Tag Archives: personal

Did I actually lose my faith?

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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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A lie about my childhood

 

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I would like you to believe that this is how I spent my entire childhood. It would be a lie, of course, but climbing trees was not uncharacteristic behaviour.

Anyone involved in admissions or graduate recruitment in ecology will be familiar with the stereotypical opening of the personal statement:

“When I was a child, I loved to play outside in nature. I watched the birds and the insects and the flowers and I knew that I wanted to spend my life studying them.”

Something along these lines opens the majority of the applications I read each year. Perhaps for some it’s actually true, though I suspect that most are teleological. Either the author is trying to convince me, or has already convinced themselves, that the whole direction of their life has been moving steadily and inexorably towards ecological research from their very first awakenings of consciousness.* Who am I, hard-hearted cynic, to stand in the way of manifest destiny?

Why am I so sceptical? I too am passionate about nature. I genuinely love being outdoors, collecting data, or simply observing natural systems and trying to figure out how they work. I grew up in the countryside and was most at peace when taking my dog for long walks through the fields and woodland or climbing trees. This bucolic upbringing is bound to have had a lasting influence on my chosen direction in life.

And yet… the evidence for a similar effect isn’t there from anyone else in the village, other than those who have continued on the family farm, for whom options were more limited. My siblings and friends from childhood include a doctor, dinner lady, teacher, policeman… none of whom are remotely associated with nature. There is one other academic, my older brother, who actually works on wood, or more strictly cellulose. That said, he’s a materials scientist and predominantly investigates its structural properties in the lab. He might enjoy long walks but he’s not an ecologist.**

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Another typical shot of my childhood. Note favourite dog just out of shot.

There are other anecdotes I could pull together to tell a partial story. We did tie old wellies to a rope and throw them in a pond to try and catch newts. That probably happened a handful of times and I don’t recall ever reeling in anything but mud. I remember my father encouraging me to help in the vegetable garden, and the excitement at eating my first crop of radishes. They were to be my only harvest, and any further assistance was through compulsion. It may be true that I once took myself off into the woods in Germany, disappearing for a whole day to the great consternation of my parents, then casually strolling back into town at dusk as the search parties were being assembled. I wasn’t lost in the embrace of nature; I just wanted to get away from the family for a bit.

I could tell a different story, of the boy who came home from school every evening and promptly ran upstairs to play Sensible Soccer on his Amiga until his hands developed callouses. The child who lagged behind on family walks bleating about the imposition.*** A bookworm, happier sat indoors reading science fiction than out in the sunshine. All these would be equally accurate, if similarly selective.

At no point was I ever a spotter or a collector, two traits that I frequently hear colleagues assert are key indicators of those with a great future in ecology. My plant taxonomy is entirely self-taught but was developed late and only in order to allow me to do fieldwork. It would be a lie to claim that I spent sunny afternoons as a child learning flowers. I do collect — mainly West African music and obscure European electronica. The boxes of entomological specimens I brought back from Borneo have languished in my office for over a decade, unidentified, and I retain them more through guilt than any abiding intention of rectifying this.

To this day I still have a profound disinterest in many aspects of the natural world. Quite honestly, I don’t care about birds. I couldn’t identify any British bird by song and the few I know by sight are only the most common. The idea of birdwatching as a leisure pursuit is anathema to me. Give me a glass of wine and a book any day.

There is at least one thing I recall from childhood that links directly to my current career, and where the narrative thread is not stretched to breaking point. I always — always — wanted to travel. My parents were well known for welcoming people from all over the world into their home. Their hospitality knew no bounds and I was lucky enough to be exposed to visitors from all manner of cultures and backgrounds. The superficial details are forgotten, and probably left little impression, but the undercurrent was an awareness of a wider and exotic world out there that I needed to see.

It was for that reason that I was so keen, while an undergraduate, to take part in an expedition to Kamchatka. It was there that I first realised that forest ecology was the path for me. Since then, and probably missing a few, I’ve worked in China, Malaysia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Russia, Australia, Uganda and all over Europe. I’ve made friends across the globe, eaten strange foods, drunk peculiar alcoholic beverages and danced awkwardly to mesmerising beats. I can sing songs in languages that I don’t even understand. I lost my religion and replaced it with a ever-widening appreciation of the breadth of human culture. And yes, I’ve seen some of the most incredible wild places on the planet, and returned with beautiful data.

Ecology was an excuse to travel, and the travel remains one of the great blessings of my job. It’s not the reason I do it — unravelling the mysteries of forest growth has long since taken over as my main obsession. Nevertheless, I’m fortunate enough to be writing this from a research station in Portugal where I’m teaching an undergraduate field course. Tonight I will drink local wine and plan the next adventure. It’s Mexico this summer, and I have an awesome collaborator in Ghana who really wants me to visit…

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This is the Quinta de Sao Pedro, just outside Lisbon, Portugal. If you’re looking for a location to run a field course then I can’t recommend it highly enough.


* Other ecologists have written about how the path into their current obsession was not a straight line, and involved large elements of chance and coincidence. Childhood experience may have played a part, but not the defining one.

** He did once cite me, although mostly for humorous reasons, and not entirely positively.

*** Like any child, I had phases. There were periods when I would run ahead, dashing round before collapsing in a heap exhausted. But to emphasise those while ignoring my awkward patches would create a false narrative.

The most important day of my scientific career

You might imagine that the most important day in my career would be linked to a significant achievement. Perhaps my PhD viva, or my first paper being accepted, or when I was offered a permanent academic job. It could be the day on which I had a Eureka! moment of discovery*. It’s none of these. Actually it took place when I was an undergraduate, only 20 years old, entirely alone and a long way from home. No data were collected. I spoke to no-one. And yet I can trace my whole academic trajectory from that day.

The location was Kamchatka, a volcanic peninsula that protrudes from the far eastern edge of Russia. It’s 12 time zones from the UK, and even nine from Moscow. This is the wild east. I was there as part of a University of Cambridge expedition to visit the newly-created Bystrinsky Nature Park, which had been designated part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka World Heritage Site. The region had only recently been opened to foreign visitors; a few years previously it was closed even to Russian tourists. There had been almost no work published in the international scientific literature since the great botanist Eric Hultén‘s Flora of Kamchatka, completed in 1930. It had nevertheless fascinated scientists, anthropologists and explorers since at least the pioneering expeditions of Krashenninikov (1711–1755). We were treading in noble footsteps.

The main difference was that we were idiots. That doesn’t mean that we were stupid; more that we were young, naive and nowhere near as well-prepared as we thought we were. I’m still very relaxed about sending undergraduates off to far-flung parts of the world in much the same state because it was such a formative experience. We learnt more through throwing ourselves into it than any lecture could have taught us. So long as you’ve made reasonable plans and thought about safety, go for it.

At the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

Younger and with much longer hair, at the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

As the flight landed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the only notable town and regional capital, a full moon was bathing low clouds with an ethereal glow, punctured by the immaculate conical peaks of the volcanoes. I distinctly remember watching this mystical landscape beneath us and thinking — before I had even set foot in it — I must find a way to come here again.

Our chosen project was to examine the spatial patterns of the local forests. I’d read that they were a mix of birch and larch, which I was assured by the legendary Peter Grubb was impossible, since both species are highly light-demanding and unable to recruit beneath a canopy. It turned out that they were exactly as Hultén had described (which is documented in a later paper). Sadly we never published our findings; they were used for our undergraduate final-year projects then shelved as we moved on to other things. I have since returned, however, and am still following up on those first hazy impressions.

Enough of the background, what of the most important day? We had been surveying a forest of stone birch (Betula ermanii) a few kilometres east of the village of Esso. Stone birch is unlike any European birch — the wood is incredibly tough and the trees have a gnarled, low-branching form as a result of heavy snowfall in the long, cold winters, which gives them an interesting architecture. If anyone ever asks for my favourite tree, or favourite forest, then I can wax lyrical about them, but for now I’ll save that for another post.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the Uxychan valley, west of Esso, Kamchatka.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the upper slopes of the Bystrya valley, south of Esso, Kamchatka.

Our small team had finished work in the area and decided to head back to the village for a clean-up, change of clothes, hot meal and indoor bed. I wasn’t quite ready yet though, and opted to remain behind alone. Earlier in the trip we had attempted to climb the small mountain to the east but turned back in poor weather. I was determined not to be defeated and wanted a second shot.

It was that night that I had my epiphany. Alone in the forest, sat by a roaring fire and surrounded by nothing but trees, I realised that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I sat and wrote a letter to a friend **, drank the remainder of the vodka and watched a curious mink dance through the branches above me in the flickering light ***. Nothing much happened. I sang a few songs to keep myself company (and the bears away), went to bed and passed an uneventful night. There is no doubt in my mind though — that was the crucial moment to which I can trace back my passion to work in, describe and understand the architecture of forests. It’s what I’ve devoted my life to ever since.

The next day, almost incidentally, my strike at the summit was successful. I climbed back down, collected the tent, and walked back to the village to rejoin the team around nightfall. I revisited the same peak in 2008 on another expedition. Being especially eager to see it again, I reached the summit long before the students and other scientists. This was fortunate because I promptly burst into tears. That wasn’t the only time I cried with emotion on that expedition; the second time was a few month later, on what was the best day in my scientific life so far, almost exactly ten years after that solitary night in the woods. But that’s a story for another time.


* I’m still waiting for one of those. Or at least one that doesn’t, a few days down the line, turn out to have been completely misguided.

** An interesting side-story in itself. She was at the time on another expedition in New Caledonia. Not only did she eventually receive my letter, she replied, and I received it — perhaps the only time that letters have been exchanged between Kamchatka and New Caledonia. This was of course long before the days of global internet and constant e-mail access. She is now a well-known conservation biologist in her own right and has probably forgotten our correspondence.

*** Mink were introduced to the peninsula centuries ago by fur-trappers and were once one of its most important exports. They are now fully naturalised, and with so little hunting taking place, they have almost no fear of humans.