Question: Do Mormons believe that faith and scientific knowledge are incompatible?


Question: Do Mormons believe that faith and scientific knowledge are incompatible?

Mormons believe that there are many things that science does not yet understand. They do not reject science in favor of faith, but believe that they are compatible

It is important to keep in mind the difference in purpose between science and the Gospel. The purpose of science is to examine the characteristics of the world around us in order to more fully understand it. A main purpose of the Gospel is to teach us to develop faith. Unfortunately, the acquisition of scientific knowledge is sometimes perceived to destroy faith. The purpose of faith is to help us understand spiritual things, just as science helps us to understand physical things.

The exercise of faith sometimes seems to require a direct contradiction of what we "know" to physically be true. C. Terry Warner, a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University, expressed this issue well when he said:

Because they think of science as objectively testing its theories against evidence and because they suppose that knowledge and faith are somehow opposites, they regard faith as an attitude of clinging to theological beliefs in spite of any evidence which might be found: an attitude of closing one’s eyes to and stubbornly refusing to be swayed by the facts. Keep in mind that it is a misconception of science and knowledge that I am challenging, not science and knowledge themselves. [1]

Faith sometimes allows us to perform tasks that are beyond the scientific knowledge of our time. The very definition of faith is that it has to do with things that we cannot know in any other manner. The confirmation of this knowledge is supposed to come after we demonstrate faith.

And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:6)

Once we have received a confirmation of our faith, it becomes knowledge. Consider the experience of the Brother of Jared:

And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting. (Ether 3:19)

The problem that arises when attempting to reconcile religion and science, therefore, is that we feel that we have acquired knowledge that sometimes appears to contradict what faith would require us to believe. This knowledge "short circuits" our attempt to exercise faith. Henry Eyring explained it as follows:

Probably one of the most difficult problems in reading the scriptures is to decide what is to be taken literally and what is figurative. In this connection, it seems to me that the Creator must operate with facts and with an understanding that goes entirely outside our understanding and our experience. Because of this, when someone builds up a system of logic, however careful and painstaking, that gives a positive answer to this difficult question, I can't help but wonder about it, particularly if it seems to run counter to the Creator's revelations written in the physical world. At least I would like to move slowly in such matters. [2]

Mormons are encouraged to use science and revelation in our search for truth

In a talk entitled "Fundamental Premises of Our Faith," Elder Dallin H. Oaks told the Harvard Law School of "The three-fold sources of truth about man and the universe: science, the scriptures, and continuing revelation..." [3] Latter-day Saints respect the truths that science can reveal about our earth and universe but we also treasure God's word as found in our scriptures and modern revelations. Understanding how these sources of knowledge and truth complement each other can provide wisdom and comfort to all those that search them diligently by the Spirit.

Elder Oaks would write elsewhere:

Religious persons who pursue scientific disciplines sometimes encounter what seem to be conflicts between the respective teachings of science and religion and must work through how to handle these apparent conflicts. Others, such as I in my pursuit of business and law, can be less troubled. For me, that detachment ended when I was appointed president of Brigham Young University. This new position required me to search out, learn, and articulate answers to questions I had previously been privileged to ignore....

Colleges and universities must of course teach science--facts and theories--but Church educators, like the BYU faculty, refrain from substituting science for God and continue to rely on the truths of religion. IN the study of science, teachers and students with religious faith have the challenge to define the relationship of science and religion in their thinking. They have the special advantage of seeing countless scientific evidences of the Divine Creator. In those exceptional circumstances where science and religion seem to conflict, they have the wisdom to wait patiently in the assurance that truth will eventually prevail. In doing so, most conclude that religion does not have the answers to all questions and that some of what science "knows" is tentative and theoretical and will be replaced in time by new discoveries and new theories.

Some try to deal with apparent conflicts by compartmentalizing science and religion--one in one category, such as Monday through Saturday, and the other in another category, such as Sunday. That was my initial approach, but I came to learn its inadequacy. We are supposed to learn by both reason and revelation, and that does not happen when we compartmentalize science and religion. Our searchings should be disciplined by human reason and also enlightened by divine revelation. IN the end, truth has only one content and one source, and it encompasses both science and religion....

Latter-day Saints should strive to use both science and religion to extend knowledge and to build faith. But those who do so must guard against the significant risk that efforts to end the separation between scientific scholarship and religious faith will only promote a substandard level of performance, where religion and science dilute one another instead of strengthening both.

For some, an attempt to mingle reason and faith can result in irrational scholarship or phony religion, either condition demonstrably worse than the described separation. This danger is illustrated by the case of an international scholar who was known as an expert in English law when he was in America and as an expert in American law when he was in England. Not fully distinguished in either field, he nevertheless managed to slip back and forth between the two so that his expertise was never properly subjected to qualified review in either. As a result, he provided a poor imitation in both. A genuine mingling of the insights of reason and revelation is infinitely more difficult....

Each of us should pursue...truth by reason and by faith. And each of us should increase our ability to communicate that truth by an inspired combination of the language of scholarship and the language of faith.

I am confident that when we progress to the point where we know all things, we will find a harmony of all truth. Until that time, it is wise for us to admit that our understanding--in religion and in science--is incomplete and that the resolution of most seeming conflicts is best postponed. In the meantime, we do the best we can to act upon our scientific knowledge, where that is required, and always upon our religious faith, placing our ultimate reliance for the big questions and expectations of life on the eternal truths revealed by our Creator, which transcend human reason, "for with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37). [4]


Notes

  1. C. Terry Warner, "An Open Letter to Students: On Having Faith and Thinking for Yourself," New Era (Nov. 1971), 14.
  2. Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 62.
  3. Dallin H. Oaks, "Fundamental Premises of Our Faith," address to Harvard Law School, Newsroom lds.org (26 February 2010).
  4. Dallin H. Oaks, Life's Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 55–60.