I recently became aware of an interesting study related to beliefs on evolution among members of the LDS Church. The study led by BYU professors, including Steven Peck, polled LDS BYU students over 30 years to identify changes in these beliefs. From the abstract of the study:
Polling data reveal a decades-long residual rejection of evolution in the United States, based on perceived religious conflict. Similarly, a strong creationist movement has been documented internationally, including in the Muslim world. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon), a generally conservative denomination, have historically harbored strong anti-evolution sentiments. We report here a significant shift toward acceptance, compared to attitudes 30 years earlier, by students at Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the LDS church. This change appears to have multiple explanations. Students currently entering the university have been exposed to a much-improved introduction to evolution during high school. More importantly, there has been a significant decrease in negative messaging from Church authorities and in its religious education system. There is also evidence that current students have been positively influenced toward evolution by their parents, a large percentage of whom were BYU students, who earlier were given a strong science education deemed compatible with the maintenance of religious belief.
This graphic that shows the main question in the poll and the distribution of the responses was most interesting to me.
The answer “c. I reject evolution because it is in direct conflict with my religion faith” dropped from 16% to 2%. The common middle way type answer common from when I was in college “d. Evolution might apply to some limited circumstances” … ie “it may apply to lower forms, but not to man” dropped from 50% to 18.8%. The group that accepts evolution unconditionally f went from 10% to 60.6%. The question doesn’t specify, but I presume this includes the belief that man evolved from apes, which BYU professor and faithful LDS Steven Peck frequently professes.
That’s quite a remarkable change in approximately one generation. I was at BYU in ’88 and would have answered d. I have kids at BYU now and they would answer f.
What happened? If you go back 70 years, you would see very strong, very clear anti-evolution sentiment from Church leaders. If you go back to Joseph Smith’s teachings and the scriptures we have through him, we clearly had views of Adam and Eve and the creation that would be classified as fundamentalist today. Yet despite there being no official sanction of evolution, and Church leaders as recent as Elder Holland in 2015 have taught this in a way that makes it unclear whether it’s OK to believe in evolution, Latter-day Saints are changing their views on this.
This is great. Some may criticize the brethren for not leading the way, and letting members flail around wondering how to process this. But it’s great that LDS don’t need to be told what to believe. If they come to believe in evolution, they can modify their religious views to fit it in. It’s no small thing to make that shift from accepting the Bible’s creation story and Fall of Adam and Eve story and doctrines as literal to being understood metaphorically. You can go back to the Scopes Monkey trial time period in America and read quotes that assert that changing this belief is impossible and would completely destroy the foundation of Christianity.
Christian and Jewish traditions were faced with this and other historical and scientific issues related to fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible starting in the early 1900’s. Protestantism split with the mainline, moderate branches adopting a more science friendly view and Evangelical branches retrenching in fundamentalist-literal interpretations and rejecting modern science and scholarship. According to Greg Prince, LDS doctrine and views on this from 1900 to 1950 were shaped by Joseph F. Smith, and then his son Joseph Fielding Smith, and then his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie. They aligned with the Evangelical Christian movement with how we were going to address these issues.
But in a modern world as it’s becoming increasingly more and more difficult to continue to reject science and scholarship, it appears that LDS are finding ways to make this change in their own personal beliefs.
From here, my next thought, is after evolution, “what next”?
My own journey with how I fit together modern science and scholarship related to Church history and scriptural events have led me to a few other positions that are different from the traditional-fundamentalist view, most notably Book of Mormon historicity. I bring this up so frequently, because of my views that I’ve modified to fit my new understanding of modern science and scholarship, this one gets the most push back from traditional members.
Recently in a facebook discussion, I was asked:
We simply can’t ignore this question: Where did those plates come from? If Joseph fabricated them, then we have a church-breaking problem. If the many formal and informal witnesses were deceived or in cahoots with Joseph, then we have a church-breaking problem. If we have dozens of group hallucinations happening, we have a church-breaking problem. The existence of plates seems to be the final (and biggest) hurdle, in the way to establish your theory. I think that’s why our scholars and leaders, and most of our members, will never go along with an entirely inspired theory. It simply causes too many problems…Said differently, would God really give Joseph an entire book of scripture through a rock, knowing that he’d need to fabricate plates to make the story seem believable? Why would an honest God in heaven, give Joseph all of these sacred words, about a fake people, knowing that these people weren’t real? Why fabricate a story about Christ’s appearance on the American continent? If any part of this story was inspired by God, through Joseph, but it isn’t real, then God himself has some explaining to do.
I don’t have any perfect answers for this, but I do not call it a “church-breaking” problem. If you imagine it’s 1930, and you’re wondering about evolution, you could convince yourself using this same logic that it would be impossible to ever accept. Why do the scriptures say this? Why did Joseph say that? If this isn’t meant to be literal, what else might not be literal? Can we trust the scriptures or the prophets? Does this cast doubt on the fact that God is even real??
Bruce R. McConkie in a famous talk, outlined the three pillars of eternity: The Creation, The Fall, and The Atonement. Each one of these events is critical for LDS doctrine. Changes in a view of evolution, require a major personal reframing on at least two if not all three of those. Of the two: evolution and BOM historicity, I think changing a paradigm on evolution is a much more complex and potentially “church breaking” issue. Many of us have been through this already. If we haven’t, we have LDS models like Steven Peck or others to process the paradigm shift.
For BOM historicity, we don’t have those faithful models, so it seems more difficult. But those faithful models are emerging (stay tuned for my new podcast). I predict a BYU study on BOM historicity now vs the next generation in 30 years will show very similar results as this evolution study. And the church will move forward, as valid to its members as it is today compared to 30 years ago.