As a Mormon—a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and as a scientist, I am grateful for the invitation of Professor Daniel Peterson to prepare a statement on my personal religious beliefs for this Website on Mormon scholars. Since my comments here will be searchable on the Internet, I have decided to direct them not to my fellow Mormons, but instead to my friends, colleagues, and students who have other faiths or who do not profess a religious orientation.
1. Gratitude for Religious Tolerance Shown to Me
I was fortunate as a student to study with some of the world’s most gifted biologists. Today in my scientific work I continue to collaborate with renowned scientists, medical experts, and mathematicians. As a conservationist, I work with many dedicated people to protect precious habitats and cultures throughout the world. In my search for new cures to some of the world’s most serious diseases, I have joined forces with many wonderful individuals—who are now close friends—including those who have made different lifestyle choices than I have. Additionally, I have been taught by indigenous people around the world who make tremendous sacrifices to protect their forests, reefs, and other natural areas. Few of my colleagues share my religious beliefs. Yet they are competent, ethical, and pleasant people to whom I am indebted for their acceptance of my commitment to my faith.
I am particularly grateful for their efforts to accommodate my religious practices. Our Church teaches us not to smoke or drink alcoholic beverages. My wife Barbara and I are graciously provided juice or sodas at the dinners and cocktail parties we are invited to attend. Board meeting schedules have been altered so I can attend church services, and my lectures are scheduled on days other than Sundays. I am touched by the efforts of my associates to demonstrate tolerance and respect for my beliefs. I hope I can reciprocate by demonstrating similar respect for the dignity of their beliefs. As part of our foundational documents my Church accepts as an article of faith: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
2. Roots of my Personal Spiritual Beliefs
As a little boy, I prayed nightly for God to protect the plants and animals we share this earth with. A commitment to conservation is in my family legacy. My great grandfather was an early advocate for Arbor Day and started the horticultural society. My grandfather built fish hatcheries and wildlife refuges, and helped create Grand Teton National Park. My father spent his life as a conservation officer, National Park ranger, and State Park Superintendent. My mother was a fisheries biologist and then became a regional administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. My father-in-law spent his career protecting the deserts of California, and served as Director of the Interagency Fire Center. These family members had a great influence on my dedication to conservation. And the many years I have spent in the forests, and studying plants, has had a positive impact on my spirituality.
When I was ten years old, I spent a summer with my father and mother at a trail camp high in Death Canyon in the Grand Teton National Park. My dad’s best worker on his trail crew was a man not of our faith whose name was Red Rote. I noticed that Red disappeared early each morning before breakfast, and then would return in time for his meal. One day I asked him where he was going each morning. He told me that he liked to go out alone to the forest each morning to read his Bible so he could start his day off right.
I was impressed, and decided to follow Red Rote’s example. Soon I began my own study of the New Testament. When I read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, I realized that Jesus’ teachings to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us unkindly, to do our alms in secret, to avoid lust and anger, could not have been formulated by a mere man—these instructions were obviously divine. Imagine how wonderful our world would be if we all followed such teachings.
As my spiritual commitment grew with my study of the New Testament, I began a lifelong study of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is an extremely deep and rewarding scripture comprised of writings of ancient prophets in America. They recorded a visit of the resurrected Jesus to some of the inhabitants of ancient America. He shared with them many teachings, including those contained in his Sermon on the Mount. The Book of Mormon constitutes a second written witness—comparable to the New Testament—for the divinity of Jesus Christ. I cannot read a single page of the Book of Mormon without feeling the power of God in the text. I know with my whole heart that the Book of Mormon is true.
There are spiritual realities that surround us, just as there are physical realities. For example, I know that if I do something wrong, I feel bad inside. Our conscience is God’s way to teach us how to become better people. Similarly, I know that when I kneel down and pray, God actually hears my prayers. If I listen carefully to the inspiration that comes, I find encouragement and direction. Through Church attendance, doing good works, and living Church standards, the little flame of faith that I nurtured so many years ago in the Tetons continues to grow.
One of the best benefits of membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to be sealed as a family forever in the Lord’s temple. When our family almost perished in massive waves that pounded a village in which we were living on a remote island, the assurance that we would be together forever as a family was very precious to us.
3. Support for my Church as an Institution
Some students tell me that they see no need for an organized religion. I respond that evil seems to me to be well organized—do they think that a disorganized response is sufficient?
The organized religions I am familiar with consist of cosmologies that explain our role in the universe, teachings on how to live a worthy life, and rituals or ordinances that bring one closer to the numinous. I have been moved by marvelous musical performances in European cathedrals, tears shed in synagogues when the Torah is revealed, kindness shown me by Muslims who seek to live the teachings of the Koran, and the deep commitment made by Buddhists to live quiet, inoffensive lives. The religions I have observed among indigenous peoples also have won my respect. Sometimes I am asked if my commitment to indigenous peoples is inconsistent with my profound personal commitment to my faith. Because I reverence the sacred in my own life, I can better respect the sacred in the lives of others.
We can learn good things from nearly all religions. One stunning area of agreement of these disparate faiths and traditions is that the earth itself is sacred, and is worthy of our respect. However, in the west, organized religions are beginning to wane. In contrast, my personal support for my Church—like that of many other Mormon scholars—has only grown through time. This is because we are focused on Jesus, his divinity, and his teachings. As an ancient prophet wrote in the Book of Mormon: “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
When Jesus was on earth, he organized his church to proclaim the gospel, to heal the sick, and to care for the poor. We read in the New Testament: “And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him. And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach. And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils” (Mark 3: 13-15).
The apostle Paul wrote: “And he gave some, apostles, and some, prophets, and some, evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Jesus has restored his Church to the earth with much the same organization as in ancient times. Just as Peter and the other apostles led the Church after Christ’s death, today the Lord has called a prophet and apostles to oversee his church in these modern times. President Thomas S. Monson currently is a compassionate man, a friend to everyone he meets. But there is something far more important to me than his outstanding personal virtues and life of service. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his essay “Of the Difference between a Genius and Apostle,” we revere Paul as an apostle, not because he was a good tent maker, but because of the Lord who called him. I believe that the Lord can give President Monson important direction for our time. President Monson has asked us to devote more of our time and resources in aiding individuals who are poor, ill, or otherwise distressed. Recently, he asked us to increase our efforts in providing assistance to the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there.
Most of the leaders of our Church are accomplished professionally, but at their core they are normal people. However, when inspired by the Lord, they can receive divine direction. In my local congregation, I am provided with inspired lay leadership. We do not have a professional clergy, so the sermons and lessons and even sacramental services are all provided by others. When I listen carefully to their counsel and experience, I receive encouragement to live a better life.
The church also provides many organized ways to serve. Once a month, we fast for twenty-four hours and give to the poor the funds that would otherwise have been expended on our meals. Not only does this help the poor, but it also helps us have more compassion on those who go hungry. Our humanitarian efforts continue to expand in reach and sophistication. It is often a race between my Church and the Red Cross to be the first to arrive at international disasters with needed food, medical supplies, and other assistance. My son went with thousands of other Mormons to New Orleans to volunteer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While FEMA was still floundering, supplies and assistance were given to residents regardless of religious affiliation. Church leader Jeffrey Holland said: “I’m proud of that, when in a tragedy like Katrina you can count on the Mormons. They’ll be there. They’ll be there with their hammers and their saws and their donated labor. And when they’re through with this community, they’ll go on to the next.”
For two years beginning at age 19, I served as a volunteer missionary to the islands of Samoa. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to explain our faith to any who cared to listen, and to engage in humanitarian efforts. I was treated with tremendous kindness by the Polynesian people, who taught me their language, and I have tried through the years to repay their kindness. I subsequently have served in the Church as a scoutmaster, and have worked with our young people in various roles. Currently, I lead a Sunday school class for adults, and I look forward this coming year to discussing with my class passages from the Old Testament.
4. Potential Conflicts between Science and Religion
Many good people struggle with conflicts between science and religion. Without in any way wishing to diminish or demean their struggles, I must confess that I see almost no conflicts. I realize, though, that thoughtful people on both sides of the divide see conflict as inevitable. It is unfortunate when college students sometimes feel that they have to choose between science and the teachings of their religion. Brigham Young, one of the early prophets in our church, decried the impact of this false dichotomy:
I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science.
You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has.
In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is true science . . . to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible.
I feel lucky to belong to a Church that “will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.” As a student, I heard Mormon chemist Dr. Henry B. Eyring declare that “our Church only requires us to believe what is true.” This has been very important to me, because I know the things that I learn in science that are true pose no conflict for my religious faith.
I am thrilled to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and am deeply committed both to its spiritual teachings and to its institutional mission. My colleagues in science, conservation, and medical research have been extraordinarily kind in accommodating my religious commitments, for which I am very grateful. My faith has grown through prayer and my studies of the New Testament, and subsequently by repeated readings of the Book of Mormon. I am active in my local congregation, and support the leadership of my Church. I am very grateful for my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A Harvard Ph.D., Paul Alan Cox has spent three decades searching the rain forests of the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia for new medicines. His discovery of the anti AIDS drug candidate prostratin led TIME magazine to name Cox as one of eleven “Heroes of Medicine.” His efforts to protect island rain forests were recognized with the Goldman Environmental Prize and portrayed in the Discovery Channel documentary Triangle of Life. He later received the Rachel Carson Award for his advocacy of indigenous peoples.
He founded Seacology, a not for profit conservation organization in Berkeley, California, which has built schools, medical clinics, and water supplies in islands in forty-one countries around the world, in return for protective covenants for nearly two million acres of rain forest and coral reef.
Prior to becoming Executive Director of the Institute for Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he served as Director of the Congressionally-chartered National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hawaii and Florida. His current research focuses on finding and fighting the causes of neurodegenerative illness.
See, additionally, Dr. Cox’s chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.
Posted February 2010