One way to highlight Christianity's attractive features … is to ask what you lose when you give it up. I first started to appreciate Christianity only after I had left it behind. As a young person growing up in a Christian home, I was like the proverbial fish that does not know what water is. Sometimes losing faith is the path to finding God.
Around the time I turned 16, I started asking basic questions: how do we know if Christianity is true, are there any good reasons for holding it? None of the adults in my life seemed to have any answers. I once asked a university professor why he was a Christian. I hoped that such a highly educated person would offer a thoughtful response. But all he said was,"It works for me!" I thought, it doesn't work for me.
Later I had the opportunity to talk to a seminary dean. I hoped that a person highly trained in theology might have answers. But all he said was, “Don't worry, we all have doubts sometimes.” –as though I were just going through a psychological stage. I thought, then why don't you have answers for my doubts? Finally I concluded that this pragmatic, psychologized version of Christianity had no serious answers. I rejected it and I embarked on an intentional search for truth.
The decision struck me as a matter of intellectual honesty: in principle, if you do not have good reasons for holding something, then how can you really say you believe it–whether Christianity or anything else?
Within a short time, I became a thoroughgoing relativist and skeptic. There may be "happy pagans” who don't know what they are missing, but I was acutely aware of what I had lost.
As a Christian, I had known that my life had a purpose: to live for God and "enjoy Him forever” (in the words of the Westminster shorter catechism). But if there is no God, and life is a chance product of blind material forces, what purpose does human life have? Is it just a chemical accident on a rock flying through the cold, empty reaches of space? While still in high school, I started cornering my friends and asking, "What do you think is the purpose of life?” Sadly, many of my classmates were not thinking much beyond the party that weekend.
As a Christian, I had known that the final reality behind all temporal realities is love. The universe is the creation of a personal agent, who thinks, feels, chooses, and acts. But if there is no personal God, then the final reality is a blind mechanistic force. There is no one “out there” who loves us or cares what happens to us. As Richard Dawkins writes, “There is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
As a Christian, I had accepted the existence of an objective moral standard. When I made choices, I could be confident that I was building my life on eternally valid truths. But if there is no God, do transcendent moral truths even exist? Was there any way to know that I was constructing my life on things that really matter? I did not know the word relativism, but among my high school friends I was the one arguing that we cannot know if anything is genuinely right or wrong. I experienced what Sartre meant when he said we are “condemned to be free” –condemned to act in a moral vacuum. With no way to know if your choices will ultimately prove good or bad, beneficial or harmful.
My angst was intensified by having lived overseas as an adolescent. Our large family could not afford hotels, so we slept in campgrounds while traveling across Europe, gaining a close-up view of diverse cultures and customs. We once drove to Turkey, traversing then– communist countries like Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. (I have never witnessed such extreme poverty as in rural Bulgaria.) The experience left me with an indelible awareness that many of the things Americans take for granted are culturally relative. I began to wonder: Is there any truth beyond all cultural traditions? Or are we trapped within limited, changing human perspectives?
Finally, as a Christian, I had known that God Himself spoke to the human race through Scripture. Many people regard the Bible as a grab bag of works by human authors–a record of spiritual experiences or a set of ancient myths devised to convey moral lessons. But Scripture makes the striking claim that it is a record of communication from God, who acts and speaks into human history. In the Old Testament, the prophets claim to speak the Word of God: "Thus says the Lord!” In the New Testament, Paul calls Scripture "The oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). Peter states that Bible writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). But classic Christian theology regards Scripture as communication from a personal God. The heavens are open.
When I embraced agnosticism, however, the heavens were closed. I was locked in my own mind, limited to my own tiny slot in the immensity of time and space. It seemed obvious to me that, from that puny perspective, it wasn't possible to know any transcendent or timeless truths. Indeed, it might be impossible to know any truth at all. After all, I could not step outside my own head to gain an objective stance to verify my ideas. The logical conclusion is not just skepticism but solipsism, the idea that all we really know is the "inside" of our own experience. In my high school English notebook, I began doodling cartoons of the entire universe as a thought bubble inside my head.
The years I spent wrestling with moral and intellectual skepticism were a dark and difficult period of my life…. but my stance was that if Christianity was not true, I did not want any of its benefits. I aspired to be like Bertrand Russell, who said atheists must build their lives on the “scaffolding…of unyielding despair.” Why despair? Because atheism holds that there is no higher purpose to life–"That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms." If atheism was true, then I did not want to flinch from accepting its pessimistic implications–which Russell went on to describe with poetic gloom: that “all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins.”
William Provine, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University, states the conclusion more bluntly: If no God exists, he says, then "no ultimate foundations for ethics exist, no ultimate meaning in life exists, and free will is merely a human myth."
Finding Truth, p. 241-246