Briefly Noted: Mark Bauerlein’s Journey Away from Atheism

In his recent First Things article, Mark Bauerlein (professor of English at Emory University) describes his journey into atheism and then out of it into Catholicism.[1] His article ironically exposes the thin intellectual and existential ground on which his atheism was built. As I see it, his testimony makes the same point, by extension, for the pop-atheism that pervades the airwaves these days (e.g. Rich Dawkins).

Bauerlein “discovered” atheism in his teens. As he tells it, one day it occurred to him that he thought and felt nothing about God. “God is not there, I realized, and that knowledge seemed to have come entirely from outside of me.” (48) Bauerlein did not tell his closest family or friends about his discovery, so as a bright student interested in literature, Bauerlein turned to the classic thinkers–Aristotle, Dante, Rousseau, Freud, etc.–for comfort. He also found what he thought was a certain intellectual gravity. Their writing was certification of his “entry into an august company of honest minds, adding greatness to truth.” (48)

Yet an odd thing happened to Bauerlein as a result of his entry into this “august” company. These great thinkers, he states, “ . . . did not save me from the consequences of believing in nothing.” (49) While he went looking for intellectual enlightenment and comfort for his soul in atheistic thinkers, Bauerlein found that “I’d lost God, and whatever his replacement might be (helping others, making money) left me cold.” (49)

Bauerlein began moving away from atheism. “I lived in the shadow of that unshakeable verity until, for some reason, a few scattered influences unsettled it.” A series of important events and people worked together in the unsettling process. He married a Christian woman whose faith he found wholesome, watched a respected colleague convert to Catholicism, and finally struggled to answer when his four-year-old son asked him “Daddy, where is God?’ (to which he did not reply “nowhere”). So he writes, “as the experiences piled up, the atheists I had joined no longer sounded so disinterested and broad-minded.” This is because none of them knew how to admit to a lack of understanding (50). In other words, Bauerlein’s journey away from atheism was a journey away from narcissism and nihilism.

As he journeyed away from atheism, Bauerlein began a journey toward faith in Christ. In late 2010, as he began reading about Christianity, he realized that he had a desire for God. “When I read ‘The desire for God is written in the human heart,’ I wanted more.” (51) As Bauerlein read he discovered that faith in God allows something atheism doesn’t, “it takes seriously the other side.” (51) He now found the other side empty. Nihilism was nothing. God was real. Before, he had simply failed to (try to) perceive, failed to (try to) understand him. The article concludes with what he now understands what he did not understand as a teenager: “God will not despise a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17) when that heart rests in God.

[1] Mark Bauerlein, “My Failed Atheism,” in First Things (May 2012): 47–51.

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  1. Peter Ferguson   •  

    The basic moral of the story here is that he moved back into religion because it was comforting, not because it was right or good for the world, purely because it was right for him and he found comfort in a delusion rather than in reality. The whole ‘atheism is nihilistic’ argument is false, and as far as I am concerned an insult to humanity that one must believe in a god to find purpose in life. It is no surprise that the older a person is the much more likely they are to be religious, as they are closer to death and they find comfort in the idea of an afterlife, but that comfort doesn’t it make it a reality. Every religion in the world includes some form of an afterlife, which is a testament to man’s fear of death, and the reason why religion still perseveres.

  2. Aha   •  

    The statement “an insult to humanity that one must believe in a god to find purpose in life” seems to hallmark the realms of atheistic scholar and philosophy, which further substantiates the author’s observation of sheer ‘narcissism and nihilism’. I find this very curious indeed.

  3. Peter Ferguson   •  

    In what manner is that statement narcissistic or nihilistic? Does it purport grandiose selfishness or a meaningless existence? I really don’t think so.

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