How I got Where I Am, Part 15 February, 2008
I am an atheist. I look at the world around me, and I see the glory of reality, of a natural system. I think that William of Ockham had it right. Ockham’s razor posits that:
as interpreted by Bertrand Russell, . . . if one can explain a phenomenon without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it, i.e. that one should always opt for an explanation in terms of the fewest possible number of causes, factors, or variables.
In other words, don’t create supernatural causes without need. I see nothing in the universe which cannot be explained through naturalistic means. Its not that I don’t believe in god, I just see not evidence, anywhere, of anything requiring anything which could be called ‘god(s).’ How did I arrive here?
I grew up in an unusual family. My father was a National Park Ranger and we moved around the country a bit. I was born in Maryland and, in ’69, moved to Death Valley, California. My first memories are from there. Those memories are from a place with no church. The community was too small and diverse to support a church. Plus, its all Federal land, and there was no town before the creation of a national monument.
In ’72 we moved to Grand Canyon. I had an awakening there. I realized religion existed. Not only that, I realized that fundamentalism existed.
The husband of one of the teachers was a minister (I think he was Methodist). He gave services in the community center and was, well, wonderful. He worked Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Baptist, Hopi, and, well, everything but Mormon (nothing against LDS, but there was a Mormon Temple next to the Visitor Center). I fondly remember going to a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, complete with lighting the candles, taking the candles home, and lighting the ones at our house. I enjoyed the music, the singing, but I never listened to the sermons.
One year, a story-teller came to our school to present an assembly program. He was incredible. His story-telling skills were wonderful. His last story was a poetic retelling of Genesis. The images he evoked were beautiful. God stepping on the earth to create the valleys and mountains; bringing the waters to the land; creating the animals; creating the forests. Not exactly appropriate by today’s standards in a public school, but, wow. I mentioned to one of my friends how incredibly beautiful the story was. My friend responded that it wasn’t a story, thats how the earth was created. I laughed and lost a friend.
I could not, in my fourth-grade mind, comprehend Biblical literalism. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that he believed in a supernatural explanation for the earth. This was at Grand Canyon National Park! A monument to the age of the earth!
I had a different perspective, I guess. My father (the Park Ranger) had a degree in geology. Everywhere we went, the history of the landscape came alive with floodplains, mountains, dune seas, lagoons, reefs, seas. The faults, synclines, allochthons, folds and thrusts were part of my upbringing. At Yosemite, the granite domes came to life as the roots of mountains. At Grand Canyon, the PreCambrian mountains of 2 billion years ago in the inner gorge were every bit as alive as the Kachina Peaks by Flagstaff. From my earliest memories, these natural systems were a part of who I was. The natural explanation was reality.
I don’t know what happened to the kid who taught me about fundamentalism. Even though we continued at that school for a few more years, he and I just didn’t talk anymore. This event stays with me. It really was the first time I realized that there was a supernatural worldview. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, of course. At the time, I just thought it was batshit crazy (okay, batshit crazy is also a new term, but, damn, it was weird). I didn’t know what atheism was at the time. If I had to describe who I was at 12 years old, I would say universal theist: god is the universe.
I know now that the exposure to geologic explanations, to fossils and their relationships to the rocks in which they are found, and to the erosive processes prepared me to look, always, for the natural explanation.