I am an atheist: start from there. There is no God, no higher power, no consciousness directing the universe. Everything that happens, happens because of random chance, multiplied by time. The essential symbol of my worldview is the Big Bang: everything that exists came from an explosion.
So then how do things make sense?
How does an explosion create a stable planet, in a stable solar system, at the Goldilocks distance from the sun, with liquid water and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere? With a tilted axis and an oversized moon allowing for seasons and tides? How does an explosion, nothing more than energy added to matter, create life? How does that life continue to exist long enough for evolution to take place, which eventually leads to – me? How can I be sitting in my air-conditioned living room, next to my dog (who is lying on his back waiting for tum rubs [He gets a good skritch every time I pause. Like now.]), typing these words in English on my laptop computer, drinking coffee with half-and-half and stevia and and cinnamon-flavored honey – because of an explosion?
People of faith see the answer to these questions clearly: the answer is God. We are surrounded by miracles, and there is no clearer evidence of the existence of a benevolent creator. People have been reaching that same conclusion independently for tens of thousands of years, all the way back to the people who were buried with Earth Mother figurines, and those who raised Stonehenge or made the heads on Easter Island. We look at the amazing world we live in, and we assume it had to come from someone or something divine.
But there is no God: that is the starting assumption. So then how?
I hear people say, “Let go, and let God.” I mock it, because I find the idea of surrendering free will, of one’s own free will, inconceivable. I hate being told what to do. I hate trusting someone else to figure things out for me. If I could, I would grow my own food, fix my own car, whittle my own furniture. I have been struggling recently because in the upcoming school year, I have been instructed to use a pre-determined curriculum, one detailed and prescribed down to two-minute intervals, scripted and designed and carefully laid out in every way. Oh, I’ve been told that I can, and should, adapt it to my own preferences; but my preference is to chuck the entire thing out of a moving car, preferably into the midst of a brawl between switchblade-wielding badgers. I don’t want to teach what someone else tells me to to teach. I have never liked that, and I have never done it: other than some small things here and there, an idea for a lesson, a single handout, I have never followed anyone else’s plan for a class (Except for one: I taught David Schmor’s Speech class, pretty much start to finish; his assignments, his lectures, his grading methods. But that says more about how well David designs a class than it does about my predilections. We’ll call it the exception that proves the rule.). Whenever problems arise in my life, I handle them, either by myself or with my wife by my side: two of us against the world. I don’t like the idea of relying on anyone else: certainly not on God, whom I don’t believe in and wouldn’t trust if I did.
But how can I do that? How can I create everything I do as a teacher out of my own head? I was a terrible high school student – skipped or slept through many of my classes, never did the work, passed because of a good memory and a love of reading, and with the mercy of more than one teacher. I didn’t learn anything in my teacher-preparation program, except from the time I spent student teaching – which I largely did on my own; that is to say, I got advice and feedback from my master teachers, but I designed the lessons, I taught the material, I graded the work. I read pedagogical textbooks with an eye so jaundiced it’s nearly blind; whenever I take any teacher training workshop, I either don’t pay attention or I don’t do what I’m told. So how on Earth am I a good high school teacher? Where did that come from?
It’s nearly the same thing when I write. I have never really studied writing, other than as literature I have read; I’ve never had a writing mentor. I don’t edit: the first draft is pretty much the final draft. I don’t think much about what I’m writing in advance; I plan out my novels pretty extensively, but my blogs? I just pick a theme, think of an opening, and go. When I hit the last sentence, I post it On top of that, I’m generally pretty damned lazy, and unfocused: I am one of those people who pick up new hobbies and put them down again right away, because I’d rather be playing video games. How did I get to be a good writer? Where did this ability come from? Not from my parents, who are both intelligent but non-creative. I have writers in my family tree, but are creativity and writing acumen really genetic?
The miracles that surround us aren’t just natural: this morning as I stood in my shower, hot water streaming over me, sluicing away the shampoo and soap, looking at the tile walls, glass window, wood and brick house, electric lights, municipal water supply and sewers, I thought about: how could people possibly create all this? Particularly what has been added to our world, in terms of capability, of convenience, of complexity, all in the last century? A hundred years ago, if I had the running water (Never happen on a teacher’s salary then – but would I have been a teacher 100 years ago?), it wouldn’t have been hot, and I wouldn’t have had the electric lights, the coffeemaker, the refrigerator (Maybe an icebox), the computer, the dog adopted from the animal shelter. Just 100 years ago. My grandparents were there. How have human beings been capable of creating all of this? Did we have guidance? Divine inspiration? Can we create because we were made in the image of a creator? And if not (Not, indeed), how?
When one of the millions of the faithful “lets go and lets God –” what happens? Who goes there? Things don’t stop happening, and the lives of those who put their faith in God do not fall apart in a spectacular collapse; things often work out just fine. It’s like someone’s guiding them, making things work out. So if it isn’t God (And it isn’t. Spoiler alert: this writing is not leading to my spontaneous conversion.), then who is steering the ship? Starting from my basic assumption of atheism, of a universe without a creator; who or what makes things work out for the best?
My wife and I have adopted two dogs from shelters, one in California and the second here in Tucson. Both of our dogs have been absolutely lovely: very smart, very loving, almost no trouble to train and care for. In neither case could we possibly have predicted, when we chose them and brought them home, that those dogs could have been the sweet, wonderful companions they both proved to be. And we frequently ask ourselves: How did we get so lucky?
I’ve been reading The Watchmen, and one of my favorite moments in the book is when Dr. Manhattan, a man-turned-divine being who is trying to decide if he should save corrupt and fallible humanity, tells his former (and very human) sweetheart that he longs to see a thermodynamic miracle: an event so unlikely that is is effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously turning into gold. He says that he has realized, in talking to her, that he is in the presence of one such event: her. The chances of her parents coming together to make a child; of one particular sperm out of hundreds of millions uniting with one specific egg; of that zygote’s survival to become a child; of her upbringing and life experience turning her into the woman she is, and of her meeting and loving (and being loved by) Dr. Manhattan, a blue-skinned superbeing who can see neutrinos – that’s a miracle. Every human being is a miracle, Manhattan says; and he decides he will save humanity because of that.
I’ve used a similar example with my students. I met my wife Toni at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, California. She worked in the bookstore for her workstudy, and I had a job one semester taking ID photos, in the cafeteria upstairs from the bookstore. The IDs were $8, and so I always had to get change; I went down to the bookstore to get it. That’s how we met.
But look at the probabilities involved. Toni didn’t go to college right out of high school; like me, her academic transcript was spotty at best. She chose to enter the world of employment, where she did quite well for several years. She decided to leave a perfectly acceptable middle-class lifestyle, one that would have satisfied millions of Americans, and go back to school to study art. She decided to start her education at the community college; she decided to go full-time, and leave her job, which is how she ended up working in the bookstore. If she had gone to school earlier, or later, or if she’d kept her full-time job or gone to work in the registrar’s office instead of the bookstore, we’d never have met. Me, I wanted to go to UCSC because I wanted to study creative writing, and because my father, who worked at Stanford at the time, had a friend who taught physics at UCSC, who told my father, who told me, that they had a good creative writing program. He showed me the town on one visit, and so I decided to go there. But my grades were terrible, and so I couldn’t get in to UCSC. But rather than choose one of the thousands of other schools – rather than stay in Massachusetts, where I grew up – rather than join the Peace Corps or start a grunge-rock garage band, I decided to go to the community college in Santa Cruz, 3,000 miles away from the place where I lived, with no better recommendation for the university I had decided on than the word of my dad’s friend, for two years before transferring to UCSC. Except then my Cabrillo counselor screwed up, and my general ed. program turned into three years, instead of two.
I met Toni during that third year.
How did this absurd chain of events (And it goes farther: I had just ended a relationship about a month before meeting her. What if I hadn’t? Our first conversation ever featured me acting like an idiot, mumbling and stumbling through every sentence; what if she hadn’t wanted to speak to me again? What if, what if, what if?) come to pass, and lead eventually to my finding the love of my life, my soulmate? It’s no wonder people decide that fate is real, or karma, or God. What other explanation makes sense?
When people pray, and then hear the voice of God tell them the answer, what voice is that? Something tells them what to do, where to go, how to act; something gives them the solution to their problems, the inspiration they need to create something new and revolutionary, or the comfort to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If it’s not God, then what is it?
It’s not God. That I’m sure of. So you know what I’ve decided it is? What is responsible for humanity’s incredible accomplishments, and our unbelievable resilience, and adaptability? The reason we can handle anything put before us? The force that makes our world full of wonders, that brings long chains of coincidences into some kind of order?
It’s us. We do these things ourselves. Because we’re fucking awesome.
How can I teach well, without any resources other than my own brain? Because I’m just that good. How do I write well? Because I’m a genius, and because I read the writing of other geniuses, and I pay attention. I am standing on the shoulders of giants, but they are tall because they stand on others’ shoulders – not because God raised them up. Human beings made the miracles, not the other way around.
How did Toni and I get to be the couple we are? The actual meeting had some dumb luck to it, but mostly, we made it happen because we wanted to. She chose to speak to me, and then she chose to speak to me again; eventually, I broke through my awkward shell, and she saw how awesome I am.
How did we get awesome dogs? Because dogs are awesome, and we treat them well and appreciate them for what they are.
How can people handle whatever terrible trials that life throws at us? By being absolutely incredible, strong and determined and intelligent and resilient.
We are incredible. We can do anything. There is no God: we need no God. We are enough, and more. We are.
So the next time your life seems about to overwhelm and drown, remember: remember what humans have done, remember what humans can do. You can do it. You’re human. You’re awesome.
No better way to close this than with the collaborative work of several of my all-time favorite creative humans.