I know I am an atheist because when the dive team found my friend’s 8 year old daughter after being underwater for almost 15 minutes, my first reaction was NOT to plead and bargain with some godly being, but rather to hope that the science was on our side. While I drove to the hospital, I counted minutes. I calculated the water temperature, hoping that the natural springs and recent rain fall had made the lake cold enough to preserve brain function. I recalled every article, every journal, and every medical book I had ever read about the survival rate for children in drowning accidents.They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but in the panicked, 25 minute, 90 mph drive to the hospital, I realized I thought of everything…except to pray.
I’m pretty sure I was an atheist long before this event, but this was the first time I was able to articulate it. I was raised Episcopalian in a rather liberal, “Yay, we like science!” church. My youth group had the idea to go on a pilgrimage sometime during your high school years to explore a few different faiths, in the hopes that your faith in Christianity would be strengthened. My group stayed with a priest in South Dakota who owned a ranch where people could practice variations of Christianity, Paganism, and native Lakota beliefs. While my friends were all too happy to return to our hometown church, I wanted to learn more about these other theologies. I had always been the black sheep of the group anyway, questioning why, if God was so forgiving and wonderful, would he drown most of the earth in a terrible flood, or turn people into pillars of salt, or generally just be so grumpy? (In hindsight, I do have to give my youth leaders some credit…they did do their best to answer my questions, and never discouraged me from asking more.) So, armed with vaguely answered inconsistencies and a new outlook on world religions, I began my descent (enlightenment?) into atheism. Majoring in human biology, traveling around the world, discovering the wonderfulness of BlagHag and Pharyngula, and, yes, frantically driving to the hospital all led me to the same conclusion – there is no god.
I’m not a perfect atheist. I generally keep quiet about my viewpoints unless I’m in an atheist safe zone (hooray for residential science colleges!). I skulk around on atheist and critical thinking blogs, admiring people bolder and surer of their positions than I am right now. I tried to come out to my parents, but my mother started crying about halfway through our conversation, so I left her with the idea that I’m no longer a Christian but I still believe in a force greater than myself. I catch myself wishing I could be comforted in the idea of some supernatural force watching over me and pulling at the strings of the world. But here I am: educated. Enlightened. Non-believer. And slowly becoming more comfortable calling myself an atheist.
And the little girl? She died. After an excruciating 32 hour stay in the hospital with no brain function, my best friend made the decision to take her off life support. While many well-meaning friends tell me it’s all part of God’s plan, or that she’s in a better place, I take greater comfort in the lack of god’s control. It’s relieving to not have to blame god, or even worse, “thank” god for this wonderful plan. Bright smiling children don’t die because of the whims of omnipotent beings – they die because their biological functions shut down, and our current scientific knowledge is not great enough to save them.
The bottom line is that her death gave me a choice: I could believe that the prayers of hundreds of people weren’t enough to save a little girl, and that God had a better plan than letting her grow up to be a ninja princess veterinarian. Or, I could accept that our medical system is limited by our current science, and strive to improve that science so other families don’t have to go through what I did.
I choose science. And I’m starting medical school this fall.