Bill Nye's recent debate with Ken Ham (the founder of the creation museum), has a lot of people talking about creationism and science. I want to share my own personal story and perspective about faith, belief, and science.
When I was growing up we went to church on Sunday. It was a very passive religion that took a backseat in decision-making unless it was Sunday or a holiday. I desperately wanted a meaning to life, but the only answer I could find was that there was none.
It wasn't until Junior High when I left the public school system and entered a private Christian school that a religion, or as I will call it, belief system became an active and important part of everyday life. In this Christian school we were taught from a fundamental Christian world-view and every subject was filtered through it, yes even math. Faith became of the utmost importance.
I had left public school because of my gender identity and sexuality and the violence and bullying it provoked from my peers and in this new environment I fervently latched on to ideology of the school administrators, teachers, and my peers. The ideology offered acceptance, both heavenly and from my new schoolmates so I became a fervent Christian. In the process of letting Jesus into my heart I happily let everything I'd ever known about dinosaurs and archaeology out of my head.
In its place was the belief that God created the universe in 7 days, roughly 6,000 years ago. This belief system came free with a litany of responses to counter what the non-believers might say regarding their pagan belief system of evolution. We were in a spiritual war and we had to defend against the enemy. Finally, life had meaning!
Evolution and the scientific method were reduced to nothing more than systems of belief, no more provable than our own self-referential belief system based on a religious text. We could not prove to a non-believer why our belief system was true anymore than they could prove to us. In the end it came down a matter of faith. Evolution after all was just another belief (one that would wind you up in hell!)
My acceptance of their belief system was cause for much joy at school, but a point of contention at home for I was the child of intelligent parents. My mother was a nurse, well versed in the evolution of viruses and bacteria. My father enjoyed comparative religion but his hobby was paleontology and he had knowledge of any number of other sciences.
I didn't want them to go to hell and this started many arguments. I presented them with the arguments preprogrammed into me at school and my parents presented me with excellent evidence and logical proofs that ripped through the veil of my belief system and canned responses.
Yet, none of their logical or evidence could dent my faith that I was right. It is embarrassing to write of my foolishness, but I earnestly believed with all my being the programming that was reinforced at school. There was no intelligent consideration or reasoning in what the other side was saying. Instead, I used my intellect to desperately defend what I felt to be an attack on my faith.
Faith was a roadblock. Robert Anton Wilson said that "Belief was the death of intelligence." When you start believing in something you stop thinking about it, you stop questioning its validity, you stop reasoning. Belief was a warm, cozy, safe spot-where I was always right.
This continued for six years until I graduated high-school. By that point I had explanation for dinosaurs (they were just regular lizards who grew to giant sizes due to their advanced age of 900 years old!), for geologic evidence (God made the rocks old) , and for scientists in general (They don't have faith/are not 'saved'/misled by the devil)
Soon after graduation I put away my Christian belief system; it no longer fit my sexual and gender identity. We actually parted ways with "God" on pretty good terms through a queer friendly church. But the damage was done. It took me about a decade after I graduated from high school to begin to heal the vast holes in my understanding of the world.
In college I wanted to do something as far from math and science as possible so I chose art. I loved art and it is still satisfying but it wasn't something I could do for a living so I floated around in limbo, without any real intellectual pursuits for years. Slowly but surely I began to reeducate myself. Natalie Angier's book "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" helped to light a spark within me and soon I was reading about biology—and wanted to understand smaller and more complex fundamentals.
I am now a scientist. It is my belief system, but it is more than that. Science isn't something to believe in. It is a tool. A method. Faith doesn't factor into the equation.
When presented with a question that science can answer (because there are some that it cannot) I must turn to other's work. Science is collaborative—for no one can know everything about everything. This trust is earned and my judgment must always be active. I trust the reliability of a stranger's data if certain conditions are met (robust sample size, repeatability, etc) and incorporate their results into my own understanding. If later they are proved to be wrong I revise.
My foolishness is painful to recall and frightening too because I remember the intensity with which I believed in my correctness. It horrifies me to think that there are bright young minds dimming themselves to fit their world view in their belief system. Yes, I did say dimming themselves! No school teacher, administrator, pastor, or friend could have forced me to put away my ability to reason and fervently defend the ideology. It was my profound hunger for acceptance and for my life to have meaning that dimmed my bright mind.
Faith is no longer a warm, cozy spot. It is a prison cell. Martin Luther said that "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has", so is it any wonder I was terrified of reason when I was warm and safe in my belief system.
If we, as people of science, truly want to change someone's mind about a belief system like creationism we have to appeal beyond reason. We cannot hurl logic at their force-field of belief for it is beyond logic, even though we delight in logic! Instead we might speak to them of the beauty that comes from understanding. Tell them of the richness, connectivity, and yes…even meaning to life that comes with a deep penetrating understanding of ourselves, our world and the universe.