Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Being a Mormon Scientist

It's an interesting thing being a person of faith in a PhD program in a basic science. Physics departments are probably some of the only places in the world where atheists make up the majority. In some sense, as a Mormon that grew up in Oregon, I've been used to being in the religious minority most of my life, but at least most people I associated with shared a belief in God on some level. Most of the time one's views on the existence of God don't come up when discussing solar magnetic fields, but every now and then I get in a religious discussion. I imagine that many of you have had similar experiences.

I recently read "Mormon Scientist", a biography of Henry Eyring (the father of Henry B. Eyring). I recommend the book, both as good career advice on balancing top notch science and family, and as an exploration of a modern faith-filled scholar. He was a physical chemist that revolutionized the way that the rates of chemical reactions are calculated by being one of the first chemists to apply quantum mechanics to chemistry. He was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society. Many people believe he should have won a Noble Prize. Basically, he was an excellent scientist.

He was also a devout member of the LDS church and a popular speaker on the compatibility of science and religion. He summarized my feelings on integrating science and religion beautifully when he said:
"Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men."

Personally, I agree with Henry. I don't see the supposed conflict. Certainly my understanding of science and of religion don't always mesh, but the problem is with me, not science or religion. In fact, I find that the scientific method works very nicely when applied to religious faith. I have never known anyone who has sincerely and persistently taken God up on His offer that "if any man will do [God's] will, he will know of the doctrine, whether it be of God" (John 7:17) without coming to know that God lives. It turns out that humanity has about 6 billion detectors capable of measuring God. These are called people. He designed us specifically with that feature.

Saying that because we cannot currently understand how God works he must not exist is giving modern science far too much credit. If I had walked around half a century ago claiming that baryonic matter made up about 5% of the mass-energy in the universe, I would have been regarded as insane. We don't have things figured out yet. We're not even close. We won't be close anytime soon. When we do see how it all works, I'm confident that God will be quite pleased with our efforts.


  1. Henry Eyring was a model LDS scientist. First, he was very open to how important a role faith can be in somebodies life. Second, he had the intellectual honesty to defend science, even the theory of evolution, as a member of the church's Sunday School board.

    He is also the cousin of my wife's grandfather, another emeritus seventy Richard Turley. I asked him one time what could I do be a good member of the church. He told me to be a scientist in the way his cousin Henry was:

    Incredibly faithful, but also intellectually honest. LDS scientists need to inspire faith, but also realize how important good science is to all mankind.

  2. I always remember at BYU when ever I told people I was studying physics (AND philosophy) they would look at me and ask, "So how do you reconcile what you study with the church?" and I would ask them, "Why do you think I need to?" They never had a good answer for that one (or any answer for that matter).

    I have read Bro. Eyring's book and I remember reading it and thinking, yeah this is what I've been thinking all along.


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