Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.  – Milan Stolpman

I’m a microbiology major. My classes concern religious usage of the scientific method: proposing hypotheses, outlining and performing procedures, and drawing conclusions. To the greatest extent, science is founded in objectivity and fact. During the school year, my brain is in full gear, traveling at 1,000 miles/minute or, equivalently, 26,822.4 meters/second. My days are largely compartmentalized, neatly scheduled in my planner: class is at 11:30AM, I go to the grocery store after lecture, and I try to get to bed before 10:30PM. 

However, with my new-found winter break free-time, my days were consumed with the more-than-occasional nap and some much-needed reflection on my faith and spirituality. At one point, I even considered picking up the Bible, although I abruptly put it down.

Over break, I dusted off a decrepit box and opened it up, that of my Catholicism. As opposed to microbiology, religion concerns the super-natural, extending beyond the realm of scientific explanation. Instead of describing the world through enzymatic activity, religion makes sense of our world through beliefs and traditions.

Seeing the difference between my personality both on and off school duty, I realized that I live and assume a multitude of lives and personalities. I hold a commitment to science, yet also a passion for religion, for example. These different facets of myself inevitably contradict, which is why I keep them separate, avoiding internal strife. Though science and religion are not mutually exclusive, if I am to de-compartmentalize these two entities, and thus de-compartmentalize myself, there will surely be conflict.

How can I simultaneously believe Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Creationism? If I am justified in refuting a biblical teaching in response to overwhelming scientific evidence (and in this case, I am), then what stops me from doing the same with any other component of Christianity? To make my religious upbringing more compatible with my education, it seems to me like I must selectively decide which components I believe in and which ones I do not.

Theologians from St. Augustine and Martin Luther to those in the present have weighed in on these questions—reflecting on what it means to be a believer in relationship to the knowledge of their day. Although I do not pretend to understand all of their arguments, I find it reassuring that, despite their differences, these great intellects shared certain fundamental beliefs that form the basis of modern Christianity: that God exists and is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and wholly good. This is what I believe.

Beyond these fundamentals, though, I find a bit more flexibility. Church teachings regarding morality follow from the Divine, yet humans are flawed. Because of this, attempts to transfer the perfect essence of God into a codified morality (on subjects such as abortion and capital punishment), which we might refer to as the “teachings of the church,” are not necessarily infallible.

The Church offers a framework for what it is to be a Christian; yet it is ultimately a human institution, and subject to change as humans, society, and science evolve. Some of their views will change over time, and so I find it alright for me to disagree with them on certain things. In this way, simplified though it may be, I am able to identify as a Christian with a clear conscience, while simultaneously embracing science and logic. This is how I justify my seemingly disparate belief system.

What does it mean to be a true believer? Which pillars of your faith do you refuse to compromise on, and which others do you believe should be subject to change?

10 thoughts on “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.  – Milan Stolpman”

  1. Hi, Milan! I think you did a wonderful job explaining how tricky it can be to have two identities coexisting in your mind: one of modern, ever-developing knowledge, which is important to us all as students at a university, and one of religious traditions rooted and created thousands of years ago. Both are important, yet as times, opinions, world views, and scientific methods change, they can clash. You pointed out very insightfully that each individual has to decide for themself what pillars of their faith they will never fail to believe, and which ones may be the products of their times and of the people who recorded them, and thus can be altered to fit modernity. For me, I completely agree with your assertions about God being truly good. Some things I am not willing to bend on are my belief in science, in the equal rights of every person regardless of sexuality and/or gender, etc. (and I believe that if one reads the Bible carefully enough, and with the correct knowledge of historical and translation context, one will find that the oft-cited passages leveraged against certain minority groups are not intended to be used in that way). These are tricky topics to navigate, but I find myself guided by the basic Christian principle to love others.

  2. Hi Milan!
    I also had a similar experience to you over break beginning to reconcile compartmentalized pieces of my religion and worldview. For me it was more about spirituality as a separate entity from Judaism. In Judaism, since we are a kind of decentralized religion with no official beliefs on most issues (both within our religion and in terms of things that you talked about like capital punishment), it is very easy to be a Jew without even believing in G-d. Our religion tends to focus on what we should do, not what we should believe or think. I think that aspect of our religion/culture gets accentuated in my age group, and we keep practicing our holidays and following the rules of our religion like keeping kosher and praying the same service every Shabbat, but we do it as more of an ethnic tradition than a religious one. I found myself really falling into that last year, and I started noticing that “spiritual” moments for me had nothing to do with Judaism, and when I was focused on Judaism, it started becoming super technical. Like when I was teaching Hebrew school I would focus on having my kids memorize rules about how to build a kosher sukkah, for example, rather than talking about the spiritual significance of the holiday Sukkot, because that just felt too intangible and a little overwhelming to create a lesson out of that. But I kept having this nagging feeling that that is not really the point of religion. I don’t really have an easy answer that I have come up with, but there are a lot of little things that help. Continuing to learn more Hebrew has made praying more spiritual and less technical for me, because every time I go to services, I understand a little more of the songs/chants I have always been praying. Another little thing is a prayer I learned last year that I say in little moments when I am just kind of in awe about nature, like this morning when I woke up and it was snowing! And then those moments that used to be spiritual but not Jewish can be both. The prayer is: Blessed are you Adonai our G-d, King of the Universe, who makes the creations of the world/Genesis
    ברוך אתה ה אלוקנו מלך העולם עושה מעשי ברשית

  3. Hi Milan!
    Although I found the whole post to be very interesting, the thing that really got me to start questioning things was your title. When you said “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” it instantly reminded me of a pretty constant internal dialogue. However, I cannot lie and say I handle this dissonance as stoically as you because I usually reallocate all of my time and energy reserves to ease any contradiction. This is probably related to my consistent fear of being hypocritical which means de-compartmentalizing has never been a real option. Unsurprisingly, I found this lifestyle isn’t really productive or conducive to happiness! Lastly, I really enjoyed reading through your thought process!!

  4. Hi Milan —

    These questions you raise are questions I have considered quite a bit over Winter Break too. I read the book, Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi. The book beautifully shares the story of a PhD researcher who studies addiction and how her religious, mental health, family, and immigrant experiences impact her work. It shows a snapshot of how the character navigates outside influences to reach bliss and a sense of centering within who she is as a person.

    I would highly recommend — and I have a copy if anyone ever wants to borrow it!

  5. Hello Milan,

    I found your post fascinating! I myself have taken the break to reflect and relax and stumbled on my own questions of faith and the educational world and how the two intersect. So much of my faith in Islam focuses on the trust and belief in the ultimate creator. Yet, during the school year, I find myself consumed with my college life, classes, and the stress that comes with it. I feel that sometimes, I find myself wrapped up in worry and work instead of trust in God and his plan. I feel your post struck a chord with me because there is so much in religion that is about faith, and as scientists (myself being a psychology major) there are not always clear-cut answers in religion in certain areas as there might be in science.

  6. Hi Milan,

    I’ve come across a similar but sort of inverse problem in my classes in religion and anthropology. What does it mean to study a religion, whether one with a billion adherents or less than a thousand, when you strongly believe that deities, afterlife, etc are not true? For me, I try to operate under a suspension of disbelief. I suppose this is a type of compartmentalization, but I try to think about it as slipping in and out of different modes of thinking, rather than holding them at the same time. This means to try to understand whatever I’m studying in its own terms, as best I can. It certainly isn’t easy, and I’m not sure anyone has found the magic solution for this problem.

  7. Milan!

    Amazing post! I really like your writing 🙂 For me, being a true believer means structuring your moral demeanor in such a way that ‘you walk the walk.’ In Sikhism, we were given the names Singh and Kaur to replace names that were based on caste to promote Sikhism’s foundational principle of equality through liberation from the caste system. However, many Sikhs today, myself included, continue to use these family last names. So, instead of my name being Simran Kaur (as it should because I am a Sikh), I go by Simran Sandhu thus far. The use of the ‘family last name’ in the Punjabi Sikh community is actually a big issue because it affects how people get married because “marrying into a lower caste” is frowned upon (and it’s contradictory for Sikhs because the caste system is not something Sikhs should believe in). So, I hope shedding light on this issue in the community will be steps more people take so that in this generation and in the next, we can lead our lives more closely to what our Gurus intended for Sikhi.

  8. Hey Milan – amazing post! I really resonated with many of the thoughts that you presented. Beginning in high school, I became a bit detached from my faith and an enormous factor was the science education I was beginning to receive. At first, I didn’t understand how faith and science could go together. This led me to investigate what Sikhi had to say about the Earth’s creation. In Sikhi, there are not specific creation stories as there are in Christianity which are presented in the Bible but Sikhs believe that God created everything – Earth and everything on it. In fact, considering that Guru Granth Sahib Ji (the scripture that Sikhs read and abide by) was written over 500 years ago, there is a lot of agreement with what the scientific perspective and Guru Granth Sahib Ji on the world’s creation. For example, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji states that there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the creation of the world and universe, there was chaos and darkness in the beginning and that there are many galaxies and planets (that even science does not know about). For me, when it comes to the intersection between science (along with other topics) and religion, I take the best of both. I also believe that God is all-knowing and loving. Unfortunately, there are misrepresentations of religious texts that demonize certain groups of people or characteristics of people such as sexual orientation. It has been centuries since the founding Sikhi, and it was founded on the knowledge that was available and present in that time – for me, my faith and relationship with it is constantly changing to fit the understanding and knowledge we now have. I believe that if the 10 Guru’s (the 10 people who created and laid the foundation for Sikhi) were to create Sikhi today, it might look very similar but also very different than when it was created 500 years ago. I can say this because of the core principles of Sikhi which emphasize compassion and love towards all beings on this planet and meaning of the word “Sikh” which means to learn.

  9. Hi Milan, I really enjoyed reading your post! I too feel that religion tends to conflict with modern science, making for a tricky negotiation of personal values. I think that belief is more about faith in the larger parts of religious doctrine. As a Christian, I believe in the holy trinity, the teachings of Jesus, and story of his life above all else. Whereas many rules laid out in the Old Testament of the Bible I feel are less relevant today. This is sometimes hard to do as I feel like religious leaders I interact with and listen to like to say “we can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible we listen to”. I can still listen and be receptive to everything in the Bible, but there are some things in the Bible that I am not willing to take to heart as personal doctrine.

  10. Hi Milan, I really enjoyed reading this post and also feel that tensions between Christianity and modern science lead to a tricky negotiation of personal values. I think for me belief is much more about faith in the more overarching parts of religion than it is about legalism and considering every story in the Bible to be literal. As a Christian, I focus most on my belief in the life and teachings of Jesus and the existence of God and his presence. I often hear church leaders say, “we cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible to listen to”. For me, I can listen but also choose to not take everything to heart as personal doctrine.

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