When worldviews collide

I am deeply saddened and worried by certain posts that have been filling my social media feeds these days. It seems we have lost our capacity to respectfully disagree. Both in Quebec, where I grew up, and in Australia, where I currently live, worldviews have been clashing on the political scene. Sadly, these collisions are leaving behind a trail of hurt that could take a long time to mend. The repercussions on these diverse societies are profound. Authoritative imposition of a given worldview prevents public discussions of ideas, but the latter underpins democracy…

While I do not wish to have a debate on these issues now, I do want to point out that the way they are discussed, especially on social media, is very toxic. How can we instead foster respect and inclusion when worldviews collide?

I have had countless pleasant disagreements at the intersection between science and faith. By pleasant disagreement, I mean a conversation that despite disagreeing sometimes profoundly both parties left the conversation feeling heard and valued. What made those discussions pleasant? Conversely, unpleasant disagreements usually involved some unfair dismissal of someone’s views.


Two axioms

There are two simple axioms I take as self-evident to justify why I personally try to not dismiss anyone off hand.

First axiom: “nobody knows everything”. I cannot prove this, but I believe it to be true. If we accept this axiom, then logically: 1. I don’t know everything, and 2. others don’t know everything.

It also follows that there is potential for two people to actually learn something and benefit intellectually from each other on topics where their knowledge may not intersect.

Second axiom: “nobody has proven or disproven the existence of God”. I guess people have vastly different ideas about who/what “God” is and some look at the same piece of evidence and come to opposing conclusions. Even my own understanding has changed as my relationship with the divine, christianity, the bible and science have evolved and matured over the years. So although mutually exclusive, both “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” require faith, neither is proven fact. The only position that doesn’t require faith is agnosticism.

I also note that christians don’t always agree with other christians (this is also true of scientists). I think this is normal and perfectly healthy. By axiom 1, if there is a God who created everything, and nobody knows everything, it follows that nobody fully knows God. In other words, if God created everything, he/she/it cannot fit inside a box (or book) small enough to be fully understood by human thought.

My recipe for pleasant disagreements

Sifting through my memories, I have identified 4 ingredients that I think foster pleasant disagreements. As usual, these ideas stem from my experience (so far) and may not apply to everyone. As with cookbooks, feel free to experiment, substitute ingredients and improve as you see fit to make it your own. I also note that these ideas easily apply to any discussion on a contentious issue.

First ingredient: humility

One thing that both scientists and christians usually agree on is that there are facts and truth. Since nobody knows everything, it is possible others may know something I don’t know. In fact, I know others know many things I don’t know as I learn from others daily. While it is unproductive to argue about a fact, it is perfectly reasonable for two people to hold contradictory opinions based on their separate knowledge, experience and interpretation/thought process. So even when disagreeing, one may learn something from the other person’s viewpoint.

Second ingredient: stick to the arguments

… or “don’t make it personal.” In other words, if you disagree, offer a valid counter-argument or simply say why you disagree. I think it is common practice to discredit witnesses in court in order to invalidate their testimony, but a discussion isn’t a trial or a debate to be won. In my previous post, I highlighted that many arguments against scientists of faith are logical fallacies, these should be avoided.

Furthermore, assuming someone needs rescuing, is brainwashed, immature or stupid sets up a false hierarchy where one person feels that somehow their thought process is superior. A conversation is moot under such patronising assumptions.

Third ingredient: embrace the tension

As a young christian, a fellow believer once explained to me that the bible is full of grey areas. Many years later, I am still unpacking the multiple layers of this very wise statement. Likewise, for most of life’s problems, there isn’t a simple right or wrong answer; there is a spectrum of grey possibilities. The same is true with worldviews: there is sometimes no way to determine which (if any) is right, yet we all believe our own is somehow better. What’s more, people evolve. The same approach may work one day, but not the next day (those of you reading this who have raised children know exactly what I mean). I have learned to embrace the grey areas of life as opportunities for growth.

Fourth ingredient: empathy

Pleasant disagreements for me have usually involved (care)full listening, a willingness to see the matter from each other’s perspective and open acknowledgement of the other’s thought process. We don’t necessarily agree with every decision that has led to a given conclusion, but it is helpful to retrace the logic behind it. Simple affirmations like: “I hear you” or “I get it” validate the other’s experience. This usually leaves room to respectfully explore other possibilities together. I found statements like “have you thought of…” or “what if…” are good ways to open up respectful discussions.

I’d like to hear from you. Please let me know if you agree, disagree or would like to add something, I welcome all respectful comments on this blog.


Featured image credit for this post: NASA, Holland Ford (JHU), the ACS Science Team and ESA https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic0206b/

the “great rift” is a logical fallacy

There is undeniably a fierce debate between the fundamentalist ends of the religious and humanist spectra. In my experience, extreme voices on either side of the rift are a minority, yet they are drowning the moderate viewpoints. In his book (which I admit I haven’t read), Michael E. Hobart refers to the apparent  conflict between science and religion as the “great rift”.

But is this great rift real? Are science and religion really mutually exclusive?

Before delving into this, let me put out a disclaimer. While I am trained in mathematics, physics and astronomy, I have no formal theological training and I’ve mostly looked into christianity…  So if there are readers out there who are more versed in theology and would like to weigh in on anything I say, that would be most welcome! I have spent many years wrestling with questions of science and faith and my thinking has greatly evolved over the years. For that reason, I think it likely that, say 10 years from now, there could be parts of this blog that I will no longer agree with. After all, “only fools and dead men don’t change their mind” (John H. Patterson). With that said, let’s get on with it!

When I took Philosophy 101 in college, our lecturer taught us to recognise some of the most common logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are invalid arguments that often sound convincing but prove nothing.

Here are some commonly used in the science vs faith “debate” (to name a few).

1- Personal attack (ad hominem): when someone attacks the person instead of their argument. Discrediting or questioning the motives of a person doesn’t disprove his/her argument.

2- Appeal to ignorance: because nobody has proven something (e.g. the existence of God), it doesn’t mean that it is not true. Conversely, if nobody has disproven something, it doesn’t mean it is true.

3- Generalisation: this is a bit like stereotyping and usually starts something like “all christians […]”. It only takes one counter-example to disprove a generalised statement. Generalisations are extremely hard to prove and very easy to refute.

4- False dichotomy: this occurs when an argument is unnecessarily polarised. For example, “there are two types of people, those who love cats and those who hate animals”. Clearly there are other positions one could hold.

5- The straw man: this logical fallacy is a bit more subtle. Think of someone attacking an argument that the other person was not even defending in the first place. Here’s a common objection to the “scientific” validity of the bible: “the bible says pi = 3”! My first reaction to this comment is “wow, that’s amazing!” Seriously, rather than cast doubt on the validity of the bible, I think it is pretty close given the historical context and intention of the Old Testament! The bible is not (and never claimed to be) a mathematics textbook is it?

Let’s evaluate some common statements and see how they stack up logically.

The first is one I have too often encountered: “Christians are stupid […]”. Is this true? Three simple words commit two of the above logical fallacies: ad hominem and generalisation. The statement that christians are stupid is easily disproved by finding one intelligent christian. Let’s pick one of the founders of modern cosmology: Georges Lemaître.

Actually, let’s digress a bit because this is a fun story. As evidence for the Big Bang theory was mounting in the 1950s, the catholic authorities stated that the fact that the universe had a beginning was aligned with the biblical narrative of creation. A position that was recently echoed by Pope Francis. Ironically, this same theory is also touted as counter-evidence of the same tenet! There’s been some back and forth on this topic, but the important point here is that two people can look at the same piece of evidence and come to opposite conclusions…

I recently attended an astronomy conference. During his/her talk, a fellow astronomer said that visiting observatory X (which I shall not name to preserve anonymity) “is the closest thing to a spiritual experience you’ll ever have as an astronomer”. Few attendees seemed to react to this (I assume unintendedly) loaded statement, which carried the underlying assumption that no-one in this very large audience had ever had or would ever have a spiritual experience. The speaker’s statement was an unproven generalisation. I’m an astronomer and I have had plenty of spiritual experiences, therefore the statement is easily falsified by one counter-example.

How about this one: “one cannot both be a scientist and have faith”? This is again a generalisation, which is really easy to disprove! Can you think of one believer scientist? How about yours truly? Not enough? Let’s go to town! Back in 2009, a survey showed that 51% of the scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe in “God or a higher power”. The proportion of scientists who ascribe to a faith of some description was found to vary geographically across the globe, with over “half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identify[ing] as religious” (Elaine Howard Ecklund).

Need I say more to prove that one can be both a scientist and a person of faith? For good measure and for the benefit of those who are new to wrestling with this idea, let me throw in the names of (some) contemporaries who are vocal scientists of faith:

And may I also add

  • Mike McArgue (Science Mike), who is not a trained scientist by his own admission, but a great scientific mind (IMHO) and advocate for science and faith.

These are but a few examples of the people who inspire me and have had an influence in my life as both a christian and a scientist.

Interestingly, non-religious people are more likely to think there is a conflict between science and faith than believers. Might there be a lack of understanding of what it actually means to be religious or have faith amongst non-religious people?

So is it true that science and religion cannot coexist? Clearly for a significant fraction of professional scientists, they do! It only takes one counter-example to disprove the point. Therefore, one needs not choose between science and faith, this is a false dichotomy. There is no need to give up one’s faith to do science and there is no need to give up science to encounter spirituality. The great rift is a (actually two) logical fallacy(ies)! QED


Who am I?

My name is Caroline, but my friends and colleagues call me Caro. I completed an undergraduate degree with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics (2005), a Masters of Sciences in astrophysics (2007) and PhD in astrophysics (2011). After graduating, I worked and observed at some of the largest optical observatories in the world. I have so far lived in 3 countries: Canada, Australia and Chile. As a result, I speak 3 languages: French (my mother tongue), English and Spanish.

Although I was exposed to Catholicism growing up, I was not raised in a religious family. As a teenager, I declared myself an atheist and identified as such for many years following. One cold December evening back in 2003 I decided to read the Gideon New Testament that had been handed out to me. The small book had been sitting on my shelf for nearly two years, but that night I had run out of good reads (or so I thought) and decided to give the scriptures a go. I read through the gospel of John and for some reason, it made sense to me for the very first time. I became a Christian that night.

As a woman, I have been a minority in my field for many years now, but I have never felt as discriminated against for my gender as I have for my faith… I’d like to relate some of my experiences being a Christian in academia. As a disclaimer, I’d like to emphasize that these experiences are my own and may not reflect those of other fellow Christian academics.

Like many new Christians, I was very eager to tell my friends and family about my faith at first. I experienced significant pushback from well-meaning and very vocal atheist fellow-students. It puzzled me that people cared so much about my faith.

As a master student, I was sent to Amsterdam for a conference. There were a number of very prominent astronomers there and I was a rather impressionable student who felt privileged to interact with such “important” people. During the conference dinner I sat across one such important person. I hung to every word he said. He explained how he had recently become an American citizen. He voiced his annoyance at having to swear with a hand on the bible at the citizenship ceremony. He jokingly said: “so help me Tooth Fairy”… I was heart-broken to hear him compare my sweet saviour to a fairy tale creature and profoundly offended by his comment. Others seemed to find it hilarious! That night I decided not to tell anyone about my faith anymore. For many years, I had significant anxiety related to mentioning my faith in academic circles. I feared for what it would mean for my career or how people might change their perception of me if they knew…

**Edited: following a conversation with a friend, I feel I need to clarify the previous paragraph a bit. I would like to make it crystal clear that this person’s annoyance at being forced to swear on a religious icon that he did not believe in is absolutely justified. This is the opposite of religious freedom and fighting this attitude is the whole point of my blog! I absolutely think it is wrong to impose one’s views on others. No offence was taken up to that point. What offended me was the comparison of God with the tooth fairy and the ensuing laughter. What reasonable person comes to believe in the tooth fairy in adulthood? I had just become a christian as an adult. To this person, and many around the table it seemed, my faith was equivalent to putting a tooth under a pillow and expecting a gold coin magically appearing by morning!**

My anxiety was further triggered by uncountable and regular micro-aggressions around e.g. coffee tables or at conferences. For example, colleagues would mention something about “those stupid Christians” or “f***ing Christians” and everyone else (it seemed) around the table would just nod! I definitely did not want to be forever marked as “stupid”.

I’ve also experienced bullying when a colleague started following me around at and also on the way to and from work and at every opportunity would try to bring arguments as to why I could not be a scientist and a Christian. At first I answered patiently, but it became very clear that this colleague was not after a respectful conversation. When bringing this up to the authorities, he told the director of the research centre I worked for at the time that I should be sacked for my faith. Thankfully the director (also a Christian I later found) told him very sternly to “back off or else”!

Interestingly, I have grown accustomed to hearing conflicting viewpoints over the years and I am no longer as fearful to mention my faith publicly. I still long to “bring my whole self to work”, to be able to do small talk about my Sunday morning at church as matter of factly as I would tell people about some nice restaurant I ate at. Although Christianity is not a minority position (last year’s Australian census revealed 57.7% of people in Australia identify as Christians), the feeling that a part of me is not welcome everywhere is a sentiment echoed by many minorities.

This is 2018, the world is more connected now than in previous generations. We need to be comfortable around people who are different! Hearing the perspectives of others has changed who I am in very profound ways. It is not that I have agreed with every perspective, instead hearing others has highlighted the plethora and fostered a better understanding of the beautiful kaleidoscope of human experiences. It is healthy to hear other viewpoints, to sit with them and process apparently conflicting information. It’s also ok, after all’s been said and done, for people to agree to disagree.

Why am I writing all this? I think the myth that science and faith cannot coexist doesn’t serve anybody. On the one hand, this made-up controversy has deprived science from tapping into the talent of (too many) believers. On the other hand, it has prevented (too many) believers from sharpening important life skills such as critical thinking that science teaches. People of faith need science and science needs people of faith!

I hope to continue to expand on those thoughts in subsequent posts. Please feel free to respectfully comment, ask questions or share your own experiences.