This semester over thirty faculty members gathered for a reading group sponsored by the BYU Faculty Center. I led the group in its reading of Conor Cunningham’s book Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. Cunningham is a Catholic theologian at the University of Nottingham. The thesis of the book is that both the evangelical atheists (e.g., Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) are wrong in their attacks on faith and that their arguments are based on a caricature of religion that are largely incoherent. Conversely, he argues the Christian Fundamentalist creationists, including the cleverly-named, but silly, pseudoscience, Intelligent Design movement, is a religious and spiritual disaster. Cunningham argues that we can have a faithful religious embrace of evolutionary biology. In short, we can do both good science and good religion. BCC’s own BHodges gives a wonderful review of the book here so I won’t go too much more into the book, but instead focus on the seminar itself. I think it marks a historic moment at BYU and deserves a little attention.
First thing of note was the wide diversity of disciplines represented. Faculty members from English, Humanities, Linguistics, Psychology, Physics, Philosophy, Geology, Anthropology, Biology (of course), Religious Studies, as well as current and former members of the Administration are a few of the departments there. No discipline dominated and the group was split fairly evenly between the humanities and the sciences. There were names that many of you would recognize among the faculty—and some that would surprise you I’ll be bound.
Next, the reason most of them were there was the perception that we are losing youth over the issue of evolution and that an evolution-friendly LDS response is in order. The literalistic readings of scripture borrowed from Christian fundamentalism in the 1950’s and which has come to dominate much of the way people think bout evolution within the church is becoming untenable vis-à-vis discoveries in modern biology. Most felt that it is time to think, and think hard, about discovering just how we can go about refining our discourse to allow views that permit students to embrace both our faith and science fully—without compromising either. Related to this was the idea that we need to communicate to religious educators that the war between Darwin and our Faith was unnecessary and its continuance destructive to the faith of some of the saints.
The discussions were some of the most profound I’ve experienced in a group setting in my life. They were open, honest, faithful, and friendly. There were strong differences of opinion, which were fully expressed and explored. This was no Sunday School discussion with the answers all provided at the end of the chapter and injunctions to stay away from certain topics. We opened many cans of worms and dissected them as best we could (Darwin would be so proud. His later years were devoted to the study of earthworms).
We looked at the evidence for evolution. We explored at the history of evolutionary thought and the rise of fundamentalism. We read the scriptures. We challenged each other to think in new ways.
We came to few firm conclusions. But by the end everyone that I was aware off, came to see that evolution was no threat to our faith. We also came to the conclusion that we understand very little about things like the Creation and the Fall and that new interpretations must be entertained some that fundamentalisms and literalisms that became popular in the 50s disavow. We also realized that Mormonism and evolution are compatible in surprising ways—perhaps more so than any other religion. That we do not believe in an ex nihilo creation, that we believe that this earth and its inhabitants will be saved and indeed this is our place of final destiny, all speak to a hope that the two are complementary. There are sticking points of course. There are problems that will have to be sorted out by further revelation, closer and more open readings of scripture, and a humility that any interpretation of our scriptures is tentative and subject to further revelation from prophets or the book of nature.
What was most encouraging to me was the optimism present that these problems could be sorted out. That we can communicate the need for the saints to not embrace the anti-intellectualism and in appropriate suspicions of science that drive some collage students away from the Church.
It’s an exciting time to be a Mormon evolutionist.