When Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead” in 1882, it caused a major uproar in his native Germany and the rest of Europe. Although not strictly an atheistic statement — more likely he was criticizing how far removed from the biblical, Abrahamic concept of God our industrialized culture has carried us — his heretical words would doubtlessly have resulted in his execution had he uttered them a few hundred years earlier.
And now, in 2013, a woman can admit on live television that she’s atheist with dignity and total impunity. In fact, her interviewer — in this case, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer — chuckles at her admission (and perhaps at his own embarrassment for pressing her to “thank the Lord”) and even warmly touches her shoulder.
By now everyone has seen this short exchange between Blitzer and 30-year-old Oklahoman Rebecca Vitsmun, who, along with her 18-month-old son and husband, survived the recent tornado that killed 24 people as of this writing. For such a seemingly unimportant news clip, it has brewed a national dialogue about the state of religion in America and where it is headed as well as given figurative ammo to loud voices on both sides of the culture war:
Atheists: “See? Good things happen even to those who worship no god.”
Believers: “True, but this event will finally compel her to have faith in miracles and guardian angels.”
A: “Miracles, shmiracles. The tornado was a natural event without purpose, and her survival was based purely on hasty decision-making and dumb luck.”
B: “So she survived, but for her blasphemous denial of all that is holy, she will spend eternity in hell.”
A: [eating a sandwich] “She seems like a pretty cool mom.”
B: [turning red in the face] “God set this tornado upon Oklahoma to teach the state’s lone atheist a lesson… and ended up inadvertently taking the lives of her neighbors… while sparing hers and her family’s…”
A: “I guess a burning bush would’ve been too subtle.”
And so on.
Thirteen million. That’s how many atheists and agnostics are estimated to be living now in the U.S. alone. Although a small fraction of the nation’s population — it’s just under 3% — this number rises exponentially every passing year. Why? Is it because of our lack of morals? Our growing disinterest in tradition?
Possibly. But the main culprit is hands-down science.
Over the course of the last four hundred years — since at least Galileo and the dawn of modern science — the work of biologists and physicists has shown us, empirically so, that ours is a universe with no author or purpose. Charles Darwin and later evolutionists such as Stephen Jay Gould proved that we and other species are here not because of some “grand watchmaker” but instead because of natural selection and other complex, observable processes. British physicist Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design (2010) and American physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe from Nothing (2012) both convincingly argue that a god is not required to create a universe or the life that inhabits it. Contemporary research into quantum mechanics suggests that our existence rests on the chaotic behavior of subatomic particles, some of which can inexplicably exist in more than one spot at any given moment. Albert Einstein, in fact, rejected the implications of the randomness and unpredictability that is inherent and essential to quantum theory, saying “God does not play dice.”
As Hawking himself has explained, science has not disproved nor will it ever disprove the existence of God. The role of science is to measure and speculate on that which is observable or at least testable, of which God is neither.
However — and this is a biggie — science shows us more and more that the idea of God is irrelevant. The creation of the universe, the origin of species, the “miraculous” events in our lives such as surviving a tornado — whether you believe in God or not, these things occur everyday without help from a divine being. (If you think ours is the only universe, or that universes can’t spring up randomly, read here.)
“I don’t blame anyone for thanking the Lord,” Rebecca Vitsmun said as she hugged her child closely. What a classy, non-douchey attitude toward religiosity. Perhaps in 2099, when atheists far outnumber believers in the First World, we’ll demonstrate the same sort of anthropological respect toward the biblical concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing god.
After all, this is how we feel about Zeus and Odin and Ra, once-powerful but now “dead” deities. It’s simply evolution for the Abrahamic god to follow.