As a teenager, I was drawn to such divergent groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, so it shouldn’t surprise you that I was likewise attracted to both the deeply religious and to their atheistic counterparts. I heard many a sermon in scornful opposition to the latter, but they only created in me an intense interest in what such men had to say for themselves. I mythologized one type of person as representing atheists. He—for it was a he—was an aging white male in a suit, and I envisioned him standing before a large wooden desk in a book-lined study. He was thin—as befitted someone who had weightier things than food on his mind—terribly smart and intellectual, and had the tortured look of a man who could see the human predicament for what it is rather than for what we want it to be. I would sometimes find his photo in Life Magazine.
I imagined atheists to be far more interesting than anyone I had ever known, and I was convinced that they would understand me in a way that no one else could. I wanted to ask one of them how someone so smart, sensitive, and educated, could fail to believe in God. I knew that the reason had to do with being “overly educated,” but I couldn’t grasp the process by which “too much knowledge” blinded one to truth when truth is knowledge. I knew that I would be putting my soul at risk just by talking to someone so deeply under Satan’s sway, but I was driven, not that I ever found such a person in rural Mississippi.
Preachers quoted Proverbs to prove that atheists were “educated fools” (“The fool hath said in his heart that there is no God”), yet I knew very well that the main difference between atheists and the people I went to church with was that the latter knew less, and ignorance struck me as a poor recommendation for being right about God or anything else. I realized, of course, that Jesus had said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children,” but in saying this, he implied that ignorance, credulity, and gullibility, were superior to intelligence, wisdom, and learning, when it came to discerning supreme truth. And, of course, he had said outright that God had deliberately hidden this truth from people of depth and thoughtfulness, presumably because he wanted them to be damned. This suggested that my inability to discern the truth of the Bible occurred because, well gosh darn, God simply didn't like me. My only recourse was to attempt to believe that which made no sense to me (meaning most of the Bible), to call my attempt faith, and to go about doing good and trying to find something to love about God; all in the faint hope that it would get me into heaven. As it turned out, I couldn’t pull that off either.
So it was that God became ever more of what he always had been in my life—an object of fear and loathing who threw lightning bolts at trees, breathed forth hurricanes, and filled lakes with eternal fire. Yet, it gradually dawned on me that the concept of a perfect being becoming anyone’s object of fear and loathing made no sense because a perfect being would, by the necessity of its perfection, instill its entire creation with perfect joy and thus win the perfect allegiance of everyone, right down to the tiniest germ. Even Satan would give up his lust to rule heaven because no pleasure would be even remotely comparable to the delight of pleasing God to the fullest extent of ones God-given ability. No one could say no to God because no one would even think to say no to such an entity. What then, I came to wonder? Could my inability to believe in the written word of a perfect being mean that such a being did not exist, or that I had the wrong written word?
Against this internal background, I was being warned repeatedly in sermons of the threat posed by atheism, yet I knew that some atheists could be brought to God. For instance, I heard what I thought was a recent account* of an atheist who was walking down a remote beach one day when he found a watch. As he reflected upon its presence in such a place, he realized that, just as the intelligent complexity of a watch proves the existence of a human designer and builder, so does the intelligent complexity of the universe prove the existence of a heavenly designer and builder. I considered it a compelling argument, but it also struck me as such an obvious argument that I felt sure an atheist would be able to dismiss it from the comfort of his study, and I wanted to know how.
...As I write, it occurs to me that if I had a suit (preferably a three-piece), a book-lined study, and an air of sophisticated urbanity, I would look like my early image of those men about whom I was warned, men I wanted so desperately to know, sensing as I did that the preachers weren’t representing them nearly so well as they could have represented themselves.
*It was made-up by William Paley in 1802.
*It was made-up by William Paley in 1802.