Reading Time: 4 minutes

light551Just back from a lovely trip to the Ethical Society of St. Louis where I spoke to a wonderful crowd who laughed at all of my jokes and asked some very good questions. Can’t ask for much more than that. Many thanks to my warm and welcoming hosts, including Trish Cowan and the fabulously-named Kate Lovelady. And to my dear mom and stepdad, who gave me a bed and cookies.

ministerialme(Thanks also to Dan Klarmann of the blog Dangerous Intersection who blogged about the event and snapped the hilariously ministerial photo of me at right.)

In the Q&A after the talk, one participant asked why I don’t call myself an agnostic instead of an atheist. It’s a perennial question. I answered that I am an atheist and an agnostic and a secular humanist and a freethinker. They are not exclusive of each other; each simply emphasizes something different.

Though I’m sure they exist, I have never yet met an atheist delusional enough to say he or she knows God does not exist. Atheism simply means “I don’t think God exists.” It is a statement of belief, based on the evidence as we see it, not one of certainty. But agnostic is too often misunderstood as a 50-50, “dunno, don’t care” position. That not really an agnostic, it’s an apatheist. I said that I am a teapot agnostic, then explained what that is.

In addition to giving us the teapot, Bertrand Russell tackled the issue of labels with his usual clarity:

I never know whether I should say [I am] “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of Homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.1

As I flew home that night, I was treated to a God’s-eye view of a thunderstorm over Kentucky and Tennessee. It was a good 500 miles wide. The cloud layer, maybe 1,000 feet below us, was completely invisible for 20 seconds at a time, until a pulse of lightning would illuminate a thunderhead from within, spreading across the folds and billows just long enough for the shape to remain on my retina. Then again, ten miles away, and again, right beneath us. Fantastic.

Yet I never saw another person on the plane so much as glancing out the windows.

We just stop seeing how remarkable the world is. Most days I’m as guilty as the next person. I opened my Harvard talk with a bit of this:

We’re all half asleep most of the time. We lose track of how astonishing our situation is because it’s always been this way. Here we are, sitting in an auditorium, I’m the speaker, you’re the audience, sitting attentively. How can we go through this charade? How can we pretend that things are normal? If we were awake, we should all be completely distracted by our own existence: Oh my gosh. Look at this…I’m this combination of mind and body, half my mom, half my dad, made of star material, my thoughts all coming out of a blob of electrochemical jelly in my head, 60,000 miles of blood vessels, and I’m related to redwoods and butterflies and blue whales… But we don’t, because we’ve never NOT been these things.

Douglas Adams captured this perfectly when he said, “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

Parents have no such excuse. We haven’t always been parents, so there’s presumably this prior frame of reference to compare to—the period before we created life. And then we created the life, and felt wondrous for a while, but a little later we’re fixing it breakfast and tying its shoes as if it wandered down the street and in the door. There are three people running around our house who emerged from my wife. Think of that. But how awake am I to that fact on a daily basis? Not very.

I do think it would help if we named things according to their real significance. My wife could say to our son, “Hey! Organism-that-was-created-in-my-body-by-a-process-I-barely-understand! Flush the potty when you’re done!”

“Okay, okay, My-portal-into-the-world, jeez!”

Whenever I see a good lightning storm, I picture a classified ad on another planet:

SETTLERS NEEDED to colonize third planet in Sol system. Advantages include temperate conditions and plentiful resources. Challenges include tendency of planet’s atmosphere to discharge one-billion-volt columns of energy toward ground in random patterns approximately 100 times per second. Include two references.

Still a damn nice place.
1from Russell, Bertrand, “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas” (1947)

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.