Yesterday I was at a party and somehow I got to talking with strangers about my non-belief in God; this happens a lot. I mentioned that I go to church sometimes, and the strangers were pretty sure that they hadn't heard me properly; this happens a lot, too.
We had two visitors at church yesterday from the Mennonite Central Committee. One of the visitors is a librarian and she is starting a library in Burundi. Her plan to do this involves people here donating books, filling a shipping container, and sending that container to Burundi. She doesn't have high standards of quality for these books; old calendars count. As she was explaining this plan, I was thinking of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough and all of the articles on it about the troubles with donations.
The librarian read a book to the kids. In the book, the main character, a little boy living in a village in Africa, invited a lot of people to his home to have pancakes for supper that night; this made his mother nervous. Everyone brought something, though: put together, this was a feast. There is a way in which librarians read books to kids at story time, and I had happily sat through a lot of story times when I was a kid. I don't like the librarian's plan about getting old books and putting them in a shipping container, but, as I write this, I have trouble even formulating an argument in my mind to complain about this properly because I like books and I like that this librarian likes books, and I am glad she got to come to church and ask us to share books with people in Burundi.
So, I was talking with some people at this party and someone asked me how I, as an atheist, would explain how the universe began. I gave my normal response to this question, that at the moment of the Big Bang, quantum effects would have encompassed the entire universe, making causality impossible. I said that when I think about things, I don't start at the beginning, I start where I am, with the experiments and experiences I know about, and I work backward and forward, and I suppose that we have a pretty good understanding of what happened between now and the first moments of the universe. Another non-believer helpfully added that you can't talk about a time-before-the-universe because there wouldn't have been anything to make the time pass or to measure it with.
The subject changed, but I kept thinking about what I'd said about the Big Bang, and then I sort of apologized to this new acquaintance. Atheists are used to being asked antagonistically where the universe could have come from if there is no God to make it, and I'm used to giving an argument. The religious people who would ask this question are, I hope, motivated by a belief that the universe was started by someone wonderful, and for me to say that it's not meaningful to discuss a before-the-beginning might be correct, but it's not fulfilling.
I won't say the universe was started by someone wonderful, but I'll say that its beginning was something wonderful. That something wonderful isn't the same as the something wonderful inside of blueberries or the one that makes people smile at strangers or that helps people share oranges in concentration camps, but I imagine these something wonderfuls as relatives of each other. I dread being thought of as a deist or universalist or spiritualist or something, please don't read me that way. I'm an atheist, I say that God doesn't exist. My church works for me because my nonbelief doesn't invalidate my friendships with others in my church.
At the party yesterday, I got to talk with a Sufi about a mutual friend of ours; this friend is an evangelical missionary type, and the Sufi and I admire her because she has firm beliefs and, without compromising them, shows respect and friendliness to people like atheists and Sufis. There are people like that in my church and they make church worthwhile for me.