LDS scientists find harmony in profession, Church testimony

Society often divides scientists and religious folk as if they were rival softball teams assigned to different dugouts on opposite ends of the diamond.

Pure science and pure faith simply can't co-exist; at some point, many argue, you have to choose sides.

Nonsense, says a retired college president who has spent decades keeping tabs on scores of men and women who are respected members of the American scientific community and devout LDS Church members.

By enlisting scientific methodology, Richard T. Wootton — an emeritus professor at Arizona State University and former president of Brigham Young University-Hawaii — has demonstrated that scientific pursuit and religious devotion exist harmoniously in the life of many LDS scientists.

Brother Wootton's interest in the scientist-religion debate was sparked more than a half-century ago while serving a full-time mission in New England in the late 1930's. He received a letter from a college buddy who worried that their home state of Utah was shadowed in ignorance because of the prevalent teachings of the Church. His friend wondered if intelligence and science were truly compatible with the restored gospel.

That letter "really got my juices flowing," Brother Wootton said.

A short time later, young Elder Wootton came across an article in an area newspaper highlighting Utah's prolific production of scientists. The story began: "Utah leads all states of the union in number of scientific men born there in proportion to population."

The article was based on a Carnegie Foundation analysis that classified the number of scientists being produced in each state. Utah, the study said, harvested more scientists per capita than any other state in the country. Brother Wootton figured a large number of those Utah scientists would be Church members. He wanted to know if those members were strong in their faith or if they had drifted from the gospel while developing science careers.

He gathered the names of the Utah scientists and sent each a questionnaire in which recipients were asked to identify their religious affiliation. Brother Wootton then asked those who were LDS to rate their degree of belief on matters like the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith, the truthfulness of the Standard Works and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

An overwhelming majority of the participants identified themselves as LDS and indicated a "strong" or "very strong" conviction to the tenets of the LDS faith.

"Almost all were Mormon and almost all had strong testimonies," Brother Wootton recalled.

Subsequent studies over the years have continued to identify Utah as the country's leading hotbed for scientists. Brother Wootton has also continued his practice of surveying Utah scientists and found that the proportion of LDS scientists and their respective level of devotion to the Church has not slipped. In fact, his research suggests the current generation of Utah scientists are even more devout, as a group, than their predecessors.

Brother Wootton, a member of the Alma 1st Ward, Alma Arizona Stake, has spent decades enlisting scientific research to support his hypothesis that harmony between religion and science exists for most scientists. Still, his findings are news to many.

"[The research] is so inside-out from the way many view science, religion and Mormonism," Brother Wootton said.

The study may also be comforting for young, earnest LDS members pursuing science careers. They can know they are not alone. A thriving community of scientists — loyal to their professional work and the gospel — continues to exist.

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