January 23, 2011 by

More than the Mind (or, A Tale of Two Atheists)


Categories: faith, Meanderings (look it up)

Not long ago, I was browsing through my Google Reader, kind of sorting through and unsubscribing from blogs that had become inactive, and I came across a “good-bye” post from a fellow blogger. He had been struggling with his faith for some time, and I’d tracked with him for awhile because he had expressed such honesty and candor about his doubts and his feelings. This post was several months old (I was admittedly behind in my reading), but he’d written a good-bye post to close out this particular blog because he had finally decided there was no God, and he was now an atheist. Since the blog was about struggling with faith, and for him there was no more faith to struggle with, he’d moved on to write a new blog about atheism.

When I read his words, my heart sank in grief, and I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I only know this person from his writing–I don’t think we’d ever even commented on one another’s blogs–but I felt this profound sense of loss, and I grieved for my brother who had struggled so long and had come to such a sad conclusion. I say “sad,” because when I look at my own life and struggles, I cannot imagine the amount of sorrow I would feel if I ever came to the conclusion that there had been no divine purpose in it all, that all this time I’d been muddling through on my own, that there was really no One watching out for me. Never mind the implications of the afterlife–even the idea of living in the here-and-now with no belief in God (especially if belief was once there) is a completely devastating thought to me. This is why I grieved so for my brother who had lost his faith.
I am acquainted with another atheist for whom I don’t feel the same sense of grief and loss; in fact, I feel a bit of hope. In hearing him talk about his own struggles with faith, it’s actually apparent that he wants to believe. He’s not a militant atheist, and is friendly to Christians, even admires them; he says that the only thing that really keeps him from crossing the line into faith is that he is so analytical that he can’t get his mind around the idea of the supernatural. In short, his logical mind gets in the way.
From my perspective, the biggest difference between these two atheists is the direction the struggle for faith is taking them. For the latter, I think his path is ultimately toward Christ; he would totally be a Christ-follower if he could just overcome the mental block, and I have hope that one day this will happen for him. For the former, he’s coming from the opposite direction–he once had faith (or at least belief), but got disillusioned, and for one reason or another his doubts were never satisfied. So he walked away from Christ.
But despite this difference, there is also, I think, one main similarity between these two atheists–that the struggle with faith seems to be almost exclusively in the mind. It’s the stuff that we can’t fully explain about God, the parts of Christianity that defy logic, even the apparent contradictions, that throw us for a loop. In our Age of Reason, we we are sort of conditioned to dismiss what we cannot prove, or only to accept what we can reasonably explain. I can understand that, and those who have read this blog for awhile know I spend a lot of time thinking and reasoning and grappling about issues of faith from a logical standpoint.
But here’s where I’m going with all this: by definition God (assuming He exists) must be bigger than our minds. If we could figure Him out, He wouldn’t really be God. Any attempt to fully grasp the divine using only logic and reason will ultimately be foiled; either we’ll settle on the wrong notions and deceive ourselves, or we’ll simply get frustrated and disillusioned when things don’t seem to add up. It isn’t because God doesn’t exist, but because we are finite people trying to discern an infinite Being. There are some camps within the church who realize this and have come to the erroneous conclusion that we should bypass the mind completely–and that’s where a lot of flakiness happens. I’m not suggesting we do that at all; our minds are a great gift, and we shouldn’t despise them. I’m only saying that for anyone to truly embrace God, I think it has to be on a level that goes beyond the scope of our minds. Jesus Himself gives us a clue that this is true when He said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24) He also mentioned being “born again”, and specified that we must be born both of water and of the spirit in order to see the kingdom of God. (John 3:5) This thing is more than mind; it is also spirit.
In my own journey, I’ve been disappointed, disillusioned, hurt, discouraged, and even traumatized. Lots of things I assumed to be true weren’t true at all. But one of the reasons I believe so strongly in God despite these struggles is that I guess I have a sense of the spirit beyond what my mind can explain. I have experienced the Person of God in ways that I simply cannot deny, despite my inability to explain it or even to convince others of its reality. I just know. Even this week I’ve had several occasions where I had impressions or insights beyond my ability to know, and I knew it to be the voice of God interacting with me. I couldn’t rationally prove it to you with words here on this blog, but neither do I feel the need to prove it. God, after all, isn’t an idea to be grasped, but a Person to be experienced–not on a flesh-and-blood level (at least this time), but as Spirit. Beyond my own disappointments, I guess I’ve always realized somehow, while I do use my mind to ask questions and grapple with issues of faith, I don’t rely on my mind as the sole litmus test for the legitimacy of God. I trust in the existence of God more than I trust in my own ability to figure Him out.
And that’s ultimately what real faith is all about, isn’t it? Faith is not being able to explain something, but rather it is the ability to trust when we cannot explain it.
If I’m being honest, I think perhaps one of the reasons stories of people losing their faith rattles me is that it makes me wonder if that could ever happen to me. If someone who was once convinced that God was with them and for them somehow found themselves doubting, then denying their faith, could I somehow be convinced at some point that there is no God? It’s a scary thought, indeed. I suppose what it does for me is makes me realize more than ever that my own sense of reason is not to be fully trusted, if for no other reason than that I do not have the big picture. I must always remember that God is bigger than my mind, that I must lean on Him (the Person of Christ) at a level beyond my own understanding.
One final thought to end the morning’s ramblings. I’m reminded of a scene in the film The Count of Monte Cristo where the hero Dantes is in prison holding his fellow prisoner, a former priest, as he is dying. The priest warns him: “God said, ‘Vengeance is mine.'” When Dantes replies, “I don’t believe in God,” the priest’s dying words are, “It doesn’t matter. He believes in you.”
What a comforting thought, and one that brings me hope for myself, as well as the two atheists I talked about so freely in this post. The Bible puts it this way, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13) I have to believe that even when we struggle with our faith, and even if we reach the wrong conclusions, God doesn’t give up on us–even if we give up on Him. God hasn’t given up on my blogger friend, and never will.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

12 Responses to More than the Mind (or, A Tale of Two Atheists)

  1. Barry

    That first case sounds a lot like me. I used to be a Christian but after a long struggle ended up as an atheist. It's not just an issue of the mind for me, though of course it can come across like that. Once I would have died for my faith, but now I'm literally staking everything on the belief that there is no God, or at least there isn't enough evidence to suppose that there is a God.

    Please don't grieve for people like me; we all have to choose our own path as we see fit, and this is the path I and those like me have chosen. Speaking for myself, I'm mu ch happier and more free now than I ever was as a believer.

  2. Jeff McQ

    Well, now…glad to see y'all are still reading. 🙂

    Barry, I might as well come clean; you are the first atheist. (Geesh, I didn't even know you read my blog, and here you're the first comment out of the gate.) I tried to make the description generic, and certainly wasn't intending to call you out–and I hope you're not offended by my reference. Your story simply touched something deep in my soul, and I felt like I wanted to ponder it here awhile.

    My grief over you, as I hope as a former believer you'd understand, is a natural response of any believer who finds that someone has lost or abandoned his/her faith. You simply can't expect me not to grieve; I feel what I feel. However, as I suggested, part of my grief comes from trying to put myself in your shoes. Despite my own struggles, I could still no more deny the existence of God as to deny my own being. The very idea of no God would make this world seem so utterly hopeless to me that it would be unbearable. It's just the saddest thought I could possibly think. From your perspective, though, I suppose I can understand why you do not grieve the loss, because your conclusion represents an end to a long struggle, perhaps even a sense of relief.

    That said, I should make it clear that I don't judge you nor reject you for your choice, and wouldn't ever try to produce a trite explanation for how you feel. I can only surmise that your experience as a Christian has been quite different from mine, at least on some level. I count myself privileged that you still choose to read this blog–as I said, I was unaware (or perhaps forgot) that you'd been here. Thanks for being a good sport, and for partaking in the conversation.

    P.S. You said it isn't just an issue of the mind for you; since that's the direction I took with the blog post, it would be great if you could elaborate on that thought sometime.


  3. Barry

    Jeff, don't worry – no offence was taken. I do understand where you're coming from, and when I was a Christian I might well have had a similar response.

    I appreciate the way you've responded as well. So many Christians who hear that I've left the fold respond either with frantic attempts to try to reconvert me. You're one of the few that seem to understand that whatever my reasons for deconverting are, I must actually *have* reasons.

    You're right, I do feel a sense of relief at having left Christianity behind. I no longer have to compartmentalise my mind so I can ignore the discrepancies in the Bible of in religion in general, but I can finally be honest with myself and more open to experiencing this reality I find myself in.

    As for not just being an issue of the mind, I'll unpack that in my next comment, as this one is long enough ;o)

  4. Barry

    OK, now about my deconversion not just being an issue of the mind.

    By nature I'm an introvert, which means that I process things internally. I think deeply and I feel deeply, but I rarely show it externally.

    I never wanted to be an atheist. However, the evidence led me that way. Yes, that part was a thought process, which I consider to be the most important part, but my "inner witness" (i.e. gut feeling) told me I was going the right way. I had tried trusting God, praying etc. I had tried to "lean on the everlasting arms", only to find out that they couldn't support me and probably weren't even real.

    I've never placed much store by feelings, as they can so often contradict facts. However, my gut feeling was that I was going down the right path with this. The feelings of freedom and relief were overwhelming once I finally abandoned belief in God (and, more importantly, admitted it to myself).

    I realised that for some time the only thing keeping me in the fold of Christianity was fear: fear of hell if I was wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of losing friends, fear of becoming something I had always believed was terrible, i.e. and atheist. And most of all, the fear of having completely to re-think my entire worldview, which had previously been based entirely on the premise that God was real and the Bible was reliable and true.

    Once I finally came out as an atheist, all that fear went. It took a while, and I'm still working through some aspects of my worldview, but the sense of freedom from fear was immediate.

    One thing that resulted from my deconversion which I would never have foreseen was that I lost my previous fear of death. Now that I understand that hell is imaginary and sin is just a meaningless concept, I understand that not only will I never go to hell, but I will also never go to heaven with the knowledge that many of my loved ones are burning for eternity. That in itself is comforting. So is the realisation that when I die I will revert to the exact same state of non-being in which I was before I was conceived and born, which never caused me any problems the first time around.

    I guess the summary is that my decision to abandon Christianity was based on logic and reasoning first and foremost, but was backed up by my feelings and borne out by my experience since then.

    Does that answer your question? Feel free to raise any other questions – I'm happy discussing this, particularly with non-judgemental people.

  5. Erin

    Well this comment is going to bust me out. I hope it doesn't shock you. And I had to go post on my own blog before I commented here…because I'm afraid I have to say "me too". I have more to say over on my blog, but it will take time.

    I think the points many Christians make about the slippery slope and about how questioning leads to deconversion are valid. Because they are true. A number of people I have known on this journey have come to the same conclusions, independently. I don't know why, and I wish it weren't true. It would be SO MUCH EASIER to believe.

    I have only found that the longer and deeper I allowed myself to question, the more Christianity has unraveled for me. But the reasons are vast and many and I couldn't begin to sum them up. For starters, what Barry said.

    But in my opinion a lot of it has to do with one's experience of God. You say you could no more deny God than you could deny your own existence. I wish I could say the same thing. I have tried to say the same thing. However, in the end, it's just not true for me, as much as I want it to be.

    I hate this. I never went looking for it, and in fact, I have spent most of the last year trying my da**dest to find a way out of it, to find some other conclusion that allows me to retain faith. But I simply haven't.

    I have found myself asking myself this: Why believe in something I can't see, feel, or hear, just because an ancient book tells me to? Now, I've been a charismatic most of my life, and I know what my "then" self would say to my "now" self. I know the evidences I would argue. But I'm just not that person any more, as much as I might wish I was.

  6. Jeff McQ

    Erin, I suppose I feel the grief on your behalf even more, not because you are of more value than Barry (!), but because you and I have been friends and teammates. I can't say I'm shocked or surprised, having read your previous blog posts. But certainly saddened, both personally and because I sense your personal grief over it.

    Barry, I guess the reason I don't feel compelled to try to reason you back to faith is due to the very things I wrote in the blog post. If God must be discerned by more than the mind, and if you have (mostly) arrived at this conclusion by reason, then logical argument is entirely the wrong approach. Although do not mistake me–if it were in my power to bring both of you back to faith, I would not hesitate. Of course I want you to come back.

    (to both of you) As I said earlier, I think I could no sooner deny the existence of God than deny my own person. i think I would have as hard a time trying to convince myself there is no God as you have had trying to convince yourselves there is one. It boggles my mind to try to imagine what it is within your individual journeys that would sow a seed of doubt that could grow into a DE-conversion. The only guess I have–and it is only a guess–is that somehow something was missing from your experience that is present in mine. If that is so, then the deep longing of my heart, and my prayer, is that you would find that part that was lacking.

    All that said…Jesus Himself plainly said (and many modern apologists and theologians seem to have forgotten this) that no one can even come to God unless His Spirit first draws him. This, too, is why I think it's ultimately futile to try to bring someone to faith by reason alone. And so my prayer for you both will be that God's Spirit would draw you, perhaps in a way you did not even know in your prior experience (and hopefully in a way that would satisfy your minds as well). I hope you know that statement comes not from my need to be right about this, but from a deep sense of compassion for my friends.

    Regardless of what happens from here…please know that you are my friends, and I hope to stay in conversation with you. Thanks for your honesty, as always.

  7. Erin

    Thanks for your gracious reply, Jeff. I don't begrudge you for feeling sad. I appreciate your concern, and I understand the things you say, because it hasn't been that long ago that I would have said the same things. I also understand your thoughts about faith and reason, but it hasn't worked out for me.

    I don't want to hijack your blog with my long explanations. I'm working on a series of posts that explain my conclusion.

    I appreciate your friendship in this. Thank you.

  8. Anonymous

    I am deeply sad when it is fear keeping someone "in the Christian faith".
    I can understand it – far too often the "church" has used fear to keep people on track.

    I see no evidence in the scriptures that those who followed Jesus did so out of fear. Rather they met someone who welcomed them, loved them, invited them in – just as they were.
    And he didn't dump his disciples when they sought their own glory or even denied him.

    Jesus is more and more revealing to me a Father who loves me, who loves the world more deeply than I can imagine. Yes he is not a God to be triffled with – but John, who knew Jesus so well, declared "God is love" – I am more and more discovering that is at the core of his character.

    Barry I am glad you have left a god of fears.
    I can understand you "chucking it all out" – it will lead you to greater freedom than being loaded under fear.

    Richard Wilson
    South Australia

    Jeff – thanks for the blog and your sharing on your journey – you are a regular source of encouragement.

    Blessings to you too Barry – I appreciated your sharing.

  9. Barry

    Anon: It was only towards the end, when I had to all intents and purposes lost my belief in God but had yet to admit it to myself, that fear was the reason I stayed. For most of my 20 or so years as a believer, fear was the last thing on my mind.

    I think that sort of fear only really kicks in when you contemplate leaving the fold. I think of it as the last desperate attempt of the mindset into which I had been indoctrinated to keep hold of me.

  10. Ruth

    Wow I just stumbled on this conversation because Jeff your blog came up on my reader as a recommendation. Did you know they do that now? You have 125 subscribers. I used to follow your blog but changed computers and lost some of my bookmarks. So now I'm back.

    I so knew you were talking about Barry as soon as I started reading!

    Barry and Erin if you're still tagged on to this conversation I want to say how much I've genuinely appreciated your willingness and ability to articulate and engage in converstaion about your journey.

    I've been fasinated and somewhat haunted by it. I feel much the same as Jeff does and wonder if it could happen to me. I can completely follow along with the arguements and evidence both for and against God.

    I guess in the end, my experience with a being who interacts with my inner self has been confirmed to me enough. So I too, am trusting my gut.

  11. Erin

    Hi Ruth. I can understand you being haunted. Even a year ago, it would have haunted me.

    I think it *can* happen to anyone. I was so certain that I had scripture tattooed on my shoulder. I believed that no matter what changed or where I wandered, one thing would never always stay the same. But when I started really honestly admitting doubts and questions that were going on in me, have been for 20 years, a picture began to emerge, one I had never expected. Still, it took me well over a year to admit it to myself.

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