SPECIAL TO THE WCR
August 25, 2014
Young scholars are often told they must choose a path between science and religion. In centuries past, when learning in the Western world was isolated in religious institutions, this would have been unnecessary. Many ground-breaking scientists were either also religious leaders or deeply religious themselves.
This began to change during the Age of Enlightenment, and culminated with the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species. From that point, a student was told they must choose between evolution and creation, between science and religion.
Today, scientists are often forced to hide their faith in order to be taken seriously. Physicians, who talk about the power of prayer for those who face serious medical conditions, are vilified.
Some are hesitant to discuss the benefits of spirituality in fighting a critical illness because of the fear that patients will discontinue traditional treatments. Somewhere along the way we have been told that the two are completely incompatible, that we must choose one path or the other.
I have schizophrenia. When I was diagnosed as a young adult, I thought my academic career was over. I thought my life was over. My faith allowed me to see that I still had a contribution to make to society. Still, it is a narrow bridge to walk.
I have had people on the faith side of the divide tell me that I need an exorcism to rid myself of the illness, or that schizophrenia could be cured by prayer, or be cured by some kind of special herbal remedy. I had people on the science side of the divide tell me I should be sterilized to avoid passing my family's genetic illness on to another generation.
I choose to walk with one foot on one side and one foot on the other. Perhaps my illness has allowed me to see both sides clearly. My faith allowed me to find the internal strength to not give up hope, the hope of being able to have a productive life in spite of my illness, the hope of surviving long enough to see a cure or even the hope of both.
My academic background made me look at my illness in a completely different light. I am willing to sign up for any research project or drug testing program. I have refused to be discounted in academic circles due to my illness. I have had research partners withdraw when they discovered my illness. I have had spiritual advisors tell me they were afraid of people with my illness.
I have spent my career since becoming ill trying to bridge this divide. I have tried to show that people with my illness can be productive members of society. I have continued to research, write and teach.
I have tried to educate the public about my illness. My wife Catherine and I are routinely asked to speak to groups of students at the high school, college, university and professional levels. Bringing a human face to a scary thing is an important ministry.
Because of my ability to walk both paths, I have been open to reviewing historical texts for scientific insights. We have been led to believe that those who came before us have little to offer. Observations made by those who didn't have telescopes or microscopes can't possibly have anything to teach us.
I have never believed that. I have researched the scientific observations of ancient scribes, many who lived in mediaeval monasteries. I have been drawn to the beliefs of aboriginal people towards the observations of celestial events. I have written about the significance of impacted meteorites to those of the Islamic faith and the views of the spiritual leaders of First Nations peoples.
FREEDOM TO WITNESS
I long for a day when scientists will be free to talk about their personal faith without fear of ridicule, where doctors can integrate spiritual health with physical health without fear.
Many with my illness pray for a cure. I pray for acceptance. I pray for strength to endure it. I pray for our caretakers and physicians.
Mostly, I refuse to hide, and I refuse to give in, either to my illness or to the despair that often comes with it. I believe I still have much more to contribute, and God isn't done with me yet.
(Austin Mardon received the Order of Canada as a mental health patient advocate, and this year received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lethbridge, his second. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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