I’m an atheist for all the standard reasons of logic and evidence that others have already articulated, but I’m also an atheist because of a feeling that religious belief can blunt one’s sense of wonder. As a child, the things that struck me as most beautiful and awe inspiring appeared to be off religion’s radar screen. Where were the giant sequoias in the bible? The Grand Canyon and the other National Parks? Bears? I would have been a sucker for religion had my parents been Mormons or animists. My grandmother showed me a 3-D postcard of Christ wearing a bloody crown of thorns. My mom didn’t like this, so grandma revealed the postcard as if it was pornography, something hidden and very special. I didn’t get it. Jesus would blink his eyes open and shut as you tilted the postcard. This freaked me out a little; normal kids prefer live people to dying ones. Even as a five year old, I can remember being revolted at the cruelty of a doctrine that had no place in heaven for cats and even considered the question ridiculous. Richard Dawkins called religion a crime against childhood. That resonates with me, although I grew up without much distortion from religious education.
I married a lapsed but still religious Catholic. (We all have criteria, and I drew the line at Republicans or smokers.) Charles Darwin is a bit of a role model for me in terms of reconciling my total lack of faith with my dear wife’s residual attachment to her religion. He lost his faith, but loved his wife enough to support and accept that she retained hers. Anyway, like Darwin, one of the crosses I bear is occasional attendance at church. Last Easter, the priest was talking about the miracle of the resurrection. My usual Church-service meditation on the history and sociology of the Hellenistic world wasn’t doing it for me. I actually listened to the priest, and I was getting pissed off. Torture is not some abstraction. It is a grotesque crime with nothing redeeming about it, and real people suffer their entire lives from having been tortured. The Father tortured the Son to death and then resurrected Him to free us from sin? That’s obscene. What kind of manipulative organization would glorify it? And why would anyone pick an event like this as the foundation to build some elaborate theological structure and claim that it reflects something fundamental about the universe?
Just when I thought I could stand no more, a warbler appeared outside the window, gleaning insects off of the forsythia bush. Call it a miracle: A bird weighing less than the change in my pocket flew from Colombia en route to Canada. It makes this journey twice each year, and it can do this for a decade. Here was something of tremendous beauty, real and tangible and available to anyone with curiosity. The priest would probably offer some Hallmark sentiment about God’s love for all of His creations, at least until they fly into windows, or toss off a phrase about the beauty of God’s creation that has the effect of stifling inquiry more than encouraging it. To be fair, the Catholic Church accepts evolution and there are Jesuits who have a pretty solid understanding of biology. But even they would insist on Easter Sunday that the defining event in all time was the brutalization of a man during the expansion phase of the Roman Empire.
I don’t get it. I’ve never heard a believable rationale for separating religion and science, and the whole progression of science pretty much proves we’re not the center of the universe. This warbler seemed like a small but welcome messenger from the vast and impersonal universe outside the church. The mysteries of the resurrection and the volumes of theological speculation built upon it seem like weak tea, pale and downright unimaginative compared to the remarkable fact that this warbler and I share the same basic architecture and chemistry, that the warbler has even more in common with the tyrannosaurus down at the Field Museum, that a creature so small uses the stars to navigate, or any of the millions of other things that can be known or asked about both human and bird. The church has nothing emotionally or intellectually satisfying to say about the terrifying vastness of time and chance that created me, the world’s most easily-entertained mammal, or the warbler I was observing. I am an atheist because the universe is unexpected and beautiful in ways that bear little relationship to the myths or beliefs humans create to interpret it.