In the book Let’s Talk About Science and Religion, scientists and BYU professors Jamie L. Jensen and Seth M. Bybee draw on research, data, and years of teaching experience to discuss how science and religion work together.
Jensen and Bybee have watched thousands of Latter-day Saint students navigate sometimes challenging scientific topics. Let’s Talk About Science and Religion is intended to help Latter-day Saints gain the skills necessary to navigate issues that arise at the intersection of science and religion and to better appreciate how science and religion can bless themselves, families, and humanity. The following is an excerpt from a chapter in the book called “Base Your Faith in God on Correct Evidence.”
A faulty pattern of reasoning common among religious individuals is a mentality that builds a spiritual foundation on a “God of the Gaps.” Three thousand years before Christ, in the Bronze Age, the Greek Gods of Olympus played a large role in people’s lives.1 They were deemed responsible for many scientific phenomena that, at the time, could not be otherwise explained. For example, Zeus was the god of lightning, Poseidon was the god of hurricanes and earthquakes, and Demeter was the goddess of the harvest. So, if lightning struck your ox, or an earthquake destroyed your city, or your crops failed, the event was blamed on the wrath of the gods. The ancient Greeks used the gods to explain phenomena that they did not understand (the “gaps”). Not surprisingly, when scientific exploration and experimentation led to scientific explanations for these gaps—lightning is an electrical discharge between clouds and the ground;2 earthquakes result from shifting tectonic plates;3 and crops fail for any number of reasons, from drought to infestation4—their belief in their gods began to diminish. 5 …
Seeking for Signs
A “God of the Gaps” [mentality involves] inserting God as an explanation for anything that science cannot currently explain. A similar pattern of thinking is to try to use science and natural phenomena to prove God’s existence—for example, by replacing actual scientific evidence with fake scientific explanations that favor supernatural causes for physical phenomena or by seeking for physical signs of God’s existence.
In Alma 30, we see a classic example of this pattern of reasoning in Korihor, the anti-Christ. He was going about the land trying to convince the Nephites that a person cannot know that God is real because there is no physical evidence (see Alma 30:26). Alma asks him an interesting and profound question: “And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only” (Alma 30:40). Alma is emphasizing a key aspect of the nature of science that we have already discussed: science is agnostic. We do not have scientific evidence for or against the existence of God.
In response, Korihor asserts, “If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words” (Alma 30:43). Korihor is asking for physical, scientific proof of God’s existence. But is this how we are to seek a testimony of our Father in Heaven?
The Lord clearly teaches that signs follow our faith, not the other way around: “But, behold, faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:9). This brings us to an important scripture in Alma 30, verse 44, where Alma proclaims that “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.” This implies that physical things, things of the natural world, can serve as evidence of God. However, these things are evidence of God to those who have already obtained a testimony of God through spiritual evidence. These physical evidences follow our faith; they do not build our faith. For a nonbeliever, these evidences would hardly witness to them of a Supreme Creator because they would not recognize such evidence until after they have come to know God through spiritual means.
Base Your Testimony on Spiritual Evidence
It is dangerous to believe in God only when His existence resolves uncertainty, when His existence explains things that you do not understand. What happens when science comes up with a reasonable and even testable explanation for a “gap” in our understanding? Does your faith disappear because something you attributed to God can now be explained by science? It won’t if your belief is not based in God’s filling the gaps.
Or what if your testimony is dependent upon physical, scientific evidence that God exists? What happens if that evidence cannot be found? We need a shift in our mindset such that our belief in God is for an entirely different reason—not because He can explain the gaps in our current understanding or because we have physical proof, but because He gives us spiritual understanding and because we have felt His presence in our lives (spiritual evidence, not scientific evidence). This leads to the very important question, “On what should we base our testimonies?” to which we firmly respond: “On spiritual knowledge.”
President Dallin H. Oaks defined a testimony as “a personal witness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true. Such facts include the nature of the Godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the Atonement, and the reality of the Restoration.”6 In other words, a testimony pertains to spiritual matters. It is a belief in or knowledge of spiritual things. But rest assured, as President Oaks emphasized, “When we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, we can be just as sure of the knowledge as scholars and scientists are of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods.”7
Just like there are steps to obtaining scientific understanding, there are steps to obtaining spiritual knowledge.
- First, we can develop a firm desire to know the truth. As Alma teaches, if you but “desire to believe” (Alma 32:27), you have already taken the first step to obtaining a testimony.
- Second, you can strive to obey God’s commandments. The Lord taught, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself ” (John 7:16–17).
- Third, you can put forth the effort to know. Just as we do not gain a knowledge of algebra without cracking a textbook or attending a class, we will not gain spiritual knowledge without seeking for it through study, prayer, church attendance, and so on. We are promised, “Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened to you” (3 Nephi 27:29).
- Lastly, share your testimony. Unlike worldly goods that diminish as you share them, testimonies, in contrast, grow as you share them. President Oaks commented that “some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.”8 By sharing our testimonies with others, we can prompt them to desire a testimony for themselves. As we emphasized, spiritual evidence is shareable but not transferrable. Each of us are required to build a testimony for ourselves. But sharing the correct evidence for our testimonies—explaining the spiritual evidence we have gained for why we believe in God and Jesus Christ—can help others who are working to shift the focus of their belief from gaps in scientific understanding to true spiritual understanding.
▶You may also like: Reconciling concerns about faith and evolution
Let’s Talk about Science and Religion
- Colette Hemingway and Seán Hemingway, “Greek Gods and Religious Practices,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grlg/hd_grlg.htm.
- “Lightning,” National Geographic, accessed September 6, 2022, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/lightning#:~:text=Lightning%20is%20an%20electrical%20discharge,%2C%20ribbon%2C%20or%20rocket%20lightning.
- “What Is an Earthquake and What Causes Them to Happen?,” United States Geological Survey, accessed October 25, 2022, https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-earthquake-and-what-causes-them-happen.
- Robert Mendelsohn, “What Causes Crop Failure?,” Climatic Change 81 (2007): 61–70, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-005-9009-y.
- D. C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Testimony,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2008, 26, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
- Oaks, “Testimony,” 26.
- Oaks, “Testimony,” 26.