As anyone who knows me will attest, I have feet planted firmly in both the scientific and the religious realms. I am a well-known scientist, employed at a large research laboratory, yet I also have deep religious roots — five generations of Mormon ancestors, including the second convert to be baptized in Great Britain in the famous race to the River Ribble.
Thus it is with considerable sadness that I have witnessed the growing rift between the scientific and religious worlds. On one hand, here in the twenty-first century, serious writers with large followings (fortunately not Latter-day Saints, for the most part) assert that the earth and all its living organisms, or even the entire universe, were created out of nothing in their present form just a few thousand years ago, and the reason they appear old is that God created them with an “appearance of age” (i.e., God is a Great Deceiver). Other groups are more accepting of modern science, but still feel they must battle the teaching of science in public schools, because science is the “enemy.” Both groups accuse scientists of being minions of Satan and responsible for the decline of modern society.
On the other hand, a group of “new atheists,” including at least one biologist that I admire, have publicly ridiculed religious belief as antiquated and even harmful in this modern scientific age. These scholars have been roundly criticized, even by other scientists, as being uninformed about modern religion and destructive of the bridge between the two disciplines, but many in the public arena nonetheless see them as representative of modern scientific thought. If nothing else, their in-your-face style is a public relations nightmare for those trying to upgrade science education in public schools.
As I have researched this issue, I have been deeply struck by the fact that the vast majority of both scientists and theologians do not think this way. I note that roughly the same percentage of professional scientists affirm a religious faith today as did a hundred years ago, and numerous religious-minded scientists are leaders in their fields, in disciplines as diverse as biology, astronomy, physics, and mathematics. For example, one of the most prominent biologists (and coauthor of a popular textbook) is Roman Catholic. The most widely cited computer scientist today is Lutheran. One prominent physicist is Anglican. And some very accomplished scientists are LDS.
It is also remarkable that even scientists who do not profess conventional religious belief or affiliation have, in many cases, expressed deep reverence for the majesty of the universe and the elegant laws that govern it. Albert Einstein once described the “cosmic religious feeling” as the “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
LDS scientists have done very well in scientific research, especially given the fact that few had access to graduate education until after World War II. In a 1974 study, for instance, Utah led all other states in the percentage of B.S. graduates who went on to receive doctorates in fields of science. Even today, BYU ranks tenth nationwide in the number of graduates who go on to graduate school in scientific or other fields (according to a 2006 ranking).
It is not too hard to see why so many Latter-day Saints have done well in science: Mormonism, from its foundation, has taught that God acts within the realm of natural law, thus eliminating any need for a “war” between science and religion. Brigham Young taught that “there is no such thing” as a miracle, and that “God is a scientific character, … he lives by science or strict law.” Apostle James E. Talmage, in his book The Articles of Faith, wrote that “Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable.”
With this fundamentally naturalistic worldview, it is not surprising to see relatively progressive viewpoints on science expressed in LDS discourse. Brigham Young declared that it did not matter “whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years.” Apostle James E. Talmage, who received a doctorate in geology, described the “countless generations of plants and animals” in the history of the world, and added “What a fascinating story is inscribed upon the stony pages of the earth’s crust!” President David O. McKay mentioned that “evolution’s beautiful theory of the creation of the world” could be seen as evidence that mankind is destined for eternal life. President Hugh B. Brown urged us to “go out on the research front and continue to explore the vast unknown,” because “[r]evelation may come in the laboratory, out of the test tube, out of the thinking mind and the inquiring soul, out of search and research and prayer and inspiration.” More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley declared: “But in a larger sense [the twentieth century] has been the best of all centuries. … The fruits of science have been manifest everywhere. … The miracles of modern medicine, of travel, of communication are almost beyond belief.” In summary, these LDS leaders have strongly affirmed the value of scientific progress, while at the same time avoiding firm doctrinal positions on questions that are better left to scientific research.
Similar affirmations of modern science (although generally not quite so dramatic as these) can be found in the teachings of numerous other major world religions. I am not aware of any major religious movement that teaches that science and religion are fundamentally irreconcilable. In other words, most of the “noise” we hear is coming from small groups outside the mainstream of modern religion.
Recently, I had an epiphany. I realized that if I didn’t want to live in an increasingly polarized world, I needed to speak out for harmony, not warfare, between science and religion. So I have to ask, “Why all the fighting?” Isn’t it remarkable how elegant the laws governing the universe are? And isn’t it particularly remarkable that we humans can comprehend these laws? Why does the fact that we have been able to discover these laws detract from our sense of wonder? Indeed, both scientists and nonscientists can stand in awe at the majesty of the universe, which is now known to be much vaster, more intricate and more magnificent than ever before realized in human history.
Why isn’t that enough? It is for me.
David H. Bailey earned a doctorate in mathematics from Stanford University, and is the Senior Scientist in the Computational Research Department at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He has published three books and over 150 articles, ranging in topics from high-performance computing to computational mathematics, probability, and computational biology, as well as some articles in science and religion. He also operates the website http://www.sciencemeetsreligion.org.
Posted February 2010
Updated August 2012