I became a Christian again during my last year of college. After years of wrestling with God and doubting his existence, I had an intense, spiritual epiphany that seemed to change my life instantly. The following day, though it sounds hokey to say so, the grass looked greener, the sky bluer. Ordering coffee that day from a complete stranger, I nearly burst into tears. This is another child of God! I thought to myself. What a shame I'm handing her cash instead of praising God with her.
That moment was unlike any I've ever since experienced. Suddenly, and without words, I knew that God had said to me, I AM. Nothing more, just I AM. With those words, God told me that he cared enough about me to reveal just this little bit about himself. I AM. It answered none of my questions and gave no explanation for God's five-year absence in my life. But those words were enough. I could say with Peter, "You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
There were a number of people through whom God worked before that revelation. Yet the biggest influence on my spiritual journey was the novels and philosophy of Albert Camus, a French existentialist of the 1940s and '50s—and an atheist. C. S. Lewis warned, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." Camus should have been safe territory for me, but as I like to say now, I was saved by an atheist.
"If there were no God, there would be no atheists," said G. K. Chesterton. My own period of doubt came not because the idea of God or miracles seemed wrong, but because God himself wronged me. That's how I saw it, at least. Though atheists may argue that the existence of a supreme being is impossible, their arguments often reveal a belief that God just doesn't behave as they think he should. In a debate, Christopher Hitchens complained about war and killing in the Old Testament. He said he wrote his book God Is Not Great in response to the murders in Muslim countries that followed the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. None of these are arguments against God's existence, but rather arguments against how God and especially his followers act.
That is why traditional atheism is a highly moral philosophy, and one worthy of respect, even while we strongly disagree with it. In his book The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath describes the atheism that emerged during the Enlightenment as "one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, capable of capturing the imagination of generations." Lewis shared the same respect for this godless tradition. Introducing one of his tutors, Kirkpatrick, in Surprised by Joy, Lewis calls him an atheist, but hastens to qualify the description: "He was a 'Rationalist' of the old, high and dry nineteenth-century type. For Atheism has come down in the world since those days." In his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis developed a character based on Kirkpatrick and included him among a small group working to save the world from evil. Maybe Lewis simply harbored fondness for his teacher, but I suspect he saw some spiritual hope in the old man's atheism.
Such hope is not misplaced. Timothy Larsen, professor of history at Wheaton College and author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, says he has come to see doubt as a way in which we take our faith seriously: "If you haven't doubted, you haven't re-owned your faith." Many Victorian atheists, Larsen discovered, converted back to Christianity. "Some actually are really trying to answer questions. That's why they sound so angry," he says. "They're in a struggle for their own soul."
Though Camus, who died 50 years ago this year, wasn't the "high and dry nineteenth-century type" of atheist, nor did he return to Christianity, I've maintained a similar fondness toward him. He saw the world coldly, not as he wished it to be, but as he found it. He was brutally honest, yet hopeful. He was moral, in the sense that he believed in right and wrong and worked for what was right. His disbelief remained an obstacle in his search for meaning, but Camus continued to look for reasons to hope, to find meaning in life.
The world, as Camus found it, is absurd. Humans yearn for meaning, yet life offers none. God is absent. But Camus argued against the nihilism of his fellow Europeans who found life meaningless and therefore flocked to totalitarian, fascist, or communist philosophies. "I don't know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it," Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, his argument against suicide. "But I know that I do not know that meaning." Rather than take a leap of faith, Camus sought to "know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone."
He illustrated his philosophy of creating meaning in the face of meaninglessness in the novel The Plague. When the city of Oran is struck by disease, officials quarantine the city. The main character, the physician Rieux, chooses to stay, throwing himself into caring for the sick. This is how one creates meaning amid the meaninglessness of the sudden outbreak of plague. And life is no different, Camus believed. We are to work against wrongs and injustice, with humility, trying to aid others in small ways.
It is no lofty idealism. Rieux describes how he first came to his philosophy in his campaign against the death penalty. In order to outlaw capital punishment, he realized, his party was on occasion forced to murder. Shocked by an execution, Rieux rejects his activism. He realized that "I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed … I was fighting it." Not only that: "I have realized that we all have plague."
It was this scene that struck me most forcefully. Camus was right, I knew, and I, too, had plague. I was sick and in need of a Physician. Camus' willingness to accept the truth that human beings are fallen allowed me to do the same. Camus held a mirror to my face—in a way that no pastor, preacher, or professor had—and I knew I needed salvation.
A Creature of Christianity
Certainly not all atheists lead readers to such Christian conclusions. And just as certainly, not every atheist writer deals as honestly with himself and with God as Camus. But, at their best, atheists show Christians how our teaching or our practice is failing our society.
In The Plague, Camus describes Father Paneloux, a priest who has no real answer to suffering but nevertheless thunders that the plague is God's judgment on a wicked city. The epidemic is the fault of the people, he says, and it will remain until they repent. But Camus presents the death of a child as a counterargument: a good God would not punish an innocent child with such suffering.
The church's inability to answer the problem of suffering is still atheists' most common complaint against God, and it teaches us how we may be setting people up for spiritual disappointment and failure. Maybe the modern church puts too much emphasis on better living through God. Or perhaps we don't adequately explain that God suffers with us and redeems our suffering without eliminating it. Whatever the cause, atheism remains an attractive worldview for those who have witnessed suffering or been in pain and can't reconcile the idea of a good and powerful God with the reality of life on earth.
Another flaw of the faith revealed by atheists, especially the New Atheists, is the frequency with which Christianity or any religion appears oppressive. It was no coincidence that the New Atheism exploded during the second half of the Bush administration, when Christians were widely perceived (correctly or not) to be using their political power to influence public policy. When some Christian leaders were found to be violating their professed beliefs, whether in sexual behavior or other ethical lapses, it cast all attempts to bring Christian moral arguments into the political process as hypocritical manipulations for power.
"The attractiveness of atheism is directly dependent upon the corruption of Christian institutions," says McGrath. "History strongly suggests that those who are attracted to atheism are first repelled by theism."
Atheism is a creature of Christianity. My turn away from God came at a time when I had questions about my faith. My pastors and youth group leaders, rather than hearing out my questions, prescribed more intense devotions, more fervent prayers, and further exclamations of biblical truth. My friends who wandered from the faith faced similar prescriptions. Our questions were heard first and foremost as a desire to flout the rules and to sin without compunction. In truth, there was no real correlation between those who lost their faith and those who flouted the rules of their Christian high school and college, though our behavior was often described as the evidence of our lack of faith (while the infractions of our more faithful colleagues were seen as mere lapses of good judgment).
Most of my wandering friends, like me, seem to have returned to Christ. But I've found that a surprising number who had fully accepted the faith have now left it. Each tended to have had some experience in which Christian leaders acted as hypocritical, power hungry, judgmental, or arrogant elites. For some, the church's inability to shepherd during a painful period led directly to rejecting God. "If God isn't there when I need him," they say, "I don't need him."
Atheists may have an arsenal of arguments against God or religion. But at heart, rejection of God seems not to be a purely logical choice against the possibility or desirability of God. Rather, it is often a rejection of God's people. Atheism's recent popularity should serve as a warning to us. Apologetics conferences and passionate rebuttals may have their place. Certainly we should be ready with reasons for our faith. But before we begin dueling on blogs and arming ourselves with television talking points, let's learn to see atheists not as deniers of God, but as wrestlers with him. And let's remember that their deepest arguments against belief are the people they're arguing with.
Rob Moll is a CT editor at large and author of The Art of Dying.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on atheism include:
Screwtape for New Atheists | 'The Loser Letters' pokes serious fun at a mostly humorless movement. (July 13, 2010)
Reframing Human History | How we got into the atheism culture war in the first place. A review of David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions. (September 23, 2009)
Answering the Atheists | A Reader's Digest version of why I am a Christian. (November 13, 2007)
Other recent articles in CT by Rob Moll include:
'Hunger Can Be Conquered' | And, says former Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow, churches have a crucial role to play. (February 24, 2010)
Taking Stock | Funds expand faith-based investing. (March 18, 2010)
Hard Choices For Higher Ed | In a bleak economy, Christian colleges reinvent themselves. (September 11, 2009)
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