In thirty years as a professor, of graduate seminars, academic conferences, committee meetings, lunches and dinners, and conversations short and long, I have heard God mentioned rarely, and when he is mentioned he is never talked of in a way that assumes his reality. God may have stood foremost in the minds of John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Edwards, Frederick Douglass, Flannery O’Connor, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and other canonical objects of study in my field, but he doesn’t in the minds of their critics.
It was natural that I should have ended up in such a setting. One summer morning when I was seventeen years old, a middle-class kid in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I grabbed some breakfast, stepped out onto the front porch to eat, and realized: That bush to the right, five feet away—there’s nothing there. I looked hard, and the same words popped into my head: “There’s nothing there.” I must have repeated the phrase twenty times. It’s just a bush, roots and leaves and branches, nothing more. It has nothing behind it or above it or inside it. It doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t have the ontological language then, but if I had I would have used the words transcendent and immanent in the negative.
I sat and ate. As I leaned back in the quiet and the sunlight, the void in the thing nearby expanded to all existence. Everything changed. The bush was different and the universe was different. God was gone, utterly, and so was all spirit and meaning and moral value. If anybody had passed at that moment and casually remarked upon the morning with the slightest hint that it had a moral or metaphysical meaning, I would have answered, “That’s a lie.”
Up until that time, objects had impressed me as signs of something more, and they pointed dimly toward God. I would stare out my window at night and pray to God for help, the dark water oaks and the glowing streetlamps marking the presence of . ? . ? . well, I wasn’t quite sure what. God, yes, a supreme being (as I’d taken to saying to myself that year), was around, though he hadn’t done anything for me. From that day onward, his being didn’t matter.
The conversion struck me through and through, but at the same time it seemed altogether right and inevitable. My astonishment alternated with a humdrum certainty: “Of course.” I knew the truth, I had it, and it didn’t require thunder or testimony. Why should it? Why should a flat view of reality merit notice? The insight was clear and distinct, and it was emotionally uncomplicated, too. I hadn’t rejected God; will had nothing to do with it. Nor had I found fault with any particular tenet of any particular faith. The Fall, the Bible, services up the road on Sunday morning—their coherence was irrelevant. The morning’s revelation occurred as a simple and basic perception, like hearing someone calling out next door. God is not there, I realized, and that knowledge seemed to have come entirely from outside of me.
In the subsequent weeks I walked around in a daze. I didn’t tell anybody about it, not even my identical twin brother, but went through my routines as before. Go to school, hang out with pals, play basketball, and hope some girl finds me appealing. A secret life opened up, however, a world of ideas separate from social life at school and family life at home. I had a truth in hand: God is gone, and indeed never was. It set me apart, though I continued to crawl out my window at night and sneak down to the neighborhood pool with buddies for after-hours swimming, to drink beer faster than I should, and to envy seniors with their own cars. I hadn’t read Flannery O’Connor yet, but her character Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People” described my condition perfectly: “I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.”
I was a special person with a special aptitude, and I craved the fellowship of like minds. After a quick lunch in the school cafeteria, I would head over to the library for thirty minutes before class to pore over the school library’s set of Great Books of the Western World. Their authors, Aristotle, Dante, Bacon, Shakespeare, Rousseau, et al., had already charted, I believed, the same momentous cogitations that preoccupied me. I didn’t avoid the devout ones, for I assumed that they had undergone the same intensity of perception that I had, though the content differed. I knew they were wrong, but I expected that a learned atheist would have to work through authors such as St. Paul and St. Augustine. Studying what they said would make my unbelief a grown-up achievement, not the sophomoric, rebellious relativism that I observed in a few schoolmates and already recognized as easy and affected.
What gripped me most were the touchstones of denial, those passages I could interpret as expressions of my own vision. I still remember some of them, such as the line in Ecclesiastes, “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Yes, to learn more, to see farther and deeper, brings no happiness, only the sober truth of a universe without spirit. And the villainous Edmund in King Lear who declares, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound” voiced a brash defiance—a defiance of higher norms—that I would have emulated if I had the strength. Ivan Karamazov’s anguish gave my atheism a romantic cast, and his descent into despair and madness only amplified his appeal.
Roquentin’s confrontation with the void in Sartre’s Nausea (“Everything is gratuitous”), the defeatism of Mr. Compson in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (“All men are just accumulations dolls stuffed with sawdust swept up from the trash heaps where all previous dolls had been thrown away the sawdust flowing from what wound in what side that not for me died not”), and Nietzsche’s ironic and mournful declamations (such as his remark that the moment “clever animals invented cognition . . . was the haughtiest, most mendacious moment in the history of this world, but yet only a moment. After Nature had taken breath awhile the star congealed and the clever animals had to die.”) certified my entry into an august company of honest minds, adding greatness to truth. I was alone with my unbelief in the present, but the Intelligent Ones of the past kept me sharp and assured.
Most important to me was Freud—not his diagnosis of religious belief as an infantile longing but his list of defense mechanisms (sublimation, projection, reaction formation among them). They gave me tools to interpret every religious, altruistic, and in any way ideal assertion or action by others as merely a tactic of ego. Moral and supernatural thoughts and words were just false and phony masks covering narcissism and fear. That believers would dress up their selfishness in grand and high-minded objects only worsened their dissembling. I laughed at the notion of a God who actually cared about me or anyone else. Against the prayers and hopes of the faithful I set a steely nihilism held with the ferocity of a late adolescent who has suddenly discovered the hypocrisy of his elders.
Freud, Nietzsche, and the rest formed a superior corps of which I was a part, but they didn’t save me from the consequences of believing in nothing. Every night in bed I foresaw my pending nonexistence and trembled. I shut my eyes and the walls closed in. That I was destined to join the nothingness that I spied in the bush was an intolerable prospect, an unthinkable thought. My mind was stuck on eternal death—“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, this can’t be happening.” The discovery didn’t free me, it crushed me. The universe was open, but my life was closed. Others might take the disappearance of God as liberating, a chance to forge their own future, but not me. Whatever plan I might commence, whatever identity I might pursue, it shrank to pointlessness beside the yardstick of boundless nothingness.
I understood my atheism as an achievement, but it didn’t inspire any further achievements. My only creative impetus was to dramatize my own condition, my only critical one to despiritualize everyone else’s. I didn’t deny the good, the true, or the beautiful, but I certainly denied any supernatural grounds for them. All my strength went into demystification, and once those ideals became secular norms, they didn’t excite me. I’d lost God, and whatever his replacement might be (helping others, making money) left me cold.
I found a career in academia, one that tallied my loss of faith and love of great books in workable ways. Never did I feel out of place in my unbelief, and so, as the semesters passed, the roguish aspect of my atheism diminished. No more shock over the fact of mortality and no more self-promotion into an elite band of thinkers and seers, just an occasional shiver when alone and undistracted, plus a routine conviction that I was more educated and clear-sighted than ordinary people.
While I never regarded religion as evil or sought to disabuse the faithful, any pressure I felt from Christian quarters might easily spark a contemptuous response. I might admire the conviction of the believer and the good deeds of the church, and crisis-of-faith stories still had their appeal, but faith lay on the other side of a mental wall. I didn’t sense the existence of God, and so I couldn’t understand the motive for religious expression as anything but ideological or subjective. I could understand, however feebly, what it was like to be rich or black or a father or a little kid, but I could sit in church for a whole year and not “get” the experience of the people sitting beside me one bit. I couldn’t reify God or contemplate God, not even from a skeptical distance. God was just a token abstraction.
This was the ground of atheism for me. Arguments for it were secondary. Some atheists make moral arguments against faith (how can God allow so much suffering?), some make historical arguments (who was Jesus really ?), and some make political arguments (religion is the opiate of the masses), but each one could be answered in theory. My atheism began with the perception of nothing, a meeting with the void, and it lay beyond refutation.
I no longer regard my insight as a genuine discovery. For all its irreligious effects, the certitude I felt that morning in 1976 now appears to me a specimen of faith, and that faith began to crumble a few years ago. I thought it had heralded the truth, and for three decades afterward I felt it to be binding truth, but at fifty-three years of age, I now see it as error, an unfortunate one whose cost to me was an anti-spiritual, depleted existence through the prime of my life.
The change didn’t commence with a second, sudden insight that cancelled the first. I didn’t watch the sun set over the Taconic Ridge and cry out, “There he is!” My attendance at a megachurch in Atlanta at the urging of my wife brought nuggets of Christian understanding, but no flash of spirit. Neither did I say to myself, “I’m tired of dreading nonexistence—I shall will myself into faith!” The process worked incrementally and backward, not toward faith but away from nihilism, fueled by the rising conviction that the conclusion I had drawn long ago was wrong. I thought that the apprehension of nothingness came from out of time and circumstance, a lightning bolt of truth that had nothing to do with the day before, the house I lived in, my family, and my age. I lived in the shadow of that unshakeable verity until, for some reason, a few scattered influences unsettled it.
I married a Christian woman who merely shrugged at my friends’ sly remarks about the Garden and the Crucifixion, a reaction I found wholesome, not anti-intellectual. I worked in Washington, D.C. for three years under a man who was strong and just in tense and exposed situations and taught everyone around him noble lessons in leadership. He did not appear to need God, and he circulated smoothly in an often irreligious world of art, literature, and politics, yet he was a staunch Catholic who thanked God for the benefits of his life.
My colleague at Emory University, historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, one of the sweetest souls and wisest minds I’ve ever known, converted to Catholicism a dozen years before her death, and though she never discussed faith with me, these words she wrote in First Things in 2000 I read as a solid rebuke to the academic cynicism I had embraced so complacently years earlier:
Thus when, in December 1995, I was received into the Catholic Church, my nonbelieving colleagues tactfully refrained from comment, primarily, I suspect, because they literally did not know what to say. More likely than not, many of them assumed that, having lived through some difficult years, I was turning to faith for some form of irrational consolation. Consequently, from their perspective, to acknowledge my conversion would, implicitly, have been to acknowledge my vulnerability. Others, who were less sympathetic, doubtless assumed that my turn to Rome reflected what they viewed as my reactionary politics, notably with respect to abortion. From their perspective, I had exiled myself from acceptable conversation of any kind.
Finally, I had a four-year-old son who posed big questions to me such as “Daddy, where is God?” and something inside stopped me from answering, “Nowhere.” One day in late 2010, I took him to Catholic services at the chapel on the Princeton campus. I wanted him to experience the Church as part of his education in history and culture. The chapel is an imposing building modeled on the fourteenth-century English Gothic style, and the architecture did its work that day. So did the Catholic ritual. My son’s eyes kept rising up the columns to the vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows. When the priest and servers with their robes and candles passed by, he turned his head slowly to follow the procession step by step. When people lined up for Communion, he shed his customary shyness and pleaded to join them. At that moment, my atheism turned into a sorry lack of sensibility, a lack that I refused to pass along to my son.
A year or two earlier, I hosted a visitor, an editor of a prominent political magazine, to my campus at Emory and on the drive home after dinner, when my atheism casually came up, she told me that she had been an atheist most of her adult life but converted to Christianity in her forties. This was the first time I had heard of conversion working in the other direction. I had always assumed that atheism was an advance, and intelligent people couldn’t go backward. But here was an intellectual, serious and knowledgeable, who had done just that, her faith sounding in no way like a flight from reality.
As the experiences piled up, the atheists I had joined no longer sounded so disinterested and broad-minded. I had accumulated several classic and contemporary statements of nonbelief, and as I perused them again, they seemed more and more to contract life, not expand it. I started to notice that they lacked the whisper of self-doubt that is more or less necessary to both sound religious and irreligious belief.
Here is Bertrand Russell in “Is There a God?” on the base of his atheism: “When I come to my own beliefs, I find myself quite unable to discern any purpose in the universe, and still more unable to wish to discern one”—as if that nondiscernment by his own sole self was sufficient for his sweeping, voluminous irreverence. Here is Carl Van Doren in “Why I Am an Unbeliever” announcing his unbelief: “I do not believe in any god that has ever been devised, in any doctrine that has ever been revealed, in any scheme of immortality that has ever been expounded”—those passive verbs setting up faith as a fraud from the start. He can’t even mention “God” without adding a cynical “devised.”
Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion has a subchapter on “the argument from personal ‘experience,’” but he spends no time exploring the actual experience of God. He mentions two campers who heard the voice of Satan outside their tent, George W. Bush obeying the voice of God and invading Iraq, a serial killer hearing Jesus tell him to murder women, and a mass vision in Portugal, in 1917, in which 70,000 pilgrims saw the sun dance in the sky. A page on cognitive mechanisms of the brain explains them all as hallucinations, and “that is really all that needs to be said about personal ‘experiences’ of gods or other religious phenomena,” he airily concludes.
This kind of certainty, I realized, reflected a limit in understanding converted into a virtue, compensated for with dismissal and annoyance and contempt. I understood this from the inside and began to wonder if, for all their claim to intellectual progress, many atheists suspect they are missing something from which other people receive meaning and healing and even happiness. But even to say “I don’t understand you” acknowledges the limits of atheism and allows the possibility they might be wrong. It’s a difficult position for the intellectually proud to hold, and it is easier for them to denounce the believer than to admit that they don’t know. Contempt can be a sign of inadequacy, and envy too.
I had savored such pert deflations and understood them to be the beginning of honest inquiry. I wonder now at their—and my own—lack of curiosity. Even I had to admit the force of faith in human history, high art, and ethical codes and to have no interest in them was to reject outright an essential portion of the human story. In this regard, I realized, my atheism was an intellectual shortcoming, and a contradictory one. I approved of my atheism precisely on the grounds of epistemic progress, as if not seeing or believing in God signified a more incisive and capacious mind than did the faithful one. But not to recognize and search the believing mind, not to interpret Giotto’s fresco cycle and The Four Quartets for the faith that shaped them, was a deficiency.
For too long I converted that arrogance into a virtue, and I compensated for the lack of understanding with dismissal and annoyance. Contempt, I thought, was the right response to stupid belief. For all my claims to intellectual growth, though, I had to stand before the faithful and admit my ignorance. But even to say “I don’t understand you” is a difficult position for the intellectually prideful to hold, and my ready defense was to denigrate the thing I didn’t understand, both God himself and others’ apprehension of him. I reacted wrongly to assertions of what I didn’t discern, even though all of us are asked all the time to believe in things we don’t perceive.
That was an intellectual break, and it pressed me to reflect upon thirty years of adulthood and to realize to my disgust that without a spiritual anchor in my personal life I had careened from one reckless and cowardly act to another. My contempt for believers faded, and when I ended up in the midst of believing souls I felt embarrassment and regret, not superiority. Middle age brought about a different conclusion: “Atheism happened to me not because it is the truth but because of who I was and what was happening to me back then.” I don’t think that all beliefs are socially or historically constructed, but in this case I know that my epiphany at seventeen was not an insight into the nature of things. It was a psychological adjustment to a mentally ill, domineering father and an erratic, promiscuous mother.
After the authority of nihilism slipped, it was time to learn about the other side. In late 2010, I began weekly study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with a man from Opus Dei who has become a treasured friend. After a long personal and professional life spent reading philosophy and literature that pointed inevitably, it seemed to me, toward a secular vision, I was skeptical that forthright expressions of religious belief could compete in logic or intellect with Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and other academic idols of the eighties and nineties.
But our first session on the opening sections of the Catechism revealed a discourse just as sophisticated and learned as the most scholastic paragraphs of deconstruction and cultural studies. My friend’s explanation of the sacraments as signs and presences was just as semiotically advanced as the theories I remember from graduate seminars on structural linguistics.
When I read “The desire for God is written in the human heart,” I wanted more. I found too that the Catechism does something deconstruction, cultural studies, and the rest don’t. It takes seriously the other side. It doesn’t shy away from atheism but explains it sympathetically, with love, not spite.
The Catechism introduced to me “ways of coming to know God” that involve study and discipline, not a sudden revelation. The idea that faith might not be an instantaneous perception, that God’s presence or absence rests upon more than a blunt apprehension, struck me as a dilating prospect. God is out there, and the Church is the way to him. If I haven’t apprehended him directly and overwhelmingly, as I did the Nothing of that not-burning bush when I was a bright and confused teenager, that’s the fault of my limited powers of perception, not because there is nothing there to perceive. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults last fall.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.