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Why I am an atheist – Rolf Schmidt

Yesterday my father died.

It was a cruel way to die: a stage 4 glioblastoma tumor was pressing on the speech centre of his brain and robbed him of his speech for most of the past year. For a university professor who communicated science passionately this was adding insult to injury. But he generally faced his illness and advancing death with a calmness and acceptance that most would expect from those that know they will be heading off to a better afterlife. And yet he was an atheist from beginning to end.

How could he accept this end so unflinchingly? The epithet that was suggested independently by several friends and colleagues alludes to why: “He left the world a better place”. A life well lived, with many achievements both scientific and personal, and no big regrets – well, he did have one, that he would not get to see his grandchildren grow up.
He had been good without god, and at times ‘bad’ without god, as he was quite antiauthoritarian. Together with my mother, he had taught me by example how to live life. I’m sure I was aware if my parents’ atheistic background when I was a kid (a local Jehovah’s witness would bring around her young recruits to weather my mother’s skeptical knowledge of the bible), as well as my own (in final year school I discussed evolution with a good friend for a couple hours, only to be told that I would have convinced him if his faith hadn’t been so strong). But it was generally in the background.

My wife always pokes good-natured fun at me when we have hiked to some lookout and gaze at the scenery; after a few minutes of silence she will say: “you’re looking at the layers, aren’t you.” as I study the geology of the view and try to work out what has happened on this spot tens or hundreds of millions of years ago.

There is nothing quite like the feeling I get of doing field work and seeing a fossil that’s never been seen before, or of looking down the microscope at a sample of washed sediment, and seeing a fossil of a species that is new to science. That thrill is uparalleled.

I recall going on a guided tour of by an Australian aboriginal to experience the traditional aboriginal history of the park he was looking after, and after telling us about the Dream Time legends of how the land forms and the animals and plants came to be as they were, he remarked “now isn’t that a much better view than the dry scientific one?”. I was totally dumb struck by the amount of wrong that he managed to squeeze into one sentence; I’m just not used to people who would prefer the crude prettiness of a fable to the awesome beauty of reality. I don’t know if religion per se is the bad guy, but blind faith is; it is the attitude that arrests all growth.

Today is one year since my father died.

But for all the rawness it may as well have been yesterday. I miss him dearly, the hole his absence has punched in my life is at times unbearable. I dance with the black dog still. I wish I could believe his soul was out there looking down – but I cannot believe in such supernatural entities even in the most desperate depths of my grief. Is this what Mulder meant with “I want to believe”? Just rephrasing my wish shows it’s absurdity: I wish the emergent-property-that-arose-through-the-complex-processes-and-interactions-in-his-living-body was out there looking down….

At my dad’s memorial, one of his colleagues and close friends found out with great relief that this death had not shaken my atheism. I was quite surprised that he would even think that it would. It made me realise that it’s an ingrained assumption people have, that in the face of death we are all tempted to believe that something will come afterwards. But this is the cheapest form of faith there can be, a last minute Pascal’s Wager brought on purely by fear. I can almost respect someone’s beliefs as along as they have come to them with rational reasoning (though this will be more the case for political and philosophical, rather than religious beliefs).

But beyond that, would I really “want to believe” in the supernatural? In the inimitable words of Tim Minchin:

“Isn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world?”

Yes. Yes it is enough – more than enough. I will run out of life before I have even understood a small part of it, come to grips with evolution, quantum physics, the mind. If these do not inspire true awe, if you need to invent non-existent beings that distract you from experiencing the world as it is, then I feel sorry for you and the wasted hours, days, months that are taken up talking to thin air, when you could be learning about the truly sublime in nature. I unfailingly have tears in my eyes every time I read or hear Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot quote. Such a scientific perspective is often used to conclude how insignificant we are, and yet for me it shows how fundamentally important my life is in the grand scheme of the universe, I am the only me there is and ever will be, and for all we know we are are the only intelligent life ever in all the universe. And yet here we are fighting over our beliefs, be they religious, political, philosophical, whatever. If we understand how there is no external meaning to life, the more urgent it becomes that we create a constructive one for ourselves.

So why am I an atheist?
Because I cannot lie to myself, no matter what comfort I may derive from believing that my father is still out there, watching me, one day to be reunited with him.

Because I am a scientist at heart, and I the way I live my life and view the world in private cannot be different to the way I do science – It all falls in a heap if there were entities that are outside of physical detection, yet can influence our physical realm at will.
Because none of the religions of the world actually make any sense in explaining the physical world or the human condition.

I’ve been admiring others who were born into very religious families, but who reasoned their way out of the faith-based mindset. About 8 years ago, when I stumbled upon the RDF forums, it really kick started my journey into conscious rational thought, and a reevaluation of my own, often irrational beliefs.

In the end, however, atheism is just what I don’t believe in and listing everything you don’t believe in will only get you so far. It is just the first step to know how to live; from that starting point I have to think. I like to think that my secular humanism motto could be “Empathy, Creativity, Science”. I hope this will mean that I leave the world a better place.

Rolf Schmidt
Australia

Comments

  1. Dick the Damned says

    Rolf, i enjoyed your essay. You’re lucky to have had a father who meant so very much to you.

    Your attitude is so refreshingly different to that of a Christer i’ve just been arguing with.

    He said, ” … can I give up on the idea of a god, and more specifically the God of the Bible, Jesus Christ? Then no, I cannot and will not.”

    I terminated our conversation.

  2. hypno owl says

    This is a beautiful piece Rolf. I’ve been a Pharyngula reader for a while now yet I’ve never got round to posting anything on here, but your essay’s moved me to leave a reply. I lost my own father 5 years ago. He was a respected Paleontologist here in NZ and along with my equally amazing mother they instilled in all us kids a love of science, reason and a desire for a deeper understanding of the world around us. He was also quite staunchly an atheist with zero tolerance for the willful ignorance of others. Neither me nor my siblings grew up with any religion, and we never suffered because of it. I always knew I had an intelligent and loving family, but it wasn’t until the final few days of my dads life when he was in the hospital in a coma that I realised we were also incredibly strong, mainly through being so supportive of one another. None of us resorted to praying or felt compelled to spontaneously adopt a religion and appeal to a non existent being. Anyone believing that a religion is necessary to face death bravely is wrong.

    I wish i could say that over the years it gets easier dealing with a loss of this magnitude, but i still miss my dad and think of him daily. There are constantly things I wish i could talk over with him. But one thing that does survive him is the values and education that he gave me while he was alive, and the same is true of your father. And now(along with your own contributions) you’re sharing those same ideas with people around the world, and I think that’s the best thing you can do.

    I love your motto of “Empathy, Creativity, Science”, because if I was asked to identify the core values that I took from my childhood these three would be big ones. I’d love to see more people adopt this motto and lose their existing one which seem to be closer to “Fear, Obedience,Superstition”.

  3. FossilFishy (Lobed-finned Killer of Threads) says

    Thank you so much for this beautiful, moving tribute to lives well lived, both completed and on going. My own father’s death has occasionally moved me to eloquence beyond my usual fumbling but never with such a positive message as yours. I very sorry for you loss.

    If you’re ever in North East Victoria drop me a line and perhaps we can raise a glass to absent fathers at the local. coelecanth28 at goshgollyGEEmail dot obvious.

  4. says

    “So why am I an atheist? Because I cannot lie to myself..”

    You mirror my thoughts exactly. I’m convinced after speaking to so many believers that that is what many of them are doing.

    An elegant and moving piece.

  5. KG says

    A moving and inspiring piece. From the point of view of one whose much-loved parents died 10 years ago, I don’t think you ever stop missing them entirely, but then, would you want to? Hearing about others whose parents have been feared or even hated and despised by their children, I know how fortunate you and I have been. My regrets are primarily around their over-medicalised last few months.

  6. allencdexter says

    You said so much and said it very well. I printed it and will probably use it as a basis for blogs of my own.

    My own life will soon be over (I’m 77) but I’m determined to exit like your father did. In the meantime, I’m going to be busy and make what life I have left count.

  7. dannysichel says

    You can still talk to to him.

    You just can’t talk with him.

    His coordinates now include a ‘t’ component.

    Stay strong.

  8. Mattir says

    This was a very eloquent entry in the WIAAA series – thank you for your effort to write and share it.

  9. says

    Lovely essay. Deep, deep sympathy on the loss of your father.

    I cannot believe in such supernatural entities even in the most desperate depths of my grief. Is this what Mulder meant with “I want to believe”?

    I suppose.

    I’ve encountered a few atheists who, upon the loss of a loved one, couldn’t help but imagine the loved one at ease in a mountain meadow or a similar bucolic scene. They knew it wasn’t true, but none of us are entirely rational, especially not in grief.

    After my grandmother had died, I dreamed of sitting with her at her kitchen table again, talking. In the dream, I knew she was dead, she knew she was dead, but I found the dream comforting anyway. It has no significance other than that, and that is enough.

  10. meboat says

    Lovely. Reminds me why I work hard being a father (and husband, son, friend and human) – it does matter.

  11. mepmep09 says

    It was a pleasure to read this. Thank you for sharing your story, and the manner in which you view the world.

  12. lesherb says

    Rolf,

    Please accept my condolences on the loss of your father. I lost mine 22 years ago. It hurts like hell but I promise it will get easier. In time, you will be able to reminisce about him without that stinging pain you feel right now.

    It is obvious he raised you (along with your mother) to be a caring, inquisitive person. That is your father’s legacy and I am glad to know you and your story.

    £eslie

  13. david73 says

    The brilliant 19c mathematician William Kindon Clifford died tragically young he was raised a C of E christian but gave it up later in his short life. This was his epitaph:
    “I was not, and was conceived. I loved and did a little work. I am not and grieve not.”

  14. ginckgo says

    Thanks PZ for fulfilling my request to post this on the anniversary, it means a lot to me. It’s been a bit of a cathartic exercise. I wanted to say so much more, but I’ll do that elsewhere, maybe on my much-neglected blog. Yesterday was a bad day in depression-land, I have new understanding and empathy for those with mental illness. But today is new, and I’m feeling much brighter. Time to register some fossils.

  15. sab248 says

    I admire your father’s courage and I’m very sorry for your loss. This piece was beautiful. We need more passionate scientists like him. I really admire your view of reality. We can’t make people come back. We can just hold on to memories. No point in wasting our tears over things we can’t change.

  16. ginckgo says

    Thank you all for your lovely and supportive comments, It’s satisfying to know that one’s stories positively touch others.

  17. jayel says

    That was very beautifully written and I feel your pain, my own inevitable experience of which I dread. I am fortunate that my father, also a passionate scientist (and atheist), is very much alive and, at 80, still out there trying to squeeze every last drop out of everything life has to offer. Words cannot express what he means to me, so I thank you for reminding me not to take things for granted.

    Your words:
    “So why am I an atheist?
    Because I cannot lie to myself…”

    struck a particular chord with me. Despite dabbling for a couple of months in an Interschool Christian Fellowship after school when I was around 10, I have never ‘got the belief’ and consider myself an atheist from way back. However, during my 20′s I once found myself cowering under a dining table in Japan after a 7.2 earthquake struck the city I was in, listening to the rumblings of aftershocks gather strength in the distance before giving us another unsettling shake, rattle ‘n’ roll. In my state of shock, and perhaps for want of something better to do, I started thinking, ‘Please get me out of here, God.’ However, even under those circumstances, I quickly reprimanded myself and reminded myself that there was no such thing and I’d be better off trying to formulate some sort of plan of action should the building be brought down around me! No, not only can I not lie to myself, but there is a whole lot of other, better, things that I should be doing.

  18. feedmybrain says

    Very moving and you’ve articulated my own thoughts better than I ever seem to manage in my frequent debates with theists.

  19. carlie says

    That was really moving, Rolf. As I started reading, I hoped that you had written it long enough ago that the initial sting had faded, but then read far enough to see that it’s been exactly a year, right when the pain reasserts itself. Your dad raised a wonderful, thoughtful, caring person, and it’s families like yours that help make the world a better place.

  20. Jem says

    Very moving story. It’s also great to hear from somebody who has grown up around science and obviously had that love of it passed on.

    I never felt compelled to dabble in the supernatural after my fathers death (a couple of years ago) either. If anything it cemented my atheism. What kind of god would kill a loving, intelligent father, leaving a wife and teenage daughter?