How I Didn’t Become an Atheist

Whenever I encounter stories about atheists, I find that their journeys away from faith started with some version of the doubts I began experiencing in middle school: How could I have been so arbitrarily lucky as to have been born in a place and time where I had access to the one and only true faith that ever existed? What about everyone else?

On the way home from church one Sunday over 20 years ago, I posed a series of hard questions to my parents. They said they didn’t know the answers. Instead, their suggestion—possibly because we were driving by his house at the moment—was to ask our family friend and dentist Dr. Mike. They didn’t know the answers but they figured he would.

Dr. Mike had been cleaning my teeth since I was a toddler and I had grown up playing with his kids. Even still, I was nervous to approach him with my doubts. It took me awhile to ask, but eventually I must have worked up the courage. He did not provide me with easy answers. In fact, he mostly asked me more questions.

I was disappointed. I thought he’d either be floored by my brilliant questions and say “I’d never thought of it that way before!” or he would be able to provide me with some nice, solid answers. He did neither. But something he said has stuck with me ever since: He told me he was more impressed with people who could ask good questions than with people who had all the answers. I felt a little dismissed at the time, but I can see now that he was dignifying my questions. He gave me permission to doubt. But he also put the responsibility for finding the answers back in my hands. He suggested some books to read and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I’ve been reading for those answers (and answers to new questions that were raised by my reading) ever since.

My story begins with the same doubts and the same dissatisfaction with the lack of easy answers that almost every atheist cites. I’ve been a spiritual seeker for 20 years but I’ve never once become an atheist or an agnostic. Does that make my search for truth any less valid?

Doubt tends to lead people in one of two directions: Most doubters seem to lock themselves out of the church and insist that meaning must be found anywhere but there. Instead, I decided to lock myself in.

Being born into a Christian family was like being born on a ship at sea. When I finally grew aware enough to look around, I saw that an uncertain ocean surrounded me but I had begun to question the soundness of the ship I was on. How did I know this ship would get me safely to my destination? What was my destination? If I doubted the seaworthiness of the ship, I could abandon the boat in search of another more worthy vessel. Instead, it seemed to me it was a better idea to test the ship I was already on by inspecting it at every joint before I jumped ship.

I wanted answers to my questions. I was too scared to become an agnostic, adrift on a sea of doubt, or an atheist who would rather drown than concede the need for a boat. I wanted Christianity to be true. All the people I loved were already on that ship. And I knew they had to have reasons I had not yet discovered. My parents and Dr. Mike all conveyed an unworried confidence that Christian thinkers could provide my answers.

I began my reading journey with C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity sometime during my freshman year of high school and then I read some books by Peter Kreeft. I picked up Jesus Among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias later in high school. I read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. I eventually discovered G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in college, a book I’ve never really stopped re-reading since then.

I remained a serious student of the Bible. I read my Bible every morning and prayed each day before I left for high school and continued this disciplined reading throughout college.

All of these books were over my head at the time that I read them. I’ve since reread enough of each of these books to recognize that I missed a great deal on my first readings. Yet, there was something comforting about always knowing there were people out there who had already asked these questions and found answers and those answers were even more complex and multi-faceted than I could absorb. And I learned a lot from the accessible images of Lewis and the stunning intelligence of Zacharias and the wit of Chesterton. I couldn’t articulate it in a debate, but I felt my confidence growing. I had not found any leaks in the faith yet.

That isn’t to say I wasn’t tempted. There were a few windows of opportunity when I saw a chance to transform myself and wondered if I shouldn’t cast off the Christian worldview so that I could enjoy the forbidden fruits of the world. One such window of opportunity presented itself during my first week at college. I realized now was the time to make a clean break of it—to stop fighting against the current with my high personal and academic standards and just go with the flow of college life as it was portrayed in movies. I hesitated. I intentionally missed my ride to a Freshman Welcome event put on by the Navigators. I took advantage of my first invitation to a house party.

I hesitated… But I didn’t take the leap of faithlessness. I joined the Navigators and took advantage of every Bible study, every discipleship opportunity, and even memorized a decent amount of scripture through their Topical Memory System. I learned to love the word of God: it was full of poetry and story and promise. I found the more I learned of it, the truer it was to my experiences. I found myself increasingly questioning the world’s explanations and recognizing how flawed other worldviews were. Christianity didn’t make full sense to me yet, but it made a great deal more sense than any alternative to which it was compared.

Then, (though it pains me to pay such short attention to such significant life events) I met and married Paul, whose determination to obey and serve the Lord excited me. Three teaching jobs and three kids later, here I am: a pastor’s wife so fully convinced of the beauty of Christ and the truth of the Christian worldview that I can’t help but write about it.

It was just this week when I learned that my experience with doubt may actually have been the key to my longstanding faith. According to a study by Fuller seminary, one of the key factors that determine whether young men and women who are believers in high school remain confident in their convictions after they leave and discover alternate worldviews was whether or not they had an opportunity to wrestle with their doubts in high school. I got the sense, both from my parents and from my dentist that they weren’t worried about protecting me from the ideas of the world. They didn’t panic. They didn’t attempt to persuade me. They ushered me into the wide world of ideas and let me look around. I don’t believe I was aware of this at the time, but I can see looking back how their confidence in Christianity made me think I had a lot more to learn about the Christian worldview before I even considered the alternatives.

I still wrestle with my questions. I’ve read Tim Keller and John Piper and J.I. Packer and Kevin DeYoung and Rosaria Butterfield and now (my favorite) Nancy Pearcey. But I’ve wrestled from inside of my belief, never doubting God’s existence or his revelation in scripture. When I told Paul that my most recent read, a book called Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey, was the last piece in a puzzle I’ve been assembling since high school, he smiled gently and said “Don’t you think you’ll be laughing at yourself in ten years for thinking that was the last piece?” I had to laugh. Of course he’s right.

Everything I read makes my view of the world a little bigger and more expansive. I’ve yet to read anything, even things written by atheists and agnostics, that didn’t fit soundly within my worldview. I can agree with many of their observations without succumbing to their conclusions. I’ve never yet had to, as Pearcey puts it, “walk off the map” created by my own ideas because my map of the world didn’t fit everything in the real world.

Perhaps it is disappointing to get to the end of this small memoir and realize there are no easy answers provided for the questions I asked at the beginning. As I reflect on my journey I realize I’d hate to shortchange some other young searcher from taking his or her own journey by trying to provide my versions of the answers to my toughest questions. I’m fully confident that anyone who searches will find no other worldview that can possibly contain all of the beauty and complexity of the world or explain the freedom, creativity, and curiosity of humans. Without a transcendent creator God, the only philosophies available are reductionist theories that tempt us to “worship and serve created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

Sometimes I fear my present faith will be discredited because I have never wandered away from the faith of my childhood. I suppose I write this simply to prove that I have endeavored on an honest and persistent search for truth from inside my faith and that my present confidence is not invalidated by the fact that I have never tried on any other philosophies or beliefs. I’ve never had a reason to.

I could explain it further, but wouldn’t you rather seek the answers for yourself?

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