Mormonism and Science, How Close Should They Be?

Historian Richard Bushman, in a recent presentation at the Mormon Transhumanist Association 2013 annual conference, presented two possible approaches to defining the relationship between Mormonism and science.

The first approach is the one proposed by Parley P. Pratt.  He and his like-minded successors–B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, and John Widtsoe–believed that Mormonism “was uniquely capable of assimilating the scientific world view” and that “Mormonism and science, shared basically the same view of the physical world.”  The four felt there should be an integration of science and religion.  “Theology was a science, and all science was theology.”  Unfortunately since the death of Widtsoe in the 1950s, their efforts at integration have been put on hold by the distractions of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie and their successors.

The second approach that Bushman discussed is the one proposed of Lowell Bennion in 1940:

Though an admirer of Roberts, Bennion did not see science and theology as occupying the same sphere.  Weaving science and religion together to create a unified picture of the universe was antithetical to Bennion’s thought.  Religion was one approach to life, and science, philosophy, and art were others.  “No person can comprehend the whole of life in its beauty, depth, and breadth through a single one of these human interests to the exclusion of others,” Bennion wrote.  Science and religion occupy different realms, each with its own purpose.

Science “gives us a description of the world in which we live, thereby enabling us to reckon with the forces at play.”  Religion is focused on the meaning, purpose, and why of life.”  It helps man to “aspire to the more abundant life of God.”  His plea to his student readers was not to give up religion when conflicts arose, but to respect the good that could come from each approach.

Bushman clearly favors the Bennion approach, as did my father, a biochemist by education and trade.  For Dad, a cafeteria Mormon, it was possible to overlook and discard some of the stranger elements that had crept into LDS doctrine.  However, it has been much more difficult for his sons.

I think I prefer the P3 version.  Mormonism needs a much more proactive positive attitude toward science.  If members are willing to accept OT-Genesis literalism over the “theory” of evolution, then its an easy step to deny other scientific findings like global warming.  While Bennion is right that religion and science should have different vocuses, in areas where they overlap, contemporary Mormonism needs to have a greater respect for science.

This entry was posted in mormonism, Religion, transhumanism, widtsoe. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mormonism and Science, How Close Should They Be?

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    That would have been an interesting talk to have been at. Too bad I missed it.

    I too have noticed these two modes of thought in Mormonism. What makes me chuckle is both sides insist their’s is the true Mormon way. For instance, I have one group of friends who swears the true Mormon God is a scientist who is who He is because he mastered the laws of the universe. This God is not supernatural, just smart. Another swears the true God is the author of the universe and it’s laws and is supernatural in that sense. Though they concede there must be something beyond creation like human intelligence.

    So what is the “true” version of God in Mormonism? I don’t know for sure other then to say I find it fascinating that both are possible. I’m pretty sure in most other religions God can only be the supernatural one. We definitely have quite the interesting religion.

  2. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) says:

    Why are you so sure about what Bushman favors? It doesn’t seem so clear to me.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      In the Bushman paragraph just below the one quoted above, he writes: “Probably few modern Mormon’s share Widtsoe’s and Roberts’s confidence in the full compatibility of science and religion; on the whole we are more with Bennion.” However, you are right, I’m probably jumping to conclusions about his personal beliefs.

      I suspect that most Mormon transhumanists are with Widtsoe and Roberts.

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