Giving Up on Atheism
The pursuit of coherent truth drove one man from theism to deism to agnosticism and to atheism. And then to God.
The great Christian thinker Augustine heard a child singing, “Pick it up and read.” After picking up Paul’s letter to the Romans and reading a passage, Augustine committed his life to Christ.
On the way to Damascus, Saul saw a bright light, heard the voice of Jesus and ultimately became a dedicated follower of Christ. Saul later became known as the Apostle Paul.
Conversion stories fascinate me. C.S. Lewis came to faith via a journey that led him through, among other beliefs, atheism, pantheism and theism.Atheism denies the existence of God, while pantheism sees everything as divine. Theists believe in a personal, transcendent God. Augustine grew up in a home with an alcoholic father and a devoted Christian mother. Like many young adults, Augustine rebelled. He eventually left home and joined a cult. Paul was a Jew and, therefore, a theist, but was anti-Christian, spearheading early persecution of the Christian church and its members. His conversion was so powerful and dramatic that this one man literally changed the spiritual face of every place he visited.
The Road to Atheism
My own journey to Christianity had a lot of twists and turns. Having been raised in a nominally theistic home, I had a basic but undeveloped sense of God. Since my family never regularly attended church, I had only some vague idea of “God.” Eventually this turned into deism — the belief that God exists, but is distant from creation and has nothing to do with day to day events, much less an interest in people as a whole or individuals in particular. By its very nature, deism rejects the possibility of miracles, as well as the main theme of Christianity — the Incarnation.
During my second year of high school I seriously began questioning the reality of God. Any theistic leanings I had diminished and eventually faded — smothered, really, by my exposure to atheistic literature of an existentialist bent such as the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. I also reveled in the nihilistic follies and despair of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Douglas Adams.
The end result was agnosticism on my part — that is, I claimed that the existence of God could neither be proven nor disproven. “We just don’t know,” was my attitude toward anything religious.
By the time I reached college, I considered myself a skeptic. On a good day I would see myself as an agnostic, while on a bad one I’d view myself as an atheist. In either case, I lived my life as though God did not exist. In that sense, I was what I’d call a functional atheist.
In retrospect I realize that my rejection of Christianity stemmed from what Josh McDowell considers the three most common excuses for rejecting Christ: pride, moral problems and ignorance. I did not want to yield to anything, preferring myself as the ultimate authority in my life. Morally, I didn’t want any cosmic interferer telling me what was right and wrong. And, frankly, I was ignorant about Christianity on many fronts, especially when it came to the truth of its teachings and the evidence behind it.
Although many of my arguments against Christianity were of the “straw man” variety,In logic, a straw man fallacy occurs when one argues against a position that does not truly represent the position one is arguing against. Instead, the position set forth is often caricatured and presented as easier to refute than it really is. several were legitimate arguments that have existed for ages past and will continue to exist. I will limit my comments to two of the most significant issues I had: First, I did not believe in the existence of God; second, I believed the problem of evil and suffering was one that theism could not overcome.
Positive arguments for the existence of God that influenced my conversion included the argument from the existence of the universe (cosmological), the argument from being (ontological), the argument from design (teleological), and the argument from morality (axiological). It wasn’t until a while after my conversion that I learned there are not only many variations of each of these arguments, but that there are also a great number of additional arguments for the existence of God.Two helpful resources providing overviews of arguments for the existence of God include Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli (InterVarsity) and 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists by Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Jr. (River Oak). For an excellent critique of atheism see I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek (Crossway).
In short, the cosmological argument claims that everything that has a beginning has a cause. Since the universe had a beginning, it must have had a cause. The best explanation of this cause is a powerful and personal being (i.e., God). The much-maligned ontological argument, first explored by Anselm, is actually quite clever. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to get into its nuances here. It essentially argues for God on the basis of the idea of God.
The argument from design influenced me more than the previous two arguments. This argument claims that anything exhibiting qualities of intelligent design must have been designed. Since the universe exhibits signs of intelligent design, there must be an Intelligent Designer.
Finally, the moral argument influenced me significantly. One of my main objections against Christianity was that I could not reconcile the idea of a loving, all-powerful God with the reality of evil and suffering.
It was while I was reading Mere Christianity that I encountered a real difficulty in my argument. How had I gotten this idea of evil? In order to claim something is evil, one must have a standard of good. As C.S. Lewis put it, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 45.
The problem of evil, then, requires an acknowledgment that good and evil exist. Atheists are left with what some philosophers call the problem of good. How can an atheist call anything good or evil on the basis of a worldview that excludes absolute standards?
Ultimately, I acknowledged that atheism was not a viable worldview. Although I turned away from atheism, I had yet to embrace theism, much less Christianity.Still, I had a sense of longing for something more. After more spiritual and intellectual wanderings, I ended up embracing pantheism, resulting in my affinities for what was then known as the New Age movement. Here was something that promised spiritual fulfillment without the demands of the God of theism. But eventually I found pantheism as unlivable as atheism. Among other things, it too had the problem of the good, as well as evil.
In addition to rational arguments and evidence, encounters with people also played an important role in my conversion. The New Testament writers introduced me to the person of Jesus Christ. I had made fun of Christianity and Christians — taunting them with insults generally directed at their presumably inferior intellects — but when I began to read the Gospels and encountered these powerful records of the life of Jesus, I found more than I bargained for. When I began reading Mere Christianity, as I mentioned earlier, my precarious worldview became even more endangered.
I first became acquainted with C.S. Lewis when a Christian friend of mine gave me a copy of Mere Christianity. As I read it, I encountered a paradox. Here was an obviously intelligent, witty and articulate person who was also a Christian. How could this be?
Of course, it wasn’t only dead writers who influenced me. There were living, breathing Christians who, in various ways, nudged me closer to truth. Their patience and prayers most certainly played a part in my conversion to Christianity.
In the end, every worldview I had either embraced or studied could not stand the test of coherency. They all broke down in significant areas — all, that is, except Christianity. I was cornered. I could either defy the reality of Christianity and remain, inexplicably, an agnostic or atheist, or I could acknowledge the truth of Christianity. I chose, grudgingly at first, the latter option.
It’s been 17 years since my conversion to Christianity and the more I learn about worldviews, the more I am convinced that Christ is indeed “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, NIV).
While Christian conversion varies from person to person — whether it occurs in the sidecar of a motorcycle or as the result of a powerful vision on the road to Damascus — one thing is certain: People do experience significant worldview shifts in the direction of Christianity.
As a Christian apologist and philosopher, I believe conversion to Christianity is grounded in truth — in the validity of an intellectually robust worldview that offers the best explanation of reality. And that, combined with a variety of factors, is why I gave up on atheism.
Copyright 2007 Robert Velarde. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Robert Velarde is author of The Heart of Narnia and Conversations with C.S. Lewis. He studied philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.