This I Believe

Sheela - College Station, Texas
Entered on August 26, 2007

When I first got a job teaching human evolution at Texas A&M University, I was scared. I had spent my adult life carefully avoiding people who believed that their religious beliefs trumped science. Especially my science, the science of human origins. This was easy at the liberal East Coast colleges I had gone to, where the mainstream beliefs were the same as my own.

I came to Texas A&M believing that the students would judge me not only because I was teaching human evolution, but because on top of that, I am clearly not from a Judeo-Christian religion. I’m a short, dark-skinned, darked-haired woman with a dot on her forehead. They may not know to identify me as a Hindu, or of Indian origin, but they would know I was “other”.

I have always believed that religion and science play different roles in society. The two do not need to agree with each other because they have nothing to do with each other. Faith is by definition something that does not and should not need to be proven; scientific research is by definition something that is achieved by questioning, exploring, experimenting, observing and challenging. Science should not attempt to interfere with articles of faith but neither should religion try to supplant scientific research and make conclusions about natural phenomena.

But my role as a scientist is not why I have always been offended by the creationism-evolution debate in this country. It is because, as a member of a religious minority, it bothers me that one subsection of one religion believes that their creation myth trumps all others. Growing up, I resented Biblical creationists for espousing views that implicitly meant that their religious text superceded mine, and those of thousands of other religions around the world. My religious beliefs as a Hindu were not just wrong but irrelevant, while theirs could explain all of the natural world and should therefore replace modern science. I probably went into paleoanthropology in part because I wanted to do my part to make them mad. And I wanted no part of any dialogue between creationists and evolutionists—it only validated their invalidation of me.

But four years ago, I decided to take the job teaching human evolution at Texas A&M because I felt I had something to teach, but also something to learn. Though I was born and raised in the US, I had spent my life traveling around the world. I got a Ph.D. in anthropology and could accept so many other ways of viewing the world, yet I realized I couldn’t even relate to people in certain parts of my own country.

One thing I have learned since coming here is that, just as I was afraid of leaving my community and the people who saw the world the same way as me, so too are the people who accept the story of Biblical creation not inclined to abandon everything that has been taught to them by the people whom they trust the most, beliefs held by their entire community. And I have learned that it is not for me to tell them that they must turn away from those things, toward the truths that I am telling them. It is a choice, and a risk, that they should only take if they want, just as I took by moving to a conservative town in Texas from a big East Coast metropolis.

I have come to believe that the conflict between religion and science is not going to be resolved by scientists professing their faith, nor by religious people abandoning theirs. And it is certainly not going to be resolved by debating a concept of faith against a concept of facts.

It is a different dialogue—one that happens between any two people with different worldviews, whether they are married and living in the same house or strangers living in two different countries. It is a dialogue that begins with a question that lies at the heart of anthropological research: “Why do you believe what do you believe?”