While going to college I worked in a quality control lab on campus, the space rented by a nutritional supplement company. There was an eclectic group of scientists that worked there running regular tests and maintaining the analytical equipment. There were hard core conservatives, who despised global warming, and extreme liberals who saw nothing good about the right, or religion. Of course not everyone who worked there was extreme in their ideological worldview, in fact the broad range of opinion and disposition in this small group of employees was good for me. You see, I grew up in a neighborhood where almost everybody on my street, and the surrounding streets, went to the same church and seemed to agree on a great many things. In this laboratory I had a lot of discussions that, like my college classes, expanded my mind and showed me that there are many different ways to live and understand life.
My direct supervisor and his direct supervisor were smokers, which I loved. Smokers often take lots of breaks and unless I was in the middle of a task that needed immediate doing I’d wander out to the planter boxes filled with cigarette butts and talk with them about whatever it was that was being discussed. We covered all kinds of topics, and like I have learned at any other place of employment, much of it involved some sort of ventilation. But it all wasn’t moaning and groaning, much of it was digging ourselves out of the Wikipedia wormholes we had found ourselves in. I was an eager curious student of science and my boss was equally inquisitive but had the intensity and determination of a bloodhound on the scent of a criminal so we found ourselves thinking quite a bit.
We spent lots of time talking about topics that came up in my classes, working on interesting physics and math problems, as well as recounting and lamenting the pressing issues of the day like peace, well really the complete lack thereof, in the middle east. My boss is Palestinian and he would become equally irate and saddened by the news almost daily as he watched places he knew in his youth destroyed and littered with bloody Palestinian bodies. I had not paid any real attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until he showed me that it was something important to understand and that my simplified thinking of people from the middle-east all being the same and thinking/living wrong being the source of their troubles was no longer a valid way to think of unknown groups of people anymore.
But this little post isn’t about that. Though the topic of violence in the world is one that needs plenty of attention and action, I am thinking about a particular conversation wherein my boss was very interested in talking about the origin of human beings. He had recently watched a TV special, read an article, or attended a lecture or something that brought this question to his mind. I wasn’t interested, at all. I took an anthropology class at some point and found the whole idea of explaining where we came from and the diversity of human traits and culture utterly confusing and boring (my interest in the subject wasn’t helped by the fact that I didn’t care for the professor of this class). He was irritated with my lack of fascination on this one. He kept trying to get at why I didn’t really care about something that all humans, apparently, should be intensely curious about and I kept trying to explain to him that I didn’t like the ambiguous nature of the evidence and perhaps the complexity of the story I was told in my anthropology class. He was not satisfied with my rationale. He clearly thought there was something deeper. So he finally just said it.
“Do you think that Adam and Eve were real people created in the image of God?” That question threw me back, I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know how to respond right away so I probably rehashed my distaste for ambiguity or something like that. But inside I was pissed. We had a good relationship. He knew I was highly scientific minded, but also religious and respected me as a person. In my mind his question sounded more like this, “Do you really believe that crap?” It felt like an expression of disappointment. The thing is I believed in evolution for a very long time, I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t believe it. Though I can remember the point in time that finished my interest in going to the on-campus LDS institute for religious instruction.
I was attending a class by the most popular instructor in the building. He had been a bishop, a mission president and had served on the correlation committee (so he knew his shit, or so we thought). His presentations were not the animated silly kind of high school seminary teachers. He was detail oriented and knew his scriptures well (at least in a devotional sense, I very much doubt that he is fluent in critical biblical studies). As a student of geology I became troubled by the powerful evidence of the age of the earth and the long history of death on this planet as evidenced by the literal mountains of ancient fossils, contrasted against the idea of ‘no death before the fall’ (not a uniquely Mormon idea). I had kind of figured that that whole ‘no death’ business only applied to the garden of Eden, and I kind of figured that my institute instructor would confirm that understanding for me, because I kind of figured that for Mormons understanding that ‘intelligence is the glory of God’ would take education in geology and biology serious and that most Mormons probably believed in evolution and the fall, science and theology.
Nope. And his ‘nope’ was adamant. This highly respected ‘scholar’ of religion made it utterly clear that there was indeed not any kind of death before the fall. No matter what information I brought up he remained resolute in his conviction. Fossils littered in the hills behind Weber State were not a problem for him because, like Ken Ham, he believed uncritically that scripture is the word of God and therefore can be relied upon and, like Luther, can be read as it plainly reads (that is without need to metaphor, or figurative interpretations). Later in the course he made it clear that the classes we go to ‘across the street,’ you know, at the university, only served the purpose of helping us gain employment and the learning of real value was found ‘here,’ in the institute building. That was end for me. The greatest teacher of the LDS institute at Weber State University no longer held credibility, with me anyway. I knew what I had learned in geology, I had read Henry Eyring’s ‘The Faith of a Scientist” so I knew this LDS dude was just a fundamentalist following after the footsteps of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.
I knew there were plenty of people who were people of faith and students of science. People who took both seriously and therefore some sort of compatibility or understanding between the two not only had to exist, but I further believed that it was the right way to understand the world. The thing is I hadn’t figured this out for myself, not in the details anyway. So when my boss/friend cut right to the chase in asking me if I literally believed in Adam and Eve as real people created by the hands of God I had no answer that I could spout out. I pretty much believed it because it is an important scriptural story and I hadn’t resolved the particulars of how the humans came to be or the timeline of all that but I figured one day eventually I would, or more often I thought that someone in the afterlife would clear it all up (basically the ‘put it on the shelf’ response). So because there was not a clear answer in my head I couldn’t clearly articulate my response to a non-believer, whom I respected and cared about and who was also strongly implying that my ideology was getting in the way of real understanding.
It bothered me that I couldn’t respond, though this experience isn’t new to me because I am not a ‘think on your feet’ kind of guy. I mull things over for a while and often come up with a smart response long after the debate is over. It is no trivial thing to resolve conflicts between credible information or data and a life narrative or system of belief that has great meaning. If I didn’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve what does that mean? Does that mean I simultaneously reject all scripture? (Almost definitely not.) Does it mean that I think less of my coreligionists? (Hopefully not.) Does it mean that I have to adjust my view of myself and my purpose? (Maybe.) Does it mean I have to rethink things? (Almost certainly.) Changing one’s beliefs is not an insignificant experience, just as accepting that a previously held view of the world is wrong is not easily done. We don’t like being wrong about anything and will squirm, stretch, and flex our statements and thoughts to show that we are somehow right, or at least partly right about almost anything.
This changing of beliefs and accepting of one’s mistakenness is especially difficult when the beliefs under fire are the ones that give your life meaning and perhaps most importantly, the ones that signal to your peers and neighbors that ‘we are on the same team.’ In secret you can entertain doubts or heretical views about almost anything but to actually say out loud that you do not believe in X, like everyone else does, is a terrifying thing to do, and I think that very fear often prevents us from even entertaining the thought to begin with.
We humans are pretty happy to confirm things that we already believe and are just as quick to find a way to reject information, evidence, or arguments that we think may in some way undermine those beliefs. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains it this way. If a welcome idea comes our way we quickly find the answer to the following question, ‘can I believe it?’ Our mind then scours it’s vast database and our body fires up google and looks until we find anything that supports this new lovely idea. If an unwelcome idea comes our way we quickly find the answer to the following question, ‘must I believe it?’ We then go into defense lawyer mode and find any way we can to discredit anything associated with the new scary idea. This is how we maintain our beliefs over a long period of time. Because of this ubiquitous self-justifying behavior I think it is rare for anyone to ‘follow the evidence,’ at least not consistently, because our beliefs make up who we are. They define our identity, and our identity is something we like and want to protect for our own well being.
Though, every once in a while we have questions, information, or arguments that are handed to us that provide us with a ‘yes’ to the question of whether we must believe something that we don’t want to believe or perhaps a ‘no’ to the question of whether we can believe something we want to believe. This situation is tough. It is uncomfortable, and depending on the depth of the belief in your soul, it may cause you to turn away from the questions and information or it may force you to break down emotionally and maybe even mentally. My friend’s question about whether I specifically believed in a literal Adam and Eve was one of those questions, it didn’t get resolved or addressed right away but it left an itch in my gut. It left me thinking and wondering for a long time.
Years later I felt comfortable, in my mind, to accept Adam and Eve as characters in a meaning ridden story, not as literal people. I’ve had many moments, really an avalanche of such moments since then, and I feel like in many ways I am a completely different person from before. I view scripture through a critical lens. I view religion like I view art and culture. I view science as a tool. Like that day, I am still unsettled. Honestly I don’t like not having all the answers, but I’m okay with it. In fact I’m okay with no hard and fast answers. I like questions and I like tough ones at that. I just no longer don’t pretend to know the answers to the ‘important’ ones and ignore the ‘unimportant’ ones.
The world is a disturbingly beautiful and deeply unsettling place. Maybe that is the way it is supposed to me, or maybe whether we like it or not, that is the way it is.