I grew up Adventist my whole life. Pathfinders, deacon as a teenager and young adult, Sabbath school leader. The whole nine yards. And I had an amazing experience. All of my closest friends are still Adventist, and most of them have no idea that I am now an atheist. So how did I go from a deeply committed, born-again and baptized Seventh-day Adventist to an atheist? Well it wasn’t the rules. Turns out I actually still agree with most of them. It wasn’t a bad experience with church leadership, or a particularly nasty encounter with an older member. Every Seventh-day Adventist I’ve come across has been incredibly sweet and a true joy to be around. Truth be told, it was a slow process.
It started with leaving Adventist education and encountering a bigger slice of the real world. I met people from many different faiths, each claiming to have a personal relationship with their deity. They prayed, and got answers to prayers. They had deeply emotional experiences, they found meaning for their lives, and they were convinced that Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, or any of the thousands of other prophets and gods were literally and physically true. And slowly, I came to the realization that most of these people were wrong. Many of these religions contradict each other on basic matters of fact. This is not to say that their experiences were not real, just that their experiences were internal, and did not have actual physical analogs outside of their own minds.
Secondly, I started studying science. My whole life, evolutionists had been called “crazy” “demented” and “foolish” for believing man evolved from a common ancestor. The culture was one of disdain: how could anyone believe something so silly. What a shock then to discover the overwhelming scientific evidence, which is monolithically in support of evolution. What a shock to discover that there are entirely rational, cogent reasons why the vast majority of scientists accept evolution as fact regardless of their spiritual inclinations. That in fact, there was no conspiracy against creationism….(and that creationism does an excellent job of providing no testable hypothesis, and offers no proof beyond pointing towards a 2000 year old book written by a pre-scientific nomadic group of people).
As a result, I started wondering: well what IS true about the Bible? Does God exist? Is this whole thing a fairy-tale? And as I thought more and more about these questions, I came to realize that the god thesis is one that appeals to basic human desires, the desire to have some cosmic meaning in life. It is a desire for humanity to have some special place, for death to not be so scary. But objectively, there is very little reason to believe any of the claims made in scripture. And I started living my life as if there was no god. At first it was scary. I didn’t pray before meals. I didn’t pray before travel. I stopped going to church on Sabbath. I was “in the world.” And yet nothing bad happened.
I didn’t suddenly turn into a depraved, animalistic human being. Without the Ten Commandments, I didn’t suddenly start stealing, or lying, or killing or any other morally questionable thing beyond what I was already doing as a believer. I found that my life still had meaning, that I could enjoy beauty, and still wonder at the vast spectacle of nature. I could still love, deeply and truly. I found peace. Peace not to have to divide my life into a religious realm in which I tossed logic out the door, and the rest of my life where I applied logic and reason. I found peace in not having to claim certainty regarding questions none of us can definitely determine. Has it all been roses? Of course not. I miss the camaraderie of religion. I miss having that network of people who all believe as I do. I miss the music, and some of the rituals. But ultimately, it is a small price to pay for my intellectual honesty.
This is not my story. It belongs to a friend of mine who shared it with me via social media, anonymously. When I read it, I instinctively tried to figure out who wrote it, but a sad reality hit me: this story isn’t unique. I’ve listened to many friends give similar accounts of how they lost their faith during college or soon thereafter.
Perhaps your story is similar. Or, more likely, perhaps you’re in the midst of figuring out your story. Either way, I’m writing this for you. In a number of upcoming articles, I’ll be sharing my story—the questions I wrestled with as a student studying at various secular universities, and the faith that resulted.
First, let me give some background. I received a Christian education through an Adventist elementary school and academy (high school). During this time, there were a handful of people who had a disproportionate effect on my thinking and faith. One was my 8th-grade science teacher, who would start the day by sharing a devotional thought from Scripture, and end the day by showing us videos on string theory. Another was a high school math teacher who introduced me to Abstract Algebra while exhibiting Jesus’ love for people. Such individuals modeled for me how a life of intellectual exploration can thrive within the Christian faith.
Faith was not always easy, though. A friend recently shared with me that he has been an atheist since our Sophomore year of academy. It came as a surprise, but not entirely. He had been willing to ask difficult questions in our religion classes, but had often found only superficial answers in response. I’m painfully sympathetic to his conclusion, having often shared his dissatisfaction.
During the summer prior to my senior year of academy, I enrolled in a couple courses through a program at Harvard. That summer, I was exposed to friends with worldviews and lifestyles completely alien to my own. As we lived together, tackled vector calculus problems together, and explored Cambridge together, these differences came into contact. Incredibly, the result wasn’t hostility, but mutual interest. We liked each other, we respected each other, and we wanted to better understand each other’s beliefs and practices. That summer, I discovered that the world of ideas was bigger and richer than I had previously known, and I was eager to explore it.
After completing high school, I traveled to California to study at Stanford University. My Freshman year I enrolled in a philosophy class entitled “Truth and Morality: One, Many, or None?” We read Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, and a number of other intellectuals who led us in wrestling over the nature of absolute truth and morality. The course concluded by largely favoring the “None” option and challenging our class’ sympathy towards the relativistic “Many,” although the door was left open, albeit ever so slightly, for “One.”
The course challenged me to begin thinking deeply about the nature of truth, and to examine the claims of my own worldview. In many ways, it set the tone for the rest of my time as an undergraduate.
I came into university knowing I would major in mathematics, a discipline that has historically been heralded as the home of absolute Truth, should Truth having any remaining home at all. I was drawn towards Plato’s description in The Republic of mathematics as the best means to “draw the mind towards truth,” and was motivated to systematically examine the truth claims surrounding the big questions about life, God, and eternity with the same rigor we employ in mathematics. Mathematics is, after all, the art of carefully reasoning from simple self-evident truths (axioms) to incredibly deep and oftentimes surprising results (theorems). I would soon discover, though, that God cannot be reduced to a conjecture to be analyzed–but more on that in a later article.
I intentionally befriended peers from different faith backgrounds and worldviews. I learned to pray with Muslim friends and visited Mosque. I enjoyed vegetarian food and lengthy conversations with Buddhist friends, and was inspired by a talk the Dalai Lama gave on campus. I baked challah bread and celebrated Passover with Jewish friends. I stayed up into the early morning discussing predestination, the role of the Law, what happens at death, and a great many other topics with friends from other Christian backgrounds. I enrolled in religious studies classes, and learned how secular scholarship views Scripture as merely a work of human production. I took additional classes in philosophy and, in particular, the philosophy of science and mathematics, leading to fascinating conversations with my professors and peers on questions related to the Christian faith.
In doing so, I encountered a barrage of questions similar to the ones expressed in the opening story above. I asked myself how I should view my friends’ religious experiences and what, if anything, sets Christianity, and Adventism in particular, apart. Or, as my atheist friend who lived in my dorm down the hall put it, “What makes believing in God any different from believing in fairies or Santa Claus? Is there evidence? Can you prove it?” I wrestled to understand how I should make sense of those things in my religious studies, philosophy, and science classes that seemed to challenge my high regard for the authority of Scripture. I felt the weight of these questions, and the sacred responsibility to honestly engage with them.
And yet, seldom did I find in the Church a voice speaking to these questions–at least, not voices that spoke with clarity and charity. This puzzled me. After all, Scripture has commanded us to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). “Defense” here comes from the Greek apologia, from which we derive the word apologetics. In the modern Western world, apologetics is a defense for the Christian faith that engages with contemporary questions and claims of a well-educated, pluralistic, post-Christian society.
Countless times as a student I was told to beware of “those philosophers and scientists.” Indeed, there is wisdom in recognizing the deficiencies–and dangers–of a purely secular education, but why wasn’t I also told that I had a pearl of great value in the marketplace of ideas? I was left largely on my own to discover that the Adventist message is an altogether attractive and compelling way to make sense of the many diverse experiences and rich ideas I encountered at the university. More than that, I found that the person of Christ and the promise of his soon return offer unparalleled hope for human history. Again and again I’ve seen how the hope of Christ has satisfied the mind and souls of individuals asking really tough questions and craving for something more than their failed attempts at manufacturing meaning, and yet it’s difficult to avoid the impression that we’re keeping storehouses of bread locked up, trying to keep the bugs out, while the world cries out in hunger.
I pray that through these articles, a spirit of investigation might be sparked that will lead you to (re)discover a reason for hope, and learn how best to communicate it to an inquiring world.