Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People

Monday, August 11th, 2008

The title of this post alludes to the first few paragraphs of another I made recently (July 21, 2008): “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism.” Briefly put, I there compared becoming an atheist during my high school years to joining an imaginary elite society I’d glimpsed through reading Bertrand Russell and other such thinkers: The Club of Truly Smart People.

Now, back in those ancient days of my youth, there was no internet (no personal computers even) to provide access to and communication with the whole world. Living as I did in Dallas County, Texas, I really had no contact with other atheists or agnostics, known to me as such, until I went away to college. Well, I had at least one friend whom I think I had pretty well convinced of the irrationality of religion (God forgive me), but there was certainly no organized and open community of atheists. It was partly the ideal and semi-underground quality of membership in the imaginary club that gave it so much prestige in my mind. I should add that I did not wish for this to be a permanent condition. I looked forward to meeting others who shared my views and hoped that I would live to see progress toward the dispelling of the religious superstition that somehow still lived on in peoples’ minds.

I viewed religion and racial prejudice and discrimination in pretty much the same way, and even as being closely tied together, since I knew so many people who believed both in God and racial segregation, which was manifestly unjust in practice. This was pre-Civil-Rights-Law Texas, which was an apartheid society with oppressive government-enforced separation of races, basically an insane world view that it’s hard even to conceive of now.

As so often happens, I’m seeing things more clearly as I write about them. That connection in my mind between racism and religion was no doubt one of the factors that pushed religion into the category of being too unacceptably backward for further consideration. At the same time, I would have acknowledged that my personal rejection of racism was mainly based on the clear teachings of Christianity. I might note that my inability to come up with a satisfactory non-religious source for ethics and morality remained a problem for me until my conversion.

These times are very different. Partly, I’m sure, as a defensive response to Biblical literalists’ efforts to force inclusion of “Creation Science” in school textbooks and the perceived growth of the “Religious Right” as a political force, something of an antireligious movement has come into being that goes well beyond defense of science teaching or support for legal abortion. The number of atheistic and antireligious books appearing in recent years certainly far exceeds anything I’ve seen in decades past. Of course the internet and the blog phenomenon have made it easy for like-minded people to communicate and congregate virtually online, and atheists have taken advantage of the opportunity.

I recently did a little web surfing through atheist-oriented websites. Although my club analogy for smokers and atheists was fanciful, atheism as a sort of club (atheists strongly object to its being called a religion) actually makes a good deal of sense these days, at least for those who publicly define themselves as atheists and join together to promote and defend their views. It’s worth noting that the people that frequent atheist blogs and web sites are probably no more typical of atheists than the regulars on the Sons of Sam Horn web site are of average Red Sox fans, to take an example close to my home. From what I’ve observed, online atheists probably would agree that their society of non-believers does amount to The Club of Truly Smart People. Let this not be taken to mean that there are not, for example, Christian circles that view themselves as The Club of the Truly Saved People.

One thing I discovered in my surfing is that the atheists’ club now has an official emblem, a red letter A (get it?) that bloggers can post on their web pages to indicate their club membership. The show-the-A push is part of a campaign, evidently led by Richard Dawkins (a quote of whose I critiqued in my previous post), to have atheists “come out” as such. Dawkins apparently sees a commercial opportunity in atheism, since he has a web site that sells not only his books but tee shirts bearing the atheist logo and worn in the ads by nice-looking female models. I know it’s just me, but I was reminded of the cover of my old paperback copy of 1984 which featured a woman with an Anti-Sex League tee shirt.

One of the atheist blogs I encountered was called The Friendly Atheist. Its then most recent post asked readers to respond to the question “What Christian Arguments Could Use a Good, Short Answers?” This was taken by most of the commenters to call for humorous responses. Perhaps it was the blog’s name that invited me to post in the comments section the following off-topic entry:

July 22, 2008 at 9:29 am

Since this is the “Friendly” Atheist site, I dare to write here as a former atheist, current friendly theist. I’d just like to remind everyone that the question of God’s existence is really the most important one we have to answer, since it determines whether or not we find purpose in the universe. There is not really a competition between atheists and theists. There are arguments for God that involve no references to scripture of any kind. I invite you to read my post On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism for something about my personal experience.

I can see now that this was a bit like coming into the club house and telling the club members to stop horsing around and get serious about leaving the club to join its big rival. I wouldn’t have done it on a normal day, but I was still in the frame of mind in which the writing of my piece had left me.

The deed was done. How would they respond? I had already seen that someone had taken issue with one of the suggested anti-Christian retorts by defending (in a less than optimal way) the historicity of Jesus. He had been challenged and even ridiculed for his assertion by several commenters, but hadn’t really been abused, so I assumed that forays into the blog comment section by theists (assuming that commenter was one) were not forbidden, and were perhaps even welcome if only as a way of sharpening arguments and displaying them before other blog readers.

The full back and forth that went on between me and the other commenters can be found at Although their screen names (presumably identical to their actual names in some cases) can be seen there, and the comment section of a blog is in the nature of a public forum, I still feel more comfortable quoting commenters with the designation Commenter A etc. since they didn’t envision their comments appearing here.

The first response that I got (from Commenter A of course) explicitly welcomed me, then followed with

I am wondering if you’re going to keep posting here, or if you’re doing a one-or-two-off post. (I tend to get deep into conversations with new posters who have provocative questions… then they leave!)

There followed several paragraphs, mainly attacking the notion that purpose in the universe was a meaningful idea and pointing out unsupported assumptions (in the view of Commenter A) that I had made relating to the idea of purpose. He closed with

I won’t join a church full of people who are sure until I’m sure as well.

Have you evidence?

It was only as the discussion went on that I came to realize (I’m pretty sure that I’m right) that Commenter A was not just being confrontational, which is how it had seemed, but was genuinely if naively hoping to obtain such convincing evidence. His machinegunner’s approach to firing off questions and rebuttals to supposed arguments made it pretty clear why earlier theists had left before he was satisfied though.

Commenter B came on to say that she(?) had read my “blog/essay” but still had a question:

…what made you become a theist? was it because your previous ‘worldview’ (as an atheist) carried with it “the burden of purposeless mortality”? is that the main reason?

I ask because, although your blog post/essay is quite lengthy, you never really seem to touch on the specifics of what led to your ‘conversion’.

Now, in my blog post, which Commenter B said she’d read, I had explicitly said that my personal story would have to wait for another time. I could have left it at that, but given Commenter B’s friendly, even complimentary, tone, combined with my posted comment having called forth a number of responses, I felt I probably owed them a brief account, which I provided. I don’t know if it was a good idea or not, as it evidently deflected some of them from considering the main message of my blog post, which was whether they were open to any sort of evidence for God’s existence, toward making a quick decision about whether this bare outline of my spiritual trajectory presented a convincing argument for theism.

The commenters at the Friendly Atheist blog were going to view things in terms of arguments in any case, as this excerpt from the response of Commenter C to my blog post illustrates:

You then go on to quote a few major modern atheists and discuss them. Badly, judging by the few segments I could bother to read. I was personally interested in your own spiritual journey (I already quit smoking a couple of years ago).

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t just the sheer massive length of the post that put me off. But your arguments, such as they are, mostly fit nicely into Daniel Florien’s hundreds of proofs. I commend them to you as a resource. You could have saved us both some time by simply annotating which ones you were using.

Well, let’s skip over the rather unfriendly tone; since I did after all step into the clubhouse uninvited. The part that is very typical is the reference to my “arguments” (“such as they were,” but there weren’t any!) and how there’s nothing new in them. Is Commenter C really looking for a novel argument after centuries of disputation? Perhaps, but I think he is mainly out to display his worthiness for continued membership in the Club of Truly Smart People by being able to categorize arguments for theism and refute them by mere reference.

At the same time, of course, this ability to label an argument and toss it into the already-refuted pile, also serves as a way to avoid actually considering any arguments for God’s existence, for there are not going to be any new ones. Commenter C was not alone in this; virtually all of the commenters classified arguments by name (when they didn’t suggest going to a list, as this one did.) And yet that “personally interested in your own spiritual journey” seems to be genuine, so perhaps there is another truly disappointed reader.

Commenter C closes by quoting two sentences from my blog post and commenting on them.

Final observation:

[Quoting my blog post] “Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point.”

I think I’ll let that stand as emblematic of your arguments.

I’m not sure what Commenter C thought I was arguing for in that passage or whether he understood the point I was making, which I think should have been clear from the context. Anyone that wants to can go to near the end of my blog post and find the relevant section, which was mainly devoted to asking the atheist reader to seriously consider what, if anything, would truly constitute evidence for God. The quoted passage about prayer and revelation was addressed only to anyone that might feel direct revelation to be the only satisfactory evidence. It was meant to point out the inherent contradiction in that approach since prayer (a plausible minimal condition—nothing said about a guarantee—for its success) was not something a convinced atheist would usually be open to. The whole point was to remove that approach from consideration.

Everyone that mentioned the passage about prayer took it to mean that I was recommending something I thought they wouldn’t accept, and therefore leaving them without a prayer, so to speak. My inability to get my point across (judging from the responses, anyway) was very frustrating, but probably had as much to do with their mind-set and expectations as my expository skill.

Commenter A returned to have his say on the same quote about prayer, which he probably had seen only as quoted out of context:

To put it short and snappy: I prayed. Nothing happened. I’ve tried it several times, in several ways described by believers as the way to get certain results. When they failed, others told me I did it wrong. Must I repeat this attempt with each and every ‘god’ and ‘conception of God’ believed in by thousands of generations of humanity?

Because if you excuse me, I’ve got some living to do before I die. I’ll leave the chasing of ghosts to the Ghostbusters.

I’d say that the experience of Commenter A points to the need for trying another approach, but I feel the disappointment; and his desire for knowledge of God is apparent. I also wonder if there were really “believers” that told him that a specific way of praying would lead to “certain results.” I’m not doubting his word, just hoping there was a misunderstanding.

It seemed to be a bit disconcerting to some of the current members of The Club to encounter a former member that had not only resigned from membership but had, so to speak, joined the rival club. They responded in various ways to this puzzling phenomenon.

Commenter D in particular questioned my veracity. He wasn’t at all sure that I really had ever been a member:

After looking into Lee Strobel and his “Half-Case For Christ”, I am pretty skeptical of people who claim to be former atheists.

Others (let’s start with Commenter E) thought the club was clearly better off without me, as I had never belonged in it in the first place, not having the guts for it:

You wanted comfort, and there was none, so you switched beliefs to one that comforted you. Okay, so you’re weak. I can understand that, but don’t use it as an argument for theism.

Or (Commenter E again) sufficient breadth of intellect:

Dude, it’s clear to me that you never thought through your atheism. You were just young, arrogant, and ignorant. You are a narrow thinker; probably good for a work-a-day physicist, but not for someone tackling a subject like the existence of god.

Well, my being young and immature when I first became an atheist was one of the main points of my original blog post. As I lived, matured, and thought more, over decades, I finally was able to break free (with God’s help, I believe) from the mind-set that admits no possibility of the spiritual. But that hardly conveys all that went on, which I have pretty well committed to describing through this blog in more detail. Of course I have my own opinion about what constitutes narrow thinking—and arrogance, for that matter.

Commenter F expressed sentiments similar to the ones above on the inadequacy of my education and manliness to sustain my club membership:

…It just seems as though you were not an educated atheist back when you still were. I will wholeheartedly agree with you that the Universe is a wonderful place; I’ll even admit that I once thought as you do, and am still tempted to explain all this wonder by believing in something that I wish to be true, but is likely not. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows yet, just how all this works as it does. We may never crack the code, but that’s no reason to start dreaming up gods to make us sleep better at night.…I say, use your brain like a man (sorry women). Some things are difficult to accept–so what, do we just avoid them and prefer comforting beliefs, shut our eyes and whistle past the graveyard?

The interesting thing about the excerpt from Commenter F just quoted is that it acknowledges that the absence of God is difficult to accept, that God’s existence is something to wish for. It was this implicit longing for God that I was trying to point out (in my blog post) in the writings of Weinberg and Dawkins. I believe this is a universal longing innate in all thinking creatures because we are creatures of God. This very longing is in itself a reason seriously to consider God’s existence. I say this knowing it is the kind of quantum-tunneling statement (metaphorically speaking) that escapes the classical confines of the proof-demanding atheist.

Commenter F speculated that it was a genetic defect that had caused me to drop out of the club:

You were bothered by a Universe with no purpose, and now you feel better. Same old things. Reading your words makes me consider again the idea that propensity to believe in religions may be genetic.

Commenter A seemed to become increasingly troubled by my continuing to respond to comments, though he was the one that had initially expressed the hope that I not leave after only a couple of posts.

Treat us like human beings here. Don’t come here to chortle “ho ho ho, I once thought as you did, ho ho ho” and tell us where we’ve got it all wrong.

I’m not sure what your goals here are. If they are conversation, you’re failing. If they are conversion, you’re failing. If they are to convince us that you’re a deep thinker, you’re failing.

So why are you here? Is it to make yourself feel superior by dangling some meat over the edge of the dinner table to see if the dogs jump?

It’s almost as though Commenter A thinks I am taunting him by withholding some secret key to enlightenment, or pretending to do so. The interested reader can go to the full comments to see how little my words justified this kind of response. I wish Commenter A well in his spiritual quest, though I don’t think I have much more to contribute to it at this point. However, I invite him or anyone else interested in a more private conversation to email me.

Having been rebuked several times by the “friendlies” over the length of my posts, I think I will not get into our dialog, for now at least. I assume the whole comment section is still available for those that are interested.

I don’t regret having had the conversation “in the clubhouse,” though I don’t plan to make a habit of it. I’ll let my readers judge how well the excerpts of comments I’ve quoted (and the full set) fit in with the notion of some atheists’ seeing themselves as constituting The Club of Truly Smart People. Though most commenters had trouble suppressing their scorn for this turncoat and some didn’t try, I don’t hold it against them. Comment sections do not bring out the best in people for a number of reasons.

I detect in some of the comments disappointment or even resentment that I had no new and irrefutable argument or scientific evidence for God’s existence. I can only repeat that I claim no new evidence, even as I urge everyone to examine seriously and deeply all the circumstantial evidence in this ultimate mystery. I totally reject the idea, expressed by a number of commenters, that we choose whether to believe in God. We do, however, choose whether to strive for an open mind and what kind of evidence to consider. I again recommend the Polkinghorne book Belief in God in an Age of Science as a possible starting point.

I’m planning to take a break from metaphysical questions, but sometimes they are hard to escape, so we’ll see how it goes. That Michael Phelps can really swim, can’t he?

On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism

Monday, July 21st, 2008

At the risk of thoroughly alienating some potential readers, I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Despite my physics background, I am not an atheist, though I was one—and a “hard” atheist at that, one who would almost certainly have quit reading the blog of an avowed theist had there been blogs back then—throughout most of my adult life. I well remember my mindset as an atheist, though it is absolutely foreign to me now, and I look back at those decades with some wonderment at how I stayed stuck so long in what I now see as an immature world view, which I stumbled into during my adolescence.

I, as many do in those years of immaturity, made some bad decisions back in high school. First I joined the Cool Sophisticates’ Club (open to all cigarette smokers without further accomplishment) and a little later The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club (one of whose main requirements was a rejection of all religion and any belief in a Creator). I think I was fortunate that there was no functioning Cool Drug Users’ Club at my high school back in those days, though the possibly even more dangerous Wild and Crazy Beer Drinkers’ Club was definitely taking in members. I’m not sure The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club had any other members in my high school, but I could read (Bertrand Russell, for example), so I knew it existed, and I was ready to claim my place in it, especially as I had just discovered (and greatly overestimated the extent of its explanatory power) ambien physics.

I was able to get beyond the idea of cigarette smoking as a cool thing to do (even if Sartre, Brando, and James Dean all smoked) in a few years and, after about a year of trying to quit, finally escaped the notoriously strong hold which nicotine has on those addicted to it. But my addiction to the view that science can explain everything worth considering proved to have more staying power than nicotine’s chemical changes to my brain. Part of the difference was, I think, that, while I came to see that membership in the Cool Sophisticates’ Club, in addition to bringing serious health hazards, really carried no cachet, since any punk with half a dollar could join it, The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club maintained its elite, even heroic, status in my mind.

Someday I may trace on these pages (if I may call them that) my path to recognizing that our universe is created and meaningful. Given my intellectual approach to things, it was certainly a more purely reasoned and rational path than most people would take; which is not to say that it was at the end merely a logical conclusion with no mystical component. So the story may be of interest to zithromax others.

Today, however, I feel moved to look back at a couple of statements made by famous atheists, which, when I first read them, found great favor with me as being wonderfully eloquent. I somehow felt pride at being able to join with these highly intelligent and bravely defiant men in facing the reality of the meaninglessness of the universe, while inwardly mocking those who took the cowardly, intellectually weak way out: religious mystification and consolation. Of course, I have a very different response to them xanax now.

The first passage to which I refer was written by Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist whose work on unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces of subatomic interactions was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. Weinberg, in addition to his contributions to theoretical physics, has written several books that attempt to explain new physics discoveries to the general educated public. One of his most famous works in this line was The First Three Minutes, which dealt with physicists’ understanding of what took place immediately after the initial singularity or big bang (or moment of creation or beginning of time) from which our universe seems to have sprung into being.

In the Epilogue of this book Weinberg writes the following (speaking at first of our beautiful Earth): “It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.”

Weinberg is a very good writer, and I recommend his books both for the science and the writing. But let us critically consider this passage of his. First comes his dismay that, from what we can tell, life must be very rare in the universe. The thought of all that vast space devoid of the conditions for life is evidently depressing to him, but that is a personal view, not something everyone must feel of necessity. If God created the Heavens and the Earth, this is the Earth and everything else is the Heavens. Consider the wonders of what we have here, whether or not we are the unique home to ativan life!

Then comes his reference to the “unspeakably unfamiliar early condition.” What should we expect from the moments after creation? Isn’t there cause for joy that we have been able to arrive at a reasonable scenario for that almost unimaginable period of time, rather than depression that it is so strange to us?

Future extinction? We know that each of us faces personal extinction in this material world already. That the universe may (and we are extrapolating from incomplete knowledge) also have an end, or an end to its life-supporting time, is depressing from the purely materialist viewpoint to some minds, but is it inherently depressing? Weinberg sees the continuation of life or, in truth, conscious, intelligent life, into the indefinite future as the main criterion for there being (just possibly) purpose to the universe. I wonder if the reason why the prospect of an end to all life in the universe seems so hard to Weinberg is that psychologically it makes our own end seem even more final. Perhaps it is just a transference of sadness over personal mortality to that of the universe. I might add that, whatever beliefs a theist may have about personal survival, God’s eternal existence is not in question.

From my current perspective, it seems obvious that hoping to find purpose in mere matter is bound to lead to disappointment. Weinberg is trying to read the universe as one reads tea leaves, searching for meaning in quarks and galaxies, but he seems to be excluding in advance the existence of a Creator as an outcome of this interpretation, thereby eliminating the only possible source of purpose. Weinberg sees the scarcity and precariousness of life as a sign of pointlessness. In Weinberg’s view, the briefness of life’s candle in the universe, makes human life in essence farcical, with scientific research offering the only meager, perhaps illusory, hope of temporary transcendence. Thus he rejects the mere existence of any conscious life existing at all as evidence for meaning, though I see this is as clearly a matter of personal opinion and interpretation.

At the time I first read it, I think I took Weinberg’s statement (and the words that follow it) as a powerful upholding of the materialist viewpoint and an admirable way of responding to its hard realities. Now I see that the only argument that could be extracted from it is circular, as it assumes materialism from the beginning. Within this materialist context, a single finite creature examines the universe from the standpoint of his own personal preferences and finds that the universe fails to match his hopes, which he takes as proof that there is no purpose to the universe. And it is only this perceived lack of purpose that could be used as an argument for the materialist view, already assumed.

It may be reasonable to think that the creation of moral, rational beings was one of the purposes, or even the purpose, for the creation of the universe, but a human being is overstepping the bounds of competence in rendering judgment on the whole project of creation based on personal feelings about whether the universe should continue to support material life eternally. And what is Weinberg getting at anyway? Does the idea of a purpose without a mind and agent behind it make sense at all? It seems that Weinberg is actually trying to see signs of God in the universe; but he has auditioned God and rejected Him as not suiting the part.

The second quotation comes from Richard Dawkins, the well-known biologist and author of popular books explaining natural selection and evolution from a strongly anti-teleogical standpoint (e.g., The Blind Watchmaker) and, more recently, a spokesman and propagandist for atheism (The God Delusion).

Here is what Dawkins wrote in a Scientific American article in 1995: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. …In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

Whoa, Richard, hold on. Precisely the properties? I can imagine universes much more devoid of obvious design or purpose. What about one with only empty dark space: no matter and no light? What about one in which stars never ignite? What if the physical laws were changing all the time, so that nothing could persist, nothing were predictable? Yes, but there would be no pain and suffering in those empty universes, and that is really Dawkins’s only point.

While Weinberg is downhearted over the insufficient friendliness of the universe to life in both space and time, Dawkins, the life scientist, sees the existence of life as it actually is as a conclusive argument against purpose and good and evil. Beyond the suffering, Dawkins doesn’t seem to like chance and contingency at all, which is somewhat surprising given the supreme role it plays in his view of evolution and its wonderful results. But I gather he finds evolution by natural selection as being in itself an argument against God for the reason that any God worth his salt wouldn’t leave things to painful chance that way. Curiously, on this point he thus finds himself in agreement with religious fundamentalists who use it as an argument against evolution!

Dawkins surveys our universe of beautiful order, as seen in its physical laws and the immensely complex phenomena that flow from them—including the production of thinking creatures such as Dawkins himself—and then implies that if he were God, he would surely have done things differently. I gather he would have avoided all animal suffering and the eating of one animal by another. He is not the first to wish for this, but does the existence of animal suffering really show there is “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good?” Or does the notion of good and evil only apply to moral creatures such as ourselves? Is Dawkins not trying to impose his own idea of morality to the whole animal kingdom?

Dawkins is really wishing for Heaven on Earth, isn’t he? The ultimate materialist seems to be longing for a purely spiritual existence in which eating and dying don’t occur. In some circles such beings are known as Angels. Or perhaps there should be only vegan animals that live forever. That is an Edenic vision. Yes, Dawkins has a particular bone to pick with God: he doesn’t like animal suffering or anything involving chance accidents that harm the good as well as the bad or even give better genes to one individual than to another. Starting from his perception of “pitiless indifference,” he extrapolates to “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” How can one even speak of good and evil if the concepts have no meaning in this universe? Dawkins goes well beyond Weinberg in his willingness to judge Creation.

Both Weinberg and Dawkins are turning their backs on God basically because they find fault with Creation: Weinberg because it seems life won’t last forever and Dawkins because of animal suffering. There can be no God because this universe offends me in certain ways is what they seem to be saying. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth! Actually, I shouldn’t say they are turning their backs on God because of these perceived shortcomings of the universe. They, as I did, very likely banished God from their lives without giving it much thought at an early age. Now they are finding reasons to maintain their world view; and it is good to remember the distinction.

Why did I particularly remember these two statements? I think I know. They are both examples of how deep the spiritual pit can be for a materialist that thinks a lot about such matters as purpose in the universe. I too was one of those. These men both find that the universe is far different from their ideal one They use the perceived defects in Creation as their argument against a Creator. This goes well beyond “I see no evidence for God” or “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

No, these critiques are from men who are deeply disappointed in their failure to discern purpose in the universe, though this is bound to be the result of confining their search to the materialist context. Based on my own experience, I have to think that they are yearning for God, even as they resist turning to God, and even rail against belief in God, which they see as irrational, just as I now know I was yearning when I found their indictments of Creation praiseworthy. Purpose cannot be pulled out of the material universe without reference to a Creator whose power and wisdom, by very virtue of their being the Creator’s, are beyond question.

So what about suffering? That there are some things beyond the limits of our understanding is something we must humbly accept. Those who believe in God do not demand that God satisfy their personal criteria for perfection in the universe, but recognize the great disparity between creature and creator in understanding, wisdom, and power. I think the immense disparity–infinite disparity—between creature and Creator is the hardest thing for an atheist to imagine and appreciate. It really has to be experienced. This disparity is expressed poetically in an ancient text (Isaiah 55:8-9) thusly: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I think that in originally accepting both Weinberg’s and Dawkins’s statements as exemplary, I was looking for and finding support from prestigious sources for my world view, with which my very self seemed inextricably entwined after so many years. Weinberg is one of us! I should have known that a man of such brilliance would agree with me on the subject of God and purpose. This of course confirmed once again that I was indeed a member of The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club. Beyond that, I have come to realize during the course of writing this piece, I took heart from the authors’ being able to carry on in the world under the burden of purposeless mortality.

I recall a conversation my wife had with one of my son’s sixth grade teachers, an atheist who, as most atheists probably are, was puzzled at the persistence of the superstitious, as he saw it, belief in God. I think more out of curiosity than through a desire to convert the students to his unspoken view on the subject, he had had them write briefly on why they thought people believed in God. In discussing this exercise with him my wife had told the teacher that I wasn’t an atheist, which he had naturally found surprising since he knew I was a physicist. She told him a little about my conversion and that I thought theism was more reasonable than atheism. This revelation evidently made him consider in a theoretical way the possibility, perhaps for the first time, that he might change his own mind on the subject. He said, “I don’t know how I could deal with that. My atheism is so much a part of who I am. I wouldn’t want that.”

Our strongly held beliefs, including our negative ones, are a major part of who we think we are. Weinberg and Dawkins were helping to reinforce my sense of self and the pride I could take in it. My son’s teacher was saying that even if he were wrong on the most important question of all, that of God’s existence, he would rather not change his mind because the attendant psychic adjustment would be too great. I doubt that he was really admitting the possibility that he might be wrong, but only thinking about how utterly different his outlook would be were he to change his mind on the ultimate question. In other words, he feared the mutilation of his self beyond recognition. For myself, during decades as an atheist, the only reason I could have imagined for my adopting theism at some point in the future would have been insanity.

When I was addicted to smoking, every cigarette I smoked not only kept my physical addiction going; it also helped reinforce my image of myself as a smoker; and, of course, the world can be divided along smoker and non-smoker lines just as along atheist and theist lines. I believe there was a similar dual reinforcement of my habit of thought at work in my reading of atheistic writing by authors I admired. I find it very plausible that statements like those by Weinberg and Dawkins may have served the function of maintaining a kind of downright physical addiction to the atheistic outlook. I certainly took pleasure in reading them far beyond what was justified by the content, which, as we’ve seen, was deeply pessimistic in tone and without value as argument. Thus there was probably something chemical going on in my brain that I liked and would want to have repeated.

Just as smokers continue to light up in order to relieve the anxiety brought about by the onset of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, so that the main purpose in the drug’s use becomes preventing the negative psychological effects of the addiction itself; so did I find comfort in reading such statements, though small comfort, from the ever present sense of despair that came with my bleak view of the universe as a place without meaning.

I would like to encourage any atheist that’s read this far to consider this one thing: whether or not God exists to give a purpose to the universe and our lives is the most important philosophical and personal question we have to answer correctly in our brief time of life. Were you raised an atheist or did you come, as I did, to atheism before reaching intellectual maturity? If so, then you may want to re-examine that step you took. Throughout history and into our own times there have been many “truly smart people,” who have recognized God’s existence, and their conclusions should not be dismissed out of hand. I’m speaking of scientifically literate people to whom the idea that God is a substitute for science applies not at all.

The question of God’s existence deserves deep investigation and thought and not casual dismissal for lack of scientific “evidence,” when the very nature of such hypothetical conclusive evidence is never even postulated. Can you imagine what the scientific evidence for God would look like? If not then perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction and not seriously looking at all. If there is some single phenomenon in the world (the suffering of innocents, for example) that prevents your even considering God’s existence, try to put it aside for the time being.

If the evidence you demand is something in the nature of a direct communication from God, then you are speaking of revelation, not sharable evidence. Keep in mind also that hostility to belief in God often becomes hostility to God. Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point. Only a miracle will satisfy you? Just remember that if God exists, you are not in a position relative to the Creator to set the terms of your enlightenment.

Also, keep in mind that if God exists, then so does the spiritual realm; for God is not material. Thus a categorial dismissal of the spiritual right from the outset is already a renunciation of the inquiry. If we are spiritual creatures as well as material, then internal evidence may need to be considered also, even though it is not objective in the sense that you could guarantee the same experience to another under the same conditions.

Evidence can be material or circumstantial. The law recognizes that circumstantial evidence can lead to certainty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps there is circumstantial evidence to be considered in the question of God’s existence? There is. A book that made a strong (decisive, really, coming when it did) impression on me was by John Polkinghorne (a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest) entitled Belief in God in an Age of Science. It is of course written from a Christian standpoint, but the main arguments are for a Creator God without reference to scripture but only to the observable facts of the universe. Polkinghorne is a prime example of a “truly smart” theist. Of course, for an atheist to accept God’s existence requires him or her to drink long from the cup of humility, which comes with recognizing that oh so many “dumb” people have been correct on the most important question of existence all along.

Will strong circumstantial evidence satisfy you? There’s no way to answer that question in advance. From my own experience I can say that becoming convinced intellectually can lead to an opening of the heart from which certainty comes. And, in my experience, the nature of that certainty is very different from and stronger than the anxious and despairing lack of hope I felt as an atheist. The recognition of God as the Creator is not the end of the journey, far from it. With that awesome recognition comes the exciting responsibility of figuring out what that means for one’s own life.

My own evolution from atheist to theist took many years, and I was not consciously open on the question until near the end of that time. There’s no turning back the clock, but I feel very blessed that I didn’t die before I changed. I recommend to anyone at all open to the quest for God to try to become yet more open. If you are looking for Truth you are already on the right path.