Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Mormonism and Evolution Debate

According to a recent Pew research poll about Evolution and Religion, Mormons are among the least likely to believe in Evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth. Just like any poll, there are serious problems. How the question is asked doesn't leave much room for alternatives and the elusive nuances to the answers. The word "best" automatically contradicts core Mormon theology about human origins. It doesn't give the respondents a way to explain themselves. As a self-described "Theo-Evolutionist" I can think of other better explanations without denying the huge discoveries of the fossil record. Another problem pointed out was, "The dotted line puts the US population at 48%, yet only five groups, which make up perhaps a third of the US population, are shown below 48%. Some piece of the puzzle is missing." The "science" of poll taking has always been suspicious. Who is giving, who is responding, and how to interpret can be troubling no matter how careful the research. Mormons who are anti-Evolutionists do exist in large numbers, but that doesn't have to be and probably is shrinking.

Probably the biggest hurdle for Evolution is the position held by leadership of the LDS Church who are more likely to be negative. The LDS Church might have “no official” position on Evolution, but the more I study the issue the more ambiguous such a statement comes across. What does it mean to have “no official” position in the LDS Church? That isn’t to say I disagree with that fact, but it is a very slim non-position. It is true that there have been LDS leaders, like Pres. David O. McKay and Stephen L. Richards, who spoke positively in public. In General Conference where it does count theologically and officially, statements about Evolution have been overwhelmingly negative. That translates to members who believe what is spoken there is scripture into an official position; and rightly so for the significant value of General Conference talks. Only slight room for disagreement remains.

There is a reason anti-Evolution remains in Mormonism even if Creationism is seen as unattainable. Despite all the witnesses (evidence) to Evolution, many Mormons hold on to anti-Evolution positions because there isn’t anything to fill the void. The unsaid argument for Mormon Creationists is “if there is no position on Evolution, than what exactly are modern Prophets and Scriptures saying?” I have my own answers to that, but there has been little discussion on the theological implications. Keeping the questions of Evolution vs. The Creation on “a shelf to ask when I am dead” might be a good personal approach, but it will fail to convince other LDS members. And that means more than dismissing McConkie, Smith, Benson, et el. as wrong. It means the very difficult, but I believe possible, work of explaining how they are correct in their own message (such as explaining what they are really going against is the atheist use of the theory). Then, moving past that, explaining how Evolution fits into Mormon theology and Scriptures.

Religious Evolutionists must confront theological concerns to make any lasting headway. To simply say that science and religion ask and answer two different questions is the real “God in the gaps.” Exactly what questions do they ask and what kind of answers are to be found? Scientists should understand there has to be interpretive frameworks to make sense of desperate evidence. The “don’t take it literally” is still NOT an answer or even a discussion. There has to be interpretive discussion of even non-literal meanings. You don’t read a book if you can’t understand the words.

I have my own tentative theory of the relationship between Evolution and the Garden of Eden, the sticking point. Many questions remain such as the idea of pre-Adam-ites and no death before the fall. Still, it is better than leaving it alone or dismissing one or the other. Even Elder McConkie didn’t believe in the Young Earth theory. That is a starting point.

I believe Mormonism is a "literalist" religion. After all, there were angels, miracles, gold plates and visions that are at the center of its founding. Joseph Smith did more than talk about Biblical events, but proclaimed that he conversed with many of the participants - including Adam. There just isn’t room enough in Mormon doctrine (if you take its divine founding and founder seriously) to make the scriptural stories just metaphor or symbolic. Yet, there is plenty of room for a re-interpretation of the scriptural stories. Because Mormons believe in the Scriptures as spiritually inspired, but human produced, the written word isn’t set in perfection. Just as Mormon acted as editor and Joseph Smith made editorial changes to the Book of Mormon, other writers wrote from their prospective. That means that the Scriptures are malleable to both new revelations and new understandings. I think the idea that we have to believe all the stories as written or none of them is spiritually harmful. The Scriptures, like history, are multi-faceted and full of missing pieces or even hyperbole.

Joseph Smith said that by two contraries we come to the truth. When it comes to Evolution and the Creation that has been my guiding principle. Puzzles can be fun. Puzzles can be frustrating. Some can fall apart, but that doesn't mean we should not try to put them together and see if we can see a bigger picture.


Me, Myself and I said...

Anonymous said...

Your intent is good, but this article had nothing to contribute. You, like others hem and haw around the issue, neither hot nor cold as you spew the obvious out of the mouth. One should not let science get in the way of religion, nor religion get in the way of science. Apologist messages of the type written here let both get in the way of the other. Face the facts and deal with them. Take a stand and support your arguments.
Evolution goes on, whether religionists want to acknowledge it or not. Deal with it. Evolution is all about what and how. Religion is about who and when. There is no if.

Tigersue said...

I posted this in TF Sterns blog on the same sort of topic. I thought you might appreciate it.

was blessed to be raised with a father that was a geolist for the first part of his working career. When you work in a field where you have to try to work science and faith together you learn a few things. There is something he once taught me that I think you will appreciate.

"What is the difference between, Candy (our dog at the time) and us?
People would come up with all kinds of answers like our ability to communciate and create. His answer?
We as human beings have spirits that are Sons and Daughters of God. That makes us different from anything else, and everything else every created. No matter what process creation was used by our Heavenly Father, the reality is what the end product was in that process. A body that would house the spirit child of Heavenly Parents.

In andendum, I think a lot of the problems come in when people refuse to believe that God uses Science to create! Once the two are put together there is no reason to not believe that God could use evolution as the means of creation. My father also said, that to him, evolution is logical, a beautiful in order. God is a man of order and who is not to say He used Evolution as the means for creation?

Jettboy said...

"Your intent is good, but this article had nothing to contribute."

Probably not at a practical level. However, this wasn't about how science and religion (particularly Evolution) go together, but why we should not shy away from trying to understand the relationship between both.

"Evolution goes on, whether religionists want to acknowledge it or not. Deal with it. Evolution is all about what and how. Religion is about who and when. There is no if."

Well, duh. The difference is that I would like to know who and when did the what and how. It says something about who we are and who we worship. I refuse to compartmentalize life and knowledge. I find it interesting that the science "apologist" is rejecting the "if" of exploration and discovery.

"One should not let science get in the way of religion, nor religion get in the way of science."

To be honest, I have no idea what this means. Life is messy. Deal with it. Too often both get in the way of the other precisely because of the separatist attitudes. You then end up with a war that hurts both rather than a bridge built of understanding.

I refuse to be told what I can and cannot think, explore, say, and feel. That includes where science and religion conflict or relate.

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Cindy said...

Back in the early '90s I took Biology 100 as a Freshman at BYU (as pretty much every other freshman did too). We studied evolution in that class. I don't remember the professor having a problem with it, although some of the students called him a "knuckle dragger".

Eric M. Armstrong said...

It's very troubling to me that so many Mormons believe that evolution is a false teaching of the devil. Evolution is fact. Anyone that denies this is staring at the sun and denying its existence. There is not only overwhelming fossil and geological evidence, but it has been observed both in the wild and in labs!

Confusion arises when people confuse the THEORY of evolution, which attempts to explain HOW life has transformed, with the FACT that evolution exists.