An atheist, according to Merriam-Webster, is a person who does not believe that God exists. One of the tenets of modern atheism is that people only believe in God because that's what they grew up with, what they've been taught. As Richard Dawkins states in the introduction to the 1996 edition of The Blind Watchmaker, "In most cases, they know deep down what to believe because their parents recommended an ancient book that tells them what to believe."
Mr. Dawkins has said he had a typical Anglican upbringing. He was born in Kenya to British parents and moved to England at the age of eight, where he attended a Church of England school. At the age of sixteen he decided that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for the complexity of life than what he had been taught in school, and since the only argument for the existence of God that carried any weight in his mind was that of the apparent design of nature, he discarded his belief in God.
Christopher Hitchens, another of the New Atheists, grew up with parents who did not try to impose any religion on him. He was, however, taught religion at school. In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he tells of his earliest awakening to atheism at the age of nine: His teacher said, "So you see children, how powerful and generous God is. He made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color which is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be." Mr. Hitchens says, he "simply knew" that his teacher had gotten everything the wrong way about, then goes on to rant against God and all religion, which, Mr. Hitchens claims, kills.
If it is true that people only believe in God because that's what they had been taught as children, then how do we explain people who come to Christ in other ways? What should our reaction be when firm atheists – people who are brilliant, well-educated thinkers, even leaders in their fields – turn to God because of a thorough examination of the evidence? Could a reasoned response to the evidence actually be that there is a God?
Below are thumbnail sketches of four such people – atheists who became convinced, dedicated followers of Jesus Christ. These, and others like them, are a reason I believe in God.
I had some time to kill one day while waiting for a train in Penn Station so I meandered into a bookstore and picked up a book by Francis Collins called The Language of God. A physician/geneticist currently the director of the National Institutes of Health, Mr. Collins was the leader of the International Human Genome Project, the group that worked for decades to map the DNA sequence carrying the blueprint for building a human being.
The book opens in the East Room of the White House, June 2000, with President Bill Clinton's announcement of the working draft of the human genome. As Collins and a colleague stood alongside, Clinton spoke words that grabbed a huge amount of press: "Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."
To the surprise of many, Collins, with a doctorate in physical chemistry from Yale and an M.D. from University of North Carolina, chimed in, echoing and expanding upon Clinton's words. As he explains in his book, "For me, the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship."
How did this rigorously trained scientist come to faith? Had his "parents recommended an ancient book that [told him] what to believe"? Had he been indoctrinated by some religious education at a young age and just drifted into faith?
Quite the contrary. Mr. Collins had been a firm atheist when, as a third-year medical student and challenged as to what he believed, he realized he had never seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.
Mr. Collins had grown up with free-thinking parents, hippies before their time. Faith was not an important part of his childhood. When he was five, his parents sent him to become part of a boys' choir at a local Episcopal church, but cautioned him not to take the theology too seriously. He listened to his parents, and enjoyed the music while ignoring the preaching. At ten his family moved to another city, and for the first time the homeschooler attended public school. Science became his passion, and by the time he was a few months into college at the University of Virginia, he had decided that, while various religions had inspired some good art and culture, they really had no basis in fact.
He became an agnostic, someone who feels it's impossible to know whether or not God exists. He admits that, in his case, it was less "I don't know," than, "I don't want to know." He was a young man, the world had many temptations to offer, and it was inconvenient to need to be accountable to any higher spiritual authority. He was willfully blind.
In graduate school he gradually moved from agnosticism to atheism, concluding that "no thinking scientist could seriously entertain the possibility of God without committing some sort of intellectual suicide" (The Language of God). If anyone happened to bring up their spiritual beliefs, he would shoot them down, asserting such belief was wishful thinking and outmoded superstition.
Then came medical school. Mr. Collins had become disillusioned with the career path he was on. Being a chemistry professor giving the same lectures year after year didn't appeal to him; he wanted to do something that combined his love of science with the possibility of a real contribution to humanity. Ph.D. in hand, he began to study medicine.
A few years into the program, as he started to work with patients more and more, he began to gain a respect for the religious faith of many of the people he would treat, concluding that if faith was a psychological crutch, it was a very powerful one. His was puzzled that these people weren't expressing anger at God for their illness. One particular patient, an elderly woman with severe chronic pain, shared her strong Christian beliefs with him, then asked what he believed. He realized he didn't really know; he had never really seriously investigated the evidence either way. This was the opposite of what a real scientist should do.
Mr. Collins began to fully research the logical basis for faith. He started studying the major religions of the world, but found their sacred texts too confusing. Finally, he asked a neighbor, a Methodist minister, whether faith made any reasonable sense. The minister handed him a copy of the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Reading the book, Mr. Collins was stunned by the author's logic, and especially his assertion of a Moral Law set deep within the hearts of people in all places at all times. As a scientist, Mr. Collins knew "it is the awareness of right and wrong, along with the development of language, awareness of self, and the ability to imagine the future, to which scientists generally refer when trying to enumerate the special qualities of Homo sapiens" (The Language of God).
Finally Mr. Collins realized that what he had learned in his investigation left his atheism in tatters. Even agnosticism now "loomed like the great cop-out it often is" (The Language of God). He realized that the tools of science, unquestionably powerful for plumbing the depths of the natural world, were not the right ones to use in settling the question of God. The ultimate decision had to be based on faith, not scientific proof.
At age twenty-six, Mr. Collins took that leap of faith, and became a believer in Jesus Christ.
A child prodigy in the field of cosmology, at seventeen Canadian Hugh Ross became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. He began his quest in the field of astronomy at the age of seven, reading everything he could find on the subject. He quickly worked his way through his public-school library, then the children's section of the Vancouver Public Library, then the adult section, and finally the library of the University of British Columbia. Though he grew up in a poor neighborhood, he won scholarships that took him through an undergraduate degree in physics, a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Toronto, and then post-doc studies in quasars at Caltech in Pasadena, California.
Mr. Ross's parents were upright, moral people, but non-religious. His neighbors were the same, and not only did Mr. Ross not know any Christians while he was growing up, he didn't know any serious followers of any religion. Nevertheless, his studies in physics and astronomy led him to believe that the steady-state theory of the universe didn't make sense, but that the universe must have had some sort of a big bang-type of beginning. A beginning necessitated a Beginner. By age fifteen, Mr. Ross didn't doubt God's existence, but he was a deist: he believed, as Albert Einstein did, that an impersonal God, distant and uncommunicative, invented physics and mathematics and got the universe rolling billions of years ago, and then just left things to work out on their own. "Surely," Mr. Ross reasoned, "a God who built a universe of more than ten-billion-trillion stars would not concern Himself with events on an insignificant speck of dust we call Earth" (The Creator and the Cosmos).
His high school history studies disturbed Mr. Ross, because he could see that people of the world took their religion seriously. He looked for insights from philosophers of the European Enlightenment, who he knew disdained religion. Instead of strong arguments against faith from their works, however, he found circular reasoning and inconsistencies. He decided he needed to do some first-source study, so started reading the holy books of the world's major religions. He reasoned that if God the Creator was communicating through any of these books, the communication would be as consistent as the facts of nature, His supposed creation. In the first few books he tried, his hunch that these religions were man-made were confirmed: he found statements contrary to established history and science, and a vague, esoteric writing style.
Then he opened a Bible. He tells in The Creator and the Cosmos how noticeably different he found it: "It was simple, direct, and specific. I was amazed at the quantity of historical and scientific (i.e., testable) material it included and at the detail of this material." Genesis 1 especially caught his attention: "Instead of another bizarre creation myth, here was a journal-like record of the earth's initial conditions – correctly described from the standpoint of astrophysics and geophysics – followed by a summary of the sequence of changes through which Earth came to be inhabited by living things and ultimately by humans. The account was simple, elegant, and scientifically accurate." Mr. Ross was amazed.
For the next eighteen months Mr. Ross set himself the task of searching for scientific and historical inaccuracies in the Bible, reading it for about an hour every day. At the end of that time he had not found a single provable error and, though he didn't necessarily understand everything, he was impressed with how much of the Bible he could understand.
Though he had proven to himself that the Bible was reliable – even more so statistically than many of the laws of physics, though he believed his only rational option was to trust the Bible's authority, he was afraid of the contempt and mockery he was sure would come if he placed his faith in Christ. For months he struggled with confusion and, for the first time in his life, he had difficulty in his schoolwork.
Finally, Mr. Ross realized that his pride was holding him back. He humbled himself and invited Jesus Christ into his life as his Lord and Savior.
The Yale Law School-educated author of The Case for Christ was legal journalist (later, legal editor) for the Chicago Tribune and an avowed atheist. Mr. Strobel's atheism had come in three stages. When he was in junior high he began asking Christians hard questions such as why a loving God could allow so much suffering in the world or send people to hell, and how Jesus could be the only way to God. The Christians he knew only avoided the questions, and Mr. Strobel concluded that there must not be any good answers.
As part of his high school biology studies he was particularly struck by Stanley Miller's 1959 experiment that created some amino acids, the building blocks of life, by simulating a lightning strike in what he assumed was the original atmosphere of the earth. Mr. Strobel concluded that if life could be formed in a completely naturalistic way, there was no need for God. He began to consider himself an atheist.
In college he took a religion course, and was taught, and came to believe, that the New Testament was a completely unreliable document. He read books by prominent atheists, which gave him a more systematic basis for his belief that there was no God. His atheism was confirmed. (Mr. Strobel does admit, however, that his reasons for becoming an atheist were not entirely intellectual. He enjoyed his immoral lifestyle and didn't want to be bothered with any God that might exist.)
Mr. Strobel's work for the Chicago Tribune brought him into the disturbing subculture of the criminal court system and the Cook County Jail. He heard story after story of violent crime, and eventually became hardened to the suffering he saw.
A number of years into his work as a legal writer, he was covering the case of a street thug who at age twenty-one had shot a rival gang member in the back, nearly killing him. What was unusual about the story was that, after successfully eluding capture for two years, the thug turned himself in and pled guilty to attempted murder. While on the run, this man, whose name was Ronnie Bronski, had come to know Jesus Christ. As he grew in his faith, he realized he would never have complete peace of mind until he confessed to the authorities what he had done. He scraped together the cash for a bus ticket and went back to Chicago.
The journalist was intrigued, and couldn't figure out what had caused this man to change. Ronnie Bronski's story stuck in his head, and then, four years later, Mr. Strobel's wife converted to Christianity. Though he was deeply troubled by her decision at first, Mr. Strobel began to see subtle but winsome changes in her. He went to church with her and heard the gospel explained in a very clear way. He realized, if it was true, it would have huge implications for his life.
Mr. Strobel decided to use his journalism experience and legal expertise to investigate the credibility of the Christian claims. For almost two years he delved into science, philosophy, and history. He read literature on both sides of the issue, he interrogated experts, and he studied archaeology. Finally, almost thirty years of age, he realized that in light of the scientific evidence that points toward a Creator and the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, it required more faith for him to remain an atheist than to become a Christian.
Mr. Strobel had investigated the claims of Christianity to disprove it, but ultimately became convinced himself. He later became an ordained pastor and is now one of the great apologists of the Christian faith.
I saved the best for last: C.S. Lewis, considered by many to be the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century. Mr. Lewis, born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898, was a professor of English Literature at Oxford University for nearly thirty years, and served as chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University for nine years until his death in 1963. He was a prolific and versatile writer, penning works in multiple genres for varied age groups – from The Chronicles of Narnia to Mere Christianity.
Mr. Lewis was baptized into the Church of Ireland (Anglican), but when he was nine years old he began to question God's goodness: it was that year that, despite his fervent prayers, his mother died of cancer. By the age of twelve, Mr. Lewis abandoned Christianity altogether, and became interested in the occult. His education continued, giving him a love of Greek mythology and literature and training in debate and critical reasoning. As he prepared to start at Oxford University on a full scholarship, he was drafted into the army. His time in the front-line trenches of World War I, and the death of two close friends by friendly fire, only served to entrench him further into atheism.
After the war, Mr. Lewis returned to Oxford, where he received three degrees – in classics, literature and philosophy. Not surprisingly, he was a great reader; to his great shock, the authors he most enjoyed were Christians, with perhaps G.K. Chesterton being the uppermost. He accepted a teaching position at Oxford, where in 1926 he became friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, a believer in Jesus Christ who was later to pen The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Lewis began to reconsider his belief that there was no God.
Slowly Mr. Lewis moved from atheism, through a period of agnosticism, and into simple theism, believing that God was real, but couldn't be known personally. He considered that, though God may have created man, man could no more know God than Hamlet could know Shakespeare. As time went on he realized his analogy could be looked at another way: though Hamlet couldn't break out of the play to get to know Shakespeare, Shakespeare could write himself into the play and be both author and a character within the play. This, he considered, was in essence what had happened in the Incarnation. Finally, "kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape," in his early thirties Mr. Lewis knelt and prayed to receive Christ, "perhaps...the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" (Surprised by Joy).
Four men, four atheists, looked at the evidence and chose to believe in God. The obvious rebuttal to my argument is to list all the atheists who still don't believe. But that's to miss the point. These four men were willing to look at the evidence in an unbiased fashion and let it lead them on a path to truth.
In a sense, that's all that God asks of each of us.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis S. Collins
The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God, Hugh Ross
The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, Lee Strobel
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis
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