10 September 2008

Close encounters

Posted by Jessica Ball

A few days ago, in the process of selling some unwanted furniture (Craigslist is my new best friend), I found myself in an interesting situation. The gentleman who came to buy my chair and I were making polite conversation; he noticed that I had an out-of-state license plate on my car and I told him that I’d moved here for graduate school. He asked what I was studying, and I told him geology – specifically volcanology – and then gave him the short version of why I think erupting volcanoes are awesome.

He paused. Then, in a slightly different tone of voice, he said, “There’s something I’d like to give to you.” After digging around in a bag for a moment, he turned around and handed me a paper booklet. “I’m sure that as a geologist, you’ve come up against a lot of different ideas about creation and the world,” he went on, and I could feel my face freezing into a rictus smile. “This is just a Gospel tract for you to read and think over.”

To my immense relief, he didn’t go any further than that, and I was able to thank him politely, tell him I hoped he enjoyed the chair, and go back inside. The booklet, as I expected, was heavily emblazoned with patriotic imagery (a really angry looking eagle plastered on top of the American flag), and filled with a bunch of gloom-and-doom Bible quotes about sin and some really poor-quality comics (Jack Chick tracts, anyone?). I relegated it to the recycling pile, and then got to thinking about the whole experience.

This actually isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that kind of a response as a geologist. Once was on my first long field trip, where an elderly lady cornered the professor in a grocery store parking lot and wanted to know if we were looking at rocks formed in “The Flood”, which she assured us were very common in the area (somewhere in Utah, I think). The second time was during a “Geology Day” that our department held every year; one of the seniors was running a demonstration about dinosaur bones, and became very upset when two young children began berating her about the ages of the bones and insisting that the Earth couldn’t be older than 6,000 years. (The other senior in the room actually had to leave for a few minutes to keep herself from attempting to strangle said small children, that sort of thing being frowned upon in community events.)

In the first instance, as I remember, my professor made some vague comments about the rocks probably having been deposited in water, and made his escape. In the second case, the senior had to stop her discussion and ask that the children be considerate of everyone else and wait until she was finished to get into an argument with her (which they may have done, although I wasn’t there).

What is it about geologists that makes some people want to convince us of the validity of their worldview, as opposed to practicing tolerance and acceptance of others? The man I encountered was polite, and didn’t go farther than handing over the pamphlet, but he was still making assumptions about me – and he had no way of knowing whether they were true. (I have, in fact, taken and enjoyed a number of classes about world religions, and they did cover different creation stories. I was also raised with a theistic worldview, although it’s been modified somewhat as I’ve aged, and been better able to examine my religion and my feelings about it.)

I think what offends me the most is the assumption that because I’m a scientist, I must automatically need saving, pulling back into some sort of protective cloud of religion which is the only safe haven of morality and virtue. I have no problem reconciling my religious beliefs and my profession, and I don’t believe that it makes me an immoral or unkind or a bad influence on impressionable young people. Not all scientists are atheists, and being an atheist doesn’t automatically make you lose all sense of morality.

Another thing that I found distasteful about the encounter was that to me, religion is a very private thing, in contrast to being a scientist (which I’m happy to proclaim loudly to the world at every opportunity). I’m happy with my religious viewpoints; whatever works for other people is fine with me – as long as it doesn’t involve trying to change my beliefs. I realize that a major part of some religions, especially evangelical Christianity, is proselytizing, and that these people genuinely feel that they’re helping me. Not to be rude, but here’s a news flash:

You are not going to convince me that your system of belief, or worldview, or whatever, is better than mine by telling me that I’m wrong. You might get me thinking about it by demonstrating through the way you behave toward others that it’s a good idea, but it’s not likely. And you certainly aren’t going to make a good impression on me by treating me like a misguided child.

In the meantime, I’m going to go on being fascinated and amazed and awed by the concept of deep time, and the Earth and the universe being billions of years old, and how cool it is that life could have evolved from a few teeny little cells way back when. And I’m sure I’ll come up against this question of conflict between religion and science again, whether in conversation or in class, and I’ll handle it the best way I know. And hopefully, someday, some people will stop thinking that I’m a godless heathen just because I like to play with rocks.

(Wow, that was rambling and philosophical. I’ve definitely got to finish up some of my literature review for this thesis thing so I can start writing about volcanoes again soon.)