I’m saddened by our ignorance of evolution

Three years ago I wrote an article on my personal blog about the concept of mature religion, wherein I expressed some sentiments of sadness and frustration at our unnecessary and unfair patronisation of science as religious adherents, as well as our appeal to ridiculous pseudo-science and inappropriately quoting falsehoods in an effort to promote religion. In that article I wrote for all religious people, but especially us Mormons, who ought to be among the best and most open minded people in the world. We ought to do better. We ought to be smarter. We ought to be more open minded, and we ought to be more respectful.

Or, as otherwise worded by Truman Madsen, Mormonism is (supposed to be) a religion “for the space age” that “takes account of the vast universe we now know about” (lectures of Joseph Smith).

Now I return to this topic, but wish to speak specifically of the theory of evolution, and how our silly fear and ignorance of it work to push the intellectuals of the world yet further and further away from ever giving Mormonism a chance.

In missionary work, we are our own worst enemies.

The importance of intellectual plausibility

In the recent 2015 FairMormon conference, Daniel C. Peterson (a hero of mine) quoted Austin Farrer relative to the importance of rational argument and its role in faith:

“… Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

He went on to present what he called a “barebones secular argument for the gospel”, he explained that all of his arguments were not intended to convince the listener that the Gospel is true, but to persuade them that it may be plausible. In other words, to create a climate in which belief may flourish.

He explains that what keeps many people away from the church / Gospel is that, from the get-go, within their minds there is no chance of it even being true. They simply view it as implausible from the start. There is no room for a spiritual witness because a prayer will never be said. They will never ask God in faith if it is true because in their minds it is false from the start. His intention was to clear that up first, and then deal with the rest of the enquiry process.

 A story of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is pretty much the Thomas Monson of the atheist world. (He’s the guy who gave a TED talk entitled “Militant Atheism” and who wrote a book “The God Delusion”) When I decided to engage with my personal journey of re-evaluation recently, I was immediately attracted to Richard Dawkins. He represented the most powerful, the most knock-down writer that I could begin my journey with. And what better place to start than with his internationally best-selling book “The God Delusion”?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book. No other book in the world and in my life has made me contemplate so deeply my belief system than this book. If one cannot face the dark, ominous cloud of doubt then the tree of faith will never grow stronger than a sapling. I decided to run at my fears and doubts head-on, and Dawkins helped me to do that. (Summarising thoughts from the God Delusion is outside of the scope of this article.)

Over the past several months I have spent a lot of time reviewing Dawkins’ thoughts and his story. He has a lot to challenge us on and frankly we have a lot of work to do. We are behind in many respects. But what fascinated me most was his personal story, which I will try to describe as accurately as possible.

Dawkins grew up as an Anglican. He was a theist, he believed in God based on his upbringing.

However, when he was about 14 years old he first learned about evolution. Because at this period of time generally, and certainly within the Anglican faith, evolution was utterly incompatible with the prevailing narrative (creationism) – he concluded quite simply that there are serious reasons to doubt God’s existence. He became an agnostic. Two years later as he accepted evolution more fully he became an atheist. Since then it seems clear he has never reconsidered that position seriously. Once you’re in, you’re in – this applies for atheists as well as people of various religions for the most part.

If you think to his time (and it was not that long ago, things are pretty much the same now), it’s unsurprising that scientific sophistication lead to direct contradiction with faith. It is not surprising that knowledge of evolution would lead to atheism, it so often does.

But this is a sad, sad reality. And it’s frankly our fault for being so scared of and so rejecting of evolution.

You see it is our ignorance of evolution, and frankly our unwillingness to simply open our eyes, that leads our belief systems (AKA commonly promulgated religious doctrines) to be so fundamentally incompatible with evolution. And it is that very incompatibility that pushes “smart people” (scientists and the like) further and further away from us.

We are stabbing ourselves in the back, shooting ourselves in the foot. We are proving the stereotype right that says “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people”.

It is our fundamentalist and dogmatic interpretation of the scriptures that leads to the existence of God becoming “implausible” in the eyes of educated scientists. We force the tension. I strongly believe this tension is not necessary.

Young Richard Dawkins turned his back on the idea of God’s existence being even plausible, not because evolution is intrinsically incompatible with God, but because the prevailing doctrines of religions at the time (and for the most part, these endure on even today) force these two things to be in conflict, where they don’t need to be.

It’s time to open our eyes, and stop forcing contradiction where there is none

About two and a half years ago curiosity peaked and I conquered my fears. I decided to go learn and understand evolution. I wanted to know whether it was true and where all of the fear came from.

What I found was one of the most elegant, powerful and explanatory scientific theories of all time. It is a scientific theory, in all that this word means. This is analogous to saying scientific fact. A theory is not a hypothesis (we seem to confuse the two, for good reason too because the word has “theory” has two senses). A scientific theory is a “A well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena”.

In scientific circles, the theory of evolution stands on equal footing with the theory of thermodynamics, the theory of gravity and germ theory. It is only in religious “folk lore” where we pretend that it’s “just a theory” and it’s “only accepted by some scientists” as “one of the options” or “one of the possible scientific explanations”. This is just silly nonsense. When you dig into it, it’s very hard to find a scientist (especially biologist) who doesn’t fully accept evolution, unless they are heavily biased by the social pressures of their religion.

What we need to do instead of cultivating fear of evolution (which merely results in our pushing ourselves further and further into ignorance) is figure out a way to adjust our worldview and accommodate this new information. The rest of this article aims to discuss that.

The 22% survey and BYU

I suggest this podcast (among others) for anyone who still doubts in evolution. Dr Steven Peck is an associate professor in BYU, and an active, return missionary Latter-day Saint. He also happens to be a professor who specialises in biology and particularly evolution.

He has given several presentations, (including this and inside this and this) on the subject.

In that podcast he mentions a survey which showed that 22% of LDS church members believe in evolution. When I first heard it I was surprised in both directions – This is both strangely high and sadly low. Apparently it is lower than the average US population — tragic.

Assuming the results of the survey carry across to the church at large, that would mean fully 3.3 million Mormons believe in evolution! That’s quite a lot more than we are generally led to believe. And yet it is still sadly low.

What we don’t realise is that BYU specialises in evolution. One of the fields in which BYU is more famous is evolution! How this has not carried across to the membership at large is a convincing testament to the power of fear and social pressure on our beliefs.

The forced contradiction

There are four creation accounts in LDS theology.

  1. The Genesis account
  2. The Book of Moses account
  3. The Book of Abraham account
  4. The Temple account

It’s important to understand that at the time of Moses, Abraham, and even Joseph Smith, evolution was simply unknown. Mankind did not have “a theory of evolution” to refer to. These creation accounts were meant to be explanatory (where did we come from?) in a world where there were no other explanations available. But by no means are they exhaustive explanations.

Frankly, we can’t expect those accounts to spell out the details of evolution. Terms like “natural selection” and “genetics” and “mutation” likely didn’t exist in the languages in which these books were written, not to mention there was definitely not enough room on the scriptures for all the detail. (The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin is over 200 000 words long, by contrast the entire book of Genesis is only ~32 000 words.) They simply lacked the scientific knowledge and the resources to actually understand the details of how we got here, and so I suggest the creation account is more of a “placeholder” explanation: a dramatically simplified version of how the world got here.

There’s a difference between what scriptures actually say, and the “extrapolations” (or “interpretations”) of what they say. In other words, (and this is a well-established fact) the interpretation of scriptures can and does vary, sometimes dramatically.

When reviewing the scriptures in light of our knowledge of evolution, I don’t see any unresolvable contradictions. Surely, there is a lot of detail to be worked out, but I don’t think (and there are people who know better who agree) that we can’t work it out. Without going into detail here are just a few preliminary, progressive thoughts:

  1. “time period” vs. “day”. It’s already well established within Mormon theology that “day” was not meant literally. It is now interpreted to mean a time period. Similarly we should sincerely ask what else was meant allegorically and not literally in the stories.
  2. The rib taken from Adam and used to create Eve was metaphorical. It was not a literal rib, even though the story doesn’t say that directly, that is our interpretation and it’s been formally sanctioned. (Reference)
  3. It’s strange how over time things that were assumed to be literal slowly become figurative! There are already sophisticated theologians of other faiths who don’t have a problem with the idea of even Adam and Eve themselves being figurative. (I’ll just leave that one here 🙂 ) Surely we already question things like whether Satan was really a snake (or was that figurative?), whether there was actually a tree (or was that figurative?) actually fruit (or was that figurative?), actually cherubim and a flaming sword (or was that figurative?), I mean – there was certainly death before “the fall”, or else dinosaurs give us massive problems with our theology. One wonders, at the end of the day, how much of the story will eventually become figurative!

And so on. We should be curious and open minded about learning, instead of fearful and ignorant.

The meaning of life, and difficulty of answers

One of the greatest fears of evolution is the irrational idea that if we evolved from lower forms of life then we are not children of God and God doesn’t exist and our lives are intrinsically meaningless.

What a terrible cascade of ideas – forced by our very literal interpretations of the creation story.

Just because evolution is true, doesn’t mean your life is meaningless, and it doesn’t mean we’re not children of God (if that’s what you want to believe). There are ways to understand these pieces of the puzzle coming together. Just because the answers are not easy to attain, and not forthcoming, doesn’t mean we should just impatiently throw up our arms and give up on the entire idea.

Imagine Joseph Smith, in his personal journey towards truth as a young teenager, saying “OH this is all just too difficult and confusing! Why isn’t the answer simple?! Why isn’t the answer just simple and forthcoming?! Why do I have to work for my knowledge?!” – instead, he just got to work. “Let’s figure this one out.”

Our demand for “quick fixes” and “quick solutions” and lack of patience for our intellectual problems is the very off-putting from an educated person’s point of view. It is this very impatience that leads us to blindly reject things like evolution, and, ultimately, make religion “implausible” in the eyes of many intellectuals and scientists.

I can imagine myself in young Richard Dawkins’s shoes (and I do, genuinely empathise with this).

“Wait a second. Evolution is a fact, it is scientific and well established. But my religious beliefs and teachers blindly reject it. It seems clear to me (based on my background) that there is no resolution with the creation, the Bible, Christianity and evolution. Well, let’s just throw out the whole of religion”.

And from that point onwards God and religion becomes permanently “implausible”. There is never any looking back.

Indeed, Richard Dawkins has compared this to believing in the stork theory of babies. Would you take someone seriously who thought babies were delivered by storks in the middle of the night?

Conclusion

Unless we learn to approach problems with open minds and hearts, creativity, positivity, and smart minds, we will never connect with the intellectual elite of the world. The Gospel will mainly remain in the hands of the less educated. It seems to me (and someone correct me if I’m wrong) the only way someone becomes an intellectual AND a member of the church is if they were born into the church in the first place. It’s very seldom that smart people, as adults, join the church (though it surely happens sometimes). Naturally, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it’s not helpful for missionary work. Missionary work needs to take the Gospel to ALL people, and part of being true missionaries is learning to listen.

Friendliness can only go so far for smart people. They demand understanding. They demand that we seek answers.

Closing quote from the same Mr Dawkins:

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

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