Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Science!

Okay, so, once again a few weeks have passed without a post here from me. That's not intentional. As I said, there's a lot I want to post about, but I've been very busy, not least because I just started a new job last month.

Since I'm trying to preserve my anonymity, of course, I've minimized the personal details I've mentioned here. I haven't eliminated them altogether, though; I did, for example, mention in a previous post that I have a married brother and an unmarried sister. That's unspecific enough that I don't think it poses too much danger to my anonymity; there are no doubt plenty of people with a comparable count of siblings. And along similar lines, I don't suppose there's much harm in mentioning what I do, especially since it has to do with what I want to post about.

I'm a scientist.

Well, sort of. Actually, at the moment I'm still a grad student working on my PhD, and I recently got a job teaching physics at a community college--this, of course, being the new job I mentioned above. (It's only two days a week, but between that and my work on my dissertation, it's been keeping me much busier than I expected.) I guess this shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, it's looking at religious claims from a skeptical scientific viewpoint, and admitting to myself I don't have any real reason to believe in them, that's led to my "deconversion". As reluctant as I am to feed the idea that science and religion are in conflict, and the stereotype that all scientists are opposed to religion--well, I have to admit in my case it was scientific modes of thought that led me to reject religion. Although not so much my scholastic studies as reading I did on my own; it's not that I found my studies in physics incompatible with science, so much as that I read about some of the more unusual details of the working of the brain and came to realize how little basis there was for being convinced that the supposed promptings of the Holy Ghost that are supposed to be the basis for my testimony ever really came from God rather than from my own self-delusion. Well, that, and seeing religious folk on the attack against science, most notably under the aegis of "Intelligent Design" (as seems to be the most popular term for it at the moment; we'll see what they call it next year), made me sort of feel like I had to choose a side, and the side of science and reason had much better evidence behind it and a much better track record.

So, anyway, yeah. That's what I do. I'm a PhD student in physics (and have been for way too long; I really need to get done with my doctoral research and get the heck out of school), and I'm currently teaching physics at a community college. Now, the people at my church, of course, know about my scientific pursuits, and occasionally they ask me something about it. The most annoying--even while I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--was a buttonholing motormouth who kept trying to tell me about this revolutionary new book he'd read that was going to overturn all the accepted theories of physics, and who refused to listen to my contention that everything he told me about this guy and his "theories" sounded like garden-variety pseudoscience to me, and that in fact there were a number of gaping holes in what little of those new "theories" he told me about.

But anyway. It's happened three times since I finally escaped from my religious indoctrination--internally, if I still haven't publically broken with the church yet--and each time it was a little different. And I think I'll relate those occasions here. Actually, this also has a lot to do with what I was going to write about Envy in my series of Deadly Sins posts, but since I haven't written the Envy post yet I really can't make reference to it here--I guess when I do write that post, I'll refer back to this post. (Eh, I'm kind of rambling, I know. It's late, and I'm tired, but I haven't posted in long enough I figured I ought to go ahead and post something; I'm not going to take too much care to try to edit this post for brevity.)

The first time was probably four or five months back, shortly after I'd finally come to terms with the baselessness of my religious convictions. Someone I knew from the ward, who had just returned from his mission and was planning to apply to colleges soon, asked me to help him get a better understanding of the math he'd need for his SATs. So I arranged to meet him near the university I attended, and we got together at the local institute of religion (an LDS "institute of religion" is a building near campus where the church teaches religious classes to LDS students (and, in the case of the institute at my university at least, to anyone else who may decide to take a class or two there to be able to park in their lot); in some cases, this one included, it's also the meetingplace for the local student ward. (I don't attend the student ward, being as I don't live near campus and as a doctoral student am rather older than the average student there, but I had attended it before and still had a key to the gate.) I went over some mathematical principles with the RM (that's LDS jargon for "returned missionary"), and tried to help him understand what he'd need for the SAT. And then, as we were just finishing up and about to leave, he asked me whether my understanding of physics helped me have a greater appreciation for God's work and increased my testimony. ("Testimony" is another LDS jargon-word, and refers to, well, roughly speaking, the level of one's "knowledge" that the church is true, as supposedly conveyed by the Holy Ghost.)

Now, even while I'd still considered myself a believer, it certainly wasn't because of my scientific studies. So even then, I don't think I would have said that my knowledge of physics increased my testimony. Now, of course, even more so. I knew what he wanted to hear, that yes, understanding the intricacy of the universe made me appreciate all the more all that God had done, and marvel at the wonders He had created, and led me into deeper conviction that all these complex laws could only show the hand of God. But, well, that simply wasn't true--again, it hadn't been even when I did consider myself a believer; even then I realized at least at one level that science was quite capable of showing how the universe could in principle have gotten along very well without God; and it was even less true now. And I certainly wasn't about to lie to him. But I wasn't ready to tip my hand just yet and reveal my atheism, so I just said, "Well, not really," and changed the subject.

The second time was more recent, only a month or two ago. I was talking to someone new to the ward, who was trying to get into the movie business but also had some interest in science. And so, at one point in our discussion, he asked me how I reconciled my scientific studies with my religion.

Now, as it happened, this is something that I had concerned myself with to some degree even when I was a member. I was aware of all the evidence for, for example, the theory of evolution, and wanted to know how it fit in with the creation story. LDS doctrine is a bit more strict on its interpretation of Genesis than are some other Christian denominations; while church teachings don't claim that the "days" of creation are actual twenty-four hour days, they are insistent that the creation account is essentially to be taken literally, and one early "prophet" (president of the church) is on record as having declaimed, I believe ex cathedra, that there was no death before the Fall. Now, I did manage to come up with some way to reconcile the LDS creation account with current scientific theories--it's not a way I shared with anyone else, and it's not even a scenario that I was necessarily convinced was true, but I told myself I was content at least to know that, as a mathematician might say, a solution exists.

Noah's flood was more problematic. Never did quite figure out what to do about that one.

But anyway, so, here I was being asked how I reconciled my scientific studies with my religion. A fully honest disclosure at this point would really have been "I don't", but, again, I wasn't ready just yet to come out of the atheistic closet, so instead I said that well, I didn't really see that there was anything to reconcile--I don't know that I meant anything in particular by that, but I was just trying to get off something noncommital so as to not have him pursue the matter. He seemed about to pursue it anyway, but this was right before Sunday School class, and just then the teacher started the class, so he said we'd talk more later. Fortunately, to date, we haven't.

The third time was just this last Sunday, and was brought about by probably my closest friend in the ward. (Which doesn't make him really one of my closest friends overall; even before my deconversion, my closest friends were all non-members, a fact which my mother has long seemed uncomfortable about.) At one point during church, he nudged me to get me to look at what he'd just written, which was the following:
E=mc2=eternity?

He looked at me as if to ask what I thought of this idea. I frankly thought it looked like meaningless gibberish--obviously not the E=mc2 part, but the "=eternity" tacked onto the end seemed empty of significance. So energy=eternity? What? Maybe he thought I might see this as the germ of a profound insight--but, while I didn't like to disappoint him, I also certainly didn't want to pretend to see depth in drivel, so I just whispered that I was sorry, but I didn't see what he was getting at.

I won't be surprised if further questions like this come up in the future. People seem to want science to validate their religious beliefs, and want me to say that my scientific studies have deepened my faith in God. Only...they haven't. Sorry.

Meh...I'm getting into now what I was going to write about in the Deadly Sin post on Envy. I'll try to get to that later this week. In the meantime, though, I just thought I'd share these experiences on the subject.

9 Comments:

At 9/20/2006 1:50 AM, Blogger Lifewish said...

I'm not really surprised that they're so keen to see their beliefs supported by science. It must be galling that there's this highly effective system for figuring out how the universe works, with demonstrable successes, and it completely contradicts your mythology. I guess that's where things like Intelligent Design spring from.

 
At 9/20/2006 3:31 PM, Anonymous elbogz said...

You looked through a preverbal telescope and microscope and did not see God. You picked up a rock and no where did the rock say “Made By God”. You built the tower to Babel only to find that heaven was not at the top. Science can not nor will not lead to God, for we know God by faith alone.

Jesus said there is only one place that you will find God, and that is within your own heart. If I could look to heaven and see God, I would not require faith. But if I look into my own heart, my soul, my being, and find comfort and completeness that only comes from God, then I have found God.

 
At 9/20/2006 5:30 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

And if only people would stop claiming that god is in fact proved by science, and were content to find god in their soul, many problems would be solved, no?

 
At 9/20/2006 5:35 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, yes - welcome back to blogging. You may take time between your posts, but they're worth waiting for.

I don't know what to say to you about how to answer. "I don't see there's anything to reconcile" may be your best bet until you're ready to come out. Faith is faith, and science is science, and never the twain shall meet. NOMA and all that. If you steadfastly refuse to cross the two, people may stop asking you.

Or you can ask them if they find their faith in need of strengthening...

 
At 9/20/2006 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anuminous said...

Welcome back, AC. It is good to hear from you again. Do not be in too big a rush to get out of school -- the 'real world' out there is kinda scary :) I am however happy to hear that you are teaching. Since I started reading your stuff this summer I have thought you had a good head on your shoulders and teachers are very important.

Anyway, I have always wanted to press my eldest brother on the lack of archaeological data supporting the Book of Mormon. He is a 'good Mormon boy' (most of my family are), but he is very smart and well educated. I cannot imagine but that there is some cognitive dissonance there for him.

 
At 9/21/2006 9:38 AM, Blogger Bronze Dog said...

I found the FSM in my heart. I was touched by His Noodly Appendage.

Your posts are indeed worth the wait, A to the C.

 
At 9/22/2006 3:31 PM, Blogger Deacon Barry said...

Yet another interesting installment. I can understand your dilemma. You don't want to stir things up, but you want to stay true to yourself and not give in to agreeing with a position that you don't agree with. The non-committal approach is probably the best one just now, but eventually you're going to be pressed for an answer. These three incidents have just been near misses.
Don't worry about it. The break is going to come at some point. You should be the one who dictates when and where the break should happen, and be 'anonymous' no more.

 
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