Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism (III): From Atheism to Belief

In the August 6, 2013 edition of the scholarly journal, Personality and Social Psychology Review, Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall published a meta-analysis of 63 studies that demonstrates what a lot of atheists would like to believe: atheists are more intelligent than religious people.  Celebrated atheist writers like Richard Dawkins have reveled in that pronouncement, and wondered, smugly, why the intellectual superiority of atheists should ever be doubted.   Zuckerman, et al, proposed three hypotheses to explain the disparity:  “First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.”  

Writing in The Independent, Frank Furedi, himself an atheist, cast doubt on the motive as well as the methods for arriving at these conclusions.  What motivation would there be to try and make such a claim?  Obvious problems among such studies include issues such as selecting subjects from academic settings which may provide a biased and skewed sample.

As the atheist world cackles with delight over such self-validating reports, there are numerous examples of intelligent, even brilliant people who through extensive research, reflection and introspection concluded that there is indeed a God who cares about humans.  And while their journeys toward faith may have led them to different denominational affiliations, their stories are intriguing.  To demonstrate that it is possible to be both intelligent and a believer, I offer three examples of brilliant men who left atheism for belief.  First, and among my personal heroes, is the Oxford professor, author, and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis.  Second, Russian dissident and Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  And last, but certainly not the intellectual least, Dr. Francis Collins, chemist, physician, former head of the Human Genome Project, and currently Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898 into an affluent family.  About the age of 10, his mother died of cancer.  Although he was raised in a home where religion was practiced, by the age of 15, he had rejected faith and become an atheist.  He was educated in good schools, and of that period he wrote in his book, Surprised by Joy, “I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.”  He felt religious observance to be a demanding chore, and upon reading the classics, embraced as an atheistic motto, the lines from Lucretius, “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.”  The imperfection of nature became in counterpoint to Aquinas, “The Argument from Undesign.”

Lewis went on to serve in the Army in the First World War, and was wounded in France by a British artillery shell that fell short of its target.  He returned to Oxford to complete his studies, and became a lecturer in Magdalen College.  While there, he became friends with a number of academics who also espoused a Christian faith.  Among them was the great master of “sub-creation”, J.R.R. Tolkien.  Through discussion with him and others, Lewis experienced a return to theism in 1929, followed by an embrace of Christianity in 1931.  Of the event of 1929, Lewis wrote, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?”

His movement toward a more distinctly Christian faith continued.  “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion— those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them— was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson (ten times more so than Ecker-mann’s Goethe or Lockhart’s Scott), yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god— we are no longer polytheists— then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.”

Lewis recalled the day when he finally believed in the Incarnation.  “To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

Lewis went on to become the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century.  In the introduction to his collected essays published under the title, Mere Christianity, he explicitly notes that it was not his purpose to evangelize for a specific denomination, but rather focus on the unifying truths of the Christian faith.  Judging from the phenomenal appeal of that one book and its effect of persuading so many seekers, Lewis was a success.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia 1918, not long after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, Solzhenitsyn eventually accepted Marxism as a guiding philosophy, serving as a twice-decorated unit commander in the Red Army during World War II.  After government watchers discovered he had in a letter to a friend privately criticized the prosecution of the War by Stalin, he was sentenced to several years of hard labor in work camps, or gulags.  During his incarceration, he witnessed the effects of atheistic, totalitarian Communism.  He changed his views away from the atheistic precepts of Marxism and returned to Russian Orthodoxy.  He wrote extensive histories of the Russian Revolution as well as works relating to his experiences as a political prisoner of the Soviet state.   

In May of 1983, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.  In his acceptance address, he said, “I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

“Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

In an interview with a Catholic reporter, Solzhenitsyn mused over the state of man and his need for religious faith.  “Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the processes loses his soul. That which is called humanism, but what would be more correctly called irreligious anthropocentrism, cannot yield answers to the most essential questions of our life. We have arrived at an intellectual chaos.”      

Francis Collins’ early life was unconventional to say the least, and matters of faith had little importance in is family.  While he was home-schooled for the first part of his education, his family moved into town and he entered public schools.  He fell in love with chemistry in high school, and then studied it at the University of Virginia and Yale.  He rather fashionably accepted the intellectuals’ position of agnosticism that began with what he describes as a more honest claim that “I don’t know if there is a God,” and developed into a more willful ignorance embodied by, “I don’t want to know.”  During his graduate studies, he became interested in human genetics, and entered medical school at the University of North Carolina. 

Although he was firmly rooted in academic atheism by that time, he was struck by the deep spirituality of mountain people who faced serious illness and disease.  In his third year of medical school, he was speaking with a woman who suffered constant pain from an incurable heart condition.  As she related how her Christian faith kept her going, she asked what Collins believed.  He responded that he didn’t really know.  She was somewhat shocked by that, and he went away haunted by the encounter.  Of this experience he wrote in The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,

“That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than “Is there a God?” And yet there I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility. Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.

“This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. After all, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.”

He began a frenzied search for answers, looking for information in Cliff’s Notes summaries of major world religions.  He remarked, “I found reading the actual sacred texts much too difficult.”  When he reached a point where he questioned whether any religious faith made sense, he made a visit to a nearby minister. “I went to visit a Methodist minister who lived down the street to ask him whether faith made any logical sense. He listened patiently to my confused (and probably blasphemous) ramblings, and then took a small book off his shelf and suggested I read it.

“The book was Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy. Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider this most important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two. When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been an atheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path. It had been his path as well.

“The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation, was right there in the title of Book One: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” While in many ways the “Moral Law” that Lewis described was a universal feature of human existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing it for the first time.”

Another deciding factor that tipped the scale in favor of faith is the issue of altruism and human nature.  Inextricably connected with the concept of selfless love, or agape, sacrifice for the good of another just does not make sense, or only faintly so, as it may related to increasing probability of the transmission of shared genes into future generations.

Collins summarized his journey to faith,

“I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument from the Moral Law (and many other issues) forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.”

The road to faith for people who have none is never easy.  Collins soon determined that his skills in scientific investigation would not serve him in his search for God.  He wrote, “It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestioned powers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him. Instead, as I was beginning to understand from looking into my own heart, the evidence of God’s existence would have to come from other directions, and the ultimate decision would be based on faith, not proof. Still beset by roiling uncertainties of what path I had started down, I had to admit that I had reached the threshold of accepting the possibility of a spiritual worldview, including the existence of God.”

Collins went on to become the Director of the Human Genome Project, which undertook the monumental task of decoding all of the genetic information in human cells.  He viewed this project with reverence, as if reading God’s own handwriting.  When he was named Director of the National Institutes of Health, some vocal atheists denounced the choice, thinking that he would use his faith to stifle controversial research.  That concern was laid to rest by Former NIH Director and Nobel laureate, Harold Varmus, who said, “[Collins] is a terrific scientist, and very well organized and a great spokesperson for the N.I.H., has terrific connections in Congress, and is a delightful person to work with”. Collins told the New York Times, “I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H., and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on.”  That does not mean that faith does not inform him, or at least in part, guide his actions. 

These three intelligent, accomplished, and respected figures actively pursued atheism as young men.  Through trauma, tragedy, and confrontation, they were forced to look closely at their deepest, most closely held beliefs.  When they weighed the evidence, they each came to the conclusion that God exists.  They each moved toward the expression of a Christian faith.  They each went on to influence countless others in their practice and experience of faith.

You can be intelligent and a believer.  Scoffers abound, obstacles are everywhere.  But you only need to look and listen and think to find arguments and real evidence for faith in God.  He fills a void in the heart, not just gaps in our knowledge.  He offers a shoulder to lean on, not a crutch to rely on.  He offers peace, not problems.

In the views of many of its foremost proponents, atheism has much to commend it: freedom from imposed morality, the elevation of humanity to an exalted place, the virtues of self-determination and actualization.  But at its core, atheism seems to be largely about selfish pursuit.  While we may think we know what is best for us, God knows better.   Jesus’ life and example were diametrically opposed to such selfishness.  He calls for selfless service so that others may not suffer.  He calls for moral purity so that we may not suffer.  I like this idea of a God who is interested in me, cares about me, even loves me.  For believers, it’s the only thing that makes sense.   



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