Whenever I meet self-declared atheists, which happens on a regular basis, I am always dumbfounded by their capacity to believe the unbelievable – a true tour de force. It moves me deeply, and I stand in awe, feeling highly uncomfortable at not being able to sustain a similar level of belief.
By now, I have read many books by famous atheists: books such as The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins; God Is Not Great (2007) by Christopher Hitchens; Stephen Hawking's Black Holes and Baby Universes (1993); and Dick Swaab's We Are Our Brains (Dutch edition, 2010). While these books are well written, and their authors often display great erudition in many important fields, I am fascinated by their capacity for a level of belief that seems so boundless as to make me deeply jealous of them.
The trouble is that while I am intrigued by these books, they also strangle me, and I feel the urge to run outside in desperate need of air.
They are telling me that our universe, with all that it includes, is the result of some accident that took place millions and millions of years ago. That somehow, existence came into being by chance and left us with a mindboggling world that is totally mysterious and astonishing. It is a universe in which the most wondrous things exist and happen, but I am informed that there is really no purpose to it all and that it's purely the result of some unfortunate coincidence.
I am asked to believe that the development of our universe is nothing but the result of evolutionary accidents and other cosmological incidents. I have a hard time believing this. My limited mind just can't grasp it. I keep on asking: If it's all an accident, then why does the universe bother to exist? And I feel terribly immature, compared to these great minds, when I ask that question.
Yes, I have studied the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and so many other arguments for the existence of God. And I agree that, philosophically and scientifically, they can be refuted, and that probably not even one of them is valid. But after all is said and done, I am still left with a strong inner notion of wonder: How can all this be accidental?
And how is it possible that my atheistic friends don't seem to have a problem with this? It worries me, because it seems that I'm missing something very important… But what? It keeps me awake at night and gives me no rest during the day. I want to be a rational human being, but I'm being told that as long as I don't believe in this huge accident, my faculties are underdeveloped and I cannot lay claim to reason.
And yet: I keep asking myself where all these natural and cosmic laws come from, and when I'm told that they too are accidental, I again have a hard time grasping this. It just doesn't sit well with me and I feel ashamed at my ignorance. It overwhelms me.
When I carry one my great-grandchildren – not more than a few hours old – in my arms, and I look at her or his face and small body, with tiny hands and feet, and I see that everything is there when only nine months earlier it was nothing more than a miraculous sperm that met an egg, I feel ashamed that I can't believe all of this is accidental. I just cannot make this leap of faith. It's too much, and I feel embarrassed that I can't join my atheistic friends.
But what am I to do? I cannot get rid of this sense of wonder that permeates my life. Yes, I admit it's terrible that I still live with this primitive and outdated notion of amazement, which I think was with me since the day I was born.
I must tell you that I've tried very hard. I have read countless books on the philosophy of science, on evolution, and God knows what else (pun intended!). But instead of helping me to see the truth, they have only increased my levels of wonder and amazement about this strange world in which I live. Accident? Really??
I am reminded of the great scientist Max Planck, who seems to have been as simplistic as I am when he wrote:
“What, then, does the child think as he makes these discoveries? First of all, he wonders. This feeling of wonderment is the source and inexhaustible fountain-head of his desire for knowledge. It drives the child irresistibly on to solve the mystery, and if in his attempt he encounters a causal relationship, he will not tire of repeating the same experiment ten times, a hundred times, in order to taste the thrill of discovery over and over again… The reason why the adult no longer wonders is not because he has solved the riddle of life, but because he has grown accustomed to the laws governing his world picture. But the problem of why these particular laws and no others hold remains for him just as amazing and inexplicable as for the child. He who does not comprehend this situation misconstrues its profound significance, and he who has reached the stage where he no longer wonders about anything, merely demonstrates that he has lost the art of reflective reasoning.” (1)
You see, Max Planck and I are in the same boat. We just don't get it: It's all an accident. When will we be mature enough and stop standing in wonder and amazement when we see the sun rising; or that a small amount of soft tissue in our skull produces ideas and allows us to make strange sounds, which others seem to understand as words, or that – most incomprehensible of all – we are able to comprehend? When will we come to our senses and stop being awestruck at the fact that we can enjoy music because we're able to bring all the different sounds together and make them into one, which deeply affects us, and elevates us to such a level of emotional upheaval that our hearts nearly burst from excitement?
After all, my atheistic friends tell me that everything has already been explained. And when they offer me books and essays that clarify why all of this is obvious, and then I very carefully read them all, I am left with more questions than answers (2).
Yes, I know that the notion of a God is full of problems and contradictions. I fully agree that our thoughts about this God are far too simplistic and underdeveloped and that most religions, including different forms of one-dimensional Judaism, are guilty of creating this often naive image.
But does that mean that I have to start believing the unbelievable and convince myself that everything is a coincidence and all is explained, or can be explained, by the human brain, which itself is the greatest mystery? Should I actually start believing that my notion of wonder must be reduced to some physical brain activity, which no brain has ever sufficiently explained to me?
So who is more of a believer, the atheist or I? Surely the atheist is. And I am jealous of atheists because they are able to believe the unbelievable. And I, in my simplicity, cannot reach that state of belief. I'm just too skeptical. And of course I'm terribly embarrassed! After all, it is a huge personal fiasco! Shame on me.
Anyway, I still can't sleep.
(1) Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (NY: Philosophical Library, 1949) pp. 91-93.
(2) For some more reading to explain my questions, see: E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper Colophon Books vol. 611 (NY/Hagerstown/San Francisco/London: Harper and Row Publishers, 1977); A. van den Beukel, More Things in Heaven and Earth: God and the Scientists (London: SCM Press, 1991); and Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).