Here, of course, is the most fundamental question of Faith. As I said in the introduction, I am a convert to Catholicism rather than to theism in general, but I would still like to address this most basic point.
I was raised in a Protestant family, but in late high school and early college, I took on all the ideologies of trendy liberalism and considered myself an agnostic. But I never reached full-fledged atheism. Why? In my personal musings, there were three factors that I could not get around: 1) free will and 2) a strong resistance to nihilism and 3) an unquenchable longing for something more.
There are some philosophers who deny that humans have free will, but they are not the good ones. Each of us in our daily life experience free will; every morning when we awake there are options before us: some big, some small, almost all influenced by others, environmental factors, etc. Yet the choices remain; we can take one or the other or a third way or forth and those choices will bring consequences, which is precisely why we worry over the bigger choices (and sometimes the smaller ones) so very much. The reality of these choices and the freedom of the will to decide between them are fundamental parts of our human experience.
Early on, I concluded that if materialism—the idea that only matter, atoms, chemicals, or physical things are real—is true that there would be no room for free will. Our actions would be illusions, decided not by us but by the random firings, actions and interactions of chemical agents in our brain. This view is known as Determinism.
This does not fit my experience of reality, which I believe with Aristotle is ultimately the standard of philosophy. There may be no purely logical refutation of determinism or solipicism, the stifling idea that only our singular consciousness exists and the world is an illusion, for that matter—but a square punch in the face will end its logical rule over our functioning; reality is real, after all. That is to say there may be no way to “prove” without experience that other creatures exist outside our own isolated consciousness, but that is no way to function as a human person. Likewise with determinism, to live meaning fully, we must take seriously the standard of our own lived experience, which includes free will.
So I embraced the idea of free will, and to affirm the existence of the will, there must be something—some spiritual, non-measurable, non-physical—component to reality, to human life. Only a spiritual or non-physical realm could provide the existential space necessary for free will without falling into strict material determinism. At the very least, then, I always remained open to the affirmation of a spiritual reality. Atheism is not per se ruled out by this, but the most dogmatic forms of materialism and empiricism are.
Second: An aversion to nihilism
I also believed firmly in morality even while I professed relativism. I believed ultimately that life was meaningful even if I did not know why. I followed that up with a consideration of stark atheism, which, granted may not be how all atheists understand themselves or the universe. Nonetheless, I imagined a universe with nothing eternal where human death resulted in total annihilation of the self. On a broader scale, the earth itself would one day be annihilated as well. So any meaning placed in humans or the planet would ultimately evaporate, disappear, and destruct with no meaningful trace beyond perhaps atoms.
Then, my thought process continued, if all meaning was ultimately to come to naught, why would it matter how soon the meaning ended in naught? If a man’s life ended and meant nothing after 80 years, the same end result—obliteration—was achieved if he died after 20 years on this rock instead. So why not kill one another or oneself if the end result was always death and destruction anyway?
To avoid this ultimate devolution of meaning, I reasoned that there must be something eternal.
Many atheists today do not act like nihilists; they earnestly see good in human life and value in the transient present, which is a very good thing! I’m glad they think that way; it is why we can agree on so many important things, despite our differences. Yet as good as it is to find meaning despite human transience, the question of ultimate or final meaning remains. In my mind, without an ultimate destiny or truth or measure of some kind, there is no objective reason not to arrive at nihilism.
Third: A longing for something beyond
The last factor that held me back from full atheism was a deep-seated, strong desire I had felt my whole life, especially as a child, for a world beyond this one. I adored fantasy books and movies, magic and science fiction. All those worlds seemed so promising, so full, so rich and so much better than the hum drum of my daily life and routine. Now some of that, I realize now, was just a youthful boredom with the mundane. But some of it was real, a longing for a higher, nobler, purer reality in which humans could do more and be more, even if that consisted of super powers or jetpacks to my younger self.
About this desire, C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This thought sums it up. I found myself, even as I grew older, longing for a goodness, for a truth that seemed impossible, unknowable, a truth that would bring order to this discordant world. How could I have such a longing? To what was it directed?
Now I consider that answer to be rather obvious: God. But back before my conversion, this longing alone, kept me always open to the possibility or hope for God to really exist and to really be everything that the best spiritual people said he could be.
So an affinity for free will, meaning and a higher longing kept me open to the idea of God. And when I stumbled across the idea of the Uncaused Cause, the picture appeared complete: physically speaking, every event has a cause; it is a reaction to something else. The chain of events must lead ever back then, and it could not be infinite for it would have nothing to set it in motion to begin with. So something (or someone) out there accounts for the action in the universe. This, classically speaking as St. Thomas Aquinas put it in the opening of his Summa Theologica, is what we call God.
I know that some philosophers object to this, but to me it seems remarkably sound and I find it convincing. Starting here in theism with, as I mentioned, a conviction that morality mattered, my conversion began. And when I found this idea in a Catholic saint and theologian, I had all the more reason to take Catholicism seriously.
Today, when I go through rough spots, I still reflect on these basics. But mostly, I am more floored by God’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence—the Thomistic idea that God is both deeply present in all parts of the world, holding it in being and also radically separate from all physical reality.
As I look around now at nature, at my children, at human love and fortitude, I see a world shot through with God’s presence; it is like Fr. Zosima’s estastic realization in the Brothers Karamozov: “there was such a glory of God all about me: birds, trees, meadows, sky; only I lived in shame and dishonoured it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.
‘You take too many sins on yourself,’ mother used to say, weeping.
‘Mother, darling, it’s for joy, not for grief I am crying. Though I can’t explain it to you, I like to humble myself before them, for I don’t know how to love them enough.’ “
God’s glory is all around us and His redemption is as well.
Up Next: Why should I trust the Bible?