Atheism and all that.

Grade Four Creationist Science Quiz.

Grade Four Creationist Science Quiz.

It’s been a difficult week. This day last week I was giggling over some funny conversation with my sister, when my friend Jaime asked whether I had seen the news. I got a familiar sinking feeling that something horrible had happened, and I was right. I almost cried reading that an eight year old boy had died watching a marathon – a sport I love – in Boston – a town I love. I shared the sense of bewilderment and horror of many as the story of the bombing came out. I hugged my little girl a little tighter, had a couple beers, and watched the fallout online. It was familiar mix of voyeurism, self-aggrandizing hand wringing, and true fear, heartbreak and pity. I posted the following on my facebook: “Prayers for friends in Boston.” A facebook friend of mine, an old coworker and brilliant guy, wrote the following: “What will prayers do?”

Meanwhile, also on Facebook, another friend posted a creationist 4th grade science quiz. The questions were not just hopelessly anti-science but also an example of terrible pedagogy, but I don’t imagine that the joy of learning that makes a good teacher is compatible with teaching creationist science. “True or false: the Earth is billions of years old? Answer: False!” Ugh. This also started an interesting facebook conversation, including the following comment: “When one side dismisses science and the other side dismisses faith, neither side makes rational sense.” It seems like a strange statement, that dismissing faith doesn’t make rational sense, because you can make a lot of arguments for God but rational ones aren’t usually the ones that spring to the fore. The poster then recommended a book, Unrandom Universe, by Sigmund Brouwer, that seems to espouse that all of science really does prove that there’s a God.

On the atheism scale, I’m probably a 7 or 8, with 0 being a complete agnostic and 10 being Richard Dawkins. My atheism isn’t a result of being a scientist. Growing up, we weren’t raised in any formal religion but encouraged to attend services with friends if we were curious, and were always supported in whatever spiritual quests interested us. For quite a while I attended Baptist youth group with a friend. It never felt genuine, and I think the writing was on the wall (little biblical reference for you there) the day that we had a lip synching contest, and I chose to do White Rabbits, by Jefferson Airplane. Rather than kick out the young teen singing about drug use, they tried their best at bringing me into the fold. However, the day they had in a Christian rock band that sang “Out with the old life, in with the new/ Bee bop a lula, I’ve been renewed!” my musical tastes were so offended that Baptism and I went our separate ways.

I’m being glib, but the truth is that Christianity is my heritage. My ancestry is Irish/Scottish/Swedish so I’m a weird mix of Protestantism and Catholicism. As a young man, my father converted to Catholicism in what he said was one of the most powerful experiences of his whole life. By the time my sister and I were born, he had lost the Catholicism but maintained a respect for religion and a love of the mysticism of the old Latin rites. I have always been curious. I have read a great deal about early Christianity, stumbled through parts of the bible, and talked to a lot of people. I have even taught at a Christian college, but again, both employer and employee knew that that probably wasn’t a long term relationship. In my first postdoc I worked in one of the world’s best labs, studying the evolution of bacteria by putting them in carefully controlled environments and watching them evolve. This experience, more than any other, taught me the intricacies of how life began. In evolution I didn’t see meaninglessness or despair; instead I appreciated life all the more for its chaotic and precarious beginnings. There’s a true beauty to the fact that everything we see, every plant, animal, bacterium, person, and puppy, is the result of a long series random collisions between neighbouring molecules.

So I walk on uplands unbounded
and know that there is hope
for that which thou didst mold out of dust
to have consort with things eternal.
Dead Sea Scrolls

Biology and physics gives the world its beauty, and a means to appreciate the world in wonder. My world has no less beauty or meaning because I don’t believe that it was created by God in 7 days. On the contrary, the happenstance and accident of life on earth gives it a precariousness, and preciousness, that makes it all the more beautiful. I’m a 7 or 8 on the atheist scale because a world created without God is what gives my life meaning and beauty. I have seen the lengths that creationists will go to to make the world in God’s image. I suspect that the Unrandom book recommended to me tonight is making this mistake. Using scientific evidence to prove that God went to extraordinary lengths to make a world that LOOKS random and evolved misses the point. Life is beautiful and precious because given the same circumstances, it would never look like this again.

That’s why I’m high on the atheist scale. But why not a 10, and why do I offer prayers for friends in peril? The cynic says that there are not atheists in foxholes, but that’s too simple. When faced with horror and evil, the act of prayer is an act of releasing control, an act of trust in a capricious universe. It’s a deeply human expression. I don’t score a ten on the atheist scale so that I can hold three points in reserve, as a safety net in case there is a God who judges me badly, but because there’s a human need to experience the numinous. There may be mysteries of the universe that I will not understand. That spiritual journey is deeply personal and impossible to put into words, but also seems like a good reason to keep from climbing those last three rungs on the atheism ladder.

These two aspects aren’t at war in my head, and it bewilders me why they’re at war in the real world. I am used to the onslaught from the religious, but what I did not expect was the static to my simple, human, offer of prayer for friends in a disaster zone. The question “What would prayers do?” just like the Unrandom book, misses the point. It also betrays a smug certainty common to fundamentalist Christians and Atheists alike, and was the attitude that drove me from organized religion in the first place. Both sides need to exhibit understanding and acceptance, all the more so when conflict arises.



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8 Responses to “Atheism and all that.”

  1. Genevieve April 22, 2013 7:07 am

    Praying is just energy, I am sure as a scientist you believe in energy. And what is energy? A force. And praying in its most authentic terms, is just intended to be a positive force.

    • Carla April 24, 2013 10:15 am


    • Arch Athest May 11, 2013 9:47 pm

      Unfortunately most people think praying is asking (and often receiving) help from an interventionist God who is listening and willing to help out when asked.

  2. Peter April 22, 2013 8:46 am

    I agree… the problem isn’t faith, it’s religion. I’m somehow on some atheist facebook list and it recently posted a discussion about creating an atheist church. Ouch. I’m gonna go unsubscribe from that list now. Keep the faith. (Not the religion)

    • Carla April 24, 2013 10:15 am

      HAHAHAH an atheist church! I one ran into a “closed anarchist collective of 12” and you had to apply. WTF?

  3. Ed Wiper April 22, 2013 9:47 am

    Carla, not trying to push you in one direction or the other here but I would like to recommend a friend of mine’s web site. Yes he is a RC priest but he is also one of the smartest guys I know (Ben included). He studied math and physics at university before becoming a priest. He always has had some interesting points of view for this ol inquiring mind. His latest posts dealing with his cancer journey have been inspiring.

    BTW have enjoyed your blog and watching the KIA journey!

    • Carla April 22, 2013 4:12 pm

      Oh wow – I will check that out! Thanks Ed!

  4. Andrew May 1, 2013 9:41 pm

    A voice in the back of my mind does indeed say ‘what will prayers do?’ in these situations, and I think the answer is ‘probably nothing’, but the expression is generally appreciated by even atheists because it actually just means ‘thinking of you in supportive ways and wishing for the best’. I don’t think anyone could take offence to that, no matter what their views.

    I have to disagree with Peter though – I do think that “faith” is part of the problem. “Faith” is belief without evidence by definition, which strikes me as something that can be dangerous in certain circumstances (e.g., fanatics are by definition the most faithful). However, some degree of faith is wired into us regardless of whether we are religious or not, and serves a useful purpose in helping us to maintain sanity and make decisions in a universe of information overload.

    Hope this isn’t too trolling! I’m ok with people thinking whatever they want provided it doesn’t cause harm to others, and I don’t have a problem with people practicing whatever faiths they want – however, there at least two good arguments against religion: 1.) it often substitutes for something that is better supported by evidence (e.g., science), and 2.) it lends credibility to radicals who do intend to harm others.