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?
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