Op-Ed

Atheism draws more Americans, but I’m not one of them

The more-direct sun of spring has already arrived, the azaleas in my front yard have opened, and green sprigs of Bermuda grass are starting to emerge.

After fall, this is my favorite time of year, when in the words of Tennyson, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, and everywhere I look I see God.

I understand belief in Him/Her — take your pick — is becoming less popular and the number of atheists is on the rise.

Why?

Apparently there’s ample evidence pointing overwhelmingly toward the nonexistence of God, particularly the nonexistence of a loving and all-powerful deity, the God that I believe in. You won’t get any argument from me for or against. I can only say what I believe and why.

I believe that there is one God who created all that there is in all the universe. I believe he sent the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, to be born literally of a virgin to come to Earth to save me because He loved me. I believe that unlike me, he lived an absolutely perfect life.

Why do I believe that? Because I need to, and I’ve discovered over the years that that’s what works for me. It’s the thing that gives me joy and, on most days, no matter what I’m going through, the peace that surpasses understanding.

I’ve held fast to this belief since I was a 10-year-old growing up in Mississippi, and never once have I doubted God is real. That doesn’t mean my faith has never wavered. It has. It doesn’t mean I’ve blindly followed without question. I haven’t.

But my faith doesn’t demand I have all the answers or that I understand all the workings of God. That, by the way, includes the arrival of, yes, an early spring.

I’ve thought of little else since reading the news story about the rise in atheism in which Drew Bekius, president of the Clergy Project, said that about a third of its members no longer believe in a higher power.

If you believe as I do that God is sovereign the answer is a resounding No. God can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, however He wants.

Bekius and others quoted in the story seem to have a problem with that. Sometimes I do, too. The difference is I don’t disown God just because He and I disagree.

But in my search to understand, I reached out to the only former atheist I know, the Rev. Fredrick Robinson. Robinson, a resident of Charlotte, N.C., grew up in the church, but in 1984 began to question the existence of God for the first time.

Little by little, he said, he struggled to believe the literal story of creation in Genesis and the idea that the world was only 6,000 years old. “Because of its ostensible rejection of reason and science, I started to believe that religion was an enemy to human progress,” he said.

Eventually, though, he said “the Holy Spirit moved in my heart to show me how religion and how faith in God was a powerful thing, how it helped African Americans through slavery and subsequent generations of discrimination. I was reminded that faith doesn’t necessarily lead to passivity. After all, it was faith that was responsible for so many of the freedom movements in our history, from the rebellion of Nat Turner to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

From the point of view of science, he decided science couldn’t explain everything. And so in 1993, Robinson walked away from atheism and became a believer because he sensed a divine call on his life. He accepted his call into the ministry and eventually became a pastor.

Today Robinson is coordinator of MeckMin (formerly called Mecklenburg Ministries), a nonprofit interfaith organization representing 14 faith traditions and 100 churches that works to foster understanding and compassion. He believes the recent uptick in atheism has more to do with rejecting the way Christianity is practiced than with rejecting God.

But that doesn’t mean he agrees with atheists who reject God by focusing on the ills of religion. He doesn’t, and neither do I.

Bottom-line faith comes down to a personal experience with God. It doesn’t demand that I be right, it simply says why I believe in the existence of God, the source of my joy, hope and peace.

Even as a child I needed that, because no matter when spring shows up, He’s still God — the reason I attend church each Sunday and why, despite all the reasons to leave, I’ve stayed.

Gracie Bonds Staples is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

©2017 Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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