When I was ten, we moved in town to be with my ailing grandmother, and I entered the public schools. At fourteen, my eyes were opened to the wonderfully exciting and powerful methods of science. Inspired by a charismatic chemistry teacher who could write the same information on the blackboard with both hands simultaneously, I discovered for the first time the intense satisfaction of the ordered nature of the universe. The fact that all matter was constructed of atoms and molecules that followed mathematical principles was an unexpected revelation, and the ability to use the tools of science to discover new things about nature struck me at once as something of which I wanted to be a part. With the enthusiasm of a new convert, I decided my goal in life would be to become a chemist. Never mind that I knew relatively little about the other sciences, this first puppy love seemed life-changing.
In contrast, my encounters with biology left me completely cold. At least as perceived by my teenage mind, the fundamentals of biology seemed to have more to do with rote learning of mindless facts than elucidation of principles. I really wasn't that interested in memorizing the parts of the crayfish, nor in trying to figure out the difference between a phylum, a class, and an order. The overwhelming complexity of life led me to the conclusion that biology was rather like existential philosophy: it just didn't make sense. For my budding reductionist mind, there was not nearly enough logic in it to be appealing. Graduating at sixteen, I went on to the University of Virginia, determined to major in chemistry and pursue a scientific career. Like most college freshmen, I found this new environment invigorating, with so many ideas bouncing off the classroom walls and in the dorm rooms late at night. Some of those questions invariably turned to the existence of God. In my early teens I had had occasional moments of the experience of longing for something outside myself, often associated with the beauty of nature or a particularly profound musical experience. Nevertheless, my sense of the spiritual was very undeveloped and easily challenged by the one or two aggressive atheists one finds in almost every college dormitory. By a few months into my college career, I became convinced that while many religious faiths had inspired interesting traditions of art and culture, they held no foundational truth.
THOUGH I DID NOT KNOW the term at the time, I became an agnostic, a term coined by the nineteenth-century scientist T. H. Huxley to indicate someone who simply does not know whether or not God exists. There are all kinds of agnostics; some arrive at this position after intense analysis of the evidence, but many others simply find it to be a comfortable position that allows them to avoid considering arguments they find discomforting on either side. I was definitely in the latter category. In fact, my assertion of "I don't know" was really more along the lines of "I don't want to know." As a young man growing up in a world full of temptations, it was convenient to ignore the need to be answerable to any higher spiritual authority.