Evolution of an Atheist

T.J. Gordon

I began questioning orthodox Christian beliefs quite early. My mother and I lived with my father’s parents during his World War II military service, and I spent many subsequent summers with them. I have a clear memory of asking my paternal grandmother, when I was about seven, how there could be any people if Adam and Eve were the first people and they only had boys. At this remove, I don’t recall her answer; I know that Grandpa—a highland-born Scot and a vigorously devout Presbyterian—got into the mix, and I was left with the clear understanding that there was a class of things that were true and about which questions were not to be asked. I can’t say that bothered me particularly at the time. Anything beyond my small, quite complete world of house and yard and grandparents was too remote to engage my interest for long. Grandma insisted I say prayers, so I did—words I’d memorized but into whose meaning I had neither insight nor curiosity. Had anybody asked me if I believed in God, I would not have understood the question. God was part of my seven-year-old universe like Grandpa’s brother George, whom I saw only on his rare visits from Sacramento.

But though I couldn’t articulate them, little things occasionally troubled me. God, Grandma told me, lived in Heaven. Unlike Uncle George, however, he never came to visit, because he was “all around,” watching everything I did. I found that unsettling. How could he be both in Heaven and around the house, too? And if he could watch me, why couldn’t I watch him? God, I concluded, must be very different from Uncle George. Sometimes Grandma told me God was, impossibly, in me, too—in my soul, whatever that was. As far as I could tell there was nothing in me but me. Occasionally I got a splinter in me, and if that’s what God was like, I was better off with him out!

God, Grandma would say to me, tells me right from wrong. But to me, it wasn’t God telling me anything at all: it was Grandma, Grandpa, my parents, or teachers, or sometimes my friends. Even if nobody was around, my experience told me: that “still, small voice” Grandma talked about was her voice, my mom’s, or my aunt Jean’s … a tumult of all of them distilled into my own voice.

Grandma’s other aphorism, “God (or Jesus) loves you,” seemed absurd to me, though I didn’t have the words to express that. Grandma loved me; she made tarts for me when she made pies. Grandpa loved me; he took me on veterinary calls when he went. They gave me things. They hugged me and kissed me and soothed me when I got hurt and gently corrected me when I went astray. They were there; they touched me. How could a … a something … that never touched me, never gave me anything, never made me laugh, a something I could neither hear nor see nor feel … how could such a something do anything? How could it love me? How could it possibly love at all?

But all these niggling thoughts were just that: niggles. They were not important to me; they were “grown-up things” to which I paid little attention. I did and said the things Grandma told me I should do and say and gave little thought to her metaphysics, except for times when I sat on the cool grass beneath the walnut tree, angry and tearful, because no matter how hard, how earnestly I had prayed—eyes tightly closed and fists clenched—my arrow still missed the haybale target Grandpa had set up for me.

At my parents’ home there was less religiosity, though very probably no less religion. I don’t recall my father ever doing or saying anything churchy, though now I find that surprising. I know that he was a devout believer—devout enough to accept the Bible as truthful, if not indeed “Truth.” Like Grandma, my mother insisted I “say my prayers.” On Sundays she usually went to the Presbyterian church. I don’t remember Dad ever going, but my parents insisted I go to Sunday school. My recollections of what must have been four or five years of weekly immersion in Bible stories consist primarily of teachers’ displeasure when I failed to color inside the lines of Bible cartoons or looked around when I was supposed to be bowing my head (anyway, if the teacher could see that I wasn’t bowing my head, she obviously wasn’t bowing hers, either). I remember giggling with my friend Doug about the “holly bibble,” until we were admonished that we were being sacrilegious, which was somehow bad though I didn’t know what the word meant. I remember my glee at being chosen to be a shepherd in the Christmas playlet, with lines and a costume Mom made from dishtowels … and my angry, tearful disillusionment when, at the last minute and for reasons I was never told, some other kid took my place on stage and, wearing my costume, repeated the lines the teacher had to whisper to him—lines that I had spent hours memorizing, complete with awed expressions and hand gestures.

“Read your Bible,” we were admonished, over and over again—and so I did. In about the fourth or fifth grade, I started at the beginning and immediately stumbled into the thicket of contradictions Genesis contains. Did God make the world in seven days or only one? Did he make Adam and Eve at the same time or first Adam and then Eve? Did he make them before he made animals or after? And Noah—did he take two of every kind of animal or seven pairs of “clean” and one of “unclean” animals? What was the difference? Anyway, why did God make animals that weren’t clean?

At one point when I was around ten, I asked a Sunday-school teacher a question along these lines. It was an honest question; I was genuinely confused. The Bible was supposed to be “the Word of God,” but which word was the right one? They could not all be right, so why was there a wrong one, if God was … well, God? Perhaps she tried to answer, but, in the end, she sent me “upstairs,” for I recall the preacher, Rev. George, admonishing me to “have faith” and the answers “will be shown” to me. It was hugely frustrating for me. How could I be expected to have “faith” in a book that was so conspicuously muddled about what was real? Or in a god whose word the book was but who so clearly couldn’t remember what he’d done? At best such a god was very confused himself—and at worst he was flat-out lying.

Somehow word reached my parents—I probably carried a note home myself, not being overly bright—and I got into trouble. My folks continued to send me to Sunday school … and my attitude about it continued to sour. However, the only overt act of rebellion I undertook was not dropping my nickel in the dish when it came around. I felt very self-righteous about it, to the point of proudly lying about having forgotten my nickel or having lost it. They had been lying to me, after all, so it was only fair!

In the end, my early exposure to religion was far more boring than traumatic—it was all just too tiny a part of my life. But though it seemed transcendentally irrelevant to me, I had still imbibed enough religion to feel apprehensive about questioning it, as if I feared somehow being punished by a god I didn’t completely believe existed. The dichotomy distressed me, but it was too big for my tiny brain, and so when my thoughts turned in that direction, I quickly turned them elsewhere and eventually learned to just sit quietly, try to color inside the lines, and not ask questions of the Sunday-school teachers.

It wasn’t until “Pop,” my mother’s father, was killed in a hit-and-run accident that I had my first “face-to-face” encounter with religion. My reaction to his sudden death was to spend the better part of a day in the sitting room of my paternal grandparents’ house, lying on the couch that Grandma called the davenport, and bawling. Pop was … dead. No more jokes about reading the “newspepper” and please pass the “peeper” and it was time for a “cigareet.” No more exciting box of dusty, half-forgotten toys hauled up out of the scary basement. What Grandma Katie had cried in the crush of people gathered after the accident was true: “Oh, Tommy,” she had wailed. “Our Grandpa is gone!”

My father’s mother, the most loving and sympathetic of people, understood what I felt and strove mightily to console me. Pop, she told me gently, was now with God and Jesus in Heaven and was looking down on me, wanting me not to feel sad. Her compassionate assurances fell ineffectively on my unreceptive ears. If Pop was in Heaven and he did want me to feel different … why didn’t he tell me so himself? Why did he tell Grandma to tell me? If she could hear him, why couldn’t I? No, he was gone, and having him snatched away so suddenly and unjustly because “God works in mysterious ways” did little to assuage either the agony of my loss or my growing doubts about religion. I should accept God’s will because he loved me? Loved me!? Pop loved me; he showed that every time I saw him! Only a hateful, intrinsically evil god could direct, or even merely allow, the sudden, shattering death of someone I loved and who so demonstrably did love me.

As time passed and the pain of his death receded, it seemed to me that the “mysterious ways” in which God worked were vastly more wicked than mysterious. To trust in “God’s will” and “God’s mercy” seemed to me the advice of fools, and those who accepted that advice were bigger fools yet. It was Pop’s death that tipped me from an occasional struggle to accept a senselessly capricious god to quietly beginning to question if such a god existed, or even could exist, in a world that otherwise made a great deal of sense. It was my first personal encounter with the conundrum of the existence of evil in a universe supposedly ruled by a good and merciful god.

Now, with the thimbleful of wisdom I’ve managed to scrape together over the sixty-odd years since that sad occurrence, I realize that while the spur to intellectual curiosity was a good outcome of a tragic event, it was balanced by a bad one: anger. For a while I was fiercely angry with the god who’d acted in such a heinous fashion, but very soon my anger transferred to those who had assured me that God was real; who had encouraged me to accept, even insisted that I accept, the premise that God was wise, merciful, and all-knowing. They had led me to profound and painful disillusionment, and for a while I was unremittingly angry with them. And finally, because I was forced by my own experience to accept the fact that the people surrounding and influencing me were not evil but good, not hateful but loving, my anger found a target in the concept and institution of religion itself—a concept and an institution that had led those good people to be the deceived and deceiving instruments of my disillusionment.

I talk of this as if it were a neat and orderly progression, discussing it as if it were a constant preoccupation. It was neither. After the trauma of Grandpa’s death subsided, religion again receded to the tiny compartment of my very full life that it had occupied previously; its only real effect on me was that I abandoned saying nightly prayers, first in spite and then with the dismissive conviction that praying was as useful as flapping my arms and hoping to fly. It was for me, suddenly, a busy time—family disintegration that led to new homes in new states, new schools, new fears, new adventures—and I spent precious little time worrying about metaphysics. But the seeds had been planted, and when once again I had occasion to consider such things, any faith that people had tried to ram into me when I was a young child was nearly gone, leaving behind only a slight apprehension about not having it.

Born and raised in California, I found New York dramatically eye-opening. Over a reasonably short time, I learned things about religion I’d had no concept of. I had been raised “Presbyterian,” whatever that meant, and just assumed that everybody was because that’s what there was. It was like being raised human. As a young child, I had learned that there were “Catholics,” but I had no idea what that meant except that it had something to do with fish and Italy and that they went to a different church because (I thought) ours was too full. That “Presbyterian” and “Catholic” were different metaphysical worldviews was never explained to me, and I certainly was neither old enough nor bright enough to figure it out. But in New York there were lots of “Catholics,” and I had to ask Mom what that meant. From that discussion and others that followed, I learned that there were also “Methodists” and “Lutherans” and “Seventh-day Adventists” and many others. I learned that Methodists and Lutherans and Adventists were all “Protestants,” which somehow made them different from “Catholics,” but in ways that Mom couldn’t make clear to my confused and frequently inattentive brain. Anyway, all those people were “Christians,” but then there were “Jews” who were not Christians because they didn’t believe in Jesus … or at least didn’t believe he was the “Savior.” All those folks—Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Jews—believed in a god whose name was God, but some people, innocently called Mohammedans, believed in a god named Allah. But Allah was, most mysteriously, God as well. And/or vice versa.

I found it thoroughly befuddling. All these different groups of people believed different things, had different holy books, followed different heroes, and rejected most or all the beliefs that were not their own. From those occasionally lengthy discussions with my mother, two things became clear to me: first and most obviously, they could not all be right, because they were so deeply opposed to one another in so very many ways; and second, there was no rational way to choose between them: no signposts, no neon lights, no way to tell which one was the right one—not even Presbyterianism.

Perhaps, Mom suggested, there was a common thread of truth that ran through all of them; perhaps that was what one should seek, and in that seeking, one might find God. And so I tried. I read a bit more of the Bible. I borrowed an English-language Torah from Joel, who was learning to read it in Hebrew, and found it to be as confusing as the Bible, which it greatly resembled. I read a little about Islam in the encyclopedia but never got hold of a Qur’an. All the reading only increased my impatient confusion. Was God infinitely loving and forgiving? Or was he inveterately petty and vindictive? Should one dash out and slay the unbeliever? Or should one hate the sin but love the sinner? Did one get into Heaven by doing good things? Or did one get there just by believing in Jesus? The more I read, the more I realized that religion, far from being a moral or philosophical monolith, was fragmented and contradictory and divisive and logically circular, and in practice apparently it was more interested in attacking those who were “wrong” than in trying to actually explain why they were themselves “right.” But if one of them—any one of them—were right, how in the face of so much strident, clanging contradiction could I know? How could they know?

I read other books as well, some at my mother’s suggestion and others that I found in the school library. Mom introduced me to C. S. Lewis, and I read The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. I also read J. B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small and others I don’t remember now. Some were interesting, some boring, some silly, but though the word epistemology hadn’t entered my vocabulary, one question occurred over and over to me as I read these tendentious works: Who told you? How do you know?

My increasing agnosticism came at the price of increasing confusion. I had been raised with the Golden Rule and other moral precepts about lying, killing, stealing, hitting my sister, taking bites out of more than one cookie at a time, and so on, all of which had been ultimately justified by their promulgation from the Bible. But if the god of the Bible was real, his own book showed him to be as capricious about morality as he was confused about history. Things bad in one place were good in another. “Thou shalt not kill,” Exodus commands … no doubt to the giggling amusement of the Hittites, Amorites, and Canaanites. No, the morality of the Bible was whimsical, whereas the voice in my head was absolute and unwavering: lying was wrong; end of story. And that voice came not from the god of the Bible but from myself, distilled from the voices of all those who had instructed me. But … how did they know? Who had told them? Who had told their parents, and their parents, and theirs? If not the Bible’s god, who? How did they know?

None of this occupied much of my time; I was too busy chasing Chickie or ogling Priscilla (whom I never worked up the courage to talk to) or trying to spend my lunch money on lunch before some punk knocked me over and stole it for cigarettes. At home I had new and unwelcome “man of the house” duties and homework and occasional neighborhood babysitting. I had very little truly free time, and most of what little I had I used up playing baseball. (Echoing my misguided narrow experiences in California, I know that on two separate occasions, prayer—very earnest prayer indeed—had no effect whatsoever on the trajectory of a well-hit baseball with respect to a third-story apartment window.) But the confusion churned quietly in my mental background, and by the time I left New York three years later I was a reasonably confirmed agnostic, no longer immersed in religion but bearing, here and there, a residuum of its moisture.

I had none of these thoughts at age twelve, of course; it’s entirely my adult attempt to understand and explain why I (very briefly) felt confused on the rare occasion that I actually considered a moral choice (should I turn in to the office the five-dollar bill I found on the ground or stuff it into my pocket?). I was ever the pragmatist; my moral anguish was typically so brief as to be unnoticeable. It was easy to instantly imagine how each of the paths before me would make me feel once I’d trodden it and to select my path based upon that anticipated feeling. The process was almost entirely subconscious—but when it very infrequently emerged from those dark depths, it bubbled up as a surprised “Why?” Why do I know that one path is right and the other wrong? And why is one right and one wrong?

Part of a potential solution to my epistemological conundrum had in fact begun forming shortly before I left New York. Among the books Mom had given me was Edgar Cayce Speaks, about the purported psychic and remote healer Edgar Cayce, written by some of his disciples (Cayce had died in 1945). I found the book fascinating: here was somebody with a mysterious “connection” to other people, a connection that somehow transcended space, time, and physicality. I acquired and read more of his (and similar) books, and these books posited—or allowed me to posit—an inexplicable, immaterial link between some people, perhaps between all people: some way that lives were shared and, for a very few fortunates such as Cayce, thoughts and feelings as well. Cayce’s abilities demonstrated that such an immaterial link existed, unlike the arm-waving assurances trotted out by religious apologists—assurances with no more substance behind them than had forgotten dreams.

The insight fermented quietly in my immature brain, almost entirely overshadowed by the conflicts and triumphs of returning to southern California and living for a while with my father and moving repeatedly until finally settling in a town north of Los Angeles. It remained submerged throughout my sophomore year in high school, lost in a welter of classes and social self-calibration and football games and erotic bus rides and shining shoes for two bits a pair. But in my junior year, I took two classes that gave my ruminations new life—and me, for a while, absolute conviction.

The first was an English class that I had chosen at random from a small list of electives available for my fall semester. The teacher was a tall, gentle man with unkempt red hair and a faraway gaze. It dealt with—and the teacher’s love was—Romantic and Transcendental Poetry. The poets we covered were those one would expect: a little Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, a bit of Keats, and the early American transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau, and a touch of Whitman. At this distance I recall little of the poetry. But in the philosophy embraced by these writers (as interpreted, at least, by the teacher and understood by me), I found something with which I resonated: the “pool of spirit” concept underlying Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Here, I thought, reflected through the Romantic poets and made more explicit by the transcendentalists, was the answer I’d been seeking: the union of Man, Nature, and Wisdom, which union itself constituted The Divine. Through that union, we humans were part of and participants in a greater universe, connected to the Nature around us, partaking of Nature’s wisdom when we remain quiet enough to hear it. Here, suddenly, was a theory and framework for Edgar Cayce’s remarkable abilities—a natural channel, though its nature was mysterious and inexplicable, to which he was exquisitely attuned. And all humans shared in that union, even if most were far less aware of it than Cayce. That union of all humans with all of Nature was The Divine—not a childish, whimsical, egoistical god pretending omnipotence.

The revelation struck me like a bolt of lightning. Anticipating Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land by two years or more, it seemed to me that ultimate Truth was “Thou Art God.” I knew—again in Heinlein’s terminology, because none is better—that the unconscious knowledge of right and wrong is grokking “Thou Art God”; that moral knowledge is not individual but universal and interpersonal; that what is “good” is so because it is universally good; “evil” is so because we (as people, Humanity, Nature, Wisdom, or God) universally abhor it.

It had been Plato, and it would be Heinlein, but in that fall of 1958 it was me—a beautiful, comforting, exciting, inspiring discovery whose only defect (which of course I overlooked at the time) was its utter lack of objective proof, aside from Edgar Cayce’s extraordinary abilities. It was no more demonstrable than the god in which Grandma believed and to which she prayed so fervently.

The second class was plane geometry, taught by a tall, acerbic, dark-haired German gentleman who seemed constantly on the verge of a supercilious snicker. Though I had struggled heroically with algebra in the first semester of my junior year, I did very well in plane geometry in the second: its visual nature and Euclidean certainty appealed to me. But it was a conversation I had with the teacher after class one day that provided my epiphany. In a class discussion of the challenges of solid geometry, he had briefly mentioned Edwin Abbott’s nineteenth-century novel Flatland. I didn’t understand the concept and stayed to talk about it. He explained to me that in Flatland, for instance, the angles of a triangle don’t necessarily add up to 180°. I thought first that he was joking or betraying the mathematical precision he had so assiduously been teaching us.

He looked at me from beneath an amused, raised eyebrow and reached for the globe with which every classroom was equipped. To a Flatlander, he explained, the surface of the world was … flat. A Flatlander’s only directions were right, left, forward, and backward—“up” and “down” were inconceivable to a two-dimensional being, and such a being living on the surface of the world could neither perceive, imagine, nor understand a dimension through which the Earth’s surface curved. Then, with a piece of yellow chalk, he drew a triangle on the globe: a line from the north pole through the central Pacific along the 180° meridian to the equator, west along the equator through 90 degrees of longitude to the sea south of Guatemala, and then back north through Yucatán, Illinois, and Hudson’s Bay to the north pole. One triangle. Three 90° angles. 270°. I was flabbergasted … and very excited. And, he pointed out, there was more: if one were to drill through the globe from one corner of the triangle to another, one could connect those corners in a way that to a Flatlander living in the two-dimensional universe of the globe’s surface would be both utterly undetectable and thoroughly impossible. Here was a firm, demonstrable geometric concept that dovetailed beautifully with my impossibly simplified concepts of theosophy and transcendentalism, as well as something I’d learned about from reading science fiction (and from what I thought that some people thought that Einstein himself had talked about): the fourth dimension!

If a third dimension enabled mysterious, inexplicable connections between beings in a two-dimensional universe—a connection those beings could “feel” but never demonstrate—surely a “higher” fourth dimension would do the same for we poor humans restricted to a universe of only three demonstrable dimensions! The existence of a fourth dimension would thus provide the medium for the subliminal or supraliminal connection we three-dimensional humans had with Nature—a connection invisible to us but indirectly revealed through the Wisdom that touched each of us as the moral imperative giving us the knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil. Through and including that universal but physically indemonstrable connection, we partook of and became The Divine.

Thanks, therefore, to romantic and transcendental poetry and non-Euclidean geometry (seasoned by an astonishingly deep misunderstanding of Jung’s “collective unconscious” and never actually having read either Einstein or Flatlanders), I had my answer: there were no gods, there was only Nature; there were no rules, there was only Wisdom; there were no divinities, there was only The Divine. And unlike Grandma’s god, the extra-dimensional construct through which we participated in and became The Divine was demonstrable. By analogy, to be sure, but in my exuberant and explosive conversion to Platonism-cum-Blavatskianism-cum-Heinleinism and the knowledge that Einstein had said something about the fourth dimension (hadn’t he?), analogy was all the demonstration I needed.

The astute reader will note at this point that my epiphany was unsullied by any bothersome epistemological distractions. But there was one. I remember regaling Mom with my enlightenment sometime late in my junior year, pulling out all the stops to share my insight as fully and rapturously as possible. When my spring finally ran down, she fixed me with her trademark wry grin and raised eyebrow, throwing back at me the question I’d asked so many times. “How,” she asked quietly, “do you know?”

Mom’s injection of a bit of skepticism into my complacent certainty was not my only philosophical disharmony. Not much later I came across an Edgar Cayce book I’d not known before: What I Believe. I read it—eagerly at first, then with increasing distaste. It recounted Cayce’s “trip” to “Heaven” and described scenes that could have been lifted from stories I had heard in Sunday school: winged angels, golden streets, harps. A great deal of metaphysics certainly, but all childishly similar to traditional Christian/biblical mythology. I found myself questioning whether or not Cayce (and perhaps others of his ilk) might be less—perhaps considerably less—than trustworthy. Later, of course, I learned that he was a complete and accomplished humbug, dealing in cold reading, vague generalities, and cherry-picking “evidence”—but during that spring of my junior year, my certainty suffered only its first soft whisper of skepticism.

School was out in June, and my day-to-day tasks switched to summer mode—summer job, occasional jaunts to the beach, whenever I could a day or two in the hills north of Los Angeles. Having imbibed deeply of the Romantic poets and their love of Nature, I sought Wisdom deep in the aromatic manzanita of the San Gabriel Mountains, finding peace and balance and serenity in the silence and hard, uncompromising, and reassuring honesty of the high desert of Apple Valley. Cayce’s possible untrustworthiness notwithstanding, I reveled in that mysterious, other-dimensional link through which I felt so deeply connected with and part of all that surrounded me. It felt good. I was quite satisfied with myself, euphoric even.

While it lasted.

It lasted until the whirlwind of my senior year, beginning in September. That year gave me new intellectual tools and insights that led me to question my certainty about the universe and my place in it. Classes in physics and physiology sharpened my sense of the nature and limits of knowledge, providing the metric of evidence by which to judge a phenomenon’s existence; two history classes illustrated the folly of clinging to “truth” as a constant; a televised class on chemistry from the University of Southern California taught me the experimental determination of electrons’ energy states and the demonstrable certainty of chemistry’s physics. Even as Bohr’s tidy model of the atom morphed into Schrödinger’s fuzzy one and the certain world of classical physics became, under closer scrutiny, the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics, the metric of evidence remained unchanged. And gradually, inoculated by the fermenting presence of what I was learning that year, my previous year’s certitude began bubbling and frothing with doubt.

Semester merged into semester, January became June, and I graduated. In the fall I would head off to college, entering an entirely new phase of my life. I spent most of my time that summer working; my part-time job during my senior year again became nearly full time, until I left home in the fall. But I did have days off, and I spent every possible minute up in the San Gabriels, most of them alone by choice, far from the clang and clamor of other people, lying at night in my sleeping bag surrounded by yucca and greasewood, the slender, aromatic smoke column from my tiny fire rising into the starry darkness. And before that summer passed, the euphoric certainty I had felt the summer before had been replaced by a new twist on the question I had flung at those who had tried to inculcate me with their religion. It was not “how do you know,” but “how do I know? Where is my evidence?”

I knew that force was the product of mass times acceleration, because the relationship had been demonstrated by the evidence of innumerable experiments. I knew that chemical reactions proceeded in the direction of increasing entropy, because experimental evidence left no doubt. But where was the evidence for the universal integration with which I’d been so satisfied the prior summer? Feelings were only feelings; analogy was well and good, but how could I be so confident in the existence of a mysterious fourth dimension through which all was connected when that dimension was (and in my careful construction, had to be) undetectable? How could I demonstrate that Man partook of The Divine through the Wisdom of Nature? It all seemed somehow quite silly, lofty poetry and non-Euclidian geometry notwithstanding.

I reacted to that evolution in my thinking mostly by ignoring it, not even realizing I was being skeptical about myself and what I believed. But the musings of that summer gradually turned me in a direction from which I’ve since not strayed. Over the next few years, I came to realize that my epiphany about Man, Wisdom, and The Divine was no more substantial than smoke from my campfire or from a priest’s censer. Profound as my feelings were, as clear and logical as the explanation seemed at the time, I gradually came to see that those beliefs were in their nature no different whatsoever from the beliefs held by the devoutly religious. Very intense and deeply personal, they were in both cases without existential basis. No experiment could be designed to demonstrate either the believer’s soulful connection to a deity or my “fourth dimension” connection to the universe. And so … how did I know?

Of course, I didn’t. And I don’t. I have long since arrived at a place whose human geography would horrify my transcendentalist English teacher, were he still alive: I have become—and had become, within half a dozen years of first reading Wordsworth—a thorough-going materialist. I seek relaxation in the desert; I seek quiet and time to think and time to not think; I seek the deep, purely physical pleasures of wind and weather and sand and the sound of a raven and the sweet-acrid aroma of sun-hot sage. But I no longer seek insight into The Divine through gaining Wisdom (though occasional flashes of dubious insight are always welcome—and surprising). I revel in the desert’s sensuous pleasures, and I stare into its night sky in unspeakable awe of its physical splendor. I leave immaterial ruminations to those who believe in the immaterial, for I no longer do. But though a materialist, I am also an agnostic in its narrow definition: a-gnostic. Not-knowing. I don’t know. I cannot insist there is no immaterial realm; there may be … but I see no evidence for it in any existential sense. Therefore, I simply do not know.

“I don’t know” has obvious limitations as a creed upon which to base one’s daily life. Epistemological nuances aside, one must have—in quite practical terms—an informed ethic by which to conduct one’s life. Thus, one’s choice becomes what to accept as practical knowledge to inform that ethic and what to reject—and, I think more importantly, on what basis one makes that choice. And for me, the basis is evidence. I accept as “real” in a practical sense those things that have behind them the weight of evidence (anvils, zebras). I reject as “unreal” in the same sense those things for which efforts to acquire existential evidence have consistently and universally failed (ESP, psychokinesis) or which are contrary to or necessarily denied by evidence-based knowledge (perpetual motion, astrology). Without getting into a tedious discussion of what constitutes “evidence,” I’ll say only two things: first, that evidence must be empirical, demonstrable at will, and essentially experimental rather than anecdotal; and, second, that conclusions based on such evidence are valid only if predictive. So in practical terms I “know” that anvils are heavy and zebras are striped and all sorts of things in between—things that can be proved or disproved experimentally (such as weighing some anvils) or that are susceptible to experimental proof or disproof (such as traveling to a zoo to examine some zebras). So as much as I might feel it, I cannot know that I have an extra-dimensional connection to the universe as a whole, because there is no conceivable way, no possible experiment, to provide evidence for or against the proposition. In that sense, I am a three-dimensional “flatlander.”

“Real” can prove a tricky concept. Immaterial beauty and intangible truth are as real in human experience as the quite solid urn that inspired Keats to tell us about them, and yet neither is “real” in the sense of being experimentally demonstrable. The urn can be measured, described, and agreed upon by independent observers: it’s blue, about fourteen inches high, and covered with naked Greeks in bas-relief. It exists in a thoroughly physical sense. But one cannot weigh beauty or drop truth and break it or measure the breadth or temperature or viscosity of an idea. Their undeniable “existence” seems an entirely non-physical phenomenon.

“Aha,” exults the dualist. “There is reality beyond or above or other than the physical!”

But there is not. Beauty, truth, and “all ye need to know,” do exist materially—not as objects such as the vase but as fleeting biochemical events occurring in brains and informing senses existing in those same brains. They are as real, and real in the same physical way, as anvils and zebras—arising from ion flow across permeable cell membranes and sugar metabolism and the intricate ballet of enzymes and hormones coursing through brains. We understand as yet very little about the interactions of that biochemistry with what we “know,” but we understand enough to know that ideas and thoughts and dreams are not divinely inspired bits of immaterial magic: they are the perceived end-products of molecular biological processes—processes that are themselves more and more seen to reflect the underlying quantum nature of the universe we live in.

I do not understand the quantum universe, but I understand this: while there is no shortage of great counterintuitiveness about how the quantum universe works, there is no magic. In the probabilistic quantum universe, physical effects arise only from physical causes. Everything we perceive, everything we can perceive is real—because we can perceive nothing else. There is no way in which the immaterial, were it to exist, can interact with the material. There are no “particles” of immateriality that can somehow leak into the universe and nudge real particles.

Yes, there are “virtual” particles, appearing to pop into and out of existence in the quantum field, but they are just that: virtual. They are not particles at all, but transient quantum field disturbances caused by the interaction between real particles, and they affect only the particles that create them. They are not measurable directly, but their effects are observable, measurable, and—within the bounds of the uncertainty principle that both permits and requires their existence—predictable. They do not constitute a “magic” way for an immaterial world to affect the material universe in which we live. Even more mysterious phenomena, such as wave-particle superposition and quantum entanglement—a phenomenon even Einstein reputedly refused to accept as real—fit within an expanding body of probabilistic physics, and all are the results of material characteristics of the universe.

In all of human history, the immaterial explanations that originated as ideas in human brains stimulated by observing external phenomena have turned out to be wrong. Neither Apollo nor Ra guides the sun through the heavens; lightning is not Thor’s spear; Mt. St. Helens’s eruption did not give voice to the wrath of Vulcan or Pele. Neither earthquakes nor one person’s fortune and another’s misfortune result from the whimsy of a capricious god named God. As mankind’s evidence-based knowledge grows, so does his understanding of the universe. Mysteries have material solutions; those solutions broaden our understanding of the material interactions from which they arose and, most excitingly, present us with new mysteries. Why, for instance, do galaxy clusters behave in ways that we cannot explain with traditional models of gravity, thus requiring hypothesized “dark matter” to increase their mass? And why is the universe apparently expanding at an accelerating rate when gravity “should be” slowing it down? What is the “dark energy” driving that expansion? Whatever the drivers of those observed phenomena turn out to be—whatever dark matter and dark energy “really” are—the ultimate explanations will be material ones. Galaxy clusters do not coalesce because a god is squeezing them; the universe’s expansion is not accelerating because a god is stretching it like taffy.

The discussion can, of course, be continued ad infinitum and be even more boring than it already has been, but I’ll stop and get (finally!) to the point: me. I define myself as an agnostic in admitting that I do not know about a supernatural realm, simply because by definition such a realm is immaterial, and I can’t know about an immaterial realm. It may well exist, but in the material quantum universe where I make my home, there is no way for me to interact with it or it with me. All the mental, emotional, and “spiritual” experiences I have—from (now and then) cogent thoughts to flights of fancy to feeling at home and psychically expanded in the desert to gagging at the aroma of cooking Brussels sprouts to feeling an indefinable, empathetic connection with Dave Brubeck to the “still, small voice” that keeps me from throwing bricks at the irritating dogs next door—all those experiences are material effects of the molecular dance going on in my brain.

There are theories—many of them—postulating dimensions other than the three of which we’re aware, extra-dimensional parallel universes and things even stranger, but they are no more valid in, or applicable to, my day-to-day life than is Baum’s Theory of Oz. If there is an immaterial universe somehow intersecting with the material one in which I live, it is by its nature and the nature of my universe fundamentally imperceptible—and therefore fundamentally irrelevant to me. I do not deny the possibility of its existence. But if it exists, being both imperceptible and irrelevant, it cannot be the locus of any god or gods that can in any way affect me.

I am therefore, as well as being an agnostic, an atheist: I believe there are no immaterial beings, no gods, no beings, no spaces, no forces that can possibly have any effect on me or on any part of the material universe in which I reside. I believe I live in a material universe that is entirely knowable and which does not need an infusion of the supernatural or immaterial to make complete, comprehensive, and all-inclusive sense in space and time. This is far from saying that human beings are capable of fully understanding the universe: our brains evolved to deal with a very much tinier, more immediate, and more desperate environment. It is, however, to posit and believe in a physical universe that is complete in itself and intrinsically understandable to an intelligence sufficiently mature to comprehend it. A universe, in other words, that is entirely material. There is no magic.

But so saying leaves unanswered some of the important questions I asked as a youth: If there is no god (for instance), why do we all seem to know good from bad? And why is there bad, anyway? “Evolution, Baby!” (which will make sense only if you’ve seen the movie Paul). Our pre-human ancestors evolved as social species because society offered selective advantages over non-social living to a slow, naked ape with no claws and tiny teeth. In the course of that evolution, those pre-human ancestors very likely evolved a tendency to respond to stress in ways that supported society and to avoid responses that were anti-social. Today’s H. sapiens is a branch of an evolutionary tree whose roots extend many millions of years into the past; we are impelled by instincts that evolved long, long before our primate ancestors had language to describe them. But we do have language, and have come to label those instincts that generally foster social harmony and the behaviors they inform as “good” and those that do the contrary as “bad” and to apply similar labels to similar categories of random environmental events. It is certainly much more complicated than that and necessarily largely speculative, but to the extent that our physical characteristics are the outcome of millennia of evolutionary adaptation, so are our behavioral characteristics. Evolution, of course, is not perfect: it’s left H. sapiens with an appendix and wisdom teeth and a bad back … and has similarly left us with some anti-social tendencies such as quick tempers, irrational discrimination, the reflexive insanity of the mob, and an occasional distressingly irrepressible urge to fart in church. Perhaps, as we’ve learned about dentistry, surgery, back braces, and antacids, we’ll someday learn to deal effectively with those dark urges that lead not to cohesion but fragmentation. Perhaps.

One final note before I end on this. My belief in the uniqueness and sufficiency of the material universe implies nothing about the great majority of people who believe otherwise: that an immaterial universe is immanent and operative in this material one. I am first and foremost agnostic. I do not know. I can accept being wrong. But I do insist on evidence as I have defined it that demonstrates the errors in my reasoning or conclusions (for “evidence” on any other terms is no evidence at all) … and given that evidence, I could do nothing but accept that I’ve made a mistake.

T.J. Gordon

T. J. Gordon is a recovering technical writer with over twenty years' experience writing for a university-based space engineering laboratory. His twelve-step recovery program includes returning to his academic roots in the humanities, retiring to southern Utah, and writing for his own pleasure.


I began questioning orthodox Christian beliefs quite early. My mother and I lived with my father’s parents during his World War II military service, and I spent many subsequent summers with them. I have a clear memory of asking my paternal grandmother, when I was about seven, how there could be any people if Adam …

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