I have been asked, “Why are you an atheist?” This question has not been asked in a rude or aggressive manner, it has been (I think) an honest request for information. The short answer is, “I see nothing in the universe which cannot be explained naturally.” Fine. But how did I arrive at that idea?
The first source for this idea is my father (who (I think) is a deist and an active member of a Unitarian Church (he was even a church elder for a year (and has given a couple of ‘sermons’))). After a stretch in the Marines (between Korea and Vietnam (smart man)), he used his GI Bill to study geology at Tufts University. Then he joined the National Park Service and became an interpreter (same job I have).
One of the perks of growing up in the park service was, well, growing up in the park service. I lived at Death Valley for three years, and Grand Canyon for five (both places are heaven for a geologist). We were also able to travel widely throughout the southwest and every vacation (at least once per trip, usually once per day) he launched into ‘lecture mode’ (I do this to my family, too). His running commentary (whether driving or backpacking) on the geology immersed me at an early age in the idea that, even if the explanation is hidden, there is a logical explanation for natural phenomena.
I, like most kids, went through a dinosaur stage. Unfortunately, this was back in the days when the library books still focused on the ‘failures’ of dinosaurs — big, slow, dumb, lethargic, etc. I switched to history, but I still read extensively in palaeontology and evolutionary biology. The books that I read have reinforced the same lessons that my father taught me: natural events have natural explanations.
Even though I went from theist, to deist, to universal deist over a period of some 40 years, I never doubted the idea of natural explanations. I have, over the years, had many, many, many run-ins with theists who were (are) neck-deep in the shit of belief.
At Grand Canyon, we had an assembly at the school. A story-teller came in and was brilliant. The last story that he told was a very beautiful (well, I was in fourth (?) grade at the time and I still remember the story fondly) retelling of Genesis. His imagery, his timing, his vocabulary, was perfect. After the show, as we walked back to class, I mentioned that the last story was a fun myth. Oops, I stepped in the shit of belief (first time I can remember getting my feet dirty in that particular type of shit). He told me that that is what actually happened; that’s how the earth was created. I laughed and lost a friend. Of course, he laughed his ass off when one of the Hopi students explained his creation myth. Pot, kettle. Kettle, pot.
In Maryland, in middle school (Marylandese for Junior High), one of our biology units focused on biology. There was a neat demonstration of ‘survival of the fittest’ (and I know that survival of the fittest is a very limited description of evolution) using red, yellow, blue and green toothpicks. We were to scattered them on the ground and then the other three people in the group would, in a short time, pick up the toothpicks one at a time. The idea was that the yellow and red toothpicks would be picked up quickly (a detrimental mutation), and the green and blue would be harder to find. One of the girls in my group said, “We get to be God. Let’s make the red ones survive ’cause I like that colour.” I tried to explain that evolution does not work that way. I got shouted down by my group (and the three around us). It was a good lesson for me, on more than one level.
Then there was the biology teacher who stated, at the beginning of class, “The state says I have to cover evolution. It’s in chapter XX in your textbook. I know evolution is a lie to destroy humanity. If you want to risk your soul and read about it you may, but it will not be talked about again in my classroom. There. I covered evolution.” There were only three of us in the class who, within a week, had read that chapter.
There was a very aggressive Christian on my paper route and he tried, every time I collected money, to convert me. When he found out I ‘believed’ in evolution, he laughed and said that it was all based on a pig tooth found in Nebraska. I was unprepared at the time (I was, like, 13?) to argue that the case of Niobrara man actually shows how well science works: one man made a mistake, other palaeontologists and anthropologists found the error, and it was corrected. In the 1920s.
These are just three of the many, many run-ins I have had with theists (oddly, they have all been Christians (must be a coincidence)). Every run in has only reinforced the lessons of my father.
I am an atheist because I trust in the natural error correction mechanisms of the scientific method. I am an atheist because the natural explanation, being the only explanation which is in any way provable, is the most logical (not necessarily the simplest). I am an atheist because, thanks in large part to my childhood experiences, I see nothing in the natural world, solar system, galaxy or universe which cannot be explained through natural processes.
So I am a naturalistic atheist, not a philosophical atheist, right? Well, that brings up the second reason I became an atheist: my study of history (well, I guess history is philosophy, right?).
I started college as a computer science/computer engineering/mathematics major. I was good at the math. I understood the math. I hated the math. I couldn’t picture what the numbers were saying. So I decided to switch to something I enjoy (I would worry about a career later) and became a history major.
In my study of history, I have noticed that no war has existed independent of the idea, “God is with US!!” Never mind that both sides make the same claim. Whether it is the “Gott mit unns!” of Gustav II Adolf, or “Jesu-Maria” of Tilly’s imperial troops at Breitenfeld, both sides professed that god had a personal interest in their victory (at least Gustav’s Finnish cavalry were honest about it: their battle cry was “Haakaa Paalle” — Hack them Down!). The Spanish Armada had god on their side (not to mention mediocre ships, few long range guns, no fresh water, and not enough ammunition).
Throughout history, priests (of every religion) have blessed the troops going off to battle and asked the god(s) for aid. The Athenians asked Athena for victory. The Romans asked for help from Mars. Young men going Viking got help from Odin. The Aztecs fought the flower wars to provide food for the gods. The list goes on, ad nauseum.
If the Spartans defeat Athens, does that mean Athena was weak? Or does it mean that the Athenian economic colonialism was a poor economic model? Were the German gods more powerful than the Roman ones in the forests of Germany? Did the Aztecs defeat the Spanish because their gods were so well fed? Or did the Spanish have the advantage because they ate their god?
Even the Communist states asked for help from their ‘god’ — the god of economic and social inevitability through the socialist dialectic (I view communism as a religion because it asks for its adherents to believe in impossibilities — the elimination of greed and government).
The more that I studied history, the more I realized that ‘god’ was just another tool used by the politico-military structure to give heart to the ordinary soldier. Whether the generals and kings believed that god was on their side or not is immaterial. It was still just another bunch of propaganda shoved down the throats to make the victims more willing to kill.
Natural philosophy (geology, palaeontology, evolution) convinced me that there is no evidence for god. The study of history has reinforced that conviction while also making me areligious. When I look at the religious wars of history (and even wars (such as the Hundred Years War) between peoples of the same religion (all Christians) becomes a religious war (you aren’t doing it right, so I kill you!)) I realize that, no matter why religion developed, it becomes yet another tool in the box to convince one set of peons to kill another set of peons.
So, Dr. Myers, you asked for a short piece titled “Why I Am an Atheist.” So I failed the short part, but this really is, to the best of my recollection, why I am an atheist.