In my last post, I expressed some surprise at the fact that I am still a Christian, and that was genuine. But at the same time, I also find it perfectly reasonable and rational to be a Christian. Which, as you can probably imagine, is pretty important to someone who is scientifically inclined. And so I thought it was worth exploring a bit more of why it is that I am a Christian and how that fits in with my methodical approach to, well, just about everything (as my long-suffering wife can attest).
An important part of any rigorous scientific undertaking is to be aware of your biases. It may be tempting to think that all science is impartial and free of bias, and some might even cultivate that perception. But the reality is that any research, and really the scientific enterprise as a whole, involves some bias or another. Learning may in fact require bias. That doesn’t mean all biases are created equal, or that there is no reason to ever try to reduce bias. But it does mean it cannot be done away with, and so the next best option is to be clear about it.
And so, in the spirit of transparency, I freely acknowledge that my upbringing in a Christian home and in the church certainly contributed to my Christian beliefs. I would even go so far as to allow that it might be reasonable, as some have done, to characterize Christianity as a meme that I have contracted by virtue of interaction with other Christians. I certainly didn’t derive it from a set of indisputable first principles, nor did I come to it by means of some new direct revelation from God to me and me alone. I received it as a whole set of doctrines and practices from others; more correctly, I received various bits of doctrine and practice from a variety of Christians which I synthesized and recombined, and have possibly passed on to new folks.
But while a meme approach might offer an interesting metaphor for how I (or anyone) came to be a Christian, it does not, as some suggest, reduce the value of being a Christian. More to the point, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether there is truth in Christian teaching. Quantum physics can be thought of as a meme; it is spread from teacher to student, and probably even in some cases from parent to child. The “great man” theory of history is a meme. Why, even the notion of a meme is, itself, a meme! But we don’t judge the correctness of quantum physics by the method in which it is taught to others. So, why should Christianity be any different?
Furthermore, while my experiences in the church may have biased me towards Christianity, I have had plenty of experiences that could have biased me against it. I’ve been part of good Christian communities, but I’ve seen their warts too. The church that I grew up in went through a split that resulted in our family going elsewhere; my parents spared us the details, but the end result was being separated from friends at an impressionable age. As a nerd, my biggest struggles to fit in during junior high and high school came in church youth group. And then my closest friend from those years died in a car accident right before high school graduation.
Now, I mention all these things not for your sympathy or pity, or to claim that I have suffered or been persecuted for the sake of my faith. I merely wish to point out that my personal experiences include the types of events that lead some people to question their beliefs and become biased against them. Thus I think it would be an oversimplification to say that the reason I am a Christian is merely because that’s what I grew up with.
Another bias I will acknowledge is the possibility my mind may be inherently predisposed towards faith and religious beliefs. This is an area of active research on which I am by no means an expert. However, I believe it is fair to say that there is some evidence that the human race has developed instincts that prefer explanations involving agency as opposed to random chance. Certain people may be even more inclined than others in that respect. Rather than discuss the evidence for this at length, let’s just stipulate that humans have such tendencies and that I am a typical human in that respect.
Does that mean my beliefs are nothing more than the product of natural selection? Again, that seems like an incomplete analysis. It still doesn’t tell us anything about truth. And it also takes a fairly low view of Christianity. It reduces that faith to little more than an elaborate superstition, a naive “God of the gaps” explanation that is the only resort of those who refuse to accept the randomness of reality.
That’s not how I would describe what I believe. I don’t believe in God because I don’t know how else to explain the weather or the phases of the moon, or because bad things happen to me and I want to believe it all has a purpose. I am comfortable with scientific exploration. I expect a lot of life to be random and unpredictable, to both my benefit and detriment. So I’m not satisfied that my faith can be entirely explained by these instincts.
So in summary, I will freely admit that the circumstances of my upbringing and my heritage as a human have influenced what I believe. They may even be necessary conditions to my being a Christian. But they don’t seem to provide a sufficient explanation. If bias only part of the answer, what’s the rest? Look for that next week in part II!
And look for my science-themed ESN Facebook Wall posts every Wednesday, starting next week.