An Atheist at the Grand Canyon


Ah. I see someone’s living in a fantasy world. Via Steven Newton at the NCSE blog, I’ve learned that Time Magazine has a wretchedly ridiculous article up entitled “Why There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon.” Now, I know editors sometimes affix inaccurate and frankly absurd titles to perfectly good articles, but this one appears to be stoopid all the way down. Steven quotes the author, Jeffrey Kluger, as saying, ““there’s nothing quite like nature—with its ability to elicit feelings of jaw-dropping awe—to make you contemplate the idea of a higher power.”

I can’t bring myself to click on the damned thing. It’s for the same reason I don’t click on links to articles proclaiming the discovery of Bigfoot and other such nonsense. I know it’s nonsense, and I’m busy.

How do I know Jeffrey Kluger is full of the brown, sticky, and stinky end product of bull digestion? Because I have photographic evidence of an atheist at the Grand Canyon:

An atheist, namely moi, at the Grand Canyon. I'm standing on a lovely white bit of the Kaibab Limestone, with the whole layer-cake vista of the Canyon behind me. You can tell I'm an atheist because I am standing with a jaunty hand on my hip, rather than kneeling in awe-filled reverance. Photo courtesy Cujo359.

An atheist, namely moi, at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy Cujo359.

Actually, there were two of us there that day: myself, and Cujo. We were atheists then, and are atheists now. I do remember salivating heavily over all those lovely rocks, and being captivated by all that natural beauty, but not for one moment did it make me “contemplate a higher power.” The only time I did so was when I contemptuously contemplated the imagined existence thereof when I found a creationist book infesting the science section at one of the gift shops, and dropped it in disgust.

Seeing incredible natural sights like these are part of what made me an atheist. The gods many of my fellow humans currently babble about don’t seem like they could design something like this with a supercomputer and a tutor with 14 billion years in the business. And science had a bit to say about how this got here (hint: nowhere will you find a genuine scientist proclaiming god did it in the scientific literature). What geologists had pieced together and are still discovering is a fuck of a lot more interesting that any dull tingle in the human religious imagination.

I’ll tell you something: nature used to be pretty, and sometimes made me feel all numinous and tingly and stuff, but until I became an atheist, it didn’t have the power “to elicit feelings of jaw-dropping awe.” I mean, seriously, I was bored with the Grand Canyon until I gave up religion, folks. Big fat fucking hole in the ground, seen it once seen a thousand times etc. Now, I look into that chasm and see billions of years stacked up and cut through. I see nearly half the age of the earth, right there at my feet. And this is real. You might imagine you’re touching gods or something, there, Jeffrey, but I’m laying my hand on a rock and I’m touching ancient oceans. I’m touching worlds that were and will never be again. I’m a part of that saga of eons, and I know that rock and I are both made of star-stuff, and I know that none of this was ever here by divine fiat, but because from the Big Bang to the dawn of this day, things happened. The universe managed this all on its own, with no help from a divine mind, and it could’ve spun itself out in any one of a billion trillion ways, but this way happened to happen, and here we are, and it’s marvelous. And the really incredible thing, the thing that leaves me speechless with astonished delight, is the fact that we jumped-up apes are just smart enough to figure it out, all on our own.

Your gods are paltry and poor compared to that.

So yes, just as there are atheists in foxholes, there are atheists at the Grand Canyon. Sorry you missed us! We were there the whole time. You just probably couldn’t see us with that god muck fogging up your glasses.

Comments

  1. david says

    Great post, thanks. The grand canyon is the single best place in the world to see the meaning of “deep time” and to contrast the scale of nature against that of mankind. At the great unconformity (near the bottom of the canyon), pre-cambrian rocks are twisted, tilted and eroded, and then covered with thousands of feet of paleozoic and mesozoic sedimentary rocks, above. Keeping track of the layers as you down-river from Lee’s Ferry, you can watch ancient oceans come and go, and see cycles of old swamps and deserts. Hundreds of millions of years, most of it without humans.

  2. MadHatter says

    This stuff drives me batty and I’ve heard it all my life. I grew up in Colorado, surrounded by amazing mountains, rock formations with fossils visible, huge skies where you could watch the stars almost any night and I’ve always been an atheist.

    I’ve always loved nature, it’s what led me into science. Being surrounded by that is the closest I have ever been to a “religious” experience…no god necessary.

    *sigh* I won’t bother reading the article either.

  3. rq says

    contemplate a higher power

    I dunno, erosion’s a pretty damn high power, if you ask me. Granted, it works rather slow (none of that six days crap), but it sure is powerful. I mean, look at Utah. Oh, and that valley thing you’re standing beside, there in the photo, yeah, that too.
    Time’s a pretty powerful one, too. Couldn’t stop it if I tried. So yeah, I look out at fantastic landscapes and beautiful scenery, and I certainly contemplate a higher power: the power of nature.

    There’s just no room in the world for supernatural beings. Everything a god can do, nature already does better (granted, a touch slower in some cases, but hey, we can appreciate a job well done process well undergone, right?).

  4. says

    What is the weight of the material that had to move in order to make the canyon?

    Put differently: can god build a rock that rain and time cannot erode? Puny god.

  5. says

    Okay, I read the damned thing, and it was even dumber than I thought. Kluger refers to several psychological studies related to feelings of awe, and (in a culture where religion is the dominant explanation for big things) is reassured that most people jump to the “spiritual”.

    Apparently the existence of god (like that of Tinkerbell) is a sort of popularity contest. Here’s what passes for an explanation of the occasional atheist: we’re just odd. He’s tacking poor study architecture onto a lot of assumptions about people different from him…

    If that’s so however, couldn’t the awe-inspiring also be explained by the random interplay of chemistry, physics and time — nature in other words — rather than a spiritual being? And if so, couldn’t scenes of space or the Grand Canyon make you seek answers by becoming an astronomer or a geologist, rather than looking to religion? Maybe, but Valdesolo believes that’s a less common reaction.

    “The laws of nature do not seem to be what satisfies the sense of uncertainty that awe elicits,” he says. “If I throw 10 people at the Grand Canyon and ask how many come away with a secular answer and how many come away spiritual, I’d tip the scales in favor of spiritual.” Like it or not, awe trumps empiricism — and like it or not too, we’d probably be a poorer species if it didn’t.

    Read more: Awe Makes You Religious — Even if You’re Not | TIME.com http://science.time.com/2013/11/27/why-there-are-no-atheists-at-the-grand-canyon/#ixzz2pifaK8zD

    See? It’s a “less common reaction” to seek actual explanations for things that blow our minds. So awe = religion, and if you’re not religious then you’re just not capable of awe! QED, suckers. And the worst part is, I just ate breakfast.

    • rq says

      Aaaahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaaa…
      Though I do feel sorry for your breakfast – does that mean you’ll be having second breakfast?

    • Crudely Wrott says

      Valdesolo glibly and, I assume, in a hurry to meet a deadline, wrote this drivel:

      The laws of nature do not seem to be what satisfies the sense of uncertainty that awe elicits,” he says. “If I throw 10 people at the Grand Canyon and ask how many come away with a secular answer and how many come away spiritual, I’d tip the scales in favor of spiritual.” Like it or not, awe trumps empiricism — and like it or not too, we’d probably be a poorer species if it didn’t.

      I see the problem here. Valdesolo is confusing terms. “Awww” != “Awe”.

      Awww makes you want to get a picture with your kids and puppy in the foreground.

      Awe makes you want to burn all your old pictures with your kids and puppy in the foreground, buy a handyman jack to lift your jaw back up and start all over again with the assumption that you never knew anything.

      But then, who am I to criticize? I don’t know all the subtleties of language either. The difference between Valdesolo and I is that if I write publicly I make damned well sure that I do know the meanings of the words I use! Not to mention that I don’t get paid while he does!

      C’mon, Time! Hire an editor worth their salt and their salary! I’ve been reading you since 1957 yet lately, and sadly, you have been making me wonder why I ever did.* Sheesh!

      *When I was a child I read as a child.

  6. Wylann says

    Well, this atheist has been to the GC many times (hiked it and stayed at the bottom once) and I’m still an atheist as well.

    Got some great pictures, though.

  7. says

    Forgot to say, Dana, love this so much:

    …And this is real. You might imagine you’re touching gods or something, there, Jeffrey, but I’m laying my hand on a rock and I’m touching ancient oceans. I’m touching worlds that were and will never be again. I’m a part of that saga of eons, and I know that rock and I are both made of star-stuff…

  8. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    On my first hike down into the Grand Canyon, we got down to the pre-Cambrian, and I did shiver. It felt so unimaginably old, and creepily lifeless.

    And the Redwall was hundreds of feet of vertical that would never have stood up as soft sediment. And the meanders were like a flatland river, not like a flood outwash.

    I recall that there was a Creationist river tour going for a while.

  9. Trebuchet says

    Awsome, Dana!

    I actually went and read the Time story and could barely make heads or tails of it. Meh. I will note that I have subscribed to the dead-tree version for nigh on 50 years, but it’s mostly a habit now. I’ve fallen behind in my reading in the past few months and am working my way through the stack. I wonder if I’ll find this in one of them?

    @3, rq:

    I dunno, erosion’s a pretty damn high power, if you ask me. Granted, it works rather slow (none of that six days crap), but it sure is powerful.

    Actually, it can be fairly quick. Here in Dana’s and my state, we have the channeled scablands and Grand Coulee, which were washed out in quite short order, geologically speaking. And, of course, Mt St Helens.

  10. Onamission5 says

    Does “oh god oh god I hope we don’t fall” count as contemplating a higher power? ‘Cause that’s what I was thinking when Eldest ran right up to the edge of the Grand Canyon then leaned forward to see, and I had to crawl over there to retrieve ‘em.

    #atheistwithacrophobia

  11. otrame says

    Terry Pratchett says that religions start in the desert because looking up at the stars at night in a dry climate gives you a strong desire to get something between you and all that vastness out there. Makes sense to me.

    But once you accept that your are a speck on a speck amongst billions upon billions of other specks, you can feel the awe without needing to pack it all into a tiny little god-controlled world.

  12. says

    “If I throw 10 people at the Grand Canyon and ask how many come away with a secular answer and how many come away spiritual, I’d tip the scales in favor of spiritual.” Like it or not, awe trumps empiricism — and like it or not too, we’d probably be a poorer species if it didn’t.

    If you throw people at the Grand Canyon, you will, I hope, be arrested for attempted murder–and we can then hear no more from you.