The first self-proclaimed atheist I ever met was my father, but in retrospect I think he was really more of an agnostic. It’s true that he took a certain ferocious pleasure slamming the door in the faces of those religious folk who stopped by to offer their literature, but he never did spend any time trying to convince them they were wrong. Maybe they were right – he didn’t deny the possibility, he just didn’t believe any of it and didn’t think it was worth discussing. He once said to me, “You can become a nun for all I care – that’s up to you. Just don’t try to save me.” I was a teenager at the time, and I enjoyed reading about Hinduism, Mormonism, Buddhism, and various other belief systems – in some cases there were good insights to be had, but that didn’t make any of it true.
Now that I’m old and suspicious, it seems odd to me that everyone wants science on their side, creationists and atheists alike. The “intelligent designers” have some strange arguments – because bacterial flagella look like bits of machinery they must have been created. Say what? When I was a doctoral student I, along with some of my fellow students, accompanied one of our professors to a creation versus evolution debate. Our professor talked about the features organisms share as evidence of their evolution. The creationist wiggled his fingers at the audience and said, “The human hand! It’s a miracle! It proves there must be special creation!” Seriously, dude, it proves no such thing. The creationist and the zoologist may as well have been on different planets. It was a very strange “debate.”
In more recent times the argument has gone beyond the necessity of a hard boundary between church and state (and churches should pay taxes, too). The creationists have put on lab coats and are pretending to be scientists (even if some of them have degrees in biochemistry, their religious arguments make them irrational). What’s stranger is that some of the atheists have become just as strident in the other direction. Isn’t this kind of a waste of time? There’s a huge amount of evidence for evolution. Even if I think the presently accepted neo-Darwinian theory sucks as an explanation, this doesn’t alter the evidence (I just think the evidence has been incorrectly interpreted). But when it comes to the existence (or not) of one or more deities, science can’t help. The reach of science stops at the laws of nature, the regularities and behaviors of matter and energy in our universe. Sure, maybe these laws were kicked into action by some creator, but science can’t address that question. What’s more, science can’t really prove anything is true (contrary to that annoying phrase, “clinically proven”), and in the case of gods and spirits and such, it can’t prove any of this is false. Religion is a realm of metaphysics well removed from science. I have known some very good scientists who were also quite religious. They never mixed the two and saw no reason to do so – there was no conflict.
When I think about nature and the evolution of life on Earth, I’m filled with awe and delight, but not necessarily spirituality. I consider myself an agnostic. We all die (another reason I think the second law of thermodynamics is a much likelier candidate than natural selection as the causal agent of evolution), we all disintegrate into basic components – there’s plenty of evidence to support these assertions. Maybe other things happen too – who knows? My religious views can be summed up as, “Damned if I know.” I guess some people feel spiritual things within themselves or their readings, and so they believe because they believe because they believe. They have no evidence one way or the other beyond the anecdotal, and it’s just the same situation for atheists. There is simply no way to approach gods or spirits empirically (those guys who visit haunted places never seem to capture any hard evidence, though it’s sometimes fun to watch them try). There is no theory of gods or not-gods that can be tested. The presence or absence of creator-things is scientifically unapproachable, and so to me at least, rather uninteresting. Calm down, atheists!