The Agnostic Who Became an Atheist

March 18, 2010

The Agnostic Who Became an Atheist

There was once a world-renowned philosopher who, from an early age, set himself the task of proving once and for all the nonexistence of God. Of course, such a task was immense, for the various arguments for and against the existence of God had done battle over the ages without either being able to claim victory.

He was, however, a genius without equal, and he possessed a singular vision that drove him to work each day and long into every night in order to understand the intricacies of every debate, every discussion, and every significant work on the subject.

The philosopher’s project began to earn him respect among his fellow professors when, as a young man, he published the first volume of what would turn out to be a finely honed, painstakingly researched, encyclopedic masterpiece on the subject of God. The first volume of this work argued persuasively that the various ideas of God that had been expressed throughout antiquity were philosophically incoherent and logically flawed. As each new volume appeared, he offered, time and again, devastating critiques of the theological ideas that had been propagated through different periods of history. In his early forties, he completed the last volume, which brought him up to the present day.

However, the completion of this work did not satisfy him. He still had not found a convincing argument that would demonstrate once and for all the nonexistence of God. For all he had shown was that all the notions of God up to that time had been problematic.

So he spent another sixteen years researching arguments and interrogating them with a highly nuanced, logical analysis. But by now he was in his late fifties and had slowly begun to despair of ever completing his life project.

Then, late one evening while he was locked away in his study, bent wearily over his old oak desk, surrounded by a vast sea of books, he felt a deep stillness descend upon the room. As he sat there motionless, everything around him seemed to radiate an inexpressible light and warmth. Then, deep in his heart he heard the voice of God address him:

“Dear friend, the task you have set for yourself is a futile one. I have watched all these years as you poured your being into this endless task. Yet, you fail to understand that your project can be brought to completion only with my help. Your dedication and single-mindedness have not gone unnoticed, and they have won my respect. As a result, I will tell you a sacred secret meant only for a few… Dear friend, I do not exist.”

Then, all of a sudden, everything appeared as it was before, and the philosopher was left sitting at his desk with a deep smile breaking across his face. He put his pen away and left his study, never to return. Instead, in gratitude to God for helping him complete his lifelong project, he dedicated his remaining years to serving the poor.


Another way this parable could be expressed is through the tetragrammaton: YHWH. Commonly translated as, “I Am.” Or maybe, “I will be whosoever I will be.” The basic point of such a bewildering name is this: “I am beyond conception. Whatever you think I am, that is most certainly not what I am.” In this sense, one could think of God as defined as undefined. Known as unknown. Someone (Maybe C.S. Lewis?) wrote something to the effect that any prayers that were offered were certainly idolatrous, but hopefully God was merciful and accepted our humble stumblings anyway.

The idea behind this statement goes something like this: God is completely beyond the conception of ordinary human beings, and because of this fact any conception of God that a human comes up with is incorrect, because it could never capture the whole immensity of what it would mean to have a supreme… something(?) ruling the universe. In this case, the philosopher’s God did not exist because the philosopher’s conception of God could never wrap its arms around the truth, but by the same token my God does no exist either.

This isn’t to say that our humble stumblings are not worthy, and that we are foolish to strive after something that cannot be grasped. It is, however, a call to recognize that when you’re talking about something on the level of God, the last thing you can claim is certainty.


2 Responses to “The Agnostic Who Became an Atheist”

  1. Mike said

    the Lewis poem you referred to is called “The Footnote to All Prayers”. i believe you were thinking of the last two lines of the main body of the poem. since it is short, i will reproduce it here in its entirety (you get two bonus points if you know that Pheidias was one of the most famous Greek sculptors, particularly well known for his statue or Zeus):

    He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
    When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
    And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
    Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
    Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
    Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
    And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
    The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
    Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
    Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
    And all men are idolators, crying unheard
    To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

    Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
    Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

    • christophermahlon said

      Thank you, Talmidge.

      No bonus points for me, though. I didn’t pay a lot of attention when we talked about the Greeks.

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