Fides Scientia

*  This month is our yearly ‘No Media Month’ where our family gives up television, the internet, video games and the like to devote out time to spending time together, reading, travelling and generally enjoying the brief warmth of a Minnesota summer. As a result I won’t be writing this month, but decided to republish some previous posts that I think have stood the test of time. This one first appeared May 5, 2006*

I have been, for as long as I can remember, a science geek.

I don’t know if I was born that way or if I am just the product of  some unique environmental factors but I am certain it was a tendency encouraged by my parents. One of my earliest memories is of my father calling excitedly for my mother so she could hear me spell zoology. Another time, when I was still quite young, our wonderful neighbor Mrs. Schaeffer had a party for the neighborhood kids (she was known for having fun little parties for no particular reason) where kids could come dressed according to what they wanted to be when they grew up. I came as a pterodactyl.

Of particular interest to me was paleontology and biology. I was an avid reader early on and my parents fed my habit with sets of encyclopedias – first the popular World Book Encyclopedia, then later a 20 volume set of the Encyclopedia of Animal life (written, interestingly, in the King’s English – which to this day will still occasionally causes me to give certain words their British spelling like colour and labour), as well as the entire Time-Life Nature library. 

One of my particular favorites in the Time-Life set was the volume Early Man. The volume included the obligatory multi-page centerfold timeline of the march of human evolution from a small ape-like ancestor to modern humans, as well as numerous illustrations of the same ancestors struggling for survival against hyenas, other proto-humans and starvation causing them to develop tools to hunt mammoths and protect themselves against predators. It was all so…convincing.

I think it was around that time science, in particular, the study of evolution became something more to me than a science theory; it became a faith. By faith I mean it became something that I held to be fundamentally and inherently true about life. It became more to me than a mere biological process; it was a worldview that explained why mankind was here and where we might be going.

As I got older, and increasingly discouraged about the state of humanity – the destruction of the environment, the potential for cataclysmic war and the greed and hatred I saw around me evolution also gave me hope. Buoyed by science popularizers like SaganAsimov and Clarke, as well as the science fiction they wrote like Childhood’s End and the movie that shared it’s themes, 2001 a Space Odyssey, I began to see evolutionary theory as the great hope of mankind. Just as we were once primordial ooze and became human so to we might overcome our earthly troubles and inherit the stars.

As a result what little faith I might have had in God was relegated to agnosticism; I wasn’t particularly hostile to the idea a god might exist, it just didn’t seem to matter all that much.

Occasionally I would run into a backward thinking person who still held to the idea that God created the world and that some evidence for this existed; if I didn’t automatically dismiss the person as uneducated or hopelessly wedded to some outlandish religious notions, I might attempt to dialogue. It usually wasn’t long before it became a debate – and I loved to debate; particularly when my faith was being called into question. I rarely found it difficult however to knock down most of their ideas.

In 1982 I began my University career as a biology major, with plans to go on to veterinary school. It just so happened that around the same time a rather radical proposal had been made on campus; a professor of engineering, Dr. John Patterson, had proposed at a department meeting that any student who proclaimed a belief that God created the world should be denied a science degree. In addition to his teaching job Prof. Patterson was also a widely known and very outspoken atheist – and his proposal was made in response to what he saw as the threat of creationism invading campus. Of course the proposal, once made public, created a furor on campus with debates going on in the student paper and among the faculty and staff. I was rather amazed that even at the University level some still questioned evolution until I became friends with someone who did, a fact I attributed to his small town upbringing.

But something else was happening that year; I was beginning to realize that whatever faith I had in nature it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy deep personal longings for meaning and purpose and change. While evolution might hold out some hope for the future of mankind it held little hope for me personally. We might grow as a species but I continued to fail even my own standards and expectations. I was as greedy and selfish as anyone else and change seemed beyond me.

The same friend whose science I dismissed had an answer when it came to purpose and change and that answer was Jesus Christ. Though I had early on dismissed Christianity I couldn’t deny my friend’s life – or the joy, love and peace I saw in it. After nearly a year of wrangling with myself and with a growing sense that Christ was real and present I surrendered my life to Him. I transferred my faith from a belief in the power of nature and myself to a faith in Christ.

That surrender while it brought about dramatic changes in me, didn’t alleviate all the questions I had. I still had a niggling feeling about the accuracy of Scripture, at least as much as it seemed to contradict my understanding of science. Thus, a lot of my twenty-plus years as a Christian has been involved with considering the intersection of science and Scripture and as a result, a lot of what I consider here concerns that as well – my science geekdom remains unabated, so my apologies to those whose interests lie elsewhere; you will have to endure the occasional technical discussion.

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2 Responses to Fides Scientia

  1. Mike D says:

    Thanks for (re)posting this. It’s interesting because it does in several ways mirror my born-again experience. But (you knew that was comin’) there are several statements you make here that make me really raise an eyebrow. You’re sort of painting this picture like you were a scientifically minded skeptic of religion, but several of your statements seem highly peculiar.

    I began to see evolutionary theory as the great hope of mankind.

    That’s just weird. To me, it seems to reflect some fundamental misunderstandings about how evolution works. It’s not teleological. There’s no goal. Life adapts to changing environmental stress via nonrandom natural selection of randomly varying genes across populations. Sub-populations diverge, are subject to differing stresses, and adapt accordingly (or die). Genetic drift not withstanding, that’s about it.

    I really don’t know why you would hold that sort of process up as some sort of faith, or “hope for mankind”. I mean, it’s fundamentally contradictory… if we evolved enough, we wouldn’t even be “mankind” at all, but some other primate descended from homo sapiens. It’s just flat-out odd to me to read statements like,

    Just as we were once primordial ooze and became human so to we might overcome our earthly troubles and inherit the stars.

    I can only assume that was before you read Pinker’s book. Because we are becoming a more peaceful, egalitarian people. But I have no idea what you thought evolution has to do with “inheriting the stars”, and I don’t know what you mean by that either. It’s just a deepity.

    I was rather amazed that even at the University level some still questioned evolution

    Not everyone at the university level is a biologist, and most college-educated people don’t know very much about evolution at all. It’s an esoteric subject, no different than being surprised that there are people at the university level who question string theory. How many cosmology experts do you encounter on a college campus? The fact remains that evolution is not a controversial theory among practicing biologists. The evidence is overwhelming and transcends several disciplines. And I’ve never heard any practicing biologist frame evolution as anything but a brute fact about reality, as opposed to some sort of “hope for mankind”.

    We might grow as a species but I continued to fail even my own standards and expectations.

    This is another weird statement. It has that strange connection to this idea you had of evolution being something that it’s never been and never will be, but there’s obviously a fair bit of self-inflicted guilt in there as well. Yeah, everyone screws up. It’s just life. That’s why you try to do the best you can, learn from your mistakes, and take responsibility for your actions.

    But if there’s anything that Christianity is awesome at doing, it’s magnifying the hell out your self-loathing, then offering a solution to the guilt it’s bludgeoned you with. And hey, your Christian buddy doesn’t seem to be beating himself up all the time.

    After nearly a year of wrangling with myself and with a growing sense that Christ was real and present I surrendered my life to Him. I transferred my faith from a belief in the power of nature and myself to a faith in Christ.

    I have no idea what this “belief in the power of nature” stuff is all about. But what makes this story really interesting is this “growing sense that Christ was real”. A huge problem with religious experiences is that they’re subject to a litany of cognitive biases. There’s overwhelming evidence that they’re culturally specific, that they frequently contradict each other, that they’re strongly reinforced by groupthink (which does wonders for ironing out the contradictions), and that they’re subject to a litany of cognitive biases. I’m curious why, if you were really scientific-minded and skeptical of religion, you wouldn’t be highly self-critical of the experiences that you attributed to the presence of God. Obviously you were deeply unsatisfied with yourself, and envied your friend. So how do you know you weren’t just feeling what you ultimately wanted to feel? That your experiences were not the mere culmination of wishful thinking?

    And look, I don’t expect you to defend yourself to me. No one can tell you your experiences weren’t real to you. But when I looked back on my years in the evangelical church, there were so many experiences that, while profound to me at the time, in retrospect had clearly been the result of groupthink, confirmation bias, and wishful thinking. I would think, if you really prized your skepticism, that you’d make damn sure you you could dispassionately and conclusively rule out those things.

    Oh, and that professor was obviously a douchebag. As long as someone’s beliefs don’t directly interfere with their practice of science, who gives a shit what they believe?

    – Mike

  2. jackhudson says:

    Thanks for the comments Mike – I will respond to some of this when my ‘media fast’ ends in August.

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