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Can Faith and Science Coexist in the Search for Truth?

Religion and science can and do go hand-in-hand in our pursuit of truth.

Faith and science are often seen as conflicting approaches in the search for truth—including within the Latter-day Saint community. For example, Joseph Fielding Smith and B. H. Roberts disagreed about whether science or scripture should take priority in the debate over evolution (see the story in Saints 3). In this interview. Dr. Jamie L. Jensen explains that faith and science are symbiotic pathways to truth.


Watch the devotional by Jamie L. Jensen, “Faith and Science: Symbiotic Pathways to Truth.”


Table of contents


Does science define truth any differently than it is defined in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

I would answer this question with a “No” and a “Yes”. Let’s start with “No”. Science would define truth as the absolute reality of things and I believe the Gospel would define truth the same way. Truth is truth, whether it is discovered in a laboratory or through revelation (I’m paraphrasing President Nelson here).

Science cannot tell you whether God is real or not.

But here is where they are different: science is limited to truths about the natural or physical world. And even then, a good scientist will never claim to know the absolute truth—only that we have strong evidence to support our idea of absolute truth (or our model, which in scientific terms, we call a theory).

Whereas, with the Gospel, we can know the truth of all things, both spiritual and physical. So the truth of the Gospel is an expansion upon the truth found through science.


How do we reconcile scientific and religious approaches to truth?

Sometimes the “truth” we discover in science seems contradictory to what we might perceive as Gospel truth (e.g., evidence of evolution and the story of the Creation). What we have to remember is that these seeming contradictions stem from “an incomplete knowledge of science, or religion, or both” (see the Dedication of the Life Sciences Building by Elder Russell M. Nelson).

When things appear to contradict, the easiest way to keep on the path is to just be patient and wait for further light and knowledge. And to be open to that light and knowledge coming from both science and the Gospel.


How similar are a scientist’s approaches to finding scientific and spiritual truths?

There are similarities and differences. The approach to science is what we sometimes simplistically call the “Scientific Method”. We make observations about the natural world, we posit hypotheses, we design experiments, we gather data, we analyze data, and we draw conclusions based upon our interpretation of the data.

In finding spiritual truth, we follow a similar path (see Moroni 10:4-5). Here are the main differences:

  • Spiritual vs. eternal. Scientific truths are concerned with the physical world, spiritual truths often pertain to the spiritual or eternal world. Thus, our hypotheses (or potential causal explanations) pertain to either the physical or spiritual world.
  • Instruments. The tools we use to gather data are different. In science we use rulers, thermometers, callipers, spectrophotometers, etc., things designed to measure physical phenomena. In religion, we use faith, fasting, prayer, meditation, etc., things designed to measure spiritual phenomena. Interestingly, we require training and practice with both types of instruments to be adept at interpreting the data.
  • External validity. Scientific evidence is tangible and transferable (i.e., I can post my data on a repository where another scientist can download it and run their own analyses to reproduce the same results and hopefully draw the same conclusions). Whereas, spiritual evidence is generally not tangible (it is based on feelings) and while it is shareable (i.e., we can share our testimony), it is not transferable. Everyone must run the experiment and gather the data themselves. But the Lord has made this available to all of us.

Is science naturally atheistic?

This draws a lot upon the processes I described in the previous question. Because science can gather data only about the natural/physical world, it cannot draw any conclusions regarding the spiritual world.

So, let’s define three terms:

  1. Theism is the belief that there is a God.
  2. Atheism is the belief that there is no God (notice that it is still a belief system).
  3. Agnosticism is the absence of belief (a = without, gnostic = knowledge or belief). Science is agnostic. It is without belief. It simply gathers physical evidence for physical phenomena.

I love to remind readers, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Science cannot tell you whether God is real or not.


What is a belief in a “God of the Gaps”—and why is it dangerous ?”

Belief in a God of the Gaps is when one bases their belief in God on the fact that God explains gaps in their current understanding. For example, whales are mammals that live a completely aquatic lifestyle, despite breathing air, giving birth to live young (as opposed to fish who lay eggs), and nursing their young with milk.

For ages, this has puzzled scientists. How did whales end up in the ocean?

Someone with a “God of the Gaps” mentality would say, “Whales are in the ocean because God created them in the beginning that way and placed them in the oceans.”

Starting in the early 1990s, scientists have discovered a whole series of fossils that show the gradual progression of four-legged, land-dwelling mammals into two-legged, sea-dwelling whales! (Google Durodon, Ambulocetus, Rhodocetus, and Basilosaurus to take a look!)

In addition, we have since found strong molecular evidence to link whales to current land-dwelling mammals (hippos being their closest relative), and whales have fully-formed hand bones in their flippers and vestigial pelvic bones embedded in their sides.

We need to teach our children to be comfortable with not knowing everything right now.

If you had based your faith that God exists on the fact that only His existence can explain whales, what happens when scientists can show clear evidence of their evolution from land-dwelling mammals?

(Which, by the way does not mean God didn’t create whales; it just means He created them in a more fascinating and time-consuming way!)

You are in danger of losing your testimony.

This can be applied to those who try to “prove” that evolution is mathematically impossible and therefore God had to do the creation instantaneously.

  • Or that organisms are too complex to have evolved and therefore an “intelligence” had to intervene.
  • Or that medical miracles are magical and cannot be explained physiologically.
  • Or that human morality can’t be explained and thus has to be exclusively endowed by God.
  • Or any number of attempts to “prove” God’s existence with some physical phenomenon.

When we do this, we place our testimony unnecessarily at odds with science. If science ever explains whatever phenomena we say is “unexplainable,” our testimony falls apart.

Instead, we should base our testimonies on spiritual evidence—those undeniable feelings of peace and reassurance that God is real and that He has spoken to you.

Everyone is entitled to this evidence and science can’t touch it.


What is dogmatism, and why is it equally threatening to science and faith?

Dogmatism stops progress in its tracks—both scientific and spiritual progress. From a scientific perspective, insisting that you know all there is to know about any given topic means closing the door to progress.

There are so many examples in the past of ideas that were promising but needed refinement (and sometimes a total overhaul!).

The four elements

A fun example that comes to mind is from the 1700s. It was thought that matter consisted of four elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire (I’m sure you’ve seen this on Angels and Demons :)).

Earth is heavier than water, which is heavier than air, which is heavier than fire. And fire actually came from the release of a substance called Phlogiston, the lightest of all, from earth materials.

To some this can be unsettling.

This is why when you burn wood, it becomes lighter in weight—the phlogiston has been released and has floated above the air as smoke. It made sense and explained so many things. When you drop Earth into Water, it sinks. When you trap Air in Water, it floats. And when you burn things, the Phlogiston rises above the Air.

This was all great until Antoine Lavoisier, a chemist, burned magnesium and found that it got heavier.

What??!

Eventually, it was discovered that oxygen is responsible for combustion and that magnesium actually takes on oxygen when it burns. Phlogiston had to be abandoned for a better, more refined theory that explained more phenomena.

Increasing in knowledge

We are constantly learning more about the natural world that refines our explanations and gives us a better understanding of how things work, how the body heals, how we extend life, and the list goes on.

The same is true for spiritual matters. I don’t think anyone would claim that they know all there is to know about the Gospel. Claiming this would mean there is no need for continual scripture study, temple attendance, church attendance, prayer and fasting, etc.

We need to keep our minds open to new knowledge. And we need to teach our children to be comfortable with not knowing everything right now. When they bear their testimonies, instead of reciting blindly, “I’d like to bear my testimony, I know the church is true…”, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say, “I’d like to bear my testimony, I believe the church is true, as far as I’ve been taught” or “I believe my parents and they believe the church is true, and someday I’ll know for myself…”?

We need to teach them that faith is a progression, that it is okay to be uncertain, that questioning things does not mean we are on the “slippery slope to you-know-where,” that we can have a testimony and still be seeking answers.

It’s okay not to “know” now—we are told that we should learn line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little.


What did Elder Russell M. Nelson say about science and religion at the dedication of the BYU Life Sciences Building?

I love this quote by then-Elder Russell M. Nelson:

This university is committed to search for truth and teach the truth. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is all compatible…Conflict only arises from an incomplete knowledge of either science or religion, or both.

Elder Russell M. Nelson

How do you live with the conflict stemming from having incomplete knowledge about science and religion?

With patience. The more I learn about science, the more I realize we don’t know. The more I learn about the Gospel, the more I realize I have to learn.

To some this can be unsettling. But, it shouldn’t be. It should be exciting! Think of all the things we still get to learn!

The wedge that people place between religion and science is artificial.

We need more comfort with uncertainty and more patience with ourselves. Remember, the Lord has promised that:

In that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things–Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof–Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.

Doctrine & Covenants 101:32–34

I cannot wait for that day!


What allows faithful scientists in the church to equally embrace truth revealed through science and faith?

I admire faithful scientists like Joseph F. Merrill, Henry Eyring, James Talmage, Richard G. Scott, Russell M. Nelson and many others. I have also seen this strength in students.

A black-and-white headshot of Joseph F Merrill
The apostle Joseph F. Merrill saw science and religion as mutually supportive ways of discovering truth.

As I have studied my students, I have found six main reasoning patterns that help people embrace both science and faith symbiotically:

  1. Understand the nature and limitations of science as a discipline and how it differs from religion.
  2. Base your faith in God on the correct evidence and not on a “God of the Gaps.”
  3. Approach science directly in your homes bathed in the light of the Gospel, rather than turning to pseudoscientific explanations.
  4. Remember that science is agnostic.
  5. Do not assume a deficit model (i.e., that if someone struggles to accept a scientific principle, it must be because they are deficient in knowledge, wisdom, reasoning ability, etc.).
  6. Be comfortable and patient with uncertainty.

We’ve talked about most of these in this interview. The full list will hopefully be accessible soon on my website and in some upcoming publications.

Jamie L. Jensen talks about how faith and science can coexist in her BYU Devotional, “Faith and Science: Symbiotic Pathways to Truth.”

What does it mean to have faith and science live symbiotically in our lives?

Symbiosis means to live (bios) together (sym). It is more than just “cohabitation” (which also means to live together). In symbiotic relationships in nature, both parties benefit from and depend upon each other. They work hand-in-hand for survival.

A classic example can be found in flowering plants and honey bees. Both depend on each other for survival and both receive great benefits from this relationship.

You can think of faith and science the same way. These two ways of knowing shouldn’t just occupy separate niches in our same brain where we depend on one when we are sitting in church and the other when we are sitting in school. Rather, they should work together to bring us a fuller picture of truth.

Many of the problems that we face in life require both a scientific answer and spiritual fortification. When my son was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that rendered him completely unable to function, it required both ways of knowing. We saw psychiatrists and counselors who offered well-researched therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. We also worked with the Lord in helping him understand his worth and overcome his scrupulosity (a compulsion that causes you to feel guilty and unworthy of love).

I remember the day we were leaving a counseling session, having just learned a therapeutic technique to take control of compulsive thoughts and my sweet eight-year-old son had an epiphany about the atonement of Jesus Christ—that it is like a river, and sins are like little pebbles. The river is strong enough to wash these pebbles away with a repentant prayer. And bigger stones just need a little help from Priesthood leaders.

This gift of understanding the Lord’s atonement helped him overcome a large part of his condition and move forward with confidence that the Lord’s atonement would wash away his “pebbles” and that he was worthy of love. I believe it saved his life. He continues to apply both medicine and miracles in his life in a symbiotic way. Both ways of knowing are gifts to help us here in mortality.


What do you wish people understood about truth and the relationship between science and religion?

I want people to understand that the wedge that people place between religion and science is artificial. These two ways of knowing can and do go hand-in-hand in our pursuit of truth. Both can bless our lives.

I’ll leave you with one word of advice, and I’ll quote directly from my Devotional:

Be patient, stay faithful, and in time, understanding will come. And please keep in mind that your eternal salvation does not depend on your complete understanding of science. If learning scientific theories puts your faith in jeopardy, choose your faith! Choose your faith until you can better understand the science (or until science can provide better explanations).

Dr. Jamie L. Jensen

Did you enjoy this article?


About the author

Dr. Jamie L. Jensen is on the Biology faculty at Brigham Young University. She earned her undergraduate degree in Animal Science and Chemistry, as well as her Masters in Molecular Evolution from BYU, and her PhD in Biology from Arizona State University. She received the Outstanding Teacher award from the Life Sciences department at BYU in 2018. Dr. Jensen is also involved with the “Reconciling Evolution” project sponsored by BYU, which is an interfaith effort to build bridges between science and evolution. Dr. Jensen is the mother of four boys and loves reading, sewing and dissecting.


Further reading

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

One reply on “Can Faith and Science Coexist in the Search for Truth?”

From article: “Or that human morality can’t be explained and thus has to be exclusively endowed by God.”
Moroni 7:12-14: Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually. “But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God. Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.”

From Article: “Or any number of attempts to “prove” God’s existence with some physical phenomenon.”
Alma 30:44: “The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”

President Harold B. Lee:
There is still one other kind of, shall I say, “theorist.” They are called by some of our writers “Christian evolutionists.” These are the ones who try to harmonize science with religion, and we possibly have had some in the Church whom we might call Christian evolutionists. Of course, Elder Roberts says this: “I am aware that there is a class of men who profess to be ‘Christian evolutionists,’ and who maintain that Christianity can be made to harmonize with the philosophy of evolution. But how are they made to harmonize? We are told that Jesus is still a Redeemer, but in this sense only: he gave out faultless moral precepts, and practiced them in his life, and inasmuch as people accept his doctrines and follow his example they will be redeemed from evil. But as to the fall of man and the atonement made for him by the Son of God—both ideas are of necessity rejected [by the Christian evolutionist]; which means, of course, denying the great fundamental truths of revelation; it is by destroying the basis on which the Christian religion rests, that the two theories are harmonized—if such a process can be called harmonization. It is on the same principle that the lion and the lamb harmonize, or lie down together—the lion eats the lamb.”
When you find some of our Latter-day Saint teachers who struggle to try to explain how the Creation and the Fall of man took place and can be harmonized with the evolutionary theory of science, the net result is that the teachings of the gospel are destroyed and the theory of evolution prevails.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie:
Truth does not sway like a reed in the wind. It does not accommodate itself to changing social circumstances. It is not one thing in the day of Adam and another six thousand years later. Truth is autocratic and authoritative; it is dogmatic and domineering; it is conclusive and controlling. It is what it is though earth and hell cry out in violent opposition.
All truth is always in perfect harmony with all other truth. There is never the slightest discord or divisiveness between any truths, no matter what source conveys them to the mind of man. And truth will prevail. Eventually, in the providences of Him who is the way, the life, and the truth, all error will be banished by the shining rays of the rising sun of truth. . . .
Truth may be gained by both intellectual and spiritual means. Most men gain such truth as is theirs by the intellectual processes of reason. Spiritual talent is required to gain truth by revelation, and spirituality is acquired and nourished by faith, repentance, baptism, and following the promptings of the Holy Spirit of God. Errors can and almost invariably do creep in to the realms of reason and research. Our senses can be deceived; our research can be tainted with false postulates; and our reasoning can be muddled and mutton-headed. But there is never any question or doubt about revealed truth. When the Holy Spirit of God speaks to the spirit within us, truth is conveyed with absolute certainty. There neither is nor can be any deception when God speaks by the power of his Spirit. . . .
There are many truths that can be known only by revelation. God stands revealed or he remains forever unknown. Scientists may discover some of the laws of the universe and conclude that there must be a divine guiding power governing all things. But no man can know, except by revelation, that God is a Holy Man with a body of flesh and bones, that he lives in the family unit, and that he is the personal father of the spirits of all men.
Scientists may discover some of the laws pertaining to creation. They may come to know that creation is reorganization, that the primal elements are arranged in an appointed way to form an earth, and that the laws of physics and chemistry and gravity and what have you always apply. All this may be in the realm of research and reason. But truth-seekers can never know that this earth was first created spiritually; that when it first came into being physically it was paradisiacal in nature; that it then fell to its present mortal state; that there will be a new and changed heaven and a new and changed earth in the Millennial day; and that ultimately it will be a celestial sphere—none of this can be known except by revelation.
Nor can scientists envision the fall, or the atonement, or the cleansing power of the Holy Ghost, or the resurrection, or the procreation by resurrected beings of spirit offspring—all this must be learned by revelation. The theories of the evolutionists—devised by scientists, in academic halls, by the power of reason and the intellect—do not take into account that there was no death until Adam fell; they do not take into account that animals and all forms of life lived as spirit entities before their mortal births; they do not take into account that all forms of life will be resurrected and live forever in immortality. They do not take into account these or ten thousand other gospel verities that can be known only by revelation.

(Of course, all science is not the theory of evolution.)

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