Darwin Fish: Burke Bourne

By Burke Bourne


Burke Bourne

In a puff of logic, God disappeared.

When Charles Darwin stated, “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment” he was referring to organisms and their effort to survive. He could have just as easily been speaking of any number of aspects of this world: economic systems, political movements, fads, television shows are all subject to natural selection. It is much the same for ideas and belief systems. If an idea cannot adequately shape itself to the environment in which it is located, it will die out and a newer, sounder one will take its place. It is because of this natural selection of ideas that I am an atheist. And just as evolution is a predominantly slow and piecemeal process, I only came to my current conviction through a series of little decisions and logical steps leading slowly, inevitably toward the conclusion that there is no supreme being, just us, and nature’s other wonders.

My period of tabula rasa was relatively short. Coming from a fairly religious family as I do, my first experiences with the written word were not The Cat in the Hat or Dick and Jane, but rather The Children’s Bible and consequently before I had reached the tender age of five, I was as devout a soldier in God’s army as one could wish for. In Sunday school I was always the first with my hand up to answer whatever query Teacher posed about the Gospel and I sang louder (and more off-key) than all the others in the children’s chorus. Unfortunately for my everlasting soul, when I turned five my parents sent me to a public school, no doubt as a sheep among the wolves, and I was free to mingle with children of creeds other than my own. A creature stirs.

It was here that I learned there were in fact other faiths, belief systems and dissenting opinions. In school I befriended a boy my age and we became quite good buddies. In the course of our day-to-day conversations I discovered that he did not attend church. After the initial shock of discovering that my friend differed from me in this crucial area, I pressed him about this issue and discovered he went to an exotic place known as synagogue and was, in fact, a Jew. This of course distressed me greatly as I cared very much for my pal and did not want him to be separated from me at all, let alone for all eternity. Next Sunday I tentatively brought up the subject with Teacher:

“Can someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus go to heaven?”

“Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus is the one true path to heaven, he is the only redeemer and the only person who can forgive us our sins.”

“What if the person is really good?”

“Our actions here on Earth are of no account, merely our acceptance of Christ as our Savior.”


I was crushed. Here I had just made a great friend only to discover that he was condemned to heck through seemingly no fault of his own. It was then I decided the bible was in fact wrong. After all, is God not Love? Everyone makes mistakes; maybe the guy who typed up the bible slipped up. My friend was a good guy and just as deserving of forgiveness as myself and quite a bit more than my brother (a real terror at the time). The creature grows fins and begins to swim.

It was shortly after this time that I began my love of history. Aided by the Discovery Channel, I became a regular Herodotus. Ancient history, medieval history, the Age of Exploration, WWII, I ate it all up. And it was during this time that I learned of history’s boogiemen: Hitler, Genghis Kahn, the Vikings, the Crusaders, wicked men who performed wicked acts. And yet hadn’t some of them done these things in the name of the Lord? My Lord? Again it was time to approach Teacher.

“Does Jesus forgive everyone’s sins?”

“Of course! Why, what have you done?”

“Nothing! I was just wondering if he would forgive Hitler or Blackbeard?”

“Well, if they asked him for his forgiveness and really meant it, he would.”


Jesus, it seemed, while a laid-back dude, was not a very discerning one. If he was going to let Attila the Hun rub elbows with Abraham Lincoln then perhaps he wasn’t as wise or as fair as I had been giving him credit for. The creature gets teeth.

About this time, my presence was requested at a number of exclusive shindigs collectively known as Confirmation Classes. It was here that Teacher was supposed to answer any lingering doubts about the Church and we were to be welcomed into the community of saints. Except, in my case they were no longer lingering doubts, they had become major sticking points, and in the interim I had learned about such things as evolution and the Big Bang, further increasing my skepticism. I quizzed Teacher about the morality of infant mortality, how various scientific theories fit into the religious framework, the exclusivity of salvation and the classic “Can God create a rock so big even he cannot lift it?”

The answers I received were, by and large, theological cop-outs. Though the specifics are hazy, I do recall a goodly number of answers involving the words “faith,” “mystery” and “Shad up!” Rather than coming away with a feeling of wonderment and a desire to participate more fully in the Church, I left confused, disappointed and full of doubt. Looking back, it is clear that Confirmation was the last step to agnosticism for me.

A faith vacuum had been created and I searched desperately to fill it. Despite dabbling in other religions, I had been permanently turned off the idea of theological certainty. The creature flops onto the shore.

It was in this Limbo of belief that I rested comfortably for the next several years. In the last year of high school I took two classes that would prove instrumental in my final switch to atheism: philosophy and psychology. In the latter, I delved into its biological aspects and, in the process, broke the last stone to which my vestigial deistic convictions were anchored. The stumbling block that was Personality was satisfactorily explained. The idea that humans were somehow uniquely special dissipated in the face of cold evidence.

However, it was in my philosophy course that I came upon the most useful tool anyone in search of truth could possess: Occam’s razor. It is the cleverest instrument for cutting away superfluous explanations and getting down to the reality of a matter. Why, I reasoned, does a supernatural entity need to exist to explain the universe when there are adequate answers in naturalistic observation? And though I knew science has not fully answered everything, I also knew it constantly strives toward objective truth without attempting to use filler in its blank spots. In a puff of logic, God disappeared. The creature grows feet and walks inland.

It wasn’t until college that I met other people with beliefs mirroring my own. Here was an entire student group secure enough and brave enough to have “Atheists” in their name. Not only that, but they actively sought membership and participated in campus activities dominated by religious groups. It was an organization I knew I belonged in. I could now air my ideas and thoughts in a place where they would have an unbiased audience. I could also help those struggling to find a theological and ethical identity for themselves, by letting them know there are others like them. The creature stands and raises its voice to the sky.

“I will be a sophomore at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis/St. Paul. I am a genetics and cellular development major with interests in biology, history, philosophy, and German. I am a member of the Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists student organization.”

Burke Bourne, from Omaha, Neb., received $2,000 for his first-place essay.

Freedom From Religion Foundation