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.