Why do you think so many atheists seem so evangelistic? They even sometimes speak of their moment of “de-conversion” as a flip-side to the so-called born again experience. If life teaches us anything it’s that certainty is overrated.
The real life-lessons aren’t found in intellectual theories much less in theology, but in seeing life through the lens of those we love most. For instance, I actually experienced brief and perfect instants when death lost its sting.
Being with my granddaughter Lucy as she’s grown up next door so far (she’s just turned six) has helped me more honestly think about what I do or don’t really believe.
Maybe it’s not an accident that it was in the “Lucy era” as I think of the six years we’ve been together, that my self-description as an atheist who believes in God began to take shape.
The summer of 2012 when Lucy turned three, while walking in the marsh, we were picking juniper cones (which most people call juniper berries) and chewing the BB-sized green pellets just long enough to get that vivid juniper taste in our mouths before spitting them out. We’d also been picking the little crab apples from the trees that grow from outcroppings of rock looking like gnarled bonsai.
We climbed up on one of the decks I built near the marsh long before Lucy was born and started lining up little chunks of granite on the table between the two Adirondack chairs and pretended that the stones were a train bringing Lucy’s daddy home from his office in Boston. My granddaughter and I were represented by juniper cones, and we waited on the platform (a branch) to meet her dad (another juniper cone).
That’s the afternoon Lucy asked me who had made the big granite rock we wandered over to after we got tired of the meet-Daddy-on-the-train game. The week before, she had been watching me pour concrete and build a porch, and Lucy was well aware that buildings don’t just happen. So she asked who had made the big outcropping of gray granite.
I always try to speak truthfully to my grandchildren. But before thinking, I blurted, “God made it.” Then I felt guilty because the more truthful answer would have been: “I hope God made it, but I don’t know for sure.”
I let my uncertainty slide (for the moment) because I knew there’d be time enough to discuss the question of how my hopeful uncertainty balances what my parents’ told me. In my default autopilot mode, I answered as I did because, when I was Lucy’s age and my neural pathways were being formed, Mom got into my head way ahead of my doubts.
After that, Lucy would point to various things and ask who made them, and I’d variously answer, “I did,” or “Your mama did,” or “Somebody in a factory did,” and so forth. Then she’d say, “But God made everything first.”
Then one day I explained that everything, including us, is made of stardust. “Stardust was here before life evolved,” I told Lucy, “and before that the universe was there, and before that nothing was there.”
What I didn’t say then was that when it comes to faith, religion, and our particular Western tradition, the journey through our questions and doubts is the destination.
The act of exploring the idea of a God who might or might not have been there before the Big Bang and who might or might not have seeded the evolutionary process with a possibility for self-contemplation makes the spiritual journey itself the basis of finding peace. To hope for meaning is to find it, not as an answer, but in our questions.Maybe one clue to finding meaning is to think about human traditions becoming a source of spiritual guidance. One of the paradoxes we may embrace in order to live as spiritual beings is to build our individual journey on a foundation of a religious tradition.
We do that even though we know that our traditions are man-made. Tradition, in other words ritualized and repeated aesthetic playacting in art, religion and spirituality, is nevertheless the only context we have to be human in.
Tradition remains with us even when we question it. In fact, in rejecting it we are more bound than ever by tradition.
As I said: Why do you think so many atheists seem so evangelistic? They even sometimes speak of their moment of “de-conversion” as a flip-side to the so-called born again experience.
Such people are also into absolutes. I know. I get the email ponderously explaining to me that my new book title can’t be so.
Paradox drives some atheists as wild as it does for single minded born-again Christians. To these folks phrases like “I’m an atheist who believes in God” are “illogical” and “impossible” because they are literalists.
It seems to me that many atheists haven’t escaped the bitterness of certainty, just changed religions.
There are no truly new beginnings. The past is the only door that we can open into the future. Atheist who are evangelically zealous prove that every time they bring the religion-style of certainty to their new found non-belief.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace