As best as I can remember, I was eight or nine years old, and I was looking through one of my parents’ books that I liked. It was almost an accidental find, or at least I don’t remember anyone showing it to me. I had discovered it on my own. I occasionally went through the large bookshelf my parents had, looking for something that didn’t look terminally boring. On one such occasion I had discovered a Time-Life science book, titled simply “The Stars”. The first time I ever looked at it, it was of course largely over my head, but every now and then I returned to it, and found more and more of it comprehensible, and more and more of it interesting. This early-sixties era Time-Life book introduced me to such marvels as galaxies, globular clusters and supernovae. (In later years it taught me about the Main Sequence, the carbon fusion chain, and the predicted fate of our own sun.)
One day, after admiring the artist’s conception of colliding galaxies near the back, I was paging through it looking for more to read about, and I hit upon a two-page spread that described the early formation of the solar system. It showed a cloud of interstellar dust slowly collapsing from its own gravity, spinning faster as it became denser, until there was enough matter crammed into the center to be a sun, at which point it started to heat up. When pretty much everything had collapsed into a single ball, it was spinning fast enough that it threw off a bunch of extra matter at the equator, where the speeds were fastest (and gravitational attraction was weakest). The ejected matter began repeating the original process in miniature, with several different areas forming their own local balls of matter that eventually drew in everything nearby. Many of them even repeated the part where at the point of maximum rotational speed they threw off a bit of matter from the equator before stabilizing, which in turn eventually collapsed into other balls. Voila: sun, planets, and moons, with the last straggling bits of matter winding up as asteroids or comets.
Pretty typical as explanations go at that age, in that it seemed to raise a bunch of really obvious followup questions, like for example if it just formed out of a bunch of preexisting matter then where the heck did THAT come from? Still, it was very likely easier to explain where a formless cloud of dust came from than a fully formed solar system, so even at that age I could see where this explanation was helpful. It wasn’t trying to do everything, but was just one piece of the puzzle.
I had read these pages before, of course, but on this one day something struck me about it. A light bulb went on within my head. I reread the text to make sure, even though I already knew full well there was no mistake. Here was a description of the formation of the solar system (complete, for the part that it described) that made no reference to God. None. Not even to suggest that God had nudged the cloud into position, or had given some chunk of matter a bit of a backspin in order to get things started, or even that he had carefully watched over it without interfering.
Not even to apologize for not mentioning God. It was that irrelevant.
There were people, I realized, who didn’t believe in God.
There were holes in my logic, I saw (if not immediately, then not long after). Just because these people contradicted the first chapter of Genesis didn’t mean they didn’t believe in God. They might still believe other parts of the Bible were right. Or they might believe that God created the interstellar dust, knowing that it would lead to the solar system and human beings. They might believe in a God I wasn’t familiar with.
But none of those objections really mattered, I realized. This explanation for the formation of the solar system was printed in a regular book, after all, and meant for kids to read. Clearly it wasn’t the work of a handful of lunatics trying to push their wild-eyed beliefs onto children before they were old enough to know better. No, this theory of the solar system’s formation had to be pretty widely accepted. Or even if it wasn’t, they at least were comfortable with the idea that it wasn’t God just stepping in and doing it by hand. And I knew that, even if all those people actually still believed that God existed, they couldn’t speak for everybody. I mean, taking this idea to its logical conclusion was simply too obvious, too compelling. If you could come up with a plausible notion of how the solar system formed just by leaving a bunch of interstellar dust alone for millions of years, then surely the formation of everything else could be explained similarly. So even if everyone who worked on this book believed in God, there were definitely other people out there who didn’t.
And if it truly turned out that there weren’t any other such people, well, there was one now.
If it had turned out that every adult I ever met believed in the Bible, then I wasn’t about to rebel against that. Those are long odds, stupid odds. But something within me, even at that age, didn’t find the Bible stories particularly compelling. They were just too strangely skewed while at the same time trying to be too pat. (Pat in a way that real explanations never seemed to succeed in being.) All I had needed was reassurance that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
The moment I deduced the existence of atheists, I knew that I was one too.