Saturday, September 15, 2007


I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why I'm an atheist. It's like asking someone why they breathe or blink. It's not something I think about; it's something I just am. I know that I've never really believed in a "personal" God—or gods—and paid lip-service only to fit in and because I didn't know that not believing was an option. I attended church almost every Sunday for a while when I was a child, and went to Vacation Bible School in the summer. Like a good Southern Baptist. But I never really..."got" it, if that makes sense. It never "took."

Understand: I don't have some sort of grudge against the church or god because I didn't get something I prayed for. On the contrary. Just like everyone else, I made little prayers when I was in school for dumb, silly, childish things. And like everyone else, I remembered the ones that came out the way I wanted and forgot the ones that didn't.

I can remember one instance in particular that stands out for me, because it taught me something valuable.

It was 1982 or 1983; my senior year in high school. I had done a project for the science fair every single year since the very first year we were "allowed." I say "allowed" in quotes because it wasn't really an option. But also when I say "I" had done them, that's not entirely accurate. Like most of the kids, my parents did a good portion of the work. My father was a carpenter/contractor, so he "got" to build anything that required building. The tornado box, for instance, or the solar oven. And always the tri-fold backboards that delineated the space that each project could take up. My mother helped me write the papers, and had her secretary type them up for me, so they'd look nice and professional. Thus, I usually did fairly well in the fair, but not stellar. The projects I picked were straight out of books with helpful suggestions for science fair projects. Often, more than one of us would pick the same project, and end up side-by-side at the fair.

The previous summer I had attended Capstone Summer Honors program at the University of Alabama. This gives high school juniors with high ACT scores the option of getting a head start on their college careers by allowing them to attend the first of two summer quarters while living on campus. It was a great experience. I took a computer course (on a mainframe) and became hooked on computers. So when I got back home, my parents relented and allowed me to get a computer. We first selected a Timex-Sinclaire 1000 because the price was right: $99. After I quickly outpaced what that would allow me to do, my parents saw that this was not a passing obsession and let me step up to a TRS-80 Color Computer. Sixteen whole kilobytes of memory that didn't fall out of the back of the machine at the drop of a hat. I was in heaven. I quickly learned BASIC and everything kind of took off from there.

For reasons that are unclear to me, I had also gotten interested in television violence. I think I must have heard a talk on it or read an article, but it intrigued me. It was clear that it was Bad with a capital "B," but it was also clear that the networks were not about to reduce the amount of violence in their shows.

When the time came to select a topic for the science fair, it was only natural that I find a way to combine my two passions: A Statistical Analysis of Television Violence.

What I did was actually quite simple, but at the time, it seemed brilliant. To me, at least. I decided that I would analyze whether people's favorite shows were also the most violent, whether they knew this, and whether it would correlate based on age, gender or race. So I came up with a questionnaire, had my compter generate 200 random phone numbers in my home town, and I cold-called people and asked them to answer my questions over the phone. I also sent another 200 or so with my mother to take the schools in the neighboring county where she worked in the admistration of the school system.

"Hello, my name is <my name here> and I am a senior at Warrior Academy in Eutaw. I am doing a science project about television violence and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind answering a few short questions for me?" That was roughly my script. I had them tell me their favorite show, what they thought was the most violent show on television, and give me their gender, age range, and race. A few people bristled at the last question, but that's to be expected in rural Alabama. "I am a NeGRO," I remember one older man said, very defiant of what he must have assumed was some sort of racist question on my part. I was so naive of race at the time that I hadn't even included a catgory on my charts for Asian and Hispanic.

After all the questionnaires were in, I entered the data into a rudimentary "database" (at the time, I had no idea what a database was) I had designed and stored it all on a cassette tape. I wrote a program in BASIC to read the tape and correlate the questionnaire results based on whether the people realized their favorite shows were also the most violent and categorized it by age ranges, gender, and race, in every combination of the three variables. The violence information itself, by the way, came from a group called the National Coalition on Television Violence, or NCTV. They don't seem to exist any longer, as their site ( is no longer available. They provided me with the top 100 shows rated from most to least violent.

(If it matters, the results were that people did seem to realize that the shows they liked were also quite violent, but that the only real correlation was gender and age. Most prominent were the males between 18 and 24 (or whatever range I came up with). Which, coincidentally, is the demographic most advertisers at the time were trying to reach.)

What does all of this have to do with my being an atheist? I can hear you thinking it. It will become clear. Patience, Grasshopper.

So I finish my science project, Daddy built the tri-fold backboard, my mother's secretary typed up the research paper, and I took the computer, the cassette tape player, and the bound set of questionnaires to school and set it all up.

It was then that I remember saying a little prayer. "God," I thought as I exited the gym, "just let me do the best I can." That was it. No more. I knew I had done my best, and I knew that I had, for once, done the lion's share of the work.

A few hours into the judging, the principal, Mr. Costanzo, came and got me and my friend Willis out of class. "Boys," he said, "the judges are very impressed with both of your projects, and they can't decide between them for first place. So we've decided to award it to both of you."

Wow! First place! And I had done it! All by myself, within reason. Willis and I both walked around with swelled heads for a few days. The other kids were let in to view the fair in the afternoon, after the judging, and I realized pretty quickly that I had a golden opportunity. Instead of having my computer display boring statistics and information about television violence, I loaded up a game I had written. I left it running on the computer.

My display was the most popular. :)

It didn't take me long, though, to realize that God had nothing to do with my success. I had done all the hard work on my own. I designed the questionnaire, made the cold calls, wrote the program to do the analysis...I even wrote the program to generate random Eutaw phone numbers based on patterns I had noticed in the phone book. God hadn't done any of that; I had. So why give him any of the credit?

Willis and I both went to the regional fair, and both failed miserably. At Warrior Academy, we had both been big fish in a little pond; at the regional fair, we were plankton. The girl three booths down from me had done a project with a computer, as well. She built her computer. And then programmed it. By flipping switches and entering in machine code in hexadecimal. I can't help but wonder where she is, today.

Willis' display on erythrocytes was right next to a kid whose father was a professor at the University of Alabama, and had access to a scanning electron microscope. His similar project blew Willis' out of the water. We both returned home chastened, our big heads deflated. And once again, I thought, "I did my best on this." It wasn't God who had made me win by somehow influencing the judges to vote for me. And it wasn't God who had made me fail at the regional fair. No, both times it was because of me and my own abilities. At Warrior, our projects outshone the others because of the hard work and dedication we had put in. At the regional fair, ours faded into the background for the same reason: we hadn't put in as much work and dedication as the winners. It was just that simple.

When I look back on this experience, I see the first glimmer of my realization that God—or gods—simply isn't necessary. It wasn't until much later that I began to think critically and examine the scientific evidence and realize that I could no longer even give lip-service to the concept.

So that's why I remember that one, silent prayer so vividly. It was the one that led, utlimately, to a greater understanding that God wasn't necessary.


H Myers said...

Fantastic story. I'm leaning more and more toward your point of view, though I still consider myself agnostic. Great explanation of why you see this issue the way you do.

Julie said...

I won first place at the Regional science fair at my school as well, using equipment from my father's lab (he was a biology professor at the University of Alabama). However, when my father pointed out the unfair advantage I had over kids who had worked as hard as I did, but didn't have that kind of access, I felt too guilty to enter at the State level. Science fairs are supposed to encourage kids who are willing to work hard to figure out a problem, not reward those with unfair advantages. Of course, now that I'm older, I realize that's the way the world works - it's unfair.

Kaa said...

Yep. Or as I've heard it put, "Them what has, gets."