Sunday, January 31, 2016

The drive to Denver

I've driven across the Great Plains three times in my life.  It's a long and sometimes boring drive.  Depending on how often you stop, it takes a few days of driving to get to the Rocky Mountains.  Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, is at about 1,000 ft. of elevation above sea level.  Denver, Colorado, the "Mile High City", is at about 5,000 ft. elevation.  So in the drive from Ann Arbor to Denver, you will increase your elevation about 4,000 ft.  Because the 1,200 mile drive to Denver is across the plains, you don't really notice the increase in elevation.  It's about 3 feet per mile.  Because the drive takes time, your body gets used to the change in elevation as you go along.  If you've ever flown to Denver from Detroit, you know that you have a risk of having altitude sickness when you arrive.  You definitely notice the difference in altitude.  When driving, you don't really notice at all.

Now suppose Denver was the next town over from Ann Arbor, but it was still at 5,000 feet.  That would mean that there would be a 4,000 foot cliff at the edge of Ann Arbor looking up to Denver, somewhere in the sky.  If you've ever seen photos of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, it's about 3,000 feet high.  The cliff to Denver would be another 1,000 feet higher.  If you lived in Ann Arbor, Denver might as well be on another planet.  You would never go there, and you would never even try.

Keep that image in mind.

Imagine you are someone who weighs 300 lbs.  You've been that weight for as long as you can remember.  It's part of who you are.  Supposed you decide you want to get to a healthy weight, and your optimum weight, based on your BMI, is 170 lbs.   The idea of losing 130 lbs is like a person in Ann Arbor wanting to move to Denver and all they can see is that 4,000 ft. cliff in front of them.  It's impossible.  They'll never do it.  "Diets" that they read about are like a jet pack you can strap on your back to give you a lift.  The problem is that it will get you 50 ft. up the cliff before it runs out of fuel.  Then, you're most likely going to crash back down to the ground. 

The only way to lose that 130 lbs. is to realize that Denver isn't at the top of a cliff next to Ann Arbor.  It's across a wide plain that can be crossed.  The way to do it is to do it gradually.  You don't try to drive all the way in one day.  You take your time.  You go one mile at a time, and you adjust to the elevation as you go along.  Losing weight in a way that will be permanent is like this.  You have to set small, attainable goals and work toward them.  Little by little you change the way you eat, you change how you exercise, and you change how you live your life so that eventually, but definitely, you'll get to the point where you are living like a 170 lb. person.  That 170 lb. person is who you are.  It is now part of you.  Like someone who moves to Denver, because you took the time to get there at a healthy pace, you have become a Denver person.  You almost don't even remember what it was like to live in Ann Arbor.  It seems foreign to you. 

This is the approach that I took when I lost weight more than a decade ago, and wrote about here.  I was never "on a diet".  A "diet" has the connotation of something that is temporary.  "I'm going to go on a diet and lose 50 lbs!".  And then what?  Go back to the way you ate before?  If so, you'll just gain that weight back again, like the jet pack crashing back to earth.  The only way to stay at a healthy weight is to change how you eat.  Permanently.  And the only way to do that without driving yourself crazy is to do it gradually.  Change small things, little by little.  Drive one more mile down the road toward your destination.  Be persistent.  It's worth the trip.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Fire of Life

Where does the flame go when you blow out a candle?

In a fire, heat causes a chemical reaction between a fuel and oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water, and energy in the form of light and more heat.  That heat feeds other chemical reactions between fuel and oxygen.  This chain of reactions continues as long as we have fuel and oxygen and the burning fuel stays hot enough to support the reaction.

In a candle flame, the heat of the flame melts the wax.  The melted wax moves up the wick where the heat boils it into a gas.  The wax gas mixes with the air, and the oxygen in the air chemically reacts with the wax.  This reaction gives off light and heat.  The shape of the flame that we see is just the areas of the gas which are involved in the chemical reaction.  If you look close to the wick, you'll see a clear area that isn't reacting yet.  This is the pure wax gas that is in the process of mixing with the air. 

Once you understand the chemistry and physics of combustion, the answer becomes clear.  When you blow out a candle, the flame doesn't go anywhere.  A flame isn't a thing.  A flame is what we call that continuous chemical reaction that gives off light that we can see.  When we blow out the flame, we cool down the wax gas to a temperature where the chemical reaction stops.  When we stop the chemical reaction, it stops giving off light, and we no longer see the flame. 

In the same way, the property that we call "life" is also just a set of complex chemical reactions.  Seeing something that is alive is like seeing a flame.  We're seeing the effects of the chemical reactions that are taking place in the cells.  Those chemical reactions are what cause the cells to behave as they do.  Groups of cells act together as, for example, muscle tissue and digestive organs in a concerted effort to obtain fuel and oxygen to keep the chemical reaction going.

When something dies, then, what does that mean?  It simply means that the conditions have changed to a degree that the chemical reactions can no longer take place, like blowing out the candle.  When the chemical reactions in the cells stop, the cells can no longer perform their functions.  This means that tissues and organs stop working.  Since other cells depend on those tissues and organs to get their fuel and oxygen, those cells die too.  As a result, the organism dies.

When this happens, where does that organism's "life" go?  Well, just like the flame, it doesn't go anywhere.  Life isn't a thing.  There isn't a "life force" any more than there is a "fire force" that can leave the organism and go somewhere else.  When an organism dies, the chemical reactions simply stop.

If, when I explain this, I say that the organism is a worm, then most people with a little knowledge of chemistry and biology will completely agree without having any issues with this.  If, however, I say that the organism is a person, you or me, then a lot of people will have a problem with this.  We are conscious beings.   We have a feeling of being alive.  We have a sense of ourselves as being something more than just a bunch of physical structures whose sole purpose is to sustain an ongoing (albeit complex) set of chemical reactions.  We have a mind.

Our bodies are biological machines.  As such, our brains are also just biological machines.  There's nothing about our mind, our consciousness, or our sense of self that is anything more than just the patterns of connections in our brain's nerve cells and the chemical and electrical communications between them. 

Once we realize this, we can do away with the idea of mind-body dualism.  Our mind is not separate from our body.  What we call our mind is just our body being aware of itself.  Our brains evolved as an organ to control our bodies and to use information from our senses to find meaning in our various sensations to help us move through a complex world, protect ourselves, find food, and reproduce.  As evolution shaped our brains to be better and better at this task, we developed a sense of consciousness - a sense of mind.  One consequence of developing this sense of mind is that we feel that the mind is separate from the body. Since the mind feels separate from our bodies, ancient people came up with the idea that it must be an actual, separate entity - a soul.   As we can see, that's really just an illusion.

This brings us to the big question, then.  Where do we go when we die?  By "we", I mean our consciousness, our minds, that thing that we perceive as being separate from our bodies.  The mind is just like the flame.  It's not a thing.  It's just the shape of the chemical reaction of our brains that we can perceive.  So where do we go when we die?  The same place the flame goes.



Monday, January 18, 2016

Just the facts, Ma'am.

I was reading an article on the Web today and at the bottom was one of those ubiquitous click-bait articles, "9 Things Einstein Didn't Really Say" (or something like that).  Being a sucker for these things, I, of course, clicked on it.  In amongst the quotes was the famous "God doesn't play dice".  This got me thinking about how often we hear Christians (mis)quoting Einstein in reference to God just to make the point, "See, Einstein believed in God!"  They make claims about deathbed conversions or quote Stephen Hawking talking about "truly knowing the mind of God".  "See!  All these geniuses really believe in God!"

The thing is, it doesn't really matter if any of them believe in God (or if, in most cases, they don't).  If Einstein were the top rabbi in the biggest synagogue in Jerusalem, it wouldn't change the truth about the theory of relativity.  Charles Darwin could have been the Archbishop of Canterbury, but that wouldn't make evolution less true.  Because the thing about Science is that it isn't who states a fact that matters, it's the fact itself.

The Ten Commandments aren't important because of what they say, they are important because God said them.  The moral guidelines given by Jesus aren't good ideas simply on their own merit, they must be followed because Jesus said them.

Christianity is based on argument from authority.  Statements are true because of WHO said them, not because of their content.  Atheism, on the other hand, is based on an examination of the facts.  It doesn't matter who first stated or discovered the facts.  It doesn't matter if that person was wrong about other facts.   The combined effect of all the facts that we've gathered through the process of scientific discovery point to the conclusion that no gods or other supernatural beings really exist.  Bigfoot doesn't exist. UFOs haven't landed on our planet.  There's no monster in Loch Ness.  Homeopathic pills don't work. 

We can only gain knowledge and advance as individuals and as a species if we use rational, scientific approaches to gathering and using facts.  Arguments from authority are an anchor that slows our progress and keeps us from finding the truth.  

... but don't take my word for it...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Scientifically Speaking

One of the big challenges faced by scientists is communicating their findings to the public.  Very often, it is the case that they report one thing, but the public hears something completely different.  Scientific language often gets interpreted differently by people who only speak Common English and not Scientific English.

For example, let's take one of the tactics used by Creationists, those people who refuse to believe the fact of Evolution because it contradicts their religious beliefs.  Creationists like to make a point that evolution is "only a theory".  In common usage, a theory is just a guess that someone makes.  We say things like, "I have a theory that the dog ate my sandwich".  It's a guess we make, and we're going to go out and look for evidence of it.  In Scientific Language, a theory is the current best explanation that we have for something that we observe in the universe.   A theory of gravity explains how we think that gravity works.  We all know that gravity exists.  We don't say, "I have a theory that gravity exists".   No, it's an observed fact.  However, scientists have a theory of how gravity works that explains gravity and takes into account relativity and quantum physics.   In Scientific Language, the word we use for a guess is a hypothesis.  A scientist would say, "My hypothesis for the disappearance of my mid-day sustenance is that the canine inhabitant of this domicile has consumed it".

When we talk about the Theory of Evolution, we're talking about our explanation for how evolution has occurred and what mechanisms drive it.  We're not making a guess that evolution could be true.  Evolution is an observed fact of nature.  There is no doubt about it.  However, there is still scientific debate over some details of the explanation.  Such debate is healthy because it is how we learn more.  It doesn't indicate that there is doubt about whether evolution is true or not.

Another example where I see this language disconnect is when talking about the results of some study or experiment.  For example, suppose a study was performed that was aimed at determining if acupuncture was effective for reducing pain.  The scientists would report, "the study showed no evidence that acupuncture was effective at treating pain".   The problem here is that to say "the study showed no evidence" leaves room for the reader to think that there could be evidence, but it just wasn't found by this study.  It's like saying, "there is no evidence that there was a second shooter who really killed President John F. Kennedy".  People who want to believe in a second shooter can easily believe that the investigators simply didn't look in the right place to find the evidence of the second shooter.

Here's where the real problem is.  In fact, scientists know that no study is final proof of something.  There is always more to know.  In addition, experimental studies are carefully designed to test specific hypotheses.  There are very strict conditions specified that are used to determine if the hypothesis is correct or not.  So a given study is only looking at one part of a problem.  There could be other evidence that this study wasn't looking for, and thus wouldn't find.  Every theory is tentative - it could change if more evidence is discovered.  That's the strength of science.

On the other hand, the fact that an experiment was conducted and had negative results is itself evidence.  If we test acupuncture and find that there is no difference in pain whether acupuncture was used or not, then we have evidence that acupuncture did not improve the pain.  We shouldn't say "there is no evidence that acupuncture improved the pain".   We should say, "the evidence of this study shows that acupuncture does not improve pain".

In some cases, many experiments have been done with no positive results. At that point, scientists should be clear and simply say, "given all the evidence that has been gathered, we conclude that acupuncture does not work".   Simply adding the statement about having gathered data gives more weight to the conclusion.   As scientists, we have to be true to our value of being accurate in what we say.  However, if we are going to communicate our findings in a way that people can understand and use to make better decisions in their lives, then we have to speak in a way that is understood by people who don't speak Scientific English.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

There's a new study that indicates....

I recently watched a documentary called "Forks over Knives".  The premise of this film is that you can avoid a lot of illnesses, especially cancers and heart disease, if you avoid all animal-based foods and eat only non-processed, plant-based foods.  Let me state right from the start that I immediately saw this for what it is - vegan propaganda.   I found some good blog posts that dissect the film bit-by-bit and point out what is wrong with the arguments and with the science.  That's not the point of this post.

What I want to write about today is one particular bit of evidence that the film uses to make its case.  They refer to a study done in India that studied the effects of a diet high in casein (milk protein) on the incidence of cancer in rats.  They report that rats who received a high-casein diet had higher incidence of cancer than rats on a low-casein diet.  From this, the film draws the conclusion that diets high in animal proteins promote cancer growth, and thus all animal products should be avoided.

If you take this as reported, it's pretty scary.  In fact, even if you don't accept the leap from casein to all animal proteins, it makes you think you might want to cut down or eliminate dairy foods from your diet.  But, I'm skeptical.  If this link between milk and cancer had been proven, first, we would see rampant cancer in places like the U.S. where dairy consumption is high.  We don't see this.  Second, many more studies would have been performed to verify this claim, and it would be all over the news.  It's not.  So what's the truth?

First, we have to look at what the study really said and what it was trying to find out.  Any scientific experiment is designed to answer a question.   Scientific experiments are expensive.  They are carefully controlled to limit the number of different factors that could influence the outcome.   They want to get quality answers to a specific question with the least cost in time and resources.  So what was the casein experiment trying to accomplish?  They were specifically looking at a carcinogen called aflatoxin and the effect of the level of protein in the diet on aflatoxin's ability to cause liver cancer.  Why aflatoxin?  Well, aflatoxin is produced by a fungus that can grow on grains in humid climates.  I assume that in India, there is a higher risk of being exposed to aflatoxin due to their diet that is high in grains and the tropical weather.  Thus, it makes sense that Indians would be studying this toxin.  Why study using casein?   I don't really know.  I'll guess that it's because it's a readily available protein that's available in a pure form that can be used to carefully regulate the protein level in an animal's diet.   It's probably just the typical diet protein that biologists use.

So, now that we know what the Indians were studying, let's look at the results.  What the movie didn't say was that over half of the low-protein rats actually died before they reached one-year old and were examined for cancer.   Low-protein actually means malnourished.  The underfed rats didn't have enough protein in their diet for their livers to grow and properly metabolize the aflatoxin.   So the alfatoxin destroyed their livers and killed them.  The high-protein rats were actually receiving a balanced diet.  Their livers grew properly and were able to metabolize the aflatoxin.  However, the aflatoxin doses were very high, so they still got cancer, but at least they lived long enough to get a cancer.

This result also gives us insight into what else the Indians may have been trying to study.  In a country with rampant malnutrition, they may have been wanting to see if Indian children without sufficient nutrition were more susceptible to aflatoxin damage.

So, let me summarize all this.  In India in 1968, researchers performed a series of experiments on rats to see if malnutrition would make it more likely for children to die from exposure to a toxin that is often found in their food supply.   The researchers happened to use casein, a readily available protein to carefully control the nutrition level the rats received.   Thirty or so years later, a doctor with a strong ideological bias that animal foods are bad for you, took this study and misrepresented the results to say that the experiment showed that high levels of animal-based proteins cause cancer growth.

There are two obvious, but unfortunately common, problems with this.  First, the doctor took a study intended to measure one thing and reported only specific aspects of it to make his case, which had little to do with the original study.  Second, an experimental study on rats was generalized and reported as if the results were automatically and obviously applicable to humans.  Rats aren't people (even if some people are rats).  However, mice and rats have enough in common with people biologically and genetically that doing initial studies on rodents can provide information that is useful for later studies with humans.

Vegan propaganda aside, we see this kind of situation all the time.  We see headlines like "Eating walnuts cuts breast cancer risk in half".   If you look closer at the study, you find that it was a mouse study where half the fat in the mice's diet was replaced by walnuts.   Breast cancer incidence was reduced.  I don't know the rest of the details of the study, but I can guarantee you that it doesn't show conclusively that you can cut your breast cancer risk in half by eating some walnuts every day.

The media sensationalizes scientific results to make a story.  The result is that people don't believe anything that scientists say.  "Walnuts prevent cancer?  Heck, last week they said that they were bad for you."   Never assume that a headline accurately represents the results of a scientific study.  It's more likely that the science has made some advancement on one piece of the puzzle that is cancer (or some other disease).   The true story is likely much more interesting than the glossy, sensationalized version that the media will give you.   The link between malnutrition and the risk of aflatoxin poisoning is much more interesting, useful, and true than "animal-based foods cause cancer".

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Evidently True

I grew up in a Catholic household in a predominantly Christian part of the rural Midwest.  It seems like there's a church on every street corner of my hometown.  The Christian world view was part of our culture and our identity.  As a young boy interested in science, it's therefore no surprise that one of the sources of information that I was given was a cassette tape that talked about all the evidence of God's work in nature.  I listened to this cassette repeatedly. 

It's been many years, so I only really remember one particular part.  The preacher (I assume he was a Christian preacher or minister that made the tape) was talking about the fact that when you look at the branch of a tree, you'll notice that the side branches do not grow out of that branch in a random pattern.  In fact, they follow a repeating pattern where, for example, every fifth branch is pointing in the same direction.  This order was evidence of God's hand in the creation of a tree.   God made the tree with a certain logic, and this was evidence of the creator's work. 

For a Christian, or any believer, the existence of a god is assumed.  It's part of the fabric of the Universe.  As such, any observation of order in the Universe is considered evidence of that god's existence.    The problem with this argument is that it is circular.  There is an assumption that a god exists with certain properties and any observations that are made are taken as evidence that the god exists.   The argument is "God exists.  God creates order in the world.  I see order in the world.  Therefore, God exists."   The argument implies that the only way there can be order in the world is because God causes it.  Thus, any order is evidence of God.  It's not a valid argument to assume something is true and then use that assumption to argue that it is true. 

Another problem with this is that the selection of evidence is arbitrary.  Observations that demonstrate their claim is taken as evidence; any observation that contradicts it is ignored.    If something is true, then there shouldn't be contradictory evidence.  If there is, then the thing can't be true.  In reality, if there is contradictory evidence, perhaps you don't have to throw out the idea altogether, but you need to revise it to account for the contradictions.

Let me give an example of something that is also a part of the fabric of the Universe - gravity.  Gravity is a basic property of matter.  Anything with mass will attract anything else with mass.  On the earth, we see this in the fact that things fall to the ground.  The gravity of the earth is so large that we don't normally notice that all the smaller things are attracting one-another, but this fact has been verified in laboratories and in outer space.  There are other known forces that cause objects to be attracted to one-another, including the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force.  When we remove the effects of those other forces, we still find that gravitational force is there.  Similarly, if we see two objects being attracted to one-another, we don't assume it is because of gravity.  We look at all the possible explanations and then decide if it is because of gravity.

We didn't start out with some theory of gravity from the start and afterwards looked to find evidence of it.  On the contrary, we observed that things fell to earth, and we wondered why.  As we studied this more and more, scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and others did experiments to measure the effects of gravity and to come up with a description of how it works.  Over the centuries, our understanding of gravity has grown, and it helps us to understand how the Universe works.  Everywhere we look, we find that the effects of gravity are there.  There are no contradictory observations.  The interesting thing is that we still don't know exactly what causes gravity.   I think scientists are still working on trying to explain how gravity is related to Relativity, as Einstein described it, or with quantum mechanics.  

The argument about gravity is like this: "We observed that objects attract one another.  The force that we call 'gravity' explains that attraction.  Therefore, gravity exists."  This is not a circular argument.  We don't assume that gravity exists at the start.  The existence of gravity is the conclusion.

If we wanted to follow the same process for proving the existence of a god, we would start with our observations.  What are these observations?  We see order in nature.   Is the existence of a god the best explanation for this order?  Scientists have observed true randomness on the quantum scale.  How does an orderly creation explain this?  We see "good" things happen.  Is the existence of a god the best explanation of this?  We see "bad" things happen.  How does the existence of a god explain this apparent contradiction?  

The more we know about nature, the more we find that there are better, simpler explanations for the apparent order in the universe than "god did it'.  For the example of the regularity of the branches in a tree, we know that natural selection would have favored trees that can position their leaves in locations that capture the most sunlight.  A tree that grows branches in regular intervals, thus filling every available gap, would collect more sunlight than one that grew branches at random.  Random branches would likely leave gaps (missing the opportunity to capture sunlight), and there would be branches that block other branches (wasting energy spent on growing the branches that are blocked).   Over the millions of years that trees have been evolving, the individual trees of a given species that did the best at collecting sunlight would be more successful.  They would have more energy from the sun that they could use to produce more seeds.  Over the generations, their offspring would be more successful than the offspring of trees with worse branch placement.  These "orderly branch" genes would come to be dominant in the population of trees.  Eventually, all the trees in the population would have these orderly branches.  Thus, it's no surprise that all trees of a species show the same order to their branches.  They are all descendents of trees that developed a particular genetic mutation that allowed them to have more orderly branches than the trees before them. 

The existence of orderly branches in a tree is evidence of evolution.   Like gravity, evolution is a universal property that we have observe everywhere we look.  It is completely consistent with all the observations we make, and it accurately predicts what observations we will make in the future.  We continue to learn more and more about evolution as we gather evidence.  When we find evidence that appears to contradict evolution, we generally find that the evidence actually clarifies our theory of evolution.   If we ever found evidence that truly contradicted evolution, we would be willing to throw away that theory in favor of one that explains all the evidence.  This is how we learn about the world.  This is how we increase our knowledge of the Universe and better understand our place in it.  This is how we use evidence.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A blast from the past

When I started this blog, it was probably the first time that I "publicly" stated my opinions on religion and philosophy.  I generally kept these thoughts to myself.  However, I thought this blog would be a good forum to express some of the thoughts I have, and perhaps to start some conversations about these subjects with people with whom I've never spoken of them before.

Obviously, my disbelief in religion didn't start when I started this blog.  I wrote the following eleven years ago.  I've kept it to document my thinking at the time.  I've matured and become more educated about philosophy, rationalism, and skepticism since then.  My thoughts and arguments are more informed and refined.  However, the fundamental belief has not changed. 
---


"What I Believe"

I am an atheist.
 
Let me give a couple of definitions just to make things clear. A theist is someone with religious beliefs, that is, someone who believes in a god or gods. An atheist is someone who has no religious beliefs, that is, they have no belief in any god or gods. So atheism is a statement about a lack of belief, it says nothing about what an atheist actually believes. Actually, I’m what is sometimes called a strong atheist or a nontheist. Not only do I have no belief in a god or gods, but I believe gods do not exist. This is a stronger statement than simply saying I’m an atheist.

I do not believe that any gods, especially the Christian God, exist. Nor is there any Heaven or Hell. We are born, we live our lives, we die, and that’s the end of that. There is no existence after life. This makes it especially important that we live a happy, constructive, and fruitful life while we are on this planet. We are not here to prepare for something after life; we are just here. There is no "meaning of life". The only meaning to life is that meaning which we give to it. We are not here "for a purpose". We provide our own purpose to life.

Because this life is all we have, life is incredibly precious. To take someone’s life is to take the most important thing that person has. To waste one’s own life is to waste the most important thing you have. Life should be valued highly, and we should live our lives to the fullest. The biggest "sin" is to fritter one’s life away waiting for some reward in the afterlife instead of making our own "heaven" here on Earth. We do not forgive others because it is what Jesus would do. We do it because when we forgive, we retain the opportunity to continue to have the love and companionship of those we forgive. This is what enriches our lives and makes life worth living. When religion works, it is by distilling the knowledge of those who came before us and giving us examples of how to live our lives in a way that makes us happy and makes others happy.

How did I get to be an atheist?

There was no single event or incident which "caused" me to become an atheist. I’m not an atheist as a simple rejection of the Catholic Church (under whose teachings I was raised) nor as a rejection of any individual’s beliefs. Becoming an atheist was the result of a decades-long search for the truth.

As I mentioned above, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. As early as my First Communion, I felt that something just wasn’t quite right about what the church was teaching. I remember wondering why I had to confess my sins to a priest if God was everywhere and knew what I was doing at all times. Now, as an adult, I know that the main reason for this is to make the confessor think about their sins and be remorseful for them. The point is not that this was a major inconsistency in the Catholic dogma, but that at that early age (6-7 years old) I was already questioning the practices and teachings of the church.

I remember a later incident in Catechism where we were asked to tell of some time that we had experienced God in our lives. I couldn’t think of any. One kid in the class talked about how he was pushing something heavy up a hill and asked God for help. He found the strength to make it to the top after that. I thought, "how does that prove that God helped? He could have just found the strength within himself."

By the time I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was no longer going to Catechism. However, I still considered myself a Catholic.

In my seventh grade English class, we had to do a debate. The topic I drew was abortion. I took the anti-abortion side. For my sources, I found a bunch of religious pamphlets that preached about the sanctity of God-given life and how abortion was tantamount to murder. I argued this case in the debate. After the debate, my teacher, Mr. Lawson, commented to me that I had made an argument from a position of religious faith. Since faith is a system that is unassailable, what I had done was not debate, but put forth a position against which there was no rational argument. Since I respected Mr. Lawson, I took his words to heart. This was when I first started to acquire the tools for rational thought and evaluation that I would need on my search for the truth.

By the time that I was in high school, I believed that there must be some religion out there that possessed the truth about God. I knew it wasn’t the Catholic Church, so I started looking around for "the One". I had become what amounted to a Fundamentalist. I believed there was a God, and that the Bible was the true word of God. But I disagreed with the fact that, in the Catholic Church, the Priest read and interpreted the Bible to you. You were not encouraged to read it and interpret it for yourself. Since I disagreed with how they interpreted the Bible, I decided they didn’t know the true message in the Bible. At some point around the eleventh grade, I encountered a cult called The Way. They claimed to have a cadre of biblical scholars who had reevaluated the Bible using the original documents. They gave examples of how verses in the King James version of the Bible had been incorrectly translated and they had the real translation. I thought I had finally found the truth. These people had the true "Word of God". I went to one of their church meetings and was listening with an open mind until they did their "speaking in tongues" trick. I thought, "more hogwash". This meeting was supposed to be a friendly, informal meeting for a few of us who were interested. When they passed the hat at the end, I knew this was just another rip-off.

This episode didn’t stop my search. And I was still of a Fundamentalist bent when I entered college. It was sophomore year at Denison when a critical turning point in my life occurred. I was sitting up one night talking with my roommate discussing religion. He was either a religion or philosophy major (I forget which). He ended the conversation with the following statement: "You have to question your beliefs". What he meant by this is not that we should automatically reject the beliefs we were raised with. Instead, we should question all our beliefs. We should ask ourselves why we believe what we believe. There are two possible outcomes of such an enquiry. One outcome is that we realize that we don’t have a good reason to believe what we believe, and in fact, we should believe something else. The other outcome is that we continue to believe what we believe, but now, since we’ve thought about why, we have a good reason to believe it. Our belief therefore becomes stronger, and it is based on our own, personal reasons. We shouldn’t believe things simply because that’s what we were raised to believe or because that’s what everyone else believes.

This was really a life-changing event for me. It got me to step back and change the question from "which church has the truth about God?" to "what is the truth about God?" Never before had I even considered the question of whether God even existed at all.

The next big event on my evolution was senior year at Denison in my Philosophy of Feminism class. We were reading a book called, "The Redemption of God." It was the Ph.D. thesis of a woman who explored the fundamental patriarchal nature of the Christian God. Her hypothesis was that God could be "redeemed" if we redefine what God is. Instead of the all-powerful gray-bearded man, God is simply the power of Love in the world. Jesus wasn’t necessarily the Son of God, but was someone particularly gifted in channeling the power of Love to help and heal others. This was the first time that I came across the concept of redefining God. I mean, God just was, right? But here this woman redefined God into something that made a whole lot more sense to me than what any Christian church had ever told me. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place. Maybe she was right. Maybe God wasn’t this thing that churches had taught me "He" was, maybe God was something else.

It was at about this same time that I started reading some Existential philosophy. I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s statement with respect to God:
"Existentialism isn't so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn't exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing." Or, to restate this "It does not matter if God exists or not, I am still responsible for my own actions." I basically agree with Existential philosophy. We are all ultimately responsible for our own actions. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, we make a choice to act in a certain manner. It is our choice, and we are responsible for the results of our actions. So I think Sartre was right. If we were to do things because we thought that is what God wants, it still does not absolve us from the responsibility for those actions. We can’t abdicate responsibility for our actions because it’s "God’s will." Once we realize this, we realize that the existence or nonexistence of God really doesn’t matter. If we act in a moral way, we do it because we want the societal and personal benefits of that. If we act in an immoral manner, we accept the societal and personal punishment that we will receive. God doesn’t enter into the equation.
I continued my quest. I discussed it with friends; I read books. But at this time, I knew that I didn’t believe that the Christian God existed.

It wasn’t until probably around the summer of 1989 that I realized that I was an atheist. I had searched and searched, and kept coming back to one fundamental thing, God doesn’t make sense.

So, for about eleven years now, I’ve been an atheist. I’ve read a number of books on atheism, rationalism, and science. These books resonate with what I see as being the truth about the universe. By applying Occam’s Razor, if we take any model of the world that contains a god, we can take the same model minus the god and get just as good an explanation of how the universe works. I have yet to see, hear about, or read about anything that exists or has ever occurred where the best explanation requires the existence of a god.

I consider myself a good scientist. As such, if someone came to me with some concrete evidence of the existence of a god, I would be forced to consider the validity of this data. Because it is physically impossible to search the entire universe to show that a god does not exist, I have to concede the possibility of a god. However, given the overwhelming absence of evidence of such an entity, I believe that no such being exists.

Therefore, my lack of belief in any god or gods makes me an atheist.  My belief that, in fact, no such beings actually exist makes me a strong atheist or nontheist.

Written in the Summer of 2000.