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 (https://leakeyfoundation.org/celebrating-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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A beautiful day in the neighborhood


Our local mountains, Carolin Frank, photographer

It might very well be the most beautiful day of the year. After four days of serious rain in Central California’s foothills, the air had a fresh, earthy smell, nothing like the heavy scent in late summer that is all too often tinged with smoke. The sky was that sort of blue that transcends “sky blue”. With puffy, white cumulous clouds, that blue produced a calming feeling as I stared straight upwards. A red-tailed hawk with either a gopher or mouse in its talons gave its cry reserved for when it wanted to tell the world, “I’m happy! I’ve got some food!” Anna’s Hummingbirds, in the midst of the breeding season, were dive-bombing through the air as part of their courtship dance--making a shrill whistling report.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes in the warm sunshine, letting the beauty of the day flow over me. Green is taking over as the color that can heal the real struggle that grips the world. A lone California poppy had unleashed its first orange flower. Popcorn flowers carpet the area where we held our wedding renewal ceremony back on a cold day in November. The earth, in spite of everything, was regenerating.

At noon today, I met online with the eight students in my freshmen seminar class. Together we’re reading the book “Drawdown” by Paul Hawken, with 100 essays on how to reverse global warming. I thought I’d given up teaching, but since all classes are now taught remotely, I’ve had a chance to step in and help out. I’m glad I did. These students, many of who are environmental science majors, are well spoken, engaged, and can write decent short essays. I’ve taught freshmen seminars five times in the past. This class is the best and a breath of “fresh air”.
Explosion of poppies, Carolin Frank

To start the class, we do a “check in” to see what people are thinking about, how their classes are going, and how they’re dealing with isolation, something foreign to college freshmen. We were brought to the reality of our time when one student revealed that her mother had just been diagnosed with COVID-19 and that she had to care for her. While I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask her, I had to hold my tongue, tell her I was sorry to hear this, and offer what help I could.

Sunday was my mother’s 93 birthday. Three years ago, I have a photo of her dressed in a beautiful outfit standing next to a flower arrangement sent to her by her senior “boyfriend”. She’s got on a big smile and looked like a million bucks. The years have taken their toll. She cried when I called this year, had trouble remembering who I was (Your Older Daughter), and asked me why no one could get together. I lamely reminded her that she’d made a special trip just a few months ago to California for our ceremony. I couldn’t tell whether it sunk in or not.

The next day, all hell broke loose and she lost control when her caregiver came in the early morning. No longer able to recognize who is “good” and who is not, she panicked. After a flurry of anger, calls to 911, she dropped into a fitful sleep. My worried brother and his wife have born the brunt of taking nightly phone calls about their mother. In a normal time, they’d have taken her to lunch, she would have seen her grandchildren, and perhaps kept things together.

Because of COVID-19, her primary care physician was no longer seeing patients. He suspected “something” had happened—maybe another small stoke, but who in their right mind would want to go to a hospital emergency room at a time like this to confirm this? It's a very weird time, frustrating to say the least. We’re hoping that she’ll be able to move into a memory care facility ASAP. What a way to end your life—going from the party girl to the crazy lady.
Bush Luppins, Sierra Foothills, C. Frank, 2020

Earlier this morning, Joni, the woman who is helping out with my health care needs, came with her facemask guarding us from any outside germs. We’d cancelled her visits here for the past two weeks, but all three of us—Joni, Chris and I—were anxious to get her help again. I stayed away well out of reach, while Joni folded laundry, swept the floors, and spiffed up the kitchen. We talked from across the room about the other two ladies she helps care for and the situation at hand. As of today, only 67 people in Mariposa County, where we’re living, have been tested for the virus—all of them negative. But we’re not letting our guard down. It’s in the Central Valley all around us. It’s a matter of time.

That fresh air, the wildflowers, the sound of rain falling softly on our windows the past few days has helped to instill some sense of normalcy. Chris wondered aloud as he scanned the nearby blue oak tree for signs of the female hummingbird coming to its nest, if 2020 would be the year everything would change. What would the world be like as the months advance?
Only Chris Swarth could fine a golf-ball sized humming bird nest. Center--bill of baby sticking up!

I tried to put off thinking about it and watch the clouds sweeping westward toward the horizon, noticing the absence of jet contrails in the sky. A small plane, then a turkey vulture swept over. I embraced the good feeling from that clear sky.

Winter in the "Olden Days"

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