Before I get started on this diary I want to emphasize that this is MY experience and as such applies only to me. Others may have had similar epiphanies, or their experience may be totally different. I in no way mean to imply that my way is the "right" way. If you are religious or an atheist, that is your choice caused by your life experiences and I was not given the ability to gainsay it. Nobody died and made me God or gave me the keys to universal truth, scientific, religious, or otherwise.
When I was a young boy my parents did their best to inculcate me in the love of God and Jesus. I never went to church (my mother said that she could not sit still in church, although for some time in later life she attended a Southern Baptist church) as my dad did, but stayed at home with my mother and listened to religious programs over the radio. My favorite was actually a Jewish program called "The Guiding Light", but we were nominally Methodists and I also listened to a number of local sermons broadcast on Sunday for the stay at home crowd. When Billy Graham started his crusades my mother and I listened to them and later watched them on a black and white set my dad was able to buy in 1958. I tried to give my soul to Christ on a number of occasions, but it never really stuck. I really found Christian theology boring and often contradictory, but slogged my way through all of the Bible - from cover to cover as they used to say (later in life I also read the Qur'an, the Tao te Ching, and some Hindu texts.) So why did this would-be born again Christian wind up an agnostic evolutionary biologist? Well, that is a fairly long story, but I will try to condense it as best I can.
In the early 1950s Life Magazine published a series of articles later reprinted together as "The World We Live In." In it I was first introduced to the ideas of deep time and biological evolution. Nearing the 100th anniversary of the "Origin of Species", Life followed with a series that, with included later articles, became the book "The Wonders of Life on Earth." My mother warned me not to take the articles too literally so that my faith in God would not be tested. She was probably right to do so, given that she believed that everything was made by the deity in six days, or perhaps days that lasted each a thousand years, and my faith in such an event faded with the knowledge I gained. One question, in addition to those posed by the Life Magazine articles, disturbed me. If indeed a deity had created the earth and all its contents, why should I believe just in the Judeo-Christian creation to the exclusion of Hindu, Native American or other creation stories? Just why was the Genesis story true, while others were not?
I was interested in living things from a very early age and the natural world was a refuge from a fairly dysfunctional family, so I continued to gather data on what was known about life and its evolution. The thought of a deity fashioning liver flukes and ichneumon wasps eventually struck me as rather strange. I did not see why butterflies should be punished for original sin by parasitoids unless God was not good. If such creatures were created by evil forces than God was not all-powerful.
My interests, especially in invertebrates, led to a career in entomology and arachnology. I took courses in evolution and speciation, population genetics, cell biology, genetics, ecology, general entomology, parasitology and invertebrate zoology, as well as several specialized entomology courses. As I did so, whatever faith I had disappeared. On the other hand I could not discount the possibility of a creator or of a god or gods, only that I saw no reason to believe ancient texts, which (as I found out) were suspect in regard to authorship and historical accuracy. One thing that influenced me further was my father, who, although an active church-goer, was not very careful of the truth as Christians were supposed to be. Nothing teaches like example!
Initially, before this slow transformation took place, I was impressed by two arguments in favor of the Christian faith. The first was that Christianity must be true because it had lasted 2000 years and the second was Paley's watch on the heath argument. This was that a watch, if found on the ground, would certainly bespeak of a watch-maker. Thus a rock on the same ground must also be manufactured by a creator. The first is suspect because Hinduism, for example, has lasted in pretty much its current form for at least 2500 years and has older roots. Buddhism is almost as old. The second is wrong for several reasons, but my take on it is that like comparing the brain to a computer it conflates two totally different proceses, if they are even analogous (as they are to at least some extent with the brain). We know the watch was made because we can, given the proper training, make a watch, but making a chunk of granite, although it might be done, is not so easy. The computer is made by humans and in my book is not the same as the human brain. We have reversed the order here it seems to me. Because we understand machines and make them, we think of the natural world as being machine-like and thus having to have been made. But machines are artifices we constructed to either mimic natural functions (such as the computer as brain) or to do something nature does not normally do (have four wheels with axles as automobile do). To be simplistic a hypothetical carpenter thinks every problem can be solved with a hammer, thus because we create things we assume that the universe and life had to be created. Unfortunately, the problem "Why is there something, when there could be nothing?" is not solved by just inserting a creator. You still have the question of where did the creator come from and why did he, she, or it, manufacture a whole lot of rather bizarre organisms? Why did the creator allow evil to exist, as humans define it?
On the other hand I was not there at the beginning of the universe and find the Big Bang (which I at the present think probably happened pretty much as George Gamow envisioned it) almost as mystical as "God did it." Evolution is of course not about the origin of the universe or even of life, but about how we wound up with so many life forms, extant and extinct, once life had come into being. There the evidence is, it seems to me, pretty persuasive. Biology only makes sense if living things evolved and diversified by natural selection, with the origin of the diversity on which natural selection worked being recombination, mutation, epigenesis, and possibly symbiosis (although some would argue that the latter produced new life forms only rarely.) The existence of such organisms as liver flukes, leeches, mosquitoes, ichneumon wasps and hagfish, then becomes more understandable and (in my view) more wonderful.
What then to make of the huge diversity of religious beliefs that the world contains? Should religion be outlawed as an unproductive and divisive meme as some atheists would have it? Are atheists naturally good and religious people naturally bad, as has been suggested by these same atheists? I think not. Certainly a lot of blood has been spilt over religious ideas and I have no use for fanaticism, however I would suggest that a) you will never eliminate religion as it seems to meet some basic need in many (but certainly not all) people, and b) atheists are human, like religious individuals, and can, in their own way, be quite obnoxious, or even dangerous. I have known a number of clerics as a one time representative from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) to the local Interfaith Council, and most of these people are quite decent citizens. I have had a Muslim, a Greek Orthodox and several agnostics or atheists as grad students, and been friends with representatives from the local Jewish Temple, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Old Catholics, the Roman Catholics, the Mormons, the Campus Crusade, the Navigators, the Unitarians, the Pagans, the Muslims and the Buddhists. I have attended a Jewish memorial for the victims of the Holocaust (which was very moving), several Passover Seders, a Baptist funeral and several Baptist services, several Quaker weddings and memorial services, a Lutheran service, an Episcopal wedding (my elder daughter's), several Unitarian services, and a number of others. I knew these people and liked most of them so I am not trying to decry religion for others, but I have little need for a personal savior. I find more affinity to Zen Buddhism, but as in a Zen saying, if you meet the Buddha on the road kill him! One should never get too attached to any untestable ideology.
Perhaps, and for all I know, there is in reality a creator, but I see no compelling evidence for such an entity. Thus I agree with the Buddha that the question of the gods is not relevant as it cannot be answered definitely. The only worthwhile question is thus "How should I live?", not "Is there a god?" Still I would (and I can only speak for myself here) not only tolerate most religious, philosophical, and untestable scientific ideas, even if I do not believe in them, but respect them as uniquely human constructs. This would be true unless they directly led to harm to others or the natural world. There are a few religious ideas that I oppose because they are inherently destructive in some way or another, or require all to believe them.
Finally I will say that science itself should never become a religion. It is a highly successful method of examining the universe and testing ideas about how that universe is constructed. As such it should ideally have no absolute orthodoxy or claim to have absolutely proven anything. It should never base judgements on authority, although in practice sometimes expert opinion about untestable hypotheses are accepted by the public and advertisements are reif with claims about scientific tests or nine out of ten doctors, or scientists, or some other authority. Critical thinking should always be applied to any idea. The idea of evolution by Natural Selection has passed numerous tests and for me this makes it a powerful tool for understanding the diversity of life on earth. However, it tells me nothing about the origin of the cosmos or of life. In the ultimate the individual has to make their own decision about how they view life, the universe, and everything, as Douglas Adams put it. While I can only speak for myself, I find the universe to be pretty darn amazing, in whatever way it came about. As Richard Dawkins says it engenders the "magic of reality." I can live with the mystery it represents. Exactly what choice do I have anyway?