Science and Religion – A Coming Out Story

“One social scientist interviewed, called “Joel,” said “in a discouraged tone that “the main battle you find in academia is simply getting people to take [religious questions like] the question of whether there might be a God or not, seriously.”

I am a devoted religious-scientist.

I’m not religious in the formal sense of the word – I don’t adhere to a particular denomination and I don’t value external religious experience over the internal construct of the heart/mind/soul/spirit/whatever (which, despite thought-provoking attempts to convince me otherwise, I still believe exists. If you want my reasons for that, let’s talk one-on-one).

But I am a devoted Christian – I believe in the centrality and necessity of Jesus Christ, I believe in original sin and the need for God’s grace. I believe in listening to what God says, taking it seriously, and working out my faith with “fear and trembling.” I trust that He is an active, present, working authority figure in my life. That He is the supreme form of truth, and the only means of salvation. In the eyes of the world, that makes me religious. Possibly even dogmatic.

On the other hand, I am a scientist. I love and appreciate the contribution of scientific findings, even inaccurate ones, to our understanding of human beings, human nature, and the human condition.  I think that empirical study is the coolest thing since the invention of the wheel, and I believe that stats are creative and fun. I love investigations of the natural world from a rational, objective viewpoint (although no science, in truth, is ever objective) and I value peer-reviewed publications, rigorously tested  theories, and comprehensive knowledge.

Seem like a contradiction? You wouldn’t be the first to think that.

Now, this post is not meant to add to the thunderously roaring debate of “Science vs. Religion.” It is not because I am scared of such a debate, but because I do not always believe that he who can shout the loudest on the internet is right. The post is simply meant to explain myself to those who would think me a mismatch of inconsistent values, and to encourage those who feel the same conflict to conform to one principle or the other. Thus, this post is, in a way, a “coming out” experience in an extreme culture that purports to value separation between “religious stuff” and “sciencey things” but no idea what to do with someone who sees the value of both.

This cultural tension is especially relevant to me as a social scientist, because the constructs I study are supposed to tell me something about how human beings work. In chemistry or biology (the “natural sciences” as it were), it is possible to largely ignore the presence of religious thought or dismiss it from the conversation entirely because religious belief only has indirect relevance. But the social sciences demand that the lines between these two ideas must often (and quite naturally) blur themselves – both psychological and religious values apply to and influence how people live their lives. It cannot be truly ignored. The question becomes, then, how do I (how can I) navigate both worlds?

First of all, I know I am not alone. One particular study by Elaine Eckland estimates that nearly 50% of scientists in top American research universities do hold a religious belief system of some sort,  which is similar to numbers that I’ve heard echoed in other places. This knowledge that I’m not alone in my ideas is encouraging, if not downright helpful. It reminds me that it’s good to be where I am, and that I don’t have to work in a Bible camp to be a good Christian, nor do I have to embrace a mechanistic worldview in order to be a good scientist. People who believe in some sort of higher power consistently do excellent scientific work, and that alone provides some sort of prima facie justification for my dual roles.

Second, I believe that science and religion are not necessarily, or even remotely, contradictory. I won’t get into my empirical justification for that here (perhaps that will be another post), but I will say that I’ve interacted with many scientists who let suspicion and misunderstanding guide their interactions with “the opposing side.” What I mean by that is this: Scientists, willfully or no, misunderstand religious thought. They attribute a belief in God to a “magic” superstition that comes from a delusional need for control and order in the external world (in fact, this attitude persists even in the face of interactions with intellectually capable religious people, which I find rather disturbing). All they see are the rules and regulations within religion, and they cannot look past those to understand the religious philosophy.

In reality, many religious people (I can especially speak about Christians, since that is the belief group I’ve had the most interaction with), have thoroughly examined and thought about their beliefs, the existence of God, and their compatibility with current scientific thought. We have legitimate reasons for believing what we believe – that God created a natural world in which there are rules and can sometimes intervene to break those rules. If science as a discipline would allow dialogue between religious scientists and unbelievers, instead of being openly hostile to or hushing religious belief, it could benefit from a true understanding of the nature of religious thought.

If a dialogue were to happen, unbelieving scientists may be surprised to find that our views are not always incompatible with science. Take determinism, for example. While I myself am not a determinist, many current determinists are unaware that some readings of the Bible do allow room for a soft deterministic interpretation of freewill (especially if you subscribe to the influential Calvinist doctrine, a theory that God essentially determines the circumstances of human beings, who are nearly powerless to control life events or their responses to them). But instead of truly taking the time to examine whether a religious position allows for scientific knowledge, scientists presume an understanding of religious beliefs that leads them to dismiss religion offhand. Whether this is because they desire permission to live free of religious obligations or they are truly in the dark I cannot say. All I know is that this potentially misunderstanding is inherently a level of intolerance that parallels and even trumps the potential intolerance of religion. It is the direct result of a false assumption (usually in addition to the false assumption of the supremacy of scientific knowledge, which we will talk about at a later date), and violates the moral obligation of a scientist to be open-minded about the world. But what about those who came from a religious background? Even with direct, but bad or apathetic religious experience, there is no reason to infer that these experiences apply to all religious truth. This would be a type of inductive logic that leads fundamental  double standard as it looks for presupposed contradictions that do not exist. Bad science is the result.

I am not saying that religious people are faultless. Indeed, many religious people willfully misunderstand scientific work and rush to misapply empirical results. They resort to pointless, legalistic and circular arguments to defend their faith (“You’re going against what God wants!” “I can’t believe you would even talk about this sinful piece of crap!” “You will burn in hell!”) because they are terribly uneducated about the culture of science. God may be good, but his people are not always so, and unfortunately the loudest voices are often the least informed ones. But for myself, my views as a religious scientist seek to understand both perspectives and integrate them. I have good friends who are determinists, and I try to understand their views even though I myself am not a determinist. I have friends who are Calvinists, and though I’m not a Calvinist, I would gladly discuss Calvinism with a scientist because it is a corollary of determinism.  I see the road from one to the other, and my role as a religious-scientist is to sweep it clean so others can see it too.

Don’t think that the above statement was my way of saying that I somehow have the ability to objectively view the world. I acknowledge that what I have is a world view where science and religion are compatible, and that worldview influences the way I process aspects of both. Indeed, I believe that both “science only” and “religion only” adherents have their own religious world views, and these influence the way they interpret the information they see. They both make presumptions and interpret information from a specific perspective. But much like any other confounding variable, those presumptions need to be acknowledged. Once they are, it should be clear that it is possible to understand how both science and sacred can work in tandem to divulge knowledge about the world to a human of limited understanding. Anything less is the view of a dogmatist.

Well, there you have it. I’m out. But this post is already too long, and there are finals to be studied for, so these are but the beginning of my thoughts on this subject. I will leave you with an exhortation think through these things and discuss them with me or another religious scientist, because we have some understanding of what it means to live in both worlds. We can make a valuable contribution to both scientific and theological thought. After all:

“To work toward dialogue, nonbelieving scientists would need to understand that while over 50 percent of scientists do not have a religious tradition, nearly 50 percent do. There are believers in their midst. But the scientists who renounced or never embraced faith might also have a difficult time understanding the perspective of their religious colleagues. If there is a way to foster dialogue, scientists without faith might view scientists with faith as allies in better translating science to the general public.” – Eckland

Don’t count us out.

-Lauren

Here We Go A Conferencing!

I’ve had an amazing (dare I say, life changing?) experience recently.

It was a crisp Fall morning when I braved the downtown Philadelphia traffic to witness something  so spectacular I could hardly take it all in. I wandered into the enormous Marriott lobby, and I what I saw was startling. Hundreds of well-dressed people with eager minds, wandering about and chatting with industry professionals. Glossy pages filled with enticing information laid out on every table. Bright lights that stood in sharp contrast to the dim projector screens. I could hardly stand it – The glitz! The glamour! The glitter!

Okay, so maybe there was no glitter, and by the time I attended my 20th presentation there certainly was a lack of glamour. But overall, to a newbie like me, this academic conference was something marvelous. As my friend put it, “Disney World for Psych Nerds,” and it was right in my backyard! I couldn’t believe that I was standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s greatest researchers and clinicians. I couldn’t believe that I was hearing about cutting-edge research. And I couldn’t believe that everyone – from the research presenters to the quick conversations caught between old friends in the hall- was buzzing about trauma and resilience, a topic I find so fascinating that I couldn’t help but eavesdrop at every opportunity.

So by now you must be wondering – what did I actually take away from this conference, besides a dewey-eyed view of the academic world? Well, never fear! After a good amount of processing I’ve been condensed my experience into three (less emotional) lessons:

1. The conference gave me a sense of clarity. Goodness knows I’ve spent hours bemoaning my interest in absolutely everything to my thesis advisor. Attending this conference introduced me to a wide variety of interesting topics, and I realized that I am interested in trauma, resilience and how those are realized in preteens and adolescents. I now have a direction to go with my own research.

2. The conference gave me focus. It showed me what my life is about to become, and it stood as a representation of all that was wonderful about being a grad student. I came back invigorated. Even though midway through the semester can be tough, I am confident and excited to continue!

3. Finally, the conference showed me the importance of networking. Many people have a stereotype of academics as socially awkward and emotionally cold. In reality, the profession requires a social finesse – you have to know the right people to connect you with more right people, and getting to know them requires a large amount of face-to-face interaction. Conferences are prime time when it comes to these interactions.

So there you have it. If you’re an aspiring psychologist or researcher and haven’t been to a conference yet I highly encourage you to go. Enjoy. Listen. Learn. And who knows? You may discover that Disney World is closer than you think.

The Truth About Grad School

Visit This.

It is reality. Midterms sucked. But then life got better again.

Midterms!

Midterms are already upon us, and many of the first years in my department (or maybe just me?) are wide-eyed, sleep deprived and a little panicked. We’ve begun the time of junk food, study parties, and pouring Redbull into our late night coffee (I have not done this, but hey, it would work). We spend these days making flashcards, highlighting that one empty white space on a page and jerry-rigging study guides that help us feel some sense of control over the whole uncontrollable process.

It’s a whirlwind.

So I’m going to keep this short and sweet by leaving a small piece of advice: Take care of yourself.  There’s a tendency for grad students (and potential grad students!) to feel enslaved by their department. If you’re a Christian in grad school it can be doubly draining, because there’s the temptation to be trapped in the sometimes appropriate/ sometimes inappropriate “others first” mentality that is preached from service-oriented pulpits. But in the midst of all of the craziness and emotional anxiety, don’t forget that you can only contribute good things when you’re healthy. And how can you be healthy?

Since I’m in the habit of making midterm “to do” lists, I’ll make a list (with an appropriate scholarly title of course)!

Habitual Health Maintenance Strategies for Long-Term Independent Resilience and Maximized Functioning That I’ve Learned Over The Years

By Lauren Sparks, Grad Student, X University

1.) Give God the time He needs. This is where it begins, because without Him there is no healthy functioning. Period.

2.) Take daily breaks – an hour of free time at dinner is okay.

3.) Use relaxation techniques (that work for you) while studying – study in a cozy blanket, drink tea, be comfortable (unless that’ll make you want to fall asleep, in which case, don’t do this – just take a break to do some deep breathing or yoga or something).

4.) Reach out to people you love. I would be dead in the water without the support of my mother, my roommate, and my study group.

5.) Recognize your limits. This can be a hard one because American/Academic culture is all about pushing past limits, but being driven to the point of anxiety is unhealthy and has been linked to toxic stress (which is a hot topic in the field today, but I digress). Conversely….

6.) Ask others you trust to evaluate your limits! Give friends and family permission to speak into your life about your study habits, and have them hold you accountable to study more or less as the time requires it. Take critique when it comes.

Well, there you have it. It’s not a very eloquent post, but it’s what’s currently on my mind. I’ll catch back up with you after midterms!

On Discipleship

dis·ci·ple

n.

1.a. One who embraces and assists in spreading the teachings of another.

   b. An active adherent, as of a movement or philosophy.

2.One of the original followers of Jesus.

3. A member of the Disciples of Christ.

I have never been very good at this whole professor-student relationship thing.  I’m either too personal or too formal, making for some very awkward academic relationships.  Perhaps it’s because I was raised in a culture that valued elder respect but simultaneously raised in a home where I was encouraged to speak my mind, or perhaps it’s because I’ve always been shy but longed for connection with a mentor. Whatever the reason,  I’ve never really been able to walk that fine line that exists between student and teacher.

This year is different.

I think it is because grad school is built on an entirely different conceptual framework than the other 17 years of my education. Classes are important, but the substance of my education is the close working relationship I develop with one or two faculty members.  Grad school is essentially “hanging out” with your professors – you collaborate with them on projects while learning their worldview and their discipline. You learn about their lives and they learn about yours. They speak into your life, and you soak in their knowledge, becoming a little more like them while providing them with fresh perspective. It’s this fantastic and somewhat reciprocal relationship that develops as you become their apprentice. Their adherent. Their disciple.

I’m beginning to discover that discipleship, in regards to Christ, is the same way. Much like working with my professors, becoming Christ’s disciple requires working for and with Him in my life. It means that I must walk with Him, learn His views on the world and understand what I can of His thoughts. I must, in His grace, continue to become an “active adherent”  who lives a life fully surrendered to His will. He has authority over me, but we exist in this relationship where He will teach me to grow more like Him. It’s a beautiful thing.

I may be just now learning to navigate the relationship between professor and student, but my whole life’s purpose is to become Christ’s disciple. Pray for me to walk closer and closer with Him.

Grad Student ?

Graduate school can be an incredibly complex machine.

On the one hand, it seems simple enough. It’s that thing you do when you’re done with your undergraduate years. It allows you to continue your studies in that awesome/terrifying/brilliant major or minor to which you dedicated four (or more!) years of your life. You study, you attend class, you work. That’s pretty much it.

On the other hand, it’s an entirely new system that requires adjustment in the way you think, an entire paradigm shift from breadth to depth. I’m in an experimental psychology program, and though I was well prepared there’s a big difference between this and my undergrad.  I’m not learning the basic mechanics of experimental design I may or may care about. I’m not simply entering data in SPSS, or working to answer someone else’s research questions as a lab assistant.

I’m creating psychological research.

My classes drive me towards skill and knowledge in my very tiny area of interest. My professors and peers are now my colleagues; I work with them as a functional team member to grapple with a question we’re all interested in answering. I have to use what I know and learn to solve the problems and challenges of the world. I have to critique and be critiqued. My choices really matter because they affect not only my future career, but my ability to work in this interconnected web of psychological scholars. It’s a vigorous, focused time that is dedicated to both learning the systematic methodology of my study and establishing my place in a community.

Whoa,  that’s intense.

Some days it feels very much like hanging onto a tree branch while trying to do calculus while everyone is shouting different directions from the other branches. Or like growing up in a white box your whole life and then suddenly being dropped in the middle of New York City (except, in grad school, you couldn’t use this allusion unless you had either logically reasoned out your argument for using it or provided internally valid experimental evidence that suggests it really does feel this way to a generalizable portion of a distinct population).

But some days I get a glimpse of the reason that complex machine is so complex. I see that it drives all future academics to embrace their inner scientific genius by truly engaging with the ebb and flow of investigation and discovery. I understand that I have at my hands the very tools that will allow me to wrestle with my curiosity and arrest the secrets of God’s creation. There’s a purpose to all of the minutia and confusion and dead end theories. It’s messy, beautiful invention – the place where my passion and the needs of a dying world meet. And I am happy.

Charles Spurgeon once described the call to ministry as “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” I’ve wrestled for a long time with what God desires of me, what ministry for Him looks like, and what His calling is. But I think, in some ways, that I have moved one step closer to understanding His purpose for me. I’ve stumbled upon (or, rather, been directed toward) the realization of that call in my own life. That is what keeps me going through papers like “Dendritic GABA Release Depresses Excitatory Transmission between Layer 2/3 Pyramidal and Bitufted Neurons in Rat Neocortex” (That’s really the title). That is what makes me smile when I lose track of time because my classmates and I can’t stop discussing the awesome practical applications of research to lower SES populations.

God, for at least this period of my life, designed me for this purpose. God is good.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,