A Song That God Wrote: My Several Failed Attempts At Atheism

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I confess that I’m a Christian who often envies Atheists.

As the blog has reached a larger audience, I’ve been extremely grateful that so many of the people who connect with the writing claim no religious affiliation. It’s a great joy. Too many people of faith would prefer to preach only to the choir of those who agree with them, staying nice and comfy in their little spiritual bubbles, sequestered from those dreadfully worldly “heathens”.

I’m pretty fond of the heathens, actually.

I often find Atheists to be much kinder, much more compassionate, much more reasoned (and frankly a lot more like Jesus than so many of the professed Christians I know—but that’s a blog post for another day.)

One reader recently joked that she enjoys my writing greatly, thought she admittedly “keeps hoping that I will one day be converted to Atheism”.

Many days I so wish to be, too.

It’s naive of me I’m sure, but I often imagine that life would be much easier and my moral dilemmas far less frequent, if I simply could abandon God and resign myself to a world contained within only measurable data. I picture my time being much simpler, and populated by far less existential angst, though that may just be grass-greening on my part. (Nearly two decades of in the trenches church ministry can do that to you.)

More times than I care to admit, I secretly pine for life without religion, without God. The only problem, is that my faith keeps getting in the way.

It’s that dear friend who you’ve known for years; the one who annoys and frustrates the heck out of you much of time, but whose presence makes your life so much sweeter and so much more interesting. Your relationship with them is the glorious duplicity of affection and frustration held in equal measure.

This has been my spiritual journey.

In many ways, music brought me back to faith when I had nearly abandoned it. I can vividly remember many years ago, sitting in front of my computer with a guitar when a song just flooded in. (One who composes or creates understands what I mean). The melody and words came quickly and as they did the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt close to tears.

And after a few brief minutes, a song that had never existed before in world now did. (Unintentional copyright infringement notwithstanding).

I’ve always held that quiet moment as a gift and a reminder of the sacred act of creating. It’s continually pointed me to far more profound Art all around me.

A few weeks ago I was the guest on a secular humanist radio show, invited to debate the existence of God, the relevance of the Bible, and the challenges of working out morality both with and without faith. I am blessed with so many wise, funny, articulate non-believing friends in my life and these are conversations I genuinely love having.  I was thrilled with the opportunity to do so with others listening in.

Our discussions that evening were measured and respectful, and though the host claimed to have no interest in proselytizing he later stated that he and his friends “really want people to abandon faith altogether.” It seems that deep down, the conversion agenda is strong within all of us, regardless of our faith perspective.

We all inherently want people to agree with our worldview, either out of love or compassion or competitiveness or simple intolerance. Whether you claim religion or not, you’ll have to decide where you land most of the time in that regard.

The discussion turned toward the merits of Science (something many Christians avoid, the way vampires avoid garlic bread and sunbathing). I’ve never struggled to reconcile the natural world with a Supernatural Creator. For me Science has always been the mathematics of God, and Faith the poetry of God. Each reflects something equally true and beautiful about the same incredibly complex source. As I shared with the host, Science gives me so many answers of the “hows” of this world, but so very few of its “whys”.

His question to me was, “What if there is no why to everything?”

And that is the very sweet spot of belief for me; the why that must exist, the why that could only come from something or someone called God.

So much of what we have in this life that gives it meaning or joy or beauty has one common characteristic, one that we simply accept as a given as we receive it: A reason for being.

A song that we love comes on the radio and we’d never assume that the song simply existed; that it happened merely because the natural elements of melody and harmony and sound all exist. We would never accept that the song wrote itself, generating its own existence. We understand that the song had to have a writer and that the writer composed the song with the intent to communicate something to those listening. The songwriter precedes the song.

We sit down to an amazing plate of lasagna and as our eyes, nose, and palette all receive it in all of its multi-layered, sauce-bubbling, cheese-oozing goodness, we’d never dare to believe that it simply is; that just because the individual elements might exist, that it somehow assembled itself. We know that something as beautifully balanced and complex and intricate had to have a chef behind it, one whose mind and hands combined, to joyfully place it in front of us.

The same can be said for beautiful paintings or books we devour or cars we cherish or clothes we adore or movies we watch over and over again. We receive all of them, not wondering whether or not there might be someone behind them—we know it without a doubt.

That’s how creation always works.

And if we find such assurance of a maker in so many of the relatively small, measurable, tangible things that we adorn our daily lives with, how could we not find the same surety regarding the very world we live in, one whose splendors are far more staggering?

Do we really believe that everything that exists; the universe and the ocean and the wildflowers and the colors of the sunset and the stars and your very heartbeat; that it’s all merely a song that no one wrote?

I’ll contend that this requires a faith stronger than I am currently capable of.

If a relatively disposable three-minute pop song can’t exist without a small army of writers, musicians, and producers working in concert, how can the very planet you’re sitting on right now and all that is happening upon it and all that’s happening within you, be the product of no one and nothing; just a random, purposeless process?

It can’t.

Everything in life that we cherish or admire or are inspired by, testifies that all creations need to be created; that every meal comes from the heart of brilliant chef, that every painted masterpiece flows from the brush of a master’s hand, that every song you blast rebelliously as you’re driving slightly too fast down the highway, first played in the head of the one who composed it.

I believe that life itself makes the same case.

I’ll surely continue to wrestle with so much of the big and small questions of how this faith gets worked out in the everyday. I’ll still to frequently court doubt and spar with belief.

I know that many of this life’s mysteries will never be fully resolved on this side of mortality but there’s something that my musician’s heart knows without question:

This world is a song that God wrote.

I’m just trying my best to catch the melody and to sing along.

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33 thoughts on “A Song That God Wrote: My Several Failed Attempts At Atheism

  1. “It’s naive of me I’m sure, but I often imagine that life would be much easier, and my moral dilemmas far less frequent, if I simply could abandon God, and resign myself to a world contained within only measurable data.” – Don’t we all have those days… I know thaT feeling after nearly three decades in the ministry trenches myself… But it doesn’t last because that pesky Holy Spirit gets me every time!

    “I am blessed with so many wise, funny, articulate non-believing friends in my life, and these are conversations I genuinely love having. ” — some of my pagan friends in the military actually acted more like Christ-followers than many of the christians (lower case intentional!) I had to deal with…

    • Michael. As a Christian, you is supposed to separate yourself from them peeples. Then when them peeples sees you, theyz will say to they sevs, “Michael is all alone now. I bet he longs to have us back as friends. Not having us around will git to him soon, he will brake down, and agree to what we believe just so he can get back in good with us once heezuns gits saved the right way.

      Not me. I just look over there at all of them fully separated from me and say, “Thanks Lord—please make them stay over there and out of my way permanently—and thank you so much for doing that. All praise be to the Lord.

  2. John, a couple of things:

    1st, a beautiful expression coined by a fave author of mine, Zenna Henderson, (in her story, she calls the Trinity The Name (god), The Presence (Christ), and The Power (Holy Spirit) Here: “You can refuse your Gift, but part of you would die, the part of you The Power honours, your place in The Presence, your syllable of The Name” …and I feel atheists also are ‘syllables in The Name’ too, (see 2nd point)

    2nd lol, I (a Christian) married an atheist, and his behaviour and perspectives and ethics are very in line with Christ’s. Perhaps God means atheists to be atheists as a method of pulling the blinkers off the eyes of Christians experiencing tunnel vision, lol.

    Lastly, I discovered something rather wonderful: that when atheists and Christians DON’T yell at each other that the other is wrong and try convert them, a beautiful thing happens…..

    …and as for atheists and the afterlife, that’s my job, to petition on their behalf when I meet Christ, just as He did for everyone on the cross.

  3. You have expressed so well my thoughts and feelings, including the sometimes wish that I could just forget about all the God-stuff. And why I can’t do that.

  4. So much of what you write on this blog echoes my own journey and where the Holy Spirit has led me. I was on a very similar path described here just a couple of years ago (although it was a conversation with my wife instead of a song that brought me back.) I’m always very encouraged by what you share here. Thank you for your transparency and honesty.

  5. John, as much as I like your spirit, you write as though reality is a function of what you believe, instead of making what you believe a function of reality. That kind of thinking is a problem, which has done incalculable damage throughout history. What you have an easier or harder time having faith in does not tell us anything about what is. And if you have an harder time believing that consciousness emerged from inanimate nature, instead of the other way around, that doesn’t seem to reflect anything except your personal biases, widely shared as they may be. I recommend Paul Tillich’s book The Dynamics of Faith, wherein he identifies and discusses the problems with the kind of thinking you are doing. I hope you’ll read it, and report back to us. You are good man.

  6. //Do we really believe that everything that exists; the universe, and the ocean, and the wildflowers, and the colors of the sunset, and the stars, and your very heartbeat; that it’s all merely a song that no one wrote?//

    Yet, you believe that there is a God that no one created.

    How does that work?

  7. I volunteer in prison ministry, which many would think is focused on evangelism. Many of the people who attend our 3 1/2 day program are non-Christian: Muslim, Atheist, Native-American, etc. Our program has played a big part of the radical changes in the prison over the last 10 years. This prison has gone from having the worst reputation to one of the best. And you know what? We don’t evangelize. We present “living the Christian life in a prison” and then shut up and listen to what they have to say. We don’t tell anyone they are wrong or that they have to change anything about their lives. We listen, and love, and many of these men will end up in the Christian faith community because they like the life we present.

  8. The thing that most non-Atheist view of atheism is that it’s another type of belief system, when in fact, it’s no such thing. It’s just un-belief.

    More Atheists though have turned their unbelief into dogma, as such comes Scientism–the exact opposite of the Scientific process.

    When thinking of Atheism, you don’t have to convert, remember it is just un-belief (simple), the best way to think of Atheism is to follow Einstein’s example, which invariably will

    lead to Baruch Spinoza, here’s Einstein’s take:

    On 24 April 1929, Einstein cabled Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein in German: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

    He expanded on this in written answers he gave to a Japanese scholar on his views on science and religion, which appeared as a limited edition publication, on the occasion of Einstein’s 50th birthday:

    Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order…

    This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as “pantheistic” (Spinoza).

    (… So, if you want to look into Atheism, read Spinoza’s treatises on religion and his “Ethics”–arguably the best auto-biography ever written.)

    • I too enjoyed Spinoza’s “Ethics”. All Christians should read it, if too difficult (because it is a hard read) then his treatises, at least:

      1). Theologico-Politicus

      2). Emendation of the Intellect

  9. Personally I think most Christians are clueless when it comes to dealing with atheists. Atheists are a varied lot. They, of course, have their rabid fringe much like the mouth breathing fundamentalists we have to contend with. But many of them are nice, intelligent, and funny (and funny is a real plus in my book). In other words, real people with families and jobs and health issues, and fears and joys. They have their good times, they have their bad times. They have to deal with everyday life just like we do.
    So what do we do? We never have a conversation with them, we engage in debates, and we never get to know them as just folks. It’s no wonder many of them respond in kind.
    You see, we never ask the most important question. Here’s a hint, the most important question to ask an atheist isn’t “What do you believe?” We already KNOW what they believe, they’re atheists for crying out loud. No, the most important question to ask an atheist is “Why do you believe the way you believe?” Now if you aren’t interested in them as people, if all you want to do is clobber them with the bible, then don’t bother. ‘Cause if you ask that question you better be willing to listen to their answer and not respond like you would if all you’re doing is debating.
    Jesus never preached to unbelievers, He preached to His fellow Jews. When Jesus dealt with unbelievers He did stuff like heal and comfort, He ate with them, and never with conditions. Even the time he saved the adulteress from stoning, the first thing he did was save her from stoning, then, almost as an aside he said “Go and sin no more”. The lame guy He healed at the pool didn’t even know who He was.
    If I treat the beliefs of atheists with respect, that doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with them, but it often earns me the right to have them treat me with respect. Try it some time, you might not save their souls, but since that’s not your job anyhow, thats the job of the Holy Spirit, you might be amazed at the results.

    • //You see, we never ask the most important question. Here’s a hint, the most important question to ask an atheist isn’t “What do you believe?” We already KNOW what they believe, they’re atheists for crying out loud.//

      This is the presumption that slams the door shut for the great majority of conversations between believers and atheists.

      You *don’t* know what atheists believe because atheism is *not* a statement about what atheists believe.

      That’s like saying, “The most most important question to ask someone who is not into sports is not what they are in to. We already KNOW what they are into. They are not into sports, for crying out loud.”

      It makes no sense, and shows how little believers understand people who do not believe.

    • Thank you for that John. You are an enlightened Christian, someone who practices his faith, who lives his testimony. Wish all Christians were more like you.

  10. I was a Christian for many years; I am now an atheist, and yet I thoroughly enjoy your work – your writing expresses your clear and well-thought mind. It resonates with me. Your tolerant and caring spirit comes across. You are, as it should be, a true representation of Christ. However, your theory on why you cannot be an atheist, while interesting and thoughtful, and offering a unique and different spin, is a personal perspective. Your assertion that “It can’t!” is your personal opinion and is not fact. It is YOUR fact and reality. As an aside: I guess that with everything in life, atheists come in all shapes and sizes, some more rabid than others, but, for me, atheism is about not attaching a deity to my daily routine, to my humanity, to my moral compass; it certainly doesn’t involve converting people to my/ our/ atheist side. That, I believe, is the motto most atheists live by. At most, I might challenge people to re-think their beliefs and if in the end they reach the same conclusion, and their conclusion gives them comfort and hope, than so be it. I respect that. I certainly don’t attack Christians, calling them “lost” in their infantile beliefs, etc, like they do to me – I respect their choices. I wish more Christians would start acting more like their namesake, and extend other people the same courtesy that gets extended to them. Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing your gift with the world. I really enjoy eloquence in people. Be blessed.

    • Funny thing about John Pavlovitz. Even people who would be his enemy under assorted circumstances decide to call him a friend or are at peace with him like you are. The people who are so upset with John are the conservative religious leaders of today and their followers—the my way or the highway bunch. I seem to recall a man who walked in Judea 2000 years ago that had the exact same problem that John Pavlovitz has—and there is a message in that for the people who are able to hear it.

  11. When I was growing up, my Christian relatives behaved like house cats when they first met an atheist. They would bow up their backs, stand every bristle of fur on end, and hiss like a snake. I have never quite understand why an atheist would elicit that sort of response from a fundie. One would think that they would do the same with ordinary nonbelievers—who are at least atheists functionally—but they do not.

    And yes, most of the formally declared atheists I have ever met are smarter than fundies—meaning they have extraordinary knowledge and experience in life—and behaviorally they are better people and make better company over a beer at the end of the day.

    Note: Charles has tasted beer—cannot possibly be a Christian—notify Bob Jones immediately.

  12. I’m an Atheist, and I enjoy your blog immensely. I can always appreciate someone who comes from a place of love and acceptance, regardless of their religious beliefs.

  13. I so enjoy your posts – and they do make me think. In this particular post, I was struck with something I’m currently struggling with: How do you have interest in a potential partner when their core ideals differ? It brings me back to tolerance and acceptance….and I don’t think it was happenstance I read this today! 🙂
    Thank you for your inspiring posts – these are the kinds of sermons I would love to hear in a Church somewhere!

  14. I became a casual follower of your blog after reading your “If I have Gay Children” post, but for some reason it was this one that motivated me to comment on here. I grew up going to Sunday school and church with my piano teacher and participated in youth group and youth band throughout high school. The lessons of morality and kindness I learned from others at church definitely helped shape the person I am today. During college, I slowly moved away from organized religion because of growing frustrations with some Christian beliefs that I couldn’t personally relate to or agree with. I found myself questioning more and more the existence of a God. However, at the same time, like you wrote in this post about how music, and the ocean, and the universe “can’t be the product of no one and nothing,” I can’t completely ever shake the feeling that someone is behind the world that I live in and the life I live.

    I am actually not one to reflect on life’s meaning on a routine basis. I am happy with who I am, my beliefs, and how I live, though I also understand that these things are never in stasis. Our experiences through life make sure that we never stop becoming ourselves. However, I do feel the need to think about faith and religion at least sometimes because of my younger brother. Like me, my brother grew up going to church, though he always went to a different one with one of his friends. Like me, he became more involved with youth group and playing in the youth band. However, his faith has grown into one much deeper than I might be able to say I have ever felt. I very much admire him for that, but sometimes I fear that he feels isolated from the rest of our family. My parents have never regularly attended church. I wouldn’t say that they are completely atheist, as my mom and I have similar beliefs that there is someone greater than us who gave us our lives. However, they are not religious, and they do not think about God on a daily basis. For them, my brother and I attending church was a safe place for social interaction, one where we could learn appropriate behavior and stay out of trouble. I never realized that this bothered my brother until he wrote his college application essay about feeling disconnected from our parents. He wrote about the challenges of feeling frustrated that they couldn’t understand the depth of his faith and that what they cared about most was that he got accepted into a top college and became a doctor.

    I think I understand part of my brother’s frustrations of feeling that his values and beliefs don’t align our parents’. My parents have always been tough on us. At the surface, they fit into the stereotypical picture of Asian parents who remain emotionally aloof and expect nothing but the best (and I mean the best, not your best). But they are so much more than that. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to understand that they grew up in a time and place so different that I can’t imagine their lives before they moved to the United States. I’ve come to appreciate the sacrifices they made in leaving their families behind after already having started building a life in China to start a new life in a place where they knew little of the language and had nothing. I understand that, even after living here for more than 20 years, they still don’t completely relate to the culture and people here. I know they don’t need to hear me say it, but I never want them to leave behind their culture either.

    My parents have worked extremely hard to get to where they are today. They are kind people, who have relied on no one but themselves and spend their days caring for patients and above all, fiercely loving our family. I know they don’t want my brother to feel isolated, but I know it bothers my mom that she feels she has no influence on my brother because of God’s word. However, I just don’t see religion as part of their future. Beyond cultural differences, my parents grew up during a time in Communist China when they studied Mao’s “Little Red Book” at school instead of subjects, such as history. When my Dad once attended church a few years ago, he said that it wasn’t enjoyable because sitting through church service brought him back to a time a propaganda and brainwashing. Like I said, they lived in a different time and a different place. Their beliefs are founded on the experiences they have been through. And because of that, who am I (or my brother or anyone) to say that their beliefs are wrong or that they don’t know the “Truth”? There are times I wish my brother could see that as well (maybe he even does already). Like your atheist friend joked that she wishes you would convert to atheism, there have been times I’ve jokingly wished that my brother would lose some of the strength in his faith. He is a kind and tolerant person, one who follows the rules and what the bible says. Among other things, I’ve selfishly wished that he would come to believe that if God created the world, then he also created gays, and therefore, they have a place in this world, which means they deserve equal rights and treatment from others. I am not gay, but I have many friends who are. I’m sure he has had friends who are as well.

    This post has been far longer than I expected it to be, but I haven’t ever put down these thoughts into writing before. After all of that, I guess if I had a question, it would be, what could I say or do to my brother to try to make him feel less isolated? We aren’t ones to talk about our feelings a lot, but some of the things I have done (and I think he appreciated) have been going to church with him during a summer when he lived with me to participate in a summer program in a different state from my parents and writing him a letter before he started college telling him about my experiences and giving him advice on what to expect when he got there. I hope he knows that even though his beliefs differ from mine, I respect his beliefs and admire his faith.

    I am very glad that I came across your blog. Some of the topics you’ve discussed are the very reasons why I moved away from religion. It’s been nice to reflect on my own views and why I have them. For years, I felt that because I disagreed with many aspects of organized religion, spirituality didn’t have a place for me. Thank you for making it clear that it can.

    • I’m grateful for this, Michelle, and that the writing is meaningful to you. I so appreciate your openness and honesty.

      I’m glad you’re here!

  15. Before I claimed to be an agnostist, I called myself an atheist but I don’t actually don’t believe in God or the gods of other religions. I respect all religions, some more, some less. As English is not my first language, so I found agnosticism perhaps four or five years ago (thanks to the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”) and have since then applied that to my religious beliefs.

    I have never ever in my entire life try to convince another that God doesn’t exist. I believe everyone has the right to choose one’s religion, to believe in God/Gods. What is more important to me is that one has to be loving, compassionate, do the right thing, don’t sway from the right path, don’t commit crime, etc. If believing in God makes one a better person, then by all means, do become a Christian (or embrace any other religions). If a person is evil and bad, it’s meaningless of him/her for being religious, it only tarnish the reputation of the religion itself.

    That is just my opinion.

  16. John –

    I’ve spent the last several hours reading what you have blogged, and I’ve got to tell you I’ve been enjoying the heck out of it. I was introduced to your blog by a fellow member of my congregation who sent our LGBT support group a link to the post you wrote last September – the one about how much you love your children and would still love them even if they came out to you as being gay. It literally drove me to tears . . . of joy and gratitude (as I shared in a response to the rather lengthy list your comments engendered.)

    Being a Unitarian Universalist of the variety who believes in a God that is the source of all and is present in everything, I find myself very much in harmony with just about every word you write . . . at least the ones I have read thus far. As a matter of fact you would make a pretty convincing Universalist Christian minister. (No, I won’t try to “convert” you.)

    But I digress.

    Of course being a UU I am part of a religious community made up of people who express their faith in a variety of ways, and do so in loving acceptance of the diversity in our beliefs. My congregation includes no small number of those who identify as humanists (religious or secular), agnostics, or absolute committed atheists, and among these are dear friends with whom I enjoy many interesting conversations of the variety you relate in this story.

    What I keep coming up with in these discussions is exactly the sense that you relate here, and it is the very essence of my belief in the presence of God in everything and everybody. When I look at a blade of grass, or a mighty oak tree; when I contemplate the vastness of the universe and how this planet and all of the billions of my fellow human inhabitants (not to mention the unimaginable number of other living creatures that share it with us) – all but a spec in that almost limitless cosmos; when I contemplate the intricacies of molecular structure and the atomic structure inside of that and what science is telling us about the even more incredible forces that make up that structure . . . when I witness a mighty ocean wave, or watch the sun setting below the distant horizon and my heart cries out . . . “Bravo! Author! Author!” . . . yes, I know there is an author.

    So awesome is this creation and this creator as to be beyond our ability to comprehend and certainly not define or limit – but I know that we and all that is are an expression of that greatest artist of all.

    And others may disagree – and we can still love them.

    Now if we can only get the world to work like this.

  17. I find this so interesting and ironic because I’m an agnostic (don’t have the certainty to call myself an atheist) who envies religious people. I wish I had the capacity for faith that y’all have, and though I don’t know the answer for certain, I find it easier to believe that our universe was randomly created rather than by a higher power. What you said about the song that no one wrote, “I’ll contend that this requires a faith stronger than I am currently capable of” really opened my eyes. I guess all beliefs about religion or a lack thereof require a faith of sorts. Even despite fundamental differences in beliefs, we’re really not that different after all.

  18. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for this post! These words sank deep into an empty space inside of me!

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