Mormonism had its origins in the 19th century equivalent of science-fiction fandom — there was a real craze for dressing up religion in the lab coat of science even then — so it’s not surprising that Mormons love to mingle evolution, dinosaurs and faith (it helps to be living on a giant fossil bed, too). That ol’ charlatan Joseph Smith loved to squeeze his self-serving dogma into a package draped with the latest (and entirely erroneous) theories about Indian origins, for instance, to give it an aura of authority.
This article in the Deseret News explains how they teach evolution at BYU…and it’s the usual superficial phenomenological approach that annoys me so much. It’s not just Mormons that do this, but every well-meaning Christian who wants to make the data fit his or her preconceptions.
As Whiting’s lab lets out, the model skulls on every desk are lined up chronologically. Whiting said that although some students have trouble accepting human evolution, the students in his lab typically do not have any problems. He said many of his students come to see evolution not as a theory that threatens their beliefs, but as a tool God uses to "accomplish his design."
"They leave the class thinking, ‘Isn’t this cool? Isn’t the creator so clever?’" he said.
Blech. Whiting leaves out the most important parts of evolutionary biology. Sure, you can line up a bunch of skulls and make up a story about how they came to be, and that can include gods, elves, or aliens, but evolutionary biology is also about the mechanism: the changes in gene frequency brought about by selection, drift, etc.
Nowhere in evolutionary theory is there any mention of a creator. We have no need of that hypothesis. A chronological array of bones is not evidence of magic.
But the Mormons have more. They have Church Authority, so their version must be true.
The controversy died down in 1992, when the university released a packet with comments from the LDS Church’s First Presidency and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
"The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again," William Evenson said in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, a statement reprinted in the packet for BYU professors and students.
Oh, yes, that old fallback. Science says how, religion says why. The problem with that, though, is that while spokespeople for religion can say any damn fool reason they want, there’s no reason to think they’re right. They also don’t consider the possibility that there is no “why”: we are the product of happenstance and necessity, not planning, and human populations have simply been buffeted by the exigencies of local events that did not occur with people in mind: climate, shifts in game, competition from other species, disasters, warfare, all these sorts of things and many others happened to us, and biology responded, but none of it was with intent of any kind to cause an evolutionary response. There was no “why”.
The LDS church, an organization with no scientific credibility at all, loves to make statements about science. These should be treated with all the respect they deserve.
Whiting said the packet and statements have helped reduce the stigma that evolution is something that contradicts religion. Today, he said, many students view evolution as a logical explanation for biological diversity and that it’s compatible with their faith.
Scott Trotter, spokesman for the LDS Church, offered further clarification:
“Science and religion are not at odds in our faith. We accept truth wherever it is found and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there is insufficient data to reconcile the two.”
You know what really reduces the stigma? Recognizing that religion has no special authority in the first place, so contradicting it is a fine thing to do.
That last statement is so typical, though. Their religion is true by definition, so the default assumption is that science is in error, and further data will support the faith. Their belief is untestable, then: they will cheerfully accept the evidence that supports their preconceptions, and any evidence that falsifies the goofy myths of Mormonism will be ignored as “insufficient data”.