The last time I saw my father, just a few days before he died on 30 July 2012, he invited me to look at his bookshelf and take whatever books I wanted. When I was growing up, his library was much larger and contained a good variety of books on geology, ornithology, the environment, American history, anthropology cultural and physical geography and language, along with dozens of dictionaries, almanacs and other reference works. Most of those were given away in the last years of his life. Among the books that remained, the category with the most volumes remaining was books on atheism. Also by his favorite chair was a stack of books on atheism—and some books on birds. He belonged to an atheist book club with whom he met religiously. It was obvious that his atheism was important to him. It struck me as odd that he felt it increasingly important to take a stand on this matter, and I did not quite understand why he was not content to remain an agnostic or to be largely indifferent to religious matters. I still do not fully understand. This blog posting represents a first attempt to explore the issue and to try to understand why my father was an increasingly outspoken atheist. I am not confident I know his reasons, but I am confident I knew him well enough to make a reasonable guess as to what his reasons might have been.
Given that the concept of God is so multifaceted and that the overall idea is therefore vague and nebulous, if one simply claims not to believe in God, one has no clear idea what exactly the person does not believe in. What I shall try to make more clear to myself is what exactly my father rejected, and what he accepted as preferable to what he rejected. As far as I can tell, he rejected the notion of God as a creator, as a higher power, as a source of morality and as a means of salvation.
- Creator. My father was a geologist. From as far back as my memory goes, I heard him talking about geological eras millions of years long that took place over the course of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet earth. The history of the planets was part of the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy of which our sun is a part, and so on. Vast time scales and unimaginably large expanses of space were part of the daily conversation in my childhood, as was the reminder than if the history of the earth up to now were twenty-four hours long, then the time that human beings emerged on the planet was just a few minutes before midnight. In this view of the place of the human being in the universe, there was no place for a notion of a creator who had created man in his own image and for whom the human being is the creature of central importance. There was no place for the idea of a single power so great that it knows every detail of creation and controls events.
- Higher power. To say that there is probably not a single power so great that it controls all events in the universe is not to say there is no power greater than human beings. To say there is no intelligence that knows all events in the universe is not to say there is no intelligence greeter than one’s own. All of human learning is a collaborative effort that is carried on for countless generations, and the totality of human experience was my father’s higher power. Indeed, the entirety of intelligent life was a higher power from which my atheistic father was constantly willing to learn. What he rejected was the notion that any understanding is infallible and immune from being superseded by a clearer and more comprehensive understanding.
- Source of morality. There was no single claim about God that more rankled my father than the claim that people need to believe in God in order to be moral, altruistic, caring and decent to one another. He was convinced that people learn the value of honesty by witnessing the consequences of deceit, and they learn the importance of kindness by witnessing the consequences of cruelty. One learns moral integrity by being keeping one’s eyes open in this life, not by keeping an eye on the afterlife The punishment for careless and shoddy behavior is immediate, he believed, and the rewards for attentiveness and generosity are amply doled out in this life. There is no need to wait until death to discover whether one’s life was well lived and whether one fought the good fight.
- Means of salvation. Although descended from a long line of Christian ministers, my father rejected most of the core dogmas of mainline Christianity. He did not believe in original sin and therefore had no need for the doctrine that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an atonement for original sin. He believed that consciousness is a property that emerges from the enormous complexity of billions of neurons passing electromagnetic and chemical signals to one another and that when the living organism that is host to a central nervous system dies, so does the intelligence that emerged from that particular collection of neurons. The idea of life outside physical life made no sense at all to him, and so he had no use for the Christian dogma that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought eternal life to human beings or any other life form. One needs to believe in salvation only when one sees life as a problem. My father never saw life as a problem and therefore had no hankering for salvation.
As a scientist and a humanist, my father simply had no need for a belief in an omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent creator and savior. But having no need for something would most naturally lead simply to being indifferent to it and taking no interest in it. My father was not indifferent to religion. He was hostile toward it. He was not disinterested in it. He was scornful of it. Where did that come from?
Probably the greatest single factor in my father’s moving from agnosticism to atheism was his alarm at the increasing influence of organized religion in American politics. He was born in 1923 and therefore lived for thirty-one years before “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and thirty-four years before “in God we trust” was printed on paper money. (That slogan began appearing on some coins, of course, shortly after the Civil War, even though there were many coins that escaped having that pious motto inscribed on them until just before the Second World War.) My father was still a child when religious fanaticism led to the Prohibition and its many unfortunate consequences. He lived to see white ministers in the American southeast proclaiming that racial segregation was part of God’s plan. He saw appeals to dubious interpretations of scripture trump reason in almost every domain of American life, from the teaching of science in American classrooms to the way that pointless and unnecessary wars were justified in the name of protecting America from godless or anti-Christian enemies.
In the final analysis, I think my father’s atheism was made staunch not so much by reflection on theology as by the outrageous conduct of human beings who claimed to be righteous believers in the one true God. I sometimes tried, without much success, to convince him that not all believers are narrow-minded fanatics bent on imposing their wills on others. It often troubled me that the man who had taught me from earliest childhood to question all my prejudices was himself prejudiced against almost all organized religion. Having said that, I must admit that there are few of the beliefs he instilled in me as a child that I have rejected—even though I have certainly questioned them. What appalled him about much of organized religion also appalls me, and what he cherished in the natural world I also cherish. Who knows but that when I am nearing the end of my days, I will have given away all my books except for a few well-chosen volumes on atheism—and some books on birds.