by Vincent Rautenbach
I recall from my childhood a collection of illustrated bible books for children that my parents had bought for me when I was about three or four years old. It was a beautiful set of (if I recall correctly) twelve books, richly illustrated with paintings depicting the events of the bible (accompanied by text that was inaccessible to me, although, I suppose, my mother may have read to me from the books, but I don’t remember this). I do, however, clearly recall many of the colourful pictures. There were many dramatic pictures, dark storm clouds, fire and explosions, the cataclysmic pictures of the great battles yet to be fought at the end times. There were also peaceful, gentle pictures. In particular, there was a picture of a little girl in one of the books, looking up at the reader and smiling and, in her hands was an open book with the one single phrase “GOD IS LOVE” (my Mum must have been the interpreter!)…This picture awed and amazed me and I puzzled over its full significance. I loved the paintings in those books and I spent many hours studying them. This concept of God, presented to me by these books, had stirred something within me, and I remember that stirring well (the image of the smiling girl with the open bible in her hands is burnt into my memory). This kiddies collection of bible books served as an introduction to Christianity at an early age for me, and created some kind of pre-disposition that would make itself felt later in my life.
As a teenager in 1984, I converted to Christianity, praying a little prayer and signing a little slip of paper to record the event. I remember emerging from the tail end of that prayer a little nervously, expecting maybe some kind of Damascene flash like St. Paul. Nothing happened, but those attending to my conversion assured me that it was a genuine event that had occurred. It had nothing to do with emotion and I should not be disappointed that God had not given me any sign or acknowledgement of acceptance. I was encouraged to build my faith by reading the bible, joining a church, and attending meetings regularly.
It was not to be a simple journey. From an early stage, I was plagued by doubts and questions regarding my faith. My expectations were not fulfilled. I found the Christian experience to be a never-ending series of disappointments. Futile prayer followed futile prayer and instead of finding the bible inspiring, I found it to be an inaccessible morass of contradictions and esoteric, archaic stories. I was never satisfied with the interpretations my Pastor provided. I guess I wanted too much. I took my conversion too seriously. But it was supposed to be the ultimate truth after all. I demanded the real deal! “Ah, Faith is what it’s all about”, I was told by fellow true believers. “Faith is the only way”. My most heartfelt (fervent, desperate even) prayer was a plea for more faith, stronger faith. I prayed for a modern day miracle. The more I found myself questioning my faith, the guiltier I felt about my lack of it. It did not take long before I seriously doubted whether I really was saved at all. At this stage, it occurred to me that people are not actually “saved” by the Power and Grace” of God but simply by their own belief in his “power and grace!” What an heretical, demonic thought!
Oh pity me! I suppose it was inevitable, and it gradually became clear to me that, for some unfathomable reason, God had decided that I was in fact not really destined for redemption. In my search for answers, I stumbled across some very pernicious doctrine that further confirmed to me the certainty that I was among the damned (Oh, I remember the angst so well!) The “unpardonable sin” and the doctrine of pre-destination seemed to be the only explanations for my anguish. Even if not applicable to me, these teachings were, after all, meant for somebody. According to most Christian websites (Jesus-is-lord is just one example) Hell is a reality. This is not an archaic, outdated belief. According to true believers, there is a place of eternal torment where the majority of humanity will spend eternity. What kind of a God would create humans with total pre-knowledge that they would somehow end up in eternal torment? This was a bad God, a failed God, and a capricious God! I became enmeshed in an existential nightmare at the tender age of 18.
Nevertheless, I persevered! I still prayed, I still kept confessing that Jesus was the Messiah of the world. I was baptised (full immersion, not once, but twice) I vacillated between states of religious fervour and anguished despair. I attended mass revival meetings and coffee shop, hand clapping sessions hoping to witness first hand the glory of God manifested by miracles (I saw none) Hands were “laid on me” numerous times without effect. Oh, pity me! Poor pre-destined little child of the devil, kindling for the fires of hell! The more I felt myself trying to reach out to God, the less closely I felt myself approaching Him. I would have done anything to feel a real touch from God. A whisper was all I wanted. I got nothing; only contradiction, mental dissonance, and further anguish.
Then, amazingly, slowly at first but with gathering speed, the pennies began to fall. My natural reason and scepticism could not be dismissed! I discovered that I had always been a natural sceptic (and I am still convinced that scepticism is a character trait, just like credulity is – Let me say more: I am not defined by my atheism, I am defined by my scepticism) Over a period of many years I began to explore the science section of my local library. I discovered several authors who, at first, seemed to me breathtakingly atheistic in their views. Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan in particular had me steering a new course in mindset. I read many books on evolution. I had had no education in this theory and it was the biggest challenge to come to terms with (The evidence for evolution is in fact, overwhelming. Evolution happened, whether you are a believer or an atheist. The mechanism, which had been fully elucidated by Charles Darwin in 1859, was natural selection. Genetics was a post Darwin science and together with later discoveries in DNA, Neo Darwinism has confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that evolution has occurred. There is no “Special Creation”) Occasionally, I tried to make a re-commitment to Jesus. This invariably failed, becoming a more and more watered down effort. Those years were characterized by a great deal of ambivalence and fence jumping. Every attempt to turn to faith for an answer, support or confirmation, was met with a falling penny.
Within twenty years of my original conversion, I was googling and discovering more and more information. Atheistic sites, free thought zones, etc. Amongst others, Robert Ingersoll’s “The Gods” had a profound effect on me as well as an essay entitled “The Joys of Christianity” (the word joy is to be read with inverted commas of course) by Eric von Laudermann, which dealt with this person’s own process of disillusionment and breaking away from Christianity. In particular, this essay reflected my own angst and was pivotal in helping me break away.
My favourite quote is the following by Robert G. Ingersoll:
“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling of the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust.”
I loved the empathetic style of Sagan and the uncompromising intelligence of Dawkins, but it was the beautiful prose of Ingersoll that ravished me the most!
So, what is it all about then? Have I just abandoned the search for something “Ultimate”? What is the meaning of life? Where does everything come from? Often phrased as “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” Big questions, yes! Of course I ask these questions, and I suppose I could answer a bit flippantly “Why Not?” to the last one. But let me tell you a little secret, atheists do not know, nor claim to have ultimate knowledge. Anybody accusing atheists of making such an arrogant claim has a deep misunderstanding about atheism. Yes, we do try to answer them as best we can using the scientific method, and science does deal with many of these questions, but the answers are not simple, and what mankind does know, has been painstakingly obtained.
In simple terms, we humans, evolved over an unimaginably long period of time. We are the product of the interior of an exploding giant star that spewed its nuclear products out into space, from which formed our solar system and in which were atoms that possessed the fundamental properties of combining into more and more complicated replicating systems, fuelled by our own 5 billion year old sun. Ultimately, these properties have been traced back in time, as best we can estimate, to an unimaginably distant 14 billion years ago and a mysterious event called the Big Bang. It is at this point, in a split second, that our universe, the very fabric of space-time and energy, came into existence. Scientists, using quantum theory, surmise that a quantum fluctuation gave rise to the universe, literally out of nothing. Or maybe out of something; M-Theory, the theory encompassing string theories, proposes an 11 dimensional universe in which are embedded numerous, perhaps an infinite number of universes, known as the “Braneworld” (from Membrane). It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the detail, but I recommend the reading of “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene, which is an excellent starter. The author’s style is very accessible and he constantly keeps the lay reader, such as me, in mind.
Yes, we are living in an immense and deeply mysterious universe but the God idea explains nothing about it at all, it merely moves the mystery one-step further up, and replaces it with an even greater mystery. The word GOD assumes everything but explains nothing. Atheism is far more humble, far more honest, and squared up to reality. For the answers we have thus far obtained through scientific enquiry, we can be assured that reason and rationality have pointed the way. We can depend on them. For the remaining mysteries, we have a future to explore; answers are yet to be found. If we do not have them all, it is a shortcoming within ourselves and there is no need to introduce an impossible God to try to explain anything.