Of Gods and Glasses: Nicole Pepperl

College Essay Contest–Second Place

The following essay placed second in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2008 college essay competition. Nicole Pepperl received a $1,000 cash scholarship.

by Nicole Pepperl

There is one question all atheist freethinkers should be able to answer: “What would you consider evidence of the existence of a deity?” I first recall seeing this question, accompanied by the author’s own list of answers, on a distant corner of the Internet. The question stayed with me; it was such a straightforward way of expressing the idea that a god banging about the universe should be noticeable. After contemplating this question, I remember, at the age of twelve, making a deal with the gods: I would acknowledge the existence of any deity that gave me perfect 20/20 vision. I would even throw in a little worship if they seemed worthy. To date, no supernatural entities of any sort have taken me up on this reasonable offer and I remain stuck with my eyeglasses.

This deal is both a joke and completely serious. I am an atheist because I see no evidence for gods, but I am a freethinker because I have spent time contemplating what would constitute such evidence. I can imagine a world where the holy book automatically appears in the language of whoever is reading it, where the stars spell out scripture, where the description of atoms and elements in the holy texts predates scientific knowledge by centuries, and where miracle healings can restore the limbs of amputees. The world I imagine is so different from our own that I could use it as a setting for a science fiction novel. I’ve even imagined the book. The plot would revolve around a child living in a theocracy who discovers that the miracles he had always credited to God are the work of advanced technology controlled by the scientifically-literate elite: the holy book is an electronic novel, the star-scripture is made with satellites, and the replaced limbs are cybernetic. I’m not sure what happens next.

However, the thought experiment is more than just an attempt to develop creative writing ideas, fun as that may be. The ability to acknowledge that one might be wrong and recognize evidence for alternative hypotheses is anathema to a dogmatic believer, but integral to a freethinker. Believers aver that nothing can shake their faith in gods, that there is no evidence strong enough to throw them into doubt. Freethinkers are the exact opposite. We recognize that we could be wrong, and are able to identify the evidence that would contradict our conclusions. As difficult as it may be, we try to step outside the boundaries of tradition to see the world unclouded by the filters of long-held, but poorly-supported beliefs.

These filters are harder for some to throw off, due to the long-lasting impacts of a childhood religious upbringing. I was lucky to escape indoctrination. Like all children, I was born an atheist. Unlike most, I grew up an atheist as well. My agnostic parents had no religion of their own to impart, which granted me the early knowledge that a happy and ethical life without religion is not only possible, but easy. But it did not make me a freethinker. Before the age of twelve, I had never heard of critical thinking or seen lists of common logical fallacies. I was essentially an atheist by default, just like most people are a-leprechaunists and a-dragonists. I did not become a freethinker until later, during my middle-school years, when I started to investigate the philosophical traditions of the terms that I would learn to identify as: atheist and freethinker.

As a child, I noticed that other children followed the religion of their parents. It seemed the only reason they worshiped one god instead of another was because that was the way they had been raised. My Jewish friend had Jewish parents, and my Christian friends had Christian parents. Funny how that worked out. However, this led to the uncomfortable thought that I, too, was only an atheist because my parents were agnostic. I decided that I would have to investigate what I had not been taught as a child, otherwise I would be no better than my peers who accepted their parents’ religion unquestioningly. Of course, I see now the flaw in my logic. Studying only the Christian god was unfair to all the other concepts in which I did not believe. I did not need to carefully investigate the existence of gods any further than I needed to investigate the existence of dragons. But I am glad I took on my self-imposed religion research project. Not for the small amount I learned about religion, but rather for the more important lesson in critical thinking. I began my search for knowledge the summer after eighth grade, at the most reasonable starting place, the local public library. Of course, I had been exposed to religion before, through the general culture and from my peers. But it’s hard to take any belief seriously when it’s someone who believes in Santa Claus. However, I quickly found that this god-thing was considered significant enough to have an entire row of books dedicated to describing, debating and defending it. This being a library in Nebraska, nearly all the books were focused on Christianity, so that’s where I started my research.

I picked a few of the most interesting titles and started to read. I didn’t see any reason why I should go up alone against the greatest–or at least, most published thinkers in Christian tradition, so I grabbed some of the atheists’ criticisms of Christian apologetics as well. Before my eyes, a great debate occurred, as the two sides battled back and forth, argument to counterargument, continuing for thousands of pages. I realized two things: first, I really liked debate and second, an argument can be used to prove almost anything.

A stunning example of the power of liberally-applied logic is the ontological argument, which I love a great deal more than it deserves. The argument begins by stating that something can exist in the mind or in reality, and that since God can obviously exist in the mind and is by definition perfect, God must also exist in reality. Like an M.C. Escher drawing, it has a sort of twisty logic that only works on paper–beautiful to see, but best not to try to think it through too hard. Immanuel Kant dealt a vicious blow to the argument in the 18th century, but–perhaps fearing divine displeasure–quickly replaced the ontological pillar supporting theism with the argument from morality. Of course God exists, he penned, and we can see this from the fact that people throughout history have had remarkably similar moral systems. It is an eminently sensible argument and describes exactly what one would expect given the existence of a moral deity–it is also demonstrably false. Kant made a mistake bringing the argument into the empirical realm. Philosophers can wax poetic on the definition of perfection and its relationship to reality, but it’s hard to debate the existence of human slavery for thousands of years in hundreds of cultures–leading one to think humanity was a foot short of a moral yardstick for millennia.

I was ignorant of the history of the argument from morality when I first came across it in C.S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics masterpiece, Mere Christianity, in the fall of ninth grade. I mostly considered myself lucky to have gotten a free book. I can see why Christians love to give it out like candy; it was definitely one of the best-written and best-argued apologetics pieces I had read. Which isn’t exactly saying much. I made it one-third of the way through the book, leaving careful notes in the margins, before I decided I was finished reading Christian apologetics. This is probably not what the nice gentleman who gave me the book expected, but he should have known a book can be a dangerous thing in the hands of an inquiring mind.

I had read the pure logical arguments and enjoyed them, but insofar as the arguments had an empirical component they failed in every possible way to explain the world. The argument from design has always seemed a little silly to someone who wears glasses, and who has a reasonably good grasp on the mechanics of evolution, despite the bad faith efforts of a high school biology teacher. But the biggest problem for the gods was there just weren’t any gaps left to squeeze into. Before my whirlwind tour of Christian apologetics, I had devoured books on science. Our knowledge of the world seemed like a giant jigsaw puzzle–in some areas, many of the pieces had been put together, while in others large blank spaces remained. However, the divine puzzle piece didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Most of the areas traditionally credited to the gods–creation, love, thunderstorms–were already well-explained. So unless deities power quasars or ensure intracellular traffic runs smoothly, it doesn’t seem there’s much left to do, and even those functions will likely have an explanation within the next century.

I realized atheism was just one small destination on the path of freethinking and that it was only the cultural context that made it important. I don’t have to study every religion, every myth, every urban legend to strike them out as noncredible when they fail to tell more about the world than what is already known.

I had given in to the special pleading of Christianity and gave a great deal more consideration to arguments for the Christian god than for his fellows in the pantheon of the make-believe. Although this wasn’t really logically necessary, at least my research did prepare me for life in such a Christian-saturated country. I was an atheist before, but as I became a freethinker I learned to feel more comfortable with my atheism. I returned to reading science books and sci-fi, knowing that if new evidence presented itself I would be ready for the investigation. I had given the gods due consideration and found that glasses are better than gods–glasses help you see the world more clearly.

Nicole Pepperl was born in Lincoln, Neb., and graduated from Lincoln Southeast High School in 2005. She is pursuing a joint BS/MS program in earth systems at Stanford University, where her research is focused on agriculture and conservation. After graduation, she plans to complete a law degree with a concentration in environmental law. Nicole is involved in environmental and labor rights activism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation