I “came out” yesterday, but I didn’t tell the whole story.
I’m not here today to tell the whole story, either, but I do want to tell part of it.
I started this post once and then threw the whole thing out. I had hacked together a list of the big reasons why I believe what I believe and gave brief explanations and justifications. (Lack of evidence. Bible and other holy texts contradict themselves. Problem of evil. So forth.) But then I realized, there are other, better, cleverer sources out there for all the standard atheist talking points. Seriously, every atheist has a post like this. And not just because I didn’t want to overtly follow the crowd, but I realized that as much as all those well-stocked, off-the-shelf answers do apply to my beliefs, the big guns — the personal stuff — the story are maybe a little more interesting.
And I fancy myself a storyteller, after all. So.
I stopped going to church when I was a teenager, maybe partly because I started to catch the whiff of BS from the whole thing, but mostly because I was lazy and didn’t enjoy it. Thus was my belief put on an ice floe and set adrift to wither and die as I went off to college and began to really learn things about the world. Probably the near-daily occurrence of encountering a fire-and-brimstone street preacher pounding the bricks at the Tate Student Center at UGA fueled my growing doubts about the beneficent nature of religion in general; these guys (and they were always guys) would scream death and damnation on gay students, on sexually active students, on basically anybody who walked by. Not a good look for Christianity, even if, to be fair, those angry handful are a pitiful minority.
I guess that was when I became an agnostic; neither believing in nor disbelieving in god. Organized religion was right out, but inwardly I determined that maybe it was possible that a well-intentioned god had set the universe spinning and was unable to control it or interact with it much beyond that point, sort of like a kid who folds up a paper airplane and tosses it off the top floor of a skyscraper. I stayed there for a while, just sort of grinning and bearing the devout types while shaking my head and pitying the true atheists.
I think even then I felt it was better to believe in something than in nothing.
But then I had a kid. (To be fair, my wife had the kid … I mostly wandered around in the background and tried not to pass out.)
And our kid had a birth defect.
He had gastroschisis, which in short, meant that his intestines spilled out of his abdomen in utero and had to be, for lack of a better term, stuffed back in after birth. To be fair, on a sliding scale of birth defects, to quote our specialist, “this is the birth defect you want.” In the vast majority of cases, children with gastroschisis make full recoveries.
And he’s lucky. We live in the 21st century, where medicine is in many cases indiscernible from magic, and our son is now perfectly healthy and will likely never suffer any ill effects from this condition. Had he been born even forty years ago, even surviving would have been a long shot.
His defect earned him a stay in the NICU for the first twenty-six days of his life. If I needed proof beyond doubt that there was no benevolent god looking out for us, I found it in the neonatal intensive care unit. Here were children — infants, no less — innocent of anything save being born, suffering from all manner of maladies. Some were “minor” like my son’s (though it’s hard to view having your intestines in a bag and being unable to eat except through a tube inserted in your skull as a minor thing). Others were far worse. Birth defects run the gamut from immediately, horrifically terminal to survivable with lifelong care or disability to, as in our son’s case, merely inconvenient. Some of the babies who shared air and nurses and doctors with my son would not survive even the twenty-six days my son was in residence.
And that’s nothing short of tragic.
(Let me sidebar to say that the staff we interacted with were phenomenal. Their jobs put them in the least desirable of situations daily — people are not by and large happy to be spending their days like ghosts hanging around the dim corners of the NICU — but they were soldiers, and they made soldiers out of us.)
I didn’t think about it at the time; I was too focused on my wife’s and my grief and my son’s health during the whole affair. But looking back on it now, that time in the hospital was the nail in god’s coffin for me. I couldn’t — and still can’t — square the idea of a god who cares in any way about the humans he’s created after seeing all those infants fighting for life, breathing and eating through tubes, hooked up to machines — man-made machines, mind you — that gave them their only prayer at life, a prayer they would never have had if all were left in god’s hands.
Yeah, there’s the problem of natural disasters and evil and all of that, and I have trouble squaring those, too. But for me, the question of atheism is a lot more local. A lot more personal. A lot more visceral. And there’s maybe more to be said at another time. But the fact is, as many reasons as I have for what I believe, I only really need one reason.
If we had left my son’s life in god’s hands, my son would be dead.
For all that, though, I don’t view the world in a cynical way. Far from it. The world is an incredible place. We are lucky to have even the blink of an eye in which to appreciate it. I am lucky that my son was born in a time when the advances of medical technology could give him a chance at life. And no, I don’t claim to know where we came from. And only a fool would claim to know where we are going.
But we are lucky, and the world is incredible, independent of any god.
As Douglas Adams put it:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?