Science and Religion

My father is a geologist. During his career he used the tools of his scientific discipline to answer practical questions about the natural world. “Where do we drill to find petroleum?” “Is it safe to put a building here so close to a fault zone?” “Will this chemical leak get into the ground water?” “Where do we dig to find the most copper in this mine?” When we drove through the beautiful scenery of the American southwest he saw the view differently than other people did. He would often pause on our outings to explain how the canyons and plateaus around us were made. I remember once when I was struggling to understand what he was explaining, he said, “You’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!” In his mind’s eye all of those sturdy mountain ranges were being simultaneously uplifted and eroded in slow motion over geologic time, following the laws of nature.

My dad is also a man of faith, and is a creationist. That is, he believes that God is literally the creator of the earth. This doctrine is clearly taught in the Bible, and the scriptures revealed in modern times have also confirmed it. (For instance, see the creation stories in the books of Moses and Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price and compare to the account in Genesis.) If the scientific method can teach us about geology, he reasoned, then it must reveal something about God’s methods in creating the earth. Geology, then, is simply the study of how God creates landforms and sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rock masses. Believing in science and also in religion is not contradictory in his view.

The sun is the center of our solar system. The Son of God is the center of the Plan of Salvation. The heart pumps blood. God reveals his word through prophets. Consciousness is a function of the brain. We must forgive others in order to be forgiven. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is caused by mutations in the gene which codes for dystrophin. God is our father in heaven, and he loves us. All of these statements are true, but our methods of discovering these truths may be different, and their relative importance in different contexts may also be different.

In his General Conference talk in April 2014, President Russell M. Nelson shared a personal experience from his prior career as a cardiothoracic surgeon. He was criticized by one of his colleagues for being too open with his faith and for not separating his religious convictions from his professional knowledge. President Nelson gave the following explanation for why he did not comply with this colleague’s demands that he hide his faith:

“Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside. Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Science and religion are traditionally thought of as enemies, or at least as competitors, and religionists and scientists tend to be skeptical of one another’s motives, methods, and findings. History over the last millennium or so records many examples of how this conflict has played out in topics ranging from geocentricity to evolution, and there are no signs that this old argument is getting any quieter of late. The grounding of medical practice in biological science over the last two centuries has opened up a new front in this battle. Abortion and other methods of birth control, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell technology, artificial life support in persistent vegetative states, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia have all been hotly debated using both scientific and religious arguments. A major point of disagreement in these argument is whether science or religion carries greater authority in attempting to answer these questions. Latter-day Saints believe that moral law is eternal and is revealed by God, and cannot be changed by scientific discovery, or by political forces or cultural opinions. The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by God’s laws, not by the availability or absence of a technology to do it.

Henry Eyring was a Latter-day Saint and a world-renowned chemist who made important contributions to our understanding of transition state chemistry in the 1930s and 40s. He wrote several articles and books describing his thoughts about faith and scientific reasoning. When I was an undergraduate student his book, Reflections of a Scientist, helped me find a way to reconcile my religious beliefs with what I was learning about evolutionary biology. His son, Henry B. Eyring, has been an apostle for over 20 years and currently serves as the first counselor to the president of the church. In the October 2015 General Conference President Eyring gave this description of his father:

“He was a scientist who searched for truth about the physical world throughout his entire adult life. He used the tools of science well enough to be honored by his peers across the world. Much of what he did in chemistry came from seeing in his mind’s eye molecules moving about and then confirming his vision by experiments in a laboratory.

“But he had followed a different course to discover the truths that mattered most to him and to each of us. Only through the Holy Ghost can we see people and events as God sees them.”

Elder Richard G Scott, who recently passed away, gave a similar description of science and divine revelation as complementary methods to seek for truth. He was a nuclear physicist before receiving his call as a general authority of the church. In his October 2007 General Conference address titled, “Truth: The Foundation of Correct Decisions,” he gave this comparison of the two methods:

“There are two ways to find truth—both useful, provided we follow the laws upon which they are predicated. The first is the scientific method. It can require analysis of data to confirm a theory or, alternatively, establish a valid principle through experimentation. The scientific method is a valuable way of seeking truth. However, it has two limitations. First, we never can be sure we have identified absolute truth, though we often draw nearer and nearer to it. Second, sometimes, no matter how earnestly we apply the method, we can get the wrong answer.

“The best way of finding truth is simply to go to the origin of all truth and ask or respond to inspiration. For success, two ingredients are essential: first, unwavering faith in the source of all truth; second, a willingness to keep God’s commandments to keep open spiritual communication with Him.”

In both President Eyring’s and Elder Scott’s reckonings, revelation from God clearly trumps scientific reasoning when it comes to discovering truth about the most important questions in life. Remembering this hierarchy will help us to avoid the pitfall of education described by the prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon: “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not” (2 Nephi 9:28-29).

In the April 2003 General Conference President Nelson shared another illustrative experience from his previous professional career. He was asked to operate on a man who had a problem with his heart valve for which there was no known surgical treatment at the time. The man pleaded with Dr. Nelson to perform a surgery, saying, “The Lord will not reveal to me how to repair that … valve, but He can reveal it to you. Your mind is so prepared. If you will operate upon me, the Lord will make it known to you what to do. Please perform the operation that I need, and pray for the help that you need.” Dr. Nelson consented to attempt the surgery, still not knowing what he could do to repair the valve, but he made it a subject of intense prayer until the day of the surgery. In the operating room while he was examining this heart valve with his own eyes, he was suddenly struck by an idea for how to approach the problem, and a picture came to his mind detailing how to proceed. The operation was a success, and this grateful patient lived for many more years.

President Nelson’s experience blurs the lines between scientific inquiry and revelation from God. In this case there really were no lines between the two. God had knowledge of a surgical technique which could help this patient, and he revealed it to a prepared mind through the power of prayer and inspiration rather than through the scientific method. The mode of its discovery did not alter the nature of this truth, which would have been just as true had it been discovered by an atheist doctor using using more conventional methods.

The methods for seeking inspiration are not the same as those used for scientific inquiry, and spiritual knowledge is based on an entirely different kind of evidence than scientific knowledge. No lab result will ever prove or disprove the existence of God, but there is a role for experimentation in religious inquiry. A Book of Mormon prophet named Alma gave a description of how to seek religious truths, phrased as if one were conducting an experiment. Reading this masterful discourse, found in Alma 32:26-43, was the starting place for my own conversion from skeptic to believer many years ago. (Note that the promise of Alma’s experiment is essentially the same as that given by Jesus in John 7:17.)

I remember attending an evening lecture my father gave at a church building when I was a kid. He started by writing “Science vs. Religion” on the chalk board. After discussing for a few minutes how the two disciplines often seemed to be at odds with one another he returned to the chalk board and erased the “vs.” He replaced it with an “and,” explaining that “Science and Religion” are both ways to explore and discover truth. Like Henry Eyring and Elder Scott, his scientific discipline did not diminish his integrity to religious convictions. Like President Nelson, my dad resisted the temptation to hide or abandon his religious beliefs under considerable pressure from his academic peers.

Like my dad, I believe in God, and I use the tools of science to understand the natural world which God created. Someday there will be a grand merger between religion and science, because we are promised in the scriptures that “in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things. … Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34). I don’t want to miss that lecture!

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist. His father, Ivan D. Sanderson, is a retired geologist and is the author of Isaiah: The Times of Fulfillment, A Verse-By-Verse Commentary.

2 replies to “Science and Religion

  1. Alan,
    What a brilliant post! I really like it. You have a grasp of the issues that is rationally consistent with sound science. And you have a grasp of the issues that is spiritually consistent with sound Christian doctrine. You wrote that your dad resisted the temptation to hide or abandon his religious beliefs under considerable pressure from his academic peers. This is the message of my recent book, Darwinian Deceptions: Defending Truth for Today’s Latter-day Saints. During my 10-year teaching experience as adjunct faculty at BYU, I saw students compromise their beliefs in basic, revealed doctrine at the urging of BYU Biology faculty. Kids think that because science is the best thing going when it comes to uncovering empirical truths, then when science says that their ancestors were hominids, it must be so, even if it contradicts gospel doctrine. Science is not perfect and is constantly subject to change and refutation. On the other hand, basic gospel doctrines are perfect and are not subject to change. Your dad, even though a scientist, knew which one to put his trust in.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts, and thanks for reading! I studied biology at the U of U, which is a department that does not coddle its young Mormon students. That was when my faith had to sink or swim, and I chose to swim.

      Finding a reconciliation between science and religion is challenging, and can be either frustrating or fun, or both, depending on your perspective. It is a useful exercise for everyone who likes to think, but it is an absolute necessity for those of us who depend upon science for our livelihood. I remain unsettled about some topics, but I don’t let it worry me any more. At the end of the day what really matters is whether you have a firm anchor of faith in Christ, which I do. Having some idea of how to reconcile evolutionary biology and the creation story is nice, but I don’t think it will matter so much on judgement day.


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