Why Am I An Atheist? Hint: It Ain’t Becauses It Makes A Neat Blog Title!9 March, 2008
In the past two months, since I realized that my own personal version of agnostic deism really didn’t match what I thought, I have been asked, “Why are you an atheist?” This question has not been asked in a rude or aggresive manner, it has been (I think) an honest request for information. The short answer is, “I see nothing in the universe which cannot be explained naturally.” Fine. But how did I arrive at that idea?
The first source for this idea is my father (who (I think) is a deist and an active member of a Unitarian Church (he was even a church elder for a year (and has given a couple of ‘sermons’))). After a stretch in the Marines (between Korea and Vietnam (smart man)), he used his GI Bill to study geology at Tufts University. Then he joined the National Park Service and became an interpreter (same job I have).
One of the perks of growing up in the park service was, well, growing up in the park service. I lived at Death Valley for three years, and Grand Canyon for five (both places are heaven for a geologist). We were also able to travel widely throughout the southwest and every vacation (at least once per trip, usually once per day) he launched into ‘lecture mode’ (I do this to my family, too). His running commentary (whether driving or backpacking) on the geology immersed me at an early age in the idea that, even if the explanation is hidden, there is a logical explanation for natural phenomena.
I, like most kids, went through a dinosaur stage. Unfortunately, this was back in the days when the library books still focused on the ‘failures’ of dinosaurs — big, slow, dumb, lethargic, etc. I switched to history, but I still read extensively in palaeontology and evolutionary biology. The books that I read have reinforced the same lessons that my father taught me: natural events have natural explanations.
Even though I went from theist, to deist, to universal deist over a period of some 40 years, I never doubted the idea of natural explanations. I have, over the years, had many, many, many run ins with theists who were (are) neck-deep in the shit of belief.
At Grand Canyon, we had an assembly at the school. A story-teller came in and was brilliant. The last story that he told was a very beautiful (well, I was in fourth (?) grade at the time and I still remember the story fondly) retelling of Genesis. His imagery, his timing, his vocabulary, were perfect. After the show, as we walked back to class, I mentioned that the last story was a fun myth. Oops, I stepped in the shit of belief (first time I can remember getting my feet dirty). He told me that that is what actually happened; that’t how the earth was created. I laughed an lost a friend. Of course, he laughed his ass off when one of the Hopi students explained his creation myth. Pot, kettle. Kettle, pot.
In Maryland, in middle school (Marylandese for Junior High), one of our biology units focused on biology. There was a neat demonstration of ‘survival of the fittest’ (and I know that survival of the fittest is a very limited description of evolution) using red, yellow, blue and green toothpicks. We were to scatted them on the ground and then the other three people in the group would, in a short time, pick up the toothpicks one at a time. The idea was that the yellow and red toothpicks would be picked up quickly (a detrimental mutation), and the green and blue would be harder to find. One of the girls in my group said, “We get to be God. Let’s make the red ones survive ’cause I like that colour.” I tried to explain that evolution does not work that way. I got shouted down by my group (and the three around us). It was a good lesson for me, on more than one level.
Then there was the biology teacher who stated, at the beginning of class, “The state says I have to cover evolution. It’s in chapter XX in your textbook. I know evolution is a lie to destroy humanity. If you want to risk your soul and read about it you may, but it will not be talked about again in my classroom. There. I covered evolution.” There were only three of us in the class who, within a week, had read that chapter.
There was a very aggresive Christian on my paper route and he tried, every time I collected money, to convert me. When he found out I ‘believed’ in evolution, he laughed and said that it was all based on a pig tooth found in Nebraska. I was unprepared at the time (I was, like, 13?) to argue that the case of Niobrara man actually shows how well science works: one man made a mistake, other palaeontologists and anthropologists found the error, and it was corrected. In the 1920s.
These are just three of the many, many run ins I have had with theists (oddly, they have all been Christians (must be a coincidence)). Every run in has only reinforced the lessons of my father.
I am an atheist because I trust in the natuaral error correction mechanisms of the scientific method. I am an atheist because the natural explanation, being the only explanation which is in any way provable, is the most logical (not necessarily the simplest). I am an atheist because, thanks in large part to my childhood experiences, I see nothing in the natural world, solar system, galaxy or universe which cannot be explained through natural processes.