A guest post by Peter Fischer. Peter was a Lutheran Minister for over a decade before leaving ministry to become an Employment Counsellor. He lives in Vancouver, Canada and is the writer/producer.
The Buddha in question is a statue that sits under our living room window. It was a present from my wife—a welcomed gift. It’s a symbol of serenity, mindfulness, and non-attachment—meaningful values for us and our boys. For some in our extended family however, we fear our Buddha may signify a fall from grace with a not-so-soft landing in H. E. Double-Hockey-Stick. As such, our seated Siddhartha has become a symbol, a test, of our own differentiation vis-à-vis our (mostly) conservative Christian family of origin. How open and honest will we be about our progressive, inclusive, multi-faith-honouring views when they pay us a visit?
We have fun with this. Depending on who happens to drop in, the other spouse watches with a keen eye to keep score. We’re devils alright. Not too long ago, it was my turn to play judge and jury. “Should I get the Mr. Potato Head box?” I joked, as we chased dust balls out of corners and Windexed the mirrors before Linda’s sister’s arrival. “No, I’m good,” she laughed. “Really? No hiding?” “Yup,” she said with such a beatific smile, I’d swear she spent the day under the Bodhi tree. Sure, we’ll see, I doubted. I fully expected a last second avoidance of the third kind:
Buddha Differentiation Levels:
Level One: Buddha in plain view of visitors. Full disclosure—“Buddha boom, Buddha bing!”
Level Two: Buddha under window but pushed back behind the Christmas cactus. Moderate disclosure—“Yes we have a Buddha statue, but look at how much bigger our icon of Jesus is!”
Level Three: Buddha in Mr. Potato Head box. Avoidance. No disclosure—“Buddha? What Buddha?”
To my surprise, and Linda’s credit, the Buddha remained seated by the window. It wasn’t pushed back at all, though I did note a couple of branches of the Christmas cactus draped over his shoulders. Not bad. Incredible actually. I was jealous. I recalled my parents visit a few years back when I surreptitiously put the Buddha to sleep in a box of arms, lips, and a naked spud.
I’m writing this because I’m making strides. Two of my brothers are in town, and while they don’t carry the same psycho-social-religious weight as my parents, the thought “did I hide the Buddha?” hasn’t even cross my mind (until now). It’s a small, but significant victory for me. Introverted and reticent about my core beliefs that I am—even as I was paid to preach them for over a decade—it’s good to stretch my self-disclosure muscles; to say “this is the real me!”
Hey, I’ve even turned the spine of my copy of the Qur’an title-side out on our bookshelf. Can’t say the same for my Dan Brown novels. Some things, after all, just shouldn’t be revealed.
Thanks to Bruce for welcoming this guest post on his blog. I always enjoy reading Bruce’s blog, and I hope this guest post will fit. This post is a response to a request by Bruce for posts that address conversion from religion to atheism, in particular from those who may be a few years into the process, and how it feels to live without religion. I have written about my deconversion from Christianity elsewhere on my own blog, so you can read the details there if you wish. I may repeat myself a bit here just to make this post complete, but the point here is to describe my perspective since becoming an atheist. I hope that this post may help anyone who is going through a similar process or who is questioning their faith but afraid to give up their religion.
I have been an atheist for about eight years now. At least, 2007 is when I technically stopped believing in God, though the process was a gradual one that probably progressed throughout my adult life. The actual time point at which I stopped believing in God was surprisingly sudden and distinct. I would say that in early 2007 (as late as March) I still believed that God existed and that I wanted to relate to him although my view of God had shifted significantly since my coming of age two decades earlier. But, by May of 2007 I no longer believed that God existed. The final step was that sudden for me. In late 2006 and early 2007 I read a few books that looked at the character of God in a new light, including If Grace is True and If God is Love both by Phillip Gulley and James Muholland. More importantly for my conversion process I also read a book called Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. The book basically follows two stories: a general history of Mormonism and a specific case of murder in the 1980s by two Mormons who believed they were instructed by God to perform the murders. I knew virtually nothing of Mormonism prior to reading the book, but it served as a striking example of how religion can cause people to believe the unbelievable. The religion is clearly a fabrication from 19th century America, with roots that are distinctly American in culture. Yet, there are millions of followers around the world, in what I can only understand as blind faith. The book illustrated the strength of religious influence, and how humans clearly yearn for some meaning to their life, which often seems to be filled by instructions and commands by a person in power – or a religion. I had met a few Mormons, and they seemed as convinced that their religion was true as any other religious person, including the Christians I had grown up with. Yet there was no doubt in my mind that the entire religion was a fabrication. If a religion could essentially be constructed by one man in the relatively modern times of the 19th Century to a point that millions of people worldwide were followers, how much more possible was it that a religion could have developed 2,000 years ago in a time when the availability of information was incomparably lower than in the modern era? (Literacy was lower, formal education was rare, books [at least as we know them now] and newspapers were non-existent).
I then came across a number of the so-called “new atheists” including the most famous, Richard Dawkins. I had previously read a few critiques of Dawkins by Christians, but never read any of his own books or articles. In early May 2007 I was watching TV late one evening and saw Dawkins interviewed on the Canadian television show The Hour:
Contrary to the way he was viewed by Christian apologetics, he seemed down to earth, very rational and well-spoken, and what he said rang true. He was not the pompous arrogant and bull-headed demon that many Christian writers had made him out to be. I read his famous book The God Delusion. The house of cards came tumbling down.
Now, a few books and a television interview in early 2007 were not, of course, solely responsible for my loss of faith. I had occasionally asked myself the hypothetical question: “What if God doesn’t exist?” I sometimes wondered what kind of person I would be if I didn’t have God looking over my shoulder. But, up until that point it was simply a mental exercise I went through, I never for a moment actually doubted his existence. I had always known that God was there watching me, reading my thoughts. I find it hard to pinpoint why it was at this time that my doubts about God’s existence suddenly became more focused. Suddenly, instead of simply theorizing what it would be like if God didn’t exist, I started to realize that it is very likely that he does not exist. I think that Spring of 2007 was the culmination of a very slow march towards rationalism that had begun two decades earlier when I left home in my late teens. I had studied science extensively, and always accepted the science I learned, but also always somehow fit whatever I learned around the model of God that I had been steeped in while a child. This is an important point because I think it is very, very difficult for people who have been raised in religion to give it up. For me, there was always the nagging fear of my impending death and the threat of eternal punishment in hell if I doubted God’s existence.
In any case, at that time I finally realized that I no longer believed God exists. The final step was not really a conscious decision for me. It was more of a realization that the notion of a god was no longer a reasonable belief. It was as though I looked around and realized I still secretly believed in Santa Claus as an adult while everything I had experienced in the world around me screamed that he could not possibly exist.
So, like a child taking the butterfly wings off for the first time in the deep end of the swimming pool and realizing that it can indeed float without them, I considered that the world might work just fine without a god.Julia Sweeney has described a similar experience in her book Letting Go of God:
…as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, ‘There is no god.’
And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. ‘There is no god. There is no god. Oh my god, there is no god.’…
And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.
And then I thought, ‘But I can’t. I don’t know if I can not believe in God. I need God. I mean, we have a history’…
‘But I don’t know how to not believe in God. I don’t know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?’ I felt unbalanced…
I thought, ‘Okay, calm down. Let’s just try on not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off.’ And I put them on and looked around. I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, ‘Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!’ I wanted to run out and catch the Earth as it fell out of space into my hands.
And then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a long, long time.’
I can relate to some of this description quite well. In addition to what she describes, my situation was complicated by the fear that I might die while I had the not-believing-in-God glasses on and go to hell for eternity just because I happened to die while I was trying out atheism for 30 minutes. It was a bit like coming up to a train track and thinking, ‘I need to cross the tracks, but what if the train comes along out of nowhere and mows me down just at the moment that I step across?’ When I finally overcame my fear of being annihilated in a moment of fury like an Efrafan rabbit (from Richard Adams wonderful novel Watership Down), and stepped gingerly on the tracks, my whole perspective changed. Instead of looking up the track in fear of an oncoming train, I looked down at the tracks in detail for the first time and realized they were decrepit and could not possibly bear a train. No train would ever be coming along those tracks and I could linger as long as I like quite safely. Once that was established, the opportunity to really open up my mind to some serious questions availed itself and it was not long before the whole house of cards came tumbling down. Indeed, once I had my Julia Sweeney moment, the whole ordeal was over in a matter of minutes. I was through with God instantly as I realized that the whole game was a farce. There was no desire at all to cling to a false god for comfort. I simply set god aside and moved on.
Once I moved into atheism, there were of course many questions to tackle. I wondered about the afterlife. I accepted almost immediately that the whole thing was man-made and that when I die I will simply not exist anymore. For some time after my de-conversion, I felt quite sad that the prospect of an eternal heaven was gone, but my sadness was also tempered by the realization that I no longer had to fear hell. I realized that there was nothing to fear about being dead any more than there was to fear about before I was born. That thought was a reassuring one as I left behind the indoctrination of fear that Christianity brands its followers with, often without them realizing just how much fear is used to maintain the faith. Do I ever still fear death and hell? Yes, occasionally. Those fears instilled in childhood are difficult to overcome. Very occasionally I do have a very brief moment of panic as I ask myself that ridiculous question: “What if I’m wrong?” Then I always recognize that I’m about as likely to be wrong about the god of the Bible as I am likely to be wrong in believing that we are not all living in some computer matrix such as that in the popular Keanu Reeves movies. These days my biggest fears are something along the lines of Rene Descartes’ evil demon – occasionally I worry that there is in fact a deity, but one that is malicious and malevolent, waiting to torment us all for eternity regardless of our choices here on earth. But then I recognize the absurdity of such ideas and the complete lack of evidence to support them, and that such beliefs and fears and bordering on the schizophrenic.
As I recognized that my existence would end with my death (such an obvious concept now), I very quickly started to value my life much, much more deeply than when I had been a Christian. My view when I was a Christian was that this life was just the preamble to something much greater, that I had all eternity to look forward to. All of sudden I realized that was not the case, and I realized that I’d better make the most of every day that I have in this life.
Another issue that is perhaps of interest to those Christians who are doubting their faith, or those who are cynical about people such as me who have de-converted, is the question of morality. Where do your morals come from, if not from God? As a Christian I would have asked this very question myself, but as an atheist it seems patently absurd. I believe that morality is a human construct, and therefore it does not come through revelation with the divine. Humans created morality. Morality comes from human society. Some human behaviours are almost universally considered immoral, such as murder, rape, theft. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why these things are immoral. Human societies wouldn’t survive if they were all acceptable behaviours. But there are a lot of human behaviours that are only considered immoral from a religious point of view, for example blasphemy and a host of sexually acts such as pre-marital sexual intercourse. But, usually these types of “immoral” behaviours vary depending on the religion. In any case, I have not found that I’ve plunged into any sort of immoral abyss now that I’m an atheist. If anything, I am probably a more moral person now than when I was a Christian. Certainly I am a more responsible person in terms of contributing positively to society because I now realize that human society is not some temporary situation on the way to eternity in heaven. Rather, I now realize that human society is all we’ve got. It is precious. Things like protecting the environment for future generations have become much more important for me now that I realize the earth doesn’t have to end in an apocalyptic disaster as Jesus comes to establish his kingdom.
Another interesting phenomenon that I’ve recognized in my years since becoming an atheist, is a bit of a role reversal in my point of view on the world and society. When I was a Christian, I sort of looked down on non-Christians. I pitied them for not understanding the truth, for not being saved. Now I have to admit that I sort of look down on Christians. I pity them for not understanding the truth, for not living life to its fullest. I’m not proud of feeling this way, and it is probably just a natural pride in my personality that causes it, but I’m also trying to describe that there is an irony in the thought that I still find most Christians look down on me for not having the truth. But now the difference is that I feel sorry for them. It’s sort of like being looked down up on by a child. In fact,
The world seems much more fragile to me now that I am an atheist. When you believe that there is a God watching over the world, and that he has a long-term plan for humanity, you assume that things can’t go dramatically wrong. Sure, bad things like earthquakes and floods do happen, but the ultimate plan must remain intact. God isn’t about to let a large meteor collided with the earth tomorrow and end all human life because it doesn’t fit with his plan. (There is too much other destruction described in the book of Revelation that has to happen first!). But, now that I don’t believe in God, I realize that we are indeed alone on this rock floating through space. We have to be so careful to take care of both ourselves and nature because the whole thing could come crashing down and no God would be there to step in and keep us on course.
So, I had often wondered what kind of person I would be if I were no longer a Christian. I had wondered if I would be more selfish, I would lie more easily. The reality has been the exact opposite. I hope that I am a much more pleasant and selfless person now that I’m an atheist. The world no longer revolves around me. I am but a speck of dust in vast universe. While my life has great significance to those around me while I am alive, I am completely insignificant in terms of nature and the universe. It is not about me. I am just a cog in the great machinery of nature.
One thing that seems pervasive in relating to Christians since my de-conversion is a complete lack of understanding that I don’t actually believe in God anymore. Most Christians seem to think that atheists are rebelling against God, that we hate him for some reason. Perhaps we’ve been so hurt by religion when we were younger that now we feel hate for God and for Christianity and are like a rebellious teenager who goes off on his own in a huff. But I don’t hate God. I just don’t believe he exists. My position is exactly the same as the position a Christian is in when they consider the existence of something they don’t believe in, like unicorns or Santa Claus. I’m not trying to belittle Christians’ beliefs by making that comparison, it really is that way for me. I don’t hate unicorns, I just don’t think they exist.
In a situation I experienced in which a few atheists were discussing religion with a few Christians, a Christian friend of mine summed up the differences like this: “Either you believe in God or you don’t. That’s about all there is to it.” I very much agree with this statement, and I would take it further and say that you can’t really choose whether you believe in God or not. Either you do or you don’t. If you are a Christian who is finding that you doubt God’s existence, then you may already feel that you don’t believe he exists. You might pretend that you still believe he does exist, but deep inside only you know whether you believe it or not. If you don’t believe in God, there isn’t much you can do to choose to believe in him. I could pretend to believe in God, but at the end of the day I just don’t. It would be a dishonest act for me to pretend I believe in God. It’s not a choice I am capable of making any longer. Ultimately, we all owe it to ourselves to ask the really difficult questions about our beliefs and see where the chips fall. Ultimately the only person who suffers if you don’t is yourself.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Bruce Gerencser for giving me this opportunity to write a guest post on his blog, and to do so anonymously. The only reason I retain my anonymity is because there are family members who are not aware I am no longer religious and would probably be hurt by finding out on the internet if they stumbled across this post at some point in the future. Who am I? I am a Canadian scientist. I study human physiology. I was a Christian for roughly the first three decades of my life before finding my way to atheism. My path to atheism is not the topic of this post, as I have written about it elsewhere. If Bruce is willing, a link can be provided to my own blog writings. But I volunteered to write a guest post about what science is, why it is often misunderstood, and why it is so important. The value of science seems to be under deliberate attack in some Western nations (notably the United States and Canada), and scientific findings are often rejected or rebuked when they don’t fit with certain agendas. I’d like to write about why that is dangerous to society.
What is Science?
Science is a process that methodically gathers knowledge about the natural world. Science leads us to knowledge about the world around us, and how it works. We all make observations about the world around us all the time, but the scientific method is careful not to jump to conclusions based on those observations until they are testable repeatedly and independently. This means that, for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and consistently come out with the same results. Science, though it is conducted by biased and imperfect humans, must be conducted in an unbiased way. Scientists have to learn to put aside their biases and preconceived beliefs before they conduct their experiments. Bias can very easily cause someone to misinterpret the results. This is the fundamental difference between the scientific approach and the approach taken by most people in society. If you have a favorite political party or sports team, you are likely to cheer for them no matter how they perform. Even if your sports team never wins, you may still convince yourself they are the best team. The difference between the scientific method and what I would call the political or religious method is best explained by the following illustration:
In the scientific method, all the evidence on a particular topic is examined. Then the conclusions are drawn from the findings of the evidence regardless of whether you like the conclusions or not. Conversely, in the political or religious method, the conclusion is generally formed first and then evidence is gathered to support that conclusion or theory. When it seems like science has been wrong about something, usually it is because scientists have not properly taken their bias out of the methods and therefore have misinterpreted their findings. A very important part of science is also acknowledging when you don’t have enough data to form a conclusion. (More on that later in relation to scientists being wrong all the time).
Deliberate Discrediting of Science and Scientists
There are two classic examples in recent years of how good science has been rejected because it conflicts with an agenda: 1) evolution; and 2) climate change. Evolution is a process that explains how biological diversity arises by change in the inherited genotype (genetic make-up of the organism) and phenotype (the observable characteristics) through generations of offspring. The word “overwhelming” is often used to describe the amount of evidence supporting evolution. There is no doubt that evolution happens in biology, and that humans evolved from more primitive primate species (not monkeys!). Evolution is as established and verifiable as many other part of science, such as gravity, germ theory, etc. I don’t need to list through all the evidence in favor of evolution here, that information is available to anyone who honestly wants to know the truth. However, evolution goes directly against the concept that God created the species (including humans) as they are, and that humans are somehow special among the many species of animals. Therefore, those people who are unable to let go of their belief that God exists and that he created the species as they are, must reject evolution, try to discredit the science behind it, and even teach children known falsehoods in science classes, all because the truth of evolution challenges their pre-conceived conclusion that God created humans as we are. They are following the second method in the diagram above.
Another example is climate change. The global climate is a complex phenomenon. There have been large variations and cycles in the earth’s climate throughout its history. Cycling between ice ages and more warm periods seems to be a natural occurrence. However, in the past decades, the earth’s climate has been changing much more rapidly than ever before. This has been occurring in concert with an increase in carbon dioxide levels higher than they have been in roughly 100 million years. The rate of change is completely out of whack with the natural cycles that have happened in the past, and corresponds to the recent centuries of industrialization of our society and our massive increase in use of fossil fuels (which give off carbon dioxide). Again, there is no doubt in science about the facts of climate change. Though the process of climate change is not as established as evolution, there is no doubt that human activity is dramatically affecting the climate on our planet. But, to alter this process would take some very, very significant changes in all our lifestyles. (This is the part where climate change deniers roll their eyes and claim that environmentalists would have us all living in caves). One of the huge changes that would have to take place is a shift towards cleaner energy sources, and there are very, very wealthy and powerful people who make all their money by having you and I use up fossil fuels. They have an agenda, and they don’t care about the science. Therefore, the science of climate change has been very deliberately attacked by organized and well-funded groups with special interest.
Both of these (evolution and climate change) are great examples of the political and religious process of having an agenda or a conclusion, and then going out and looking for evidence to support your agenda, rather than forming your conclusions based on all the evidence. Sadly, many people have been led to believe exactly the opposite: that scientists have an agenda with evolution and climate change and that they are making it all up to support their agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Don’t Scientists Have an Agenda Too?
The short answer is no. Scientists are human of course, so they all have biases and are capable of making mistakes. But, the scientific method is specifically designed to remove human bias, errors, and agendas. The whole point of the scientific method is to discover without bias. Yes, some scientists have an agenda. Yes, some scientists do take money from a funding agency that wants to prove they are right more than they want to discover the real truth about something (think pharmaceutical companies). But, the vast majority of scientists deliberately try to remove bias from their work, look for the honest answer regardless of what they want the answer to be, and when they do have their findings, they present them publicly for others to review and criticize to ensure they are valid findings. That is the way good science is conducted in research institutions, and the vast majority of the time it works to uncover a lot of knowledge about the world around us.
If you get into a disagreement or argument with a scientist about his or her particular area of expertise, then one of two things is likely to happen. Firstly, and much more likely, you are wrong and are not accepting the evidence that the scientist is using to back up their position. (A simple example would be having an argument with a physicist about whether the earth is round or flat. You are wrong. They are right. They are right because they have based their position on the evidence). Or, secondly, you are right and the scientist is wrong because they have either left the scientific method of examining only the evidence, or they have over-extended themselves beyond what the evidence tells them. (An example of this would be if a physicist tells you that we know we are in the only universe in existence. We don’t have enough evidence to support that claim, and if a scientist claimed that fact, then they have forgotten not to extend their conclusions beyond the evidence).
Why Do Scientists Seem So Arrogant?
In short, because they are right! Remember, when they are doing their job properly, scientists only form their conclusions based on evidence and facts and limit their conclusions when they don’t have enough evidence. Therefore, when they do draw a conclusion about something, it is very, very likely to be correct. You’ll notice that it is very hard to win an argument with someone when they do this. Try to take the position in an argument that the sky is not blue, or that gravity does not exist and see how you do. If you knew nothing about gravity, you might think a physicist seemed arrogant for being so adamant that they are right about gravity. But, they are only adamant because the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position. If you base your arguments on evidence and are careful not to overextend your position beyond the evidence, then you will always be right, simple as that. Of course, most scientists have extensive knowledge on one specific topic that is far greater than the average person. Therefore, when you argue with them on that one topic, they are always right and you are always wrong (assuming they base their argument in evidence). This can seem like arrogance.
Of course, in reality many scientists do overextend themselves beyond the evidence and make claims that are not supported. Then they are just being arrogant.
Aren’t Scientists Wrong All the Time?
Scientific findings are often corrected as we learn more about the natural world. Sometimes scientists discover something and then realize down the road that their discovery was not quite right after all. But, that is not a good reason to reject science whenever it conflicts with your particular preferences, and to explain it away by saying that scientists are often wrong anyway. The scientific method gradually produces knowledge and facts about nature, but one experiment might not immediately provide all the answers. For example, if you want to know whether drinking aspartame has negative effects on pregnant women, you don’t want to draw your conclusions after one experiment. After many experiments by many different scientists, we may discover the truth about that question. But each experiment by itself tends to give an incomplete picture. The important thing in understanding science is to distinguish between the findings that are preliminary and those that are overwhelmingly supported. If you read in the news about a study that found that eating seven carrots a day will reduce your risk of cancer by 36%, then you can likely assume that it is a preliminary finding. Much more research needs to be done to establish the actual benefits of a certain number of carrots per day. But, if you read a textbook on evolution, you would be wrong to roll your eyes and think that this is a preliminary finding. Over 150 years of scientific research in many different fields (geology, biology, genetics, microbiology, etc.) all lead to the same conclusions about evolution.
It is easy and tempting to look back over time and claim that scientists have been wrong about so much. You could look back in history and claim that scientists first thought the earth was flat and the sun went around the earth and so on. But, most scientific claims have a degree of uncertainty to them. (Statistics dictates that certainty is not possible in any one scientific experiment. Most scientific experiments are set up statistically so that the likelihood of misinterpreting the results are roughly 1 in 20. But that does not mean that the chances of science being wrong on well established findings are 1 in 20. For example, any single experiment on tobacco smoking leading to cancer will have a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. But the chances that smoking does not cause cancer are much, much less than 1 in 20, almost infinitely smaller.) That is why scientists have to be careful to say that the evidence supports their findings, given what we know so far but that there may be a lot more to the whole story. Scientific findings have to be interpreted with a great deal of humility about what we still don’t know about nature. Anytime a scientist conducts one experiment and then claims to know the truth about that phenomenon, they are probably being hasty and arrogant. Only over time, with careful and unbiased repetition of results, can we state things to be true with a very high level of certainty.
Usually, when science has turned out to be “wrong”, it is in fact a case of a scientists having drawn a conclusion before there is enough evidence to support it, so that when enough evidence does come to light their conclusions don’t hold up. In ancient times, a true scientist would not have made assumptions about the earth being flat, but instead should have said: “We don’t have enough data yet to know what shape the earth is.” This is the approach modern scientists take on many unknown issues surrounding things like dark matter, and the exact origins of the universe. Since we don’t have enough data yet, we have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions. Sadly, this acknowledgement is often exploited by the religious with a statement that God must fill in the gaps in knowledge, or that since science can’t explain everything about the origin of the universe, God must have created it.
Can You Be A Scientist and A Christian at the Same Time?
It is possible, but very uncommon. In my time as a scientist, I’ve met a very few scientists who are religious. The vast majority of those have grown up in a culture and family of religion that they have just continued with in their life as an adult. When they go to work each day and conduct experiments in science, they almost always set aside their religion and just work as a scientist. To work as a scientist and keep your firmly entrenched Christian beliefs in the forefront of your mind would be in conflict because science requires that we set aside our personal biases. If your personal bias is that God created the world and is ultimately responsible for how everything works, then you’re unlikely to be very good at interpreting your scientific findings very objectively. In my experience, the vast majority of scientists are not religious. Most of them, if asked, would probably admit to agnosticism since there is no sure way of knowing whether a god exists or not. The best answer I’ve heard on this was from my high school chemistry teacher. When asked if he believes in God, he replied: “You define God for me, and then I’ll tell you whether I believe in your definition.”
Are Science and Religion in Opposition?
This is an age-old argument. Carl Sagan’s fictional book Contact has a great debate on this topic. Everyone seems to have a different point of view on whether science and religion can co-exist. My position (which I am not saying is the only correct one), is that the two are in conflict. The whole point of this post has been to show that the scientific method is one that forms a conclusion only after examining the evidence. The religious method is the opposite: you hold a belief (or have faith) and then look at the world and find things that support that belief in God. If you always stick to the scientific method, I am confident you’ll never find a reason to even bring religion into the conversation. In my mind, everything in the world is explained naturally with no need for the supernatural. It was science that ultimately helped relieve me of my religious beliefs. After a long time of studying science I finally realized that the level of scrutiny I demanded of myself for my religious beliefs were completely out of whack with the level of scrutiny for everything else in my life. I lived an evidence-based life, always being careful to critique what politicians and others claimed against what the evidence actually stated, but when it came to religion for some reason I just accepted what the Bible said about God without ever questioning it. Eventually I overcame that inconsistency in my life and left Christianity behind, so it is not surprising that my particular point of view is that science and religion are not just incompatible but are in direct opposition to one another.
I wrote at the beginning that: “for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and come out with the same results.” The beauty of science, therefore, is that it is freely available for anyone and everyone. No one can come along and claim to have knowledge that is not accessible to you. No one can claim that they know better than you, and you should just trust what they say without independently verifying that knowledge. You will notice that this is in direct opposition to the religious approach to knowledge by revelation. The Bible tells us that Jesus died on the cross and came to life again a few days later. But this is not independently verifiable. You cannot test this claim. You must rely on someone else’s description of that event in order to believe it. This is exactly the opposite of the scientific approach. While you may have to rely on scientist’s description on things that are very complicated for you to understand, nothing is stopping you from going and getting trained in that field of science and then conducting your own experiments to find out for yourself it they are correct. If you do that, no honest scientist will ever tell you: “Yes, but I have superior knowledge and findings in my experiment, so I’m still right.”
Why Do We Need Science Anyway?
The way science is conducted is changing rapidly in universities and research institutions. Governments are focusing funding towards things that they think are important and ignoring or actively discrediting the science that they think it either unimportant or that goes against their political agenda. This is not the way science is supposed to work. Science is a process of discovery, but you often don’t know what you are going to discover. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries in history were made more or less by accident when a scientist was actually looking for something else. When Alexander Fleming stumbled upon penicillin in 1928, he did so by accident. He wasn’t even studying antibiotics at all. Yet, that accidental discovery changed all of our lives for the better, probably more than any other medical discovery in the 20th Century. Imagine if governments had shut down Fleming because they didn’t feel his relatively obscure scientific research was contributing to society. The point is, you never know where the most important scientific discoveries are going to come from. So, trying to focus on curing cancer while stopping the study of sea-slugs would be a big mistake because ultimately the cure for cancer could lie in knowledge gained by studying sea slugs. When you limit the process of discovery, you limit the discoveries you will make.
The other very important reason that science is important in society relates back to the image above of the scientific process. If everyone took an evidence-based approach to life’s decisions, we’d have a much better world. There would be far fewer (if any) wars and governments would be forced to serve the best interests of the population not of the party. The scientific method teaches us to take a humble and open-minded approach to life. Don’t go into things assuming you know the answer before you begin. Stick to your conclusions if the evidence supports it, even if everyone else says you are wrong. But, do admit when you are wrong. These are the hallmarks of a good scientist, but most of us don’t act this way when engaging in politics, marriages, friendships, conversations, and so on.
Summary: Why Is Science Relevant to a Discussion About Religion & Atheism?
What does science have to do with religion? Isn’t religion outside the realm of science? Doesn’t religion require faith, which doesn’t involve science? Well, science is all about basing conclusions on evidence. If there is no evidence for something, then it probably isn’t reality. Therefore science is very relevant to the discussion on religion because there is no objective evidence for God. If there was a God and if there was evidence for God, scientists would be the first people lining up to tell the world all about it. Discovering that God exists would be the single greatest scientific discovery in history, which any scientist would be glad to get credit for, if only it were true. The reason scientists do not generally agree that God exists is not because of some agenda or some grand anti-religious conspiracy. No, the reason science does not support the existence of God is simply because there is no evidence to support that claim. All the claims of the existence of God (or gods) are based entirely on personal experience. All the personal experiences that are recorded in the Bible are examples of exactly the opposite process of discovery in science: they are not reproducible, they are not supported by evidence that anyone can observe, and they are not carefully controlled observations by people trained to be unbiased in their interpretations. This is where the conversation between believers and scientists can start to go in circles with believers claiming that God is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore does not require evidence, and with scientists claiming that nothing is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore God must not exist since there is no evidence for God.
I’ll conclude with a statement and a challenge. My statement is this: “Everything that exists is explainable by science, given enough time and resources.” I state this because my position is that there is only the natural world. There is no supernatural. Since science provides answers to the natural world, science has the answer for everything. My challenge is this: “Come up with a question, for which there is a definite answer, that science is not capable of providing an answer with a reasonable level of certainty..”
Mom and Dad remained Pentecostal for a few years after I left home but Pastor Jesusjumper retired and my parents moved on.
So I guess the pastor was the point at that particular church.
Eventually my parents ran out of new churches to try.
But the vagaries of small-town godliness causes the leadership of those churches to change and change and change, and my folks finally went back to the church they’d attended when they first moved to their small town, First Christian. There had been at least four different pastors in the interim.
They were fairly happy there, my mom played the piano and organ for their worship services, and my dad helped with keeping books and was on the board.
They’ve always enjoyed being pillars of the church, my parents, and as a result, pastors are more than happy to take advantage of them.
Pastor Manna used to drive a bread delivery truck in our small town.
I guess he thought being paid to deliver the God message would be an easier job than delivering bread.
If you attended his church and they approved of you, you were asked to join the congregation after three services. If you didn’t want to add your name to the church roster, then it was suggested that you might want to go to church somewhere else, as ‘God requires commitment and we believe it.’
They were pretty selective about their members.
A wealthy guy retired to their small town and had them flummoxed.
He was a very nice man, my mom said, and always put a twenty in the offering plate, but people just weren’t comfortable with the way he dressed for church.
He wore Hawaiian shirts. Board shorts and deck shoes. Had a graying ponytail. Worst of all, he wore a single earring.
Pastor Manna and a couple minions had a conference with him. They explained that he wasn’t showing the proper respect by dressing so casually.
He moved on.
So once a person decided to join the church, the next requirement was to fill out a “promise card”.
This was a serious contract with God.
The card asked how much money a household earned and gave a helpful little equation to let a person know how much of that he or she was expected to give to God.
It started at giving 10%, but there were some questions on there designed to determine whether a family could afford to give more.
I wish I’d thought to keep the copy I saw on Mom’s kitchen counter.
My parents were quite happy to fill out the card, and it was a point of pride for my dad to give more than the minimum.
And important to him that other people knew it.
Religion is such a spectacle, isn’t it?
Pastor Manna was big on tithing. If you didn’t give what you were supposed to, he called you into his office for a shaming.
My brother Dick and his wife, Snatchie were having a hard time financially. They were very close to losing their property and their home and appealed to my dad for help.
My dad, who may be a little nutty in some ways, is always willing to help his family.
He maxed out his credit card to get them some cash. He also took the funds that were earmarked for his quarterly promise to Pastor Manna.. oh wait, I mean God.. and added it to the pot.
Dick and Snatchie were bailed out.
Pastor Manna called my parents into his office.
He was not a happy pastor. He told them that they’d made a promise to God and that they had LIED to him instead!!
That God was NOT happy with their disobedience, and he wanted to know how soon to expect the money they’d promised.
My parents didn’t tell him to get stuffed. They didn’t call him any names. They simply got up and walked out.
And after discussing it, they decided not to walk back in.
Of course everyone in town was curious. Mom was kind of excited about the whole thing, telling me on the phone that they were not going to be ‘unchristian’, so they’d merely told everyone that they had a “disagreement in doctrine” with Pastor Manna and had decided that God was going to use them somewhere else.
A few months later, I discussed the incident with Snatchie. I expressed my disgust with the pastor’s money-grubbing attitude and my anger over his treatment of my parents.
She turned to me and snapped, “Well Pastor Manna has been placed in authority over the church. That was BIBLICAL. He did no wrong.”
Considering that the money had been used to help her and my brother, I thought her attitude might have been a little different. Nope. Another demonstration of why Christianity and logic are mutually exclusive.
My dad was ‘called’ to the ministry about 10 years ago and took over (temporarily) for a pastor who needed some medical leave. Dad got some sort of internet certificate and started preaching.
The regular pastor was able to attend occasional services between medical treatments and one Sunday he stood and invited the congregation to rejoice with him because he was ‘completely free from all sin’.
That’s pretty funny coming from a guy who was the world’s second biggest asshole when I went to school with his kids, but hey, I suppose with God, all things are possible?
Pastor Sinfree and my father had a few disagreements, and Dad called it quits.
Dad wasn’t getting a salary or any type of monetary reward for his hard work. Add the distinct lack of appreciation into the equation… that’s probably why he decided that Pastor Sinfree could have his church back.
For awhile after that, my parents did a home church.
They gave that up a little over a year ago due to health reasons, and now attend church sporadically for those same health reasons.
I never have told them that I no longer believe in God.
I can think of no good reason to do so other than keeping it a secret offends my need to be straightforward with people. I don’t like dishonesty in myself or in others.
I have balanced that against what it would do to my mother if she found out.
And it’s not worth the anguish it would cause. It just isn’t. She would live the rest of her life in an utter panic over my immortal soul and it would significantly affect her health, I think. She’s in her late 70s and has lived her entire life as a Christian.
I can’t hurt my mom like that.
I’m out to some people, but I think the majority of people I encounter just assume that everyone is a Christian. Since I don’t have horns or a forked tail, I don’t fry cats or hurt small children and I’m just a regular person they assume I am a Christian.
Mostly, it never comes up as a conversational topic.
When the young people I work with bring up religion and want to know what I believe or have me settle an argument about God, I tell them that they’re called personal beliefs because that’s exactly what they are. Personal. And that each person has their own set, and that religious discussion is something that’s best left up to individual families.
I’ve finally decided after all these years that whatever elusive thing my parents and all their friends were looking for does not exist. And that’s why they never found it.
Sort of sad when you think about it.
I didn’t use anyone’s real name.
Butthump, Oregon isn’t a real town, although I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of butthumping going on there.
I grew up in a series of small redneck towns in the Pacific Northwest.
My family changed churches as often as some people in those little communities changed their underwear.
Actually, now that I ponder it and think about some of the people, we may have changed churches more often than some of them changed underwear.
I even have specific individuals in mind.
Let me tell you… if you’d been in some of those towns/churches, you might actually believe in Sasquatch.
I really don’t know what my folks were looking for, but they weren’t the only people searching.
My parents and their little circle of people pulled up stakes and moved to a new church about every six months to a year. Someone would have a philosophical disagreement with the pastor, or they’d learn that pastor so and so had gone out and helped a guy who didn’t even attend his church when his car broke down.
“A man who lives by the Word!!” they’d all cry.
And off they’d go en masse, to the new church.
Oh sure, there might be some stragglers, loyal to the old pastor, but eventually they’d all find each other again.
As a kid, I didn’t know what the inside of the (New! Exciting! Bible-based!) church might be like, but I mostly knew whose faces I’d see when I got there.
I seriously didn’t know then and don’t understand now what they were all looking for. I always thought that their beliefs should be the point, not where they exercised their religious side.
They didn’t find it at the First Christian Church.
We were new in town, so we weren’t aware of the migratory nature of the local religious population yet. We stayed at that church for about two years, I think.
My parents finally tuned in to the local Jesus dance and we started wandering around to other churches with the rest of the lemmings.
So whatever it was they were looking for wasn’t at the Baptist church, either. Pastor Boorish and his wife were ‘too judgmental’ for my parents.
And my dad didn’t like being at the same church as one of the people he worked with. “He’s a pompous pile of shit,” Dad pronounced. “I don’t like that son of a bitch.”
The Presbyterians didn’t have what my parents were searching for, although their music was really lovely as our high school choir and band director was in charge of it.
That’s why going to that church was my personal favorite. Almost worth not being allowed to sleep in on Sunday.
Of course after the music was over we had to listen to Pastor Stodgy for half an hour, but then we got to sing again at the end of the service.
For a couple of months my family took some lessons about Mormonism at someone’s house, but that was a little too weird for my parents.
I went to catechism and the Catholic church with a friend a few times, but Mom denounced that as a cult and decided I probably shouldn’t go there anymore. “Besides that, our whole family needs to be together in church on Sunday.”
That was fine with me, I was done with it. I found the rituals astounding. So many gestures and silly things that were sinful. Trinkets to wear and carry. Confessing one’s sins. Weird.
And the kids I was incarcerated with in public school weren’t any nicer to me when I was receiving religious instruction with them than they were in school.
Church and all the embellishments that go with it were the center of our existence. We were up early every Sunday morning getting ready for church.
The idea of doing something besides church wasn’t even an option. If we wanted to go fishing or have a picnic or do some other thing, it was always planned for after church services.
And as a girl, I had to wear a dress for church. I didn’t wear dresses any other time, but my dressing up for church was a requirement in my family.
I asked once why I couldn’t wear something comfortable like my brothers instead of having to wear a dress and nylons and be cold. “Why does God even care what I wear?” I asked.
The answer was, “You are disrespectful. Now hurry up, we’re going to be late.” from my harried mother.
Her curt response may have been due to the fact that she was still trying to brush one brother’s unruly hair and get shoes on my other brother while my dad sat out front in the car and honked the horn.
Anyone who visited our house could tell that we were holy.
We had tacky Jesus art and God stuff on the walls and a ton of really swell refrigerator magnets, too.
There was an open hymnal on the music stand on the organ in the living room, and a stack of religious sheet music next to it.
We had an ornate needlepoint wall hanging in the living room with the ‘as for me and my house’ verse from ‘Josua’.
Yes, it was spelled wrong, but Mom thought it was pretty.
No one had noticed the misspelling until I said something. My parents solved the problem by instructing me to stop pointing it out to visitors.
We had the family Bible on the coffee table.
We observed a sense of decorum in our family when we were out in public.
Of course our home life was pretty much like anyone else’s, no one was watching us then, so no need to keep up appearances. Dad swore all the time and ranted about the bastards ruining the country and the assholes he worked for. I can’t remember a time when my father wasn’t angry and bitter. He just didn’t show it to the rest of the world.
Indoctrinated from the beginning, I knew how to act like a Christian. I knew the bible verses and I knew what Jesus liked and what he didn’t like.
I went to Sunday school and weekly Bible studies and vacation Bible school and even had a mother-approved Jesusy friend or two to hang out with.
I went to church camp every summer.
I prayed when I was told to pray.
I went to all the potlucks and the gatherings and signed up for an hour during the 24 hour prayer vigil our church did when I was 12.
Of course God existed, hadn’t my parents said so?
And didn’t all the people around me believe it?
But I never felt the presence of God.
I really, really tried.
It was like standing out on the lawn looking through the windows at a big party going on inside the house. All those happy people, enjoying being part of a club.
I didn’t feel anything.
Through all the singing and the learning and the endless church services and the crowds of Christians all around me.
At night when I would get introspective as I was falling asleep I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me.
Despite all the indoctrination and the Bible studies and being forced to get up and put on nice clothes to go to church on Sunday every damn week from infancy until I was 17 and my dad said I could make up my own mind about going to church or not, I never felt it.
I witnessed to other kids.
I wore a ‘Jesus Never Fails’ necklace. To school.
I read the Bible.
I just always felt like… an observer.
I did not feel like I was a part of all the pageantry and the experience. It was like watching a movie.
I still believed in God, but I was becoming more certain that he didn’t believe in me.
Church was, first and foremost, a social club for my parents.
They talked about who wore what, who might be involved in little scandals, how shocking Mrs. Gams was with her short skirts, how her husband needed to ‘get right with God because why is he allowing her to dress that way?’ and other tidbits.
And if one wasn’t at the twice weekly Bible studies or one of the two Sunday services with a ‘fellowship and potluck’ in between there was always the telephone.
Which was in constant and heavy use.
The members of the ‘prayer chain’ called each other all the time with prayer requests which were really just orders to God… sort of like Sears or Santa Claus… “Please pray for us to get a new car/house/job” and gossip, under the guise of fake compassion, “Grace Landerer really needs our prayers, her husband Phil moved in with Miss Slutty last weekend!”
Now mind you, Grace may have only told one person and certainly hadn’t requested their prayers or their curiosity, but by the time she left her house and went to the grocery store 15 minutes later, there may have been three people in town who didn’t know about the situation.
Those three were quickly filled in by everyone else. “Did you hear? Phil Landerer left his wife!!”
With each telling, more details were made up. The more lurid, the better.
My mom would get on the phone and preface her remarks with, “Well I heard that____.” and pass on anything new she’d heard, ending with, “I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard it from Bettyjean Saviorette.” As soon as she ended the call, she called someone else and repeated everything.
When I was almost 13, we found the Assembly of God Church.
I guess my parents thought the Pentecostals might really have it, we attended there for several years.
Pastor Jesusjumper was really a good guy. A local rancher-turned-pastor-but-still-ranching. An energetic, kind man who would do anything for anyone at a moment’s notice.
Even *I* liked him.
That’s saying something by the way, as I’ve always had a healthy dose of cynicism.
You may have noticed.
We ended up at Pastor Jesusjumper’s church because my grandfather died. He passed away around midnight six days before I turned 13.
After my dad got off the phone with the hospital, my mom called the leader of our current church, Pastor Detached. He offered his condolences and promised to stop by ‘sometime tomorrow’ to see what he could do. He bid my mother goodnight and hung up.
Mom called one of the ladies on the prayer chain to pass on the gossip that Grandpa Jim had died. Oh. I meant to say she called to ask for their prayers during our time of difficulty. She passed on the information that Pastor Detached had plans to visit our house the next day, too.
And one of the people on the prayer chain called Pastor Jesusjumper.
He and his wife who lived about a half hour outside of town immediately got up and dressed and drove directly to our house. They told my parents to go to the hospital and take care of paperwork and take care of my grandmother (she was in the hospital at the same time and had not been informed of her husband’s passing.) They said go, we will stay with the children. Go.
My brothers slept through the whole thing, but I was awake and very sad at losing my grandfather.
I loved him a lot.
And Mrs. Jesusjumper sat on the sofa with an arm around me while I cried.
They really were very kind people, and if I had to choose someone from all the churches we went to and all the Christians we met during those years, they would be the ones I’d point to as actually practicing what they preached.
I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about them. They were just decent people. I think they would have been kind and giving and moral without religion, too.
But if you’ve never been to a church where they speak in tongues, dance in the aisles, wave their hands in the air and holler, “Amen!” (or 30 or so people whisper under their breath all at once, “Jesusjesusjesusjesus” until it sounds like wind in the pine trees) I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list.
It’s one of those things you have to see to believe.
A little more about speaking in tongues for those who are unfamiliar with it. A random person, usually one of the same four or five people every week, stands up during the church service and recites a long string of gibberish. Loudly. Often repeating similar syllables and groups of sounds. It ordinarily lasts for 20 seconds to a minute. Then that person will sit down. Funny, that person never interrupts the announcements or the sermon or the offering. It only happens during prayer time.
Many people in the congregation become quite exalted and call out, “Thank you JAYSUS!!” or “Hallelujah!!” Most of them have at least one hand in the air, praising their lord. They sway back and forth. Many of them weep copiously and unashamedly.
A few moments later, another random person will stand up and ‘receive the interpretation.’ This involves a recitation that almost always contains the same words and thoughts, repeated in different ways. Something like, “Lo! I am with you always! You are my people! I am here, among you! I love you and you love me! Here I am! Your Lord! I am with you always! I will be coming back soon!”
Sometimes they really get going in those services, and several people will stand up and babble. They must have some sort of prearranged signal, because no one ever interrupts anyone else. They all get to do their tongues and arm waving and still manage to take turns.
Like I said… add it to your bucket list.
I left home a little early, and that was the end of my regular church attendance.
I didn’t miss it.
I don’t think anyone with my upbringing could avoid feeling guilty, at least for a while, and I did.
It got a lot easier.
And every Sunday morning, when I was able to sleep in as long as I wanted to, I appreciated the absence of church a little more.
I was living in another state, but still in contact with my family at least weekly by phone.
I talked about what was going on in my life, and my family (mostly Mom) talked about church and other religious activities. Which makes sense, as that was and still is their life.
My mom was on the board of the local chapter of Women’s Aglow. When she wasn’t doing something for her church, she was doing something to help Aglow.
For a few weeks, my poor mom was in a bit of a quandary.
It seems that her good friend Stephanie Saintly, who’d been her friend for fifteen years, had applied to be on the board of Aglow.
And the other board members, my mom included, were not comfortable allowing it.
Why, because Stephanie had not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit!
She ::putting on sad face and doleful tone:: could not speak in tongues.
In case you didn’t get that, Stephanie Saintly, a good Christian woman who had been faithful to God her whole life, baptized in her local church, and a very nice person all around was going to Heaven when she died.
God had pre-approved her heavenly application because she’d done everything he asks of his followers.
She was good enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven… but not good enough to serve on the board of a small chapter of a women’s organization in Butthump, Oregon.
When I laughed incredulously and made the comparison out loud, “Seriously, Mom? God will let her into heaven but you won’t let her be on the board? Do you not see anything wrong with that?!?” Mom asked me how our weather was.
It wasn’t the first time I decided that Christianity and logic were going to remain strangers forever.
In case you were wondering, Stephanie was not allowed to join the board of the Butthump chapter of Aglow. She chose to resign from the group because of it.
I started to realize that God had never answered a single prayer I prayed, no matter how sincere.
I had done everything right. I’d gone to church and prayed and tithed and witnessed and read my Bible and wanted to do what God asked of me all the time… and there was no one on the other end of the line when I called him.
I finally admitted to myself, “I do not believe in any God.”
There were no feelings of anger at this non-existent being. It was actually a relief to figure out that he was as real as Santa and the Tooth Fairy. No wonder I’d never felt anything. No wonder I’d always felt like the motions and trappings of religion were pointless.
They were pointless!
I didn’t tell my parents that I’d stopped believing…