Name: Michael Martinez
Organization/Affiliation: FFRF / American Atheists
Label: Atheist, Secularist – Scientist
Former religious affiliation: Roman Catholic
The Receding Wavefront of God: A Journey into Disbelief
by Michael M Martinez
January 25, 2009
At some point in a logical stance, or world view, we need to have a starting point, a baseline. The ability to view religion, faith, etc. should be no different than the ability to view any other subject. And in all subjects there exists an a priori baseline, a default view that we must start from; in statistical language, the Null Hypothesis.
To Abrahamic believers, the starting baseline includes the axiom: “God exists”. Unfortunately, this is not a universal axiom. This can be demonstrated by the lack of uniformity of belief in a singular God. It also intends to place the idea of God in a position beyond refute. This, I contend, is not a valid starting point.
The default position must be one against which positive claims can be made and tested, in principle, with evidence. If statistically significant data can support the claim, then the claim supplants the default position and becomes the new starting point, the new null hypothesis. Once I made that connection in my mind to all that I had learned in Science, it became obvious that the null hypothesis against which positive claims can be made and tested is that God/gods and the supernatural do not exist. To supplant that position would only take verifiable, repeatable, statistically significant data. And to date, none has been demonstrated.
That represents a very condensed version of what took a long time for me to realize. For the longest time, I was sitting on the fence of thinking that since we can’t prove the non-existence of God, we should reserve a modicum of doubt and believe that we could never know. That is the condition of “permanent agnosticism in principle”, or PAP. (PAP and TAP, “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice”, are the two types of agnosticism as defined by Dr. Richard Dawkins in his provocative book, The God Delusion.)
But all claims of the supernatural always state its ability to interact with the natural, so, in principle, the supernatural is subject to natural observation, interactions, etc., and therefore subject to being knowable by Science. Stephen J Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), where the spiritual world is separate from the material and that Science being grounded solely in the material world can not have anything meaningful to say on the spiritual, is therefore hogwash. This represents the PAP position and pandering to the religious. Based solely on the claims of believers that the two magisteria do interact, then they do in principle overlap and Science has something to say about the spiritual. And if they do not overlap and the spiritual does not interact with the material, then it is immaterial and for all practical purposes can be ignore and, using Occam’s Razor, safely sliced away from our world view.
What I now accept started from TAP, or we don’t know yet, but in principle it is knowable. Given that we can know in principle the existence of the supernatural, we can therefore assign a probability or degree of knowledge to it. Below a certain percentage / degree of probability, it becomes practicable and justifiable to act (and know?) that the supernatural and god(s) do not exist.
The preceding represents my current stance and world view. Some may label it as being atheist, but I don’t define myself as being atheist in the same manner as others define themselves as being Christian. I simply state that I don’t believe. Since an English word exists which defines that stance, I do accept the label of Atheist to distinguish my stance of non-belief relative to the immense sea of believers present in the world.
What I do not label myself as is a secular humanist. To do so would lend too much ammunition to those who view that as a belief system and/or religion. It also, in my humble opinion, would take more time to explain the specifics of what that encompasses and how it is not a religion, than just outright using the English language shortcut wrapped in the word Atheist.
Now when pressed to give evidence for backing my assertions for non-existence, I can more easily point out that I am not making a positive claim, let alone a negative claim about the existence of the supernatural. I can easily state that I am accepting the Null Hypothesis until proven otherwise. I make no claim or assertion. I just state that no data has been presented that raises the probability of god(s) or the supernatural above what is for all practical purposes ZERO.
I want to explain that I was not always considered an unbeliever. I was baptized and raised as a Roman Catholic. I attended Catholic schools from 3rd grade through senior year in high school. I believed that faith and belief were important parts of life. I tried to talk with God, to experience the joy / sensations that my class mates seemed to experience in our retreats, outdoor prayer sessions, mass, etc. For some reason I could not acquire what others must have felt. So I went along with it and pretended to get the same experiences.
I can recall clearly one particular outdoor prayer session. My eighth grade class was sitting around the creek in the gardens of the church rectory. We each had a Bible and were told to read certain verses and to experience God in nature. As the group got silent and the bubbling creek took over the aural surroundings, I became aware of the beauty and awesomeness of nature. But I did not find God here. I found myself visualizing the eddy patterns in the creek, and wondering what mechanism was creating the noise. I linked those sensations with images recently received from Jupiter via the Voyager spacecraft and wondered if the eddies and turbulence in Jupiter’s atmosphere caused similar sounds. When I heard a frog in the background I wondered at the immense amount of generations linking that frog back to a common ancestor with us humans. What I really wanted to understand was this: How did God start this Universe to end up with me sitting alongside a creek wondering these thoughts?
For as long as I can remember, I had accepted a naturalistic world view with a place for God. I had shoe-horned in the notion of God and Jesus into the naturalist framework, but placed them outside the Earth. The intersection of God with humanity in history was a mystery of profound proportions. How and why would He bridge the two realms at only select times in history?
In high school, I excelled in Science and Mathematics. I found that the Universe worked in predictable and understandable ways. Given all the details of all the atoms, I could model and determine everything in principle. (I would later discover that Quantum Mechanics says that predictable and deterministic are not necessarily equivalent.) I marveled at the strangeness of special relativity and the implications for cosmology. I also found that there was no place in any of the equations for the supernatural, let alone God.
At the start of my junior year in high school, my father died. A few years earlier he had an artificial aortic valve implanted, along with a pacemaker to help regulate his heartbeat. This was due to scarring of the heart tissue caused by the rheumatic fever that he suffered as a child in civil war ravaged Spain in 1936. A week before his death, he was found underneath high tension powerlines in a rural area without a heartbeat. The pacemaker had failed due to the interference of the strong EM fields of the powerlines. My family rushed to the hospital where he had been taken to, having been revived by someone who happened to drive by and later by EMTs.
The prognosis was not good. Brain scans (EEG) showed that he was in a permanently vegetative state, most likely having suffered brain death. My Mom, my 13 yr old bother and I could not accept this. We set up vigil at my father’s side. We prayed. The hospital staff tried hard to show that it would be better if we let go, but we refused. My aunt came out from New York to be with us and to help since we boys had school.
After a week, on my birthday, my father’s friends and my aunt convinced my Mom to leave my father’s bedside and the hospital and go to my 16th birthday dinner. A short while after our departure, the hospital pulled the plug, and called us back. My father had died and could not be revived. My prayers to God did not help. I could never find him before and I had tried during that week to find him in the way that my peers seemed able to do.
The night of his death, when the parish priest came by to console us, I asked him why I could not find God. The priest seemed perplexed at first, but then muttered something about we all have doubts, but that faith must prevail. At that moment, I knew that God really didn’t interfere with the Earth. If He ever interacted with the world, it was only in Biblical times and through only a select few. I wanted to know why He would be confined in such a way. Why was God so limited?
Father Dugan that night also mentioned that the spirit of my father was not some ephemeral entity floating in heaven or elsewhere. Rather, it was how we remembered him in our life. How we thought of him and the influence of those thoughts on our life was his spirit. It was very perplexing and did not make sense to me then.
After high school, I went to university and studied Physics and Astronomy. I wanted to understand the Universe and how it worked. But as I grew older and learned more, I realized that God could not be just outside the Earth, guiding things since Science could discover and explain the workings of the Earth without the notion of God.
So God’s place in the Universe receded rapidly from just outside the Earth to just outside the Universe. It could almost be described as a wave front of disbelief, pushing Him to the outer limits of space-time. And there God sat for the longest time. He was the architect, then the designer, then the ultimate engineer, and lastly, the ultimate physicist. Having set up His experiment Universe, He backed off and let it run. Since He was outside the Universe, He was in principle unknowable: I had placed Him in the untouchable spiritual realm. I was in the PAP state that I mentioned above.
That’s the framework that my spiritual being existed in for 20 years. I was comfortable with that position. I was static and did not really think about it much. But then, into that framework, came a letter from an old high school friend in response to a political email I had sent.
I had a myopic mission in September 2006 to see the Republican Party that I believed in win the elections that November. I had lost the ability to evaluate the data around me about the party. I believed in the GOP in much the same manner as some believe in their religion. I owned a sense of emotions and feelings about the GOP that could cause me to ignore reason and evidence. I had a belief. I wanted victory for MY side. I believed that the “godless” liberals of the left and their anti-war stance were going to ruin the US. I believed that the left was represented by the Democratic Party and Cindy Sheehan, and that they were no better than the enemy. I accepted only viewpoints that confirmed my stances and ignored alternative channels of information. I could not see the facts that large numbers of GOP congressmen had been corrupted and that even the President was subject to the same criticism. In fact, I couldn’t see that the guy has serious problems and issues and that his actions reflect that. The mission of nation building and securing Iraq was going bad and I blindly blamed the Democrats. I saw the victory by the Democrats as a desire to “cut-and-run”. But throughout that, I still accepted my PAP stance on god(s) and accepted the scientific worldview of the Universe, origins, etc. I was opposed to any notion of creationism, since that went against all the evidence supporting natural selection and abiogenesis.
In my zeal to garner support, I sent out many emails to people who I believed to be like minded. My friend’s letter in response left me deeply shaken. That letter was literally a slap; a slap with reverberations that are just now ebbing. I made a somewhat pathetic attempt to answer it point by point, but gave up. I had lost the ability to apply critical thinking to non-technical subjects and found to my horror that I was starting to lose that ability within my area of expertise. One remark characterized me as an unthinking, fundamentalist creationist Christian; that remark really stung. At the time, as I mentioned earlier, I would have characterized myself as a 75% agnostic, holding to PAP. I was a scientist, an engineer damn-it. I was a staunch supporter of evolution by natural selection: hardly the resume of a stereotypical hard core Republican.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. I continued to reflect on what the letter said. The letter delved into not just politics, but economics, defense and war, terrorism and 9/11. That led to me reading books that I had ignored before. That led to a strong re-evaluation of all my stances, political, religious, etc. I had an awakening that is still on going.
I began learning to drop the notion of beliefs. Beliefs are not necessarily logical stances. They may have been arrived at through logical means, but once established are no longer subject to rational analysis. Beliefs are conscious mental acts with strong connections to emotions. Beliefs represent established or static thoughts and positions. As Robert A Wilson once wrote,”Never believe anything. Once you believe anything, you stop thinking about it.”
I avoid belief now. I try not to own beliefs and try to avoid the use of that word to describe my current thinking. Faith can be viewed as the extreme form of belief, so by dropping belief, I drop faith. I strive for knowledge and work on the process of knowing. I am not perfect, nor will I ever be, so I do tend to slip now and then. But I am now more mentally aware of why I support positions and why I do what I do.
I began to realize that I had believed in belief, as Philosopher Daniel Dennet, in Breaking the Spell, would say. Why is belief and faith so important? Why is knowledge or truth without evidence so important? Could that be a major failing in society? Could that be the source of intransigence between groups? Could that be the source of why different groups exist at all?
A New Journey
My expanded reading introduced me to Richard Dawkins and his wonderful works on evolutionary biology. He also wrote the aforementioned, provocative, The God Delusion. I was introduced to the notions of TAP and PAP and not only did I make the connection to the statistical theory we use in engineering, but I realized that PAP described my life long stance. Once I adopted the TAP position, all the pieces fell into place. I realized that I was truly an unbeliever and may have always been one. Not only do I not experience God, I do not believe in God, I do not think there is a place for Him at all. God was no longer at the edge of the universe, just out of reach: He in all probability, most likely isn’t there or anywhere. I found that the only thing keeping me from being an Atheist was a fear of the label. But now I have put that aside. I have come out of the closet. I am Atheist. I am an anti-theist.