Monday, February 17, 2020

From the Heart: The Story of My Journey from Atheism to Christianity

Here's a response my brother sent after my post last week:

~~~
I just read your post, and it sounds like you're really passionate about the intelligent design debate. I'm excited for you, but honestly, that debate doesn't spark anything for me.

There were a few points where I went "Nooo! He's missing the point!" and a couple others where I thought, "Woah, that's powerful and interesting," but I'm okay with not knowing the answer to the question, "Why are we here?"

I'm more interested in things that are personal. I want to hear the emotional basis of an argument--otherwise I'm not sure why I should care. What have these thoughts meant for your everyday life recently? How have your discoveries uncovered beauty and joy?

But what I'm really interested in is your story!! You've never told me, nor shared a written story with me about your journey from atheism to Christianity. It seems like you might be ashamed of it, which I can understand because [we both had an ex-Christian upbringing and you think] I want to judge you for it. I just want to know you better.

So, I'm very excited that you're putting your story in your next book, and I hope to be able to read it before it's released! Good luck with your writing, and don't be afraid of showing a little emotion in it--you're not a philosopher anymore, you don't have to abide by their rules!
~~~

I've received several reactions to my post, most positive. This one, though also very positive, was one of the more critical ones, and I took three important things away from it. First, it confirms for me that the personal part of what I want to say, the part that comes from the heart, that tells the emotional details of my journey, is indispensable. My last post, I realize, neglected this, and did much more to introduce my intellectual philosophy than my personal story. Second, it brought out a misconception that I should have expected, a perception that my reticence to share is based on shame. In fact I am not at all ashamed of my story! I'm eager to share it; it is just difficult to explain. Finally, it emphasizes the importance of talking about how my faith has transformed my day-to-day life. Much of this is private, for reasons of modesty, but not all of it has to be, and it's important for non-theists to understand how much joy a relationship with God can bring.

My response is below. A few too-personal parts were removed for this public version, but it is still very personal.

~~~

The story of how I went from atheism to Christianity is not a short one. It extends from my experience as a senior in college, to my realizations just over a year ago, with several stages along the way. I'm interested to know what parts of the story you most want to understand. I'm definitely not ashamed of it. If anything the source of my reticence has been my struggle with pride, as I'll try to describe.

I'm writing this out of a desire to communicate these things to you, especially on an emotional level, as you asked about. It will help me, I'm thinking, if I can try to give an overview of the story, and then you can ask for elaboration on the parts that you find most puzzling or interesting. I know this is sort of a long email, but it'll be shorter than sending you even just the personal chapters of my book, which have grown to about 100 pages, and will probably be close to 200 by the time I've finished this draft.

When I was a senior in college (2004), I had my first mystical experience, a vision of God, what I should call my "epiphany." In certain ways it was the most powerful of my experiences. Before that I was basically agnostic, though I called myself atheist because I leaned that way. Since that experience I have known that a personal God exists, with only very brief periods of doubt.

It's hard to summarize my epiphany, especially in terms of emotions. But I'll try.

Prior to it, I was all over the place, mood-wise. The initial euphoria of going to Caltech had worn off, especially as I had realized that the quest to unify General Relativity and Quantum Mechanisms (also known as the search for the Theory of Everything) was not something they were really preparing me for, nor was I the best equipped to undertake it (there were much better physicists around), nor was it what I really wanted out of life. So I think my predominant mood, from 2001-2003, was one of mild depression. In short, my pride had been crushed. I stuck with physics because it was the most "prestigious," I was good enough at it, and it still seemed the most philosophical of sciences.

It was also depressing because I didn't have much of a love life. The gender ratio was 2:1 and there just weren't many dating opportunities.

What little free time I had I spent largely either drinking with friends or in the library. [...]

I started to get into poetry, philosophy, literature, and "complexity science." Complexity science is the attempt to take mathematical methods from physics and use them to understand complex systems like human society, evolution, or ecosystems. Chaos theory has been a notable success in this direction. Famous scientists like Stuart Kauffman and Stephen Wolfram were claiming that they were on track to discovering a unified "Theory of Complexity," a kind of physics you could apply to any system. Most scientists thought (and still think) they are a bit crazy, but I thought it was fascinating what they had achieved, and I even took a few classes on it offered by a couple of the more daring professors on campus.

I know maybe this all sounds cerebral and impersonal, but I guess to be honest I take theories and abstractions very personally. This was even more true back then. And in truth I somehow stumbled on a very heady combination of ideas and friends that started leading down a wildly mystical path. In 2003 I started getting high with some of my friends while talking about deep things. This started the whole experience snowballing, and my ceaseless contemplations eventually led to swinging moods, racing thoughts, and what the doctors called a "manic episode."

Though, to begin with, it wasn't really a manic episode, because it was very isolated. Before and since then I've only had a few experiences anything like it, and that's not at all how a truly manic psychosis is supposed to work.

It was a mentally and spiritually chaotic time for me, prior to the epiphany. It was definitely a breakdown. I would not recommend the path of mysticism I took in those years to anyone else. As I see it, it was God who rescued me from total annihilation. It was only when the love of God shone through and brought peace and reverence -- that is, holy fear -- back into my soul that I began to rebuild my mind from its shattered pieces. So if somebody wants to claim that my vision of God was a kind of pipe-dream, merely the product of a fevered imagination, I must firmly disagree. Sure, I had many fevered visions in those days, but that this vision of Eternity rescued my mind from total chaos was a miracle of the most profound sort that I will always be grateful for. I don't think anything short of God could have accomplished the turn-around I experienced.

If you want to know more details about that experience, let me know. In the book I'm working on I have several more pages on this, and I'm happy to elaborate as much as you want. It was a personal experience, sure, and very "triggering" for years, but at this point in my life I've faced down the demons I encountered back then, and I don't mind talking about it, not in the least. But for now I guess I'll move on so I can finish my overview.

The next phase of my life, as I said, was theistic, but I kept delving into Nietzscheanism and I guess I still toyed with a kind of materialistic relativism. My mental and spiritual life, though less chaotic than before, was quite a mess. I was on medication, went to counseling, and as you know developed certain personal relationships that I'm not proud of.

Not that a lot of other grad students in philosophy weren't pretty much in the same boat. Modern philosophy is very different from ancient philosophy; now they tout it as a form of tradition-destruction, and as I see it now, this kind of wanton spiritual demolition leads nowhere fruitful. But I guess I'm digressing.

I was pretty much back to being mildly depressed most of the time, 2004-2009. It's hard to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, doctors telling you you have a 30% chance of careening into a permanent mania of racing thoughts and some mixed state of black mania that almost always ends in suicide. Anxiety and fear was a part of my day-to-day for years. I figured I would be on anti-psychotic medication the rest of my life, and that this was better than the alternative.

And these were no "happy pills" I was taking either. High doses of Seroquel, despite what they tell you, never get easier to take. What happens after you take your pill--always at night--is that you start feeling a pressure on your chest, and then your sinuses and your windpipe start to contract (at least that what it feels like) and it starts seeming like you've got cotton balls stuffed in the front of your brain. Your thoughts stop cohering and become a muddle of sharp impressions that last for a second, then are absorbed back into the cottonballs. I'm struggling to describe it but the point is it's horrible. You keep hoping that your leaden, dreamless sleep will begin so you can wake up in the morning and think again. The inability to string together reasons will sometimes lead to severe anxiety attacks, heart pounding like it is going to explode, and for those there was no cure but to get out of bed and pace. Around midnight or later, the medication would mercifully wear off enough so that I could read Aristotle to help bore me back to sleep, and actually have some dreams. Generally I would sleep 9.5 hours a night, any less and I would be too groggy to function. The hangovers from Seroquel were unremittingly bad, but having a nightmare while on it was probably the most terrifying part.

My doctors kept telling me to increase the dosage, but I kept trying to titrate it down. But after trapping down I would have a round of flashback nightmares that they claimed would act as "triggers" and I would have to increase the dosage again. I hated this cycle but I held on to at least a sliver of hope that my case would prove different and I would eventually get off meds and be cured of my psychosis. Technically, psychoses are supposed to be incurable. This would lead to the second major miracle of my life, in 2009, when I discovered the power of prayer and got off my medication.

Most importantly, between 2004 and 2009, the root of my spiritual sickness remained, with almost as much strength as before. As a physicist I had wanted to find the Theory of Everything, and then the Theory of Complexity. As a philosopher I wanted to be the next Great Philosopher. My pride and arrogance were largely untouched--they had just found new targets. What I find amazing is that while everyone around me, and most books and articles I read, and even my favorite philosopher--Nietzsche--only encouraged this aim of being The Wisest, God was subtly growing a more humble part of myself, a part that really just wanted to know the truth. Darwinism wanted me to put a theory out there that would spread, to create ideas that would be "fit" and replicate themselves super well. But then, somehow, a humbler part of myself knew that even on Darwinian assumptions, only a sincere love of truth, of finding the truth and expressing the truth, would lead to anything that lasted. And I came to realize too, as I read the ancient philosophers whose ideas had survived so long, that the most eternal ideas didn't belong to the men who wrote them down at all, but were really just a part of Eternity. If eternal ideas belonged to anyone at all, it was God.

It impressed me that the ancients realized this, that in fact ancient philosophy (what had survived) was most interested in virtue and what it means to live a moral, good, and just life. This is what Socrates spent all his time thinking about -- the man that to this day is still considered the greatest philosopher! The man who said he only knew that he did not know. And what is also fascinating reading the ancient Greek philosophers is that they often spoke of God and striving to join Him after death. This from sages in a culture that believed in many gods and had no real notion of heaven. But Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great polytheistic philosophers came to these eternal ideas through pure reason.

It gave me hope and comfort to find this. Modern philosophy, it seemed to me, was mostly pointless technicalities. I've talked about this on my blog and I elaborate in the current draft of my book. But you know what I mean. Academia is largely dry, overly specialized, and too career-oriented. It rarely gets back to the real ancient questions of virtue, not even in philosophy departments.

It was during this time that I conceived of the argument I give in Progress Debunked. Seeing that philosophy hadn't progressed since ancient times, and had in fact regressed in some ways, and that science was doing little to address what really matters in life, I came to question the whole modern idea that more modern is better. This is important for my story because all of the connected ideas I started to have-- the value of family, the value of tradition, the value of morality-- all of these "more conservative" ideas I would find elaborated on and explained in detail in the Bible. Rejecting modern "liberal" ideas, going back to tradition, I found myself primed to hear what the Bible was trying to say, what religion is really--at least in its better moments--all about.

By 2009, I had read the Bible all the way through, as well as other religious texts like the Bhagavad Gita and parts of the Qur’an. I know there's this picture in modern society of what these books say, that they're judgmental and threatening and full of hellfire. But I found out that if you read them with an open mind you will find a great deal of comfort and courage in them. The Bible isn't one long argument for why you should go to church. [...] What it does have is a commandment to rest on Sundays. I love that commandment. It's brought me, like I said, comfort and not fear. In fact I found that as I started to follow the Ten Commandments more closely in my life, that my freedom actually increased by leaps and bounds. Like the rules of logic, the laws of God actually open doors.

Late 2009 was one of my more transformative periods. I knew I needed tradition in my life, and I knew I needed religion of some kind. My skepticism of modernism had extended to psychology itself, and I wanted to get out of the whole mental health system, which had started to seem more like a prison. So, as I said, as I started to try to live by the word of God, suddenly doors opened up. My nightmares started going away, replaced by revelatory dreams that helped me understand my relationship to God better. (I talk about these on my blog, and in my new book to an extent.) I started praying, my dosages went way down, eventually to zero, and I even had my bipolar diagnosis reversed by a professional. (So officially, I never was bipolar to begin with.) Soon after this I met Emily. My desire for a family seemed to really excite her and this has led to the wonderful life I enjoy now.

I realize that none of this should have been possible. It was a miracle. All it took was that "mustard seed" of faith I had in God, as Jesus talked about. And since that time, even though for years I prayed without really knowing whether God literally answered prayers, or if it was just good for you "psychologically," my faith has slowly grown. Meeting Emily was a miracle too. We both believe this. We'd both dated random people for years and met no one even close to the right one. Life is too complex, the human experience is full of too much chaos, for there not to be a Divine hand helping it along. I have been blessed in my life, and I am very grateful for it, in fact I don't think I deserve it at all. It was purely God's grace, as Paul speaks about in his letters. It was out of my darkest times that God lifted me. It was not by any power that I possess. And if anything I write now makes people wiser or touches them, I know it is not by my own power that such wisdom reaches them. I know that I am only an instrument. If I had been left to my own devices I would have become some Nietzschean monster, logically demanding everyone to bow to my superior reason, leading them all to nowhere in particular. Now I realize that the only worthy goal, the only worthwhile guide, is the infinite goodness, love, and mercy of God.

I know I've skipped ahead a bit here. Again, 2009 was another key moment in my journey. The next period was my "philosophical Christian" years, from 2010 to late 2018. During this time I believed in a personal God, and I believed in aspiring to the kind of virtue taught in the Bible, but paradoxically I was not convinced that things like miracles could happen. You would think that my experiences would have been enough, but they were not. I was still so steeped in rational skepticism that I could not bring myself to believe that, for example, Moses had really parted the Red Sea. How I finally have come to believe this, I have been trying to explain in my most recent posts. But I guess you are right that I keep getting into abstractions and philosophizing and I've largely missed the personal part.

I guess the difference with this most recent realization is that the personal part came afterwards, after I had my abstract realization that miracles happen. In fact, it is still developing. [Note: Emily has asked me to share the following part on my blog.] Emily is still more skeptical than I am. Her skepticism doesn't stem from "science" but more from her negative experiences in organized religion, which she feels makes unrealistic demands of perfection.

We agree quite a lot about the problems with organized religion. I've tried going to a few Christian churches but I've never found anything that felt right for my needs or my family's. But I have started to more earnestly teach our children the Christian tradition and read one chapter of the Bible a day with them, and discuss it. Teaching my family this way has been a very rewarding experience. We do not force the Spirit, but let it descend on us when It wills, sometimes discussing eternal topics, sometimes being moved to sing hymns.

Jesus said that when you pray you should not pray in public but in your room with the door closed. So that's what I do. He said that when you give to charity to do it in secret so that your right hand doesn't know what your left hand is doing. So that is what I do. All the sins he accused the Pharisees of, I see done by modern religious leaders. So I do not follow them. He said "Judge not, lest you be judged." So I do not judge any way of worshiping the Creator, nor withhold Christian fellowship based on denomination, but recognize all believers as equal in Christ.

Yet he also said, "Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ." Part of what makes it so hard to express myself is that I don't want to set myself up as a teacher. Yet I also feel that if I don't try to share what wisdom I've been given, I am not following Christ's commandment to make use of my "talent." (Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Corinthians 12:27-31)

It is a fine line I walk, and I've recently realized that it is too fine to walk by my own light. So I am constantly praying that I can be guided to do God's will as he wills it without being prideful. This is part of the reason so many of the blog posts I've written have never made it to the web recently. I keep realizing that many of them are nothing more than an exercise in arrogance.

I've been reading a lot of the early history of Christianity recently. It gives me comfort because Roman times were much like modern times. The early Christians were pacifists and completely nonjudgmental, very Christlike in every way. It inspires me to see how they quietly protested against decadence and sin by simply not participating. When they were killed it was usually because they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. I find it incredibly inspiring that someone could be that brave. Many Roman soldiers were converted just upon seeing their courage in facing death.

In fact it was pondering this history in late 2018 that I first started believing in miracles. It wasn't any one account that convinced me. It was the full weight of the historical revolution. How could a sect devoted to peace, kindness, and self-sacrifice, willing and ready for martyrdom, preaching sexual abstinence and meek humility, appealing more to slaves than to rulers, AND believing in miracles, God, and the afterlife, ever have managed to grow as fast as it did? On Darwinian principles it's impossible. I calculated that if Christianity was no fitter than the alternatives, the probability of it growing so fast was far less than 1 in a googol. This realization left me physically shaken. All the hypotheses that our reality is a "computer simulation" rushed back into my head, making me realize that it was far more plausible that our reality was designed to evolve beings who believe in God, that answered prayers might really be part of the program.

Emotionally, the realization was euphoric. "Gospel" is really Old English for "good news." I realized that it was not only possible that Jesus came to bring the message of eternal life after this simulation was over, but highly probable, given all the facts.

It has been hard not to let this realization go to my head. I realize that everyone is on a different journey, that God's plan is different for each person, that each of us are special in a unique way, and that even our worst and most sinful mistakes, from an eternal perspective, are ways for us to learn. Jesus blesses those who are humble, because it is those who are humble who do not give in to the subtle selfishness of pride, which I think is rightly called the father of all sins. This is what I've been mostly struggling with. I need to share the good news, but I can't be setting up myself as a teacher. Only Jesus can teach.

On a day to day level, my newfound faith has brought indescribable joy, in almost every way. I know it's cliche but every sunset and sunrise is more beautiful now, everything in nature, and even man-made things show the hand of God. For example I recently started reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and when he said he believed only Providence could explain the appearance of Democracy in the modern world and all its freedom, I knew exactly what he meant. I see how even the worst experiences are ultimately for the best. I see God now in everything, especially in other people--my children, my wife, my friends, and everyone I meet, in every conversation I have. None of this is burdensome, but incredibly liberating. It inspires everything I do, from trying to be a better employee, to being a better writer, to being a better father and friend.

[...]

~~~

I’ve been working on an expanded version of this story in my book, which as I said will be about half about my journey, and half philosophy, in alternating chapters. It will stretch back to my childhood, and extend to the present as well. Several people have asked me for this story, both family and friends, and I look forward to finally writing it down in its entirety.

4 comments:

  1. 1 of 4
    Sam, thank you for sharing your story. I've always wanted to know more of
    your journey to the humble man that you've become. No one is perfect at
    humility. I'm not even sure we fully understand what true meekness and
    humility really mean. I've been on a search to understand those things
    myself for years. The more I research and find the closer and farther away I
    get at the same time from the full truth I desire.

    Every human desires truth. It's in our souls to search for it. We always
    search for it unless we are numb. And, I think that even then, we are still
    blessed enough to recognize bits of truths crossing our paths. Without truth
    we have no purpose and no identity. This is why so many people are
    scrambling to make up their own "truths" that rationalize their lifestyles
    instead of finding truth and living according to it. The sad thing is that
    if a person makes up their own truth, then they have nothing else to search
    for except rationalizations that make them right. Then they are trapped in a
    prideful condition that leads to loneliness and victimhood.

    ReplyDelete
  2. 2 of 4
    The only way to find freedom and empowerment is to diligently search out
    more and more truth. We'll never find it all, because we are never ready for
    it all, no matter how smart we think we are. God delivers us truths "line
    upon line, precept upon precept." He only gives us what we are ready for at
    the time. The sad thing is that some people become afraid of what He offers
    sometimes, and choose not to take it. They assume that whatever truth He
    presents to them must satisfy the logical or physical cravings they have. He
    doesn't promise to make us happy in our laziness or to titillate our brains.
    He promises to bring us peace and understanding through truth. But at one
    point or another, it’s always hard to accept truth, because once we accept a
    truth we feel obligated to follow it. One of the most important qualities a
    person can adopt is being teachable. I love when you said you read the Bible
    and Qur'an with open-mindedness. I wish people would read The Book of Mormon
    with that same spirit. As a follower of Christ and a person who has found
    some of the greatest truths I live by in that book, I  sorrow when people
    pre-judge the book based on social bias or misinformation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. 3 of 4
    About teaching others and still being meek and humble... It is true that a
    person can be a prideful teacher. Those types of teachers are everywhere.
    But, Christ commanded his followers to "Come Follow Me," and what did he do?
    Teach. He didn't preach against Caesar, He preached the ways of God. He
    didn't tear down the Samaritans, He showed them as children of God too. The
    Jews wanted a person who would tear others down. They weren’t mentally
    prepared for a Savior who would lift everyone up. What good is a light if a
    person puts it under a bushel? No, a light needs to be on a candlestick for
    all to see and benefit by. So, keep sharing your light. Sharing your light
    doesn't mean you always have to be right. It means you are willing to be
    His, to make His world a better place. You don't have to be perfect, in fact
    you can't be. Only through Christ can mankind be perfected and good enough
    to enter the presence of God after death. And, do you think a loving
    Heavenly Father would ever stop serving his children after their earthly
    existence? I don't. When I read the scriptures I see that His mercy
    extends beyond the grave. He even brought people back from the other side of
    the veil of death. They were in an afterlife, they hadn't disappeared or He
    wouldn't have been able to bring them back. And, He wouldn't have been able
    to come back himself. Anyway, we have to keep teaching about all good and
    true things, and if we are on His errand in all things during our time in
    mortality, we will also be allow to teach and bring people to Him in the
    next realm of our journey.

    ReplyDelete
  4. 4 of 4
    Your journey is an eternal journey. He is leading you to Him. All we can do
    is listen and learn throughout eternity, and do the work He would have us do
    to bring more light and goodness to the world. Keep asking questions. I
    don't think any religion is true unless it promotes asking questions and
    doing self-searching just like you are doing and have done. The Holy Ghost
    can only teach us individually. He knows the lessons that God has prepared
    for us and impresses them upon our hearts as we hear them and share them.
    Yes, sometimes sharing the truths we've learned is the way He burns them
    into our hearts forever. There is great power in sharing testimony. I feel
    you have shared testimony in this article, and I feel privileged to have
    read it. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete