Friday, April 10, 2020

Science and Religion

Pastor Larry and Secretary Sue Schmidt, 2012

From the age of 6 until I reached 16, I was a practicing Lutheran, first in training in Sunday school and confirmation classes, then as a full member of the church at 14. Around 16 years of age—that time of teenage rebellion--I quit the church and organized religion in a tussle with senior members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Moorestown NJ. Since 4th grade when I was given my first Bible, I read it every day, marking my readings with notes. The nickels and quarters I earned from doing household chores went into the collection plate on Sunday. What drove me away was not a sudden disbelief in Jesus and God, but the surprise that Christians weren’t the people that I thought they should be if they followed Jesus’ teaching. I was a naïve youngster.

For the next decade I began and completed my training as a scientist learning the ropes in college, grad school, then as a postdoc at the Geophysical Lab of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. I forgot about Jesus, religion, God, and did not attend church services with the exception of my grandfathers’ funerals. I was learning about the origin of the universe, evolution, the origin of life, and the beauty of biochemistry.

The Bible was no longer relevant. As the years passed, I harbored a grudge against the Lutheran church. I was angry with them. When my sister was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes about that time, my father gave up on God because he couldn’t understand why a God who loved the world would inflict such a disease on his pretty 12-year old daughter. The only religious person left in our family was my mother.

As I grew more self-aware about the science I was involved in, it became apparent that a significant bunch of Americans believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible as it pertains to the origins of almost everything. Lutherans believe in a liberal interpretation of the Bible, so it never troubled me about the 6 days that God created everything. The story is allegorical to me—a story, not real fact. And the idea of Adam and Eve as real people never entered my mind as anything remotely real. I mean who would have recorded their story?

At the Geophysical Lab, folks were nearly apolitical back in the 1970s and 1980s. They were also largely neutral about religion. One of my colleagues, Ed Hare, however was a standout (see the blog link below). He was the son of early leaders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I learned years after I’d first met him that he was specifically trained as a scientist in order to prove the Earth was just 5,443 years old, not the millions or billions scientists had figured out. His research on a novel dating method (i.e. amino acid racemization) showed that human remains in North America were at least 10,000 years old. Shells found in sedimentary rocks in California’s beach terraces were millions of years old. The Church was disappointed in his findings at first, then gradually accepted them. There was no way the Bible could be seen as a literal translation of how the Universe had started and evolved.

When I became a leader in the Astrobiology movement in 2005, we held a session at our annual meeting on Creationism that was led by Connie Bertka, a Mars scientist I’d worked with at the Geophysical Lab, who had become an ordained minister in her spare time. Pan Conrad, another astrobiology colleague and one of the Babes of Science, followed in this path nearly 15 years later. Neither one lectured me about drinking alcohol, swearing, dancing, or eating meat on Fridays. They just felt a strong connection to God, then Jesus, and allowed this to send them in a direction towards religion. Did I suspect they were no longer scientists? I did not.
Pan Conrad, now a minister, and Steelie

The uproar of teaching evolution in public schools surprised me. Even my own sister questioned the concept of evolution. How had our educational system failed to teach students that science and religion need not conflict with one another? I suspect it had to do with teachers who were not convinced or had not enough knowledge about science’s more complicated subjects. I was fortunate to have teachers in junior high and high school who broadened my horizons.

In 9th grade at the age of 14, my world cultures teacher took our class into Philadelphia to hear Professor Louis S. B. Leakey ( lecture on his findings of early man in Africa. It was my first academic lecture and one I remember 50 some years later. Modern humans have been around for more than 50,000 years. Their ancestors lived several million years before evolving into the people we are today. In 10th grade, my world history teacher taught us about all of the world’s major religions. It was eye opening to learn that one of the 10 Commandments about only one God wasn’t part of most people’s religion. Were these people right about who God is? Or were they dead wrong?

By my forties, I realized that God was a very personal choice. I still had no feeling that God existed, but I accepted anyone else’s choice. I was able to tolerate attending church services to please my mother. A few years earlier when my kids were born, their grandparents asked if the children would be baptized. Chris and I said, “No.” Baptism means parents promise to rear their kids as Christians, something I was not prepared to do. Things changed when I met Larry Schmidt, the husband of our Lab’s secretary Sue Schmidt. Larry was the pastor of a neighborhood Lutheran church. He and I worked together holding memorial services for Tom Hoering and other Lab people who passed away without a formal church affiliation.

I attended Christmas Eve services in his church after wrapping up presents for the kids from “Santa”. On occasion, I felt the need to listen to something other than a scientific seminar. He’d see me in the pew and greet me after the service. One day, he called and asked if I wanted to re-join the Lutheran church. I hesitated. But I gave it a shot attending classes for about a month for adults re-engaging in religion. I decided, at the end, to decline to join any religious organization. I was left with a new understanding of the concept of Grace and the importance of Forgiveness, something that Jesus and a loving God favored.

There was nothing in these classes that conflicted with my calling as a scientist. Larry and I continued to collaborate with Lab memorials. When Chris’s dad suffered his second Code Blue and we knew the end was near, I called Larry. He came down to the hospital and we prayed. I was old enough to know that praying wasn’t the simple thing I did as a 10 year old asking God to bless me before bed. Chris’s dad died the next morning. Larry came to our house when Chris’s sisters flew in to see him. I allowed myself to let Grace overflow.

Today, we have religious wars in the Middle East. At home, we have political wars with evangelical Christians taking strong stances against non-religious things I am in favor of. Together with a President who has their support and a distain for science, the conflict between religion and science has come to the forefront especially as the COVID-19 virus pandemic proceeds. The disrespect angers me and brings back those teenage year feelings that although Christianity may not be the problem, Christians could be.

For some reason, religion is linked to how people view climate change. I fail to understand how Jesus and God are confused with changes in our Earth’s environment. This isn’t a blanket response of all religions, of course.  In fact, Pope Francis has been a beacon in the religious community for his understanding of the problem facing the world and mankind. His book “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home” is a standout.
I used it as a textbook for a class I taught at UC Merced on Sustainability and the Anthropocene—the geological era in which humans have put their stamp on the world. I recommend it to anyone. I don’t believe in the most of the tenants of the Catholic faith, but the humanist elements of this book are strong.
Laudato si means Praise be to you!

Some people have noted that I’m more spiritual these days, as I deal with the serious neurological disease ALS. I’ve got to turn to faith in people, inner strength, and hope that there is a greater purpose in life. It’s not religion, but it is faith. If I do pray for those in my life who need it—my mother, my children and family, anyone who is suffering—I’m praying to hope that what ever their belief system, they will be given peace and understanding.

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