Response to religious discussions at work

I work in a very religious, but also very geek-friendly, area.  Bad-with-the-good.  While troubleshooting an issue today in a superior's office (whom I do not directly report to) religion somehow came up.  I must point out that this guy is awesome, energetic, friendly, intelligent, but also very... well... conservative and "local".  That's just what it is.  So I respect him but at the same time, it's like every other religious conversation at work:  I want to show my atheist colors, perhaps change some thinking, yet I know that won't happen and we're on company time.  So how to talk yet shut it down before rat-holing?  So we had some respectful back-and-forth while I worked on the problem, but later (after-hours) I sent this email.

This is my way of trying to be clear about staking my ground, without muddying work's waters too much.

Keep in mind this is a geek-boss.  Perhaps you may find it useful in your situation.  Names changed, blah blah.

I have finally noticed (and admitted) that, to a first approximation, people do not change their views in the face of conflicting evidence.  In fact, they tend to dig their heels in further.  I find this disheartening because I do so enjoy a good intellectual debate.  But too often debates are far more heat than light.  And therefore these days I do my best to avoid them.  Witness many mornings of BS-ing around the office.  I have work to do, anyway.

A requirement before any sort of reasonable discussion can be had is to first agree on your axioms.  Two people with differing axioms (what do you fundamentally accept as true?) can argue all day, and not just never agree, but never even realize why they disagree.  Again, all heat and no light.  Life is too short for that.

And axioms are precisely why the only thing I pushed back on you was the standard quote of "science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria" (paraphrasing you into the words of Stephen Jay Gould).  Magisteria may each have their own axioms, but if you accept multiple magisteria into your life, you've accepted multiple sets of axioms.  Some years ago, I found it eye-opening to enumerate my "magisteria", work back to their axioms, and look for conflicts among those sets of axioms.

To say it another way, science is our best known way of progressing towards understanding.  Believing is a another way of looking at the world, but it's fundamentally different.  It starts from different axioms.  And yes, they are conflicting.  (Hint: science is falsifiable.)  That doesn't mean it's impossible to hold both sets in one's mind at once, but they do conflict.  I eventually found it too painful.

It also doesn't mean that science is not amazing.  There is no lack for awe.  I have never felt more humility in the face of the universe, and my fellow humanity, than I have felt over the past five years.  The red pill is not easy, but astounding.

I lack Xxxx's charm, and Xxxx's disagreeable wit.  So I just bite my tongue and wait for the long-form engagement.  That's also why I want to keep religion down at work, because any meaningful engagement is too big to be done on work's dime.


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