I have tried to be an atheist, but skepticism always got in the way.
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.
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.
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.
 Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (NY: Philosophical Library, 1949) pp. 91-93.
 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).
Ken Schreier says
Even an atheist has doubts just as one who believes! Do not be jealous for they too do not sleep. There is a purpose for all things but we just do not know everything. One day all will have the knowledge of G-d and it is then that we will all be able to sleep in peace so that we can continue to live in peace!
Daniel Klein says
It is disconcerting and sad that atheism and science are misrepresented in your article. Science and atheism never assert that “all is explained”. That claim is so antithetical to the process of science, which develops hypotheses and theories that are always subject to revision as new evidence is accumulated. In fact, usually, every new valid discovery raises many more unanswered issues that were not anticipated at the start of the quest. The beauty of science is its never-ending quest for understanding and truth
Similarly, atheism never claims to have an answer to the wonderful mystery of the universe. It simply makes two statements. 1) There is no evidence for god and therefore no rational reason to believe in a deity. 2) the term god is a meaningless concept. It is a catchall term that incorporates all our questions and deposits them in a file that too often stifles the mind and inhibits further philosophical speculation and analysis.
How did this universe come about? As an atheist, the simple answer is I don’t know! I do however have some fascinating, interesting, mysterious and evolving ideas, e.g. evolution, the big bang, multiverses, etc that raise more complex and interesting questions than the stifling concept of god.
This by no means implies “Halacha”.
Miklos Szalai says
I’m a former religious Jew, and now I’m an atheist (or rather a deist; see below). This is a result of a rather painful spiritual journey. Certainly it is not the result of the pursuing of worldly success or sensual pleasures: I kept all the mitzvos conscientiously, as far as it was possible under a communist regime, I love my former religion, my cultural heritage, I’m proud of being a Jew. I think that the atheists you have read (and especially Richard Dawkins, whose book I rather ruthlessly criticized), are vulgar, and philosophically naive. I think you should have read rather other atheists, for example William L. Rowe (about the evil), and J. L. Schellenberg (about the hiddenness of G-d).
I don’t think that the existence of this wondrous and complex Universe and that of the human beings are the result of coincidence, (or a series of blind coincidences and blind natural processes), I think that “there is something” in cosmological argument and in the teleological argument. But as far as I see, these argument cannot establish more than the existence of SOME sort of a Creator, some sort of intelligent designer of the Unvierse, but not that this being is good, benevolent, saint, or worthy of worship. On the other hand: the mentioned philosophers and their argument established for me with an overwhelming force, that IF there is a G-d, He is not good (at least not in the earthly, normal, common-sense meaning of that word), and He doesn’t care us, human beings.
Yours sincerely: Miklos SZalai