As I’ve noted many times before, I am an atheist. This is not an agnostic, someone who “doesn’t know”—a flag under which I’ve sailed in times past among people for whom my belief or nonbelief was an important question. But no, I’m really an atheist, someone “without a god.” That is, I know to my own satisfaction that the structure of belief in a living external presence, an omniscient and omnipotent spirit, the creator of all life and the universe, a father or mother figure to us humans, is a product of the human mind and imagination, driven by a deep desire for explanations and order in the world. The universe I inhabit doesn’t need a creator; I don’t need surrogate parents; and my life and the world I know operate under simple rules that didn’t need a divine intellect to invent, inscribe, or perpetuate.
G. K. Chesterton said, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” But that’s a narrow view, implying that those who don’t participate in the foundational myths of their culture are empty-headed fools. That they will blithely replace one kind of belief with anything that comes down the pike—from Tarot reading to table tapping—and can be conned by any charlatan with a parlor trick and the gift of gab.
Alcoholics Anonymous—not a parlor trick or a con game—among its Twelve Steps asks the recovering alcoholic (or other substance abuser) to surrender their own will and put the decision to drink, their everyday worries, and the course of their life, in the hands of God or a “higher power,” however and whatever they conceive that power to be. For some, AA itself and its principles are the higher power. And that—minus the whole surrender part1—is more or less where I find myself. I believe there are principles, which like gravity have the character of forces, that we humans must obey. But they did not create us or anything else; they are just part of the universe.
Let me digress to explain some of my atheism: the intellectual foundations of the world we live in today are profoundly different from the world encapsulated in the biblical stories and indeed in any worldview much before the Renaissance. That difference is coded in our understanding of stasis versus change.
The biblical view, and that of Greco-Roman mythology and even fundamentalist Islam or Hinduism—but not necessarily Buddhism—is that of a world created once and then more or less left alone. It’s a world that stands still. God created all the animals in their original forms, fixed like Platonic ideals, and they still survive in the world He created and established for all time. The horse has rounded hooves for galloping across firm ground. The camel has splayed toes for stability on shifting sand. The cow has four stomachs for eating and digesting grass. It’s a world where humans could observe landslides, falling rocks, and erosion gullies, proof that natural forces wear away mountains, without ever questioning how those mountains arose in the first place. Of course, God put them there. And He did so not very long ago, because the Bible can trace the descent of humankind from Adam and Eve in a recitable number of begats. Archbishop James Ussher as late as 1650 calculated that the biblical creation actually took place on October 22, 4004 BC, sometime in the evening. Six thousand years doesn’t leave much time for things to change.
Moreover, the world these early believers inhabited was just that, the world, the Earth, the ground beneath their feet. Everything that happens here, among human beings and their God or gods, the angels, and devils, is all that’s important. Heaven and hell are places somewhere else—up in the sky or down below—and the Sun, Moon, five observed planets, and the twinkling stars themselves are just lights in the sky, decorations on the “celestial spheres,” which occur in concentric orbits around this Earth.
All of that changed in the last five or six hundred years, with the conception—and its gradual acceptance among the literate public as general knowledge—that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun, and then that the Sun itself is just another star in an “island universe” called “the galaxy.” Much more has changed in just the last hundred years, with the discovery that our galaxy is one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Before that, these other galaxies were just smudges of light—nebulae, or “clouds”—in among the known stars. But better and better telescopes, some of them observing in radio waves and frequencies other than the narrow band of visible light, have revealed that most of these smudges are galaxies in their own right, and that they contain about 100 billion stars each. And more recently, we have detected other planets around many of the nearby stars, answering for all time the question of how unique the Earth and this solar system might be. All of these galaxies, stars, and planets are a lot of real estate for a single-minded god to create, watch over, and maintain.
In that local galaxy, our own solar system is not just six thousand years but more like four billion years old. Our planet has changed numerous times and then gone through at least four recent ice ages. It’s only in the last 150 years or so that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has suggested that all life developed over time from one-celled bacteria and algae, then changed and changed again, creating all the forms of plants and animals that we can see. And it’s only in the last seventy years or so that the study of genetics has offered proof of how these creatures are related through inheritable patterns in their DNA-RNA-protein coding system.
And yes, it’s only in the last hundred years that the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics have suggested how mountains arose on Earth, so that they could then be slowly worn down by landslides and erosion.
In life, on this planet, in this vast universe, the norm is not stasis but change. Expand your conception of time to a billion years—or to thirteen billion, give or take, if you believe that the expanding universe can be rewound in time, back to a point of hot dense matter that exploded in the Big Bang2—and you can see that the viewpoint of a single human lifetime or the seventy or so begats in the Bible are a poor measuring stick for what remains stable and what it means to change.
So, in terms of a higher power, where does that leave me?
I accept as provisional the “laws” we can write from our observations of the physical universe—things like gravity and thermodynamics. These laws include the “theories” based on our observations that cannot be proved in one or two steps but that have a lot of supporting evidence—things like evolution, general relativity, and plate tectonics. I say “provisional” because I am, again, not a purist or absolutist about anything. As Einstein refined and expanded the mechanistic universe of Newton, so someone else with better observations and a wider viewpoint will refine and expand on Einstein. In terms of this enterprise of science, it’s early days yet. Anyone who wants to keep up with the pace of intellectual change had better pack lightly and stay fast on their feet.
I also accept that human life and our interactions with people we consider our peers have taught us some valuable lessons. As the universe seems to be based on cause and effect, so the nature of living among our fellow H. sapiens seems to be based on reciprocity. Call this “karma” or some other mystical system, but the truth is that you get out of the world, your time in it, and your interactions with other human beings just about what you put into them. This is a “home truth,” passed down as folklore in most societies and learned at my mother’s knee. Also, I accept that Abraham Lincoln quote about fooling some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but for most of the time people display an amazing amount of native intelligence. All of these are things that simply work.
Whether the universe was designed by a superior intellect with those laws and adherence to those theories, or whether it exhibits them and we simply find them good because we grew up in such a universe, are adapted to it, and can understand it—on that point I do remain agnostic. What mind might have come before the creation of the universe itself is an unknowable question. And perhaps the universe had no starting point, no instant of creation, but simply is and always was.
That works for me, too. Perhaps it is a shameful admission for an inquiring mind, to allow that some things cannot be known, or not yet anyway, and maybe not for a long time. But we also have to allow for our conceptions of the world, of the universe, of life itself to change.
1. When you give up being responsible for yourself, thinking for yourself, and using your best wits and intentions to take care of yourself, your family, and your community, then you become vulnerable to the next con man or woman with the gift of gab and a plausible salvation story. Some of them even wear priestly robes.
2. I myself am agnostic about the reality of the Big Bang. Yes, the universe is expanding, and we have recently discovered it’s expanding even faster than we thought. But again, our view is limited to the parts of the whole that we can see with the instruments we have. To infer from all this that the universe—the whole shebang—started from a single point is, in my mind, just another creation myth, although one with a better footing than the seven days in the Bible.
The fact that expansion over thirteen billion years from a single point doesn’t even yield the current observable size of the universe, and so needs the supra-lightspeed, exponential acceleration of Alan Guth’s inflation period, tells me that the story is not yet fixed. We are in the realm where theory—the human imagination underwritten by pliable mathematics—has exceeded the bounds of observable truth.