A Life of Love, Religion, and Science

Gordon E. Hunter

It was late afternoon in 1954, on the first day of my third year of classes at Mississippi College (MC), a Southern Baptist college in Clinton, Mississippi, near Jackson. I was on the way to the campus library when I saw her at the top of the stairs to the library entrance: a new girl on campus. Her beautiful long black hair cascaded over her shoulders. My eyes locked with hers, and when I reached the top of the stairs I said, “You have a beautiful smile.” She responded, “Thank you.” I opened the heavy door; we entered, sat across from each other at one of the empty library tables, and became acquainted.

Gene Anne was from Sparta, a small town in southern Illinois. She had just graduated from a two-year Southern Baptist college in southwest Missouri and had come to MC to complete her bachelor’s degree. She told me that she had “walked the aisle” to profess Christ as her savior when she was merely six years old. When I marveled at that, Gene Anne said that her parents had taken her to the pastor of their church, who asked her why she wanted to walk the aisle (coming to the front of church in response to his invitation after his sermon). She answered that she wanted everybody in the church to know that she accepted Christ as her savior and that she would go to heaven when she died. He was impressed that she knew precisely what she was doing and why she was doing it.

I responded that I was twenty-one when I walked the aisle to accept Christ in Gulfport First Baptist Church in coastal Mississippi near Keesler Air Force Base, where I was stationed during the Korean War. She responded that “understanding that you need Jesus Christ as your savior is relevant at any age.”

Gene Anne took my breath away, and I proposed that she go with me to an ice cream social that my “dorm parents” were holding to celebrate the first day of classes. I may as well have proposed marriage, because we have been together ever since. We were married during Christmas vacation on December 20, 1955, at her home church, First Baptist Church of Sparta, Illinois.

The morning of the day of the wedding, Gene Anne disappeared. I couldn’t find her at her house. I panicked, jumped into “Maggy,” my aging automobile, and searched without luck along the streets between her house and the church where the wedding was to take place. I parked and entered the church, looking for her in the basement and on the main floor. Frantically, I ran up the stairs to the balcony, where I found her in one of the seats with her head bowed. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s kind of scary getting married,” she said, tears streaming down her face, “and I wanted to get as close to God as I could to pray that our marriage would be a ‘happily ever after’ one.” I kissed her, held her close, prayed with her that our marriage would be a happily-ever-after one, and took her home to prepare for the wedding.

Our ceremony was more or less standard, except that I sang a love song to Gene Anne as she came down the aisle, and we did not kiss at the end of the ceremony. Instead, Gene Anne and I sang “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” as a duet because the song expressed what we felt.

 

Gene Anne learned to ice-skate during our three-day honeymoon in St. Louis before Maggy took us back to Sparta to celebrate Christmas with Gene Anne’s family and then to Mississippi College where we completed our course requirements. We each graduated with honors in the spring of 1956, Gene Anne with honors higher than mine. She was certified to teach English, and I was certified to teach science in public school.

We thanked God for the happy events and professional successes that followed. First, we spent two years teaching English and biology in a public school on the beautiful Pacific island of Guam, where I became fascinated by tropical plants and where the first of our three sons, Morris, was born. Then, I spent a year teaching general science in Hoopeston, Illinois, where Mark was born, and I was accepted to a National Science Foundation program to work on a master’s degree in science at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where Steven was born. I was invited to study for a PhD in botany at Washington University. After obtaining my doctorate, I accepted my first job offer, which led to teaching for four years at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. I was given the opportunity during my second and third summers at Murray to do postdoctoral research supported by the National Science Foundation at the University of Texas.

We then moved to Tennessee Technological University (TTU) in Cook­eville, Tennessee, where I served as chairman of the Biology Department, and Gene Anne completed a master’s degree in psychology. She became the counselor at a local elementary school and director of a government-supported public-school program to assist delayed-learning students. For two years, I was selected as “TTU Professor of the Year,” and, in 1990, I was given the state’s “Tennessee Professor of the Year” award. In the spring of 1990, I was selected by the administration of TTU to be the speaker for that year’s graduation ceremony, the only instance during my tenure at TTU that a faculty member was selected for that honor. Last, after retirement from TTU in 1995, I was supported by the National Science Foundation for five years as a consultant to assist middle Tennessee elementary school teachers in developing hands-on science teaching plans.

 

If you have taken the time to read this far, you may be wondering how I could be both a Christian and a scientist. When challenged by Christian friends with the question of how I could believe in both God and evolution, I replied, “Evolution is God’s way of creating man and all other forms of life.” If they persisted, I would point out that the account of God’s creation of man in chapter 1 in the Bible differs from the one in chapter 2, and if the biblical canon had not been closed to new additions hundreds of years ago, we could add evolution as a third account.

In the years since my salvation experience, I have been regular in church attendance and support of its programs. I have accepted leadership roles as Sunday-school teacher, song leader, and deacon. Nevertheless, when it was discovered scientifically that Earth was 4.5 billion years old and life on Earth had begun 3.5 billion years ago, I decided that infinity came before death, not after. Furthermore, it became a stretch for me to believe in heaven or hell. I focused more of my efforts on improving this life. Shortly after I began working at TTU, a colleague and I designed a biology course to heighten students’ appreciation for the environment in which we live and concern about the evermore rapid growth of Earth’s human population. The course, Man and His Environment, was approved to meet the freshman requirement for two semesters of science and rapidly became the most popular of freshman science courses. Teaching the course was not enough to satisfy my desire for action. I had solar panels put on our new home and tried to sell solar panels to my neighbors and friends (without success). I bought a hybrid automobile and distributed tickets to showings of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Furthermore, I shared my concerns by writing editorials on global warming for the local newspaper and comical conversations between God and an environmentally concerned prophet for the monthly church newsletter. I taught Sunday-school lessons to adults about the greenhouse effect and global warming. I wrote and published a book for teens and the young at heart titled How Are You, Mother Earth? Despite these efforts and the publicity about global warming and climate change, my Christian friends continued “business as usual.”

 

Gene Anne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, and I resigned all of my church responsibilities to take care of her. I am never far enough away from her that I can’t hear her call. She spends more time in bed than I do, which gives me time to read, write, and give thought to the conflict of being both a Christian and a scientist, which I never did before. I was happy being both. One morning, I pulled my old anthropology text, Cultural Anthropology, An Applied Perspective, from the shelf and opened it to a chapter titled “Functions of Religion.” At the end of a section titled “Group Solidarity” was this summary: “In short, religion strengthens a person’s sense of group identity and belonging.” These, indeed, were major factors in my remaining a Christian. The biggest reason though, that I now have taken time to analyze and understand, is that becoming a Christian is a highly emotional process. The rituals of “walking the aisle” and subsequent baptism are acts of identification and emotion.

Before walking the aisle, I had no enduring identity, but after that emotional walk and professing Christ as my savior, I was a Christian, a child of God, and a brother of Jesus. Furthermore, I was related to every other member of Gulfport First Baptist Church, and wherever I went I could find Christian brothers and sisters by going to a Baptist church. Never again was I as lonely as I had been my first several months at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. In contrast to emotional religion, science is rational, basing truth on evidence.

My quest to become a scientist started when, at Washington University, Dr. Robert Woodson—my major professor—gave me the job of classifying the species of a genus of plants living in the tropics of Panama. I did not have to go to Panama to collect the plants for study. Other scientists for many years had already collected, pressed, dried, and glued specimens on standard sheets of paper and sent them to the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium for future scientists to study.

When I was certain that I could distinguish and adequately describe the several species of the genus, I wrote a description of each species in the genus with a key clarifying the differences. Then Dr. Woodson examined my work and approved it for publication. When the publisher received my work, he sent copies to scientists familiar with related plant species. Upon receiving positive responses from them, the publisher approved publication. The day of that publication, based not on belief but on evidence identified by hard work, was the day I became accepted as a scientist by other scientists. It was a significant and joyful day for me but not nearly as emotional as walking the aisle when I got uncountable handshakes, hugs, and kisses.

 

In this, my eighty-fifth year, I finally understand that I have been living in two worlds: the world of irrational Christianity and the world of rational science. I grew out of my childhood belief in Santa Claus and his North Pole toy factory—why not God and his heaven?

The best explanation for my holding onto belief in both “God” and evolution for so long was penned by Joel Achenbach, who wrote in the March 2015 National Geographic, “Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers.” When I look back on my own experience of walking the aisle to declare Christ as my savior, I remember that it took me several weeks of watching others perform the ritual before I worked up the courage to do it myself.

It takes no courage to become a scientist. It takes a desire to know. For me, it was the desire to know how to identify external differences in plants of different species. Then I wanted to know what was going on inside living plants that gave them life. Eventually, I wanted to know the origin of plants and all other things.

The curiosity of the tellers of the biblical stories of creation was as great as mine, but I have the advantage of the written results, based on evidence, of the scientific discoveries from Copernicus to Hawking and beyond to help me understand not only the origin of Earth and all of its life but also the universe, its origin, and the possibility for life on other planets. When I told our pastor that I was an atheist, he asserted, “I knew that long before you did.”

The morning I told Gene Anne that I was an atheist, she replied, “Can we eat at IHOP this morning?”

Gordon E. Hunter

Gordon E. Hunter had a distinguished career as a scientist and university educator. He is now retired and living in Tennessee.


“I grew out of my childhood belief in Santa Claus and his North Pole toy factory—why not God and his heaven?”

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