Friday, September 28, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions – It’s Science. It’s Magic

I spent the next seven years studying, teaching and researching physics.  It was an extremely active time in my life.  I met a whole new group of people, and made friends from all over the globe.  NMT is specifically a science and engineering university, and is not known as much of a party school.  I was extremely diligent in my studies, and I took them very seriously.  I could write several more chapters about my experiences in university, but since this Conversions and De-conversions series is specifically devoted to my spiritual journey, this chapter will be the last to cover those years.  While I spent about eight chapters describing my few years of religious fervor in Calvary Chapel, I will only write briefly about the long period of time I spent in University.  I did not forget about my Christianity entirely.  In fact, toward the end of my University years, I sorely missed my religious experiences, and craved to find a decent church congregation again.  But in the midst of my studies, I confess, Jesus had to take a back seat.

I learned firsthand how advances are generally made in scientific knowledge.  There are revolutionary breakthroughs, but these are actually very rare.  The accumulation of knowledge is typically a painfully slow process.  I believe that the romantic days of brilliant mavericks like Albert Einstein, who single-handedly overturn scientific paradigms and open the doors to new ones, are pretty much over.  These days, most scientific endeavors are the product of huge committees.  Major papers are authored by several, if not dozens of collaborators.  Formulating, researching, authoring and defending my masters thesis was a simple introduction to that process.

First, I found some anomalous data.  Actually, my research advisor found it for me, and told me that it would be something good to spend the next couple of years working on.  Without getting too specific into what this data involved, let’s just say that my advisor collected data from Star X for several years.  Star X behaved uniformly during most of that time.  Much interesting science was done on Star X because of those years of collected data, and its behavior was somewhat predictable.  Then, for some unknown reason, Star X acted unexpectedly, strangely, for about a month.  The data that was collected was anomalous.  It did not act as expected.  This is the point where scientists start licking their chops.  Scientists love anomalous data.  They love when things do not look as they expect.  It means that more important work needs to be done.  It sometimes means that something new lay out there, just waiting to be discovered.  At the very least, it means more funding!

The process is pretty straightforward, although it is arduous and slow.  First, I had to research a bit about Star X and other stars like it, and the known physics that they followed when they behaved normally.  This meant lots of trips to the research library to read hundreds of peer-reviewed papers in research journals.  This meant contacting other experts in the field from around the world, getting them interested in my work, and attempting get ideas and collaboration from them.

Then I would have to form a hypothesis.  What could possibly cause Star X to act the strange way that it did?  I would literally have to start with a guess, although a somewhat educated guess.  After hashing it out with some of my friends and professors, I would weed out most guesses, and stick to one or two of the ones that seemed most likely.  These became my hypotheses.  Then I would have to flesh these hypotheses out.  They involved some physics that I was not as well familiar with, so this led me to read books and papers slightly outside my field.  I would have to then model them with mathematics, and analyze these models by programming them into a computer.

I am mentioning all this, because this is one of the main lessons that I learned while attending University, and even one of the biggest lessons that I learned to apply to the rest of my life.  It is one of the lessons of critical inquiry that I was never taught before I attended University, that most of the people I knew are never taught, and a lesson that I am certain very few in Calvary Chapel ever knew how to apply.  The lesson was not specifically one of scientific inquiry, although that is important.  It was a lesson that my advisors and professors constantly applied to my research work, to each other, and one I finally learned to apply to my own work.  That lesson is this:

The way to knowledge is not to find reasons why a given idea is true.  The way to knowledge is to find reasons why the idea is not true.

That, in a nutshell, is my personal definition of critical inquiry.  The method seems absurdly simple, yet it is often counter intuitive.  Critical thinking is a skill that one must learn.  Often, people get an idea; formulate a hypothesis about something, then cling to it as if they were afraid to betray it.  But I discovered that reasons, justifications, even evidence, could be given for any idea.  Giving rationale for any position is not difficult, and this is evidenced by the countless conspiracy theories that their adherents are able to justify.  But gaining knowledge is not a process of propping up ideas then supporting them with any rationale.  Rather, it is a process of propping up ideas, then whittling away the dead weight of the unsupportable until a core of the idea, if that core exists, is left which cannot be as easily discredited.  Even then, this does not necessarily mean that the more solid idea that is left after critical investigation is true.  It is just a closer approximation to what is probably true.

The process of my graduate research was my life-lesson in critical thinking.  I had to present my research to graduate seminars, only to be questioned by suspicious peers.  I had to revise my ideas, throw away the fluff, and try to support what was left, then present again to another group of professors.  I once had my hopes crushed especially hard when I worked for a month on what looked to me like more amazing new data from Star X that nobody had seen before.  I talked for half an hour during a graduate seminar, showing slide after slide of my results and mathematical models to explain those results.  A simple question followed from one of the visiting astronomers.  “Did you check the uncertainty in your pointing?”  Ooops.  One month of work down the drain, but a lesson in critical inquiry learned for a lifetime.  I gave many seminar talks, and discussed several hypotheses and models to explain the strange behavior of Star X.  Most of the questions that I got from my critical peers were those that attempted to knock holes in my arguments.

To the chagrin of all the Creationist pamphlets and propaganda that I read in Calvary Chapel, I learned that the scientific literature is full of ambiguity.  I remember plenty of creationist sermons that laughed at the use of ambiguous language in scientific books, then pointed to the sure and solid foundational certainty of Scripture.  But scientific theories are not dogmas to be defended at all costs.  I had to get used to qualifiers like ‘probably”, “possibly” and “approximation”.  My old dogmatic world of religious bedrock conviction was replaced by a nebulous world of vague uncertainty.  Most of the scientific work did not result in solid, unquestioned answers, but in methodologies built on well-founded assumptions that led to slightly stronger hypotheses.  So I also had to learn a couple of other valuable lessons in critical thinking and inquiry.  I taught freshman math and physics for a couple of years, and in formulating and defending my hypotheses, I had to do what I told all my freshman students to do.  I must define my terms.  I must list and detail all my assumptions.  And I must describe and follow my methodology.  In other words, I had to show all of my work.  Much to my disappointment, most freshmen students were taught to circle their answers in a set of homework problems.  I told them that answers were important, but I was much more interested in how they got those answers.  I often asked open-ended questions with no easy answers in order to force my students to list all their assumptions, and describe their own methodologies.  I did not want to see a circled answer.  I wanted to understand what they were thinking to get that answer.  I believe that the critical thinker must hold methodology of even greater importance than answers. 

Several years of university work taught me to think in this way, but I also learned that this thinking process is often not what comes naturally.  Critical thinking is a skill that must be learned, practiced and willfully applied.  It is not always easy.  It is not innate or natural.  Critical thinking is not the same as common sense; in fact it is in some ways the opposite of it.  Critical thinking is typically destructive, not constructive.  These were lessons that I learned in University, but I am still learning new lessons in critical thinking to this very day. 

Critical thinking is a process that needs to be actively applied, and in the field of scientific inquiry, I did not meet a single person who did not understand this.  But for most people including myself, critical thinking applied only to natural processes.  It is a criterion that we knew well.  We could not factor God or the Supernatural into any scientific theory, because these are unknowable variables.  They are to be taken on Faith, so the scientific process must be one that must be atheistic.  This is not to say that the practitioners and scientists are atheists, in fact I am certain that most of the scientists I knew were not.  But their methodology cannot be one that includes any element of an unknowable Supernatural element.  We cannot replace a variable with a miracle, simply because this would tell us nothing of the natural science.  Likewise, science typically did not interfere with the religious or spiritual beliefs of my friends.  Most of the people I knew were not the purely rational thinkers who did not believe in anything without sound reason and logic.  No, my friends, all brilliant men and women, had fertile and imaginative beliefs outside of the laboratory.

I still clung to my Christian beliefs.  I had grown weary of, what I considered to be, the dead and impersonal ritualism of the United Methodist Church across from Campus.  I was certainly egalitarian, but I still never got comfortable with the female pastor who presided over that congregation.  Plenty of students and faculty attended that church, but I soon migrated to a small Baptist church outside of town.  I still never warmed up to that small congregation.  I felt like I needed some form of familiar Christianity in my life, but any time I got too close I was reminded of why I left Calvary Chapel in the first place.  I never could find a good balance on that high wire.

Outside of a few strictly rationalistic friends, everybody I knew had some form of supernatural belief.  Plenty of folks believed in alien visitors from other worlds.  Socorro, like nearby Roswell, had its own saucer crash legend, complete with impact crater.  Somebody went through enormous effort to build some kind of UFO landing pad on a nearby mountain west of town.  UFOs, and various beliefs of the inhabitants, were part of the culture in the desert southwest.  I confess that my imagination got carried away with one related item that Chuck Missler introduced me to, and that dozens of people on campus were also swept up with.  The infamous Face on Mars was a blurry photo taken of the surface of Mars by one of the Viking Orbiters in 1976.  Chuck Missler, in his sermons, often compared it to the Great Pyramids or Stonehenge, marveled us with its fantastic mathematical properties, and terrified us with the implication that somebody had to have built it.  But The Face on Mars was another lesson in critical thinking.  The famous photo of that mysterious face on another planet was blurry.  Pixelated.  Ill-Defined. 

But when something that provocative lacks too much information, it leaves everything else to the imagination.  Books were written at that time, loaded to the brim with whimsical but fascinating speculation about The Face on Mars.  In 2001, another orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor promised another photo of the famous Face, this one promising much higher resolution.  A raw photo was promised to be uploaded to the Mars Global Surveyor website as soon as it was transmitted back to Earth, and a friend and I sat at the library computer as the photo rolled in.  That day I learned that definition and clarity, when applied to a mysterious and cloudy revelation, kills faith.

Plenty of my brilliant friends were adherents of astrology, tarot, and crystal vibrations.  These were not passing hobbies, but bordered on obsessions.  Some of my friends had a shelf or two full of books on these subjects, and held to their beliefs with uncritical devotion.  I continued my fascination with Reiki, and even though the mental source of its power was always obvious to me, I still wondered if there was not something more to the powerful experiences that I often felt.  I remember one amazing vision that I had during some meditation exercises.  I floated high above the Cosmos, which slowly undulated under me like an immense flag in the wind.  I was above the fabric of space-time.  I was a transcendent observer and could look from outside the fishbowl, just as if I were part of the Divine.  Then the Cosmos became bigger, or I floated too close to it, until I was swallowed up into it, and got lost in the immensity.  Had I been a religious ecstatic from another time, I can easily imagine myself as Enoch traversing the Heavens and learning the secrets of the Cosmos from the archangels.

Unlike the days when I was in Calvary Chapel, I did not scoff at the beliefs or others, or try to convert them to my own beliefs.  I was intrigued with Reiki, but I also asked plenty of questions about the beliefs in things like astrology and reincarnation.  I found the answers unsatisfactory, so I did not believe in such things.  It was as simple as that.  But I had learned that if I was to be taken seriously, I had to take others just as seriously, and it was just too easy to view the beliefs of others as crazy. 

I met one particular woman in one of my math classes, and we began dating.  After several months of dating this beautiful and brilliant Chemistry PhD candidate, she felt she could trust me enough to tell me a secret about herself.  Her secret came out slowly, in bits and pieces, over the next couple of weeks.  I only knew her on the material and physical realm of Earth, she told me.  But on another plane of existence, she was a warrior princess.  She fought trolls and monsters to protect her loyal subjects.  She could shoot fireballs of pure energy from the palms of her hands.

This was a bit much.  Was she kidding me?  Was this a stunt?  Was Allen Funt going to step out from behind the curtain with his hidden camera?

She also had a familiar guardian cat who served as her psychic advisor.

I never ridiculed her.  Never.  I had learned never to do that.  Instead, I asked her if I could see.  Since she trusted me enough to tell me, could I see and experience the things she did?

“Can I see your familiar cat?”

“No.  She is invisible.  But she is right there watching you,” she said pointing to the floor.

“Can you take me to your other world?  Can I see what you see?  Can I travel there with you?”

“No.  It is a place that you do not travel to physically.  You only get there through the astral realm.  You are not ready.”

I wanted to take her seriously.  What if she is right after all?  It would be beyond fantastic!  I would be one who truly bore secret knowledge and my life would never again be the same!”  But too many things that I asked about were invisible, or inaccessible, or beyond my understanding.  I was convinced that she was experiencing something, but if I were to continue to take her seriously, I would have to accept her by Faith alone.  I simply could not do that, and I had to confess to myself that she was simply deluded.  The experience of breaking up with her was extremely painful.  I felt like I had been trusted, and that I had betrayed her trust.  How could this intelligent, seemingly rational young woman hold these beliefs?  How could she cling to these beliefs, and drop out of a University PhD program rather than face her unbelieving, skeptical ex-boyfriend?

It was also around this time that I stumbled into James Randi’s book The Faith Healers in the university library.  Randi, a well-known stage magician and professional investigator, detailed his personal investigations into the world of Faith Healers.  Some of his favorite whipping boys were Peter Popoff, Ernest Angley and W. V. Grant.  These men who posed as itinerant evangelists were obvious conmen, who used stage tricks to magicians, to fool the needy into tithing money into their personal savings.  It said nothing about belief in a True God, but about conmen posing as God’s prophets, I reasoned.  I had never heard of Popoff or Grant, but I did hear of some of the other people in his book.  Oral Roberts was a well known Faith Healer when I was a child, and my mom had even owned a copy of his book on Seed Faith.  If we tithed, it was a sign to God of our faithfulness, and he would reward our planting of seed faith many fold!  That made perfect sense to me as a youngster, and Roberts was revered as a devout and holy man of God!  That childhood fantasy was shattered by The Faith Healers, in which Randi exposed Robert’s bogus claims of various miraculous cures and resurrections.  Katherine Kuhlman was another family favorite.  My mom once saw her on the traveling tent revival circuit, and my mom marveled that she saw Katherine Kuhlman lengthen a crippled man’s leg right before her eyes!  But Randi again showed how W. V. Grant performed the same cheap stage illusion.  Sure, I would not be fooled by such obvious chicanery by cheap suits like Popoff and Angley, but I figured that was because I had never heard of them before.  I knew Roberts, and I knew Kuhlman, both of whom were doing the work of God.  Yet, Randi lumped these well known paragons and models of my youth in with the rest of the crooks who lied and swindled in the name of God.  The Faith Healers was did not affect my faith in Jesus, but it did make me suspect that most of the preachers I knew in my youth were nothing but conmen.   What shocked me that most was that my family was fooled by these people.  We were intelligent people, yet we were fooled, and could be fooled again.  We did not know how to think critically.  Nobody ever taught us.  We were just taught to have Faith.

We all have the propensity to be fooled if we do not actively apply critical thinking skills.  I became friends with an elderly woman who was a retired music professor from Canada.  She moved to New Mexico with her beloved dogs because she loved the solitude of the desert southwest.  But one of her dogs got very sick, so she went to see a ‘healer’.  I noticed that my friends used the term ‘doctors’ for impersonal practitioners of western medicine, but ‘healers’ were more empathic of their patient’s needs and generally more non-traditional.  A woman certified in Reiki was a ‘healer’.  So when my elderly friend told me she was taking her beloved dog to a healer, I knew it would not be the vet.  After the visit, she asked me to listen to a cassette. 

“I know you are more skeptical than most, and you may think I am crazy, but I want you to listen to this recording.  I just need your opinion, because you are skeptical and I don’t want to make the wrong decision.”

“What is the recording?”

“I recorded the session I had with my dog and an inter-species translator.  She placed her hands on my dog, and told me the dog’s thoughts.”

Oh dear.  This intelligent, elderly woman, a retired professor who had traveled the globe, a woman who told amazing stories of her work in Africa with Jane Goodall in the 1960s, this otherwise rational human, took her dog in for a Mr. Spock style mindmeld.  But I did not ridicule.  I took her seriously.  I took the cassette and listened to it on my own.

What I heard was stunningly obvious manipulation.  The healer said that the dog was talking through her.  He does not feel good.  He ate some road kill.  He has an upset belly that will not go away.  He wants you to understand that he will be better but he needs a more sensitive diet.  My friend sometimes interjected with astonishment.  How could the healer seemingly read the mind of her dog?  Incredible!!

I told her I thought she was being had.  I advised her to proceed with caution, and take the sick dog to a vet.  I am impressed that she listened to me.  But all these stories that I am telling boil down to one of the most important lessons that I learned while in university.  Critical thinking is a skill.  It must be learned and actively applied.  It does not come naturally.  Even the most intelligent of us, even brilliant scientists and other educated people, can be fooled, in fact, are likely to be fooled if our guard is not up.  And there were plenty of people out there who knew this, and were ready to trick us into earning their trust, manipulating our emotions, and maybe even draining our pocketbooks.

In May 2003, I finally earned an M.S in physics and found employment in El Paso, Texas.  I was 39 years old.  I was still single, with no children, and ready to begin the next huge chapter of my life.  I had been saturated in the scientific world while living in Socorro, and I felt like I was stuffed to the brim with potential energy.  I was ready to apply everything I had learned to life, to a career, to my faith and to my future.  But I also felt somewhat empty.  I felt the call of my Spirit crying out to Jesus again.  I had not forgotten He whom I had reluctantly left on the back burner for seven years.  Jesus was my everlasting Savior, and I was ready to meet Him again.  I started looking for a new church in my new home. 

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Symbolic Disguisings of the Truth

In May 2003, I defended my Masters Thesis in physics.  The subject matter of that thesis was one I had worked on during the previous two years.  It was something that I researched and thought about every day during that time, so I was fully prepared on the day of my defense.  I had become fully acclimated to the rigors of the scientific method, and the procedure by which scientists hope to inch forward, ever so slightly, in their pursuit of knowledge and truth.  I was very privileged to be the tiniest part of that process.  I was but a mere blip on the radar, and I was honored to be in the shadow of my professors and collaborators, who were most brilliant men and women I had ever met.  I had changed immensely since I had first enrolled at NMT as a 31 years old freshman in 1995.  I had taken the first steps toward becoming critical in my thinking, and understanding the importance of methodology.  I was immersed in the world of scientific inquiry and investigation, and the naïve religious beliefs of my youth seemed a million miles away.

No I was not an atheist.  I still considered myself a Christian.  I still believed.  In something.  What exactly I believed in during that time was a little vague, ill-defined, and evolving over the course of time.  I would not say that it was syncretistic.  I was not trying to combine all religious beliefs into a single true one.  I did not think that all gods were the same.   The only religious tradition that made any sense to me was the one that I was raised in, and the one I converted to in Calvary Chapel.  I believed in Jesus, of course.  And of course he died on the Cross as an atonement for our sins.  Yes, of course, he died on that cross and rose again three days later.  He was the All-Mighty after all.  But my old beliefs about an His literal ascension into Heaven – well, I knew far too much astrophysics and astronomy at this point to know that this post-mortem destination of Jesus could not be taken literally.  The disciples of Jesus are said to have watched Jesus float off of the ground and rise into Heaven.  The disciples peered into the sky to watch Him disappear into the clouds.  The person who wrote those Biblical scenes some 2000 years ago obviously thought that the abode of Jesus was in a place located in the sky beyond the clouds.  But I knew what was up there.  My research work and thesis was in astrophysics.  I had done work at the VLA radio telescope observatory, and had spent many evenings in the Etscorn Campus observatory just for fun.  I understood, better than any of the ancient Gospel authors, what actually comprised the heavens.  So where exactly did Jesus go when he lifted off the earth?  What was his real destination?  Somewhere in the cosmos?  Was he blasting through outer space until He reached his Heavenly Throne?  If not, where did He go exactly?  This small part of the Gospels, like so many other small parts of the Bible and of my Faith, retreated into the world of metaphor and myth.  Quite what these stories meant, I did not exactly know.  All I knew was that stories like this could not be taken as literal truth.  They were true, in some non-literal sense.  But again, I did not know what non-literal sense I could make of these things I knew to be still somehow true.

All I knew was that the Christianity in the literal and exclusive form that I believed in Calvary Chapel was wrong.  It was simplistic and willfully ignorant of too much science and heretical Worldly Wisdom.  The world was vastly more enormous and complicated than the Biblical writers could ever have imagined.  But at the time, I did not dwell on these problems too much.  I had other priorities in mind – like working on my Masters thesis, research and teaching freshman classes.

My way of reconciling myth and metaphor in my religious beliefs, and what I knew of physical reality came one evening when visiting a friend.  He introduced me to a VHS tape the he had on a shelf.  “You never heard of Joseph Campbell?  Oh, you would absolutely love him.  A whole new view of the world.  He has some very interesting ideas.  Why don’t we watch some if it!”  Yes, this is the kind of thing we did for entertainment in the tiny farm and university town of Socorro, New Mexico.  So I watched a bit of Bill Moyers interviewing Joseph Campbell, on the Power of Myth.  This was the first time I can remember hearing somebody compare, even equate stories from the Christian Bible with pagan mythology.  Campbell spoke endlessly on the mythology of the hero, and how the same hero-themes occur again and again in our mythologies.  These myths, I later learned, are the chain of literature and imagination that can be linked back to antiquity and beyond our earliest rememberings.  These themes bridge cultures and time, and somehow strike a nerve in all of us.  They are the same themes that occur often in literature – because they are the same themes that ultimately make a good story.  Campbell paid particular attention to the hero-themes in a story like Star Wars, and why we seem to resonate with these stories so well.  But these themes are also present in our mythologies and our religions.  They are even present in our Biblical mythologies and traditions.

Joseph Campbell was my introduction to comparative mythology.  This captured my imagination, but I dared not extend that too far into comparative mythology and religion.  Campbell did dare to do this, and I had never heard such potentially dangerous ideas before.  But I was not too shocked.  I had learned by this time in my life to not be so thin-skinned and ready to be persecuted as I was as a Fundamentalist.  In fact, it was somehow comforting.  By this time, I was fully aware that much of the Bible could not be taken literally as I had once thought.  I was at a loss as to how to reconcile my evolving Christian beliefs with obviously non-literal Bible stories like Adam and Eve.  But somehow, Joseph Campbell and his comparative mythology allowed me to admit that Adam and Eve was just mythology – but mythology with common themes like God’s love and justice, humanity’s faithlessness, pride, and foolish propensity to be deceived.  God could inspire the Bible, and use myth in His inspiration.  Myth was the way God could communicate these ideas of love, justice and redemption in a way that transcended all cultures.  Since myth contained elements and themes that were ubiquitous in stories and ideas, people could readily understand what was in the Bible as myth, but with deeper meaning.  Myth at its best, I came to believe, was just “symbolic disguisings of the truth”.

With this new rationale, I was able to admit that the Bible did indeed contain myth, but it was no less inspired by the Divine.  Some parts of the Bible, particularly the fantastic parts in Genesis, could finally be reconciled with my scientific knowledge.  And as long as I did not travel too far down the trail of comparative mythology, as long as I did not take comparative mythology to some of its ultimate conclusions, I felt confident that my Christian beliefs, although evolving, were still ultimately true.

I had never met a non-believer before I attended University, but I thought I knew a little bit about them.  I had been told by Pastor Skip that atheists lived meaningless and empty lives.  They were miserable people because they believed in absolutely nothing.  Skip told us from that pulpit that atheists should just end their misery, and by following their own rules of logic, should just go and kill themselves.  I had never met a real atheist before, so it was easy to demonize these godless people.  But after befriending one atheist, then another, and then several more, I had to admit that their lives seemed anything but hopeless and empty.  There was that cultural divide again.  Most of my friends were foreign students from places like Germany, China, Romania and Croatia.  When I found out that some of them were in fact non-believers, it was not because they advertised it.  It just slipped out, like when I asked one of them about her belief in the afterlife. 

“Heaven? Hell?  That is superstition.  When I die, I will die.  That’s it.” 

Yet they all seemed somehow normal.  I thought they were mistaken, and that surely our spirit would live on through eternity.  But they were not the raging, hateful maniacs that Pastor Skip told me they would be.  They were not miserable and hopeless; at least they did not seem to be.  Pastor Skip would often say that people without Jesus often seemed to be happy, but that was just a mask for public display.  We do not know their real spirits and true intentions, and deep inside they are all desperately lost, and seeking for God to fill the aching hole in their hearts.  Pastor Skip constantly warned us about the hypocrisy of non-believers, but I grew tired of imagining that behind closed doors my non-Christian friends were actually depressed, lost and miserable people, and I grew tired of imagining that I knew their hidden but true state of conscious hopelessness.  Pastor Skip confessed that we did not know their secret thoughts, but he went on to tell us what they were!  According to him, not only all Christians, but only Christians, had fulfilled and purposeful lives, but I came to understand that this simply was just not true.  I had been as fervent a Christian as I could be, yet I had to leave such exclusive beliefs behind for my own sanity.  At the same time, these non-Christians from all across the globe were certainly not so miserable that they would be better off committing suicide.  How dare Skip Heitzig!!  He had no business to tell these fine friends of mine or anybody else to go and kill themselves!  What in the world is wrong with Pastor Skip?

The further I got from Calvary Chapel, the more I discovered, little by little, that nearly everything Pastor Skip told me was false.  Just wrong.  Of course he did not lie. I thought, he was just ignorant of the facts.  All his thoughts were just tainted with his own religious paradigm that he could not think outside of.  He was still, underneath, an upstanding and moral man.  But at the same time I could understand why many Christians were reluctant to send their children to a public university only to be exposed to subversive ideas, cross-cultural pollination, and contrary views.  It could do nothing but puncture insulated and untainted naiveté.  Knowledge was dangerous, just like it was symbolized in the myth of Adam, Eve, and the tempting, powerful and corrupting fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Gone was the old grey stone

My first semester astrophysics professor lectured in front of 25 of my fellow students.

“What wavelength of solar radiation reaches Earth’s surface with the least amount of attenuation?  What wavelength is the least scattered or absorbed by the atmosphere?”

“About 550 nanometers,” answered one of the students.

“That is right!  550 nanometers corresponds to the green portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  The light that we perceive as green is the light that is most efficiently transmitted to Earth’s surface.  That is why leaves appear green.  And the human eye also has its peak sensitivity at 550 nanometers!  Our eyes are more sensitive to green than any other color.  Coincidence?  Not at all.  This is evidence of …”

I had heard this before.  Chuck Missler used to stand in front of a crowd of hundreds in Calvary Chapel and give endless peculiar examples like this as evidence of obvious design by our loving Creator.  How is it that possible that our eyes could possess peak sensitivity at the optimal wavelength of solar irradiation?  How could the human eye possibly know where the sun would shine brightest?  Chuck Missler would say, “This is evidence of God’s handiwork”.

“This is evidence of Evolution by Natural Selection,” said my professor.  “The mechanism is amazing.”

I have mentioned several times in this story that I have always accepted Evolution as the best and most accurate explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.  I never told anybody in Calvary Chapel about my belief in the Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection.  Evolution, as I understood it, made perfect sense to me.  Evolution was intuitive to me, as the logic of it was gleaned from all the hikes and exploring of my youth, and witnessing firsthand the geology and climate of the vast desert.  It made more sense to me than the literal belief in a first man named Adam, and him naming all of God’s creatures.  True, I did believe the Genesis story because I had to as part of my Christian belief, but I always assumed that there was some non-literal or allegorical explanation behind the Biblical account, and I left it at that.  I did not explore the problem further, not because I feared the story would be debunked, but because it just seemed like an unsolvable problem, and I did not want to waste time wrestling with Christian issues that were peripheral to the central Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I also worried that becoming sidetracked by angels that danced on pinheads would become unnecessarily divisive within my Christian community.

Yet my belief in Evolution, as much as I accepted it, was immature before I enrolled in college.  Enrolling in a science and engineering university forced me to think about these scientific issues in a way that intruded uncomfortably on my religious beliefs.  I could not simply ignore Evolution like I had in the past.  Being confined in a science and engineering university forced me to confront it in a way that was sometimes a little too uncomfortable.  The implications of the Theory of Evolution via natural selection are earth-shattering to any person who believes that humans are special creations of God, and distinct and separate from the animal kingdom.  Many Christians who accept Evolution, like I did, have to sidestep or even ignore these implications in order, I now believe, to cling to their beloved Faith.  I just accepted Evolution without fully understanding it, and did not dissect it fully enough to discover the problems that it would give to my Faith.

Christians have every reason to either dismiss Evolution as a fraud, claim it is without scientific support, or tentatively and grudgingly accept it only to brush it and its uncomfortable ramifications under the rug.  When my professor fiendishly told us students that the human eye is most sensitive at the same wavelength as the peak solar irradiance, I could just as easily have claimed that it was not due to Evolution, but was instead evidence of the exquisite design of our loving creator.  God made our eyes sensitive in the green portion of the solar spectrum because God made the Earth’s atmosphere transparent to that part of the solar spectrum.  How else could we explain the interlocking serendipity of the otherwise unrelated human eye and a sphere of plasma 93 million miles away?

Despite my belief in the Theory of Evolution, and despite living in a university environment that stressed methodology over certainty, my brain still protested with echoes of Evangelical Christian propaganda.  To think that Evolution could produce us, in our complexity, out of nothing but a stew of chemicals, and with nothing but blind chance, was seemingly impossible.  Pastor Skip, who just repeated to us clichés that he had heard, said that it was like assembling a 747 jet airliner with a tornado rampaging through a junkyard.  The eye, I was told, was too complex to assemble by chance and out of multiple inter-dependent parts.  I still have an old sermon on cassette by Henry Morris, father of Flood Geology and author of The Genesis Flood, in which he claims that something as complex as the eye could not form by random mutations.  Each of perhaps hundreds of mutations would have to be independently directed to the benefit of eyesight.  The mutations could not form gradually from these random mutations over millions of years, so I was told by Henry Morris.  What good is half an eye? 

Out on one of my multiple geological field trips in the desert, rock hammer in hand, I asked one of my friends about some of the problems that I had understanding Evolution.  More precisely, I asked him about problems that Evangelical Christianity told me I should have with Evolution. 

“Like what?” he asked.  I gave him the problem of the existence of the eye that Henry Morris told me was unsolvable through the blind chance of Evolution.  After my friend solved the problem of the eye after about one minute of explanation, and after he scanned the harsh desert that we hiked through and reminded me about the natural, environmental pressures that drive natural selection, I never again thought of Henry Morris, young earth creationism, or flood geology as viable or believable scientific theories about our natural world.

Pastors Skip and Chuck, indeed nearly everybody I knew in Calvary Chapel was convinced that Evolution was not only wrong, but also a willful deception.  A lie.  Evolution was an unproven theory, they said, that people who hated God clung to in their desperation to deny His existence.  ‘Evolutionism’ was viewed as an alternate religion to Christianity.  Most of my friends back in Calvary Chapel did not think that heathens were deluded by the faulty evidence for Evolution, rather they believed that these heathens used Evolution as a smokescreen to outwardly deny what they inwardly knew to be true – that Jesus was Lord, and would be their ultimate judge.  Heathen Evolutionists were deluding themselves because of their hatred toward God.

This was emphasized when a special guest visited the New Mexico Tech campus for a free lecture.  Phillip Johnson, widely regarded as the father of the Intelligent Design movement, visited our campus and spoke to a packed auditorium.   I have to give him credit for his courage.  He spoke to an auditorium full of students, professors and scientists about the myopia of their methodological naturalism.  Surely, we must supplement our instruction of Evolution with at least the possibility of a Designer.  Since Evolution alone cannot possibly explain the complexity of the biological cell, or the self-aware mind in the human brain, we need to consider that there is some Purposeful Mind at work behind the biology.  I had never heard of Phillip Johnson before, but I had seen his book Darwin on Trail in the church bookstore, and I knew that he was an Evangelical Christian.  Although he purposefully never mentioned God, Jesus or the Bible in his public lecture, he otherwise spoke just as Chuck Missler would speak to a Sunday morning congregation.  I knew damn well that ‘Designer’ was just a euphemism purposefully chosen for a secular audience.

After the lecture, Johnson took questions.  One of the biology professors came absolutely unglued.  She stood and pointed at him, doing her best to control her anger.  “How dare you come here and accuse us of intentionally hiding data!  I do this for a living!  I devote my life to this!”  With that notable exception, most of the professors stayed quiet until they walked into the foyer.  From there, I heard plenty of snickers from the Geology department.  “I can’t believe that guy.  He thinks we are in a conspiracy to hide damning evidence against Evolution.”

One by one, the stories from the Bible that I had been taught, since childhood, to take as literal truth, were crumbling into mere fables.  Adam and Eve?  I had always taken that as some sort of metaphor, but pondering Evolution proved it to be nothing but myth.  Noah’s Ark?  Geology and physics demonstrated this story to be impossible if taken literally.  I especially remember the insight I felt thinking about the origin of the rainbow.  Rainbows are formed due to the natural refraction of light through the natural prism of water vapor.  Did the refractive properties and the laws of optics not exist before God formed a rainbow for Noah as a sign of His promise?  Absurd.  The deconstruction of my literal belief continued.  There was no ice canopy that covered Earth to give it a universally ideal climate.  A comet did not shatter the ice canopy, did not create the Deluge, and did not cause the first rain and thus the first rainbow.  This was all ad-hoc speculation that had no scientific basis.

On and on it went during my years in University.  Diverse languages did not originate at the Tower of Babel.  People did not live in excess of 900 years.  Evolution via Natural Selection was only a controversy within Christianity.  The controversy did not exist outside the walls of the Church.  Men did not escape death by being escorted to Heaven in a flying chariot.  For that matter, Heaven was not in the sky or anywhere ‘up there’.

The Red Sea did not part at the stroke of Moses’ staff, and the Israelites did not escape the Egyptians on dry ground.  There were no supernatural plagues to strike the Egyptians.  I supposed that the fantastic numbers of Israelites were exaggerated a bit, and that there were natural causes to all the ‘miracles’ of the Exodus.  However I figured that God was the moving force behind all these events.  The Egyptian chariots may have merely gotten stuck in the marshy mud in their pursuit of their Israelite slaves, but God was the one responsible for placing the mud there in the first place. 

Nearly all of the miraculous elements of the Bible were debunked in my mind.  But somehow, I still believed.  I just downgraded the miraculous to something more like the natural world that we observed.  Unbelievers claim that they never see the miraculous hand of God in the modern world, scientific, naturalistic world.  But, I figured, they did not understand that the hand of God was actually everywhere at work in the world, we just had trouble recognizing it because it was not the fireball from heaven that we were expecting.  The mundane world only operates through the Will of God, and every event occurs only through His providence.  In that sense, everything is a miracle.  It is only in hindsight that we look back, and we can link the events together that brought us into this special place.  How was I fortunate enough, I of all people, to find myself in a University?  Well, I could look back at the various events that happened previously in my life, not all of them pleasant, which brought me to the enviable position that I was currently in.  How can that be explained away?  How can all those people and events come into my life, to place me in this position today, except by the divine Grace of God?

My criticism of the miraculous in the Bible stopped at Jesus.  This is where the Bible remained untouched.  Jesus was God on Earth.  He had ultimate faith in His Father, more Faith than any mere human could muster, so He was able to perform His miracles, as evidenced by the eyewitnesses who wrote the Gospels.  Jesus was, so to speak, too hot for me to touch.  How could we have a redeemer of mankind who was not able to also perform miracles?  I was able to demystify almost the entire Bible as stories or legends or products of their time, but not the Gospels.  That was hitting too close to home.  Instead, my growing non-literal belief in Scripture assured me that I was not actually losing my Faith.  Far from it.  I was just growing more mature as a believer.  I was becoming educated and my beliefs more, I believed, sophisticated.  I no longer needed the strict literalism required for childish belief.

Somehow all disciplines, whether scientific, historical, or religious, like my Christian belief, converged and harmonized into some ultimate Truth.  My professors were not lying when they said they had evidence for Evolution.  The Theory of Evolution was the best model that they knew of to explain the evidence that they collected.  Where did this leave Pastor Skip back in Calvary Chapel?  The conspiracy theories of Chuck Missler or the flood geology of Henry Morris?  The pastors and teachers of my youth in Cape Baptist Christian School? Pastor Jack of New Hope Church?  Even my boyhood religious instruction from the fire-breathing Grandpa Wagner?  None of them were lying either.  They were all presenting truth as best as they understood it, but all in different ways.  They all loved Jesus, and they all accepted the Gospel in ways that they understood.  Jesus met them where they were at their own unique perspectives.

Most of my friends at New Mexico Tech were international students.  During my years in university, I had more friends from Asia and Europe than I did American friends, and I loved learning about their differences in food, music and culture.  But in order to do this, I had to become inclusive in this new environment of vast cultural and religious ideas.  I had to accept scientific evidence, and somehow incorporate it into my religious beliefs.  I no longer preached or witnessed to my friends, and I no longer felt any pressure or guilt for not witnessing.  I can only think of one exception to this.  I remember one evening in the first year of university career, while discussing religion with my girlfriend B----, I decided to use the C.S. Lewis Lord Liar Lunatic argument that I had learned so well from Pastor Skip.  I was not trying to convert her, since she always claimed to be a Christian, but I just wanted to get her reaction to an apologetic argument that I knew her mainline church had never exposed her to.  I recited to B---- most of the words of Jesus from John chapter 10.  From memory:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.  And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.  My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.  I and My Father are one.
 “Does a normal human say things like this?” I asked B----.  “Are these the words of a merely good man, or a sane human?”  B---- gave me a look that I was used to seeing after giving apologetic arguments.  She probably wondered if mine were the words of a normal or sane human.

I confess this inclusiveness was sometimes a little uncomfortable for me. I occasionally attended a United Methodist church across from campus.  I knew nothing of this particular Christian denomination, but I knew it was some form of Christianity, even though I knew it was a form of Christianity that the likes of Calvary Chapel despised.  I did, however go because the options were slim.  New Mexico Tech is in the tiny town of Socorro, NM and there were few churches to choose from.  There was no Calvary Chapel, but I figured that was just as well.  I did not want to go there anyway, or to the town’s only Baptist church.  I had my fill of literalism and the guilt that came with it.  I was not about to go to a Catholic church.  This pretty much left the United Methodist as the only option left to me.  But I could not attend regularly.  It was most difficult for me because of the female pastor at this United Methodist Church.  I could downgrade the miraculous to legend.  I could be inclusive as far as I felt the Bible would allow me.  But accepting a female pastor was ultimately too difficult.  Couldn’t these supposed Christians see that allowing a female to pastor a church was in direct contradiction to the Bible, for instance 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?

Despite these reservations, I had to admit that I had left Christianity as I knew it.  I was still a Christian who had to accept the physical world that I was learning so much about.  I could not accept that people who did not believe exactly as I did were lying about their convictions, or that anybody was being deceitful.  I became a generic, liberal Christian.  And again, I believe that I found myself in a place that many Christians find themselves stuck in when they are forced to leave some kind of religious fundamentalism.  I did not criticize my beliefs to the point where it cut too deep.  Of course I was still a Christian.  Jesus was my still Savior and I believed the Bible to be the Word of God.  But I admitted that there was much that I did not know, but somehow, someway I knew it was still all true.  And I left it at that.

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