The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1)
The First Sunday after Easter (my Prayer Book-moulded mind still can’t get used to calling it “the Second Sunday of Easter”) is the “liturgical anniversary” of my return to the faith in 1994. And, now I think about it, Easter Day itself is the liturgical anniversary of my becoming an atheist in 1986. So, given the recent discussions on this site about Richard Dawkins, this seems an appropriate time to look at my own experience of having been an atheist – one no less committed and robust than Dawkins himself – between the ages of 13 and 21.
I was baptised in a Roman Catholic church, but my upbringing (particularly through my involvement in church music) was fairly mainstream/traditional Church of England. To this day my default settings for what constitutes “Christian worship” are the Alternative Service Book 1980‘s Holy Communion Rite A in the morning, and Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer in the evening. By the time I was 12 or 13 I was taking my faith fairly seriously, though I’m not sure how clear an understanding I had of the gospel.
Alongside this I also had a firm interest in science, going back at least to when I started school. In particular this included a strong interest in astronomy, and an only slightly less strong interest in dinosaurs and fossils. I knew that the universe came into existence about 15 to 20 billion years old, that the solar system formed 4.6 billion years ago, that the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, that humans evolved from around two million years ago, and that the sun would swallow the earth in about five billion years’ time, as well as if these events had been part of my own direct life experience.
Becoming an atheist
This seems to have happened extremely suddenly. I was a member of the school Christian Union, though always a slightly semi-detached one (not least given my preference for traditional Anglican worship over modern ditties from “spiral-bound hymnbooks”, as they were known in my family).
On the Easter weekend in 1986, shortly after my 13th birthday, a group of us from the CU went on an away-day to the school’s “Outdoor Centre” at some particularly desolate spot in the Yorkshire Dales. I’m sure the content and style of the weekend were blameless enough in a Christian youth-camp sort of way, and I don’t hold them responsible for my decision to throw my faith away.
One morning – as I recall, Easter Day itself – I was walking downstairs at the centre when I thought to myself, “Just because science can’t currently explain how the Big Bang happened, doesn’t mean that it will never be able to do so, or that we need to say that God did it.”
And that was that. From that moment on I regarded myself as an atheist, and I imagine (though I don’t recall for certain) that that was the end of any connection I had with the CU. I don’t recall anyone from the CU trying particularly hard to persuade me back, either – but perhaps my memory really is being unfair, there.
Arguments for atheism
Having become an atheist, I then started to read up on the subject. The main books I read (and re-read, voraciously) on the subject were a couple of small books from the Rationalist Press Association that I found in the local library, and Julian Huxley’s book Evolutionary Humanism, together with Isaac Asimov’s essays on science, in particular his book Counting the Eons, my very well-read copy of which is currently sitting on the shelves three feet to my right, and which contains some particularly vigorous arguments against “scientific creationism”.
It was the RPA booklets that provided the main arguments on which my atheism rested. In summary, the argument was as follows: Christians (and other religious believers) claim that God exists. They give certain proofs to support this contention, such as:
1. The argument from design.
2. The ontological argument.
3. The argument from “first causes” (i.e. there must be an ultimate “first cause”).
4. The argument from morality.
And so on. None of these arguments hold water (as the book went on to demonstrate in each case), therefore Christians have failed to establish that God exists, therefore (with a swift application of Occam’s Razor and, in retrospect, a certain amount of hand-waving) we conclude that atheism is the only rational position to adopt.
Those were not the only arguments I used in support of my atheism (a general contempt for “fundamentalist Christians” in general, and creationists in particular, helped as well). But this was still the main philosophical basis for my atheistic beliefs.
Returning to faith
This isn’t the place to go into all the details of how God brought me back to faith in 1994. However, the absolutely key point is this: I did not become a Christian because I was persuaded that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence, as outlined above, were in fact correct. Rather, I encountered arguments that bypassed my objections to God’s existence.
In particular, I was persuaded of the reliability and credibility of the apostles’ account of the resurrection. The logic then went something like this (and I was very conscious at the time that this was the line of reasoning I was following): the most rational conclusion that can be drawn from the gospel accounts is that Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, Jesus was the Son of God. Therefore, there must be a God for Jesus to be the Son of.
That was by no means the only thing that persuaded me to become a Christian, but that was certainly a key part of the process.
Reappraising the arguments for atheism
So where does that leave those arguments for atheism? Well, I am still profoundly unconvinced by the traditional arguments for God’s existence as listed above. Even if they are technically correct – a big “if” in some cases – they do not necessarily lead people to the true and living God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than some shadowy Deist figure. And they also lack any power to transform unbelieving hearts, which can only be achieved by the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the gospel. I’m reminded of the story of Bertrand Russell, walking down The High in Oxford and suddenly exclaiming, “Well I never! The ontological proof is correct!” – without that leading him anywhere even in the vicinity of Christian faith.
When I came to look back at my eight years as an atheist, I realised that what I’d been doing was constructing a God of my own imagining and coming up with persuasive and convincing arguments not to believe in that imaginary God. I realised that I still don’t believe in the God I didn’t believe in as an atheist.
I’m not saying that’s true of every atheist. I don’t doubt there are many atheists who have a thorough and accurate knowledge of Christian theology, and who know full well what they are rejecting. But when I read comments like Richard Dawkins’ defence of his theological ignorance (“It’s a non-subject”), then I can’t help but feel that people like Dawkins are doing exactly what I did in my teens: inventing an unbelievable God, and then duly disbelieving in him. On the plus side, that does at least leave the faintest glimmer of hope that Dawkins could one day find himself, as I was, taken by surprise by the true and living God.