Monday, June 4, 2007

How I found Jesus at the RASC

PZ Myers notes with approbation the RASC Ottawa's no-nonsense endorsement of science. Ottawa-area commenter bPer relates an incident at a RASC observing session (as well as a recent update), revolving around a certain mutual acquaintance. The conjunction of fundamentalist religion with the RASC prompts me to recollect a bit of personal history, which in an effort to bore everyone to tears and drive my site stats into the basement (but what the hell, yesterday was my 50th birthday, which seems like an appropriate occasion to get autobiographical), I will now relate.

First, a little background: my parents were agnostic, having abandoned their ancestral Methodism about the time of the Second World War. So that was my default from an early age. Religion was a hobby some other families did, or that I heard about during Religious Education at school (which they still had at the time). I had the usual kid's fascination with dinosaurs -- one of the first books I read myself was Danny The Dinosaur, about a young brontosaurus trying to find his way in the Mesozoic world (note: this is not the same book as comes up on a Google or Amazon search). Somewhat later, I graduated to Sam and Beryl Epstein's Prehistoric Animals, which covers the history of life from the Cambrian to the present, with a couple of decent explanatory chapters on the geologic column and the theory of evolution (according to the mid-1950s state of knowledge, ie. isotope dating was in its infancy, and plate tectonics was still mired in Wegener's unworkable drift hypothesis). It was one of my favorite books; I read it many times, and I still have it.

By the time I was about 8, I could not only spell "palaeontologist", I knew I wanted to be one, and would tell any adult unwary enough to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a precocious little nerd ;-).

In junior high school my interests shifted to physics -- the school library had a number of books which explained particle physics, relativity, quantum mechanics and cosmology without requiring the reader to understand the math behind them, and I read them all. The sheer wierdness of the world thus opened up fascinated me. More precocious nerdity - how many 13 year-olds even care what a neutrino is? So getting into the astronomy hobby was a natural next step - there was an active club at the school, and I spent quite a few nights out with friends chasing lunar eclipses, occultations or meteor showers. For a while, I was grinding my own 6-inch telescope mirror (a project that never got finished). I also joined the RASC Toronto Centre (obviously they didn't have a website c. 1970), which met every second Thursday evening in the basement of the McLaughlin Planetarium.

One night in late 1972, I was returning home from RASC on the subway with several other high school student members. When we reached the end of the line, one of our party who had his parents' car in the park-and-ride, offered to drive everyone home. So we started driving. And the conversation quickly turned religious. It turned out that the driver and at least one of the passengers were Evangelical Christians, and always ready to witness to any unbelievers who came their way. As an eager young agnostic, I put up a couple of arguments, and got a bit of unconvincing rebuttal; I forget the details now and it doesn't matter. (I should emphasize that, though I've long forgotten the details of the conversation, I don't recall it being the kind of creepy stealth evangelism practised by the aforementioned current nuisance in RASC Ottawa. These people had some social skills AND a genuine interest in astronomy for its own sake, not just as a hunting ground for converts.)

What did matter, in the end, is that as I was dropped off, one of my companions pressed into my hand a small booklet entitled Now I'm Free. This I read before going to bed. The tract (the gist of which can be found here) recounts the story of one Tom Skinner, a black youth running with gangs in the slums of Harlem who is converted by a radio preacher, reforms his life, and goes on to become an evangelist. The arguments he gives for theism didn't strike me as very good, even at the time, but what did impress me was his account of the way his life, and those of his fellow gang-members were changed by faith in Christ. In fact, it impressed me so much that I bought the whole package -- or to put it in the conventional Evangelical terminology, that night I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. (As I think y'all are aware, I got better later).

One can propose all sorts of psychoanalytic causes for my conversion -- some of which are plausible, while others are ruled out by the details of the situation. But subjectively, it was very much a rational decision: here was evidence (this guy's experience), and here was his explanation, and it seemed to fit, and there was no other obvious explanation; QED. I realize now that my standards of evidence were naive (hey, I was 15 -- everyone is allowed a little youthful folly) . Personal testimonial is a poor kind of evidence, whether for gods or for patent medicines. Even if the narrator is sincere (and I have no reason to think Skinner wasn't), their memory may be selective or confabulatory; and strong belief can, I think, impel life change even if the subjective impetus is imaginary. And of course, evaluating religious faith in the same way as one evaluates a medical therapy, the whole double-blind control thing is missing -- so much for any pretence Skinner's "experiment" has to being "scientific". For every conversion that magically results in a dramatically reformed life there are several more where the convert falls away after six months, or continues to be an alcoholic, or a philanderer, or basically the same jerk they were before, only now they go to church. But, aside from the occasional big-name evangelist caught with his (or her) pants down, you don't hear so much about the failures, for the obvious reason that they don't go on the sawdust circuit.

But smartly or stupidly, now I was a Christian, species fundagelicus, and I started reading the Bible and praying and picking up all the other cultural norms of my new peer group. Obviously, it didn't take me too long to run into the whole Genesis vs. Natural History issue. If there had been a more active and systematic Creation Science push going on in my immediate environment I might have got (temporarily) sucked in, but as it was I only heard pro-Creationist lessons occasionally, and that mostly arguments I already knew were bogus (eg. Second Law of Thermodynamics). However, the single biggest factor that kept me from ever being a YEC, or even much of an OEC, was: I already knew that science had a coherent narrative of biological history, embedded in a larger narrative of geological history, in turn embedded in a still larger cosmological narrative. And it all hung together. Thus, I fairly soon came round to a compatibilist view of Genesis, and eventually to a mythological view. It was important to understand that God created us, and that we were fallen; it was not important to me to be able to point at a particular allegedly historical event as the foundational "fact" of that theological belief.

Last fall, that inestimable primate John Wilkins posted an excellent four-part series entitled "Why are creationists creationist?" (the thesis of which receives support from a recent paper by psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg), analyzing how one's worldview is formed by environmental cues, heavily influenced by childhood conditioning. In Wilkins' terms, by the time of my conversion I was already well-committed to the "scientific concept space" (scroll down to the big graphic), thus non- or pseudo-scientific views had little traction except perhaps as short-term speculations. As Bloom and Weisberg would put it, many of my naive intuitions had already been replaced by scientific ones -- it's safe to say that anyone who has wrapped their mind around relativity and QM has had their innate Aristotelian mechanics thoroughly shredded. In short, I was open to a universe of possibility, that might well do things that seemed quite astonishing -- such as assemble living cells from pre-biotic soup, and then evolve them into cabbages and kings.

So: my involvement in the RASC lead me (accidentally) into Christian fundamentalism, but also helped protect me from some of its worst effects. Life is full of ironies.


Anonymous said...

Hi EK,

No tears of boredom here. Interesting reading, actually, but you kind of glossed over the final conversion to atheism. I'm new here, so my apologies if that was covered earlier.

Happy belated birthday! I crossed that milestone last year. Don't forget - you can start to get seniors' discounts some places now!

Just for comparison, since we would have been in the same grade together, here's a bit about my early struggles with religion. My father was a United Church minister. He trained for the ministry at Queens starting when I was 9 years old. His first charge was in a rural area near Sault Ste. Marie. Being a zealous, young minister at the same time that I was discovering science and reason, there were inevitable confrontations. My parents wanted me to join the church youth group and be confirmed, and I wanted none of it. I finally agreed to confirmation to get them off my back, but I refused to have anything to do with the creepy, naive youth group. I have to say that I really did not like the confrontations with my parents, and for a brief while, I tried desperately to convince myself that I actually believed. It didn't stick, though, and I settled into what is a common mode among church-goers - going through the motions of worship just to keep up appearances and to remain a member of the social unit. When I got to university (Queens, like my father), I made one last stab at finding religion by attending church at one of the nearby churches frequented by faculty. I was hoping to be convinced by intellectually-stimulating sermons, but no luck. I was an atheist, and I'd just have to live with it.

I managed to hide the fact from my family until my marriage in 1984. I could not bring myself to make insincere vows in a religious ceremony, and so my wife and I decided to have a civil ceremony. I had to come clean to my parents and my future inlaws (who were also very involved in church) as to why we weren't having a church wedding. To their great credit, they took this obviously disappointing and embarrassing situation with admirable grace, and (with a few exceptions) have accepted me as an atheist ever since.

On another note, I have only been in the RASC since about 2000. I dabbled in astronomy when I lived up near the Sault, but didn't have the resources available to really get into it. I always wanted to get back into it, though, and my wife gave me (as a birthday present) enrollment in an intro astronomy course put on by Gary Boyle at Algonquin College. That led me to the RASC. In case you haven't figured it out, my Internet handle bPer is actually an astronomy reference - beta Persei.

Well, if we haven't driven off your readers by now, I guess they're here to stay. Thanks for mentioning my comments at Pharyngula. I've been reading this blog since I followed Theo's link here from that blog's comments. Looking forward to more to come, and to someday meet you and Theo in real life.

Eamon Knight said...

No tears of boredom here. Interesting reading, actually, but you kind of glossed over the final conversion to atheism. I'm new here, so my apologies if that was covered earlier.

Thank you. And I didn't so much "gloss over" the deconversion part as "didn't get that far in the story". There's about 25 more years of history to cover, probably enough for at least one more long post.

Re: United Church. Actually, that was where I first went when I dumped fundamentalism (just one transition in that 25 years...), and it seemed a place of sanity and sweet reason by comparison! Of course, I know there's a wide range of views within the UCC.

Re: Queen's. Small world, I was in Science 80 -- we must have overlapped.

Anonymous said...

Hi EK,

I look forward to your next post on your deconversion. Re. the United Church, I can only imagine how different it is from a fundie church. My closest exposure to fundies is a brother-in-law who married one and lives in BC's Fraser Valley. Really creepy out there in places. As for the UCC, I've kind of lost touch since I left the church and my father died. It seemed to me to be very socially progressive, and I must say that that part of the church has stayed with me. On the other hand, I was taught what today would be called theistic evolution. Even as a kid I realized that was just a dodge, fighting a rear-guard action as their world shrinks from the onslaught of scientific knowledge. They were/are struggling to keep their feet in the rational world while maintaining what they can of their religion. It seems to me that, while they still recite the Apostle's Creed, it is more for tradition than conviction.

BTW, if you haven't already found it, I recommend Brian Larnder's Primordial Blog. He is an ex-fundie living in the Yukon. He regularly posts about his life as an ex-fundie, and has just enough fundie commenters to make it interesting and fun. He also tried the UCC after leaving his fundie church, but found it too sterile and staid. I would really enjoy reading your comments on his posts, comparing and contrasting your experiences.

Re. Queens, I was ArtSci '79 (Computer Science). I had a number of Sci '80 friends. Perhaps we even met. I lived in Morris.


Anonymous said...

Huh. Odd, that. But I'd buy Wilkins' post and the papers therein may have a piece of an explanation, at least. Rings true.

In other news: I did show up at the RASC thing, too. And bought a membership, shortly thereafter. Figure I'll try to make it a regular thing... all apologies to the HAO, and all, but RASC's meetings are much better timed for my schedule.

In still other news, PZ's 'Rah Rah Rasc' has resulted in a certain earworm from the disco era lodging itself in my brain for several days now. I may sue.