Tag Archives: christianity

Did I actually lose my faith?

Abandoned_Church_15

Abandoned church in Italy. Photography by Roman Robroek from a series on abandoned houses of worship in Europe. Used with permission.

It’s now more than twenty years since I left Christianity and became an atheist. There was no Damascene conversion; like many people I drifted away rather than having a sudden insight. A series of events and discoveries led me to finally break from the church, although it took moving country to finally sever the social bonds and expectations that had kept me involved long after I would otherwise have left.

It’s been a long psychological journey from growing up as a creationist in a church of Biblical literalists (not the extreme Young Earth kind, but close enough) to becoming a professional academic biologist who teaches evolution. In that time I’ve established a career, worked all over the world, started a family, lost some friends and gained many more. All the turbulence that makes up a fairly normal life. Neither the good times nor the bad have led me to reconsider my position on religion.

The last two decades were also a period during which the tension between science and religion broke into mainstream discourse. A number of prominent atheists derided what they saw as unreason; none of the arguments were new but their vehemence and prominence were unusual. Of the main figures, the most persuasive was Christopher Hitchens, a man by all accounts possessed of magnetic charisma, compelling in debate and uncompromising in his writings. Other notable contributions were Dawkins’ The God Delusion and PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, for a while the most-read science blog on the internet. None of them influenced my decision because I had already become a convinced atheist before I encountered any of them.

Times have changed as the main protagonists have died, become caricatures of themselves, or merely declined in profile. It would be nice to think that people grew tired of hearing angry old white men argue with each other. They certainly didn’t succeed in making religion disappear and were likely a symptom of declining religious belief rather than its cause. While tempers on the subject have cooled, at the same time I have matured and become more reflective, and it’s now possible to look back on this period with a degree of detachment.

One of the ways in which leaving religion is described is as ‘losing your faith’. This is worth interrogating a little further. The Apostle Paul gives the following definition of faith, the only explicit one to be found in the Christian Bible:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.*

The basic point is that faith means believing in something despite not having complete or direct evidence for doing so. This seems as good a definition as any to me; I don’t know whether other religions have similar ones in their sacred texts. Put simply, you don’t need faith if you have incontrovertible evidence.

Much of the modern rationalist case against faith in general, and the Christian religion in particular, can be traced back to this verse. It is a prima facie example of how religious belief requires the absence of evidence, in contrast to scientific rationalism, which only allows for belief in things which can be directly proven. Religious truths are obtained through divine revelation, and are hence diverse, whereas scientific truths are produced via rigorous enquiry, which means that eventually they should hone in on a single answer.

The strongest proponents of scientific rationalism declare it to be impossible to be a true scientist whilst also holding a spiritual belief. This is clearly not the case; many scientists worldwide are religious. I know a good number and think no less of them. Whether the two positions are intellectually incompatible is not something I want to get into here, although I will note that we all manage to sustain contradictory viewpoints on many things. It has been claimed that biologists are less religious than other branches of science, but the evidence for this is inconsistent, and may to some extent reveal social norms within fields rather than any link with the subject material or mode of enquiry.

Regardless of whether I might describe myself as not having a faith, I expend a lot of my time believing fervently in things for which I have no direct evidence, at least not yet. What is ‘confidence in what we hope for‘ if not the anticipated outputs section of a grant proposal? Past evidence of over-ambition has not changed my approach to these.

As for ‘assurance about what we do not see‘, there’s more to this than believing the results of papers which we can neither replicate nor access the underlying data or code. Even were we able to do so, we usually lack time and resources to check. Instead we invest our trust in institutions (journals) or authority figures (other researchers) whose work we often accept without direct scrutiny. Given that we can’t check everything, we place confidence in the peer review system to rigorously inspect claims, despite personal experience of its occasional flaws. The difference between something I could check, at least in principle, and something I will accept without further question, is semantic insofar as how I respond is unchanged in practice. Such intellectual shortcuts are standard for everyone.

Moreover, our field (like most in science) is littered with fundamental theorems which work in closed or simplified systems but come unstuck when faced with the complexities of the real world. This doesn’t mean that they’re incorrect, but rather that uncovering the evidence for them is harder than we assume. If you’re an ecologist then perhaps ask yourself how often you’ve thought to directly test the logistic model of population growth, equilibrium model of island biogeography, Tilman’s R* or any number of theories which for many of us form the cornerstones of our understanding. If you have then my guess is that it didn’t go as smoothly as you hoped.** For the most part our evidence base derives from a surprisingly small set of case studies. Other theories for which the jury remains out (e.g. Metabolic Theory of Ecology) have advocates who by very definition are basing their belief on incomplete evidence given that other critical observers remain unconvinced.*** Is believing something because logically you feel it must be true that much better than accepting something without direct evidence?

A few weeks ago I stood on a seashore and stared at a rock covered in barnacles. The patterning was inconsistent with a model of their organisation which I’d published a few years ago. What went on in my mind was not a collapse in confidence but rather a reconsideration of what other processes or factors I might have been missing. I looked at that rock still believing in some version of the model even while the evidence in front of me so obviously disagreed. If I continue to work on this system then I remain certain that the model can be recovered, and have a few ideas of how to go about it. What is this if not a form of faith?

All this comes round to a recognition that perhaps I didn’t lose my faith; I simply realigned it by investing in a different set of principles and authorities. God disappeared from my worldview but maths and the scientific method took over. I may believe that my work is in pursuit of truth and serving a higher purpose****, but this this any different to those who follow a spiritual calling? In the last twenty years I have certainly changed but perhaps not as much as I thought.


* Hebrews 11:1 in the New International Version. The remainder of the chapter goes on to give historical examples of faith in practice.

** In writing this I am in no way questioning whether any of these fundamental theories is correct. Well, maybe the equilibrium model.

*** For the record, my take on metabolic theory is that it must be correct on some level but perhaps we haven’t been able to characterise natural systems in the appropriate way. I’m planning to have a chapter on this in the next edition of my textbook (don’t start getting excited just yet).

**** If you agree with me that understanding trees and barnacles represents a higher purpose then we really should be friends.


CODA: having swum in these waters before I know that taking a conciliatory line on religion and science is likely to see me being savaged by both sides. So let me be absolutely clear about my own position before anyone assails their favourite straw man. I am a scientist, humanist and atheist. I am convinced that the scientific process, whilst sometimes flawed and inefficient, remains the best means of deriving facts about the world. I hold no spiritual beliefs of my own but respect those who choose to and do not question their personal reasons. In response to this post I welcome constructive discussion that aims to increase mutual understanding but will not allow any comments which do not meet this standard, regardless of the viewpoint they seek to advance.

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Confessions of a former creationist

planet-apes

Still from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).

I used to be a creationist. I have no qualms about admitting this now, despite being an established academic ecologist. I teach evolution at university, have written a textbook in which evolution is simply an accepted fact, and have donated to campaigns to teach evolution to schoolchildren. I’m not ashamed of my past, partly because there’s no point, but mostly because I still remember how creationism fit into a wider pattern of beliefs and attitudes that I once held. Evolution is scientifically, factually, demonstrably true. But at the time, for me, divine creation was The Truth.

This post is an attempt to explain how my background allows me to remain sympathetic towards creationists, and to help others from more secular or scientific backgrounds to understand how a creationist worldview can persist despite such overwhelming and widely-available evidence to the contrary.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church. Which one is immaterial — there are many similar religious groups across the world, and they are not exclusive to Christianity. What they share is a collective desire to inculcate the children of their members in a specific set of beliefs. Mine was regressive in many ways; women had to wear hats in the church and were excluded from any formal roles. It has taken many years to realise how these features of my upbringing, which I accepted as normal practice, shaped attitudes in my later life that I have fought hard to correct. Perhaps this can be a subject for a future post. But one clear message, delivered from lay preachers at the pulpit, from Sunday School teachers, from the in-house literature laid out for our edification, was that evolution was a lie.*

The vehemence with which evolution was rejected was derived from a foundational belief in absolute Biblical truth. This didn’t quite go so far as a strictly literal interpretation: not all members of the church thought that creation took place in six days, and the extreme positions of Young Earth creationism were rarely advanced. But the Genesis account contained several features that were inconsistent with evolutionary theory, particularly in the order of appearance of different life-forms, or the idea that all species were created simultaneously. Most importantly, it conflicted with the separate creation of Adam as the first human, and of Eve as being formed from his flesh.** From an early age it was drilled into me that the Bible was the first authority, and evidence that did not fit was inherently suspect.

I recall being startled that so many people were willing to swallow the lie that was evolution. This genuinely perplexed me; what was in it for them? I don’t recall any cognitive dissonance over the overwhelming evidence in favour of evolution, mainly because I didn’t hear it, or look for it, and most likely would have ignored it anyway. One evening that has lived long in my memory was when our church held a ‘debate’ about evolution. In the absence of anyone willing to make a case for evolution, my father and I were enlisted to act as Devil’s advocates. That we were entirely unable to muster a coherent argument illustrates the depth of our ignorance at the time.***

Another feature of our church, and indeed of many non-conformist sects, was a confrontational approach to debate. We were trained in this, even taught to expect it when defending our beliefs. Differences of opinion within in the church were usually resolved by the open setting out of arguments and persuasion, rather than by respectful listening and thoughtful contemplation. In argument I am a belligerent opponent, not averse to deploying a battery of dirty rhetorical tricks to sway an audience. On the other hand, once persuaded of a case, I can be a strident ally. I know full well that this is not one of my most endearing personality traits.

What this meant was that the concept of being set against the world and its lies was impressed upon us at an early age. It was almost a heroic mission. At school as a late teenager I thought nothing of confronting my teacher when evolution was considered, turning one particular class into a fractious dispute. Who knows what the rest of the class thought; they were kind enough not to tell me.**** To my teenage mind, I was simply standing up for my beliefs, and being a lone voice only increased the responsibility I felt to hold my ground.

At the time the school syllabus in the UK contained very little evolution; it may be central to biology but the majority of the content was narrowly factual. It was entirely possible to get through school with straight-As in science while denying evolution entirely. I know because I did. Right up until I arrived at the University of Cambridge to study a degree in Natural Sciences. I reached the pinnacle of academic achievement within the UK educational system, and walked into the gates of Trinity College at the age of 18 still an ardent creationist.

My Damascene conversion came quickly, but it was not caused by losing an argument with a more experienced opponent, hearing a case against creationism, or even for that matter encountering one in favour of evolution. It came as I was exposed to a semester of lectures and laboratory practicals on invertebrate anatomy and physiology by Richard Barnes (our textbook was the magnificent Barnes et al.). He methodically outlined the structures of organisms, their development and the linkages among them. I don’t recall him ever even mentioning that this was magnificent evidence for evolution over creationism. He didn’t need to: it was obvious.

Halfway through the semester I got into another argument, only this time the tables had turned. In the church I was attending in Cambridge, I tackled a speaker on the subject of evolution, armed with only a few weeks of first-year undergraduate knowledge. I was a lone voice. This did not dissuade me. Looking back what is most striking is that, within 12 months, I had entirely switched corners, but was still quite willing to take on the whole room against established authority. Plus ca change…

That argument was particularly vitriolic, and led to me leaving the congregation. For some time afterwards, members of the church would track me down to explain the errors of my ways, but I never went back. It started a three-year journey that led, eventually, to my leaving religion altogether and becoming a firm atheist. It is a position I have held, against the views of most of my family and childhood friends, for nearly 20 years. I believe in humanism now as strongly as I ever believed in Christianity, and I will stand toe-to-toe with anyone on the topic. But my arguments are more securely formed for having the experience of once taken the other side and been entirely committed to it. I have fought with myself and, while one side won, I can still hear the other.

Here is where I think many fellow scientists, sceptics and rationalists can learn a trick, because there are many who simply find the creationist perspective as incomprehensible as I once found theirs. If you were raised in a secular household then you may never have met the arguments raised against evolution, and treat those who hold them as ignorant dinosaurs. If your knowledge of evolution is based solely on the high-school syllabus and received truth from scientific authority figures then, quite frankly, you’re not fully equipped to enter a debate on the subject with a well-prepared adversary.

To conclude, here are some lessons from my experience which may help in thinking about tackling entrenched, anti-scientific attitudes such as creationism.

Don’t bother getting into an argument with a committed creationist. Someone who holds creationist views based on their religion will not back down, even when outnumbered and in a corner. They have been trained to expect this. Ridicule, exasperation and insult are never effective tactics for persuasion, but actually the debate in itself usually won’t be sufficient either (for your opponent at least, although you can still win over an audience). A calm presentation of evidence is usually more effective. It is unlikely that they have ever been exposed to the facts supporting your case. Suggest to them that, in order to better understand what they’re objecting to, they should read one of the many introductions to evolutionary biology, then invite them to come back and discuss it at a later date. Out of politeness you might agree to do the same (and you can probably guess which it will be).

If you teach biology in Higher Education then you have creationist students. This is a simple statement of fact. In my twelve years of teaching at the University of Nottingham I’ve known of several; many more have no doubt kept their heads down. Insulting creationists for cheap laughs in lectures is unlikely to do anything to persuade them (sadly I haven’t been above this myself); more likely they will stop coming to your lectures. I would advocate not even mentioning creationism at all. Let evolution permeate your teaching, and eventually it will filter through to any thoughtful student.

Most of all, don’t look down on creationists. They are not ignorant, nor stupid, although they may be misinformed (wilfully or otherwise). They are often highly intelligent people whose opinions are internally consistent, and whose arguments are coherent, but derived from a different set of authorities to your own. Evolution is often rejected because it is perceived as a challenge to this framework, even if not a fundamental element. You will achieve more by finding ways to make evolution fit within their existing mindset than attempting to bring the whole structure down.***** Realising that evolution is true is revelatory and inspiring, but to accept this, your listener has to be convinced that it isn’t a threat. Otherwise you will only encounter an aggressive defence.

 


* One visiting speaker to our youth group made the case that dinosaur bones had been placed in the earth to give a 6000-year-old Earth an illusion of history; in other words, God had placed them there to test and deceive us. He got short shrift from many of us, but the point is that he was invited in the first place. It’s an old lie, but somewhere in your local town, I’m prepared to bet that children are still hearing it to this day.

** It is ironic that misrepresentations of scientific evidence, such as ‘mitochondrial Eve’ or ‘Adam’s Y chromosome’, have in recent years become an established part of attempts to defend the biblical account. Creationists are not averse to adopting the language of science when it fits their overall narrative.

*** To his credit, and partly as a result of taking an interest in both science in general and what his children do do, my father has since changed his mind.

**** A factor in this was that there were two biology teachers at our school, and one of them was a creationist. During my final few years he was away for long periods, but he had a continuing influence on me. On the one hand, I can genuinely thank him for inspiring me to study biology. Nevertheless, even in his absence, he gave me confidence that there was a scientific case for creationism.

***** There are of course many religious scientists who have no problem with evolutionary theory. I have several colleagues who are committed Christians, and suffer no cognitive dissonance as a result, despite the assumption by many hardline sceptics that they should. In this I would only note that we all hold internally contradictory positions on a range of topics; perhaps your weak spot is in politics or educational theory. I’m sure that I have plenty.