How not to argue with the religious

I worked in a biomedical research laboratory for several years alongside several people who were fervently religious. In particular, the guy with whom I shared a workspace was particularly devout in his beliefs. But he was generally, on a day-to-day basis, a very nice guy and we held a mutual degree of respect for each other.

Well, that’s not entirely true. You see, as an atheist biologist it is even more difficult for me to respect the religious faith of my colleagues working in the biosciences than it is for me to respect the faith of someone without a formal scientific education. To me, continuing to believe in the biblical story of creation, for example, in the light of and yet in spite of all we have been taught about the natural world after many years specialization in the natural sciences, is comparable to an astronaut who continues to believe that the world is flat even after flight training. Such blatant disregard for scientific knowledge is at once insulting and embarrassing to the rest of us who see the obvious truth about life on this planet and the how the world actually works.

But we rarely spoke to each other about religion. Early on in our friendship, he had asked me if I went to church and I told him that I didn’t believe in god. For his part, he didn’t try to press me for a reason and I didn’t try to convince him that he was wrong. But it annoyed me how consumed his personal life outside of work was with his church. He went to a private religious college in Michigan. His wife majored in religion and worked for the church headquarters in Washington. They didn’t have sex until after they were married. They are anti-abortion. They are anti-gay rights. Every single relationship or extra-curricular activity in which he partook seemed to originate from the church: bake sales and bible schools, the babysitter they found to look after their son and the mechanic they hired to fix their car. His involvement in the church absolutely defined his life outside of the lab. And over the years I heard about it all.

Fast forward to one day toward the end of my time there, a day on which I wasn’t in the best of moods and when I knew I wouldn’t be around much longer. The two of us and a third med-student lab-mate were working in the tissue culture room. They were having a conversation about religion and, as usual, I was keeping to myself. I learned long ago that even in an academic research lab, it is not worth it to get involved in such conversations. I have also found that, as a general rule, when people discuss controversial topics, whether religion, abortion, gay rights or whatever, it almost never happens that anyone will actually ask for anyone else’s opinion. Everyone tends to be so preoccupied with getting their own two cents into the hopper that they completely lose sight of the fact that anyone else might be actually trying to make a valid point. It’s easy to remain silent when no one asks for your opinion.

But this day was different. They were talking about Dr. Francis Collins, who is most widely known for his leading role in the coordination of the government side of the Human Genome Project. Specifically, they were talking about his recent nomination by President Obama to become Director of the National Institutes of Health. I knew even before my friend started to speak that he would be gushing with support over this decision because Collins is an outspoken Christian and the absolute epitome of the respected life scientist who manages to reconcile his belief in God with his knowledge of the natural world. Make no mistake; he is not merely a successful scientist who also happens to be religious. No. Dr. Collins has literally written books on this topic. So when the president nominated him to what is effectively the highest and most powerful scientific post in the country, yeah, I was a little bit pissed off. I’m also certain that I was not alone in this feeling.

Much to my surprise, the medical student turns to me in what I suppose was a genuine effort to include me in the conversation and asks, “So what do you think about Francis Collins’ nomination?” Shocked that my opinion was asked, I remained briefly silent while engaging in a mental debate as to what sort of response I should give: should it be a measured, conservative response indicating my dissatisfaction or should I plunge head-first into a tirade with reckless abandon. They did ask my opinion, after all. I could have taken the high road and said something diplomatic. I could have let it be, more or less, as I generally did over the years. But I have to confess, my excitement in actually being asked my opinion for once got the better of me. After taking a deep breath, I responded, “Are you sure you want to hear my answer to that question?” This was probably the worst thing I could’ve said because now she was intrigued and genuinely curious as to what I might have to say about this guy of whom my friend had just spoken so highly. She confirmed that she wanted to know what I had to say and I decided to just lay it out there, “I think it’s embarrassing,” I confessed, with the sort of relieved feeling of, “there, I said it.”

“You think it’s embarrassing?” she replied confusedly with her eyebrows furrowed. I began to explain that I felt his nomination was just window-dressing; that The President was pandering to the religious vote and that it was a completely inappropriate choice that sent the wrong message: you can go farther if you’re a good scientist and religious than you can just by being a good scientist. Unfortunately, I didn’t get too far into my explanation before being cut off by my religious lab-mate who began asking why I would use the word embarrassed. I started by explaining the results of a poll carried out in 1996 and 1998 that asked scientists if they “believed in a personal God.” The proportion of researchers expressing doubt or disbelief when chosen randomly from the population was about 60% percent, higher than in the general population, to be sure, but certainly not universal. However, when the field of respondents was narrowed to include only members of the National Academy of Sciences, the contrast was stark: only 7% percent reported having such a belief. The interpretation is biting: its not that scientists don’t believe in god, it’s that the good ones don’t believe in god. I went on to assert my belief that many of the problems of the world today are a direct result of religion. He countered that, in fact, religion provides moral direction and that those who lack religion lack morality. I responded that (taking a page from Ricky Gervais’ book) Christians do not own the rights to being good.

At this point, my friend became quite upset and our conversation quickly devolved into me saying that belief in god is incompatible with science and that if it were up to me, you wouldn’t even be allowed to hold such a position as NIH Director if you believed in god. I stopped short of saying you shouldn’t be allowed to get a PhD in biosciences either, although that was (and remains) my true opinion.  After that, it was just a sort of back and forth of, “I think your opinion is stupid.” Shortly thereafter, realizing how awfully out of control everything had escalated, I excused myself from the room.

Sitting back at my desk, I felt genuinely upset about the way things had gone. For a long time leading up to that moment I had this idea that it would be so liberating to just have it out with him and I had vowed to myself that if I was ever actually asked my opinion, I wouldn’t hold back. But in my excitement, when I finally had a good opportunity to express my beliefs, I blew it. To be fair, I was not as articulate in expressing my position on that day as I have been in this post. But in the end, we both walked away from the argument frustrated and things weren’t ever quite the same between us after that.

So I guess what I want to say is simple: don’t do that. Don’t let your anger get the better of you. Of course, it’s easier to avoid an argument and keep your opinions about religion to yourself, even if your colleagues do not afford you the same courtesy. But don’t shy away from making your beliefs borne from your lack of faith known. And don’t let your frustration build up to the point that you finally release it all one day in an explosive tirade. I realize that others far better than me have expressed this same sentiment before, but no one wins if you do that, you gain no respect for your own beliefs and you’re certainly not going to bring anyone closer to your way of thinking.