Can an Atheist Have a Crisis of Faith?

If you’ve read anything I’ve had to say about religion, you probably know I identify as an atheist. While I’ve come out in strong support of religious freedom – up to and including teaching biblical creationism in school (just not in science classrooms) – I’ve always maintained a distance between myself and religious expression. Well, by “always,” I mean consistently for the past umpteen years.

There isn’t really a reason to recap my entire history with religion here. Suffice to say, I was raised Lutheran, but left the church after I graduated high school. I experimented with different religions and faiths – some Christian-based, some not – over the years, before deciding I didn’t believe in God at all. That’s been my stance for years, and I’ve been quite happy with it.

When I “came out” as a conservative, the only thing that made me uncomfortable was the number of religious people I started dealing with. I don’t mean spiritual people, or people of faith, but hard line, church going, Bible thumping literalists. Of course, the vast majority of these people turned out to be loving and accepting folks who, while they may not have approved of everything I say or do, showed me honest friendship and compassion.

Of course, there were also the Joseph Farah’s of the world, who reminded me what I hated organized religion, but I’ve always seen his brand of intolerance and hate as antithetical to an understanding of God under any definition given by Judaism or Christianity.

I’m already rambling and I didn’t want to do that.

As you may know, I recently lost a very dear friend to cancer. For several months prior to his death, and the weeks since, I’ve been one of two people responsible for his welfare and taking care of his remaining business. And, since I lived in the same apartment building as him, I was the first responder to any emergency, as well as being the one who was there for him every day until he was too ill to remain at home.

Sure, it was a difficult thing to do, but not only did I view it as the least I could do for a friend, it was important to me on another level. I’ve never been around when anyone died before. I’ve always been absent or involved with other things when loved ones passed. When I learned that David was dying, I made a solemn vow to be there. Not only for him, but for myself. I’m not afraid of death, but I’ve always just … missed it. I wanted to be a good friend, a mensch, and I also wanted to prove to myself I didn’t have some strange head trip of which I was unaware.

Little things started happening. I couldn’t list them all. Some of them were truly insignificant in and of themselves: feelings, thoughts, certain words jumping out at me off the printed page or a web page. Eventually, I began to be aware of a series of synchronicities involving David’s death, and also faith.

For example, I’ve been on a waiting list for a particular apartment building for two years. The place I’m staying now is temporary. David and I understood if I got an apartment at the new building, I’d have to move. But we both hoped, especially me, that I’d be able to stay here and provide aide to David until he was gone. Less than a week after David died, I got a call from the management company saying they had an apartment for me. While this by itself could be chocked up to coincidence, what makes it more than that to me is the fact I was number 56 on the waiting list. Everyone in front of me suddenly had apartments, couldn’t be contacted or were no longer interested for other reasons. I could see that at number 5 on the list. But 55 people all waiting for an apartment and all suddenly not needing one?

I wrote about how I lost a partner to AIDS in the very early 90’s. I’ve had contact with his family off and on over the years, but haven’t heard from them since roughly 2005 of 2006. David’s death, while he was a platonic friend, took me back in my head to those days. My partner’s mother contacted me out of the blue on Facebook, also about a week after David passed.

I had no contact information for many of David’s friends. Last week, there was some particularly nice weather. I was sitting outside for about 10 minutes talking to another friend, when one of David’s oldest friends who hadn’t been here in months just happened to stop by. She didn’t know that he had died. What makes this coincidental is that I rarely sit outside any more. I’ve taken to doing so more in the past couple weeks, but it’s still a rare occurrence. Also, this friend of David had no idea which apartment was mine. Had I not been there, she would have knocked on David’s door and probably gone away not knowing what had happened. She just happened to arrive at just the right time. I told her of David’s passing, and that resulted in a three hour conversation in which we got to know each other and comfort each other. It was a very healing and cathartic. It was much needed by both of us.

Then, of course, the biggest of them all. David’s other best friend and myself both promised David we would be there when he died. When he could no longer function by himself and needed full time care, I had him moved to the hospital. This made it much more difficult to insure we could actually be by his side when the big moment came. The night he died, we went to visit him. There were traffic backups through downtown and on the freeway. She was running late to begin with. We arrived much, much later than we had intended, given the hospital’s visiting hours policy. As we entered David’s room, a nurse was standing over him with a stethoscope pressed to his chest. She informed us he had just stopped breathing. His heart was still beating. David had been moved around between the hospital and an adult care facility. We hadn’t been able to see him every day. We had no way of knowing he was going to die that evening. And yet, we just happened to walk into his room in time to gather around his bed, hold his hands and tell him we loved him as his heart beat to a stop. What are the odds?

Also about a week after David died, an online acquaintance contacted me. She wanted my perspective on a lecture given by Father Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice. It was on the issue of homosexuality. While I didn’t agree with his points of view, I found him to be compassionate, honest, warm, loving: in short, everything I ever thought a Christian should be. Staunch in his views, but supremely concerned for the well being of others.

I started recognizing a pattern. It was as if someone was trying to get my attention. A question began to form in my head, and it was this: how many synchronicities does it take to make one miracle? Because, you see, I’ve been telling people for years the only way I’d even consider the possibility God existed was if a giant hand appeared in the sky, pointed a heavenly finger at me, and a loud booming voice proclaimed: believe!

Then, this past Tuesday, I sat down to watch Glee. I know, I know. What can I say? I was in jazz choir in high school. I love that stuff, despite it’s left wing sucker punches at people like Sarah Palin. At any rate, this latest episode was all about questioning faith. A young man, who lost his mother at an early age, is now in danger of losing his father. He’s an atheist. He struggles to accept his circumstances, as well as the faith of all those around him who want to offers prayers and spiritual support. Sure, there were the typical mixed message: religion is bad, faith is bad. But faith is good and one can find comfort in the church. It’s a silly show that often makes vapid and progressive points interspersed with lots of teenage angst and show tunes. But just when I needed it, it dealt with the exact subject I was pondering.

Finally, yesterday I went to start the final paperwork on the new apartment. On the bus, I saw an advertisement from the Seattle Atheists. It contained contact information and the following quote from Carl Sagan

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

I thought to myself: I agree. But maybe, just maybe, grasping the Universe is also a personal process, not just one of “objective” observation and measurement. Then I remembered Contact, a book and subsequent film that deals with first alien contact, written by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan. If you remember the film, the main character – an atheist – was challenged when her own personal experiences couldn’t be objectively proven.

I doubt the Seattle Atheists would like it that their advertisement was the last (so far) in a long line of “coincidences” leading me to wonder if I haven’t had a personal experience with God. I don’t know what I believe now. Maybe this all will fade and I will look back on this series of events as merely a serendipitous string of occurrences, but ultimately meaningless.

On the other hand, perhaps the past year of my life that has lead me to stand up for freedom or religion – and freedom of faith – has all been a setup. What is the famous quote? Minds are like parachutes: they function only when open?

Funny. I never thought an atheist could have a crisis of faith.

 

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Comments
14 Responses to “Can an Atheist Have a Crisis of Faith?”
  1. kelliejane says:

    :-)

    I came backed to Jesus based on a rigorous examination of the evidence repeatedly provided to me, too. ;-)

    When you feel like it, DM me. We’ll talk.

    I love ya, Chris. You’re such good people!

  2. brendayaziyor says:

    The answer to your question is, “Yes, he can.” What comes next, I can’t answer. However, I’ll pray for you if that’s ok, that you’ll soon find out what these coincidences mean and what you are actually experiencing.

    The first place I remember seeing the term “crisis of faith” was in the book “Experiencing God.”

  3. Natassia says:

    All I have to say is: remain open.

    What you are experiencing right now is the first step. It’s called humility. Some of us, like myself, have to fall pretty hard before experiencing it. It’s the realization that maybe we were wrong.

    May God bless you and your spiritual journey.

  4. killtruck says:

    Wow. I’m a Christian, but I’m not too concerned with getting everyone else to become one, etc. I believe the Great Commission commands us give everyone a chance to accept the Gospel, but not beat them over the head with it.

    I witnessed my father die 2 1/2 years ago. Aside from the loss, just witnessing death definitely changed me forever. Not sure I could put it into words though.

    Coincidences or something Divine, good luck. Great post.

  5. Mark Koenig says:

    There was a period in my life when I questioned the existence of God. It all seems so long ago and far away, and yes – crazy – now. My experience was that, as Natassia says above, I had to be disabused of my intellectual arrogance and pay attention to what was actually happening all around me. It is first about humility. As a gay man there are certainly plenty of reasons for me to reject organized religion, if not the idea that God exists, based upon the abuse heaped upon and internalized by so many homosexuals. It’s sad to me that so many of us have made that choice, at least partly for that very reason. I told myself so many years ago, and now tell others who are open to hearing it – “not so fast.” If you remain intellectually open and honest, I believe you will be led towards truth. I pray that God guides you as well, Chris. If you ever want to talk further about this, I’d welcome the opportunity.

  6. Tiffanybr says:

    Your post really moved me , Chris. I am a Christian but not one of those in your face, bible thumping ones. I understand not knowing if there is a God and I have and still question it at times. But things like your coincidences have shown me there must be a higher power up there of some form. I am very sorry about your friend and the loss of your partner years ago. Bravo on being such a strong man through it all. Gotta love my #redeye peeps! <3 @Tiffanybr on Twitter. -Tiff

  7. Thank you for all the supportive comment! Much appreciated.

  8. pandoras lox says:

    A parable…if you reside in the darkness… of high bluff cave …you’ll never find the sleestacks that guard the lost city …. or for the retro- culturally impaired ….seek Hashem in everything …Hashem is our G-d …Hashem is one…blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever!..this truth does not change… whether you believe or not …changes you !!!!

  9. traci says:

    Chris, you know I have been praying for specific situations going on in your life since reconnecting on fb. It was sad for me to hear that you had decided to not believe in God, but I still felt compelled to pray. I am a full believer in miracles…I don’t believe in coincidences or happenstance. All works for a reason in this life. Now I know my prayer for you will be that your incredible intellect will not get in the way of what you are experiencing an feeling in your heart and soul.

    Take Care, and always remember, “By Grabthar’s Hammer…what a savings…”

    traci

  10. zombyboy says:

    A series of thoughts. First, my background: I’m a Baptist (although some of my beliefs simply don’t fit well with the Baptist church), so I am disposed to smile and hope that you find your way back to God and back to the kind of faith that really does make life better.

    Here’s the thing, though: when big things happen in our lives, our minds do their best to make those things make sense. They try to find a reason where, sometimes, a reason doesn’t exist. Some things truly are coincidence. If you start trying to find God in those coincidences instead of finding a deeper meaning for your faith, then your faith and what you might perceive as being the influence of God will end up disappointing you.

    That is, the positive coincidences that might point you to the possibility of the divine are no different than the negative coincidences that could either point you away from the idea of God or even toward a negative view of what God could be. There is a reason that we all occasionally ask ourselves, “How could an infinitely good God, all knowing and all powerful, allow such bad things to happen?”

    If the faith that you find isn’t based on something more than a string of coincidence, then the answer will almost undoubtedly be to turn away in one fashion or another.

    I wish you comfort in your search no matter where it takes you. All else aside, I am sorry for your loss but very happy that you could be there to help him until the end.

    • You make a very good point and are absolutely correct. If this latest series of events does, in fact, lead to a re-awakening of faith, then that faith will ultimately have to be based on something much stronger than a couple of things happening once.

      It’s odd, though. I’ve had some seriously crappy things happen to me over the years, as have we all. It’s never occurred to me to chock those up to a malevolent force. Something this time was … different.

      Thanks for the wise words. They are much appreciated.

  11. zombyboy says:

    I’ll be dropping by regularly. You’re running a very nice site–thanks for posting some thoughts that have a bit of depth to them.

  12. Kim_AE says:

    This reminds me of a story my Mom likes to tell, of something that happened before I was around…
    It was probably 30 years ago now that my Mother and Father were visiting my Aunt, it was like every other time they’d gone to visit. They were driving a cute little red sports car and would park on the street like they were asked to, to leave the driveway open and wait in the car for her to come out. Except that this day as they were sitting in the car parked behind a big old tank of a car, my Mom turned to my Dad in the driver’s seat and said “Honey, I don’t think we should park here”. He asked her why and she said “I have a really bad feeling about being here, I don’t know why but would you please move us.” My Dad being a smart man realized that while it made no practical sense at all, he believed her and without another word turned on the car and and moved it off the street curb and into the driveway. He asked her if that was far enough (about 20 ft away) and she said yeah, I feel OK here. Well, it wasn’t ten minutes after he moved the car that a drunk driver in a two ton pick-up truck drove down the street at 40 mph right where they had been and smashed into the car they were parked behind, it sent another car in front of it about 10 ft down the road. If they had still been there their little car would have been crushed between these two massive cars, as it was when they rushed over to help, the lucky driver stumbled out of his car with no major injuries like so many drunk drivers who are able to walk away from massive wrecks like that. Needless to say, three cars were completely totaled.
    I know that my parent’s lives being saved that day wasn’t just a coincidence and my Mom doesn’t claim to have psychic abilities. She’s always told me God didn’t want them to die that day and she always wanted me to listen and pay attention to my feelings because God might be trying to tell me something important. I think 9 times out of 10, He doesn’t speak to us in a shout but in a whisper or a feeling good or bad and it’s up to us whether we are willing to listen to Him. I’ve tried though I haven’t always succeeded, it’s not an easy thing.
    I’m glad that you found moments of comfort in such a difficult time, you’ve been in my prayers, and thanks for letting me blab on and on, I’ll see you in teh twitters!

  13. MJRO says:

    Just stumbled upon this from a friend’s link and wanted to say…

    As a Catholic convert (first raised liberal atheist, then converted to Episcopal, then disenchanted non-denom before coming Home to Rome), I would say we have to pay attention to the signs that jump out at us. God is primarily, in the words of Fr. Eugene Boylan, a “tremendous lover.” He loves us. And sometimes, when we are at our most vulnerable, we are able to feel it, even if we haven’t ever before. I think, as humans who are often quarrelsome and mean, we have a natural tendency to doubt God because He is so Other–unconditionally loving, but firmly calling us to something higher.

    Of course I have a bias, but you seem like a thoughtful sincere man and I would urge you to look into God. There is a vast Christian intellectual tradition that is often overlooked, but is very powerful and stirs the very depths of men’s souls. God isn’t for dummies (not that you were saying He was), and He isn’t always very comforting (I find him to be a bit of a hard ass, to be honest), but what really matters is if He is who He says He Is (I think you might find that He Is).

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