My atheist phase lasted for about fifteen minutes one sunny, late-spring afternoon. Freshman year in college was coming to a close for me. There was a party at a nearby river. A couple of my friends and I were standing midstream on a large rock.
Soaking up the sun, breathing in the fresh air, buzzing from a couple of beers, I was feeling free. With arms on my hips I looked up at the sky and said to my friends, “You know, maybe there is no God after all!”
I immediately slipped and fell on my rear end. My friends—we were all Roman Catholics at the time—laughed until they couldn’t breathe. I reconsidered my position.
By contrast, my agnostic phase was rather a bit longer. Let me be clear. Agnosticism is usually portrayed as a sort of cool, level-headed rationality. It goes something like this. Maybe there’s a God. Maybe there’s not. The evidence is inconclusive. So, I’ll just withhold judgment and get on with my life.
Well I suppose that this sort of calm indifference works marvelously well for some people. Me? Not so much. To put it simply, I doubted. And I was tortured by those doubts because I wanted to believe. Simultaneously, I was (and remain) committed to pursuing the Truth with a capital T. But wanting to believe is not the same thing as having a rational justification for believing.
Look, I knew that there really are some pretty good proofs for God’s existence. St. Thomas’ proof from contingent being (I’ll have to explain that proof to you in another essay) is, in my opinion, especially strong. Still, there are serious objections to it. In other words, it’s not a slam dunk. Actually, there are no rock solid proofs for God’s existence. Even the very best among them are open to some intelligent criticism.
A committed secularist might say to me, “Have a little courage Owensby. Just admit that there is no God. Live an honest life. Enjoy the time you have and admit that we all die. Period. Find something that is meaningful to you and get on with living. You don’t need all this supernatural stuff.”
Secularism takes the scientific method as the gold standard for knowledge. Understandably so. Just look at the advances in everything from medicine to communications to transportation that science has made possible.
Science presupposes a closed material universe. Everything that happens in nature is caused by something else in nature. What is real can be verifiably observed, weighed, and measured. There is no such thing as value, meaning, or purpose out there in the real world. That stuff is only in your head. It’s subjective. Bluntly put, nothing really matters in and of itself. It matters only to you. Or not. But nothing and no one has infinite and eternal significance.
In his intro philosophy book What Does It All Mean?, Thomas Nagel puts this secular view in starkly honest terms:
“Even if you produce a great work of literature which continues to be read thousands of years from now, eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down and collapse and all trace of your effort will vanish. . . . The problem is that although there are justifications for most things big and small that we do within life, none of these explanations explain the point of your life as a whole. . . . It wouldn’t matter if you had never existed. And after you have gone out of existence, it won’t matter that you did exist.” (p. 96)
Without God, nothing and no one has inherent value. I cannot really say that every human being is equally valuable and worthy of respect. Well I could. But if I were a consistent secularist I would say, “I personally believe that all human life is inalienably valuable. I insist that you think so too!” I would have no basis on which to demand respect for the dignity of every human being. After all, moral values and notions of justice reside only in each individual’s head.
Eventually I stumbled onto an insight. Science does not prove the existence of God. Neither does it prove that God does not exist. Whether you believe in God or you don’t, you’re basing your life on something that you cannot prove once and for all to be true. That sounds remarkably like a form of faith.
So it has occurred to me that there are existential reasons for believing in God. In short, in comparison to the secular worldview, believing in God—and believing specifically in Jesus—provides us with a clear source of life’s meaning, a coherent framework for our values, and an enduring sense of our purpose in this life.
Now I know that this is not the same thing as proving God’s existence. Instead, it’s an existential argument for belief. Being a Christian makes life worth living in a way that secularism cannot.
Take for instance my belief that Mary really did conceive miraculously. I cannot prove by way of logic or scientific explanation that it happened the way the Bible says. Look, I get that science will tell us that babies are not made this way. But I have existential reasons to put my trust in the story of the Virgin Birth.
Whether we are reading Matthew’s account (1:18-25) or Luke’s narrative (1:26-38), we see that God acts decisively in human life. God is not only with us. God is for us. God says yes to human dignity and perfect justice. We inhabit a world in which each of us matters. Infinitely. Eternally.
Can I prove to you that, as Matthew writes, Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit?” (1:18) No. And that is not what I’m trying to do here. Instead, I’m suggesting that such a belief makes life worth living and moves us toward a world in which love for one another just might become more than an idea in my head.