Saved by an Atheist
I became a Christian again during my last year of college. After years of wrestling with God and doubting his existence, I had an intense, spiritual epiphany that seemed to change my life instantly. The following day, though it sounds hokey to say so, the grass looked greener, the sky bluer. Ordering coffee that day from a complete stranger, I nearly burst into tears. This is another child of God! I thought to myself. What a shame I'm handing her cash instead of praising God with her.
That moment was unlike any I've ever since experienced. Suddenly, and without words, I knew that God had said to me, I AM. Nothing more, just I AM. With those words, God told me that he cared enough about me to reveal just this little bit about himself. I AM. It answered none of my questions and gave no explanation for God's five-year absence in my life. But those words were enough. I could say with Peter, "You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
There were a number of people through whom God worked before that revelation. Yet the biggest influence on my spiritual journey was the novels and philosophy of Albert Camus, a French existentialist of the 1940s and '50s—and an atheist. C. S. Lewis warned, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." Camus should have been safe territory for me, but as I like to say now, I was saved by an atheist.
"If there were no God, there would be no atheists," said G. K. Chesterton. My own period of doubt came not because the idea of God or miracles seemed wrong, but because God himself wronged me. That's how I saw it, at least. Though atheists may argue that the existence of a supreme being is impossible, their arguments often reveal a belief that God just doesn't behave as they think he should. In a debate, Christopher Hitchens complained about war and killing in the Old Testament. He said he wrote his book God Is Not Great in response to the murders in Muslim countries that followed the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. None of these are arguments against God's existence, but rather arguments against how God and especially his followers act.
That is why traditional atheism is a highly moral philosophy, and one worthy of respect, even while we strongly disagree with it. In his book The Twilight of Atheism, Alister McGrath describes the atheism that emerged during the Enlightenment as "one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, capable of capturing the imagination of generations." Lewis shared the same respect for this godless tradition. Introducing one of his tutors, Kirkpatrick, in Surprised by Joy, Lewis calls him an atheist, but hastens to qualify the description: "He was a 'Rationalist' of the old, high and dry nineteenth-century type. For Atheism has come down in the world since those days." In his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis developed a character based on Kirkpatrick and included him among a small group working to save the world from evil. Maybe Lewis simply harbored fondness for his teacher, but I suspect he saw some spiritual hope in the old man's atheism.
Such hope is not misplaced. Timothy Larsen, professor of history at Wheaton College and author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, says he has come to see doubt as a way in which we take our faith seriously: "If you haven't doubted, you haven't re-owned your faith." Many Victorian atheists, Larsen discovered, converted back to Christianity. "Some actually are really trying to answer questions. That's why they sound so angry," he says. "They're in a struggle for their own soul."