I have a great many academic colleagues throughout the world who probably wonder if I am crazy because of my adherence to religion and my steadfast refusal to drink exotic draft beers and expensive vintages of wine. We live in an age when it is politically correct among academics to adopt a rational, secular, and often atheistic view of the world. I am writing this brief statement of beliefs with these non-religious colleagues in mind. I appreciate their friendship, their tolerance, their insights, and their outward acceptance of my apparent eccentricities. I am also grateful for the gallons of mineral water, sparkling apple juice, and diet soda they have provided in various social settings over the years. Now, I would like to tell them why I believe in God, the nature of the God I believe in, and why this belief is compatible with my work as a scientist.
God is a real, living individual who communicates with man. This I know, not because I have seen him, but because I have felt his influence in my life. Profound personal experiences, inspired thoughts, and deep feelings allow me to accept by faith what my religion teaches about God, and also to accept without reservation the words of credible witnesses called prophets who have spoken with God directly.
My religious views do not conflict in any way with my ability to function as a professor of Biology at a large (and famously liberal) university. I cherish the privilege of teaching the precepts, methods, and theories of biology and geology, including evolution and the age of an ancient earth, as they are understood by modern science. The Mormon Church allows me to do so without any reservations or restrictions. Many years ago, I was offered a job at Brigham Young University, a job that I ultimately turned down. One of my interviews was with one of the general authorities (worldwide leaders) of the Church, in an office just next door to the famous temple in Salt Lake City. I asked him if I would be allowed to teach evolution at BYU. His answer was something like this: “Of course. We want you to teach truth as you understand it, but please do so without damaging the faith of our young people.”
Faith has proven indispensable in my practice of science. Often I have turned to prayer when research puzzles seemed insurmountable, when facing formidable audiences of brilliant academics, when expeditions were beset with bad weather and personnel conflicts, when fresh ideas were needed for grant proposals, and when facing dangers on the shore or in the depths of the sea. My prayers have been answered consistently, most often with comfort and clarity of thought, but also with amazing events and circumstances. Perhaps I could share just one example. I was leading a research cruise in the Bahamas in which we were diving in a four-person submersible to the ocean floor. We needed a particular species of sea urchin in numbers sufficient for an experiment that was critical to the performance of our federal grant. We had sought these animals for several days in an area where we had seen them before, but they were not to be found. The end of the cruise was approaching and failure seemed virtually certain. That night, I said a silent but fervent prayer in my berth, asking God to help. In the early morning hours, I awoke suddenly with the clear thought in my mind that we should launch the sub on the North Side of Goulding Cay. I arose and went to the bridge, where I pointed to a spot on the chart and asked the mate on duty to steam to that particular place for an early morning launch. The other scientists were surprised to find themselves in a different area when they awoke, but we found our animals there in tremendous numbers. Such experiences have been far too numerous to explain away as statistically credible coincidences. Moreover, much of what I have accomplished in life should have been impossible for one of my limited intellect and modest abilities. I know from experience that we can receive divine help.
LDS (Mormon) doctrine tells us that if we were to see God, he would look like a man. We would be able to touch his physical body. Although he is capable of inspiring us internally by means of an emissary who goes by the name of “Holy Ghost,” it is entirely possible to converse with him directly “as one man speaks to another.” We know this because Moses and other prophets, credible witnesses all, have testified in writing of their direct conversations with God. How can one discount the moving and fervent testimonies of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and apostle Sidney Rigdon, who detailed a specific encounter with the resurrected Christ on February 16, 1832:
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God. (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-24).
Joseph Smith sealed this testimony with his blood, at the hands of an angry mob that refused to accept the claim that he had actually seen God.
Although we were created in His image and are thus similar to Him in form, God surpasses us in a number of essential attributes. Among these are omniscience and omnipotence. A unique insight of Mormonism is “The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words light and truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36). Omniscience, or knowledge of all things, is therefore the attribute that gives God his glory. Imagine knowing all of the laws of nature, of physics, of chemistry, and of microbiology. Imagine knowing everything that ever happened in prehistory and throughout historical time. Imagine knowing every species of plant, animal, and microbe. Imagine knowing how all of these organisms function, what keeps them alive, and how they respond to challenges in their environments. Imagine understanding all of the geological processes by which the solid earth is formed, and the chemical reactions that power the stars and galaxies. God understands all of these things, whereas we understand only those small portions that we have learned through science and other human endeavors. In my opinion, the attribute of omniscience gives God his other key attribute of omnipotence, for it is axiomatic that knowledge is power. The concept of omnipotence has been used by generations of philosophers in their arguments against the possibility of God (“If God is all powerful, why does he let evil happen?” etc.) LDS theology, however, makes it clear that even God cannot do things that are impossible, such as creating something out of nothing or violating the eternal laws of nature.
We can’t begin to fathom how much God knows, but we can become ever more like God by learning as much as we can. I am thankful, therefore, for the opportunity to learn, and I am motivated by the prospect of approaching omniscience, even though it may be at an agonizingly slow rate. As a scientist and academic, I find it inspiring to accept the direction of the Lord to diligently learn and teach:
Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms. (D&C 88:79)
This instruction justifies my study in every field of natural science and human endeavor; indeed, it instructs me to explore all knowledge and all truth. God’s specific instructions are to learn these things by two different methods: study and faith. As I have progressed in my ability to learn throughout my life, it has become apparent to me that we cannot know everything unless we apply both approaches.
Some (perhaps even most) of my fellow biologists deny the usefulness of faith as an epistemology, a method of learning. They subscribe to the scientific method, a collection of approaches based on empirical observation and experimentation, as their only means of obtaining knowledge. I am dismayed when these individuals, including arguably some of the smartest and most articulate people on earth, display the arrogant attitude that all may be known with the use of one’s own limited senses. One long-standing example (not the only one) that has damaged both science and religion is the misuse of evolutionary theory. I freely confess to my religious brethren that I believe in the usefulness of evolution as an explanation of natural, observable phenomena. I also confess to my scientific colleagues that I believe in the usefulness of religious faith as a way of understanding things that cannot currently be learned by empirical means. When my colleagues use the true, but limited, observations of evolutionary biology to deny the existence of God, they abandon the very scientific method that they profess to espouse. Modern science progresses by falsifying hypotheses. Because the hypothesis of God’s existence cannot be falsified without searching every corner of the universe, vehement atheists resort to inductive arguments. Induction, or the drawing of conclusions by the preponderance of evidence, has been shown by philosophers of science to be limited in its usefulness. Bertrand Russell, one of the most notable atheists of the twentieth century, illustrated the fallacy of inductive reasoning with his analogy of the inductivist turkey, who concluded on the basis of personal experience that he would be fed every morning at the turkey farm. On Christmas Eve, his inductive conclusion proved to be wrong when he lost his head.
No amount of inductive evidence in science can disprove the existence of God. The persuasive arguments of Richard Dawkins et al. notwithstanding, atheism also cannot be justified by the positive facts that support evolution, no matter how convincing or correct these facts may be. Ironically, the only way one may be an atheist is to have faith in the atheist philosophy. This was understood by pioneering evolutionary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who coined the term ‘agnostic’) but is inexplicably denied by many of our modern scientists. The evidence for God is available, but it is conveniently rejected by those who don’t wish to believe it.
I have been teaching and investigating evolutionary biology for my entire career, which extends back more than thirty years. The word “evolution” appears repeatedly in my articles and books and I currently serve as an editor of a scientific journal with the word in the title. I have also been an actively participating member of the Mormon Church for my entire life, where I have had many opportunities to teach theology and provide ecclesiastical leadership. At no time has my belief in God been successfully challenged by the methods or conclusions of science. It is clear to me as a scientist that much of what we have learned about biology, including evolution, is correct and true. It is also obvious to me as a man of faith that principles received by revelation from God are true. The profitable approach to knowledge, therefore, is to accept the general statement that there is a creator, while also accepting the self-evident truth that all of his mechanisms are not outlined in the first chapters of Genesis. Just as science does not refute the existence of God, the scriptures do not refute the operations of natural processes.
I agree with my colleagues that “creationism” is not science and should not be taught as an “alternative paradigm” in our public schools. This does not mean, however that God does not live. To me, the important issue is that God and evolution are not alternative paradigms, but two approaches to understanding non-contradictory truths about the world and the universe.
When we think of God as an omniscient being, it becomes easier to visualize him as a creator who operates within the bounds of the natural laws he understands. Any thoughtful person who looks around can see that everything was not created “in the beginning.” Plate tectonics, volcanism, and erosion create new geological structures on an ongoing basis, just as cell division and a bewildering array of reproductive processes create new individuals all the time. On a longer time scale, processes such as natural selection, mutation, genetic drift, and allopatry ”create” new species and varieties of organisms. Another doctrine unique to Mormonism leaves latitude for these natural processes to act on their own, without God’s intervention at every step:
And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon. (2 Nephi 2:14).
I don’t understand why some churchmen find it hard to believe in a God who understands nature and lets nature accomplish the creative process. I believe that God operates within the eternal principles of physics and chemistry. Unlike the God of fundamentalist Protestantism, who was virtually invented by committee at the time of Constantine, God is comprehensible and natural (part of nature) and not a supernatural (outside of nature) mystery with self-contradictory attributes. Thus, he is not everywhere and nowhere, without body parts or passions, large enough to fill the universe but small enough to dwell in the heart, etc. In a famous funeral sermon, the prophet Joseph Smith preached:
Now I ask all who hear me why the learned men who are preaching salvation say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. The reason is they are unlearned . . . God had materials to organize the world out of chaos, chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory . . . pure principles of element are principles that can never be destroyed, they may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed.
Mormonism’s remarkable doctrine that “the elements are eternal” is repeated in section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a canonized book of scripture dating from the early nineteenth century. Even as fundamentalist Christianity holds tightly to the concept of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), the alternative espoused by Joseph Smith and attributed to revelation from God conforms perfectly with the laws of conservation of energy, conservation of matter, and equivalency of matter and energy as formulated by modern physics. That same section of modern scripture that tells us about the eternal nature of the elements also gives us a clear statement about how we may know God:
VERILY, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am;
This is not much different from the famous philosophy of Augustine—“I believe that I may know” —a principle elaborated by the ancient prophet Alma, who recommended that one “experiment” (his word, not mine) by exercising a tiny bit of faith. This small experiment, he said, is like planting a seed. If the seed grows and bears fruit, then it must be a good seed. If it keeps growing, one may eventually come to a perfect knowledge of the principle. One cannot know God from a position of non-belief. One cannot know God by arguing about his existence. A more thoughtful approach was advocated in the book of Psalms (46:10): “Be still and know that I am God.”
I look forward to the day when I may meet that scholar who knows all things about the natural world. In the meantime, I can testify from more than a half century of personal experience that one may draw close to Him through obedience and prayer. I am grateful for the privilege of learning about the world and the universe by the application of the complementary and non-competing epistemologies of intelligence, logic, study, observation, and faith.
Craig M. Young is a Professor of Biology at the University of Oregon and the director of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, a beautiful marine lab campus on the Oregon Coast. He grew up in California, where he discovered tide pools and science books at an early age. Following an LDS mission in southern Italy, he studied at Stanford University and the University of Washington, receiving B.S. and M. S. degrees from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Alberta. He has held faculty positions at Florida State University and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, and adjunct academic appointments at Florida Institute of Technology, King’s College London, and Florida Atlantic University. He serves on boards and advisory committees for numerous state, national, and international organizations. Professor Young’s main field of interest is the reproduction, life-history biology, and embryology of invertebrate animals, particularly those living in the deep sea. This research has been supported continuously by the National Science Foundation for thirty years. He has visited the deep-sea floor dozens of times in eight different submersibles. His work takes him to marine laboratories and universities throughout the world, and he has led more than eighty research expeditions in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. He has published nearly two hundred peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, has served as editor of twelve books, and has worked as an advisor on documentary films for the BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic. Dr. Young has a strong interest in the history of science and religion, and has published a number of articles on the history of marine science. He received the 2009 Honored Alumni Award from the College of Life Sciences at BYU.
Craig Young has been happily married for thirty-four years to his wife Robyn, and they have four children and two grandchildren. In the church, he has served as a missionary, a branch president, a counselor in three bishoprics, an elders quorum president, a high priest group leader, a youth leader, a scoutmaster, a gospel doctrine teacher, and a high councilor. His favorite church calling, however, was “nature counselor” at the church girl’s camp when he was seventeen years old. Robyn was one of the campers, and she participated enthusiastically in Craig’s nature hikes, swamp walks, and star studies.
Posted September 2010