While we learn and study about the world and all that happens in it, we sometimes run into ideas or facts that seem to contradict or, at the very least, challenge notions of faith and belief. We might find a historical fact that calls into question something we long held to be true; we might see a reputable scientist apparently trounce a believer in a debate; we might gain familiarity with progressive social movements that make a faithful paradigm look narrow or bigoted. In any of these cases, we might start to think that any faith-based approached to life is obsolete, outmoded, or foolish. We might feel stupid for claiming to believe in the immeasurable, or we might look down on those who retain a commitment to things not seen. It seems that, increasingly, there has arisen a strange competition between secular knowledge and religion—where one exists, the other, we seem to think, cannot. However, I’ve begun to realize that there is no contest between learning and faith. One does not need to displace the other. I know from my experience as a curious university student that the world can make faith look fairly foolish—but I know from my experience as an active participant in my faith that faith is essential to a full and happy life. Here, I want to share what I’ve learned in the course of my secular and religious studies—what I’ve come to understand by striving to overcome the tension that has, at times, arisen between my education and my belief.
Frequently, I see the tenets of religion subjected to scientific scrutiny. Scientists call up decades’ worth of figures based on radiocarbon dating and then call the Biblical account of a seven-day Creation preposterous. Researchers point out the historical inconsistencies in translated texts and label those texts as fraudulent. In these instances and others, the non-religious seem to misunderstand the purposes of their fields and the purposes of faith. The sciences (which I will refer to throughout this essay as a recognizable and oft-cited representative of all secular fields of learning) are designed to measure the physical world through observation of tangible events and through the collection and analysis of empirical data. They aim to understand how the universe came to be, how proteins gain their shapes, how migratory birds know where they’re going. Religion, on the other hand, aims to lift our sights to our highest potential by highlighting our divine origins and our temporal responsibilities. In other words—science and religion both aim to accomplish different things.
For science to claim that religion’s empirical data is lacking is like religion claiming that science’s morality is underdeveloped. Religion doesn’t seek to establish a detailed account of physical, chemical, or biological processes. The title page of the Book of Mormon, for example, establishes its purpose to be “the convincing of the Jew and the Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD.” At the same time, science doesn’t seek to establish any sort of moral code: its empirical apparatus isn’t equipped to deal with anything other than fact, so it can only discuss what is and cannot ever discuss what ought to be.
Comparisons between science and religion are, I think, comparisons on false terms. Anyone would struggle to take seriously the scientist who questioned van Gogh’s astronomy or Saint-Saëns’ zoology. We seem to understand that science and art have distinct purposes, and we recognize that to hold art to science’s standard would be a particular kind of foolishness; similarly, trying to enforce art’s standards on science would be ridiculous. Generally, though, I think we fail to realize how unproductive it is to try to judge faith and science as though they were both trying to occupy the same intellectual territory. Religion is not science any more than calculus is poetry or ballet is electrochemistry. There is no contest—not because one of the competitors is so superior to the other but because the competitors are in different races!
Thus, secular learning and religion are based on vastly different paradigms. In secular learning, observations are measured, compiled, and correlated using statistical formulae. Peer review processes ensure that data is sound, that results are real, and that conclusions are based in fact. In religious learning, faith, which the Apostle Paul defines as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), is a necessary part of increasing in knowledge. Believers trust in things that cannot be measured or tabulated, and their conclusions are based in spiritual feelings, understanding, and experiences. This difference in approach to knowledge is, at least in part, what makes it difficult for some to accept religious truth as real. Nobody can put a specimen under the microscope in order to find the Creator’s signature in gilded cursive. Empirical evidence of the sort that we are used to looking for always comes up short in matters of faith—that’s why they’re matters of faith. Further, Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews lists the many examples of prominent believers in the Old Testament account and then says, “These all died in the faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them” (Hebrews 11:13). That is, faith is, ultimately, a choice. We will never be compelled to accept the reality of religious truth, but we can be persuaded of its reality and embrace it.
The Book of Mormon illustrates and explains the fact that faith is a choice. It tells of a man named Korihor who, rejecting any knowledge that lacked an empirical basis, called into question the teachings of prophets and the tenets of religions, saying “How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ…. [B]ehold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so” (Alma 30:15-16). Eventually, this Korihor ended up challenging the prophet Alma. In response to Korihor’s empirical arguments, Alma said:
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. But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? … 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. (Alma 30:40-41, 44).
For Korihor, the problem wasn’t a lack of evidence, but a refusal to accept as evidence what was before him. This is because, as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men” (2 Nephi 2:27). God won’t ever compel us to believe; rather, we must choose to believe.
And that doesn’t mean accepting faith blindly or dumbly. Later in the Book of Mormon, Alma teaches that we must come to faith for ourselves by experimenting on religious truth, which he calls the word. He explains that we need to give place for the word in our hearts—to give faith a chance to grow in us. Alma then explains the key to developing faith: he says, “[Y]e know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth expand.” He then asks, “O then, is not this real?” (Alma 32:34-35). Surely, the influence of faith in the life of one who chooses to believe is real. The effects and benefits of faith are discernible and true. In the words of the Savior Jesus Christ, “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 7:17); that is, a knowledge of faith-dependent truth comes only after we have lived by faith—not before. Faith will never reach out and grab us and force us to believe—and no empirical study will ever generate the sort of evidence that will compel anyone to adopt religious faith. However, faith will bless our lives and enrich our understanding of the world when we choose to believe and to trust in the divine.
Before I continue, I don’t want to give the impression that faith-based knowledge is the only knowledge worth having or that the sciences and secular arts are the only fields blundering through a false competition with religion. Those who choose faith are just as adept at feeding the contest that doesn’t exist—especially when they insist on the inaccuracy of documented, replicated, and verified scientific discoveries. No religious text can render false an observable fact. Ultimately, real progress exists, I’m convinced, in uniting worldly knowledge and religious faith. The Book of Mormon again teaches:
O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. (2 Nephi 9:28-29)
Just as knowledge without faith is a dead end, faith without knowledge is nothing more than ignorance. When we apply faith and knowledge jointly, we can then progress in deeply satisfying ways. I’ve found my perspectives enlarged and my understanding deepened when I’ve learned secular and spiritual truths and applied them together. To illustrate, now that my undergraduate studies are coming to an end, I’ve spent a good amount of time fretting over the next phase of life: What should I do? Where should I go? Which relationships are worth maintaining? How will I accomplish everything that needs to be done? In all of this thinking and deciding, I’ve discovered that I’m a skilled worrier. After class one day, I was worrying about all the imminent transitions in my life, so I turned to the scriptures in an effort to bolster my flagging faith and to displace my mounting anxieties. While I studied the inspired words of scripture, I found comfort and reassurance in a sentence that kept coming to my mind, words I had read the day before for a class in philology. In an essay entitled “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost wrote, “A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being.” Brought to my recollection while I was exercising faith, this little sentence came to me with a revelatory force that I had only experienced before with verses of scripture. Through it, the Lord taught me that worrying wouldn’t help me to move forward. He also taught me that I didn’t have to get things perfectly right on the first go—that I could work things out as I went as long as I got things started. Through that secular wisdom, the Lord touched my heart and enlightened my mind, helping me to set aside paralyzing doubts and to go forward with faith.
With Alma, I ask: O then was not that real? It was real, and it taught me much about the harmony that can exist between secular learning and religious faith. Together, they can lift and inspire us, teaching us the truth about the world around us as well as the truth about our place and purpose in the world. Faith and learning aren’t meant to compete, but to complement each other: religion is bad science, but science is also bad religion. Those who suggest that only one or the other is necessary and the other superfluous are missing the vitality and power that come from living by both. Further, though God will never compel us to accept faith with empirical proofs, when we do choose to combine faith with our knowledge of the world, I know that He will bless us and lift us to our highest potential.