Wednesday, August 21, 2013


After I graduated from college I attended Michigan State University, where I ultimately received a masters in psychology.  As a single student, I lived in Owen Hall, the on-campus dorm for graduate students.  The dorm had a cafeteria, but all they served was, well, cafeteria food, and I and my friends would frequently go off campus for dinner and to talk.  All of us being in our early 20s with our lives ahead of us, we did a lot of serious talking.  

My friends were other graduate students in psychology, also single, also living in Owen Hall.  This was 1968 and 1969, and the thing on most of our minds, the thing we talked about almost incessantly, was the Vietnam War.  But that’s not what we were talking about on the night in question.  That night we were talking about God.

One of the places we went, and clearly the cheapest, was the Burger Chef.  Not the Burger King, the Burger Chef.  It was a fast food burger place like McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King, except all the burgers came plain--no condiments--and you added whatever you wanted at a condiment station.  That suited me perfectly, as I always ordered my burgers plain.  I know I was getting short-changed in a way, but my tastes in food at the time were very limited.  

I was there with my friend, Bernie, and his friend, George.  Bernie was from the suburbs of Chicago, George from Cincinnati.  Bernie was Jewish and, while he was interested in religion, it was more from the perspective of the interplay between religion and one’s social-economic status.  When I first asked him if he believed in God, he said that if he had to bet a nickel, he’d bet on God.  In other words, it just wasn’t important to him.  I knew George also, but I didn’t think of him as a friend.  George had a couple of years on Bernie and me and had a bit of an edge.  But he was smart and had a way of cutting through an argument.  As a result, discussions with him tended not to be extended because he had a clear view of his position and was not inclined to change it.  

This was really in the early days of fast-food restaurants, when drive-ins were transitioning to modified cafeterias and indoor seating.  At Burger Chef you picked up a tray and stood in a single line to give your order and then get and pay for your food.  That evening the line was long and slow and we had some time to wait.  I’m not sure how it started, but at some point I was explaining to George why I was an agnostic and not an atheist.  

In my view, within the context of a system of logic, such as mathematics, where you could set the rules, you could know absolutely whether a proposition was true or not.  You only had to apply the rules of system.  However, in the real world, outside the realm of systems of logic, we could never know anything unequivocally.  Since the existence of God was a real-world question, we could never know for sure whether God existed. 

George wasn’t buying my argument.  Here’s how the conversation went.

George:  Why do you call yourself an agnostic and not an atheist?

Me:  Because I don’t know whether God exists or not.  I can’t prove it either way.  God could always be out there.

George:  Well, let me ask you this.  Do you believe the god Neptune exists, complete with his trident, somewhere under the ocean?  

Me:  No.

George:  Well, but until you search every last nook and cranny of the ocean floor, you won’t be able to establish that Neptune isn’t lurking somewhere down there.  Right?  So, are you an atheist regarding Neptune or just agnostic?

Me:  I really don’t believe in Neptune, so I would have to call myself an atheist as far as Neptune is concerned.

George:  Don’t you really feel the same way about God?  Just like with Neptune, you’ll never prove that God doesn’t exist, but you really don’t believe that He does.  Let’s face it, you’re an atheist.

All of this before we even gave our orders to the clerk.

Now here’s the thing.  This was a watershed event, one that remains vivid in my memory some 45 years later, but it was not the moment when I became an atheist.  Rather, it was the moment when I realized that I was an atheist.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. So you are basing your atheism on feelings? George said, "you feel the same way about God." Have you ever, to be fair, if He exists, given Him a chance... been open to His presence? Or is it just head knowledge that you reject?

    1. "Feel" was probably a poor choice of words. It might have been clearer to have said "believe the same way about God."

      You raise a very interesting point about intellectual vs. emotional beliefs. My attitude toward religion has primarily been an intellectual one. I have felt that my best understanding of the world comes through scientific reasoning rather than traditional religious beliefs. And to be fair, those intellectual attitudes have, in effect, trumped any emotional ones. My intellectual attitude is saying that emotional beliefs do not have the same status (truth value) as intellectual ones. For whatever reason, I have never had an emotional religious experience. It just has never happened for me.

  2. Well, emotions have value...I guess they cause you to search your heart and the world for truth that makes sense. But it's like this, we fall in love and have all these emotions involved that often get in the way of making intelligent decisions...rose colored glasses. The best decisions about a relationship are based on more than emotions, don't you think? If we are honest with ourselves we will try to really look at the character traits of the individual and make a decision based on facts as well...will this work for the future. Yet marriage without passion, emotional connection would be pretty lame. So God...many have head knowledge, but not relationship. Going back to Lucifer...he knows everything there is to know about God...but has not relationship...which causes separation. An eternal separation. He would hate to live in the Presence of God.

    An emotional experience can be many the parable of the seeds... “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.” ...I guess it's a question of really being willing we are to really to listen, "good soil"...not to man but to God.

    1. Lisa,

      I don't think we are in disagreement with the idea that both intellectual and emotional understandings can have value. I was only saying that in my personal experience, at least as it relates to religious beliefs, my intellectual journey has had a bigger role than any emotional one. I'm not arguing that that is or should be true for everyone; it just happens to be true for me. Moreover, I find that I "trust" it more, as my goal in that arena has been to find the truth rather than happiness.

      As you know, I am quite familiar with the parable of the sowing of the grain, and I like it a lot, actually. However, I really don't see how it relates to the question at hand.