further than atheism - philosophies of disbeliefWelcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing attempt to explore the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the single idea that all atheists share: the rejection of gods. Atheism should be a beginning, not an end in itself. When they confine their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Standing alone, atheism consists only of negation. Held along with compatible philosophies, however, atheism allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.

Atheists in Foxholes

Everyone knows the tired, old Christian canard about atheists in foxholes. With a structure suspiciously like that of modern urban legends, the preacher always starts by recounting some supposedly true story about a proudly atheist soldier in some war or another who holds fast to his godless ideals until the bombs start falling. Then, in his hour of need, he prays along with everyone else and converts to Christianity. The story always ends with the phrase, "There are no atheists in foxholes."

The lesson that this story is obviously designed to teach is that while Christians are ever loyal to their beliefs, atheists aren't really committed to their ideals. Atheism is purported to be fundamentally unsatisfying and to provide no comfort in times of need. Atheists are characterized as petulant discontents who really believe in God but pretend that they don't just in order to be rebellious and make other people upset.

The Valley of the Shadow of Birth and Death

Of course, we atheists know better. Sure, there are those who mistakenly call themselves atheists who are merely angry at the idea of God, but most of us are quite secure in our disbelief. Myself, I decided that God was a plain lie when I was just three years old, and I've never experienced anything that has caused me to doubt that decision.

A couple weeks ago, I went through a kind of foxhole experience that tested the mettle of my faithlessness. My son was born after two days of medical interventions that just weren't working. First, the hospital tried to soften my wife's cervix. Then, uterine contractions were induced. After 36 hours, my wife's body was still not ready to deliver. Because of the risk of medical complications from another condition, a cesarean section was recommended and lamaze went out the window. An anesthesiologist pierced my wife's back four times trying to get an epidural into her spinal column without success. She was wheeled off into an operating room where another kind of spinal anesthesia was unsuccessfully attempted. Finally, the doctors were forced to put my wife under general anesthesia.

For about an hour I stood in the recovery room, unable to enter the operating room because of the use of general anesthesia. During that time, I received almost no word of the doctors' progress and could only observe a small fraction of the activity within the operating room through a tiny window two feet wide and twenty feet away. I could see doctors and nurses moving around the room, their arms moving into strange contortions, but had no idea what was really going on.

Naturally, I feared the worst. None of the medical intervention had been effective so far, and I worried that the failures would continue. Standing all alone in a room full of frightening medical instruments, I was terrified that my wife and my son would die. At one point, my fear became so strong that I imagined that I heard a scream, either from a woman in pain or from a baby's first cries, although my wife was unconscious and my son was still within her womb. I wailed and moaned in a desperation I had never even come close to before. I must have paced five miles that hour.

Into the Hands of a Capricious God?

Searching desperately for comfort, I tried to think of what other people would do to calm themselves down. It occurred to me that most people in my situation would pray. Could it work for me? Was my stubborn atheism placing my wife and child at risk? What did I have to lose?

At this point, I wasn't above trying anything that had a reasonable chance of working. Nonetheless, after considering the possibility of prayer for a few minutes, I realized that praying wouldn't help anything.

What would have happened if I had decided to believe in God just so that I could have someone to pray to? I would have placed myself in the position of praising an entity which has the power to help everyone in need but only gives such help when it is promised loyalty and obedience in return. Even then I wouldn't have any guarantees because, as even the most fanatical Christians believe, sometimes the answer to a prayer is "no." I wasn't about to place the lives of my wife and son under the power of an all-powerful deity who is nonethless inconsistent and stingy.

Besides, I still didn't believe in God. If I was sure that God didn't exist, then prayer would be nothing but talking to myself, asking an imaginary entity to influence events in a way that just isn't possible. I knew that the natural laws of the universe work without regard to the personal problems of individual humans. Praying really hard couldn't change the course of the cesarean section any more than it could keep the sun from rising.

Psychologically, I realized that dependence upon prayer would lead down the path to insanity. If I believed that reality could be changed just by my wishes for it to change, then the concept of reality would cease to have any real meaning to me. A reality which follows the whims of my imagination would become nothing but a hallucination. What I needed was to exert control over my anxious imagination, not to surrender to it.

The Balm of Reason

In my time of need, the promises of faith held the value of fool's gold. It was reason, not religion, that enabled me to regain control. Sick of being tortured by my fears of disaster, I forced myself to evaluate the situation logically.

Measurements had been recently taken that showed both my wife and son to be basically in good health. The doctors and nurses were well-trained and experienced in creating successful, scientifically-based resolutions to high-risk deliveries. The bodies of my wife and my son were systems that would respond predictably to medical intervention, not mysterious soul cages directed by some kind of tragic destiny.

Scientific laws of probability and causation, established through centuries of rigorous reasoning, reassured me that the problems my wife's body had responding to the inducement medications and initial efforts at anesthesia had no connection to the likelihood for the success of the operation currently underway. I knew that the concepts of bad luck or a fall from grace were nothing more than fallacious models of folk physics. I was also aware of statistics from studies that had shown a huge majority of cesarean deliveries to be successful. The operation had been proven to be safe.

I didn't need to hope and pray. I knew things were likely turn out for the best. With a boost of rational evaluation, I gained control over my fears and waited optimistically to meet my first child.

My Son, Not My Miracle

The statistics describing a high probability of success turned out to be accurate, and within a few minutes I was holding a beautiful and perfectly healthy baby boy. I hadn't prayed, yet the operation had turned out wonderfully. My wife woke up to some pain, but the doctors soon took care of that as well, and within 45 minutes she was feeling fine and breastfeeding our son for the first time.

"Isn't he a miracle?" a nurse exclaimed as she showed me how to give him a sponge bath. "No," I replied. "He's not a miracle. He's an amazing accomplishment." I wasn't about to give credit for my son's health to someone else's imaginary guardian spirit. For nine months my wife had carefully taken care of herself as her pregnant body worked in cooperation with my son's intricately developing form to enable him to grow successfully from a single cell into a live baby weighing over eight pounds.

No god had anything to do with the successful delivery of my son. It was science that protected him from harm. Without science, no amount of prayer would have kept him and his mother safe from the risk of toxemia-induced seizure. Without science, the doctors would not have known how to safely open up my wife's body to rescue the baby inside. No church with monks chanting prayers around the clock had discovered the medicines that made the life-saving operation possible. Rather, those medicines were found through the rational application of a medley of scientific disciplines that were developed as an alternative to the superstitious hokum that prevailed as long as religion prevented the growth of an independence secular society.

He's no miracle. He's my son, and I am grateful that he has been born at a time when people know better than to just pray for a miracle in times of trouble. Atheists should be proud of the advance of rationalism in contrast to the stagnation of religious medicine. Contrary to what Christian preachers would have us believe, the rational world is far from empty. The rational world may not be perfect, but at least it exists. When it comes down to brass tacks, rationalism is all we've got.

As for all those religious folks out there sitting in their own foxholes, they would do well to reconsider their prayerful ways. After all, if their nightly prayers to God were really effective, they would never have ended up sitting in foxholes in the first place.

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