I am an ex-atheist. Although I’m still at the beginning stages of formal conversion, I identify Jewish as you might have noticed from some previous posts (and my Twitter). I wasn’t raised Jewish. When I was very young I vaguely recall being taken to church but I can’t even tell you what denomination of Christianity it was. Since I was not really old enough to form a mature and informed opinion on the existence of God until I was about 13–which was when I began to self-identify as an atheist–it’s probably accurate to say that I was a lifetime atheist until the age of 36.
There are a fair number of people out there, especially on the Internet, who believe–or wish to believe–that the term “ex-atheist” is a contradiction in terms. In researching this article I came across a number of blogs and such asserting that anyone who claims to be an ex-atheist must have never been a “real” atheist to begin with, and/or that they never really “understood” what atheism was supposed to be about. (For examples of this assertion, go here and here). To me this viewpoint seems uncommonly silly. It also smacks of a kind of defensive tribalism that atheists, of all people, should be extremely wary of. I will assure you that, during my (at least) 23 years of atheism, I continually questioned, tested and sought to understand it. Although I “came of age” as an atheist in the years before they became the intellectual heavyweights of popular atheism, I did read Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and incidentally found that, despite their popularity in modern atheist circles, they added very little to atheism that hasn’t been discussed for centuries. To claim I didn’t know what I was doing or always secretly “deep down” believed in God during those 23 years is simply false.
In fact, my journey toward belief resulted in large measure from the skills I learned, in questioning and self-testing my own beliefs, from being an atheist. This may sound strange, but what I believe now about God, the universe and the nature of existence is not really very different from what I believed when I strongly self-identified as an atheist. For as long as I can recall I’ve believed the universe, or nature (take your pick–they’re the same thing), had an inherent order to it, a balance. This order is measurable in both the hard sciences of mathematics and physics, and also more intangible things, like the sound of the deep forest on a summer night.
Ironically, Christopher Hitchens is regarded by many modern atheists, particularly young people who have discovered atheism from the Internet, in much the same way as religious believers revere the prophets and saints of their faiths.
One day when I was 36 I asked myself: “OK, I believe in this inherent order, this balance of the universe. Is it so far a jump to believe that the universe itself might have a consciousness?” I concluded that the answer to that question was, no, it’s not so far a jump. If the universe or nature has some sort of consciousness, then it must be self-aware. That, for lack of something better, is the definition of God.
So, you see, I turned away from atheism and toward faith not out of intellectual laziness, not as a result of peer pressure or social stigma, and certainly not out of “fear” of some cosmic retribution. I turned toward faith out of the exact tools–reason, questioning, self-testing, and contemplation–that I learned, as an atheist, to apply to my view of the world and the universe.
But consider this: whether the universe has a consciousness is, at least at our level of scientific development, impossible to prove through empirical means. If that’s true, that means there’s some sort of barrier between the physical universe–the one we can measure with the Hubble Space Telescope and quantum physics–and the non-physical universe, which is, at least now, impervious to explanation from those disciplines. A doctor can’t prove I have a soul; a physicist can’t prove that God exists. Atheism no longer fit my belief system because it either denies the existence of a non-physical universe, or denies that there’s a barrier between the physical and the non-physical. If a doctor can’t prove I have a soul, then souls do not exist; if a physicist can’t prove that God exists, then He does not. This seemed to be a pretty insurmountable defect in the philosophy of atheism, one that fundamentally cripples its ability to explain the universe accurately.
This footprint was made by one of the earliest ancestors of humans, in Africa 3.4 million years ago. I do not believe this scientific or archaeological fact is inconsistent with the Torah in any significant way.
I am an ex-atheist. I believe in God; I’ve felt His touch in my life. I believe strongly in science. I am not a Creationist. I do not believe the world is 6000 years old or was created in six 24-hour days. Evolution is scientific fact. I do not believe that the Bible (or the Torah, in my case) is the literal word of God. I believe it was created by human beings several thousand years ago. We, the human beings living on the Earth now, bear the prime responsibility for caring for our environment, which is why I believe so passionately that we must stop climate change. These are all strong beliefs I have.
Yet, according to many atheists, I have absolutely abandoned all semblance of rational thought, for all time, in all circumstances. My belief in God makes me a narrow-minded prisoner of primitive superstition, incapable of free will or the conception of self-worth, and I’m standing up to be counted with Osama bin Laden, the Westboro Baptist Church and other purveyors of religious extremism.
Don’t get me wrong–I don’t think that all atheists would so condemn me. But I know that many would. I would have, though, when I was younger, because this is what I used to think when I was an atheist. As an atheist, I held two assumptions in my mind, which I never questioned. The first was that belief in God by a person, in any form, represented a wholesale betrayal of reason and rationality. The second was that belief in God is motivated primarily by external factors, especially fear–fear of the disapproval of peers (or society), or fear of some sort of punishment in the afterlife.
Do you see the hand of God in this picture? Maybe yes; maybe no. Maybe there is more here than meets the eye.
Since turning my back on atheism, I’ve found that neither of these assumptions is even remotely tenable. Reason, rationality and thought–and the ability to use science and empiricism to explain and understand our world–is not only not inconsistent with religious belief, science is the single greatest gift that God ever gave mankind. I don’t see science and religion as inherent enemies and it seems so unnecessary that many people do. Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine, a fellow Jew, who explained how and why the two stories of creation in Genesis–yes, two, not just one–were entirely consistent with our modern anthropological understanding of the origins of mankind from the African Rift Valley millions of years ago. The Torah speaks in parables and metaphors, many of them self-contradictory. It’s entirely possible to read it as being consistent with modern scientific understanding of the origins of life.
As for the assumption that belief in God is motivated by social factors or by fear of the afterlife, this is simply laughable. I don’t give a damn what my family or friends think of my beliefs. I don’t believe in Hell or the Devil, so how could either prospect frighten me into believing something I wouldn’t otherwise believe? God couldn’t care less whether I believe in Him or not. He has more important things to do than sit around worrying about whether I worship Him.
The simple truth is that, for me, I realized atheism lacked the fundamental tools to be able to explain the totality of the universal human experience. Sharp as it is on emphasizing the rational, the empirical, the provable, atheism is a belief system that is very poorly equipped to explain the irrational, the un-empirical, and the unprovable aspects of the human condition. Simply put, the human experience of my life grew beyond the capacity of atheism to explain or understand it. Atheism was, for me, a faulty and incomplete belief system, and one which I felt compelled to move beyond, despite the very good and positive things that it brought me in my life–and which, to this day, I still do not disdain. But atheism is not the way for me. It was for a long time, but not anymore.
I’m an ex-atheist. I exist. I’m real. I am not a bigot, an intellectual cripple or a coward. Atheism and its worldview certainly benefited my life, but it also brought me to a belief in God. Shalom, and God bless you.