Defending the Faith: Reading the books of scripture and science together

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Two upcoming free public events in Provo - a lecture and a symposium - will consider the relationship between science and religion, a subject on which leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had surprisingly much to say.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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When I first came to the university for undergraduate studies, I arrived as a mathematics major. I vaguely intended to study cosmology, the origin and fundamental nature of the universe. I even had a life-size poster on my dorm room wall of Albert Einstein riding a bicycle.

It didn’t last long. I quickly discovered that, although I was reasonably good at mathematics, it wasn’t my passion and probably wasn’t my particular strength (assuming I have one). Moreover, I had already come under the influence of Hugh Nibley, and so, when I learned that a friend was studying classical Greek, I was intrigued. Eventually, I graduated in Greek with a minor in philosophy. (I have no doubt that my parents, though they never actually said so, were thrilled with those practical and easily marketable choices!)

But I left classics, too. Again, partially impelled by something that Professor Nibley had said, I took up the study of Arabic and Islam and ultimately earned a doctorate in the subject.

However, the old interests never completely died, and my dissertation focused on the cosmological theories of a little known 11th-century Arab Neoplatonic philosopher by the name of al-Kirmani, who had lived in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. In order to understand the background for his thought, I even used a fair amount of Greek.

Thus, I’m delighted to have been asked by the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at Brigham Young University to deliver this year’s annual Summerhays Lecture, which is dedicated to reflections on the interface between science and religion. So delighted, in fact, that I’m shamelessly using this column to promote it. I intend to take the opportunity to dust off my old interest in theories of the universe and, briefly, to tease out some of the implications of their history for religious belief. I’ll be speaking Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Joseph Smith Building Auditorium on the BYU campus, under the title “Hearing Cosmic Harmony Again.” Admission is free. (See http://cpms.byu.edu/about/speeches-and-lectures/summerhays-lecture/ for details.)

Somewhat less egotistically but very much in line with my still lively interest in science, I’m also pleased to mention a forthcoming conference being sponsored by The Interpreter Foundation, entitled “Science and Mormonism: Cosmos, Earth, and Man,” which will occur on Nov. 9, 2013, at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo. Leading Latter-day Saint scientists from BYU and beyond will address topics in the physical and biological sciences from perspectives that combine both faith and scientific integrity.

Here, too, admission will be free. But registration is required, because seating will be severely limited. (See http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/events/2013-symposium-science-mormonism-cosmos-earth-man/.) We anticipate that the proceedings will also be streamed and recorded for those unable to attend in person.

Presenters will address areas of seeming conflict between the gospel and contemporary science, confident that, in the end and when properly read, what Galileo called the book of nature and the book of sacred scripture will agree. “Our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular,” insisted Brigham Young in 1871. “Our religion,” he said the following year, “embraces chemistry; it embraces all the knowledge of the geologist, and then it goes a little further than their systems of argument, for the Lord almighty, its author, is the greatest chemist there is.”

But the focus of the conference won’t be merely or even largely defensive. Participants are excited, rather, to examine ways in which science can help us to a more accurate understanding of God and his works — such understanding is a religious obligation for all believers, not only specialists — and in the unique point of view on science and religion offered by Mormonism.

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