The Advantages of Free Thinking

Science need not destroy your faith, but its truths can’t be ignored

By Isaac Crouch

The universe is random, chaotic, mysterious, incomprehensibly vast and possibly infinite. It is an undisputed, uncontroversial scientific fact that humanity inhabits a tiny sliver of a rock that orbits an average star in the outskirts of an unremarkable galaxy among trillions. We are tiny specks on that sliver, and our recorded history occupies a miniscule fraction of the age of the universe. Though perceptible humans, we often have difficulty feeling a connection with such incalculable immensity. I certainly have.

While I no longer have this difficulty, it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly when the transition took place. Certainly, it was a gradual shift. However, one particular cognitive connection that I am positive had a large part to play was the realization that I am stardust.

What a deeply profound statement. I can hardly think of anything more awe-inspiring than the notion that every atom in my body, every infinitesimal piece that I consider “me,” was forged in the unimaginably energetic furnaces that fill the night sky. I’m talking about the process known as nucleosynthesis. The energy contained in stars is so great that the tiny hydrogen and helium atoms that fuel stars are fused together to create larger atoms – all the way up to iron. When the lifetime of the star has come to a close, the star explodes as a supernova, littering the universe with all of these heavier atoms and creating even heavier ones. Later these atoms start to gravitate toward one another, combine and form molecules and planets and eventually life and people.

Over time, as these concepts became a permanent fixture of my worldview, I began to feel that connection that I had previously had trouble finding since abandoning the religious beliefs of my childhood. The follies of man suddenly seemed so petty and trivial nested in this cosmic perspective, and that intense connection also extended to the people, life, nature, and even inanimate objects around me. Even modern civilization, which I had previously found repulsive, now revealed itself as an expression of myself and indeed of the entire universe. I began to realize that this is a beautiful, and scientifically accurate, basis for age-old moral intuition: that we should treat others with respect and dignity. Now, with the underlying framework of stellar nucleosynthesis and biological evolution, we have every reason not only to believe that this is how we should act but also that this compassion should be extended to every single being and object on this planet (and others too of course, if we ever get there).

Many seem to think that these concepts – nucleosynthesis and evolution – are somehow an indication that our universe was not created by a higher intelligence. While I personally do not ascribe a high probability to the notion of a divine being behind our existence, I do not agree with this view. Assuming for a second that we do have some divine origin, that there was a “prime mover” that set universe in motion and created the laws by which it functions, then it seems to me no small leap to accept nucleosynthesis and evolution as the methods by which the divine planned our eventual existence.

What a small and unfortunate mind it would be to think that holding these concepts to be true would mean negating your belief in a higher power. What a narrow lens through which to filter the great wealth of information that the universe is revealing through the scientific process. Yet we know these people exist. There are plenty of documentaries on the extremes (see Westboro Baptist Church, Jesus Camp), and one does not have to go far in the rural South to encounter similar minds, albeit to be fair they are on average less cultish and much nicer than the Westboros.

For me the face-to-face encounters are much more jarring than the documentaries, articles, and books. I used to work as an educational instructor at the Greensboro Science Center, a fantastic museum and zoo that you should definitely check out if you have the chance. One day at work I experienced such an encounter.

Frequently, schools would sign up for a class on energy for their students to attend on their visit to the museum. In the program, I began by introducing them to all the different types of energy including nuclear energy and the processes of fission and fusion (the latter of which is behind nucleosynthesis). I would use this opportunity to explore the concepts I previously mentioned with them, leading them to the conclusion that our atoms came from stars. Usually there are no comments, the moment passed, and I was frequently left wondering whether anyone understood or cared about I was saying.

This day was different. The school that was visiting happened to be a private Christian academy, and I think you can probably see where this is going. I taught two different groups from the school back to back. In both groups, the kids were engaged with the program and loved all the exciting demos that they got to participate in.

The parents, not so much. After the first class, a woman came up to me and said she needed to have a word. She explained to me that they are a Christian school that teaches creationism, and that what I had said about stars was something that these students were not ready to think about. She informed me that she had received multiple text messages from other adults in the room, taking offense to what I had said. She was very careful and respectful towards me with her words, and she kindly asked if I would leave that part out for the next group.

Without much time to process this before my next class, I simply told her that I appreciated her input and would take it into consideration. My immediate reaction was to consider completely ignoring her request and continue as usual – after all, this was a science museum and I was talking about accepted science. I felt that giving in to her demand would be a violation of my own moral compass as a science educator – an admission that it is acceptable to shield these students from scientific knowledge. I was determined to ignore her.

But then another thought process began within me. Surely if I ignored her request then she’d find out about it from the second group, and this could compel her to complain about my refusal to my supervisor. I hadn’t been working for very long at this museum, and I liked the job so far. At this point I was unsure exactly how a complaint this early on would reflect on me.

The next class started and since the nuclear energy part took about 20 minutes, I had about that long to figure out what to do, all the while continuing on with the rest of the presentation as usual. Eventually my initial feeling gave way and I was determined not to censor myself. Plus, I had a whole slide in my PowerPoint dedicated to it and hadn’t taken it out. However the threat of a possible complaint never left my mind, and it seemed as if the text messages had already gotten around to the rest of the adults as they glared at me in anticipation of me leading their students astray from the rigid, narrow dogma that they wanted the kids to accept in lieu of scientific knowledge.

The nuclear fusion slide came up and I continued with the program as usual. I still talked about atoms combining to make larger atoms in stars and those stars spewing the atoms out into the universe. I talked about how carbon and oxygen are both essential for life, and how these can be made from the synthesis of hydrogen and helium atoms. But part of me is still kicking myself, because the nervousness from being so conflicted led me to not go into as much detail as I usually do, effectively censoring myself. Yet I know I felt much better than if I would have skipped it entirely.

The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s such a foreign mindset to me, this notion that certain scientific concepts are so dangerous that children must be kept in the dark. What a disadvantage these kids will have if they grow up in a society built on science but have a malignant stance toward anything that contradicts what the Bible says. What a shame it is that their belief in a higher power may not be wonderfully enhanced and embellished by knowledge and by a science that should more accurately be interpreted as an investigation into the methods of the divine, especially from a theist perspective.

Looking back on it I realize that the whole experience was actually quite thrilling to me. I felt as if I was on the front lines in a war against ignorance, if you’ll pardon my confrontational phrasing. While it is ill-fated that these students are surrounded by adults that wish to mold their susceptible minds into such a constricted dogma, maybe, just maybe, my short diatribe into nucleosynthesis sparked a line of questioning that, fueled by quick access to information over the internet, will allow them some measure of escape from this intellectual prison imposed by the small and unfortunate minds of the adults.

© The Lenoir Voice, 2016.

Isaac Crouch has a B.S. in Physics from Appalachian State University, an M.S. in Applied Science Education from Michigan Tech University, and is the co-creator/host/producer of Citizen:Earth Media Podcast in Morganton, North Carolina.


Recommended Reading

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan

Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd