21 February 2007

Big Religious Squabble on Tuesday

My wife and I had a big religion-inspired brouhaha on Tuesday the 13th that nearly managed to spill over and ruin Valentine's Day (not that it's a real holiday anyway, but still I prefer to not have it ruined).

My wife participates in a bible study group on Tuesdays. Turns out, the previous week, her group, all women and ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, had gotten slightly off topic when a woman who works at a genetics lab (not as a scientist, though) brought up the question of evolution vs. creation. None of them being knowledgeable in such things, they had decided to research the origins debate. My wife did not have the time to do her homework, so I piped up that I know a lot about such things and gave her a quick rundown of Young-Earth, Old-Earth, Theistic Evolution, and the straight-up scientific explanation for the origins of the universe, the planet, life, and humanity. Of course I pointed out how the only consistent view was the purely scientific one, and I especially took digs at the YECs, but I didn't make too big of a deal about it.

She came back afterwards and told me what they talked about. She explained that she didn't like to use labels because her beliefs fall somewhere between theistic evolution and Old-Earth creationism. As an electrical engineer, she can't deny science; she likes science. Hence, the YEC position makes no sense. However, she also believes in the bible as more or less true, that there are omissions but what's in there is correct. Specifically, she believes that Adam and Eve were specially created, even though she accepts that evolution takes place in all other organisms - figure that one out.

Somehow during our discussion about creationism, the topic shifted and she asked me something like, "How come you don't accept God?"

My response: "Because there's no convincing evidence for God."

Ah hell, here it comes. We've jumped off the precipice and are falling into the abyss now.

Near endless bickering ensued.

I asked her why she believed, and, to sum up, it basically resolved down to personal experience and gut instinct: not very scientific, admittedly. I challenged her with the question of people from other faiths who have just as much personal experience and feeling as she does but for their own faiths, and, honestly, she struggled with it. How could she be sure that her feelings were correct and theirs were not? I think she knew she was having a hard time; eventually, she just said that religion is a personal thing and I could get no more out of her on that topic.

Moving on, sometime while talking about evidence, she claimed that science upholds the bible in general and mentioned in passing that a portion of Noah's Ark had been found. Simultaneously my jaw slumped open and my tongue lolled out. From that point on, the debate was confounded by her belief that I think she's stupid.

She then accused me of just assuming that everything in the bible was wrong, so she asked me to name some things in the bible that science and history have determined to be true. I couldn't really think of any off the top of my head other than that the descriptions of some tribes and migrations are reasonable. Man, that did not go over well at all.

I certainly learned something though. My wife nor any of the other women in the group were particularly interested in the science when discussing religion. It's not that they explicitly deny the findings of science, nor that they just aren't very interested science (though most aren't), it's that, to them, Christianity is true. That's it: it's just true. None of them have a beef with science, but they just assume that, since the bible is true, then science probably corroborates the bible pretty well. My wife never even had a second thought about it; therefore, she's never looked into it. She never had a clue that scientific consensus says that most of the bible's stories are nonsense. She just assumed that science has proven things like the great flood - and this is without listening to IRC or Answers in Genesis claptrap.

All in all, a crappy evening of bickering. I don't know if I got her to think about her faith at all or if I just made her angry. At least I learned something.

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At February 23, 2007 4:40 p.m., Anonymous John P said...

No comments?

OK, I'll jump.

First: Does she know you write a blog (if that's obvious to someone that comes here often, my apologies - this is my first visit, and the first post I read)? If not, you ought to let her know.

Second: How did the two of you get together? Did you de-convert after marriage (like me)? My wife sort of semi-believes (she says she believes Jesus existed, but not necessarily God. I think there's more evidence for the former, not the latter). We were both raised religious, and raised our kids that way too, though not too strenuously.

Finally, my feeling on how an engineer, one trained (partly) in science and math, could hold religious beliefs is due to the amazing ability of the human mind to compartmentalize. I think when you argue the facts, and she eventually falls back on "it's personal, so end of discussion" it's because the dividers between the compartments that keeps superstition and logic from messing each other up are being eroded, and about to break like the levies in New Orleans. She backs off because her psyche starts screaming "Danger, Will Robinson" - beliefs are being questioned. Early religious indoctrination puts that fail-safe switch in there.

Can you tell I watched too much TV when I was little and didn't listen to the nuns?

At February 23, 2007 7:54 p.m., Blogger TheBrummell said...

My wife and I had a big religion-inspired brouhaha...
...her beliefs fall somewhere between theistic evolution and Old-Earth creationism.
Hence, the YEC position makes no sense.
Near endless bickering ensued.
None of them have a beef with science, but they just assume that, since the bible is true, then science probably corroborates the bible pretty well. My wife never even had a second thought about it; therefore, she's never looked into it.
All in all, a crappy evening of bickering.

Three things emerge from your description.

1) Sorry, I'm trying not to get too personal here, but I echo John's comment about how you two ever got together. I have no experience in anything resembling this realm of human experience, but the big fat D-word keeps appearing in my head when I read your posts like this. If I've crossed some sort of line here, please accept my heartfelt apologies.

2) The never-check-it attitude is probably very common. Somebody tells you the bible is true, and this is consistent with what you've been hearing since childhood. Somebody else (or many somebodies) says that science is a good way to figure out what's true and what's not. If you never check into it, your assumption will probably be (if you ever think about it at all) that science has confirmed much of the bible.

Of course this is the opposite to the way the real world and real scientists work - something big and influential, like the bible, is going to be very close to the top of the list of things that any scientist is going to check out first. Huge resources have been poured into figuring out which bits of this story are plausible and which are total fantasy.

3) If YEC is completely bogus, why does she describe herself (as decribed by you) as "somewhere between theistic evolution and Old-Earth creationism"? Actually, is there a difference between those two views? As an evolutionary biologist, it looks to me like the only difference between YEC and OEC is the time since POOF. Has she ever pondered the implications of a god who spends 500 million years (or whatever exact number; big numbers are often not thoroughly examined) dicking around with squishy things before suddenly dropping in the big show?

...she accepts that evolution takes place in all other organisms...

Well, yeah, humans are special, dontcha know? Has she never seen a skeleton of a human and of a... any other vertebrate?

At February 25, 2007 7:51 p.m., Blogger BigHeathenMike said...

Those talks are never fun. My wife is slowly coming around, but man, it really takes the kid-gloves sometimes. You have to sleep next to her, after all.

I found that getting my wife to listen to Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" was a huge help. Sweeney is fantastic at being both respectful but solid.

At February 27, 2007 1:32 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

Wow... I can't say that I've ever had this kind of discussion with my gf, however, I have had similar ones with her mom.

Sometime after her mom and I had what I felt was a calm, intellectual discussion, my gf let me know that her mom felt like she couldn't speak to me anymore.

This single discussion has put more strain on my relationship with my gf than any other conversation/argument, so I can't imagine what it would be like to have it with my gf herself.

BTW: Your blog-whoring at Pharyngula worked, as I am now here and plan to stay (I've lurked before though...)

At February 28, 2007 1:26 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Wow, lots of concern coming out for this post. I'll try to address these as best I can.

John - No she doesn't know I have a blog. She knows I keep a journal, just like she does, and that we both keep them personal. The stuff I write here regarding her religious stuff I generally talk to her about, so there's nothing new to share with her. It's more or less just a personal journal (with some meme's thrown in).

I was always atheist (see here) and she was always religious. We discussed our beliefs before we got married and things were fine, but since we've gotten married, I think she's gotten more involved in the church and getting more evangelical about it. Before she wasn't evangelical at all. I've started reading talk.origins and PZ, so I'm getting more "evangelical" too, so to speak. And I'm sure compartmentalization has a great deal to do with her beliefs.

Brummell, no worries, as I've talked to many people in our situation where the D word rears its ugly head. Before we got married, I was worried about her being comfortable with my lack of belief, but honestly it's
surprised me how hard it is for me to accept her faith. I guess I really want her to not be delusional anymore. The D word isn't on the horizon though, and really things are a lot better than they appear based on the posts I put up here. Other than the religion thing, our personalities match really well and we have a lot of the same interests.

Re: the "never check" attitude, given that most people aren't research scientists, I can certainly see how many people never have to have their assumptions checked. It certainly helps with the compartmentalization when you rarely have to use it.

As far as I can tell:
YEC = bible litereally true, no evolution etc
OEC = bible true but timescale stretched, no evolution
TE = bible mostly true but basically follows what science says re: age of the earth, life still requires a creator to spark it and front-end load evolution or otherwise control the designs

And, yeah, we had that exact conversation about evolution in other animals other than humans. She actually said that you can have evolution all the way up to Homo erectus but that modern humans were specially created. Now THAT'S compartmentalization.

You do have to be nice and respectful when talking to people you care about. You don't want to ruin your relationships. Sorry about your gf's mom, Carlo. Is your gf as religious as her mom, or is she ok with it? Anyway, thanks for dropping by! Mike, do you have a link for Letting Go of God?

At February 28, 2007 4:42 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

"Is your gf as religious as her mom, or is she ok with it?

Actually, my gf isn't religious at all (though she's leaning towards 'belief' in things she has no evidence for instead of pure agnosticism; though this has nothing to do with 'god' per se).

It's actually kind of weird given that she honestly believed that her mother wasn't religious (her mother's reaction took her by surprise as well).

I think that thing like this have two origins (maybe more):

a) People hold ridiculous beliefs because they never have them questioned.

b) People have a fear/distrust of authority/expertise. Many of my friends are 'religious' simply because they never went to school, and do not 'trust' the fact that archaeologists have determined that the Old Testament is bunk.

The conversation with my gf's mom (which was about more ridiculous beliefs than just religion; and we're sort-of trying to re-establish communication) as well as some recent conversations with friends have made me realize that some people just don't have the res sources/education to rationally criticize evidence. They just buy everything they hear that supports their beliefs while rejecting everything that challenges them, irrespective of sources.

I'm glad to hear that you and your wife are able to manage those differences, I'm much too vocal an atheist...

At March 02, 2007 5:34 p.m., Blogger BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I was more agnostic when I got married, and I just classified my wife as non religious.
Now I'm full fledged Atheist, because any questions I had as an Agnostic have been answered over time and research.
My wife is borderline Atheist now.
I think my commentaries during nature shows and ancient history shows have done the trick.
I didn't do it on purpose, I swear to science I didn't.

At March 05, 2007 9:43 a.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Haha, I do the same thing, providing running commentaries about the science and history stuff when I feel like I can add something to what a program is saying, or if I feel like they've done a bad job. I also do it at museums. My wife appreciates my knowledge but wishes I would shut up and let her enjoy the show sometimes.

I don't know if it's helping her move away from blind faith to a more worldly view, but I babble about these history/science things all the time whether I want to or not, so it's not going to stop.


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