How Atheists Deal With God
On the afternoon in 1998 when faith returned, I experienced a sense of the limitless power and majesty of God that left me convinced that He knew all the answers to the theological and sociological questions that had tormented me for years. I saw, in one enduring moment, that the God who could make the Double Helix and the snow flake, the God who could make the Black holes in space, and the lilies of the field, could do absolutely anything and must know everything — even why good people suffer, why genocide and war plague our planet, and why Christians have lost, in America and in other lands, so much credibility as people who know how to love. I felt a trust in this all-knowing God; I felt a sudden release of all my doubts. Indeed, my questions became petty in the face of the greatness I beheld. I felt a deep and irreversible assurance that God knew and understood every single moment of every life that had ever been lived, or would be lived on Earth. I saw the universe as an immense and intricate tapestry, and I perceived that the Maker of the tapestry saw interwoven in that tapestry all our experiences in a way that we could not hope, on this Earth, to understand.
This was not a joyful moment for me. It wasn’t an easy moment. It was an admission that I loved and believed in God, and that my old atheism was a façade. I knew it was going to be difficult to return to the Maker, to give over my life to Him, and become a member of a huge quarreling religion that had broken into many denominations and factions and cults worldwide. But I knew that the Lord was going to help me with this return to Him. I trusted that He would help me. And that trust is what under girds my faith to this day.
Atheists and agnostics who have discarded the religious teachings that dominated their youth tend to be close, personal friends of mine. Many come from Catholicism and Judaism, walking away with a conflicted sense of relief and new burdens. They dropped the old prejudices and the blind faith, yet picked up a sense of guilt and disquiet. They love the old rituals, the artifacts of cultures borne of struggle, sacrifice, love and family through histories of persecution and perseverance; the teachings of love, forgiveness, tolerance and charity – and a commitment to social justice – influence their outlooks, dispositions and actions to this day. But they’re out of the group. They’re not going back to church or to synagogue, save for a family function (baptism, briss, wedding, funeral) where some aunt or uncle inquires about the state of their soul.
I come from no religion. My mother escaped the Southern Baptists and raised me on agnosticism and the more commercial trappings of the goyische holidays, with an occasional visit to a Jewish Passover or a Catholic Mass. My grandparents attempted to “rescue” me. They took me to church every Sunday morning and evening during month-long visits to their Tennessee home in the Summer. They sent me to a bible camp for a week in 1979 that left a deep, lasting impression on my psyche quite contrary to what they intended: no spiritual uplift, no awakening, no submission of faith; rather I came to view Christianity and all religion as fascistic enterprises of mind control, psychological abuse, ignorance, hate and fear. The place was run militarily, with sermons every morning, religious instruction classes right after, and sermons in the evening. It was like going to church every day, all day for a week. Yet for all the talk of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice, I saw no evidence of its influence on his follower’s behavior. Instead, I got my Yankee-talking ass kicked. I saw good ol’ boys ignore fights, yet punish errant invocations of the Lord’s name “in vain.” (It always seemed appropriate to me to call out to your deity during moments of pain, but hey, what do I know?)
This experience, among many others, inculcated a prejudice that I have since striven to outgrow. Nowadays I read theological studies, inquire about people’s religious beliefs without challenging them, and enjoy learning of new rituals people use to reaffirm their faith. But my interest is anthropological. Culture and ideology inform and arise from human ideas and behavior in response to complex sets of historical circumstances and existential conditions in ways that are beautiful, strange, fascinating and sometimes horrifying and dangerous, yet I think ultimately driven by deeper evolutionary instincts for survival. We create – and need – ideas to survive as much as we need food. Philosophy and theology are ideological tools of survival, ways in which we self-reflecting creatures justify our existences and places in the universe. Concepts of God, Goddess, or many such deities are negotiations individuals make between themselves and the world around them. For some, these negotiations are cheap and easy (the simple, unquestioning faith that either drives “good works” or suicide bombers); for others, the negotiation is never complete, as doubt and conviction barter with each other over the price and weight of the soul, the breadth and depth of divinity, the duties and rewards of the mortal, and so on.
As an atheist, I don’t – and cannot – rely on such concepts. Instead I look at the world around me and see several competing demands of my intellect, talents, and attention. This is not a self-centered view, however; it’s merely the subjective level of the individual. It’s there that I make choices, none of them easy, though perhaps easier than choices made by others who lead bolder, harder and more significant lives (e.g., I’m not running for public office or leading a rescue mission.) Rising to a higher level of the human species, I am driven by an ethical belief that I should leave the world better than it was when I walked in, but I have no sense of certitude – no progressive conviction – that I will. Indeed, if I succeed, I will eventually die, and who knows what future generations will do to our society, our culture or our planet? There are no guarantees. For all our best efforts, the species may bring on its own extinction. Or we may survive all possible calamities, yet still not make it off the earth before the Sun goes red giant and consumes the planet.
When I express these views, the faithful call me “cynical” or demand, “How can you or humanity could go on with such knowledge?” Which is a weird question. Life is good, it’s worth living for its own sake, and it’s a damn shame so many people do so much to shorten it for others for no better reason than greed, prejudice, ignorance and fear. Many of my fellow atheists blame religion, and the religious have taken to blaming atheism, for the violence and destruction humans bring to each other. They’re both right, much as the partisan sniping between Clinton and Obama supporters are right in their claims that the opposition is “going negative” in some way during the campaign. Of course, the scale is exponentially larger – as are the stakes; religion has been a powerful organizing force in human society, regulating actions, emotions and morals in ways beneficial to our survival, even as it motivates war, oppression and other horrible instances of inhumanity. Yet atheist societies have faired no better. It leaves me to conclude that regardless of ideology, humans can and will be guided by more primal forces, some empathetic and cooperative, others competitive and fearful. We’re still apes.
So I don’t take any comfort, as have some of my fellow “nonbelievers” in the comments to Rice’s column, in deriding her testimony to faith as the “loony” product of the “vampire author.” To be sure, she has another book on Jesus to sell. Yet her commercial interests don’t necessitate the emotional force of her words. I don’t agree with her. But I don’t doubt her. I’m not even sure she is trying to convince anyone but herself that her experience was real. Indeed, she may never be intellectually convinced, as moments of divine awakening are not rational experiences, but overwhelm the senses, overcoming the believer’s ability to process the stimuli with our normal cognitive tools. The scientific method won’t help her here. She’s left on her own to make the negotiation with what tools she has as a writer, just as I do here on this blog, responding to her testimony with my own reflections. I’m negotiating, too.