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An Open Letter to College Students
The month of June approaches and with it many graduations. As you contemplate university experiences will you take a moment to ponder a theme that may not have been in the curriculum. It if shall prove helpful to your thinking I shall be grateful....
Why should not a man have a religion, a faith, an overbelief—one that may not be susceptible to scientific and finite support? Is such a faith a weakness or a virtue? Let us see. The same author from whom we have just quoted [John Langdon-Davis] in a lengthy review of the history of the attitude of man toward science and religion tells us that practically every scientific contribution from Aristotle to Darwin is attributable almost entirely to the religious urge of man to find out more about God. The many spheres of Aristotle and the epicycles of Ptolemy were all of them chosen by these early philosophers as explanations of the movement of the universe because the spheres and the circles to them most nearly represented God.
Both Galileo and Newton felt that their revolutionary discoveries had inestimably contributed to a better and higher understanding of God and his management of the universe. And even Charles Darwin, the reputed author of evolution, contrary to much popular understanding, was greatly grieved that his new law of natural selection should have been pronounced anti-Christ. He wrote to his American friend, Asa Gray, "I had no intention to write atheistically."
So we see that the very founders of science were responding to the religious urge. They had their overbelief not proved by their findings of material facts. They had their faith as their constant incentive....
Unfortunately, however, the tolerance and sympathy which in modern times have been manifest for people having divergent views have not been shown so generously toward the Bible itself. Many of the scientific world having discovered that the earth is round and not flat as the people of the Old Testament evidently believed it to be have ungenerously, and it seems to me, ruthlessly, thrown the good book into the discard with unconcealed contempt. They point out with gloating satisfaction that the God of the Hebrews is a capricious, jealous, tribal God fighting the battles of his favored people and reveling in the defeat of their enemies....
What if Hebrew prophets, conversant with only a small fraction of the surface of the earth, thinking and writing in terms of their own limited geography and tribal relations did interpret Him in terms of a tribal king and so limit His personality and the laws of the universe under is control to the dominion with which they were familiar? Can any interpreter even though he be inspired present is interpretation and conception in terms other than those with which he has had experience and acquaintance? Even under the assumption that Divinity may manifest to the prophet higher and more exalted truths than he has ever before known and unfold to his spiritual eyes visions of the past, forecasts of the future and circumstances of the utmost novelty, how will the inspired man interpret? Manifestly, I think, in the language he knows and in the terms of expression with which his knowledge and experience have made him familiar. So is it not therefore ungenerous, unfair and unreasonable to impugn the validity and the whole worth of the Bible merely because of the limited knowledge of astronomy and geography that its writers possessed.
The Bible gives an account of the creation of the world. It is simply stated. It has been made the object of ridicule by some scholars.
And yet where is the man on the earth today who has the knowledge, the demonstrable facts to gainsay the truth of the account? I do not pretend to have knowledge of scientific data sufficient to bring proof for the assertion but I am advised that the order of creation as stated in Genesis conforms substantially with the order established by scientific research and deductions.
Objection is made to the methods employed in Biblical creation whereas in fact the Bible purports to give no method, no real definition of processes whatever. Rather it makes authoritative statements of the facts of creation. Who that is really interested in these major truths will take serious objection to the description of the organization of man: that he was made of the dust of the earth and that his spirit was breathed into him and that woman was made of his rib? Indeed scientists are now all agreed that there is nothing in his physical body except the dust of the earth and those who are candid readily admit that they do not know what his spirit is or whence it came, nor do they know how woman was made.
I grant freely that I do not understand how a woman can be made of a rib, nor how a man's spirit can be breathed into him but because I have been unable to understand or explain these expressions I have never been disposed to doubt the things of major import set forth in the account; namely, the author of creation, the subjects of creation, the order of creation, and the purpose of creation.
The time of creation has ever been a subject of much comment and dispute. Yet I challenge anybody to produce from the Bible itself any finite limitation whatsoever of the periods of creation. By strained inferential references and interpretations men have sought to set the time in days or periods of a thousand years, but I feel sure that no justification of such limitations is warranted by the scriptures themselves. If the evolutionary hypothesis of the creation of life and matter in the universe is ultimately found to be correct, and I shall neither be disappointed nor displeased if it shall turn out so to be, in my humble opinion the Biblical account is sufficiently comprehensive to include the whole of the process....
It is said that a man seldom secures a philosophy of life until after he has passed the age of thirty. Perhaps I have been a bit premature in handing out to you this bit of philosophy. I thank you for your patience in reading it.
If you will take the counsel of one who loves science and reveres religion, permit me to admonish you: Never close your mind or your heart; ever keep them open to the reception of both knowledge and spiritual impressions. Both true science and true religion are the exponents of truth. Their fields are different, their provinces are distinct, but their purposes are identical--to enlighten man, to give him power, to make him good and bring him joy. Never abandon a time-tested thing of worth until you are very, very sure that the new is better. Be not ashamed of faith in God. It has been the incentive for the noblest things of life.
Sincerely your friend,
[signed] Stephen L. Richards A member of the Council of Twelve
Stephen L Richards, "An Open Letter to College Students" Improvement Era 36:451-453 (June 1933) :484-485. off-site