There is a perception among some that science and religion are antithetical, even direct opposites. This paper, which in some sense is a short update of an earlier paper of mine [1], is written to explore the relation between the two and to discuss similarities and differences. My own view, as a scientist, is that they are friendly toward each other; I have no problem accepting both. But there are caveats, as will be shown.

Most Latter-day Saints have a favorable opinion about science. For example, I have understood that verses 28 and 29 of Joel 2 were often quoted by early Church leaders as an indication that much knowledge, including scientific knowledge, will come forth in the last days. Brigham Young, for example, felt that the two areas contributed to each other. In a meeting between members of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Elders Richard G. Scott and Henry B. Eyring in the late 1990s, the apostles encouraged all the faculty to teach the best science they could, even though we don’t understand all of its connections to the gospel.

I start with a warning. The reader should not expect reconciliation between scientific and religious views. In many of these sections all I can do is state the two views without finding a connection. We usually desire closure; but here we often must just wait. I do not see the lack of complete reconciliation as conflict, but as a statement of ignorance. For that reason, I discuss first how we know.

1. Ways of knowing

We begin with a description of four ways of knowing, as discussed in the beginning Physical Science 100 text used at BYU back in the day when I taught Physics there. These come from writings by various philosophers, such as Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Francis Bacon, and Bertrand Russell. They are:

Authority. Authoritative knowledge is that which we learn from parents, teachers, books, political leaders, and religious leaders, such as general authorities—that which has been told to us. It has great value; it means we do not have to repeat all the experiences that they have had. It would be impossible for us to learn for ourselves all the knowledge and lore found in libraries and in other people’s minds.

Intuition. This is defined here as information obtained or found in one’s own mind. It includes ideas, hunches, and self-awareness. For our purposes, I include spiritual feelings or concepts, inspiration, and revelation received for oneself. This information is personal; it cannot be shared with others, simply because they see things differently. Oft-quoted examples of personal experiences are the taste of salt or the perception of color.

Reason. Reason is knowledge obtained by thinking and the use of logic. Aristotle, among other things, established rules of logic. Euclid’s geometry provides an example of logical procedures used to understand the space around us. Deductive and inductive reasoning provide us with great bodies of information. However, the truth of the results obtained depend upon the truth of the premises—which is always open to question—and the correctness of the logical procedures employed.

Sensation. This is knowledge obtained by the senses, by observation. It includes that obtained by experimentation and is community knowledge, in that the knowledge can and must be verified by others, as opposed to the individual knowledge that comes from intuition. This is scientific knowledge. Verification is needed; scientific information is usually not treated as fact until multiple checks have been performed. But then, as time goes on, scientific truth is enlarged.

All four of these methods provide incomplete knowledge. They all have strengths and weaknesses and must work in concert in order to provide a more complete and accurate understanding of the world. We continually learn; our current knowledge is incomplete and will remain so, at least in this life.

All these methods are used in both religion and science, but the emphases differ. Religion depends upon authority. For Latter-day Saints this includes revelation, both present and past, as recorded in scripture, religious writings, and conference talks. That knowledge is buttressed by the individual inspiration we receive, which is classified as intuition. It uses logic—we are told to reason together, for example—and sensation or experiment or observation—by their fruits you shall know them, or the experimental procedure explained in Alma 32.

In science, authority is present in the vast amount of published material in scientific books and journals. Intuition is responsible for the generation of ideas for what to study. These ideas may come from study and may even be divinely inspired. Sensation is present in experimental procedures, and reason starts with the observations and works out conclusions.

I emphasize that both scientific and religious knowledge are incomplete. In science, thousands of new articles are published in scientific journals every year. In religion, we are promised in the ninth Article of Faith that many new things will be revealed.

This incompleteness should instill humility in both scientists and religionists. Many scientists are agnostic, some are atheists, and some recognize some sort of Deity but do not know what form that entity shows. Whatever their reasons for so believing, they should not impose their beliefs on others. Ridicule of a religious person for that person’s beliefs is unnecessary and insulting. On the other hand, a religious leader should take care not to belittle a scientist because of perceived differences. Respect for others is always needed. It helps to realize that we are all in kindergarten, so to speak, and have a lot to learn. Because of the incompleteness in knowledge, it is inappropriate and dangerous to attempt a comprehensive reconciliation of scientific and religious thinking. Why dangerous? If one forces them to agree, then if later disagreements occur, that may cause a loss of faith in one or the other. Many scientists have turned away from religious faith because they felt it could not be explained by science, and religious people have turned away from science because they feel it is incompatible with religion; by so doing both parties have made themselves the poorer for it.

Many early scientists were firm believers in God. Examples are Newton, Halley, Hooke, Kepler, Galileo, and Thomas Wright (the discoverer of galaxies.) Various events since then are considered as reasons that society has moved away from religion. One was the trial of Galileo for his publication of a book defending the Copernican or heliocentric system. While the Roman Catholic Church is considered to bear some of the blame for this unfortunate event, Galileo must share some because he characterized defenders of the Church as simple while defenders of the heliocentric system were seen as intelligent. Another event was the Enlightenment movement, partly motivated by the sorry record of wars in Europe. Many of these wars came about because of religious clashes—which gave religion a bad name—but there were also political, cultural, and financial conflicts. Anti-religious feeling arose in connection with problem of evil and suffering; Voltaire saw the terrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755 as proof that God could not exist and allow such devastation. Finally, the growth of knowledge led some to discount God, as with Laplace’s arrogant assertion to Napoleon that he had no need of the hypothesis of God in understanding the solar system.

Some light is thrown on this history in an excellent article by David H. Bailey in Cosmos, Earth, and Man, (CEM)[2], which is a compilation of lectures given at The Interpreter Foundation 2016 Conference on Science and Religion. Bailey observes that the Galileo incident, while it was chilling to scientific thought, has been largely resolved. The Roman Catholic Church ended the ban on heliocentric cosmology in 1757 and it has not been a problem since. Similarly, while Darwin’s theory of evolution caused a storm in the latter part of the nineteenth century, most religions have come to terms with evolution. Even in the 1925 Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan admitted that development of life may have taken millions of years.

Bailey considers the current perceived warfare between science and religion to be the result of two extreme camps: (1) the New Atheism, represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Samuel Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and (2) groups of religious fundamentalists, who regard the Bible as inerrant and complete. Both camps have extensive writings, published in their own journals and books. These writings are usually shrill, highly polemical, often insulting, with research selected to favor their own points of view, and which would not meet the standards of normal scholarship.

A succinct definition of science is provided by the National Academy of Science, as quoted in CEM, page 20: “The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” The statement goes on to remark, “If explanations are based on purported forces that are outside of nature, scientists have no way of either confirming or disproving those explanations.” This clearly relates to religion.

Let us turn now from this background discussion consider various substantive areas of thought where both science and religion have something to say.

2. The nature of matter.

The current scientific understanding of matter is that it is made of fundamental particles such as quarks—which make up the neutrons and protons in the atomic nucleus as well as other particles such as mesons—and electrons. Quarks interact by the “strong force,” in which gluons are exchanged. Electrically charged particles influence each other by the “electromagnetic force,” which involves the exchange of photons in electromagnetic waves. A much weaker force is called the “weak interaction.” Particles experiencing that force are muons and neutrinos. The weakest force of all is gravitation, which we experience only because we stand on a large earth. Gravitating objects interact by gravitational waves. Finally, there is “dark” or unseen matter that contributes to the mass of galaxies, and “dark energy”, which makes up 70% of all matter and contributes to the expansion of the universe—which we now know is speeding up.

From a religious standpoint, we understand matter differently. There is clearly physical matter, like that described above. But there is also spirit matter, which is not recognized by science. We have no scientific theory, or even acknowledgement, of spirit matter. Somehow it affects other matter, as we note in the New Testament where evil spirits devastate a person and are cast out by Christ and his apostles. Before the world was, there was “intelligence;” the scriptures indicate that intelligence was some form of matter (D. & C. 93:29.) But the scriptures also speak of “intelligences” which were organized (Abraham 3:21-22.) Perhaps the individual intelligences were organized out of the intelligent matter. Did God do that? He created our spirits, but D. & C. 93:29 says that man is coeternal with God and intelligence itself was not created.

3. The Creation

The current scientific view of the creation of the Universe is that of the “Big Bang,” in which the universe expands (some people say explodes) from an initial singularity. This is the classic view, which comes from cosmological solutions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as used by the Abbé Georges LeMaitre in his first suggestion of such an expansion. This was reinforced in the 1960s when Penzias and Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), which could have come only from an initial expansion.

The famous British astronomer Fred Hoyle fought the Big Bang theory. It is my understanding that he did not like it—in fact, he gave it its name in derision and the name stuck—because he thought it indicated a creation, and he was an atheist. Hoyle and others proposed a competing theory—the steady state theory. But in view of the CMBR, which could not be explained by their theory, they finally conceded the battle. At the current time, the Big Bang is extremely well supported by scientific observation.

The singularity spoken of above is a mathematical singularity with no spatial extent; its position is known to infinite precision. Nothing could precede it. We speak of such a creation as creation ex nihilo. The mathematical solutions of Einstein’s equations spoken of above that show this were derived in 1922. However, the modern quantum theory was conceived in 1924 and was developed over the next few years, and one of its basic ideas is that one cannot localize an object to infinite precision. That indicates that the singularity must be replaced by a small but finite region. Thus creation ex nihilo is unnecessary to explain observation, and there is now the possibility that a universe could have existed before the Big Bang. The full understanding of this situation depends upon a successful combination of general relativity with quantum mechanics, a terribly difficult endeavor that has been going on for seventy years with no end in sight.

The beginning of the Big Bang, where quantum mechanics and gravity are both important, is extremely small, with a size of the order of 10-33 (ten to the minus thirty-three) centimeters. This can be compared to the observed size of the entire Universe, about 1017 centimeters. Thus there is a change in size of fifty powers of ten. We have direct experience of only about ten or eleven powers of ten, from the thickness of a human hair to the size of the Earth. The time scale, obtained by dividing the size by the speed of light, is 10-43 seconds. We have no foreseeable way of performing direct experiments at these scales, which means that the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics, whatever theory is suggested, cannot presently be observationally verified.

I have heard occasional comments by Latter-day Saints that the Big Bang was not correct. This may have been motivated by the belief that it was a random event. We don’t like random events in Mormonism; they sound like chance, not order. However, this could indeed have been the way the Creator built the universe. Fred Hoyle thought so, and that is why he rejected the Big Bang theory. After all, there are random events all around us, in the statistical behavior of the molecules in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, and in our bodies.

Traditional Christianity still believes in creation ex nihilo and that God stood outside our universe when He created it. This contributes to the view that God is unreachable. The LDS view of it is that God is within our universe and obeys its laws, and furthermore that He is like us, allowing us to feel comfortable enough with our understanding that we can pray to Him. The creation of the Earth is described in many places in scripture. The books of Genesis, Moses, and Abraham speak of it, many verses in scripture refer to it, and it is mentioned in the temple. Six periods of creation are specified, “days,” in most places. Science says, on excellent evidence, that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The apparent difference has caused much disagreement, but most religious scientists are able to reconcile the two by interpreting “day” as an indefinite period of time. (There do continue to be “young earth” creationists in many religions, including Mormonism, but they are few.)

The creation of the entire Universe is a different matter. Almost nothing has been said on it by LDS speakers. Fifteen years ago Eric W. Hirschmann of BYU and I wrote a paper on the question of what has been said on the creation of the Universe and presented it at the Mormon History Association. Our research was aided considerably by a bibliography by Robert Miller, who compiled references to science and religion from LDS speakers over the years 1832-1986 (it is available in BYU’s special collections) and by a book by the late Erich Robert Paul [3]. We found that most allusions to astronomy by Latter-day Saint writers and speakers are to a plurality of worlds, as suggested by D. & C. 76:22-24, but not to the Universe itself. Probably the best reference to the creation of the entire Universe is from the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, who declared in the King Follett sermon that there was no creation ex nihilo.

4. Time

In classical cosmology, time, as well as space, is regarded to have started at the Big Bang at its mathematical singularity. (As noted above, quantum mechanics forbids such a singularity.) Traditional Christianity accepts the belief that time did not exist before the Creation. However, in LDS thought, we believe that it did. Alma 40:8 says that time is measured only unto man, and there are other scriptures that speak of a situation in which “time is no longer.” This depends partly on the definition of time. If we think of time as a sequence of events, then it certainly exists for both God and men, although vastly different for the two. From a quantitative point of view, some scriptures say that a thousand years for man is as a day to God, and there have been attempts to take this figure literally; however, 2 Peter 3:8 says it runs both ways, which indicates to me simply that God’s time differs somehow from man’s in a way that we do not understand.

There is another consideration. D. & C. 38:1-2 and other scriptures say that all eternity lies before Jehovah. He somehow knows the end from the beginning. This raises problems. One is that of agency. How can God know exactly what we are going to do if we don’t know ourselves and we have the freedom to choose? If Christ was known from the beginning to have saved mankind—see Revelation 12:10-11 —and yet He had His agency—how could the Father be sure that His Son would actually carry the plan through? Had He not, the whole plan of salvation would have tumbled down in a heap.

Knowing the future exactly may be called “determinism.” It is suggested in physics from Newton’s laws of motion that if one knows the initial conditions, all future knowledge is determined. This seems to contradict agency. Quantum mechanics appears to provide a way out, since it says that future events cannot be predicted exactly.

Einstein’s special relativity has built into its structure the notion of “causality,” that causes precede events, not the other way around. Interestingly, however, a series of experiments beginning in the 1980s, based on what is called Bell’s theorem, have indicated that there is indeed noncausality. Electron behavior at one point seems able to predict instantaneously electron behavior at another point. The experiments are highly specialized and so far indicate only behavior at the atomic level, but they are enough to call causality into question. This, in some sense, supports the D. & C. quote given above.

5. Evidence for God’s hand in nature.

We look at nature and are impressed with its beauty and order. We look at the stars and see in them evidence that they were created by a Creator. Alma, speaking to Korihor in Alma 30:44, says as much, and a similar expression is found in Moses 6:63.

Sometimes such observations are given as a proof of God’s existence. Classically, this is called the “argument from design.” A famous example is William Paley’s claim that if he found a watch on the heath he would know that someone created it; it wasn’t just random. Similarly, if the Earth had been tipped at a different angle to its orbit than it is, or if it had been at a different distance from the Sun, or if there had not been a certain resonant state in the carbon atom that allowed carbon to be created and thus to enable life (discovered by Fred Hoyle)—so-called “fine-tuning” of the universe—life would not exist.

Scientifically, this is called the “anthropic principle,” in which we postulate that the conditions which exist in nature are precisely those favorable to the existence of man. The point is that there could have been a large number of worlds that randomly came into being, but life would have developed on only a few, those which have situations favorable to the formation of human life. (One sees this in the current search for exoplanets, which are planets in other star systems. Most could not support life; there have been discovered a few, however, that seem to have the right conditions.) Inhabitants of such planets could infer that they were created by a Creator; but they would simply have been the recipients of those favorable conditions, and there would be no need to assume the existence of a God.

But it is not a matter of rational argument. One cannot prove that there is a God, but also one cannot prove there is not. It is a simply a matter of belief. If one believes the Book of Mormon, no amount of rational arguing will disprove it for us. If one does not believe it, no amount of proof will cause us to accept it. The scriptures quoted above simply reflect our belief that God is a God of order and beauty.

6. Entropy and creation

The study of energy in matter and its transitions is called thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics is what we call the conservation of mass and energy (mass and energy are equivalent, according to relativity. Also, mass refers roughly to the amount of matter.) A conservation law is intellectually satisfying; we don’t like things that change. To be precise, we say that the amount of mass/energy is conserved—doesn’t change in time—in a closed system. If one puts material into a system from outside, of course the amount changes.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has a different nature. I indicated above that randomness occurs in nature. The Second Law is a precise statement of that. It says that, in a closed system, entropy—which is a quantitative measure of randomness—either increases or remains constant. It remains constant only in special cases, such as idealized “frictionless motion” or individual nonradioactive atoms. As soon as we consider real systems of large numbers of particles, entropy increases. As atoms interact with each other and exchange energy, initial order is lost. A simple example is the mixing of salt and water; before the event, they are ordered in separate containers, but after they are mixed, it requires energy to separate them again. A homely example illustrates this perfectly. At the beginning of the day, the house is in order. During the day, children scatter toys around, meals are prepared, clothes must be picked up. To do the cleaning up, the homemaker must use energy.

It is sometimes said that the Second Law decrees that things always run down. It looks like things do not run down; after all, we grow from a baby into a large, well organized adult, plants grow and develop and produce fruit that we eat, and we seem to have plenty of gasoline for cars. However, appearances are deceptive. Organization can increase in a system only if that is paid for by disorganization in a larger system. On balance, when everything is taken into account, the total randomness or disorganization increases. A growing organism takes in energy from other sources, becoming more organized, but other sources lose organization and total entropy increases.

The key phrase in the statement of the Second Law is “in a closed system,” Things build up on the Earth, become more organized because the Sun pours in energy every day. Thus the Earth by itself is not closed. (Sometimes people have used the Second Law as an argument against organic evolution, saying that evolution is a development, an organization, whereas the Second Law says that there should be disorganization. The answer to that argument is that we are not in a closed system.)

So locally we have no problem. It is at the cosmological level that there is a problem. The Sun will exhaust its energy in a few billion years—we don’t have to worry about it now—but conceptually it is a worry. Other suns die, too. Current science therefore suggests that eventually things will be totally random, throughout the Universe, and life will cease to exist.

This appears to be a serious conflict with religion. Where is God in all this? We fall back on the point that we don’t know enough. In the meantime, we have faith. God is the Creator, the ultimate being who winds things up—and when they run down, as does the human body, He winds them back up. There is a resurrection; all will be restored, even the hairs on the head.

When I taught a Physical Science course, in the lecture on the Second Law I read to my class these words from the second verse of the hymn Abide With Me: “Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.” That expresses our faith.

7. Consciousness

What is consciousness? No one knows. To the religious person, it is simply the spirit that inhabits the body. But to the scientific person, it is somehow a feature of the brain. The question is incredibly complex. There have been many conferences to discuss consciousness; physicists, biologists, psychologists, social scientists, mathematicians, spiritualists, New Age people, etc., attend. One can hypothesize, for example, that the individual spirit influences the electrons in the brain that cause the chemical changes that result in thought and action. Somehow the religious idea must relate to the physical idea, but we have no idea how.

Dan Peterson, in a column in the 25 January 2018 Deseret News, discusses consciousness, noting that lower forms of life, while they may be well adapted to their environments, do not write novels, compose symphonies, write mathematical formulas, ponder ethical dilemmas, or contemplate the purpose of life. Some scientists believe that understanding consciousness will forever be beyond our understanding, but I submit that we will certainly, eventually, learn more about it than we do now.

The noted author Oliver Sacks, in a chapter entitled “The River of Consciousness” in a book with the same title [4], sees consciousness as just that—like a river. The metaphor is due to Jorge Luis Borges. William James spoke of the stream of consciousness. James Joyce’s works Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are written in a stream of consciousness style. Viewing consciousness as a stream relates to the perception in physics that time is continuous. If time is discontinuous—has breaks, as possibly implied by quantum mechanics—that would necessitate a rethinking of this view. Sacks writes extensively about the “zoetrope”, a device anticipating the movie camera and projector, in which a series of images, rapidly viewed, seem continuous. He also quotes John Stuart Mill and Henri Bergson about discontinuous views of time.

Several observations by Sacks of patients of his show that some people have a discontinuous sense of time, that it is broken up into fragments. His entire chapter is a discussion of such things, ultimately asking how the fragments are woven together so as to seem seamless. What we know about consciousness, either from science or from religion, remains woefully incomplete; we just do not have much information on the subject.

8. Specific examples of apparent science religion conflicts.

Some apparent conflicts between science and religion are well known, but to my mind remain an issue of ignorance and not real conflicts.

For example, how do we explain Noah’s flood? The scripture about it indicates that it covered the whole Earth. The amount of water that this would have required is much larger than the total amount of water on Earth today. A possible explanation, that appeared about thirty years ago, is that it may only have been a local event around the Black Sea.

The destruction in the Nephite world at the crucifixion of Christ is sometimes considered to have been of large scale, even worldwide. But we have no record of such devastation in the area where the Savior lived. Some LDS geologists believe that it may have been the result of a violent volcanic eruption and have carefully documented similarities to other volcanic eruptions on record (as for example the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A. D. or that of Mt. Pelee on the island of Martinique in 1902.

We do not have any astronomical explanation of the sun standing still as recorded in the book of Joshua, the sign of the backward motion of the shadow for King Hezekiah, or the brilliant night seen by the Nephites at the time of Christ’s birth. There are some possible explanations of the Christmas star. One hypothesis—which I like best—is that it was a supernova, although there is no known candidate for the supernova remnant that would have occurred. Another theory, favored by some, is that it was an astronomical conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Venus, and Mars. There was such an event in 6 B. C. I think that the Magi would have been familiar with planetary paths, and so this would not have been a surprise, but it still might be a candidate for the Christmas star.

Organic evolution, particularly as it relates to man, has engendered much controversy, and millions of words have been written about it. I will oversimplify and say that it is my view, and the view of most LDS scientists to my knowledge, that God used evolution to create the human body, and then at the appropriate time placed divine spirits into a man and a woman of His choice. That explains such things as vestigial organs such as hair on the body, the appendix, and the male nipple. To those who are repelled by the thought that lower forms of life—people think of monkeys—were used to develop the human body, I simply note that they were God’s creation too. Evolution of microorganisms is well known, and evolution of plants has been carefully demonstrated (including by BYU scientists.)

9. Summary

In summary, we note that both religion and science are valid sources of truth. Each is important to learn. We are placed here on Earth to learn for ourselves what is true and false, and the methods employed above provide us with ways of doing so. In the LDS Church we are extremely blessed to have both types of truth available to us, that our leaders are supportive of using both sources, and that we are told that ultimately they will come together in unity. But as noted, we are not in a position to reconcile the two.

We cannot prove religious truths by deduction or any sort of scientific process. We cannot prove that God exists. It is always a matter of faith. Much effort has been expended to study Book of Mormon archaeology; while this is supportive, and much exploration has yielded information consistent with the book, it always boils down to faith. The converse is that religion cannot be used to prove science or vice versa—in this life. Some students I have had have attempted to do this, and it never ended well. We simply must have patience and faith that ultimately truth will finally all come together.


[1] B. Kent Harrison, “Truth, the Sum of Existence,” in Of Heaven and Earth: Reconciling Scientific Thought with LDS Theology, David L. Clark, ed. (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1998.) [Back to manuscript].

[2] David H. Bailey, Jeffery M. Bradshaw, John S. Lewis, Gregory L. Smith, and Michael R. Stark, Science and Mormonism 1: Cosmos, Earth, and Man, (The Interpreter Foundation, Eborn Books, Salt Lake City, 2016.)[Back to manuscript].

[3] Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1992.) [Back to manuscript].

[4] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2017.) [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2018) "Religion and Science," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 1 (Spring 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonReligionScience.html, accessed <give access date>.

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