How I responded to an atheist I love

Photo by Jezlyn26.

I'm a person of faith. A person with faith. Imperfect faith, variable faith, doubtful faith, but still faith in a Higher Power. What, then, do I say to someone very near and dear to me who tells me he is atheist?

Well, I'll tell you. Because this happened to me just a couple weeks ago, so it's fresh in my mind.

Someone (whom we'll call Guy) told me his belief at the start of a car ride. He opened up the conversation as if he were coming clean. "I want to have faith, Julia," he said. "I really do. But I have to be honest and say I don't."

At first I was taken aback. I knew Guy wasn't following any religious doctrine, but I never stopped to think that might mean total lack of belief in any deity.

Then I felt naive, bordering on narrow-minded. Why did I assume Guy believed in God? Because he was a good person? Because he expressed morals and values similar to mine? Did his not believing in God make him any less a kind or worthy person? Did it prevent me from seeing him as a child of God?

And then I felt upset. Really upset. Heart-on-the-floor-mat kind of upset. But I couldn't cry because we were in the car together having this talk, and I didn't want to dissuade him from sharing his thoughts. I wanted to hear what he had to say, which turned out to be many thoughtful, well-researched, well-reasoned things. Guy had not come at this decision quickly or lightly. He had examined all sides and drawn a conclusion. I couldn't ask more from anyone of any belief system.

We went back and forth on various tenets. To be clear, I wasn't trying to convince him of anything. I believe God works within people individually, and their spiritual journeys are theirs alone. (Plus I'm a terrible debater and fold like a pile of laundry.)

Instead, we talked about the constructs of the atheist vs. theist debate. He said he doesn't understand why the burden of proof is on the atheists. I said believers and non-believers alike have a faulty premise -- that trying to wrap scientific and academic structures around something as intangible, amorphous, and stubbornly unscientific as faith can't help but lead to circular arguments and insufficient evidence.

Then we talked about the meaning of life without ever really using that term. He said he's in awe of the earth and the wondrous complexity of human existence without needing a Creator behind them. I said that mortality is a huge challenge for me -- downright terrifying at times -- and the idea of an afterlife brings me a measure of peace.

Then came my turn to come clean.

"Guy," I said, "I have to be honest too. I believe because I want to."

"I appreciate that," he said. "I wish more people would admit it."

So why was I ready to burst into tears then, and for the next 24 hours, and even now writing this post?
  • Because I've struggled with suffering and meaning and death in tearful spades this past year, and those are the waves that rock my little boat hardest.
  • Because Guy made me realize (admit?) how much I want people I love to share my beliefs. Why, I'm not sure. I think because for all the struggle that believing entails, it ultimately brings me joy, and I want others to have that too.
  • Because I've never been able to conceive of nothingness without fear creeping in.
  • Because thinking about if people can still end up in a heaven they never believed in makes my head hurt.
  • And because of lots of other big, daunting, mysterious, sentimental, melancholy, confused reasons I can't articulate right now. 
My response to the atheist I love may not seem enough to those of you with greater faith than I. Sorry about that. I could answer only from my heart, and it did the best it could.

Prayer #180: Suspension of Disbelief

Perhaps there's nothing in the dark to fear.

Perhaps there's nothing in the dark at all.

Still, I prefer a glimmer, if only along the path.

So for that, give me a faith that flickers but never quite goes out.