Last summer, my 6-year-old son Lincoln and I gazed up at a giant oak tree in our yard in Indiana.
“Who invented man?” Lincoln suddenly asked me.
“What?” I said, trying to stall a few seconds for time. For believers, this is a simple question to answer. For agnostics, it’s a can-of-worms question with no clear resolution.
“How was man invented, Daddy?”
“Well,” I told him, “nobody’s exactly sure. Some people say God invented man.”
I’d said something similar to my 11-year-old daughter Madeline when she was Lincoln’s age. I must have started several of my religious conversations with her in the same vein, because she got impatient with me one day and said, “I don’t want to know what some people say, Daddy, I want to know what you say. I want to know what we believe?”
In our small town, where people often define themselves by the churches they attend, Madeline finds religion frustrating. Her brother, however, carries himself with a bit more certainty.
“God didn’t invent man,” he said under the oak tree. “Otherwise, who invented God?”
“That’s very thoughtful,” I said, and might have also told him that he was very grown up, already grappling with life’s big questions. At the same time, I felt uneasy. Part of me thought I was letting him and his sister down. Maybe I should be giving them a more conventional religious upbringing? Maybe they’d feel more secure if I took them to one of the town’s 28 churches — even the Catholic one, although I fell away from Catholicism long ago.
Lincoln said: “We came from monkeys, right?”
Where did he get that? Neither my wife nor I had ever discussed evolution with him — and even the public schools in our small Christian town liked to avoid the E word.
“Yes, Lincoln, we probably came from monkeys.” Almost certainly did. But who or what set evolution in process, I had no idea. Maybe the Big Bang. The theory struck me as good as any, although where came the gases and other primordial gunpowder that blasted life into existence?
Some of my atheist teaching colleagues say that the universe “just is” and “always has been.” It’s the great void. The great amoral nothingness. Which I find perfectly reasonable as a theory, but troubling to my spirit. No beginning? No creation myth to start life humming along? I can get my mind around something so abstract, but it’s not satisfying. Humans crave narrative. We want stories with a beginning, middle, and end — maybe because our own lives correspond to the same linear structure — birth, life and death. Stories help us make sense of our world and existence, even if they’re not true.
My friend Julian calls the creation narratives of theist and atheist remarkably similar.
“It’s the exact same argument,” he says, by which he means, it all comes down to the same thing — belief. Nobody has all the facts. Theists believe that God put life in motion at the beginning; atheists believe that the universe just is and always was and always will be. No beginning and no end. No reason, either.
Both theories are intellectually plausible. But one strikes me as more comforting. Even though I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell (or hundreds of the other details that most Christians and Jews and other believers do), I feel better when a story is attached — one that gives hope and meaning. Life is good and some kind of God probably got it rolling in the first place.
It’s a pragmatist’s strategy: the conviction that belief gives more to believers than non-belief gives to atheists. It’s something I can pass on comfortably to my children.
Peter Graham is an associate professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He teaches creative writing and film studies. Read his Reluctant Domer article from the winter 2009-10 issue of Notre Dame Magazine.