A Long Surrender

A Scientist’s Arduous Path from Hard Atheism to Faith

When atheists hear conversion stories that begin with, “I was a staunch atheist and then  . . . ”, they tend to roll their eyes and doubt the claim. However, this is exactly what happened to me. I had been a 150-percent atheist and materialist for almost forty years before I embarked on a spiritual journey that ultimately, after many twists and turns, led me to belief in God and Christianity. I had no life crisis, no epiphany, and no spiritual experiences at all. It was the result of purely rational, scientific, philosophical, and historical arguments that gradually changed my mind as a scientist. Here is my story.

I grew up in a medium-sized town in southwestern Germany, where the Mercedes-Benz factory is located. My parents were both irreligious. My mother was simply not interested in religion, and my father was agnostic. We never talked about religion or God, and we never prayed or visited any church service. My parents pushed to opt me out of religion class in school, which was then stillcompulsory, resulting in my being ridiculed as the village atheist.

I first saw churches from the inside as a young adult, but it was only as a tourist taking photos.

From early childhood, I was interested in nature and animals. I devoured popular science books on earth history and space, and I watched every natural history documentary that aired on TV. Soon I developed the strong wish to become a natural scientist. I imagined myself on expeditions in tropical jungles in search of rare animals.

All Science, No Religion

However, my parents insisted that I learn something more practical and secure. I gave in and began professional training in public administration, which bored me to death. Halfway through, I decided to escape a dull future as a clerk and instead pursue my childhood dream. I booked a flight to Paramaribo and moved to Suriname in South America. Together with a local business partner, I founded a safari tour company. For two years, we organized canoe trips into the rainforest for nature-loving tourists until a raging civil war made further tourist operations impossible.

I returned to Germany to study biology and paleontology at the universities of Hohenheim and Tübingen, where I graduated with the equivalent of a master’s degree in biology and a Ph.D., summa cum laude, in paleontology in 1999. That same year, I was fortunate enough to get a dream job as scientific curator for amber and fossil insects in the paleontology department of the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, which ranks among the five top natural history museums in Germany.

Shortly afterward, I met my wife, a Catholic from Austria. She occasionally visited church, and, as a good husband, I accompanied her to Mass and “immediately got converted?”—not. Actually, church not only failed to convert me, but it reinforced my disdain for Christianity. Christians in my view were deluded cowards who were afraid of dying and took some masochistic pleasure in considering themselves worthless sinners who begged on their knees for forgiveness from an imaginary sky-daddy. How disgusting!

My irreligion solidified into a very explicit anti-religious atheism and materialism. I did not believe in anything supernatural. Outspoken public atheists and skeptics like Richard Dawkins and James Randi were my heroes. I had no particular interest in philosophy at this time either, and no interest in bothering with the claims of religion or philosophical musings in favor of theism. I saw such endeavors as a kind of mental masturbation that was good for nothing. My attitudes were pretty much Nietzschean in nature, and my interest was in science alone. Curiously, this turned into a spiritual rollercoaster ride I never would have imagined.

From Physics to Metaphysics

It all started in my late thirties when I became interested in modern physics. I read popular books by Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Michio Kaku, John Barrow, David Deutsch, Brian Greene, and others. I was fascinated by the weirdness of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, as well as the mind-blowing implications of modern cosmology.

While I had started from a materialist, clockwork-universe perspective, I soon discovered certain implications of modern physics that did not fit well with such an obsolete, 19th-century worldview. I stumbled upon further problems, such as the questions of causality, the ontology of time and space, the status of mathematics, and the laws of nature. This brought me even deeper into metaphysics with issues like the problem of universals, the one and the many, the persistence of diachronic (personal) identity, free will, and the hard problem of consciousness.

I soon realized that materialism is untenable, and I searched for a new worldview that could explain these problems and make sense of the world we experience. I first looked into integral philosophy and non-dualism, as well as Eastern thought. Due to my love of nature, I also felt strangely attracted to the earth-based spirituality of Neopaganism, and I explored belief systems from Druidry and Wicca to Norse Heathenry, which also resonated much better with my Nietzschean inclinations. But ultimately, none of these views satisfied my quest for a coherent worldview, and they were far too involved with New Age mumbo-jumbo for my taste.

I also studied “process thought”—the idea that reality consists of dynamic processes, rather than enduring entities. I became a genuine process philosophy nerd and even named a new fossil dragonfly species after process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in 2010.

Unplanned Discoveries

Around this time, I also came into contact with intelligent design theory, though for totally different reasons. I was the project leader for a large special exhibition on evolution at our museum for Darwin Year 2009, which celebrated the double event of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of his magnum opus On the Origin of Species. In preparing for this exhibit, I read some books by Darwin critics, because we wanted to refute and mock them.

This did not go as intended. I was surprised that the arguments of the ID theorists were nothing like the distorted picture painted by their opponents. The more I studied ID arguments, the more I became a critic of Neo-Darwinism and an ID proponent myself. As a direct consequence of this change of mind, I was forced to resign from my job in 2016. But that’s a different story.

I was still into process philosophy when I embraced intelligent design theory, so my support for ID had nothing to do with religion, but only with scientific arguments. I had come to see that Neo-Darwinism simply fails to explain the diversity and complexity of life and that these are better explained by an infusion of information from outside the system. The information does not have to come from a divine, miraculous intervention, but of course that would be compatible with such a view.

As I further thought about process philosophy, I stumbled upon two fatal problems: (1) it does not allow for a real, enduring person as a free agent, because it views the individual mind as a kind of succession of occasions, like a string of pearls; and (2) it implies an infinite past, which is inconsistent with big bang cosmology as well as arguments against an infinite causal series.

Reasons for Theism

I became quite frustrated. I briefly gave up on philosophy and the quest to find a coherent worldview and turned to organic gardening. But my curious mind could not let go for long. So I finally decided to check out the belief system that was the last thing I wanted to be true: Classical theism. I had previously read all the New Atheists’ books, but even then, as a non-theist and fan of the authors, I had found them quite shallow and unsatisfying.

I definitely did not find what I had expected when I started looking into sophisticated apologetics. I read a lot and watched the debates of William Lane Craig and others. These introduced me to philosophical arguments for theism. What most impressed me were the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe, the argument from reason, the argument from contingency (to answer the question, “why is there anything rather than nothing?”), the argument from the uncanny effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, and the argument for God as the very source of the laws of nature.

I started with popular apologetics and then dove deep into the academic literature. I did not want to become a theist, but the overwhelming, cumulative power of the arguments, of which I have only mentioned a few, ultimately convinced me that theism must be true beyond reasonable doubt. There is a God!

Reasons for Christianity

I was not yet done, however. I could not shut my eyes or close my ears to the arguments of Christian apologists. They claimed that there are good reasons and strong evidence for Christianity. I found this surprising because it had never occurred to me that Christians had anything but irrational, blind faith in ancient fairy tales from illiterate goat herders.

Yet here were intelligent and rational Christians making a strong case for the reliability of the Gospels, for fulfilled prophecy, and for the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. The arguments were not based on faith but on empirical evidence and the ordinary methods of secular historians.

However, there was a tiny problem: I still hated Christianity and found it dull and off-putting—anti-nature, anti-body, anti-sex, and anti-woman. I went through epicycles of well-disposed investigation and critical dismissal, with phases of belief and unbelief sometimes alternating on the same day. Nevertheless, with every epicycle, my resistance became weaker and weaker.

There were unusual situations along the way; for example, I might openly defend the rationality of Christianity to friends, but in the closet still ask myself, do you really believe this weird stuff?

In hindsight, I think it was definitely due to the grace of the Holy Spirit that I did not give up but always returned to do more reading on remaining issues, which included all of the usual suspects, like the problem of evil, atrocities in the Old Testament, biblical anachronisms, contradictions in the Gospels, and unbelievable miracles—you name it. Ultimately, I reached a point where the evidence and arguments were so overwhelming, while most of my problems with Christianity could be resolved, that I had no choice but to surrender to the call of Christ.

So how has my Christian faith developed since my conversion? Actually, it turned out to be very difficult to pray when you had never prayed before your fiftieth birthday. Even though I delved into Scripture and prayed for a more direct experience of God’s presence and personal relationship with Christ, this has not manifested yet. I hope this will change with time. Maybe it is simply my destiny to be an evidentialist Christian, or maybe I still have some way to go on this remarkable journey.  

Günter Bechly, PhD, is a German paleontologist, senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and senior research scientist at Biologic Institute in Washington state. He has written about 160 scientific publications, described over 180 new species, and been advisor for 3 BBC nature documentaries.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #62, Fall 2022 Copyright © 2022 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo62/a-long-surrender

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