A Religion of Both Prayers and Pterodactyls - Steven Peck
Steven L. Peck is a scientist, BYU professor, and acclaimed author. In recent years he has emerged as a powerful advocate for science and evolution, publishing two books about the topic in as many years.
His latest offering, Science the Key to Theology, is an impassioned plea to members of the LDS Church to teach the compatibility rather than a supposed conflict between science and religion.
He reaches out to individuals who can’t accept the argument for evolution to at least acknowledge that the LDS Church does not have a stated position on the topic. In teaching capacities, members have a duty to respect that position. He hopes that by removing conflicting narratives, the tension between what our youth are taught in school and what they sometimes are taught in church settings will disappear. Too many youth feel they need to make a choice between believing science and believing in religion.
As a youth, Steven became less active after learning that his seminary teacher didn’t believe in dinosaurs. If there had been room in his teenage theology for prayers and pterodactyls, he wonders, perhaps it would have made a difference for him.
Luckily Steve moved on to BYU where he found faithful professors who modeled a healthy fidelity to both scientific and religious truths. He bemoans that some members of the church insist on misusing scripture as a scientific document rather than teaching of its miraculous ability to show us how to build a relationship with God. Science speaks to the “how” of creation, but religion speaks to the “why.”
Listen in as Laura Harris Hales of the LDS Perspectives Podcast and Steven Peck share a blunt discussion about the harmful effect teaching a tension between science and religion can have on testimonies. Both science and religion can work together in Steven’s model of theology to build faith.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 50: A Religion of Both Prayers and Pterodactyls with Steven Peck
(Released August 23, 2017)
This is not a verbatim transcript.
The grammar has been modified from conversational tone.
Laura Hales: This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Steven Peck to discuss the intersection of science and faith. Steve is an evolutionary biologist, blogger, poet, and novelist. He’s a professor of biology at Brigham Young University specializing in bioethics and ecology.
Growing up in Moab, Utah, he literally walked where dinosaurs walked, falling in love with nature and science along the way.
Steve is a prolific writer, both of scientific papers and creative non-fiction. His latest book is Science: The Key to Theology: Volume One: Preliminaries from the newly formed BCC Press.
Steve, as I’ve listened to your podcast and speeches and read your books over the last several years, I’ve come to see you somewhat as an apologist for evolution. You have incredible zeal in defending evolution as a friend to religion rather than an enemy to God.
Would you say that’s a fair characterization or would you describe your goals a little differently?
Steven Peck: I think it’s not untrue, and thank you for having me. This is a really wonderful thing for me, so thank you.
I’d say in reality, I’m way more a defender of science itself, to the extent that I see evolution as partaking in the scientific enterprise. I think it’s absolutely right, and I do think evolution’s evidence and story is wonderful and true in the scientific sense of that word, meaning that there is sufficient evidence that it would be absurd not to believe it.
Laura Hales: You share personal stories in your writing about how your attitudes toward science and evolution have changed over time. Are you primarily motivated by those negative experiences you’ve had where your religious beliefs seem to clash with what you were learning in school or by the confusion you saw among the students you teach?
Steven Peck: You know, it’s interesting — I have had both very positive and negative experiences. I had wonderful teachers who were faithful LDS thinkers. Here at BYU, in fact, when I was an undergraduate, I was shown the beauties and wonders of the world, nature, and science itself.
I was really glad to be here, to be around women and men who were faithful and excited members of the church. There was also this wonderful sense that God is interested in knowledge, and that I could partake of that here. I also had teachers who did not believe in evolution, and I had negative experiences. They tried to promote ideas that I think aren’t really very good religion and really weren’t a part of my religion, if you know what I mean — the sense that they were teaching their own interpretations of the scriptures for fact, when I think they were missing the boat, frankly.
Laura Hales: I think that comes with volunteer clergy.
Steven Peck: I think so, too.
For me, it did cause, especially as an undergraduate, this sort of split in my mind. I saw the wonders of nature. I saw these great things I was learning about: evolution, history of life on earth, dinosaurs, and all these things, and it filled me with a sense of wonder and gratitude for the things I was learning — that nature of the world. To me, it was marvelous and wonderful, and when somebody would say, “No, no, no, that’s all wrong. The scriptures teach us something different.” I’d be in conflict, and I’d think, “What? Really? No, that can’t be.”
Thankfully, though, I was around people who actually were faithful scientists and helped me along with that, and so I came around — but I worry about students who don’t have that. Who, for example, are in other places being taught the wonders and beauties of science, then meet people who dogmatically think that their interpretation of scriptures is the right one and are unwilling to let science teach them anything.
I’ve had very good experiences and some very strange experiences.
Laura Hales: I think some of your experiences echo those we’ve all had. In the beginning of your most recent book, you describe a story from your youth. Unfortunately, as different as our backgrounds are, the story was one that I could identify with because I’ve heard this same attitude before.
Do you want to share the story about your seminary teacher?
Steven Peck: Yes, I do. It’s actually important to me because one of the things I want to do, even if you don’t come away believing in evolution, is to release the tension. I hope to convince people that are inclined to talk about evolution as if there was something wrong with it, or as though the church had a stand against it, to back off a little bit because I think my own children have had this experience as well.
I had a great seminary teacher. He was very loving. His sense of concern for us was profound. In fact, he’d invite us over to talk about the mysteries of the scriptures and things in ways that were really fun and encouraging. But I only remember one thing that he taught.
I remember he had a profound testimony of Christ, and he would talk about that a lot, but the only other thing I remember about him was that he didn’t believe in dinosaurs — and I’m growing up in Moab among some of the prime dinosaur country in the world. We’ve got footprints and bones buried everywhere, and the second he said that, everything else he said sort of lost credibility.
Somebody who didn’t believe in dinosaurs just didn’t make sense to me. How could I trust them on anything if they didn’t believe in this fundamental fact? On the back cover on my book is a picture of me as a five year old with my big box of plastic dinosaurs. I mean, dinosaurs were my thing all my life. I just love dinosaurs. I loved them since I was a kid. Everything about them was fantastic.
When he said that, it was like, “Well, then I can’t trust you on anything.” If you don’t believe in dinosaurs, then why should I trust you about scriptures or the importance of the gospel? And by the time I was in high school, I was kind of inactive, and I wonder if there had been room for dinosaurs in my little teenage theology, if I would’ve taken different paths. I don’t know that.
But I know that this is an area of concern for lots and lots of youth who love science and find it compelling and suddenly are placed in a position where they feel like they have to choose between religion and science. And it’s that choice that I’m particularly concerned about, and that’s what I’m writing about. That choice is unnecessary. You can have both science and religion, and this idea that you have to choose one or the other isn’t right. I think choosing one or the other is a bad choice. If you choose religion over science, I don’t think that’s the right choice either.
I think people lose much by not having a scientific world view or learning about the world in ways that science offers. But then conversely, it’s a terrible thing to give up your religion for science, and that happens too often. I think both choices are unnecessary. I think they’re completely compatible, and they have been in my life. I love that about both of them.
I think it’s unfortunate that there are still people who teach the conflict rather than the unity of the two.
Laura Hales: I remember the first time I was in a discussion — it was actually with my sibling — where the subject of dinosaurs came up, and this sibling told me, “I don’t believe in dinosaurs.” I was dumbfounded, and I just kind of said, “Well, what about all of those bones?” And then the response came, “Well, you know, Carbon-14 dating isn’t very good, and God organized the earth from existing material.” And in my head, I’m going, “And He put all the bones together. That was really nice.”
But I think, would you say that we — and I’m going to expand this to all Christians — as a tradition, have tied ourselves in knots because we’ve worked with the assumption that revelation tells us what is true and scientific claims must fit into that truth?
Steven Peck: That’s a great question because I think what people forget is that even revelation has to be interpreted. When I read the Old Testament, I know that these scriptures were given to a very ancient people who had different sensibilities, different understandings of the way the world worked. And for me, that’s okay.
I found that God speaks to people in the language that they understand. I am not surprised that He spoke to an ancient culture in the Middle East in languages that they understood. Interestingly, they probably didn’t interpret the scriptures literally either. They understood the role of scriptures as providing stories about their gods that they could take into their lives and use. There’s some great work being done, in fact, that Genesis was an ancient temple ceremony, which is pretty interesting for Mormons.
I think that that is a misuse of scriptures, then, to try to read it scientifically. Because to me, the scriptures are an amazing thing and they’re amazing for this reason: ancient Hebrew people could read it for profit, and people all over the world could read it. People of multiple cultures from ancient Rome to today’s modern societies can read the scriptures and find them relevant in the time they’re in. That is an amazing thing, and, for me, the miracle of scriptures is they are relevant no matter what time and in what place you live.
Laura Hales: I think another thing that people don’t realize is that when the Jews wrote, history was fluid. They used it to teach a message about their relationship with God.
Steven Peck: Right. I think we get kind of caught up in using the scriptures to prove points. We worry about historical origins, you know. Is this an ancient document or is it not? And for me, scriptures are relational. The scriptures are how we form a relationship with God. Those kinds of questions aren’t that important, I think.
I see scriptures being used, as I mentioned, all over the world in different times and in ways that allow people to come to know God. I think that’s the purpose of scripture. And the second we try to tie them to scientific facts or we say that the scriptures are only good under this interpretation — under my interpretation or my view of where they came from — we start to miss the boat, and I think we start making mistakes.
That’s not what they’re for. They’re to form relationships with God, not to give us information about how the universe works.
Laura Hales: We’re both aware that the LDS church doesn’t really have an official position on evolution, but there are plenty of unofficial positions. We’ve talked about ideas that have crept up among members as an attempt to reconcile scientific conclusions regarding the beginnings of the universe, the age of the earth, the Big Bang, and dinosaurs. And we’ll talk about those in a minute, but first let’s just talk about the BYU packet because that’s as close as we can get to an official LDS church statement on science and evolution.
Steven Peck: A really nice statement also just came out, I should mention, in the children’s Friend. There is a very clear statement that Mormons have no position on evolution and that science is the way that will be figured out. It’s a great statement. I encourage everyone to go read it.
The BYU packet was designed to help students in both religion and in the biological sciences get a sense that there really was no position for the LDS Church. So the BYU packet contains statements by the First Presidency, let’s see, from 1909 and 1925, but they basically point out there is no official position on evolution. It also contains the entry from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and a few smaller documents.
The idea is to help students realize that, because in the biological sciences, we teach evolution pretty much like you would find it at any other university. The only difference is that professors have temple recommends. It’s kind of a big deal, I think, but there’s still a lot of confusion because some students have heard things in their religion classes that evolution is to be held in suspicion, that we don’t believe in that kind of thing, that we believe in this kind of new earth creationism — that really isn’t a part of Mormonism.
So the packet was designed for students, both religion students and life science students and others, to help them get a sense that the Brethren have not spoken out in an official capacity about evolution and that they know what we’re doing.
Laura Hales: It’s not under the table.
Steven Peck: Yeah, it’s not under the table. We’re not sneaking around like, “Psst, you want to hear something about evolution?”
Laura Hales: Well, you’ve covered evolution in what you’ve written, where you show that it’s pretty irrefutable.
Steven Peck: Right.
Laura Hales: Sometimes we say it’s a theory, and you describe what theory really is.
Steven Peck: Yeah, and in science, a theory is a big deal. It means doing a lot of work in how we gather data and how we make explanations. Science never gives statements of certainty and irrefutability, because new data and new things can change the story. But after a time, it fits so well together from so many different disciplines. Evolution fits well with embryology, the fossil record, and DNA. All of these things point to one conclusion, and that’s that things on earth have evolved over a long period of time, and therefore it is a scientific certainty in the sense that science finds certainties.
That’s not what science does. Science shows you how to bet, but it’s reached the point where it would be irrational to bet against evolution, and that’s what I mean by: “Science means it’s true, or it’s certain, or it’s a theory.” It means it’s reached the point where it’s become actually, literally irrational not to buy the story of evolution, because the probability is so low that it would be like going to Las Vegas and making a gamble on a billion to one odds, thinking that you’re going to get something out that way.
Laura Hales: Okay, I’m going to put you on the spot now.
Steven Peck: Okay.
Laura Hales: I think it’ll be fun. You’ve been teaching science for 20, 30 years, right?
Steven Peck: Yep.
Laura Hales: Okay, tell me in five sentences how we got where we are now.
Steven Peck: In evolution?
Laura Hales: From the Big Bang to today.
Steven Peck: Okay. So this is what I buy — the scientific consensus. I wish I had the number in front of me, but it’s on the order of fourteen, fifteen billion years — that’s when the Big Bang happened. Matter collapsed, stars emerged, the first generation of stars … It’s unlikely that life would evolve because there weren’t any heavy metals and heavy elements like oxygen and carbon, which have been really helpful for life on earth, but those weren’t there. A first generation star explosion created our second generation star, which is the sun. Heavy metals were here and planets formed around it with an accretion disk, then settled, and this planet happens to be the right place, the right distance from the sun for us to have liquid water. A stable atmosphere emerged and life evolved, and here we are.
Is that five sentences?
Laura Hales: That was five sentences. That was a fast jump from “There’s no carbon” to “Here we are.”
Steven Peck: That’s right. I skipped over a few details, by the way.
Laura Hales: Yeah, crawling out of the primordial soup and getting legs. I guess we all had that in Biology 101.
Steven Peck: Yeah, went through primates and early man. In fact, we got a new display here in the Life Science building of some of the early hominids that existed before we lived. And in fact, sitting right in front of you is an Acheulean hand axe that’s about a million and a half years old carved by a homo erectus that lived in Africa.
Laura Hales: I was at the Smithsonian with one of my boys last year, and we were at a display, and they had found these bones in a cave along with a wooden flute, and they dated it to 30 thousand years ago. So I kind of teased him, “Oh look, moms were nagging their children 30 thousand years ago to practice their instruments.”
Steven Peck: Practice your flute.
Laura Hales: Practice your flute.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate here.
Steven Peck: Please do.
Laura Hales: Or even a confused person trying to mesh together my thoughts from the Genesis that I’ve been raised with in this Protestant or Mormon tradition with what I’m learning in science class, and I realize that science doesn’t have all the answers for everything yet. So couldn’t God be in the gaps?
Steven Peck: That’s the approach that religion’s taken for a long time actually. What it’s tried to do is anything that it couldn’t explain, it attributed to God. So for years and years, those things that seemed inexplicable, it was said, “God did it.”
And that was fine when there wasn’t another explanation. But explanations came about, like when we got through the period of coming to understand that the sun doesn’t go around the earth. That was commonly believed by some very, very smart people.
As time went on, other explanations came about and one of the big explanations was, you know, how can we get designed, diverse, life forms without any God intervening? So people attributed it to God and this, I think, sort of precipitated the war between science and religion in some ways. In fact, that was one of the things that early thinkers like William Paley and John Ray used.
These were people that looked at the world and saw the wonderful design and made arguments from design — that design implies a designer and, therefore, this is evidence of God.
In the 19th century, Darwin came up with a theory of evolution that showed how design could emerge without a designer. Just by natural selection and doing its slow and steady work. And this, I think, coincides with the rise of this Creationist Fundamentalism where they wanted to hold to the explanation for this being God. And it’s created what’s called the “God of the Gaps” argument. It’s actually a tactic used by, I think, evangelical atheists who want to point out that the gaps have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and then they argue, “Well, they’ve gotten so small that he’s completely disappeared and is unnecessary.”
And part of it is, I think, they’re asking the wrong question. God has not talked much about how He works in the universe, and to attribute every mystery, I think, fails in the long-run because when an explanation comes, people say, “Oh, then where’s God in this or where’s God in that?”
Some people try to hold onto it for a long time. We see, for example, Young Earth Creationists who want the earth to be 6000 years old; they try to refute the evidence and it becomes absurd. It actually starts to fail when thoughtful people really want to see explanations. We have really good explanations that work scientifically and that we can demonstrate seeing evidence for.
Those kinds of arguments actually, I think, decrease faith in people. They quit looking for God inside themselves because they’ve held onto Him outside themselves for so long. They don’t look at the right source for knowledge about God and that fails them, and they think that they can now dismiss religion because science has become a better explanation for what religion once explained. And it’s unfortunate because I think they’re just looking for God in the wrong place.
Laura Hales: I love that. Also, evolution can be a selfish and cruel process.
Steven Peck: Yes.
Laura Hales: I kind of like the idea of blaming someone besides God for that cruelty.
Steven Peck: Yeah, and it is. It’s messy, it doesn’t optimize things, and it is cruel. I mean, there’s nothing really nice about the jaws of a lion around the neck of a gazelle. It’s just not a pleasant sight. And for me, that suggests that evolution must play a very important role in creative processes. And it opens the door for one of the things that I argue in my book. One of the reasons I wrote the book comes from this idea that the universe is open and that diversity is a wonderful thing — that this is how diversity arises in the universe. It’s through this long, slow process.
Otherwise we have kind of have the Harry Potter God, who waves his wand and everything is in place. The problem of evil then becomes really hard, I think.
If this is the only way to get complexity, then I want to participate in it, too, but if I could just fix things with a wave of my hand, you become more culpable, I think. So for me, evolution actually answers some of the problems of evil that if you attribute to God, makes it really hard to understand sometimes.
Laura Hales: How about those who want to accept a partial evolution? You’ve probably seen this. I will accept evolution everywhere except for across species. Or everywhere except for man.
What would you say to that?
Steven Peck: I think it’s unnecessary. It’s sort of funny, but some of our best fossil evidence comes from the hominoid lines. We have a really abundant evidence of these ancient human-like creatures that lived on earth — abundant evidence.
When some of the early thinkers in the church were writing in the early 20th century, there wasn’t a lot there, but by now we’ve got lots and lots of fossils and lots and lots of material culture from the people.
I’ve never been bothered by that. It seems to me that some really advanced apes are better than soil to come from. I mean, you know, come from the dirt. Whether that’s star dust —
Laura Hales: Unless it’s metaphorical, then it’s okay.
Steven Peck: Yeah, then it’s okay. I think that that’s what it is. Science has done a marvelous job of understanding human ancestry. In fact, I had my DNA checked, and I have a higher proportion of Neanderthal than most. I was so happy.
Laura Hales: We could’ve told you that, Steve.
Steven Peck: Yeah, I know. Lots of people have pointed that out to me before I had the results.
Laura Hales: We’ve had this tradition of God being omniscient and omnipotent; that He can do anything He wants. In fact, I’ve heard the phrase, “Where God is involved, anything can happen,” which is a real conversation stopper.
What do you say to those kind of arguments?
Steven Peck: I think the best expression was by Homer Simpson when he said, “Is God so powerful that he could create a burrito so hot even he couldn’t eat it?”
Laura Hales: That’s deep, Steven; that’s so deep.
Steven Peck: I know, I really … I think it captures it in a way. And I don’t mean to be sacrilegious. I’m being a little bit facetious, but I honestly don’t think that’s part of Mormonism. I see the doctrines that Joseph Smith had revealed to him about a very material God. A God who is like us in ways, and I find that deeper and more profound.
I find a God that uses natural law and is invested in the universe in that sense to be a beautiful idea. In fact, I find it really beautiful that our bodies came out of this earth through a long, slow process. We, in a sense, belong to this earth, and this is our final resting place. This is where it will happen. As Mormons we know and understand that this is where the celestial kingdom takes place.
And for me, this long history coming out of the earth, living on the earth, inheriting the earth, is a beautiful, uniquely Mormon doctrine. The idea of omniscience actually comes out of Greek philosophy, and that’s why I can make fun of the burrito scenario.
It’s not part of Mormon doctrine and I think we do a disservice to our theology if we try to pretend that it does. I like the Restoration doctrines. I think we have claimed for a long time that the Restoration had things to restore. We find anciently that this idea of a material God was part of the religion of ancient Christianity. This incorporation of these Greek ideas, I think it’s done us a disservice, but we talk about them all over the place.
I don’t think we recognize that we’re, in a way, abandoning Restoration ideas. I find this notion of God much bigger and better than the idea that God created everything in one fell swoop, a wave of His hand.
I give this analogy to my students: I’ve got two programmers here. One programmer can program any game you can buy at the store — that’s how good they are. Any game you name, they can program it up, and there it is. Is that a good programmer? Yeah. You have to admit that is one fine programmer. They can create any game.
Or there’s this programmer who can write one single program, where when they type the word “Go,” all these programs emerge. To me, that’s such a more beautiful idea. It’s so much more powerful. It captures the depth that we see in our history of the universe that science is unfolding, and yet it’s a much more magnificent and profound view of God, I think.
Laura Hales: In your book, Science: The Key to Theology, you mentioned that you’re not really interested in reconciling science and religion, or at least that you find that the wrong word to use. You wrote, “I want a theology that allows for both prayer and pterodactyls.” What do you think would be a better word to describe the relationship between science and religion?
Steven Peck: I’ve thought a lot about this. I sort of resist the notion of two magisterios, one holding to ethics and the other looking at the observable universe. I think they’re both important, and I think that we need to keep that in mind.
And because both are important, it means that each gives and takes. I think too often we try to smash the round peg of science into the square hole of religion and the square peg of religion into the round hole of science.
That effort doesn’t really produce. It makes people choose sides. I hold both, and, for me, religion has taught me how to pray. It’s taught me the beauty of the scriptures. It’s taught me the wonders of why we’re here. How we got here. The physical things of the universe. That’s science’s domain, and it makes the assumption science doesn’t answer questions like that at all, but it explores questions about how things unfold in the universe. It’s a mechanistic study. It’s a study of how things work and what predictions we can make from that. What evidence do we find for how things unfolded on earth?
Let me give an analogy I use in the book: We shouldn’t fault science for using what I call “methodological materials.” The idea is that we look at the material world and see what we can learn from it.
When we take our car to a mechanic, we fully expect them to come back with a story about spark plugs and belts and loose nuts and things like that. We don’t expect them to say, “You know, looking at the engine, I’m pretty sure you’re not paying a full tithing. This is kind of where we see that people aren’t being complete tithe payers, so that’s my advice to you to get the car working.”
If our mechanic said that to us, we’d immediately go find a new mechanic because we want the material story. We expect it to be a cause and effect story to explain why the car doesn’t run, and this is what science does. Science is looking for a cause and effect story in terms of how the universe works. What things are taking place? What processes do I see? What predictions can I make if those processes continue? And I use tools like mathematical modeling and statistical analysis to come up with the very best and most detailed story, then I test it.
I design experiments that can answer whether this conjecture based on material causes is right. I manipulate things, and there’s nothing that keeps me from being a Latter-day Saint in that activity. I find a more profound story the more I come to understand about the natural world, and that makes me appreciate this wonderful planet we live on even more.
The way that I look at it is that these are two ways of knowing different things about the universe. There’s a story that I find in what I feel. It’s a relationship, and this is what I think a lot of people lose when we read about evangelical atheists who want to dismiss religion.
They think religion is a series of bad inferences — like we’ve got data and we’re just making bad inferences about things. But for religious people, that’s not how it works. Religion is a relationship with a being that helps us and teaches us things. And for me, that’s where religion has power — in helping me establish and use this relationship with God. I have relationships with others and that comes through familiarity and getting to know them. Then through that, that relationship becomes important and meaningful and structures my life just as readily as any relationship I have.
Those aspects of religion and science are absolutely and completely compatible. I don’t try to use religion to explain the stars or, as I say in the book, craters on the moon or even life on earth. I know, ultimately, that the universe has a purpose, but it’s not manifest in the way that predators and preys interact in a stream.
Does that make sense?
Laura Hales: It does. You mention in your book that in your concept of theology, both science and religion would have to be true; also, that right now you verify science and you verify the presence of a God in two different ways.
Science uses methodological materialism and religion uses experience. How does that relate to our acceptance of science and our acceptance of religion?
Steven Peck: I can speak for myself, how that experience has taken place in me. I have not found it difficult, in fact. I believe both are useful, and I have found them useful.
Science has proven itself in terms of its usefulness. The things that we discover with science are helpful and true. We can make use of that. We look around us and in medicine, chemistry, physics, and biology, we find these great strides that come about through these methods. This is why science matters, and this is why when scientists are talking about the way the world works. It’s actually prudent to listen to them.
If you’re going to disagree with them, disagree with them in terms of data or in terms of interpretation, because they put a lot of successful methods to bear on a problem.
Other scientists look at that and have lively debates on evolution. I participated myself in the journals on key points of how things work. I was in a debate for a long time on how evolution works in spatial systems and how space structures the way that evolutionary trajectories take place and that’s way beyond probably what you wanted to get into, but the idea, though, is that scientists are in constant conversation today.
I always laugh when somebody says there’s a conspiracy of sciences because a bunch of scientists can’t even agree on what kind of wallpaper to put up, let alone deep things that they’re invested in.
Science is a lively debate and argument, and one of the best ways to build a career in science is to prove everybody wrong. You do that with data and then you join the conversation with other scientists using the methods of science, so the idea of a conspiracy between scientists always seems a little funny to me. I don’t think we would agree on much if we got together.
But when we do agree, it’s prudent to pay attention. Your other question is the spiritual side of that: “How do you reconcile those?” For me, those are subjective experiences. This is Alma’s seed analogy. He’s talking about doing a kind of science, planting a seed. And I think those kinds of subjective experiences require different methods than objective materialism.
I think those methods are successful to the extent that you apply them and try them in the same sense, but you’ll be the only one who actually gets to experience what you’re experiencing, and it becomes hard to communicate. You have end up just saying, “Go try what I tried and see what happens.”
It’s different for different people, and that’s why subjectivity doesn’t work very well for science, but it does work for forming relationships. When we fall in love with somebody, if you looked for evidence, you know, you could make a chart, “Okay, candy, flowers. Okay, the evidence is mounting.” But that’s not what you would call love. You wouldn’t call love the summation of those evidences. It would be the experience that you had in your heart. That’s what love is. It’s not anything that you can describe or provide evidence. You can even do brain scans and see it light up in the presence of the other, and that still wouldn’t be what the experience of love is like.
To dismiss the idea of love — I don’t think I’ve had anybody that hasn’t argued this — but the experience that love is just a bunch of chemicals because we can see chemical light up when somebody’s in love, that’s very different, though, from the experience of love. The feeling cannot be gotten to by science. You can only experience that from within. There might be physical manifestations that you could pick up with looking at hormones and brain structures, but still, the sum of all those things does not amount to the experience of love that you feel and sense. We all experience these things as experiences and yet we suddenly demand that God has to do something extraordinarily scientific before we believe.
That’s the way I would answer that question of the two: that I find both necessary. I don’t want to live in a world without love, and I don’t want to live in a world without the experience of God. It’s that I find both of those things powerful and real and a part of my being who I am. I can still study science with that.
I guess a lot of people in love still do science, and it doesn’t affect their ability to be in love, so…
Laura Hales: As I was reading your book, Science: The Key to Theology, it was obvious that it was very purpose driven. In your novels, you kind of tell a fun story, an unusual story usually.
What did you hope to accomplish with this book? What are you trying to provide for Latter-day Saints?
Steven Peck: It actually does have a purpose, and it’s actually going to reach fruition in the next volume because I think that we need to engage the natural world in our conversations about theology in some very unusual ways.
There’s a Catholic theologian who wrote that we can no more do theology without evolution than we could do psychology or biology without evolution. And I think there’s some really interesting ways, especially in Mormonism, that evolution becomes a powerful strength.
I have often argued that Mormons should be the most friendly people to evolution on the planet. It really fits in our ideas of material being in ways that I think are important. One of the things we do is we interpret the scriptures. As theologians, we interpret the scriptures and try to understand them. I think we need to add the natural world to that conversation — not in the ways that were done to try to prove God, but in terms of how understanding the natural world helps us appreciate God or helps us understand who we are on this planet and those kind of questions. I think Mormons have unique doctrines that we need to explore that are really cool.
We’re just starting that process, so this book is a kind of a first stab at starting that conversation. And it is a conversation. I’m not going to claim any answers, believe me. Anybody who thinks this is the final word has really made an error, but I think it opens a conversation in interesting ways, and I hope it continues.
Laura Hales: I think so, too. You’ve brought up some really great conversation starters, and thank you for sharing your afternoon with us and having a conversation.
Steven Peck: Thank you for coming and talking to me about this. This is fantastic.
Laura Hales: Hopefully when Volume Two comes out we can come talk to you again.
Steven Peck: I hope you do. I really do.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.