The earth does not argue,
Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out.
—Walt Whitman, “Carol of Words”
On September 19, 2003, I joined Jeff Lowder and Jim Still—both board members of Internet Infidels—on a trek into the largest hole in the ground on the planet, the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona.
With thirty-to forty-pound packs on our backs, we hiked more than seven miles down to the floor of the canyon that day, a Friday, camped two nights under the stars, and returned via a nine-mile trail back to the South Rim, almost five thousand feet above the Colorado River. Of the five million visitors to the park every year, hundreds of people follow an itinerary similar to ours.
While our group may have looked like many others on the surface, it struck me that we were different somehow. First, all three of us see the world (and universe) in natural terms. None of us believes in any god, practices any religion, or sees evidence of supernatural forces anywhere. “Mother Nature,” to us, is just a metaphor for what comes out in the wash when elements interact. This was probably as analytical a troupe as any that had ever camped in the canyon.
Even our preparations were steeped in logic and science. We trained our bodies for weeks before the trip. We weighed our gear and provisions and decided only the night before the descent what to pack based on current weather reports. We were ready for exertion, exhaustion, and emergency.
But our rational modus operandi didn’t end with our arrangements. Anyone eavesdropping on our many conversations might have heard a 5 a.m. discussion about objective morality on the shuttle bus to the trailhead; a midday scoffing from a scenic perch at creationist notions of floods cutting the canyon within the past two thousand years; us trying to find an acceptable definition of the word soul, much ado about the contradiction of a beneficent and omnipotent God, or the incompatibility of omniscience and free will. Whew. (Maybe a little less oxygen to the brains would have made the hike easier.)
We spied the mention of God on a painting at the Phantom Ranch commissary, caught each other’s eyes when a ranger told of a miraculous rescue by cell phone in an area where no cell service existed, and rolled our eyes at an account of bad karma causing some scorpion stings. We even took the time to snap a few fake UFO photos for an upcoming skeptics’ conference. I’d be surprised if there was a more concentrated cluster of logical, literal thought within five hundred miles.
Religious people often look at hardcore secularists like us and pity us for not being able (or willing) to behold the inspired beauty of God’s creation. The tiny lizards that darted past us in the hot sun and the hearty burros are alike—all part of His plan to them. Ah, but there are none so blind as folks like us who will not see. How could we truly appreciate the Grand Canyon? How can there even be beauty in lives like ours?
And yet, overwhelmingly, there it was. That mighty, magnificent chasm, six million years in the making, is the physical embodiment of the word awesome. From the first glow of dawn until the long evening shadows engulf all but the rim, this colossal labyrinth of carved rock changes personalities hour to hour, season to season, century to century. It never shows the same face twice. The relentless Colorado cuts and curves and excavates, ceaselessly hauling ton after ton westward and southward, making the great hole ever deeper and wider.
What cold-hearted atheist could gaze upon such a sight and not be filled with marvel and reverence—not for some vague deity created to explain ancient mysteries, but for the barely imaginable grandeur and power of nature? We could practically hear Darwin whispering in our ears to take note of condors soaring effortlessly while we plodded, of scorpions scurrying about while we slept, and of healthy plants that thrive on less than ten inches of rain per year. We felt God could only be superfluous to such a scene and would unnecessarily complicate the story of this massive mechanism at work.
At night, we slept tentless under a salt-and-pepper canopy of stars, gazing skyward at satellites casually passing, meteors flaring before dying, and a sliver of a moon that felt like a flashlight in our eyes. This lid of ancient light was framed by the black silhouette of the canyon walls and the large cottonwood we chose for its daytime shade. We almost hated to close our eyes.
Three less religious hikers could hardly be conceived, yet we reveled in our newfound intimacy with this world landmark. We paid homage to great boulders, soaring walls, and dazzling colors. We paused dumbstruck a dozen times at vast overlooks, trying to digest the scope of what our senses drank in. The enormous scale of time and distance that surrounded us—so removed from our daily lives—sent shivers up our spines. We respected the great gorge. It humbled us.
During our second day on the floor of the Grand Canyon, a tour helicopter crashed miles downriver from us, killing all seven aboard. We heard about this Sunday while climbing out. I could not help thinking that the canyon, in its own way, is indifferent to what happens within its walls. It just does what it does, meting out neither punishment nor reward to whatever happens to be alive inside. Death awaits us all, I thought. Then again, where better to die than here?
When we reached the South Rim on Sunday afternoon, we shook each other’s hands. We had made it down and up more than just intact. We’d added not only a great experience to our lives, but also refilled our respect—no, reverence—for dear, old Mother Nature. For three days, we were no longer spectators at her game. We were players in it, and appreciative ones at that.
James Underdown is executive director of Center for Inquiry-West.