In the Beginning FIRST

Robots can be strangely emotional. Partly it’s that Colosseum atmosphere of a FIRST Robotics event, partly it’s being reminded of the vitality of youth, partly it’s hope for the future, and partly it is being part of something larger than yourself. Sounds religious. All that and lack of sleep. Yesterday was the culmination of the New Jersey Regional competition of this year’s FIRST Robotics season. As a non-scientist/engineer wannabe parent, I attend the competitions I am able to and I always leave deeply conflicted. There is a strange disconnect between science and religion that maintains an uneasy peace in many educated minds. My malaise began when I saw the following plaque, quoting the Bible, outside the Trenton Sun National Bank Center. In a state where labor is constantly under attack by its aristocratic government, it was a poignant reminder that such events as this celebration of science would not be possible without the efforts of laborers.

Bible lesson before the games

Emulating sports events, FIRST Robotics begins its events with a ritual. This in itself goes back to classical religions where competitions were dedicated to the gods. As a local speaker stood before the crowd of several hundred youth, mentors, and advisors, he reiterated the commitment the FIRST program has to service. To make his point, he began speaking about what he’d learned in church. It was here that the conflict settled home. For many years I taught (still do, in a less direct way) those who were training for careers in the church. I am committed to teaching them that religious reactions against a scientific worldview are misguided and bound to collapse. And yet here was a highly educated scientist simply accepting the teaching of a minister. There is a deeper issue here.

I know many clergy, perhaps too many for the good of one layman. And I know that many of them are far too busy to sort out the detailed intricacies of how science and religion interact. In fact this may be the only truly honest way to engage our world. As I listened to excited kids making announcements about the millions of dollars available for budding science students in college, I reflected on our treasure lying where our hearts are. Looking around at the mess the world is in, I see religion often taking a leading role in violence and distrust, reaping the benefits of science for evil purposes. I see scientists attempting to instill a rational worldview on societies deeply mired in unreflective religion. And I find them mixing at the fringes. I salute FIRST Robotics, but I wonder if we can ever truly escape the wrath of the gods.