Former Christian Fundamentalist: How Science Made Me Lose My Religion
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Ed Suominen was raised in a small sect of Lutheran Christianity called Laestadianism. Of the 32,000 denominations into which Christianity has fractured, his is one of the more conservative. Members believe in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation story. They eschew sins like drinking, dancing, watching television, wearing earrings, and playing school sports. They marry only within their own sect and believe God alone should decide how many children they have. Suominen followed the rules; he met and married the right kind of girl, and together they have 11 children.
But Suominen is also an engineer, trained at the University of Washington. He has been a patent agent and an inventor, and eventually his work with electrical and digital systems led him to notice something his church hadn’t taught him about: the power of natural selection. He was trying to optimize a design, when he came across a useful software tool:
“You set up an artificial chromosome with each digital 'gene' determining a parameter for some widget you want to design. Then you created a population of individual widgets by running simulations with different sets of randomly chosen parameters, and had the widgets 'mate' with each other. You repeated this process over many successive generations, throwing in some mutations along the way. Those widgets that worked best in your simulation had the best shot at having 'children' in the next generation.”
It was the beginning of the end. After discovering the practical value of evolutionary computation, Suominen began reading about evolutionary biology. The Genesis story fell apart and frayed the fabric of his Christian belief.
Outsiders sometimes scratch their heads about the dogged insistence of creationists that Adam and Eve actually existed 6,000 years ago in a perfect garden without predators or pain, until they took Satan’s bait and bit into a world-changing apple. How is it, 150 years after Darwin, that we are still fighting about what will be taught in biology classes? Why, in their determination to refute evolution, do some Christians seem intent on taking down the whole scientific enterprise?
The answer lies in Suominen’s lived experience. As he puts it, “You don’t have original sin without an original sinner. And without original sin...you don’t need a redeemer.” In other words, the central story of Christianity, the story of a perfect Jesus who becomes a perfect human sacrifice and saves us all relies on the earlier creation story.
After evolutionary computation cracked the walls of Suominen’s information silo, his curiosity and training as an engineer took over. He spent the next year consuming books about Christianity, by defenders of the faith and by critics. He wrote about his spiritual journey in a series of musings now published under the title, An Examination of the Pearl.
Since evolution is what most compelled his fascination, he began exploring the various ways Christians try to reconcile biblical teachings and biology. The end result was a second book, Evolving Out of Eden, written with Robert Price, a Bible scholar and former Christian. Suominen launched the project torn between curiosity and a desire to affirm old beliefs. By the end, he confessed: “I was raised a fundamentalist and spent four decades living as one; I’m still not ready to call myself an atheist. But after co-authoring this book, I just can’t see where there’s any room for a god.”
In a recent interview, Ed Suominen discussed his life-changing journey.
Valerie Tarico: Your book is about evolution, both biological and personal. You’ve been through a change in worldview that most people can only imagine. Does it feel disorienting?