Religion in odd places

I’ve been teaching a relatively non-mathematical liberal-artsy freshman physics course in the spring semester the last few years. It’s great fun, and one of the reasons is that I find out how differently someone like me — who has been thoroughly brainwashed by being a science-type for 20 years — thinks when compared someone who hasn’t. One difference is certainly in when and how religion pops up.

For example, in one exam, I asked students to give an example of a type of question that they would consult a physicist about, and explain why. (It had to be a question that hadn’t come up in class.) And then, I also had them give me a question that they would not ask a physicist, and explain why. Many students answered as straightforwardly as you might expect, saying, for example, that you might ask a physicist about a rainbow but not about the best policy to control the inflation rate. Interestingly, a fair number answered that “the existence of God” was something they wouldn’t ask a physicist about, not on the mundane ground that a physicist wasn’t the right sort of expert but because it was a matter of faith. Not an amazing event, certainly — people are well-drilled in strategies to protect their religion from criticism — but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it to surface in a physics exam. Oh, and one student actually listed “the existence of God” as something he would ask a physicist about, mainly because it seemed scientists knew a lot about how the world works and so forth. Maybe it’s not so much the answers that surprised me as that these were the first things that popped into so many students’ minds in an exam situation.

And then there’s the student who wrote, in an assignment discussing the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe (I do things with a science fiction theme), that she thought this was unlikely because it went against her convictions concerning human dignity and so forth. It’s interesting that she thought that was at all relevant to assessing the probabilities.

Presumably I should be learning something from my experience with students here, but I’m not sure what…