An Agnostic in Waiting

By Faith Hamby

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment I went from a Catholic-raised schoolgirl to something more.

When I was younger, I was so affected by the stories told during Catholic services that I’d often cry when I thought of the pain Jesus had gone though. I know now it wasn’t because he had sacrificed himself for my sins, but because he had always seemed like a real person to me, God’s son made flesh, true, but no less human because of it. He was, on a basic level, a man who had died horribly for his beliefs. Beliefs that, regardless of Catholic doctrine, set him aside as a kind, decent person—someone who looked out for those who couldn’t look out for themselves. Whether his teachings were moral or ethical, in my mind, he stood for what was right, and he was willing to suffer greatly for it.

As I got older, though, I couldn’t understand why there was so much suffering preached in the Catholic mass. Jesus wasn’t the only one to suffer; we all did. And we had caused his suffering. Despite this, or perhaps, because of this, the relationship I felt toward Jesus began to intensify until he was someone I felt I knew in my heart, someone who eased suffering, but who didn’t encourage it. I began to move toward a more personal understanding of God. Maybe a childhood of emotional and physical abuse helped. I wanted to hold to the omnipresent image of God as a Father to all children, and I cherished a plaque on my wall that showed God’s outstretched hand, holding a child safe within His care.

It wasn’t until I became familiar with Emily Dickinson that I began to understand that I wasn’t the only one who had developed a personal relationship with God, something the Catholic Church didn’t condone. But even as the Catholic Church couldn’t understand me, Emily Dickinson did:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least —
I’m going, all along.

It was this specific poem that cemented for me the idea that I saw God everywhere around me, not just within the confines of a pew and a church. The miracle of nature struck a strong chord with me. I began not just to question what I’d been previously taught, but I also came to a quiet acceptance that I could believe and appreciate God in other ways. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t mind attending a Jesuit college. Of all the different approaches to Catholicism, the Jesuits believed that it wasn’t just okay to question their religion, it was necessary, and it was an approach that I, for the first time, could respect.

Being at a Jesuit college, however, I was forced to take two theology classes: one on both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I was lucky to have a Jewish professor with a unique perspective. She left me flabbergasted and excited when she first pointed out that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally, that it was a historic document, written over hundreds of years, and not even by the same authors, though they often shared the same names. For an English major, this made sense. The Bible consisted of stories. Moral stories, but stories none-the-less. They were no different than fables or myths or legends. They taught lessons that were useful—but not doctrine.

Since then I’ve spent a great deal of my life studying subjects from philosophy to psychology, and I’ve even delved into the shamanistic religions of the American Indians, trying to find spiritual connection in their respect for the Earth and all of its creatures. Eventually, I became engrossed in Joseph Campbell’s work on Jungian archetypes, comparative religions, and comparative mythology. And what I found there thrilled me. Regardless of race or religion, we all tell the same stories. We all have the same questions about why we’re here, how the world works, and what our purpose is in life. Our gods are our myths, the moral of the stories our attempts to answer the profound questions that all people ask.

And so it was easy to move from the idea that the Catholic religion I grew up in was not the only religion, or the right religion. In my reading, I began to feel as if the question was more important than the answer. Answers, like my relationship to God when I was a child, were personal things, revelations of self. Even as religion and science began to occupy an overlapping place in the world, they began to occupy a similar space in my mind. Both asked hard questions, and both tried to answer them in their own way. One relied on faith, and one relied on facts. But both seek.

Given this understanding, it might seem sensible that I would become an atheist, eschewing religious doctrine as outdated. But in truth, I think it holds an important place in the educated psyche. We must connect to the stories that run through our collective unconscious as humans. This is often most visible in our religious beliefs. And yet, we have to be open to the scientific answers that become clearer and clearer with each discovery made. To my mind, there has to be understanding and balance.

For this reason, I consider myself an agnostic. Not because I can’t choose a side, but because I find value in both sides. Religion is our past. It’s our subconscious. It’s where we go to find an understanding of the human condition. Science is the study of the world around us. It attempts to answer the questions we have always asked. The answers make the questions no less valuable. And yet, even science has its limits. Every day we learn more about the world around us. Once we thought the earth was flat. Now we know that the universe is so fluid it’s almost impossible to grasp.

Who is to say that someday science and myth won’t connect, or that myth holds in itself concepts that science has yet to prove or find words for. With so much further to go in our understanding of the universe, I think it would be a form of vanity and ego to claim that what we can’t see might not be there. We’ve only begun to see further into our galaxy. We’re only now beginning to understand subatomic particles, things we couldn’t even see 100 years ago. There’s no guarantee that the future doesn’t hold a more definitive answer for us. And until then, I’ll continue to believe that I can’t know whether there’s a god or not, whether god is an idea or a scientific principle we have yet to understand.

The single most important thing to me is that I remain open. There can be no new discoveries if our minds are closed to the endless possibilities of our world.

PhysicsBot 5000

In just over a day, a powerful computer program accomplished a feat that took physicists centuries to complete: extrapolating the laws of motion from a pendulum’s swings.

Developed by Cornell researchers, the program deduced the natural laws without a shred of knowledge about physics or geometry.

The research is being heralded as a potential breakthrough for science in the Petabyte Age, where computers try to find regularities in massive datasets that are too big and complex for the human mind.

via wired

Evolution witnessed and confirmed

In 1971, biologists moved five adult pairs of Italian wall lizards from their home island of Pod Kopiste, in the South Adriatic Sea, to the neighboring island of Pod Mrcaru. Now, an international team of researchers has shown that introducing these small, green-backed lizards, Podarcis sicula, to a new environment caused them to undergo rapid and large-scale evolutionary changes.

“Striking differences in head size and shape, increased bite strength and the development of new structures in the lizard’s digestive tracts were noted after only 36 years, which is an extremely short time scale,” says Duncan Irschick, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “These physical changes have occurred side-by-side with dramatic changes in population density and social structure.”

Researchers returned to the islands twice a year for three years, in the spring and summer of 2004, 2005 and 2006. Captured lizards were transported to a field laboratory and measured for snout-vent length, head dimensions and body mass. Tail clips taken for DNA analysis confirmed that the Pod Mrcaru lizards were genetically identical to the source population on Pod Kopiste.

Observed changes in head morphology were caused by adaptation to a different food source. According to Irschick, lizards on the barren island of Pod Kopiste were well-suited to catching mobile prey, feasting mainly on insects. Life on Pod Mrcaru, where they had never lived before, offered them an abundant supply of plant foods, including the leaves and stems from native shrubs. Analysis of the stomach contents of lizards on Pod Mrcaru showed that their diet included up to two-thirds plants, depending on the season, a large increase over the population of Pod Kopiste.

“As a result, individuals on Pod Mrcaru have heads that are longer, wider and taller than those on Pod Kopiste, which translates into a big increase in bite force,” says Irschick. “Because plants are tough and fibrous, high bite forces allow the lizards to crop smaller pieces from plants, which can help them break down the indigestible cell walls.”

Examination of the lizard’s digestive tracts revealed something even more surprising. Eating more plants caused the development of new structures called cecal valves, designed to slow the passage of food by creating fermentation chambers in the gut, where microbes can break down the difficult to digest portion of plants. Cecal valves, which were found in hatchlings, juveniles and adults on Pod Mrcaru, have never been reported for this species, including the source population on Pod Kopiste.

“These structures actually occur in less than 1 percent of all known species of scaled reptiles,” says Irschick. “Our data shows that evolution of novel structures can occur on extremely short time scales. Cecal valve evolution probably went hand-in-hand with a novel association between the lizards on Pod Mrcaru and microorganisms called nematodes that break down cellulose, which were found in their hindguts.”

Change in diet also affected the population density and social structure of the Pod Mrcaru population. Because plants provide a larger and more predictable food supply, there were more lizards in a given area on Pod Mrcaru. Food was obtained through browsing rather than the active pursuit of prey, and the lizards had given up defending territories.

“What is unique about this finding is that rapid evolution can affect not only the structure and function of a species, but also influence behavioral ecology and natural history,” says Irschick.

Results of the study were published March 25 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Fund for Scientific Research in Flanders. Additional members of the research team include Anthony Herrel of Harvard University and the University of Antwerp, Kathleen Huyghe, Bieke Vanhooydonck, Thierry Backeljau and Raoul Van Damme of the University of Antwerp, Karin Breugelmans of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and Irena Grbac of the Croatian Natural History Museum.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by the University Of Massachusetts, Amherst–