My Failed Atheism

By Bauerlein, Mark | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2012 | Go to article overview

My Failed Atheism


Bauerlein, Mark, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


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. …

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