Religion for Scientists

Put some meat on those bones

I am a religious scientist. A religious naturalist. A religious atheist. Such ostensible oxymorons can provoke double-takes in believers and skeptics alike. But I’m not contradicting myself. I follow in the tradition of Chet Raymo, Connie Barlow, and honestly anyone who has felt awe and reverence for the universe. Religion at its heart is not primarily about God or obedience to dogma. But it’s not just philosophy or psychology, either. Religion is a grand venture that humans work on together. Religion is about community. Clans with shared values and vision. The support of my own religious community has been invaluable to me, especially since I live far from the family and friends of my childhood. We academics, with careers that repeatedly move us from the people and places we know, stand to benefit a great deal from joining communities of faith. So it’s a little bizarre that so many scientists dismiss religion altogether.


At age 23, I arrived in Corvallis, Oregon for graduate school. I didn’t know anyone for 500 miles. I didn’t know anything about Unitarian Universalism either, save the odd reference in Barbara Kingsolver novels. My upbringing was Protestant, but I had finally admitted to myself that I was no Christian. Still, I had fond memories of the warm fellowship of my old church, and I longed for a similar supportive tribe. By chance, I happened upon an old copy of UU World in a thrift shop. What was this? A religion that welcomed humanists? A religion that celebrated the diversity of human sexual orientations and genders? It also appeared to be full of aging hippies, but this being the Willamette Valley, that was no different than anywhere else. I had to check it out.


At my first Sunday service, the minister gathered the children up front and asked them to compare the words “motion” and “emotion.” Emotion is like water moving inside us that makes us act, she explained. It’s how our brain evolved, she said. “How would you feel if you saw a tiger?”


“Scared,” offered a few kids.


“Bet that would get you moving,” she replied. I’d never seen adaptation addressed in a church, let alone in such and elegant and meaningful way. I was hooked.


Not that I didn’t have great conversations about similar topics with my scientific colleagues. My academic department was also a spirited and inviting community. But it didn’t fulfill my whole person. For one thing, nearly everyone with whom I interacted on campus was between the ages of 18 and 65. Spending time with the young and the old is a whole facet of the human experience that I would have missed. So I kept returning to church. As a youth advisor, I talked to adolescents about everything from global politics to Winnie-the-Pooh. I taught OWL, a comprehensive human sexuality curriculum, to middle-schoolers. I chaperoned teens on work trips to impoverished populations, here in Oregon and as far as Central America. I guided youth on solo coming-of-age quests of self-reflection deep in the forest. I was able to do all of this because I was part of a religious community. Meanwhile, two times zones away from my own parents and extended family, I bonded with mentors a generation or two beyond my years. Later, when I was a father, this network of surrogate grandparents was indispensable while my spouse and I juggled career and childcare.


But a congregation isn’t just a social club. Religious life also grounds me. It helps me to make wise decisions, find meaning in daily events, and strive to be a better person. It puts things in perspective. As a scientist, there are few worse blows to the ego than getting a manuscript rejected from a journal. But then I go hear a sermon about global injustice, and sing a few songs about peace, and I leave laughing off my petty problems, inspired to work on improving the world. The youth are even more refreshing. You just can’t get too upset over anything while using aroused sock puppets to teach a pubescent audience about consent.


We can’t live by science alone. Our existence as conscious beings is a union of the objective and the subjective. Science clarifies the former, but we can use religion to cope with the latter. You may understand how oxytocin leads to feelings of affection. But that doesn’t tell you how to deal with missing a loved one far away. You can study the history and ecology of life on Earth. But the wonder you feel, the sense of kinship with other living things, the desire to protect and preserve them: none of that part is science. And sometimes it’s nice to explore those feelings with a group of like-minded individuals. The hard facts and logic of science are like bones: solid, reliable, yet insufficient for life. A functional body has all sorts of squishy stuff sitting on top of the bones. The wet, messy part of life, the churning, watery, emotional part. You may assume you’re 100% rational, but don’t flatter yourself. An attempted life based only on science would be as inviable and immobile as a fossil. Think of all the decisions you make every day. You can’t possibly weigh all the available evidence each time. Instead we all act on faith: faith in the honesty and good intentions of others, faith in previously successful habits, faith in our own memory and senses. Not that evidence isn’t also important, of course. Consider, conversely, the religions that don’t rest on a framework of science. Flesh with no skeleton is not only gruesome, it’s floppy and ineffectual.


Science aficionados frequently adopt an attitude that all religion is a waste of time, or worse. But this is simply not true. Some religions may be oppressive, but not the ones that I have directly experienced. A similar myth is that society will eventually leave religion behind like the powdered wig. Forget about it. Religion is a basic human endeavor. You can discard the trappings of religion, but an unbiased anthropologist would see religious behavior in even the most nominally secular society. Religion isn’t going away. But religion needs to grow up. It needs to abandon outdated ethical norms and falsified explanations of cosmological processes. And that can’t happen if the most enlightened and progressive members of society decide to have nothing to do with it.


This post is aimed all of the “unchurched” (unsynagogued, etc.), but especially those who find themselves in a new town without their old support network, as grad students and postdocs often do. If you’re satisfied with your life and the relationships you have been able to build, great. I’m not trying save your soul here. But if you find yourself seeking more, consider a religious community. It doesn’t have to be Unitarian Universalist. There are numerous religious traditions compatible with a scientific worldview. And, of course, plenty that are not. But if you find the right one, it can help you when you are scared, despondent, confused, frustrated, or simply stressed. As we all are from time to time, tiger or not. On the flip side, it will give you an outlet to express and revel in your joys. It will help you find purpose. It will channel those feelings sloshing around inside of you. I bet that would get you moving.

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