Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Close encounters

A few days ago, in the process of selling some unwanted furniture (Craigslist is my new best friend), I found myself in an interesting situation. The gentleman who came to buy my chair and I were making polite conversation; he noticed that I had an out-of-state license plate on my car and I told him that I'd moved here for graduate school. He asked what I was studying, and I told him geology - specifically volcanology - and then gave him the short version of why I think erupting volcanoes are awesome.

He paused. Then, in a slightly different tone of voice, he said, "There's something I'd like to give to you." After digging around in a bag for a moment, he turned around and handed me a paper booklet. "I'm sure that as a geologist, you've come up against a lot of different ideas about creation and the world," he went on, and I could feel my face freezing into a rictus smile. "This is just a Gospel tract for you to read and think over."

To my immense relief, he didn't go any further than that, and I was able to thank him politely, tell him I hoped he enjoyed the chair, and go back inside. The booklet, as I expected, was heavily emblazoned with patriotic imagery (a really angry looking eagle plastered on top of the American flag), and filled with a bunch of gloom-and-doom Bible quotes about sin and some really poor-quality comics (Jack Chick tracts, anyone?). I relegated it to the recycling pile, and then got to thinking about the whole experience.

This actually isn't the first time I've encountered that kind of a response as a geologist. Once was on my first long field trip, where an elderly lady cornered the professor in a grocery store parking lot and wanted to know if we were looking at rocks formed in "The Flood", which she assured us were very common in the area (somewhere in Utah, I think). The second time was during a "Geology Day" that our department held every year; one of the seniors was running a demonstration about dinosaur bones, and became very upset when two young children began berating her about the ages of the bones and insisting that the Earth couldn't be older than 6,000 years. (The other senior in the room actually had to leave for a few minutes to keep herself from attempting to strangle said small children, that sort of thing being frowned upon in community events.)

In the first instance, as I remember, my professor made some vague comments about the rocks probably having been deposited in water, and made his escape. In the second case, the senior had to stop her discussion and ask that the children be considerate of everyone else and wait until she was finished to get into an argument with her (which they may have done, although I wasn't there).

What is it about geologists that makes some people want to convince us of the validity of their worldview, as opposed to practicing tolerance and acceptance of others? The man I encountered was polite, and didn't go farther than handing over the pamphlet, but he was still making assumptions about me - and he had no way of knowing whether they were true. (I have, in fact, taken and enjoyed a number of classes about world religions, and they did cover different creation stories. I was also raised with a theistic worldview, although it's been modified somewhat as I've aged, and been better able to examine my religion and my feelings about it.)

I think what offends me the most is the assumption that because I'm a scientist, I must automatically need saving, pulling back into some sort of protective cloud of religion which is the only safe haven of morality and virtue. I have no problem reconciling my religious beliefs and my profession, and I don't believe that it makes me an immoral or unkind or a bad influence on impressionable young people. Not all scientists are atheists, and being an atheist doesn't automatically make you lose all sense of morality.

Another thing that I found distasteful about the encounter was that to me, religion is a very private thing, in contrast to being a scientist (which I'm happy to proclaim loudly to the world at every opportunity). I'm happy with my religious viewpoints; whatever works for other people is fine with me - as long as it doesn't involve trying to change my beliefs. I realize that a major part of some religions, especially evangelical Christianity, is proselytizing, and that these people genuinely feel that they're helping me. Not to be rude, but here's a news flash:

You are not going to convince me that your system of belief, or worldview, or whatever, is better than mine by telling me that I'm wrong. You might get me thinking about it by demonstrating through the way you behave toward others that it's a good idea, but it's not likely. And you certainly aren't going to make a good impression on me by treating me like a misguided child.

In the meantime, I'm going to go on being fascinated and amazed and awed by the concept of deep time, and the Earth and the universe being billions of years old, and how cool it is that life could have evolved from a few teeny little cells way back when. And I'm sure I'll come up against this question of conflict between religion and science again, whether in conversation or in class, and I'll handle it the best way I know. And hopefully, someday, some people will stop thinking that I'm a godless heathen just because I like to play with rocks.

(Wow, that was rambling and philosophical. I've definitely got to finish up some of my literature review for this thesis thing so I can start writing about volcanoes again soon.)


Dave S. said...

Haha, oh man! I've had a similar thing happen to me *in the field*. I was installing a radio networked seismometer on the side of a rode over looking Los Angeles. We were trying to do a test to get signals from the San Fernando valley, over the Santa Monica mountains to the UCLA campus.

So I'm on the side of a road setting up this antenna with a laptop, walkie talkie, tools, binoculars and such. This car pulls over and an older gentleman gets out and inquires about what I'm doing. I give him this excited and brief lecture on seismology and how we're testing a system to remotely (and cheaply!) send seismic data.

The guy nods. Pauses for a second and says, "that's pretty great. But you know what you guys should really be studying?"

"Oh no," I thought.

"The power of the Lord!" And then he goes on for 15 minutes giving me a lecture about how it made a difference in his life, etc, etc, etc. Fortunately, he gave me no literature.

Geology Happens said...

been there.

Try being a HS biology and geology teacher and not getting those lectures. After all Christianity was founded to be somewhat evangelical. I just tell them that I am studying natural phenomenon and that their faith should be the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen (Heb, 11:1) That the God of the Bible pretty much tells us that if we can see it then its not faith, so stop looking and believe. I then end with "you know, the church thought Galileo was all wrong too"

BrianR said...

Great post.

When I was living in Colorado during my master's degree, I had a Jehovah's Witness knock on my door ... I was living solo at that point and must've been bored, so I invited him in. When it was revealed that I was a geologist, he steered the conversation in the direction of the age of the Earth and all that. Much like your story above, I was very civil and so was he ... we agreed to disagree ... I saw no point in trying to persuade him about radiometric dating and such. It was a weird feeling indeed.

Silver Fox said...

Most proselytizing I've been on the receiving end of came directly from knocks on my door by 2-3 particular Christian sects, other than once by my young niece who had been going to kindergarten in a church school and was quite taken with all the stories, as many children are. I haven't gotten any, so far, as the direct result of being a geologist.

I think it's good, usually, to take the unwanted approach as lightly as possible and to remember that a lot of scientists try hard to convince other people that the scientific way is right or best. Religion and science aren't always in conflict, although many people see it that way.

Sometimes, though, you can't get away, like when you take a tour of the Mormon Temple in SLC - then it doesn't matter whether you're a scientist or not, or even of another Christian sect - you will get the whole story. That happened to me last year; I thought it best to just let them tell me everything they thought was important, and fortunately got away without having to exchange email (!).

helena.heliotrope said...

I'm a cave guide, and people have asked me if I believe all the dates I say, and what if God planted old things, to tempt us.
I mumble and look awkward until they wear themselves out.
It's an intrusive question that ends badly on all accounts.

Elli said...

Having taught in areas where churches outnumber bars for a number of years, I've actually gotten this a number of times not just from random strangers, but also from students forced to take intro science classes. Even in physical geology, we talk about time, so its hard for the evangelical christians not to come face to face with an issue they never wanted to address. I have come up with a few ways to handle it:
1) Announce that whatever the student's personal beliefs, we will be going by the book's determination of the Earth's age & various events. I emphasize that I'm not trying to "convert" them to my thinking.
2) If a student still decides to challenge me, I ask them to come and talk to me after class so as not to turn a discussion of the age of the sea floor into a creationism vs. evolution argument. If they follow up with a visit, I listen politely and then explain that we're going with the book. I have been told I'm going to hell at this point.
3) For the student who starts to break down, admit they like geology, but can't deal with the conflict between religion and science, I actually have a packet of four articles that range from two pages to 20+ pages about the subject. The articles were written by James Skehan, who is an emeritus professor at Boston College and a Jesuit priest. Now, evangelical Christians may have issues with Catholics -- especially Jesuits -- but it at least gives them a chance to see that geologist doesn't mean you have to be atheist.

In some ways, there is also a bit of reverse prejudice in some geology conferences I've attended. I've seen people who've been fairly open about their Christianity, Jewishness, etc. be challenged as to how they balance that and science. For pete's sake, you just have to look at the blogosphere to see that viewpoint. Just because someone is religious doesn't mean they believe in creationism!

Ok, enough from me on this. Personal pet peeve.

Thomas said...

This is annoying (I've had the same experience, even without mentioning my major) but there are a few things to remember to help keep your blood pressure from getting too high.

I doubt that they give a shit about your being a geologist in particular - I've noted that they seem to think that 'bringing down' a scientist, ANY brand of legitimate scientist as being major God points or something to that effect. Lee Strobel tells a story in his book "The Trouble With Physics" to this effect. After finding out that he's a scientist, they insist (and this is a Canadian group) that dinosaurs are still alive and hiding deep in the jungles of Africa and that they have 'Biblical biologists' searching for them.

Another thing to remember is that they don't necessarily view you as a 'godless heathen' if you're a scientist (though, if they're familiar with geology, I'll admit that this is likely the case) - as someone else noted, in their mind, it typically doesn't matter if you're a Christian, Muslim, what-have-you or not unless you are part of their fundamentalist variety.

Good luck dealing with the annoyance.

And since people are telling their stories, I think I'll give a short version of mine. There's a church in the city I live in that specializes in taking drug abusers, prostitutes, etc. off the street and giving them a home/chance for detox/making life changes (good) while turning them into fundamentalist Christians aimed at trying to sell shitty bracelets to people (bad). I was walking to a book store one day when I was accosted by one - after a few minutes of arguing that I did not want to buy one, but politely wishing him luck in garnering support for other people he asked me if I 'believed in Jesus.' This left me really pissed off since I didn't even have the option to lie because the angle he was obviously going for was 'If you love Jesus, you should give me money because he wants you to help the poor!' so I responded with a 'no'. He spent the next ten minutes preaching to me about Hell and his fear of my going there if I didn't convert. I had to bite my tongue so hard it nearly bled to keep myself from grinning/laughing. Here was a grown man, throwing HELL at me, another grown man, as if I was a child that would automatically believe in such a thing simply because someone told me it existed. It just seemed so....childish. I actually felt sorry for him afterwards.

Thomas said...

Elli, can you give some citations and/or links to those papers by Skehan? That would be a nice reference to have around when I discuss this issue with people.

Also, I think you're misunderstanding the arguments that are being made if you think atheists are asserting that you must be a creationist to be religious: It's more likely that they're wondering how the people can reconcile being in a field where your work is based entirely around empirical evidence with having religious beliefs that have no empirical evidence to support them. But, that is a discussion for another time and place.

Silver Fox said...

Elli said, "Just because someone is religious doesn't mean they believe in creationism!"


Nahum said...

As a student of geology here in Spain, I'm very used to hear ring my door early on sundays, with people coming to give me some information about their religion, and sometimes i'm very tired from field trips to hear things like "the apocalipsis is good". I really prefer a non-apocalyptic view and being a "sinner". Anyway, sooner or after I'll be death, and no religion can give me a solution for this :)

Elli said...

The James Skehan stack:
-"Creation Science: Bad Science, Bad Religion!" in the October 1999 issue of Geotimes (v. 44, no. 10)
-"The Age of the Earth, of Life, and of Mankind: Geology and Biblical Theory versus Creationism" in a book entitled "Science and Creation: Geological, Theological, and Educational Perspectives" edited by Robert W. Hanson, Macmillian Publishing, (no year on my copy...)
-"Theological Basis for a Judeo-Christian Position on Creationism" in Journal of Geological Education, 1983, v. 31, p. 307 - 314 along with a letter to the editor in 1984, v. 32, p. 143 and a response on p. 144 - 146
-"Modern Science and the Book of Genesis" a booklet from the National Science Teachers Association, 1986

I have copies of each and can make pdf's if anyone has trouble finding a specific article (at least, I think that's legal...) Email me at planelight at gmail

GeologyJoe said...

everyone knows the earth is only 6,000 years old.