It is my hope that what follows will not be incredibly boring…
Am I an atheist? Long answer.
I grew up in Seattle. My father was raised as a Lutheran, in a fire-breathing, German-speaking Lutheran church where he reported that he often had the finger pointed at him, with a declaration that “YOU killed Christ with your sins.” A man so raised can only become the most fervent of Lutherans or a non-Lutheran, so he became the latter. He was sure that Christianity did not hold the answers to Life, The Universe and Everything that he sought, and so he read very widely and acquainted our family with all manner of ancient writings from all manner of traditions, particularly Eastern. I wish I could say that this meant I became literate in Buddhism and Hinduism, but it did come to us through a bit of a filter. His favorite writer was Ernest Holmes, who wrote The Science of Mind, sort of the 1930s version of The Secret: all reality is subjective and is created by our minds rather than merely observed by them, so if we can BELIEVE, we can mold it.
My mother was much more of a connoisseur of the human experience of faith; she grew up in an Episcopalian church, loved the singing, and was largely indifferent to and unconcerned with the more paranormal aspects of belief.
Like any good boy I followed my father, to a point. But I think I was a born empiricist. Experience seemed to teach, despite considerable effort, that reality was NOT actually changed by my belief – my attitudes and my efforts might be shaped by my belief, but rocks did not fly from the ground at my command. That was probably a good thing, but it was disappointing.
And so I went on my own “quest.” One brother had become a Mormon – a couple of sisters had become spiritualists of a sort. And others (there were nine children, in a one-bedroom house) more or less left it on one side. But to me there was something vitally important here. If there was a god or gods, I was damned if I wouldn’t find them (which, as it happens, is sort of the formula taught to my peers at school, only re-worded). So I began to read. The Bible, first. Then other things – the Koran, snippets of this and that from the east. I attended a variety of Christian services. I attended a Jewish synagogue. I went to a Buddhist “church” (yes, I know, Buddhists don’t have churches. These ones did.). I tried talking to people who were raised in different faith traditions.
Well, a person thinks about these things for a long time. I never was the sort to arrive at a preliminary answer and follow it, because I knew how we channel ourselves into believing things if we start with bad premises. So I stood outside of faith, but as a vaguely pantheistic spiritualist sort of teenager who was doggoned sure something or other was happening in the realm of whatever-it-is, but that I did not know what that was.
Teenagerhood being what it is, I seldom met people who spoke of any form of Christian faith that was not hard-core literalist in approach. Such people existed all around me, of course, but they were not the loud voices in the room. And I knew of the Scopes “monkey trial” – somewhere in my oldest papers I have a satirical short play I wrote on it when I was perhaps thirteen years old – and I was quite sure that I didn’t think the earth was 6,000 years old.
I did finally find a writer whose work spoke quite directly to my views, and illuminated a way through the thicket (or, rather, a way of not getting out of the thicket, and not pretending the thicket did not exist): Thomas Huxley. His debate with Henry Wace over “agnosticism” stirred my soul (which, like a small-c conservative or small-l liberal, is a small-s soul). It seemed to me exactly right: that the question whether gods exist and are acting is not one I can answer with the tools before me.
But atheists and agnostics are fond of arguing about definitions, so to be clearer: my view is that whether it is a philosophical or empirical problem, the existence of gods cannot be meaningfully solved, at least on the evidence before us. Ergo, I am an agnostic. But I am also inclined to believe that the weight of evidence is against the gods existing, and so I am an atheist. As to knowledge, agnostic; as to belief, atheist.
Why am I an atheist? It has nothing to do with evolution, which I view as fully consistent with the actions of gods. My thinking – which is a weight-of-evidence line of thought, not some sort of rigorous logical structure – is that the Phineas Gage problem is not easy to confront. We can’t scrutinize the “proper object” of theology itself, if that object is said to be inscrutable, ineffable and mysterious. But we can view the proximate end of the spirit realm, which is the individual “soul.” If humans are animated by souls, then such things as feelings and ideas are not incarnate but are the action of the soul through the medium of the body. But run an iron rod through Phineas Gage, and his “soul” is transformed. Build plaques upon my mother’s brain for a couple of decades, and a delightful, literate and clever woman is reduced to an almost vegetative condition. And the books of V.S. Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks provide more and more examples.
If the individual soul is the proximate end of the spectrum of the spirit world, then it seems to me that it is surprisingly dependent upon physical structures. And this persuades me (I am not unpersuadable on this, I am sure, but I would like to SEE something) that the soul – a thing which is a vivid and real part of human experience – is generated by the brain, rather than sitting in it as one sits in a driver’s seat.
As I get older, however, I do sort of warm to a subjective interpretation of everything. We only live through subjectivity. I cannot say that a person who interprets his experience of the world through the lens of Christian faith is “wrong.” Well, I can say it, but I am aware that my saying it isn’t of much value. I often think that the difference between people with and without faith is mostly just in the manner in which they characterize subjective experience. When I stand among the stones at the Ring of Brodgar and the wind whips through the heather, I am filled with an awe and a deep, stirring wonderment which must, I think, be akin to what others feel when they say they believe in Jesus, or when they say they feel lines of energy reaching up out of the earth, and that sort of thing. I do not disparage it, with one exception: when people are so cock-sure of the objective truth of their subjective experience that they deny science as a result.
I apologize if that’s a bit much. But I feel that people label themselves “agnostic” or “atheist” as though these labels were self-explanatory, and I find they are not. I have more in common, dispositionally, with a good friend who is a UCC pastor than I do with many atheists.