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Dave, I've enjoyed your series. I'm curious, however, about your assertion that there isn't an "an official LDS position for or against evolution." If that's true, the following statement regarding the Church's doctrinal position must have been published without authorization.

"In the early 1900s, questions concerning the Creation of the earth and the theories of evolution became the subject of much public discussion. In the midst of these controversies, the First Presidency issued the following in 1909, which expresses the Church's doctrinal position on these matters." (Ensign, Feb. 2002, p.26.)

A few pages later, the same magazine invites readers to find, on page 26, "the Church's official teachings on the creation of mankind and evolution." (Ibid., p.80.)

According to these statements, the LDS Church sure seems to think it has an official position on evolution. I'm curious, therefore, how you know there isn't one.

I feel like this is a weird definition of religion, but notwithstanding it (philosophers, after all, have weird definitions for a lot of things), I don't think evolution really satisfies the things that Ruse says it does (at least, I don't know fully what he's saying, because I haven't read the book.)

For example, evolutionary biology may describe human actions (what humans do or will do -- a positive approach), but I don't see how it exhorts humans to actions (what humans should do -- a normative approach.) I think that there are some people who make evolution and science into this, but I don't think this is part and parcel of either evolution or science in general.

To contrast, religions may offer a positive view of humans (sinfulness/the fall), but they most certainly don't stop here (repentance, redemption, turning away from the natural man.)

So, because it doesn't have this "should" aspect, I don't see how it points to a brighter future if all is done as it "should" be done.

However, I agree that evolution offers a story of origins. Not so sure that it provides a privileged place at the top for humans (isn't one major criticism about evolution that under it, humans are "just" animals...and that this is unacceptable?)

You'll have to explain why Ruse believes that evolution provides "a place (probably a special place) for humans, a guide to action, [or] a meaning to life." I can't think of any way in which it performs any of those functions.

In his definition of religion he conveniently misses out 'faith' which is an essential element in almost all religious beliefs.

And, as for his final comments evolution doesn't offer a 'story' of origins but the evidence for it and as such does not offer solutions to any of the other social conditions.

It might be that some may have used, in the past, a misguided understanding of natural selection for their own aims and purposes but that can also be directed at religious belief and I don't hear the same criticism.

Or, is it that a religion is 'God-given' and all carried out in its name therefore sacrosanct and beyond our understanding and above criticism?

Thanks form the comments, everyone. The special place for humans is overtly emphasized in 19th-century writings, which told evolution as a story of progress from early life through plants and animals, culminating in humans and even in 19th-century English humans. Modern commentators are generally more circumspect, but still make a similar argument that evolution is biased toward the development of complexity (us) or that the human brain and nervous system is the most interesting and complex thing in tne universe, etc.

Some scientists such as Simon Conway Morris argue that evolution is convergent and that something like humanoids is the likely outcome of any evolutionary history. Others like Gould see the process as contingent -- turn the clock back 500 million years and play the Earth game again, and you would see dramatically different outcomes. Either tale can be spun to make humans special. We are the predetermined outcome of the process or we are the fortunate and blessed beneficiaries of a cosmic roll of the dice.

It is worth noting that Darwin did not affirm the idea that evolution was a staircase of achievement with humans at the top step (although most of his contemporaries did). His metaphor was a bush radiating in all directions.

Dave, let's say I want to present evolution as a secular religion rather than just as good science.

All I have to do is create a definition of secular religion into which evolution can be made to fit.

And then I've defined evolution as a secular religion.

Perhaps nontheistic would be a better term, John. Clearly evolution (or evolutionism) takes a broader and more philosophical or religious tone when presented to the general public. It is presented as an alternative to traditional religion in a way that other theories are not. This is what I think Ruse was trying to expound in describing evolutionism as a secular religion that offers answers to cosmic questions as well as general laws that account for observed facts about the natural world.

As noted, that was part of his explanation for the protracted struggle between evolutionists and conservative Christians. if you instead see evolution as just another explanatory scientific theory like any other, then you need an alternative explanation for the central question of the book -- why the continuing struggle.

R. Gary, I'm glad you enjoyed the series.

Yes, the First Presidency issued a statement in 1909. If present-day senior LDS leaders actually considered that 1909 statement to be "the Church's official teachings on the creation of mankind and evolution," they would simply quote it when asked to give the Church's official position. They don't. I'm told inquiries to the COB produce a form letter quoting the 1931 document that is also featured in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism evolution entry. [I should really write to the COB and get my own personal copy of this widely reported form letter.]

Reprinting the 1909 statement in the February 2002 Ensign doesn't seem to have contributed anything to the conversation. If anything, it runs contrary to the modern practice of most senior leaders of avoiding direct statements either affirming or criticizing evolution. I hope no one hangs their testimony on the editorial wisdom of the Ensign.

A balanced account that details a series of statements made over the years by LDS leaders, including the 1909 statement, the 1931 document, and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry, is available at the T&S post Mormons and Evolution.

I would agree with R. Gary that there actually is an official stance on evolution in the church's official doctrine concerning man and his origins. The official stance of the church is that man is the literal and direct lineal offspring of God and not of animals.

On the issue of if evolution is a secular religion or not I would have to say that perhaps it is not a "religion" as is defined by people in general. It may be a secular idea that gains the same rights and priveledges as a religion under the rights of our laws but it is not a religion in and of itself. If this were true then we could take all different kinds of theories and classify them also. For instance- should the believers of the theory of relativity be a religion? What about those who believe in plate tetonic theory? Should they be a religion? Perhaps what about those who believe in the principle of gravity? As for specific organizations-

Should the National Geographic Society be a "religion"? What about The NRA? What about NASA?

As defined by Americans and people in general, religion is an institution of believers who belong to a faith based spiritual group usually denoted by special priveledges and rights based upon some measure of faith beliefs coupled with worship. Also accompanied with this are specific rituals as a right of passage. In order for evolution to be a religion it would have to have an organizational head, places or times of worship, and have rituals and rightsd of passage within that embodiment. Just stating it as a group of believers does not make it a "religion."

There are other words which properly designate evolutionists none of the which are "religious". You could say "believers", "group", perhaps even "adherants".

The same can be said of those who believe in Intelligent Design. Belief ina theory does not constitute one as being part fo a religion nor make his views suddenly "religious".

Dave, the 1931 excerpt would be helpful for individuals who need a reminder not to use science to interpret scripture. But letters to individuals are NOT the voice of the Church to its worldwide membership, and neither are university professors writing in privately published encyclopedias.

The 1992 First Presidency, speaking as members of the BYU Board of Trustees, said "formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions." They identified the 1909 statement as one such.

A published case study

In preparation for writing their 2001 book, Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding Trent D. Stephens and D. Jeffrey Meldrum asked the Church for its official position on evolution. They say they did this because they wanted to print the Church's position in their book.

One of them conferred with his local ward bishop, who contacted the stake president, who contacted the area president. Word came back that the bishop would be authorized to request a declaration of doctrine from the First Presidency. Whereupon the bishop made just such a request.

Subsequently, the bishop received a letter from the secretary to the First Presidency who attached the November 1909 First Presidency statement and warned that anything said about it in the book would be personal opinion. Here is how Stephens and Meldrum tell the story:

"We sought this clarification so that it would not be necessary for readers to do so individually. In response, the bishop received a letter ... and a copy of the complete text of the official statement issued in 1909 on ' The Origin of Man.' ... The secretary to the First Presidency concluded his letter to the bishop by emphasizing that any attempt to interpret or elaborate upon the 1909 statement must be considered personal opinion and not the position of the church." (p.7.)

Stephens and Meldrum were reliably informed that the Church's official position on evolution was to be found in the November 1909 First Presidency statement. Notice that this official statement of doctrine also forms the foundation of the BYU Evolution Packet, approved by the BYU Board of Trustees in 1992.

I don't wish to perpetuate this eternal conversation, I just want to point out that although their book was unfortunately confusing on this issue, Stephens and Meldrum apparently did receive passages from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism along with 1909 statement.

I don't wish to be a smart aleck, but so what? What does the 1909 statement have to do with anything, such as the science curriculum at BYU, or even what BYU professors are allowed to publish in scientific journals or the BYU alumni magazine? On the other hand, if we held fast to the 1909 statement as an edict, one has to wonder how many LDS doctors and scientists we would be producing.

Thanks for the link, Jared*. Trent Stephens said this:

When Jeff [Meldrum] and I, and Forrest Peterson who was a student who worked with us on this project, first began writing our book a few years ago we went to my bishop and then to our stake president and obtained permission for the bishop to write to the First Presidency to obtain the official statement of the Church. They then sent us a cover letter and a xeroxed copy of the section on evolution in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
You are correct that did not come through very well in the book (a copy of which is on my desk in front of me), where what seems to be said is that they received a cover letter from the First Presidency (the details of which are not expressly identified) and a copy of the 1909 First Presidency statement:
In response, the bishop received a letter from the First Presidency and a copy of the complete text of the official statement issued in 1909 on "The Origin of Man" .... The secretary to the First Presidency concluded his letter to the bishop by emphasizing that any attempt to interpret or elaborate upon the 1909 statement must be considered personal opinion and not the position of the church.

In the book, Stephens and Meldrum then segue into a discussion of the evolution entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. I wish their discussion on these points had been clearer.

You guys are awesome, Jared* and Dave. Thanks for making that all easier to understand.

Thanks for your comment, R. Gary. I think it is incorrect to characterize the excerpt of the 1931 statement as a letter to an individual (although it may sometimes be included in letters to individuals). The statement comes from minutes of a meeting of the First Presidency, and the cover letter to the BYU Evolution Packet indicates that the documents in the packet were reviewed and approved by the BYU Board of Trustees, which includes the LDS First Presidency. Evenson (in the cover letter) notes: "They approved the packet."

Link to the packet: http://www.sciencebysteve.net/wp-content/papers/EvolutionPacket.pdf

I think it is reasonable to read that approval as affirming and adopting the published excerpt of the 1931 First Presidency minutes. Had the excerpt unfairly represented the balance of the 1931 statement, the First Presidency would not have approved inclusion of the excerpt in the packet. If the 1992 First Presidency had had any objections to the substance of the quotation from the 1931 minutes (a separate issue from whether it fairly quoted or represented the full 1931 statement), they would also not have approved its inclusion in the BYU Evolution Packet.

Furthermore, a separate BYU Board of Trustees cover letter dated June 1992 and included in the BYU Evolution Packet expressly states: "The current First Presidency authorized inclusion of the excerpt from the First Presidency minutes of 1931 in the 1992 Encyclopedia article."

Also instructive are Duane Jeffery's comments in the Foreward to the Stephens and Meldrum book, which detail how the First Presidency in April 1910 published comments to clarify confusion over the 1909 statement. Jeffery wrote (ellipsis in original):

Numerous questions from church readers prompted a clarification just five months later. In April 1910, in their official columns in the church magazine, the First Presidency took a more detailed stance. They identified three possible options for the origin of the human body, listing evolution by "natural processes ... through the direction and power of God" as one acceptable view. No First Presidency since then has ever clarified the details of this issue any further. I find it regrettable that the church's study manual for 2000-2001 includes only the 1909 statement, with no context whatever nor any evidence of the subsequent clarification.

Dave, six years ago, Evenson and Jeffery collaborated as authors on a book, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements. From March until June 2006, I posted three major and several related blog articles in review of that book. Here is what our friend Jared* commented when the final review article was posted:

"I hope that the completion of this review doesn't mean a completion of your life's mission!

I think your efforts are worthy of compliment. I would quibble with a few of your interpretations, but I think you've done a good job of getting much of the [church] data out on the table (click here).

I think all of the issues brought up in your most recent comment are covered. I hope your interest will extend to a brief look at that book review (click here).

Thanks for the links, R. Gary. Kofford won't send me review copies, so I don't review their books.

Dave, you weren't asked to review the book. But if this discussion cannot proceed until you receive a free copy of the book, just send me a street address via email.

Okay, so Kofford is a jerk. That doesn't explain why you should not consider evidence that Jeffery is wrong about the April 1910 "clarification" emanating from the First Presidency.

R. Gary, I was just saying I don't have a copy of the book. I'm relying on the BYU evolution packet and the Stephens book.

The bottom line is that the Church doesn't make it easy to pin down a current "official" position on evolution. Obviously, that is not by accident. That is probably because any clear and direct statement spelling out a modern "official" position would accomplish little but possibly offend many.

Sorry I am late for this fun discussion.

No doubt there are those who think of evolution as a secular religion. I do not, but I am very interested in what evolutionary science has to say about morality.

I do not know if the Church is neutral or negative about evolution. I do read R. Gary, and he always gives me reasons to pause and think about the doctrinal issues.

What I do know is that the scientific data supporting general evolution are overwhelming, coming from multiple, independent sources. To deny the validity of evolutionary change over billions of years is akin to looking at the moon and denying that there is a moon.

Consequently, I hope for greater harmony between my religion and my science. In my mind there is harmony, although it is clear that condition does not generalize to many others. For now, I am content that us Darwinians are still allowed in the temple and the church.

Dave, as I was going over the comments on this thread, I was reminded that you and I have been discussing these questions for a long time now but we don't seem to be getting anywhere. Do you feel it is a waste of time?

The Encyclopedia Evolution article

As you yourself point out, "The [1992] First Presidency authorized inclusion of the [1931] excerpt ... in the 1992 Encyclopedia article." It is also true that the 1931 excerpt has never been approved by the First Presidency as an official resource for the general membership of the Church. It's still not from a published First Presidency statement. It still hasn't been quoted in any official Church magazine or lesson manual. And in spite of its use in the Encyclopedia, the 1931 First Presidency was still NOT talking about evolution.

The Church still doesn’t use physics professors and New York publishers to announce its position on anything. Authorizing Macmillan Publishing Company to use the 1931 excerpt in its Encyclopedia was NOT an endorsement of Professor Evenson’s utterly ridiculous claim that "there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution." That statement is false. Therefore the Evolution article is flawed and, for that reason alone, can't be the official position of the Church.

The BYU Evolution Packet

There is a page in the BYU Evolution Packet dated "October, 1992," at the top and "Approved by the BYU Board of Trustees, June, 1992" at the bottom. This page is the official introduction to the Packet. It describes the Packet's contents.

The page has three paragraphs.

The first paragraph says the Packet contains all known statements issued by the First Presidency on science, evolution, and the origin of man. The known statements are listed. There are three: Nov. 1909, Dec. 1910, and Sep. 1925. This paragraph then affirms that, although there are no statements about the evolution of other species, "these documents make clear the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man." Indeed, the page is titled "Evolution and the Origin of Man."

The second paragraph states that the Packet also contains the Encyclopedia Evolution article and that the First Presidency authorized using the 1931 excerpt in the Encyclopedia article. (Note: Although LDS evolutionists like to read the excerpt as: Let scientists decide how science affects the gospel, there isn't any evidence to support that interpretation. I believe that when the First Presidency uses the 1931 excerpt, the intended meaning is the historical meaning: Don't use science to interpret the gospel.)

The third paragraph emphasizes that "formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions." This explains why the Encyclopedia Evolution article is not among the formal statements listed in the first paragraph. By extension, it also says the Encyclopedia Evolution article is NOT an official Church position.

The Spurious April 1910 First Presidency statement

Let's look at your claim that "the First Presidency in April 1910 published comments to clarify confusion over the 1909 statement."

First, no member of the First Presidency and Twelve has ever confirmed or even acknowledged this claim. And second, there is NO evidence that the 1910 comment was published with First Presidency approval, yet there is substantial evidence that it was not (click here).

In conclusion, please know that I feel my personal Pepsi Cola habit damages my faith far more than any evolution belief could. But I also feel strongly that we should be as accurate as possible in our public discussions about what the Church teaches.

S. Faux, thanks for joining the discussion. I know you post regularly on evolution issues over at Mormon Insights.

R. Gary, no I don't think discussion of this or other issues regularly aired in the Bloggernacle is a waste of time.

Your characterization of why the First Presidency authorized inclusion of the excerpt from the 1931 First Presidency minutes does not add up. It sounds like your view is that the minutes do not constitute an authorized source of the LDS view on evolution and are inconsistent with the "official" position of the Church, yet the First Presidency authorized the inclusion of the excerpt in the BYU Evolution packet -- one of only four documents presented in that packet.

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