Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory College. He has written books on modern culture, and written articles for several popular American magazines. He has been called one of the Independent Women’s Forum’s “favorite intellectuals”.
And five years ago, after more than three decades as a comfortable atheist, Mark converted to christianity. What happened?
A revelation of nothingness
Mark had what might be called an epiphany at 17 years of age, while sitting on his porch eating breakfast. He was looking at a bush at the right side of the porch when the thought entered his head: “There’s nothing there.”
Of course he knew he could see the bush, but something deeper was going on. He thought: “It has nothing behind it or above it or inside it. It doesn’t mean anything.”
As he sat and pondered, the sense of nothingness grew: “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.”
Up until that time, Mark had a vague belief in some sort of God, and had seen the world around him as somehow pointing to God, even if God had never done anything for him. But now things changed. “From that day onward, his being didn’t matter.”
The insight was clear and distinct
His new knowledge settled into his mind and became part of his thinking. He didn’t have any particular reasons to stop believing – no fault to find with christian teaching or the church. It was just obvious – God had never been there. As a Flannery O’Connor character said: “I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.”
A steely nihilism
Mark was clearly a precocious student, and he read literature (Aristotle, Dante, Bacon, Shakespeare, Rousseau) but also the Bible and Augustine, Sartre, Nietzsche and Freud. His reading gave him a way of understanding the atheism that he now espoused, and gave him “a steely nihilism held with the ferocity of a late adolescent who has suddenly discovered the hypocrisy of his elders.”
But nihilism has emotional consequences, especially for an adolescent: “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.”
He found that his atheism sapped his motivation; with Sartre he concluded that “Everything is gratuitous”. He could find no point in either altruism or making money. Yet he was successful in his studies leading to an academic career as Professor of English.
The ground of his atheism
Other atheists, he says, disbelieve in God because of suffering, or doubts about the historical understanding of Jesus, or seeing religion as a tool to subdue the masses, but it was never that way for him. “My atheism began with the perception of nothing, a meeting with the void, and it lay beyond refutation.”
Not toward faith but away from nihilism
But as he grew older, he came to see that his porch ‘epiphany’ had no more basis that the beliefs he rejected – it too was “specimen of faith”. But it took him nowhere, except to a “depleted existence through the prime of my life”.
For him, sceptics like Bertrand Russell, Carl Van Doren and Richard Dawkins “no longer sounded so disinterested and broad-minded …. they lacked the whisper of self-doubt that is more or less necessary to both sound religious and irreligious belief.” Their disbelief started to look more like a limited understanding.
Contempt – the right response to stupid belief?
He started to examine his own motives and attitudes. He already knew, from his familiarity with English literature, that many of the greatest writers were christians, and that down through history faith had so often had a positive effect: “I had to admit the force of faith in human history, high art, and ethical codes”. He started to see his dismissal of belief as arrogance based more on ignorance than on knowledge.
His wife was a christian, one of his respected colleagues had converted to christianity, and he met another “knowledgable intellectual” who had converted as an adult. Then his son started asking questions about God.
After the authority of nihilism slipped …..
“After the authority of nihilism slipped,” he says, “it was time to learn about the other side.”. He met with a Catholic friend to study the Catechism, expecting to find it couldn’t compete in logic or intellect with “academic idols” like Derrida, Foucault and Rorty. But he was surprised to find the discourse just as “sophisticated and learned”.
“The desire for God is written in the human heart”
He was told “The desire for God is written in the human heart”, and it rang true. He found that, whereas secular intellectualism wasn’t really able to comprehend religious belief, the Catholicism he was learning about could explain atheism “sympathetically, with love, not spite.”
He found that it was possible to come to know God through study and discipline rather than a sudden revelation, and “God’s presence or absence rests upon more than a blunt apprehension”.
He converted five years ago.
I find this story so interesting.
Here is a highly intelligent and educated man, and he became an atheist on a sudden feeling. He lived with a stifled sense of futility, yet for 3 decades he didn’t seriously question his nihilism. And he finally rejected nihilism again based more on an intuitive assessment rather than (apparently) on a strictly logical one.
It was only when he had rejected nihilism and atheism that disciplined study began to play a role in his beliefs, as he learned and tested Catholic thinking.
Some people, many atheists I expect, and some christians too, may feel that his belief lacks a sound basis in evidence and reason. If this is so, his nihilism nevertheless had even less reason behind it. But I think there is far more basis to his belief than might first appear.
Two different philosophies
Critics of his choices probably think we should base all our beliefs on evidence, using reason to build from the known to the unknown. This approach is known to philosophers as foundationalism, building all beliefs on a solid foundation of fact. The trouble is, it is impossible to find such a firm foundation.
Before we can even begin to gather evidence, we have to make assumptions that our minds can reason effectively, the external world really exists and our senses give us trustworthy information about it. Before we can discuss with others, we have to assume they are really there, that they have minds we can interact with. Rene Descartes famously tried to begin with the minimal assumption: “I think, therefore I am.” But even this makes assumptions that we are not just blips in a computer simulation. Most of us assume those things without thinking about them, but philosophers and many other intellectuals cannot do that.
But even if we are happy to make those assumptions, there are still difficult questions to resolve. Are our intellectual arguments for and against God of any value? How much evidence is sufficient to draw historical conclusions, for example, about Jesus? How can we know how real our religious experiences (or lack of them) are? How can we avoid bias in our thinking? Do we have any genuine choice anyway, or are our beliefs determined?
For all these reasons, some philosophers espouse coherentism, the idea that we’ll know truth not by building on an illusory foundation, but by building a coherent set of beliefs that hang together and explain more of the world and human experience than any other set of beliefs.
It seems to me that this is more like what Mark has done. As a widely-read academic, he knows no belief or disbelief can be proven. But he finds that christian belief, as expressed in thoughtful Catholicism, rings more true to life, explains more, than nihilism does.
On top of that, it works. It leads to better results in his life and in the world than nihilism did. This is a test that should carry a lot of weight. If it works, if it explains the world and humanity, if it gives life, then that is evidence that it may be correct, or at least more likely to be correct than the alternative.
Mark has told his story, more eloquently than I have done here, in My Failed Atheism, and it is well worth the read.
Photo taken from bio at Emory College.