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.