William Lobdell used to write the religion beat at the LA Times ((Boing Boing showed me the way, at this link)). He doesn’t anymore, because the stories he investigated caught up with him – he couldn’t reconcile the messages from God and the blaring realities of a cold, random universe. By the end, he’s writing words that a budding atheist writes, without actually coming out of the God Closet.
One doesn’t come to atheism through an epiphany. Like any worthwhile belief, a non-belief in God comes from education. Sure, you can have inklings that maybe the jive you hear from religious leaders isn’t any more real than Penthouse Letters, but I find that real, self-declared, proud atheism comes from learning.
I can trace the seed of my atheism to one event in my life. It was the day that my brother David told me that there was no such thing as Santa Claus.
My mom was washing the floor of the powder room. Dreading her answer, I asked the question anyway: “Mom, is there such thing as Santa Claus?”
She was apologetic and truthful – “No, honey. There isn’t.”
In my mind, Santa and God occupy the same branch on the Tree of Delusions – they give you stuff when you’re good and they punish you when you’re bad. They gather intelligence about you through some magical means of eavesdropping. The kids of other religions don’t believe in either one – Santa and Christianity are inextricably linked. They’re both inaccessible, but somehow know your desires.
Finding out that there was no Santa was a click of a cog in my mind. It made sense, and it confirmed my deepest suspicion. Rather than defiantly stating that I was going to continue to believe in Santa despite the knowledge that the Terror Drome ((it’s maybe the most awesome toy ever dreamed by men)) was gifted to me by my parents, who bought it with real, actual money, I accepted the obvious fact and discontinued my belief. I also suspected, in the way of a lawyer’s son, that it was highly unlikely that Hasbro would have given a fat dude’s elves the ability to give away the very objects that they were trying to sell ((that’s a lie)).
I continued upon this treacherous, uncharted path of thought, though without much to go on. it wasn’t until the death of my grandfather that I realized how my mental struggle was not unique to me.
He was a bona-fide Great Man. He was a physician, a civil war historian and a student of all branches of science. He was a professional amateur, a renaissance man with a hundred hobbies. His name was James Cummins Hazlett – I’m James Hazlett Foreman. In one of those happy genetic accidents, his namesake also happened to look a great deal like him – my mother claims I even have his voice.
When he died, his extensive library became suddenly available to his descendants. My mother got most of his science texts, including a well-worn, first edition of every book written by Carl Sagan ((Sagan’s wikipedia entry is here)).
I had a cantering interest in science myself, spurred into a gallop by Star Trek and Bladerunner. The sudden overflow of books in our house meant that some of them were stored in my bedroom – I happened to pick Broca’s Brain ((you should buy it for yourself, or borrow a copy at your local library)) out of the shelf. That book marks my last attempt to reconcile my dim faith with the bright light of science. I was never the same. I could finally see that though the universe is cold and dangerous, there was still beauty and wonder in it.
The cog clicked again, and that started moving other cogs. I could no longer imagine a world in which an omniscient, omnipotent intelligence held sway over the universe. God was pushed more and more into the margins of my world view until I found that he didn’t need to be there at all.
I don’t know if Dr. Hazlett had the same misgivings that I did. I don’t know that he ever made the cognitive leap from belief to nonbelief. Sadly, I was not old enough and he was not young enough for our paths to cross as intellectual beings. But knowing what I know about him, and having been given the gift of science and critical thinking by him, I know that he was probably thinking about it. I don’t need my grandfather to have been an atheist like me in order to respect and admire him.
I don’t know if Mr. Lobdell is an atheist now, but I imagine he’s well on his way. I wish Mr. Lobdell well on finally getting his own cogs to click. Once you start them, they’re pretty damn hard to stop.
There are no fat, magical men in the North Pole – it’s a cold, dangerous place.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful.