"My son is an atheist – what should I do?"
One of the most frequent types of emails I get says something along the lines of:
My [son/daughter/husband/wife] is an atheist. Since you used to be an atheist, please tell me what I can do!
Jason Anderson and I wrote an article a while back that offered some nuts and bolts tips for talking about faith with atheists, and I often point people to that (with the caveat that we must always remember that conversion is God’s work, not ours, and that there is nothing we can do to make anyone come to faith).
But I sense that people in this situation want more than that: they want to understand.
I think the reason people email so frequently about this is because they want a glimpse inside the mind of someone who has actually walked the path, who experienced the transformation of going from complete atheism to complete belief. I’m starting to see that the best advice I could give to these folks would not be advice at all, but rather just a glimpse into the way I thought about it and what happened with me so that they can make their own decisions about the best way to approach loved-ones about this topic (if at all).
So, for anyone who is interested, the following is a very brief overview of the process I had to go through in order to “see” that God exists.
My own conversion process can basically be distilled down to this:
Belief in God = Reasonable Basis + Openness to Love
Here’s what I mean by that:
I don’t know whether it’s because I was raised as an atheist or I’m just wired to be hard-headed when it comes to belief, but I could never believe something that was fundamentally unreasonable. The foundation for the rest of my conversion was laid by the discovery that belief in a nonmaterial reality is not unreasonable — in fact, I came to see that belief in a human soul and a Creator of the universe was actually a position more reasonable than atheism. (The details of why I came to that conclusion are the subject of another post, but I mentioned some books and authors here and here that offer an introductory-level glimpse at the subject.)
For me, any talk whatsoever of leaps of faith, Jesus’ love, salvation, redemption, etc. fell on deaf ears until I had some basic understanding of the rational basis for these beliefs.
Openness to Love
What I quickly found, however, was that reason will only get you so far. As I talked about back in March, I came to understand that God is Love (literally), and that love is not something that can be proven through the scientific method. The hypothesis of God’s existence is the hypothesis that love exists as its own reality, external to the chemical reactions in our brains — and that’s not a hypothesis that can be tested using only your head and not your heart; it takes both.
If I had heard a reasonable case for God when I was in my early 20′s, back when I was in a hard-charging career and surrounded by all the pleasures of the world, I don’t think it would have had much impact on me. I was not incentivized to take a risk on love; I was not in a state of mind to put my heart into the question of whether or not love is something that transcends the material world. Something had to happen for me to value love more than I valued success, acclaim, money, pride or personal freedom. (In my case, that was the birth of my first child.)
To ask someone to prove to you that God exists is very similar to asking someone to prove to you that they love you. It would be best to start with a reasonable case — they could point out the kindness they’ve shown you, remind you of the loving sentiments they’ve expressed in cards and letters, bring up all those times they sacrificed something for you — and this can and should lay the foundation for you believing them. After all, if their actions blatantly contradict the claim that they love you, it would be unreasonable for you to believe their claim.
But reason can only get you so far when you’re trying to prove love; and so it is when you’re trying to prove Love.
You could go back and forth forever with arguments and counter-arguments based on reason and material evidence alone. At some point, if you’re going to really know that that person loves you, you have to take a leap of faith. You have to put your ego aside, get your heart involved, and take the risk that you might be wrong or that you might look foolish. You will never know if real love exists between you and another person if you only explore the matter using your head.
This same approach is necessary for knowing God.
I hope that sharing my experience might be helpful to people who’d like to know more about conversion from atheism. From my experience, I think the most important things to do if you find yourself in conversations with an atheist friend or family member are to know your own faith; pray (then pray some more); and, whatever the specific approach you decide is best in your unique situation, always make sure your words, thoughts and actions reflect the fact that to make the case for God is to make the case for Love.