. Secular knowledge enlightens minds, enriches lives, and empowers people to accomplish great things. It should come as no surprise that the Lord has said “to be learned is good” (2 Nephi 9:29). At the same time, however, secular learning can be a curse. It can ensnare us by causing us to forget the Lord. This ensnaring potential explains why the Lord added caution to the previous statement. He said, “to be learned is good if one hearkens unto the counsels of God.”
Faith can be weakened by secular learning. At greatest risk are those who study from mechanistic theory books in one hand while letting go of the iron rod with the other. They allow themselves to be carried away by the mist of secularism and eventually abdicate their childhood faith. They wander away from the teachings of the gospel because they do not hearken unto the counsels of God. Ezra Taft Benson acknowledged this problem when He said, “Students at universities are sometimes so filled with the doctrines of the world they begin to question the doctrines of the [Lord’s] gospel.”
This is what happened to Charles Darwin.
You see, Charles was a brilliant naturalist. He greatly advanced our understanding of evolutionary processes that create variety within species. But like so many others, the more he studied evolution, the more he loosened his grip on the iron rod of faith. The study of evolution was not to blame for his faltering faith. On the contrary, his study of evolution was a good thing. His faith faltered because he did not “hearken unto the counsels of God” while studying evolution. Remember: studying evolution = good; not hearkening unto the counsels of God while studying evolution = bad.
Let’s take a closer look at his digression from believer into agnostic in his own words. The following are excerpts from the “Life and Letter of Charles Darwin”.
1. He was once a believer. During these three years (1836-1839) I was led to think much about religion. Whilst aboard the Beagle I was quite orthodox [in Christian belief] and remember being laughed at by several of the officers for quoting the Bible as an…authority on some point of morality.
2. He had a spiritual witness that God lives. [T]he most unusual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward convictions and feelings which are experienced by most persons…. I was led by such feelings…to the firm conviction of the existence of God.
3. Atheistic influences in evolution worked on him gradually. But I had gradually come by this time to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than sacred books of the Hindoos…. By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature, the more incredible do miracles become…I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.
4. His disbelief grew little by little. I was unwilling to give up my belief,…but I found it more and more difficult…to invent evidence that would suffice to convince me [to believe in God]. This disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never doubted for a single moment that my conclusion was correct.
5. Natural selection led him away from God. The old argument from design in nature…which formerly seemed so conclusive, fails now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.
6. He let go of the iron rod. [Once] I deserved to be called a theist,…[now] I must be content to remain an agnostic.
This post is not a diatribe against science and evolution. Studying science and evolution is cool and highly recommended. The Lord wants us to study scientific theories (see, for example, D&C 88:78). What is neither cool nor recommended is allowing science to displace faith.
Science usually displaces faith when the two disagree. So what should we do when science contradicts fundamental gospel principles? The answer is to recognize that scientific theories are constantly changing and being replaced by better theories; hence science is not perfect. A scientific principle that contradicts a fundamental gospel truth today may be replaced by a scientific principle that is consistent with the gospel tomorrow.
It also helps to remember that our understanding of how the Lord created and governs the natural world is not perfect. The gospel is silent on most natural matters. However, when the Lord comes again He will reveal secrets regarding life, the earth, and the heavens, things currently not revealed in the gospel (D&C 101:32-34). We may be surprised to learn that some of these secrets are consistent with modern theories of science.
(Note: mechanistic refers to scientific theories that explain natural phenomena solely by physical material and physical forces.)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of scholarly wisdom, it was the age of scholarly foolishness. It was the epoch of unheralded scientific progress, it was the epoch of scientific dogma. It was the season of scientific light, the season of scientific darkness. There was an explanation for the origin of species, including the theory of common descent, and there were those who rejected it. This period was like recent periods in that some of the noisiest scientific authorities insisted on evolution being wholly accepted, for good or for evil, and not being subjected to comparisons from competing theories.
There was a king with an australopithecine jawbone and a queen with a pseudogene identical to a chimp's sitting on the throne of natural science. And there was a lowly scholar with evidence of extremely complex cell systems on the lower throne of intelligent design.
It was the year of our Lord two thousand and eleven. Spiritual revelations had been conceded to humans throughout history that God created mankind. Mr. Darwin had recently attained his two-hundredth birthday, a birthday heralded by the sublime announcement of a half fish and half tetrapod fossil named Tiktaalik discovered in the Canadian tundra. Even though Darwin had been laid to rest over 200 years ago, evolutionists rapped out their message, just as they had done this very year last past. Mere messages in the evolutionary order of events have lately come to the people from a congress of evolutionary scientists, messages which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the variety of the religious brood.
Intelligent design, less favoured on the whole as to matters scientific than its evolutionary sister, rolled with exceeding smoothness downhill, making arguments for intelligence and advancing it. Under the guidance of her overlords at the National Center for Science Education, evolutionism entertained herself with such “humane” achievements as sentencing ID to have its hands cut off, its work deemed unscientific, and its publications burned because it had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of royal evolutionists which passed by in review. It is likely enough that, rooted in the dark hallways of university natural science departments, there was growing resentment, discussion of when ID was to be put to death. ID was a movement already marked by the National Center for Science Education as unscientific, a movement to be brought low and sawn in two, to be placed into a sack and a knife thrust into it. It is likely enough that in the rough houses adjacent to universities, IDers there were sheltered from the evolutionary dogmatism of that very day, relegated to the pseudoscience mire by their punitive overlords. But those IDers, though they worked unceasingly, worked silently, and the evolutionary establishment did not hear them as they went about with muffled tread. Rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be traitorous.
In science, there was scarcely any mention of the evidence for design, just much evolutionary boasting. Mention of daring predictions of fossil finds, biological homologies, and genetic information, took place in science rooms every night. Meanwhile university scholars rejecting common descent were cautioned not to come out with their views before gaining tenure. The university IDer in the dark was an evolutionist Kool-Aid drinker in the light, but, being once recognised and challenged by his fellow faculty members, was shot out the university doors and forced to go away. University departments are waylaid by evolutionists who wish to shoot ID dead. Not wanting evolution to get shot dead itself by the religious community, and recognizing their failure to demonstrate macroevolutionary processes with certainty, they called on the magnificent potentate, Judge John E. Jones III to stand and rule on their main competitor, Intelligent Design.
Evolutionists in Dover fought battles with the ID, and the majesty of the law fired blistering questions, loaded with lawyer’s tricks and leading questions. Prosecutors snipped off pieces of the bacteria flagellum and argued that it was still functional. Meanwhile, university natural science departments went in search of contraband ID, as evolutionists fired accusations at the IDers, and IDers defended their views against the mob, and nobody outside of the scientific establishment thought any of these occurrences much out of the common way. In the midst of them, evocations of Judge Jones’ ruling, ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition; fueling long rows of accusations of ID as being re-packaged creationism, a mere scientific chimera. They ended the career of a faculty IDer on Saturday who had been taken on Tuesday; now, rejecting ID papers by the dozen, and now burning Signature in the Cell at the door of the National Center for Science Education; to-day, attacking the credentials of anyone who supports ID, and tomorrow preaching that it is not scientific to believe that there is evidence of intelligent design in nature.
All these attacks, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the year of our Lord two thousand and eleven. And now the evolutionists work unheeded; with the large jaws of scientific and judicial dogma, they carry their appointed dominance with a high hand. Thus in the year two thousand and eleven did they conduct their greatnesses, proposing that myriads of creatures big and small evolved from a common ancestor along Darwin’s evolutionary tree of life that lay before them.
I am not a scholar of religion or science but I do have an abiding interest in both. Like many boys growing up, I was interested in cavemen. I think I was always fascinated that these people could survive under such adverse circumstances with not much more than rocks and spears. When I was a senior in high school, I even wrote my senior English paper on the findings and research of Louis S. B. Leakey (a pioneer in the research of early man) . I have probably watched every documentary on early man that has ever been shown on PBS. Fast forward to the mid 1990s when I was browsing one day through the FARMS articles that Deseret Book used to sell in their stores. I chanced upon an article by Hugh Nibley called “Before Adam”. It was the title that first captured my interest because until then I had never pondered the connection between cave men and Adam and Eve. That article was the beginning of my immense fascination and interest in the writings of Hugh Nibley and my religion.
After reading almost everything Nibley has written, I have come to refer to him as the thinking man’s Mormon. Before Nibley, I had limited my religious studies to the few hours I spent in church each Sunday. After Nibley, I have come to regard the Gospel as the most fascinating subject I have ever encountered because it encompasses all knowledge, even scientific knowledge.
Since Nibley, I have discovered several other LDS authors who have expanded my interest in my religion and the origin of man. At the top of the list would have to be Joseph Fielding Smith. He was the Prophet when I was on my mission and to be honest, he kind of scared me because he looked so stern and serious. But a few years ago I read his book, Man, His Origin and Destiny and I discovered a man of amazing knowledge and insights on a wide range of religious and secular subjects. I could not believe that this man did not even have a graduate degree in anything. Another LDS author that really surprised me is Alvin R. Dyer. His books, Who Am I? and The Meaning of Truth are two of the most scholarly and faith building books I have ever read. Finally, Eric Skousen’s book, Earth in the Beginning is definitely in the top five of the best books I have ever read. If you have ever wondered how it all began and why we are here today, you have to read this book.
Personally, I cannot see how any serious student of the Gospel and science can reconcile the supposed differences between the two without having read the above mentioned books.
Back in 1991 when I attended the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, I met a Born Again Christian student named Michelle. When I found out that she attended a university bible study group, I asked if I could attend. She said yes and a week later I was introduced to the group. I knew that they would have a problem with a Mormon in the group, but it was a nondenominational gathering and I wanted to find out how they would react to me being there.
At a meeting with about 10 students, the leader, an assertive young man in his mid-twenties, asked me questions to find out more about my beliefs. He asked, “Which church do you go to?” I replied, “A nearby church.” He asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ?” I replied, “Yes, I’ve accepted him as my Lord and Savior.” He asked, “Do you believe in the bible?” I replied, “Yes, I believe it is the word of God.”
I answered all his questions truthfully with the intent of showing the group that I shared many of their religious beliefs. In fact the beliefs we had in common outnumbered our differences. However, I knew that eventually they would discover that I am a Mormon. The questions continued.
“Why do you want to join our group?” I replied, “Because I like discussing the bible with others.” Then he went back the original question: “What is the name of your church?” “The Church of Jesus Christ,” I replied. I could see the wheels turning in their heads as they tried to figure out what church that was. Then one girl hit on it. “You mean the church of latter-day saints!?” she blurted. I replied, “That’s right.”
“So you’re a Mormon,” the leader said. He continued: “You can’t join our group.” “Why not?” I replied. “I want to study the bible with you and I believe in Jesus Christ.” Then someone said what I expected to hear all along: “You don’t believe in the same God that we believe in.” Members of the group then proceeded to give me several of the anti-Mormon talking points I heard on my mission. The group leader then called for a break at which point I left.
I know my friend Michelle was embarrassed by their behavior. Although she was a Born Again Christian and I a Mormon, we spent lots of time together. I guess you could say we dated for a short while, but we were more friends than anything else. We discussed the bible. We went to sporting events together. She asked me to take her to the Cardston Temple open house after it was renovated. And she invited me and my wife over to her and her husband’s place for dinner after we both married.
Recently I thought about how posting articles on evolution at mormonsandscience.com is a bit like going to the Christian bible study group. Those who attack my evolutionary posts sound a lot like the bible study group members. “You don’t know the true Jesus - You don’t understand evolution.” “You reject the true God - You reject evolution” (when actually I accept a lot of evolution). “You don’t belong in our group because you are not a believer - You should not be commenting on evolution because you are not a natural scientist.” “Your LDS church is full of falsehoods - Mormonsandscience.com is pseudo-science.”
It did not matter to the bible study group that I thought that they believed in the true God, that they embraced many correct Christian principles, and that their religion was mostly correct and good. Because I was Mormon I was heretical. In likewise manner, it does not matter to LDS evolutionists that I accept a great deal of evolution, that I believe that they understand science fairly well, and that I think that their acceptance of common descent is reasonable given the evidence. Because I reject common descent, they accuse me of being a misguided and confused scholar.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not pleading for acceptance. It does not hurt my feelings when people post nasty replies to my evolutionary posts. I do not care that I was kicked out of the Born Again Christian bible study group (I expected it), and I do not care that pro-evolution latter-day saints make false accusations against me and my site. I am confident and comfortable in what I write and that is all that matters to me.
The similarities between my experiences at the bible study session and mormonsandscience.com illustrate how intolerant and stupid people sound when they impugn me and others latter-day saints for not accepting common descent.
I am happy to say that, like my Born Again Christian friend Michelle, I receive comments at mormonsandscience.com from a couple of pro-evolutionists who are courteous and respectful. Notwithstanding our irreconcilable differences and spirited debates, we get along well and respect one another. I hold them in high regard as I did my friend Michelle. They know how to get along and disagree without being disagreeable, a Christian quality.
Dr. John A. Widtsoe and I agree. When it comes to understanding the limits of evolution, he hit the nail on the head.
Detractors will immediately accuse me and Dr. Widtsoe of not understanding science and evolution. We’ll let the evidence speak for itself. He had a PhD and was the author of 7 scientific books and over 76 articles on chemistry and agriculture. I have a PhD and have written 1 scientific book and (co)authored 11 articles for peer-reviewed scientific journals.
To begin with, he and I agree that the law of evolution is an undeniable fact of nature. “[T]here seems to be a steady process by which unorganized matter is being organized into more and more complex forms. . . .[C]reation as a whole has been and is moving forward, becoming more complex, evolving and creating.”
Now the steady development of life forms on earth has led some to conclude that all life “must have descended from a common ancestor.” The belief that all life descended from a common ancestor is not factual; it is an inference from the facts. Widtsoe correctly argued that “inferences from the facts . . . must be treated as hypotheses or theories.” Hypotheses and theories like common descent are just scientific best guesses about the way the natural world operates. As such, they are subject to revision and refutation. Very few theories achieve lasting law-like status that has been ascribed to well-tested theories like gravity and relativity.
The following statement by Dr. Widtsoe demonstrates his far reaching wisdom on this issue. He wrote: “If the difference between fact and inference had been held clearly in mind, much of the absurd talk on the subject would have been eliminated.” He did not tell us what he meant by “absurd talk,” but I am confident that I know what he was talking about. By “absurd talk” he was, in all likelihood, referring to scientists claiming that common descent is a proven fact when it is not.
Like Dr. John A. Widtsoe I am all for evolutionary research. I support scientists’ efforts to develop evolutionary principles and test evolutionary hypotheses. I declare that most who teach and/or research evolution are true scholars and I respect them as such. But those who endeavor to convince others that common descent has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt are selling ocean front property in Arizona. Believing, teaching, and researching common descent are fine as far as I am concerned; trying to convince people that science has proven common descent is not. On this matter, Dr. John A. Widtsoe and I agree.
"CANNOT BELIEVE BOTH GOSPEL AND EVOLUTION. I say most emphatically, you cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God. You must choose the one and reject the other, for they are in direct conflict and there is a gulf separating them which is so great that it cannot be bridged, no matter how much one may try to do so."
"If you believe in the doctrine of the evolutionist, then you must accept the view that man has evolved through countless ages from the very lowest forms of life up through various stages of animal life, finally into the human form. The first man, according to this hypothesis known as the "cave man," was a creature absolutely ignorant and devoid of any marked intelligence over the beasts of the field."
In 2008 the Pew Research Forum released the results of their survey on the religious landscape in America. (http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=392)
One of their survey questions was: “Do you believe that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth?”
This question addresses a belief in common descent which claims that humanity evolved from lower life forms.
Here are the percentages of people answering yes to that question, stratified by religious affiliation.
If the Pew Forum’s sample of Latter-day Saints is representative of the larger Mormon population, then it appears that 22% of us believe that humanity evolved from lower life forms. This result is in line with my expectation that about 2 out of every 10 Latter-day Saint accepts that Adam and Eve’s bodies evolved. Note that the national average for accepting common descent is 48%.
It is not surprising to see Catholicism above the national average (58%) because the Catholic leadership has formally endorsed evolution. However, I was somewhat surprised to see Jewish (77%) and Protestant (51%) above the average. Any ideas on why they are above the average? How do you feel about where Mormons are relative to other religions
I've included a similar survey question below. It will be interesting to see what kind of results we get on mormonsandscience.com. Of course this survey is not scientific. (It lacks random selection [representativeness] and does not control for multiple responses, although I hope you vote just once.)