A recent article (here) concluded that “Mormonism is one of the least ‘evolution-friendly’ faith traditions in the United States. ” The conclusion is based off of data from a Pew Forum study from 2009 (here) depicting that only 22% of Mormons agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of man, 26% below the national average.
However, some of my recent research actually demonstrates that as knowledge of evolution increases, acceptance of evolution increases and conflict in worldview decreases. Contradicting the idea that Mormonism is at odds with evolution.
Revelations given to Joseph Smith (D&C 130: 18-19 and D&C 88:78-79) and quotations from other early church leaders support the idea that there was a mostly pro- knowledge and pro-science rhetoric. For example, Brigham Young stated “our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular” and John Taylor said “In regard to our religion, I will say that it embraces every principle of truth and intelligence pertaining to us as moral, intellectual, mortal and immortal beings, pertaining to this world and the world that is to come. We are open to truth of every kind, no matter whence it comes, where it originates, or who believes in it.” In 1910 the First Presidency stated “Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy”. I embrace this idea that Mormons should accept with joy demonstrated scientific ideas. I guess this is why I am such a joyful evolutionary biologist. Because, it is clear, at least to me, that the church has no official doctrine or “divine revelation” that is specifically contrary to Evolution (the most official position is the BYU Evolution Packet), and that Evolution has been demonstrated.
The climate and attitude, of church leaders, towards knowledge and science seems to have changed over time. The graph shows the number of talks in general conference that contain the word “evolution” in a biological context. The majority of the time the word “evolution” was used, was within a negative context. Only two talks referred to evolution positively in general conference talks, the last being in 1910. It is important to note that for the past three decades general conference talks have not mentioned biological evolution specifically. This graph only shows the story of what was happening in general conference. However, a much more aggressive anti-knowledge, anti- science, and anti-evolution climate was prevalent.
Here are just a few, of the many possible, interesting examples to illustrate this idea. Joseph Fielding Smith argued that evolution leads men to forsake their faith just as “Mr. Charles Darwin was first trained for the ministry. He accepted belief in God. After making his research and reaching his deductions, he forsook belief in God.”(Man, His Origin and Destiny, p. 280) He also provides anti-knowledge warning about textbooks, and theories stating, “This is one of the great obstacles in the way of the education of our children: the books which are in our schools, and from which our children are taught, contain theories that are unsound; they are based upon false premises that lead to wrong conclusions; and it requires the utmost care on the part of parents and teachers to prevent bad effects following education based upon such textbooks… It is a difficult thing, in the midst of…false doctrines and theories which come to us and our children in the guise of science, to prevent the spirit of unbelief from influencing us.”(Gospel Truth, p. 245). Ezra Taft Benson also saw the need to warn us about “our educational institutions” as being “the chief means of misleading our youth and destroying the family unit.”(Conference Report, October 1970, pp. 21-25) He also asserted evolution as a falsehood and a “deception” for man (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 307). Lastly, Elder Boyd K. Packer adds that, “Each year, many fall victim in the colleges and universities. There, as captive audiences, their faith, their patriotism, and their morality are lined up against a wall and riddled by words shot down from the mouths of irreverent professors.” (That All May be Edified, p. 165) The Old Testament Institute Manual, originally published in 1980, still contains strong anti-evolution rhetoric in the 2003 edition. Chapter 2 entitled “Genesis 1–2: The Creation” seems to support young earth creationism and specifically speaks against evolution, particularly in the “points to Ponder” section. It is difficult to understand how the anti-evolution ideas and quotes included in this chapter, of an institute manual, existed and it is even more frustrating that they persist to this day. There are many more examples I could give, but the point is that many church leaders and church materials have presented anit-evolution propaganda partially based on the misconception that scientific knowledge of subjects like evolution will lead to a loss of faith.
Ever since I have been teaching biology, I have been interested in the acceptance of evolution, how this acceptance changes throughout the semester, and how this relates to a person’s religious beliefs. Typically, only about 33% of the students in a non-majors general Biology course accept evolution as a well-founded principle. However, by the end of the semester, around 73% of the students accept this idea, an increase of 40%. Some of my recent and ongoing research confirms that as knowledge of evolution increases creationist reasoning goes down – this is not much of a surprise. However, the results also show that as knowledge of evolution increases conflict with the student’s world view goes down. This was an interesting result, because it shows that as student’s knowledge of evolution improves, their perceived conflict of science and religion goes down. In other words they are able to allow evolution and belief in God to co-exist.
The research also suggests two important reasons for driving a positive change towards more acceptance of evolution. 1) Emphasis on and time spent teaching evolution played a significant role. So if we teach it well enough and long enough, students will accept evolution. 2) The effect of the instructor as the role model is significant. So classrooms with high proportions of LDS students are more likely to accept evolution and resolve their world view conflicts when the instructor is a believing in God yet serious about evolution instructor, and the instructor aggressively teaches evolution for a significant portion of the semester.
Given that the research supports the idea that more knowledge of evolution means less conflict in the religion/science debate, parents and the Church need not be concerned with students learning evolution in educational institutions. In fact, it most likely increases their faith in a God who has figured out to live in complete harmony with the laws of nature to bring about his purposes. Secondly, A significant amount of time should be dedicated to teaching evolution and a religious role model can play an important factor in driving the positive change in student knowledge and acceptance of evolution.
In conclusion, we do not help our youth by hiding from evolutionary knowledge, because in today’s world, information – good or bad – is only a click away. I believe that we should understand what the scientific consensus is about subjects like evolution and actively work to reconcile them with LDS official doctrine and positions. I embrace the idea that evolution represents the scientific study of the processes and mechanisms of the creative process. It does not help the cause of truth to defend unsupported ideas with bad arguments. Henry Eyring wrote: “There are few ways in which good people do more harm to those who take them seriously than to defend the gospel with arguments that won’t hold water. Many of the difficulties encountered by young people going to college would be avoided if parents and teachers were more careful to distinguish between what they know to be true and what they think may be true.”
Even though some national polls argue that Mormonism is somehow at odds with science and evolution in particular, I do not think this is a correct understanding of how Mormons can address and reconcile evolution with our doctrine. I propose that increasing student’s knowledge of evolution should be the focus and that this will lead to a decrease in the perceived conflict in student’s views of religion and science.