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.