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Mormon Scholars Testify: Richard D. Gardner

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Richard D. Gardner
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsGardner, Richard D.
Access Date2 April 2018
Last Update DateJuly 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsDoubt; Education; Evolution; Faith; Science; Study; Testimony; Truth

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Richard D. Gardner

I have always been interested in both religion and science. I come from a scientific background; my father Donald has a Ph.D. in plant pathology and his dad Eldon was a geneticist who had a successful academic career, mostly at Utah State University, which included stints as the dean of the college of science and as the dean of the graduate school. He discovered a type of cancer now called Gardner syndrome. My mother’s uncle (my Grandpa Gardner’s best friend) was a parasitologist, as was my father’s brother-in-law. From an early age I knew that my grandpa, who also served as an LDS bishop at one time, believed in evolution. He even authored a pamphlet called Evolution and the Bible in which he argued that the Bible tells us why the world was created, and evolution tells us how. This taught me that one need not “choose sides,” although I’m aware that certain scriptures can be interpreted to deny the possibility of “theistic evolution.” However, since the church has taken no official position, other than that God was in charge of the process (whatever it was), I haven’t taken an “official” viewpoint of my own, other than that the evidence for evolution is strong but that God created us.

I lived in Logan, Utah until age four, and grew up in various states, especially Hawaii, from age nine through high school. We traveled each summer to visit both sets of grandparents in Utah so I was somewhat exposed to “Utah culture.” And then I attended and graduated from Utah State University. Growing up outside of Utah I was often the only LDS student in my class (except for occasions when my twin sister and I shared a class), and so I became aware early in life of the differences of beliefs that people have.

Even as a teenager I used to read church books for fun and I had a pretty good handle on church doctrine. My parents were very good about teaching me the gospel, and I attended four years of early morning seminary. I have continued to read church history and doctrinal works, and online sources such as FARMS [Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies] (now called the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.)

I had always been a “good kid” and believed in what I was taught at home and at church; however, during my freshman year at Utah State I realized that I had better really know that the gospel is true prior to serving a mission. During that time I had read some anti-LDS literature; I’d seen some in high school as well, but this later exposure really made me feel that I needed to know more answers than I did. So I read and especially pondered, asking myself if anyone could or would write the Book of Mormon with the intent to defraud, or if an uneducated school boy in the early 1800s could write chiasmus, or understand Hebrew culture, or explain deep religious doctrine — that I believed was true — more clearly than the Bible explains it. I had several subtle but real answers to my prayers, prior to and during my mission in Curitiba, Brasil. However, even after my mission it was important to me to reconfirm what I had learned to be true. Often I found that confirmations of my testimony did not come immediately, or in the way I expected; while frustrating at the time, this helped me to know for sure that I wasn’t just “brainwashing” myself.

I spent much of my free study time on my mission, and after it, studying scriptures and finding cross references and trying to organize gospel principals in my mind as they relate to each other. I like to draw analogies to understand spiritual things, keeping in mind that analogies cannot be taken too far. Many of the analogies I have created draw on my science background. One seminar I attended on human development reminded me of our spiritual development, and helped me to understand spiritual development. I have also compared learning through the scientific method to learning spiritual truths through a similar method. There are actually more similarities than differences between understanding religion and understanding science. I’ve written up many of my thoughts into a couple of manuscripts which I hope at least my children and family members can someday benefit by.

I have learned that some people are naturally more believing, and others are naturally more skeptical. I have come to believe that these are not “good” or “bad” traits – they just are. It is ok to have doubts, and it is even ok to doubt things that others easily believe. But having a “desire to believe” (Alma 32:27) allows God to strive with us and teach us. Sometimes it requires a struggle on our part, but we can be stronger because of it. Struggles with spiritual things are nothing to be ashamed of; even Enos had a wrestle with the Lord (see Enos 1:2; see also Alma 8:10). I believe all Latter-day Saints should have these kinds of struggles. Rather than ignore our weaknesses and lack of understanding, we ought to tackle these things, in meaningful and deliberate ways (as opposed to fanatical or overzealous ways).

Three areas that I have struggled with (in the positive sense of the word) are anti-LDS claims (mostly from certain Protestants; Catholics generally aren’t anti-LDS); difficult issues in church history; and atheistic claims that we’re here by chance and all we really are is a bag of chemicals, in which even our consciousness is composed solely of chemical reactions.

It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that Latter-day Saints really are “biblical” despite the claims of some Protestants. Saints in Bible times had prophets, priesthood, and modern revelation, just as we do today. They worshipped a living God, not a book. Even a secular class in European history shows that the great apostasy was real. It just makes sense — both logically and scripturally—that Christ and God are separate people, that although we are in fact saved by Grace we must try to live the commandments for the atonement to fully apply (explained so well in Alma 42), and that, as God’s children, we can become as He is. I can see how, given centuries of beliefs to the contrary, it is hard for some people to step back and see the big picture of what the great apostasy has done to true religion. However, I have a great respect for other Christians for having the great faith that they do in spite of not accepting additional scriptures of the restoration. In fact, many non-LDS Christians have greater faith than I would probably have, absent the revelations of the restoration.

As for LDS history, there are some bothersome issues which I still don’t have answers for. But I have come to understand that I must trust in what I do know, rather than worry about what I don’t. I have learned that even though the Lord is perfect, he uses imperfect people to carry out his work; and in order for us to learn, we must often be allowed to make mistakes, up to a point. Also, we cannot judge people or record keeping/scholarship practices of the past, by present standards.

Regarding atheistic arguments that God is superfluous: In my current position at Southern Virginia University (a small four-year independent liberal arts institution in the LDS tradition — where most of our students and faculty are LDS, and the rest believe in God and live by LDS standards), this is not often an issue; but in previous educational and work environments, I have been repeatedly exposed to the idea that we are here by chance, and that religion is a crutch for people who can’t handle the idea that when they die, they cease to exist. I have considered arguments on both sides, including statistical analysis of the odds that life could form in the first place. I understand that to some scientifically enlightened people, the Bible is just a bunch of old traditions and myths. One of Christianity’s main counter-arguments is that the Bible is true because…it says it is true! (Another argument is based on archeological evidence of various biblical civilizations. But this doesn’t prove the miracles, or show that Jesus is really the Son of God, or that he resurrected.) This argument has never satisfied me. How do we know the Bible is true, and not, for example, the Hindu scriptures? We need an independent witness. God has provided two independent witnesses (actually more, but especially these two): The Holy Ghost and the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon proves, as one of its purposes, that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (D&C 20:8-12 and 2 Nephi 29:9). When people ask why the God of the Bible would send angels and prophets and do miracles centuries ago, but not now, today’s Christians often reply that these aren’t for our day. That to me has always sounded like a cop out (it sure is easier to believe in angels and miracles in far away places, long ago), but we have the answer: God still does these things today, and the Book of Mormon is the main proof. Some people think that miracles and logic are contradictory, but the Book of Mormon is miraculous and shows that God’s plan is logical. It satisfies my need to have logical proof, even though that proof ultimately comes through ways other than our five senses; I know it is true by the power of the Holy Ghost. In my life, just as the Book of Mormon itself says (Mormon 7:8-9) the Book of Mormon has confirmed to me the truth of the Bible, and vice versa. The Book of Mormon is why I believe the Bible is true.

So to those scientists and humanists who can’t understand how a scientist can also believe in God, I say that:

  1. You have to accept a larger definition of truth than what you can know by your five senses. Truth can come in other ways, such as through the Holy Ghost. However, I cannot expect those who have not experienced spiritual promptings to understand or accept them, any more than I could expect a person blind or deaf from birth to really understand sight or hearing. Try explaining how the color blue differs from green to a person who has never seen, or explaining how a C played on the French horn differs from the same pitch played by a clarinet.
  2. Some scientists and humanists have been steeped so long in the “we are here by chance” idea that they no longer question it. It is reasoned that because science, by definition, cannot invoke God, we must look for scientific explanations of our existence. I have no arguments with this, except to say that we cannot a priori expect that all truth will be amenable to the scientific method. Our best scientific explanation of how life formed involves chance events. Then, atheists jump to, “since we know we are here by chance, god must not be needed or exist.” This turns into circular reasoning. Furthermore, many atheists equate a belief in God with a belief in magic or superstition. On the contrary, our LDS understanding of God is not magical or illogical, but rather just the opposite. The restoration has provided so many answers, and has showed us how logical, and merciful and just God is. Our knowledge of the purpose of life even tells us why there are so many things we don’t know: it is part of the test.

I still don’t know how God created the earth. I believe that much of what we learn and teach in evolution classes is true, but we don’t know the whole story, especially about life’s origin. What we as Latter-day Saints do know is that no matter the process, our bodies match our spirits, so our bodies’ existence and their form is not a matter of chance.

I have a large chart that shows many of the chemical reactions in a typical human cell, and how these reactions are all linked together and controlled by enzymes, which themselves can be turned “on” and “off,” so that all these reactions are tightly controlled. The chart is written in small print; my students are always amazed when I show my students how complex their cells really are. I like to suggest that instead of painting the universe behind the Cristus (aka Christus) statue in the North Visitors’ Center on Temple Square (and in other Church visitors centers) the artist could have painted these chemical reactions, for the Savior created them and understands them.

I still don’t know why each of us faces the particular trials in life that we do. But I have learned with Nephi that “[God”] loveth his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). As God is patient with us and our lack of understanding, we need to be patient with Him and trust his understanding. And someday we will know the meaning of all things. In the meantime, God lives; Jesus is His Only Begotten Son in the Flesh and is our redeemer; He has restored His gospel through the prophet Joseph Smith, including the Holy Priesthood with its ordinances; and we have a living prophet today. Furthermore, the Holy Ghost can help us to know that all these things are true.


Richard D. Gardner received a B.A. in biology from Utah State University in 1991 and, in 1998, a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in molecular and cellular biology. He did post-doctoral work at the University of Virginia 1998-2004, and has been a member of the faculty at Southern Virginia University since 2004. His graduate and postdoctoral studies were focused on the yeast cell cycle and mitotic control—specifically, on “checkpoints,” which delay entry into mitosis if the DNA is damaged or if the chromosomes are not correctly attached to the mitotic spindle. Dr. Gardner served a mission in Brasil Curitiba (1986-1988). He married Naomi Blair in 1990, and they are the parents of six children, five of whom are living.

Posted July 2010