Sunday, March 19, 2006

Science Mingled With Scripture

Today being Sunday and me being a churchy guy, I went to church. However, instead of two scripture based lessons in sunday school and priest's quorum, I got a smattering of the teachers' opinions on various scientific issues. It wasn't so bad in priest quorum, really. The Bishop had only ten minutes to give a lesson, and he started off talking about the recent experiment that measured the cosmic background radiation. He knew I'm a physicist so he asked me to explain some details about how that was used to calculate the age of the universe. He then proceeded into a nice lesson about how God is a creator: creator of the universe, of our Earth, of our bodies, and of our spirits. Not once in his lesson did he scoff at science or scientists or boast how much more our religion knows about the origin of the Earth than the conspiring scientists or any of that.

My sunday school lesson was a different story. Instead of the bishop, it was one of his counsellors that, instead of using some scientific principle as a springboard into a gospel discussion, hijacked the lesson for several minutes to denounce the evil scientists. His beef was with evolution (as it often is). He warned the youth in the class about the evil that exists in much of modern-day science, how so many scientists are deluded and teach things that contradict the gospel- especially evolution. He went on and on, but I just sat there because anything that I would have to say would basically contradict everything he had already said and I didn't want to do that to a bishopric member in front of the youth.

Surprisingly, I've experienced this quite often in the church (as I'm sure many of you have). You either get people who first talk about science in a positive way and then use scriptures to show how the science is correct, or rant and rail against a certain part of science and then use scriptures (or common misguided belief based on tradition: think earth actually orbiting Kolob or the ten tribes hiding under the north pole) to back up their tirades.

I don't take issue with science being mentioned in a church class: as I said, only if it's used as a springboard for a gospel discussion or used as a metaphor to teach a gospel principle (ie, rainbows are water particles mediating light from the sun; what or who else mediates light from God? etc...). I have a problem when science is brought into a class in the context of 'is it true' or 'is it not true'. Science and religion really are two different fields. Science is a process by which we observe the physical world with a physical measurement that is repeatable and test physical theories with that evidence. Religion is a system based in faith to help us know God. The latter is not physically measurable (and arguably never can be by definition, unless one has his calling and election made sure, but that's another topic), and the former precludes really needing to believe in anything. They are water and oil. Franken and Hannity. One does not prove the other in each of their own systems of operation. You can't prove our religion with science, since I know by faith- which I can't see. I can't prove any aspect of science wrong with my religion, since nothing in my beliefs is physically measurable and that is the language of science.

Many members of the church are stuck in the custom of mixing the two. This happens one of two ways, one of which I already described: taking a scientific conclusion and ripping it apart with scripture (bad interpretations included). The other is a little more subtle, but still inappropriate: trying to completely harmonize religion with the conclusions of science. That is one good point the misguided bishopric member made (though not in the same spirit I make it): science is true, but not all the conclusions that science makes are correct. They are correct up to the latest measurements, but not beyond, and if any measurement in the future contradicts the conclusion, it must be revised. Nothing is sacred in science. So why try to equate some possibly imperfect conclusions based in fact, with scriptural texts that often do not speak literally and whose messages speak to our souls. I've seen teachers do wonderful doctrinal and scientific contortions trying to harmonize scriptural accounts with science. Example: dinosaur bones are in the ground because the Earth was made from other worlds that must have had dinosaurs, since from the scriptures we know that there were no dinosaurs. Or: the great flood must really have been a local flood, since scientific evidence shows there was no great flood around 2000-3000 b.c. . Such attempts at harmonizations are not helpful to science (and usually invalid), and not helpful to our faith either as anything scientific by definition requires actual evidence, not faith.

I think the church membership at large is stuck somewhere between enlightenment thinking and magical realism (yes Jenny, I, your husband, used the term 'magical realism'). Those of you who have been in third world countries might know what I'm talking about. The people there are much more accepting of physical manifestations of the supernatural phenomenon than U.S. and western European cultures. This was the climate in Joseph Smith's time, and to a small extent has persisted in the church today. Yet we live in a modern western culture where science is celebrated. So church members are caught between the two, and either lean toward one or the other, or try to mesh the two.

In case you're wondering what my personal approach is, I'll call it the hat method. On Sunday, and various other times during the week, I put on my faith/religion hat. When I teach my class I rely on the texts of the scriptures (not wacko interpretations of them), and the words of the current prophets. At work and school I put on my scientist hat: my investors aren't paying me to believe something, they want proof. When I have my faith hat on and someone asks me a legitimate science question (like when I'm teaching), I'll give them a short science answer without mixing in faith, then tell them to talk to me after class.

Anyway, those were just my thoughts today as I sat through two science lessons. May all your future science lessons in church be factual. And short.


Nick said...

P.S. In case you're wondering, that experiment puts the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, give or take a few hundred thousand years. Now what that might mean is that each creative period in the book of Abraham is actually about 2 billion years long: BUT, the number two is symbolic of duality, and yet union, just like yin and yang. THEREFORE, we should all get MARRIED around the age of 20 (think 2 x 10: theres that number 2 again), otherwise, we're menaces to society. So the fact that the universe is 13.7 billion years old is another very good argument against gay marriage. Case closed.

Jared said...

Do you think it's never appropriate to do any reconciliation between religion and science? I think that it can be appropriate, sometimes. One of the reasons I love hiking and camping is because I love to marvel at nature and the science behind it, simultaneouly appreciating God's hand in Creation. I think there are probably other worthy juxtapositions out there, though I'm sure I can't name them all. There is the book by Elder Eyring's father called "Reflections of a Scientist." I haven't read it, but I've heard nothing but good about it from LDS science enthusiasts. Perhaps I should read it myself.

Nick said...

I guess it depends on what we mean by reconciliation. When I'm hiking out in the woods and appreciating nature, I usually don't find myself trying to reconcile the fact that there are millions of different species with the knowledge from the bible that they all had to come from what Noah managed to squeeze in the Ark. That's the kind of reconciliation I'm talking about. I agree that it is very enjoyable to go out and appreciate nature, and even speculate on the physical processes that God used in creation. Its one of my hobbies. But doing that in a church setting was what I was observing that people often do, but shouldn't.

Jared said...

Good call. Church is not the place for that. We have such precious little time in Sunday School and priesthood, we should use it in pursiut of actual doctrine and try to use vast resources we have (a prophet, apostles, scriptures, etc.). Thanks for clarifying.

JonnyF said...

Yeah, its kind of annoying when I make a comment in Sunday school or Priesthood that was carefully thought out and comes from the block of scripture or lesson manual in question, and then some guy raises his hand and goes off about the world conspiracy to sell us inferior chickens (which conspiracy he discovered when he started raising his own chickens). It kind of waters down the meeting.

Jenny said...

I know this might sound kind of wierd, but I like the fact that science and religion don't just naturally and completely harmonize. In some ways, these seemingly inconvenient gaps serve to strengthen my faith. We know that all things bear witness of Christ: being out in nature and observing God's creations certainly witnesses Christ and God's power on one level. But if everything really does bear witness of Christ, then if seems to me that the gaps in understanding and reconcilliation between science and religion also serve that purpose. There are things that just don't align between the two--their relationship is inherently incomprehensible (at least on certain levels). I can't square my scientific understanding with my spiritual understanding at times, and that's ok. That lack of understanding witnesses to me the ultimately incomprehensible power of the atonement of Christ. And I'd rather have an atonement that doesn't make sense (how, actually, could Christ pay for all of humanity's sins? how can that power actually apply to me? why would Christ do this?--I know all the Sunday School answers [suffered in the garden, because he was the son of God and loved us, through my own obedience and repentence, etc.] but when I ponder the relationship between my limited and finite human understanding and God's infinite charity, my powers of comprehension fail me). If I could undertand the atonement inside and out, it probably wouldn't actually be sufficient for me--I need an infinite and eternal atonement, and as such, one that I cannot comprehend completely in my mortal/limited state. The relation between scientific and faithful understanding reminds me of the relation between myself and Christ's atonement in my inability to fully reconcile/understand each.

Like I said, I'm not sure this will make sense to anyone else, but it helps me when I'm standing in front of my class at BYU and we've just read Darwin and they have all these questions and I'm worried about shaking their faith--then I just remind myself that with any luck, the experience will strengthen their faith ...

PS Jared, "Reflections of a Scientist" was a really interesting read, especially when you consider the influence of a father on a son. I think you'd enjoy it.