Check out the inaugural episode of The Clerk’s new podcast, The Consensus! On this episode, David King ’20 interviews Lynne Butler, professor of mathematics and statistics, about academia and religion.
David King: Hello, and welcome to The Consensus, a podcast brought to you by the Haverford Clerk, Haverford’s online student newspaper. I’m your host David King. Thanks for being with us. On today’s inaugural episode, I speak with Lynne Butler, a professor of mathematics and statistics, about the role the Bahá’í Faith plays in her life as an academic. We talk about religion, academia, tension, and the ultimate unity of it all. Check it out. We hope you enjoy.
David King: Good morning, and welcome to the podcast. My name is David King. I am here with Lynne Butler, a professor of mathematics and statistics. Professor Butler, welcome to the podcast.
Lynne Butler: Thank you for inviting me.
D.K.: So, to begin, I just want to ask you about your career. How you got into math, what your story is—in brief summary—of how you ended up where you are.
L.B.: My first serious study of math was the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I studied number theory at the University of Chicago. But actually, I went there because I wanted to volunteer for two weeks at the house of worship. That was the only way I could convince my parents to let me go.
D.K.: That’s it. So that’s a good way of getting into our topic for today which is actually religion and academic life. So that house of worship—what religion was it?
L.B.: It’s the Bahá’í Faith, which is a worldwide religion with over 5 million adherents and was founded 200 years ago in Iran. It has two prophet founders, similar to Christ, who founded Christianity and Muhammad, who founded Islam. So, Bahá’u’lláh founded the Baha’i Faith.
D.K.: Great, so could you just give a bit of background on the Bahá’í Faith? What are some central tenets or teachings of the faith for people who are unfamiliar?
L.B.: Perhaps the teaching that attracted me most was the concept of progressive revelation. So Bahá’ís believe that all of the founders of the major religions are manifestations of one God, and that their teachings differ from age to age, depending on the needs of the time and place in which they appear.
D.K.: That’s really interesting. So are there any particular practices that come along with the Faith that you keep?
L.B.: There are the usual kinds of practices you see in many religions. For example daily prayer, a period of fasting, observance of holy days, a community gathering once every 19 days. But the most important obligation of a Bahá’í is to be of service to humanity. And you choose the service you provide by studying the writings of the prophet founder and seeing what are the needs of humanity today.
D.K.: So it’s really a community-centered faith, is that right?
L.B.: That’s right. I think most people would say that the central tenant of the Baha’i Faith is unity. But it’s a unity in diversity and really meant to be a worldwide unity.
D.K.: So how do these beliefs and practices—you said daily prayer, that there’s a meeting every 19 days—so how do these beliefs and practices influence your day-to-day life?
L.B.: I’m devoted to my family and also to students at Haverford. I don’t have children, so the closest thing I have to young people to guide. [Both laugh] But the truth is that you know you’re not young people, you’re already adults. You already have very active minds and very strong opinions. So, for me, helping students investigate the truth—whether that truth be scientific or religious truth—is what I think of as my purpose.
D.K.: So, how did you come to that realization? And how did you come to the realization that math was the place for you to make that impact?
L.B.: Oh–I could have made that impact in many ways. And now that I’m sort of a senior mathematician I’m a grandmother, almost. [David Laughs] You know I don’t focus just on academic contributions. I’m actually doing other things with about equal time.
D.K.: Such as?
L.B.: I’m a member of the area teaching committee for Central Jersey, which is a Baha’i effort to develop human resources and communities for the purpose of moral instruction and human development.
D.K.: OK. So do you feel at all that these practices or other time spent investing in particular Baha’i work—do you feel that that intrudes on your life as an academic? Or do you think that it adds to it in a way that that some academics might not have?
L.B.: I had a period of 18 years in the middle of my life where I was not a member of the Baha’i community. I was when I was young, and then there was this period where I wasn’t a Baha’i and then I became a Baha’i again. So I do feel a certain tension between academics and the Baha’i Faith. But there is no essential conflict…the conflict comes when you subscribe to a kind of education that’s elitist. I went to very elite institutions and for me coming to Haverford was a way again to combine my Faith and my academic work.
D.K.: How do you see that playing out at Haverford? What is different about this place that allows you to feel that comfort and to ease that tension?
L.B.: I mean one of the things that just this place was founded by Quakers, and Quakers have a decision-making process very similar to the one we use in the Bahá’í Faith. The students conduct themselves under an Honor Code. We have a president right now Kim Benston, who is extremely enlightened. I enjoy it. So most of the years I’ve been here—almost 30 years now—I’ve been extremely happy and in agreement with the way this community conducts itself.
D.K.: So you just used the term enlightened for Kim Benson. Is there a particular connotation that has in the Bahá’í Faith?
L.B.: A freedom from prejudice is one of the main tenets of the Baha’i Faith. It’s really not possible to have unity without respect for differing opinions. There is a saying that in the Baha’i Faith that the clash of differing opinions is the spark of truth. So I think the kind of tolerance practiced by Quakers, and where you hold someone in the Light, is very much in accordance with some of those.
D.K.: So you feel that there’s less of a tension here between your practices—your beliefs and your work as an academic and your place in the academic world, really.
D.K.: So how do your beliefs really inform or shape your work as an academic? Because you know, when I think of math I don’t think religion right. I don’t think that many people do so. So how does one inform the other?
L.B.: A mathematician has a belief that there is truth to be discovered. A mathematical truth, but that it takes effort to discover it and collaboration to discover it. I don’t think that’s very different from a study of religion, where there is a religious truth that you believe is out there. There are many paths that you can take to finding that religious truth, and using your mind and studying is actually part of both of those activities.
D.K.: Interesting. So, this this might be an awkward question, but is there a certain priority that your faith takes over your academic work? Or that your academic work takes over your faith? How do you place those two different aspects of your life? How do you order them?
L.B.: [Laughs] So I try to avoid dichotomies like that. And so—you know sort of my basic belief is that work, if it’s performed in a spirit of service, is the highest form of worship. So, they only come into conflict when my identity as someone who is educated at elitist institutions starts to intrude on my identity as a Haverford professor who is here to serve the students and help them…
D.K.: Help them find truth.
D.K.: Yeah, great. So there are often seems, at least from my perspective, it seems that most people see academia and religion in tension. That there is sort of an essential difference between the two. But what I’m getting from you is that you don’t you don’t see that difference, or at least at least in terms of the Bahá’í Faith that that difference isn’t essential, or it isn’t in conflict.
L.B.: [Laughs] No.
D.K.: So how do you think we can learn from the Bahá’í Faith and an attempt to synthesize academia and religious life in a positive manner? And to sort of get past what we see as a conflict between the two?
L.B.: I think for students the important thing to realize is that it’s okay at this stage of your life to focus on education. On your own education. You’re preparing yourselves for a life of service. At a sort of higher level—since I’m in the sciences—you want to sort of see that essentially, science and religion are in agreement. And when they disagree, it’s either because science hasn’t advanced enough, or religion has been clouded by superstition.
So, you want, as a scientist, to have a certain humility and to realize that scientific truth has been understood better and better over the centuries and hence, what we understand now is not the end understanding. And likewise religion—religion is renewed every time a new manifestation comes and it goes generally through a period of decline between those times. So, you know, if you’re—most members of my family are atheist, because they see religion as a cause of division and violence. But if you have a perspective that sort of looks at the beginning of a religion, you know it was a time of tremendous advancement of a community that was in distress before that. So, whether it’s, you know, in the Middle East when Muhammad came—civilization came with warring tribes. So, you want to have a sort of perspective that religion can be clouded by superstition, but it has had tremendous civilizing effects.
D.K.: So what I want to dig a little bit more into that into how that plays out. What do you mean when you say religion gets clouded by superstition? Because, I think a lot of times, what many people do is equate faith and superstition. Right. Yeah. And I’m getting the sense that you don’t think that that’s fair.
L.B.: No. [Laughs] So my father was a cancer surgeon. He said he’s “cut up a lot of bodies and never found a soul.” [David Laughs]. So, my brother who was the first member of my family to become a Bahá’í, would say to his friends who would tell him: “I don’t believe in God.” He’d say: “I don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in.” [Both Laugh]
Yeah. So I think, people attempt to make their belief very concrete, and say: “I believe in a God of justice. I believe in a God of love. I believe in a God who is a single being…where does He live?” So I think you want to have a little bit of humility and say God is unknowable, surely, and find points of agreement that are appropriate for the stage of development of humanity right now.
D.K.: So humanity is sort of constantly progressing in a way.
D.K.: How do you see that playing out in a world that doesn’t seem to be progressing?
L.B.: I think there’s two things going on right now. One is a really disintegration, of many of the structures that have guided our lives for a long time, including academics. And the other is a kind of new birth…new kinds of ways of organizing ourselves that are going to get stronger and stronger over time. So, we don’t, at this moment in our development, my belief is, we don’t need priests or Muslim clerics. Every individual can study religion himself. This lays a burden on individuals. You can’t count on someone else to tell you what to do. You can’t count on someone else to tell you what to me. So, I think there’s an attempt to have people divide along political lines along religious lines, but that has to do with a kind of conception of power. Powers is from people above, oppressing those who are below. And the truth is we are all equal. Our leaders should be thinking of themselves and serving the people who elected them and not just the people who elected them but all people.
D.K.: So want to return back to the beginning of our discussion—you said that your life as a professor, you think of as a life of service, right? How do you find meaning in the work that you do? As it relates to your religious beliefs and obligations, as it relates to a conception of your place as a professor, as someone who serves other people?
L.B.: So there really there are two main things. First of all, I chose math in part because women were excluded from mathematics.
D.K.: So you chose math as sort of a statement against math?
L.B.: Well, against the mathematical community at the time. So, of course Haverford has a wonderful math department, and I had a part in hiring all the women who are here. [Both Laugh] Ok, so, on the other hand I so gender equality is one of the main tenets of the Bahá’í Faith and I wanted, as a Bahá’í, to demonstrate that women could do math.
So the other part of it is actually statistics. So I teach statistics now a lot almost every semester. And to me, empowering students to themselves =evaluate the quality of evidence for conclusions, whether it be conclusions in the medical field or in political science. The ability to yourself look at data and decide: How much evidence does us provide for something I’m being told to believe? That’s a contribution—independent investigation of the truth you can’t do that unless you actually have some tools through investigation.
D.K.: So you feel like you’re giving students those tools?
D.K.: So, what would you say to a student struggling to see the meaning in what they’re doing here?
L.B.: I think it’s always good to think about your life as a whole. What is my purpose in life? How does the fact that I’m trying to earn a college degree help me advance toward that purpose?
D.K.: Especially in reference to students who have particular religious beliefs, what would you say in a sense to encourage them that what they’re doing as students is important and critical to them living out their religious vocation?
L.B.: I think maybe they just have to look more deeply at their religion. So, religion should be a cause of unity. We should be able to find common ground with other people who are very different than yourself. So, think about sort of the deep parts of your religion, and being a member of the Haverford community and what that entails. You’re not a member of your religion to the exclusion of others. You’re a person who can bring something to this community, and also receive things from the community. So, don’t let religion be a cause of division.
D.K.: I think that’s really important for us to process. Is there anything else that you want to say to students—or for that matter to faculty—on this topic on the interplay of religion and academic life?
L.B.: Well, I think every faculty member here knows that they’ve taught me, I haven’t taught them. I came from a distance since I learned how to teach by seeing the wonderful teachers at Haverford College. Same for the students. The students have taught me and they’re still teaching me. So no I don’t have any advice for them. They’ve given me a lot of great advice.
D.K.: So that’s an interesting thing to think about for just a minute. You know how, I think we very often conceive of members of the faculty–the relationship between faculty and students as sort of a power dynamic, where all of the power is invested in the minds of the academics right and the students are just absorbing. But you think this is more dynamic than that right?
L.B.: Oh absolutely.
D.K.: So tell me a little bit about that.
L.B.: Learning is all about questioning the person who is asking the questions is contributing as much to the dialogue as the person who’s answering the questions. And it’s… so there’s this analogy of learning at M.I.T., where it’s like drinking from a fire hose –if you’re trying to drink from a hot fire hose, you’re going to choke. So, Haverford students, you know, are relaxed, relatively, and I think that enables them to think more deeply. And it’s something that I learned from them. Take the time to learn deeply, not superficially. Don’t memorize. Think and think hard.
D.K.: So don’t just learn, but understand. You’re after understanding. Professor Butler, thank you so much for your time. Thank you.
David King: Thanks for listening to our conversation with Lynne Butler. We hope you liked it. Stay tuned for more content from the Clerk. In the meantime, check out our Web site at www.HaverfordClerk.com. This episode was recorded and produced by David King. The Editor in Chief of the Clerk is Ellen Schoder. Our music was written and recorded by Mattias Lundberg. Thanks for checking this out.