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Basis of My Beliefs

“Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15)

I have always admired those who are able to express their sincere beliefs with conviction but also with humility, particularly to skeptical audiences. It is in that spirit that I attempt to describe the basis of my beliefs. I have spent the past thirty years of my life learning how to be a biochemist—to explore the inner workings of the cell. This fascination with how living things work has been with me as long as I can remember. Other questions arose from this curiosity, such as how did living things come to be and how did I come to be and what was I doing here on this seemingly insignificant planet in an infinitely immense universe? There seem to be only two possible answers to the question of the origin of life—either it was a result of a series of very low probability, random chemical events over billions of years that eventually produced the first cells, which then became more and more sophisticated through a process of evolution by natural selection; or life was the result of the workings of a superior being that we call God. To me, this is the most important question one can pose because the answer determines the purpose of life—either we are here for a reason known to God or by chance.

A definitive answer to that question came to me in Strasbourg, France, in the summer of 1981. To provide a little context, let me tell you a briefly about my upbringing. I was raised in Richfield, Utah—a small rural town populated by the descendants of Mormon pioneers about fifty miles from where my father’s family had originally settled in the 1850s. These pioneers were heroes to me in every way. They had left everything—homes, farms, and families in the eastern United States and northern Europe—to answer the call of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, men they considered to be prophets of God, to build a place in the desert valleys of the Rocky Mountains for themselves and their descendants to live and worship God as they desired in the absence of persecution. I was raised in the faith of my fathers by a good family among good people. This environment was fertile soil for the seeds of faith, and though my inquisitive nature caused me to sometimes question my beliefs, many spiritual experiences led me to conclude that I was on the right track. This conclusion resulted in my departure at the age of nineteen on a Mormon mission to France and Belgium.

As a missionary, I very quickly realized that these people didn’t share my beliefs. In fact, a large percentage did not believe in God. This group would say things like, “my God is my wallet” and “as you gain some experience in life, you will lose your naive beliefs.” My fellow missionaries and I would try to endure these comments and explain to those who were willing to listen that God was there and that evidence of his existence could be obtained. Near the end of my mission, I was assigned to travel throughout the mission area, providing support and helping to train the other missionaries. This required my companion and me to be gone most of the week, visiting the missionaries in different cities. It was an adventure that I enjoyed, but it was exhausting. We would leave one city between 9-10 PM and drive 1-2 hours to the next city, arriving near midnight at the missionaries’ apartment. Then we would be up at 6:30 AM to prepare for another 10-12 hour day proselyting with the missionaries of that city. After several months of this routine, one week we found ourselves in Nancy, France. I had returned in the evening with the missionary I was working with and was waiting in the apartment for my companion to return. I was a little anxious to be on our way because we had a two-hour drive ahead of us to Strasbourg, on the German border. My companion and the missionary he had been working with finally arrived a little after 10 PM, apologizing for the late return and explaining that they had been in a spirited discussion with an atheist, who was trying to convince them of the error of their ways. We quickly packed our things and were on the road. While driving, my companion talked about the conversation with the atheist. The arguments were all too familiar to me. God may exist, but there is no way to know for sure; and if he does exist then he doesn’t care about us or he would have stopped the terrible events in the world, like the Nazis’ mass slaughter of the Jews. Furthermore, our belief in God was a deception that made us feel better about our lives, but the reality was that when we died there was “le néant” (nothingness). We talked about these issues and how difficult it is for such a person to even want to know the reality of God. For some reason, my companion’s encounter left me perturbed, not because I was shaken by the arguments, for I had heard them many times, but because I was wearied by the unbelief of these people among whom I had spent so much time and whom I had come to care about. I remember looking up into the night sky as we drove on and seeing it filled with stars. We almost never saw the stars because they were obscured by the city lights or by clouds. However, we were now far from the city traveling through the Vosges Mountains, and the skies were clear. As I gazed upon the night sky, I had this overwhelming impression that God was in his heaven and in control. I commented to my companion, wondering how anyone could look up into the night sky and not feel the same thing.

I was in this same state of mind when we arrived in Strasbourg around midnight. We apologized to our missionary hosts for the late arrival and laid out our bedding, which consisted of a foam pad and a sleeping bag on the floor for each of us, and I knelt on mine to pray as was my nightly routine. However, this prayer turned out to be anything but routine. As I prayed to myself, I thought of the events and emotions of that night and I pleaded, “Dear Father, I need to know if you are really there if I am going to continue in this work among such an unbelieving people.” As soon as that phrase left my mouth, I was enveloped by an intense spiritual energy which pulsed through my body from my head to my toes and settled upon me. It was a warm, comforting feeling that stayed with me for a long time. It was the witness of the Holy Spirit to me that God was there and that he had heard my prayer. I finished praying and lay down to sleep, but the feeling would not go away. I lay basking in this powerful yet sweet sensation for several minutes until it slowly dissipated and I drifted off to sleep. Since then, I have never doubted the existence of God. I know he answered me. As I recount this event some thirty years later, it is still vivid in my mind. I do not know how the Spirit of God interfaces with our mortal physiology, but it is powerful and unlike any other emotion. It can not be explained away.

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)

A few years later, I was in the middle of my graduate studies, having learned in some detail by then of the amazing process by which life on this planet evolved into the many marvelous species found here. The evidence for evolution was compelling (and is even more so today). However, this knowledge did little to shake my faith because I knew of God’s existence. I was also fortunate to have a wonderful mentor and friend in Dr. Philip S. Low (see his profile) as my Ph.D. advisor. Phil is one of the premier biochemists in the U.S., and is also a very faithful Mormon. I remember Phil was teaching my biochemistry course in graduate school when a student brought up the apparent incompatibility between a belief in God and the strength of evolutionary theory. Phil responded almost matter-of-factly, “I see no conflict between a belief in God and evolutionary theory,” and went on with his lecture. I loved it. Science is not a threat to God and God is not a threat to science. God is the greatest scientist and the unbeliever should be careful not to dismiss God as he scratches at the surface of God’s knowledge. Likewise, the believer should not dismiss the discoveries of science, because they may be revealing the handiwork of God. We need to understand that truth can be obtained by both scientific and spiritual inquiry.

This lesson was brought home to me by another experience in graduate school. I was out working with the local missionaries one evening, and we were knocking on doors in a neighborhood near the university. We came to a home with an interesting insignia above the door which read “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). As we knocked, I thought, “this might be interesting.” A kind, middle-aged woman came to the door and immediately recognized who we were. She initially said that she didn’t have time for us this evening because she had a visitor, but then she reconsidered and invited us in, saying “perhaps my visitor would be interested in talking to you.” It turned out that her guest was a visiting scholar at the university. He was a mathematician from Poland and a devout Catholic. It turned out that the lady was a good Protestant. So there we were: a Catholic, a Protestant, and two Mormons. We had a wonderful conversation. At one point the Polish mathematician made a statement that I have always remembered, “There are two ways to learn truth—by scientific inquiry and by spiritual awareness. If a person refuses to use the one or the other, it limits their opportunities to gain truth.” I have always remembered this statement because it expressed exactly my understanding. Here was a man whose background and circumstances were very different than mine, but he had arrived at the same conclusions that I had. There are universal truths that human reason may never achieve but that can be attained by simply asking God. However, just as is the case with scientific knowledge, spiritual knowledge often comes only after considerable effort and disciplined searching. Few are willing to pay that price, but most are quickly discouraged after a few attempts and end up abandoning spiritual inquiry. Sadly, in doing so they give up the opportunity to gain the most vital knowledge of who we really are and what our true purpose on this earth really is. The words of the apostle Paul to Timothy are truer today than they have ever been, that society shall be “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Albert Einstein was reported to have said, “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” If we really want to understand ourselves, our planet and our universe, I am convinced that we must turn to God and learn from him. In one of the most sublime events ever recorded in scripture, Moses spoke with God face to face and “beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered” (Pearl of Great Price Moses 1:8). Viewing our planet and mankind from God’s eyes caused Moses to proclaim, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). In one transcendent moment, Moses learned more about this earth, its creation and purposes, than all of mankind throughout all of human history has ever learned. He personally witnessed the contrast between the knowledge of man and the knowledge of God. Long before the Hubbell telescope, God told Moses “worlds without number have I created” (Moses 1:33) and “the heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine” (Moses 1:37). Then God revealed to Moses why he created all these things, “For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). I marvel at the weight of this statement. The vast expanse that we as scientists seek to understand, from the smallest subatomic particle to the farthest reaches of the universe, was made by God for what purpose? FOR US! And why would such a great God do such a thing? Here is perhaps the greatest truth that we can ever come to know—because we are His children (see Acts 17:29), and, as any loving Father would do, He wants the best for us! This is the great purpose of our existence—to learn God’s thoughts and become like him.

This truth is accessible to all who earnestly seek to know, just as I did that night in Strasbourg many years ago. I invite you to “ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4-5). Joseph Smith taught, “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324). I believe that we can “gaze into heaven” and learn truth from God.

“Jesus answered them, and said, my doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. 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 7:16-17)

Compared with spiritual manifestations, the other important source of my beliefs is very practical, yet it is just as important. This concept is illustrated by a conversation I once had with a young man who was seeking to know of God. His family background was interesting. His parents were immigrants from Russia. His father was a physicist, a college professor and an atheist, while his mother was an accomplished pianist and a convert to the LDS church. This young man had lived with unbelief and belief in God his entire life. He said something that I found very profound: “I believe in God because I see that belief makes people better.” Now this is certainly a generalization, but I have found it to be true in my own personal life. As I have truly applied the principles that Jesus taught in the way I live, my life is better. I am better. The proof is in the doing. As an experimentalist, I understand that the only way to test a hypothesis is to design experiments and see what happens. If the hypothesis is good, the results of the experiments will be consistent with it. So it is with any correct principle; it leads to good results no matter the circumstances in which it is applied. I have found this to be the case with the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church has taught me to treasure my family life, to go out of my way to help others, to take care of my body, to pray to God. All of these things have brought satisfaction and happiness to my life. They are correct principles and thus come from a true source. And what is that source? It is God, as he has revealed his way of life through his Son Jesus Christ and through inspired men and women, both ancient and modern day. Some say that Mormonism is great except for its history: Joseph Smith, angels, gold plates, revelations and so on. I say it is great because of its history—the hand of God working to teach us a better way through inspired prophets. Jesus said, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). There is no question in my mind that the fruits of the LDS faith are good. Its teachings have expanded my mind and softened my heart.

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32)

Henry Eyring, perhaps the greatest Mormon scientist, was wont to tell the story of a conversation he had with his father as Henry was about to leave the family ranch in Northern Mexico for the University of Arizona. His father said, “Son, you don’t have to accept anything that isn’t true to believe the Gospel. Learn all you can. If you live clean and are not profane, you will stay close to the Gospel. If you do these things, I will be satisfied with the result” (Henry Erying, Faith of a Scientist, p. 66). I have embraced this counsel from this simple rancher. Truth is not an enemy to truth; thus, true science and true religion are not in conflict. The problem is that our science and our religion are often flawed. Paul, in the New Testament wrote, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). As I have matured as a person and as a scientist, I have learned to be patient when faced with an apparent conflict between my deeply help beliefs and scientific theory, realizing that I am “seeing through a glass, darkly.” When it comes down to it, I don’t know much. But I look forward to the day when I shall “know even as also I am known.” May God hasten that day for all of us.

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Dr. Barry M. Willardson (www.chem.byu.edu/users/bmwillardson) received his Ph.D. from Purdue Univesity in 1990. He was a post-doctoral fellow and staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory until joining the faculty at Brigham Young University in 1996. He is currently Professor and Area Chair of Biochemistry at BYU.

Dr. Willardson is known for his work in G protein signaling, the means by which cells respond to hormones, neurotransmitters, and sensory signals. His current research investigates the way cells assemble G protein complexes and other important signaling complexes from their newly synthesized subunits. He has published numerous articles, and his work has been funded continuously by the National Institutes of Health for 15 years.

Posted October 20111