Faith & Physics, Part I

ILYBYGTH is happy to welcome a new series of guest posts from Anna.  Anna blogs about her experiences leaving the fundamentalist subculture at Signs You Are a Sheltered Evangelical.  She holds an M.Sc. degree in Astroparticle Physics and currently lives in Virginia with her fiance Chelsey and a cat named Cat.

As a scientist, it’s a bit awkward for me to confess that I used to be a science denier.  I would never have classified myself as such at the time.  I would have called myself an intelligent, well-educated, critically thinking, aspiring physicist.  Yet I was a fervent believer in 6-day Biblical creation, I staunchly disbelieved global warming, I thought homosexuality was a conscious decision to rebel against God, and I was deeply skeptical of any sort of environmental preservation initiatives, even though I was a devoted nature-lover.  Yep, I was about as bad of a science-denier as they come.

Despite all of this, I cannot think too ill of my younger self for my ignorant beliefs.  Admitting them is uncomfortable, of course, but largely because of misunderstandings in the secular and science communities regarding these sorts of beliefs and the people who hold them.  The prevailing opinion is that science-deniers are stupid, uneducated, unable to think critically, and usually just too stubborn to admit they are wrong.  I certainly am not going to excuse my former beliefs, but  I also do not believe they were a result of stupidity, stubbornness or even a lack of research or study.  The truth behind them is much deeper and more complex than most of my peers realize.  This is why I am writing; I want to chronicle my transition from science-denier to scientist, hopefully helping others understand the anti-science mindset, the actions and attitudes that contribute to it, and the attitudes from my more science-savvy peers that made my transition either easier or harder.

If you are going to follow me on this journey, you will need to know who I am.  My name is Anna.  I am a mathematics instructor at a local career college and I also tutor students privately in higher-level math and physical sciences.  I currently hold a Masters Degree in Astroparticle Physics from Jacobs University.  I earned my Bachelors Degree in Physics from New Mexico Tech (where most of my transition occurred) and before then, I was homeschooled.

From kindergarten through 12th grade, I was taught at home with Christian-based curricula, and socialized in a staunchly fundamentalist Christian sub-culture.  TV and video games were off-limits in my home, secular music was all-but banned until I was 17 or so, and my internet useage was strictly monitored.  My world experience, therefore, was quite limited.  I often laugh among friends that I grew up in the 1800’s, not just because I had to wear ankle-length skirts and waist-length hair for much of my young life, but because community isolation like this was very common 100 years ago.  Indeed, being ignorant or skeptical of competing opinions and viewpoints would not have been considered closed-minded in an age before radio broadcasts, television, internet, cellphones, and national and international travel.  It would have been normal.  Human.  That is how it was for me.

That is not to say that I was unaware of differing opinions or viewpoints.  Rather, my sources for this information were almost exclusively biased.  If I brought home a book from the library that mentioned the Big Bang, my parents would sit me down and explain how the book was wrong.  If I saw an advertisement on a billboard that had a scantily clad woman posed on it, I would be told that it was a sign of the downfall of our nation and that it was wrong.  If I read an article in the newspaper that held a left-leaning political viewpoint, a discussion would be opened about how this viewpoint was wrong.  Without fail, ideas that fell outside of the realm of accepted ideas were dismantled, disproven, argued, or shown in a negative light.  A negative reaction to such ideas then became instinctual.  I lived in a never-silent echo-chamber of my subculture’s worldview.

And yet, through all of this, I was taught to think critically.  Most of my peers were as well.  The ability to rationalize, to argue and debate, to pursue knowledge, and to question authority was considered the peak of achievement and intelligence.  Public speaking and debate were cornerstones of Christian homeschooling culture.  “Never believe everything you read” was often on my mother’s lips.  “Always question.  Find things out for yourself.  Never take someone else’s word for anything.  Learn, grow, challenge.”  That was my mandate… a mandate that eventually led me to rejecting the views that my culture espoused.

Many of my secular peers begin to disbelieve my story at this point, which I find very frustrating.  The stereotypes about science-deniers, fundamentalists, and creationists run so deep that I have been called into question on my own life story.  Some people don’t want to hear that people like me, like my family, like my community can be intelligent.  They don’t want to hear that they encourage critical thinking and discussion.  They want to call into question my family’s motives.  “Obviously, they were just saying things like ‘question everything’ to make themselves feel better.  All they wanted was a mindless drone and a copy of themselves.  They were just lying to you.”

These comments are hard to swallow, because on one hand, I partially agree.  My parents and community leaders certainly did not intend for me to turn out the way I did.  And yet, I assert that they truly believed their motives were honest.  They WANTED me to think, to learn, to question.  They just honestly believed that all of that thinking, learning and questioning would inevitably lead me to validate their opinions.  And unfortunately for them, they were wrong.

And so, before I delve more deeply into the culture of fundamentalist education, before I discuss my studies on creationism, my meetings with Ken Ham, my awkward debates with my college peers, and my sloooooow deconversion from science-denialism, I have a request to make: please listen.  Please believe.  Please be open to seeing me and the people I knew outside of the ignorant-hateful-redneck stereotype.  My experiences and motivations were real, and much more complex than many people outside of that subculture realize.  I am telling my story because I am tired of others (on both sides) thinking they can tell it for me.  So, please respect me in that regard.  Thank you, and I hope you enjoy the ride!

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22 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, Anna. I’m really looking forward to these posts. I come from a similar subculture, being from a fundamentalist/ charismatic Christian background in England.

    Maybe you’re going to cover this later, but do you think the mandate to “question everything” extended even to your faith, or was there a (perhaps unspoken) taboo on questioning certain things? I agree with you that fundamentalists and creationists can be highly intelligent and critical thinkers in many areas, but not apply these skills to aspects of their own beliefs (and, to be fair, that’s true of most humans, fundamentalist or otherwise). For them, God’s Word is absolute truth. It can’t be questioned, partly because to do so would be blasphemous, and partly because it’s the standard by which truth is measured.

    Reply
    • Jonny, This is one of the questions that puzzles me, too. I worked for many years with Jesuit priests. (For those outside of the Catholic traditions, priests/nuns/brothers can belong to different orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc. Pope Francis, for instance, is a Jesuit.) These guys were intensely bookish, smart, earnest, and devoted to their faith. One phrase that many of them liked to use was “counter-cultural Christianity.” That is, their form of faith taught them to feel outside of mainstream culture. They worked to question intensely all sorts of mainstream cultural assumptions and norms. After all, they had taken vows of chastity in a sex-soaked America. But that counter-culturalism did not conflict with a deeply held devotion to their faith. They had also taken a vow of obedience. They valued (theological and ecclesiastic) fidelity, yet also encouraged themselves to be (cultural) mavericks.
      It seems to me as if Anna’s tradition could have a similar tension. Mainstream cultural artifacts–billboards, books, television shows–must be treated as virulent contaminants. Ideas from the true religion, however, are to be cherished all the more for their authenticity and reliability. They are not to be treated as open to question, since they are the core of the truth that sets believers free from the lies that surround them.

      Reply
      • If I were a better philosopher, I would be asking questions like “How much is this true for all of us? What fundamental presuppositions do I hold that are beyond question?”

        The difference is, I think, that where I can identify what my presuppositions are, I subject them to as much scrutiny as possible. Whereas a religious worldview is explicit, yet (for some believers) explicitly off-limits to questioning.

    • Thank you for the encouragement. It seems that you do understand this subculture well. Questioning everything definitely applied to secular things only. I will probably be touching on some of this soon and exploring a bit of the mindset behind it. It wasn’t that ALL questions were off-limits, but it was easy to tell which ones were safe to debate and which ones were taboo. For example, in my particular culture, the question of whether divorce was okay or not was open to discussion. The question of whether or not homosexuality was okay or not was not open to discussion. The question of whether the Bible was infallible and the perfect word of God for humans to day was WAY off of the table. Questioning that was likely to get you kicked out of your study group.

      It is interesting to me that you point out that all of us have iron-clad assumptions that we hold beyond question. This is true, and it was very frustrating to me as a Creationist that many Secularists seemed to hold me to a standard of “questioning” that they did not apply to themselves. They were so quick to laugh at creationists for accepting things from our book without question, but yet they accepted things out of THEIR books without question all the time. Now, I understand better now than I did then the difference between accepting religious texts and scientific ones, but the fact remains that the arguments that my secular peers made were off the mark and based on false assumptions about me and my beliefs. I can’t spoil too much more just yet, but I’ll try to do justice to this topic soon!

      In addition, I think that the phrasing “question” is much too vague. You say that you know your assumptions and subject them to as much scrutiny as possible. I think most religious people would say the same. After all, there are different forms of questioning. First is the type that is honestly aimed towards understanding a topic or forming an opinion. It is easiest to do this “pure” questioning before one has already made any sort of conclusion. But for anything else, questioning enters shades of grey. For example, I consider myself very open-minded these days. I am willing to listen to an argument on just about anything and give it due consideration. But that doesn’t mean I am actually remotely interested in changing my beliefs. I believe that all human beings have a right to life and safety. If someone wished to argue this with me, I would listen and consider their opinions, but only insofar as to evaluate and reaffirm the merits of my beliefs, and to understand how to respond to certain counter-arguments. I am not going to change my mind, and I know this. Any compelling argument that was made would only spur me to research deeper for a way to counter it. It would not change my mind, because NOT believing that all humans deserve life and safety would cause me to lose a part of myself that I value too much. In the same way, religious people are often very open to hearing discussions and arguments against their beliefs (NOT from within their community, but from without). Therefore, they will call this “questioning”. However, these questions only serve to help them find a way to shore up their beliefs. They are questioning in order to understand their beliefs better, not in order to change their minds. After all, losing their religion would cause them to lose a part of themselves. Does that make sense?

      Therefore, when non-religious people argue that religious people are “not willing to question their beliefs” I do not think they are being entirely fair. That is not because I don’t think religious people should question their beliefs. They SHOULD. They should much, much, much more than most of them do. It is unfair, however, because most humans hold beliefs that are to integral to their being to truly question. Non-religious people have them, religious people have them, and trying to act superior does nothing to help bridge the gap between them. Fortunately, people like you and I have walked a mile in both religious and secular shoes, so I think we have a lot to offer to the dialogue. Thanks again for commenting!

      Reply
      • Great reply! Thanks.There’s a lot to think about here.

        Your example “all humans have a right to life and safety” is a great one, as is your idea of beliefs that are integral to our identities. So here’s something I need to think about:

        What basis do we have for saying that fundamentalists should question their beliefs if we have beliefs that we are not willing to question?

        I can think of a couple of potential answers, but I’m going to ponder them a bit more first.

      • I have several answers, but I don’t think any of them covers this area completely. Food for thought though, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter too.

        Firstly, while it is only natural for certain beliefs to remain unquestioned, our actions are NEVER above questioning. As such, anytime our beliefs lead us to act, we absolutely must be willing to question and correct either our behavior or our belief if it is found to be harmful. One of the reason that I believe so firmly in a person’s right to life and safety is because the actions that have resulted from this belief, to my knowledge, have never harmed anyone and have only done good. Therefore, even if my belief were wrong, the actions that it produces are still positive. If this belief caused me to harm someone, it would be my responsibility to call it into question. Simply calling the belief into question does not necessarily mean that one must reject it; rather, one should honestly scrutinize it to see if the belief itself is flawed and thus caused harm, or if it was simply a misguided action that caused the harm. Honesty is necessary here.

        Now, the problem with this, is that everyone will have their own standard of morality to hold their actions to. For example, when I came out as gay to my family, their belief in homosexuality as a sin caused them to become abusive. To me, this harm was a sign that their beliefs or actions ought to be called into question, because they were clearly causing harm. However, from my family’s point of view, the harm caused by abuse was negligible compared to the potential GOOD of turning me straight. Therefore, they did not see harm as harm, and thus never questioned their beliefs. Religious beliefs, I think, may be especially susceptible to this sort of loophole, because they often deal with the intangible rather than the tangible. As such, visible, tangible harm can be overridden by an imaginary intangible good. I cannot think of any reasonable standard that I could impose on all persons as to what is “good” and what is “harm” because, to everyone else, my own standard may seem arbitrary and unfair. Thus, while I think actions provide a good indication of beliefs to be questioned, it is an unreliable method.

        Secondly, I believe that the complexity of beliefs indicates the level of scrutiny necessary. For example, the belief “there is a God” can be fairly given less scrutiny than beliefs like “there is a God and his name is Jesus and he lived 2000 years ago and he came back from the dead and he told me to tell you that wearing jewelry is a sin because he wrote in this book that other people wrote that you should be modest and that’s what he meant.” The belief “global warming exists” can be given less scrutiny than the belief that “global warming exists and can be attributed to an increase in man-produced greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, starting around the Industrial Revolution.” I use this specific example to indicate that when I say “question”, I don’t necessarily mean that the belief will be proven wrong. I mean that larger claims require larger evidence. This is clear to the scientific community. We should apply it to our own opinions as well.

        Finally, I believe that we should always be willing to ask two simple questions about our beliefs and honestly analyze the answer. The questions are “why do I believe this?” and “is there a situation where I would not have believed it?” The answers to these questions do not have to shake your faith in your opinion at all, but they tell you a lot about yourself and what you believe. I believe that all people deserve life and safety because I think that belief makes me a better person and helps me protect others. There are certainly situations in which I would have likely believed differently. I think fundamentalists have never really honestly answered these questions. I know I never did. If asked “why do you believe the Bible is infallible?” the best answer I could have given would be “because the Bible says so.” And when I finally asked myself “is there a situation where you would have believed differently?” I had to honestly answer “yes” and that was a great blow to my faith. I think these things tell us a lot about ourselves and the things we believe.

        Anyway, that was a very long response. Thoughts?

  2. nice post, Anna. Good for you to share 🙂

    Reply
  3. Found this post from Jonny’s tweett. ooooooooooooooooooooh yes, exactly! I was so thought to think critically. We analyzed everything. When I was in 8th grade, I had read more books on other persepctives of revelation than most pastors. I even wrote out my own commentary on revelation, verse by verse. I read all the time. And my parents wanted me to think, but they never once imagined that they thinking would lead me later to reject a lot of evangelical beliefs. I also was homeschooled, everyone I knew was conservative, etc.

    Reply
    • Yes! It baffled me so much when I was homeschooled and people looked at me sideways like they thought I was sitting at home all day playing video games and never learning. That’s not to say that some homeschoolers haven’t experienced educational neglect (I know one who has) but I was definitely in the over-achiever subculture. We were expected to be the cream of the crop, so we could convert the world to our religion through debate, reason, and eloquence. We reasoned and examined and researched all the time. I’m glad I never ended up writing a commentary on revelation though. That book is very very weird.

      High-five for also being so well trained in critical thinking that we rejected our parents’ ideals. Heheh, oh the irony.

      Reply
      • yea! high five to you, too! I did miss out on some subjects, because we picked and chose which was important, but I was educationally neglected like some homeschoolers.

      • Ugh, that sucks. I’m glad you’ve made your own way in spite of it all. I have a friend whose mother never really followed the proper laws or gave her the correct subjects and then never even created a transcript for her when she “graduated”. As a result, she really has no option other than getting a GED, probably. I was lucky that my education was actually pretty darned awesome, despite the Creationist science.

      • Yea I made up my transcript after I graduated. 😛 I don’t think we were intentionally neglecting some subjects. We stopped science after a certain point because my mom and I fought too much. I accidently didn’t get much literature, mostly because 1) these fundamental textbooks have you read missionary stories, not classics. 2) I already read a ton – but I read theology and philosophy. Homeschool gave me free reign, and we weren’t checking in with anyone. Even when I went to college, I got a degree in English and barely read fiction. It’s kind of funny. I took all my electives in poetry and did theory before switching to a different discipline in grad school. In college I had to read some of the classics, but I dodged a lot too. Well, think in a hs situation. Not only do you get your own electives but also you don’t even have to take the core classes. So I skipped literature.

        Never did a foreign language either. I’m bilingual now, starting another language for a PhD. It’s not a huge deal though I can say that I’d raise my own kids bilingual from day one. So much easier that way.

        I did a lot of science in the younger years. Only YEC. No science after physical science. Thats’ my biggest regret. Every other subject I’ve made up for, but so haven’t made up for my lack of silence. I took chemistry in college. I’ve never had biology and physics in my life.

        Didn’t do much history either. But I thank God for that. History is presented too boring in textbooks. That’s so sad. The narrative that we tell in history matters so much, and we destroy it. ugh. So I have no regrets just reading books instead, none. And I know history well now.

        Anyway, other than the science bit, I don’t have much regrets. I guess I wish I’d studied a foreign language, but how was I supposed to do that without a teacher? My mom finally put my sister in Spanish classes for that reason.

      • Well, if you ever have Physics questions, you can always come to me! Don’t ask me about biology though. I loved my college biology class, but my professor had definitely smoked a little weed in his life and he sorta jumped around to whatever topics made him happy. Which was fun and very interesting, but maybe not the most rigorous Biology class. I agree that History is often presented poorly. I was lucky enough to have audio and video lectures in history through my schooling that were actually pretty interesting, although from a very, very Christian point of view. When I had to study out of books, though, I HATED it. I’m more of an auditory learner anyway.

  4. Anna, I re-read this 1st post. You really have some promise as a writer, maybe all these posts can grow into an ebook. My question to you is this: Do you still study/read the bible? Or are you trying to decompress away from that as well right now?

    My mindset now in bible study is to seek meaning rather than believing something is (T)rue. I figured with your analytical skills you would just be great at catching stuff. I enjoy listening to the Bible Geek podcast and finding out what other peeps catch/can think up.

    Keep your chin up, everybody decompresses from xianity in their own way. If they’re lucky!!
    -b

    Reply
    • Hello, and thank you for the kind compliments! I have not lately been reading the Bible… decompressing, like you said. My quarrel with it was not so much with the topics I have discussed above, but rather with the severe emotional abuse that my family and church inflicted on me after I came out three years ago. The worst part of it is that I believed what they told me enough that I became my own abuser. That is why I put away my Bible in a box where I won’t see it for a while. That book, for now, reminds me too much of guilt, shame, self-abuse, and a desire to die. I do not think it will be that way forever. I would like to read the Bible again through a very different lens. I have read the New Testament through more times than I can count, but always I had the same viewpoint. I think it would be interesting to read through it again now. However, I just don’t think I am emotionally ready for that. I hope eventually I will enjoy checking out that podcast. It sounds interesting! Thank you for the well-wishes! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Warren Johnson

     /  October 11, 2013

    Dear Anna,

    As an old physicist, welcome to the club. It’s not a family, but it is a fine and honorable profession.

    I will be very interested to hear more of your story. Writing is hard work, but you have an eager audience.

    What especially interests me is how morality (how should we live?) gets mixed up with
    science (what is universal and unavoidable?). To me they are orthogonal (physics-talk for unconnected or independent). Maybe you have some insight into how life has come to be divided differently in the fundamentalist community?

    Reply
    • Hi! Sorry for the late reply. Absolutely, science and morality are orthoganal (except for that small intersection that involves ethics of scientific experimentation) but the fundamentalist community does not see it that way. There are several reasons for this that I can think of from my own experience, and probably others that someone else could identify.

      The main reason that they tend to entangle, in my experience, is because of fear of secular things. Recent years have demonstrated a surge of secular thought and discovery and a lot of rejection of tradition. The “culture wars” mentality was born from that, I believe. It is fed by a fear of the unknown. This much deviation from religion has not been seen in the US… probably ever. It is a ripe breeding ground for conspiracy theories, hate-mongering, and fierce rhetoric, insisting that we must reclaim the world under a religious banner before it is too late. EVERYTHING must come under the subjection of God, and that includes science.

      Now, another reason that fundamentalists cling so tightly to “biblical science” is that biblical inerrancy is pretty much a religion in itself. “Which do you trust, God’s word, or man’s?” is often heard as a tactic for silencing dissent. I want to discuss that in much more detail later, because it had a pretty profound impact on me, and I think it says a lot about how people let themselves get away with so much ignorance. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series, even if I post rather slowly!

      Reply
  1. Guest Post on ILYBYGTH | Signs you are a Sheltered Evangelical
  2. How to talk to a true believer | Leaving Fundamentalism
  3. Guest Post on ILYBYGTH #2 | Signs you are a Sheltered Evangelical
  4. Faith & Physics, Part III | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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