Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scientists, Atheists, and thoughts from childhood

After returning to school last fall I started reading a lot of science blogs.  The first, and probably still my all around favorite, was Living the Scientific Life.  I was drawn to a lot of other blogs about life as a scientist (especially blogs by women scientists), as well as blogs that discussed life science and evolution (which I tend think of as one and the same).  Without really intending to I also ended up reading many post about atheism (it sounds weird to call it an "ism" for some reason) and posts on the many problems with religion.  After reading so many of these posts, you can't help but wonder about what you "believe".  So this curiosity lead me listen to some old Dawkins lectures on the topics of religion and science, and watch some fantastic interview clips with David Attenborough discussing evolution and belief in the existence of god.  Their ideas are always so eloquent, insightful, and logical but I can never completely reconcile them with my own way of seeing the world. 

Today I read an intriguing post by GrrlScientist at the aforementioned Living the Scientific Life blog.  She discusses being raised to be a religious person , how this conflicted with her inquisitive nature and how this conflict lead her to become an atheist.  So that got me thinking about my childhood, and I wouldn't say everything clicked in to place but it has certainly helped me to make a little more sense of how I interpret the world and why.  

If my parents had a particular belief system in mind when they raised me I'm still not aware of it.  In fact if they raised me to be anything I would say it was to become a scientist.  Most people would say that's not surprising considering I was raised by an anthropologist and a biologist, but there was more to it than their own knowledge and interest in the natural world.  I think I was allowed to experience nature differently that many children are.  If I was curious I was encouraged, if I had questions they were answered and no answer was ever dumbed down (even if this meant teaching a very young child the details of how animals reproduce).  

One might expect such an upbringing to take away the mystery of life, but it did just the opposite.  For some inexplicable reason all these answers just made the world seem more mysterious and amazing, I was sure I would find something unexplainable if I just looked long and hard enough.  I never did, but I also never stopped looking.  Now I no longer seek the unexplainable with a belief it will remain unexplained, but instead seek the answers to the yet to be explained questions.

What more is a scientist than a child who was never taught not to ask questions? or at least never stopped questioning, even when told to.  And as a result of this childhood I am what exactly? certainly not religious, but not an atheist either.  I have a feeling that Professor Dawkins would tell me that to understand evolution, biology, and the origins of life on this planet and not proclaim oneself to be an atheist means that I am not following the scientific reasoning to it's logical conclusion.  Maybe that's true, perhaps there is a flaw in my primate brain that makes me perceive the natural world with too much awe causing me to believe there may be something beyond what I can see and know with the tools I have.  Perhaps it is a side effect of always being encouraged to question what I see and experience.  Maybe it's just the revolting nature of all the labels people assign themselves causing me to resist assimilation in to any belief or non-belief system.

It's strange to have enough scientific knowledge to explain most of the world I encounter, and yet be so incapable of explaining myself.


Karina said...

Hi! I found your blog from PZ Myers. I also started grad school in fall 2007 and blog about it, and I started reading blogs about science culture (especially by women) last summer. I'm RSSing your blog :-)

MistressofScience said...

Thanks Karina, I'm glad you stopped by.

Ginger said...

Interesting thoughts. I think a lot of people, on both sides of the coin, miss out by making the assumption that belief system = unquestioning approach to life. 'Religious' people should never stop asking questions. And atheists shouldn't assume they have the monopoly on free thought.

MistressofScience said...

Hi Ginger, thanks for visiting.

Your comments are very insightful and I'm glad you brought up the idea of "belief system." I don't like the way we must conform to all aspects of such systems, or as you put it having an "unquestioning approach to life." It the same problem I have with labeling ourselves with a cultural tag, how could we possible comply to such label everyday our whole lives?

Shawn Machia said...

I am a Roman Catholic, of all religions probably the one with the best reputation for "repression" and being told what to think. And yet I find that rather than oppressing me, the truths I hold ever challenge me and ask me more questions. And when I do find myself bumping up against one of the walls in the system, the point of conflict becomes like a spring which wells forth new thoughts, insights, questions. This is not always a pleasant experience; having one's deepest assumptions challenged can be extremely scary. I loved, by the way, your last statement, "It's strange to have enough scientific knowledge to explain most of the world I encounter, and yet be so incapable of explaining myself." I studied theology and philosophy in college. I find exploring the depths of the human soul is as much an adventure as exploring all the myriad wonders of the world around us.