Why I Am An Atheist
I am an atheist. There, I said it. Are you happy, all you atheists out there who have remonstrated with me for adopting the agnostic moniker? If “atheist” means someone who does not believe in God, then an atheist is what I am.
But I detest all such labels. Call me what you like — humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nontheist, freethinker, heretic, or even bright. I prefer skeptic. Still, all such labels are just a form of cognitive economy, a shortcut into pigeonholing our fellow primates into tidy categories that supplant the deeper probing of what someone actually thinks and says.
When asked, “Do you believe in God?” I reply, “No.” When queried on the God question, I simply say, “I don’t believe in God.” No far-left rants, just simple answers. But the bottom line is what we all know: In America, atheists are associated with tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, bottled water-drinking, American Civil Liberties Union-supporting, pinko commie fags hell-bent on conning our youth into believing all that baloney about equal rights and evolution. I’m not one of those bastards, am I?
Well, technically speaking, yes, I am. I think biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the Earth, although I also think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that nature is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists believe. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive a sport utility vehicle because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. The only thing bottled water is good for is the bottle; science tells us most tap water is just fine. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be different. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.
I don’t know why the God question is so enmeshed with all of these other social issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s OK to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl. There is no afterlife. We just die, and that’s it.
Which is why what we do in this life matters so much — and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and over the millennia, philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the Earthly consequences of what we are doing.
I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right’s hypersensitivities and politically correct “tolerance” for diversities of belief — as long as one believes in God. Any God will do — except, of course, the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in God have had enough of this rhetoric. In America, we are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.
It doesn’t matter what God you believe in, which religion you adhere to, or even if you don’t believe in any God and are nonreligious. If you want to live in the United States, there are rules about how we treat other people. Religion and politics should be treated as Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, in paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s apt model for religion and science. “Non-Overlapping” means that religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the Capitol. Don’t go to church to politick, and don’t go to the Capitol to preach.
With this confessional, then, it may surprise you to learn that I was once a born-again evangelical Christian who attended Pepperdine University (a Church of Christ institution) with the intent of becoming a theologian. Although living in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a motivating factor in my choice of college, the primary reason I went to Pepperdine was that I took my mission for Christ seriously. I thought I should attend a school where I would receive serious theological training, and I did. I took courses in the Old and New Testaments, Jesus the Christ, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. I attended chapel twice a week — although, truth be told, it was required for all students. Dancing was not allowed on campus, as its sexual suggestiveness might trigger already-inflamed hormone production to go into overdrive, and we were not allowed into the dorm rooms of members of the opposite sex. Despite the restrictions, it was a good experience; I was a serious believer, and thought this was the way we should behave.
But somewhere along the way, I found science, and that changed everything. When I discovered that a doctorate in theology required proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, knowing that foreign languages were not my strong suit (I struggled through two years of high school Spanish), I switched to psychology and mastered one of the languages of science: statistics. In science, I discovered that by establishing parameters to determine whether a hypothesis is probably right (like rejecting the null hypothesis at the 0.01 level of significance) or definitely wrong (not statistically significant), it is possible to approach problems in another way. Instead of the rhetoric and disputation of theology, there was the logic and probabilities of science. What a difference this difference in thinking makes.
Truth be told, however, the switch to science was only one factor in my deconversion. There was the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong. There were the inevitable hypocrisies that arose from preaching the ought but practicing the is. (One of my dormmates regularly prayed for sex, rationalizing that he could better witness for the Lord without all that pent-up libido.) There was the awareness that other religious beliefs and their adherents existed, all of who were equally adamant that theirs was the One True Religion. And there was the knowledge of the temporal, geographic, and cultural determiners of religious beliefs that made it obvious to me that God was made in our likeness, and not the reverse.
By the end of my first year in a graduate program in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, I had abandoned Christianity and stripped off my silver ichthus, replacing what was for me the stultifying dogma of a 2,000-year-old religion with the worldview of an always changing, always fresh science. The passionate nature of this perspective was espoused most emphatically by my evolutionary biology professor, Bayard Brattstrom, particularly at a local bar where his after-class discussions went late into the night. This was the final factor in my road back from Damascus: I enjoyed the company and friendship of science people much more than that of religious people. Science is where the action was for me. But from where would I get my spirituality?
Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality — art, for example. Consider the 1889 impressionist painting The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity’s tiny abode.
The Starry Night is awe-inspiring art, but it is the product of centuries of scientific discovery, coming after Nicolaus Copernicus displaced us from the center of the cosmos; after Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion; after Galileo Galilei discovered the moons of Jupiter, mountains on the moon, and sunspots; after Isaac Newton united celestial and terrestrial physics; and after Charles Darwin put us in our proper place in nature’s ancestry. No one, especially an emotionally volatile impressionist painter like Van Gogh, could look up at the night sky and not be daunted by the vastness of the minuscule portion of the galaxy we can observe from Earth (about 2,500 out of the approximately 100 billion stars in the Milky Way).
Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother Theo: “I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing my tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things — however, I don’t mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on the canvas.” In fact, Van Gogh described The Starry Night to his brother “as an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God.” Read spiritual for religious.
As magical as The Starry Night is, Van Gogh painted it decades before astronomer Edwin Hubble expanded our universe by orders of magnitude through his observations from the 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson in Southern California. On October 6, 1923, Hubble first realized that the fuzzy patches he was observing were not “nebulae” within the Milky Way galaxy, but were, in fact, separate galaxies, and that the universe is bigger than anyone imagined. He subsequently discovered through this same telescope that those galaxies are all red-shifted — their light is receding from us, and thus stretched toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum — meaning that all galaxies are expanding away from one another, the result of a spectacular explosion that marked the birth of the universe. It was the first empirical data indicating that the universe has a beginning, and thus is not eternal. What could be more awe-inspiring — more numinous, magical, spiritual — than this cosmic visage? Darwin and the geologists gave us deep time. Hubble and the astronomers gave us deep space.
Since I live in Southern California, I have had many occasions to make the climb to Mount Wilson, a twenty-five-mile trek from the bedroom community of La Canada up a twisting mountain road whose terminus is a cluster of old telescopes, new interferometers, and communications towers that feed the mega-media conglomerate below. As a young student of science in the 1970s, I took a general tour. As a serious bicycle racer in the 1980s, I rode there every Wednesday (a tradition still practiced by a handful of us cycling diehards). In the 1990s, I took several scientists there, including Gould, who described it as a deeply moving experience.
And, most recently, in November of last year, I arranged for a visit to the observatory for the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the other great bard of life’s history. It was during his trip to Los Angeles on a book tour for his just-published opus, The Ancestor’s Tale, itself a source of scientific spirituality in its 3-billion-year pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution. As we were standing beneath the magnificent dome housing the 100-inch telescope, and reflecting on how marvelous — even miraculous — this scientistic visage of the cosmos and our place in it all seemed, Dawkins turned to me and said, “All of this makes me proud of our species.”
As pattern-seeking, storytelling primates, to most of us the pattern of life and the universe indicates design. For countless millennia we have taken these patterns and constructed stories about how life and the cosmos were designed specifically for us from above. For the past few centuries, however, science has presented us with a viable alternative in which the design comes from below through the direction of built-in self-organizing principles of emergence and complexity. Perhaps this natural process, like the other natural forces of which we are all comfortable accepting as non-threatening to religion, was God’s way of creating life. Maybe God is the laws of nature — or even nature itself — but this is a theological supposition, not a scientific one.
This article was originally published in Science and Spirit.