More of a Believer than You Think?


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Photo by Chris Fraley

Tonight I read I WAS AN ATHEIST UNTIL I READ “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” by Fredric Heidemann published at the Word on Fire blog (December 16, 2016). The catalyst for his journey from atheism to theism was the Lord of the Rings books by JRR Tolkien, one of my lifelong favorite literary works. I read them as a very young teenager, and they captivated my imagination much like they did Heidemann.

He captures the essence of the Lord of the Rings this way:

The fantasy world of Middle-Earth oozes life and profundity. The cultures of the various peoples are organic, rooted in tradition while maintaining a fresh, living energy. Mountains and forests have personalities, and the relationship between people and earth is marked by stewardship and intimacy. Creation knowing creation. Tolkien describes these things with beautiful prose that reads like its half poetry and half medieval history. Everything seems “deep” in The Lord of the Rings. The combination of character archetypes and assertive “lifeness” in the novel touches on an element of fundamental humanity. Every Lord of the Rings fan knows exactly what I’m talking about.

In some ways, the struggle might be philosophically cast as meaning against meaninglessness, purpose and love against reductionism and the insatiable, burning destructive force of evil. But I digress.

Heidemann echoes the autobiographical work of C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, in the way he perceived Tolkien’s great adventure. Lewis found a reality in the great works of fiction that resonated with his own experiences of “joy” found in quiet, solitary walks and other transcendent moments that he chased much of his young adult life for the “life” he found in them.

In the same way, the beautiful and noble fiction of Lord of the Rings opened Heidemann’s eyes to a metaphysical reality that he could not deny. It pulsed through his own beating heart as surely as it lived in the pages of Tolkien’s book. It exposed the shallow and empty nature of a naturalistic worldview that he thought was reality.

The idea that being, beauty, and morality were merely productive illusions imposed on us through biological hardwiring crafted through the random process of natural selection rang hollow. If things so fundamental to human existence as meaning and morality are nothing more than productive illusions, what else is untrustworthy? Our five senses? Logical process? Our whole minds?

While survival of the fittest could explain how morality could possibly weed out the unfit, those “immoralists” who challenged the community, it could not account for such a thing as morality itself. Moral people might naturally bind together in community, ridding the community of immoralists, and, therefore, proving themselves more fit. Moralists may have “outcompeted” the immoralists through their tendency toward community, but the explanation ultimately falls flat.

On an atheistic worldview, morality is essentially just one person’s (or community’s) opinion. “Good” does not exist; only different opinions exist. But, none of us live as if that were true. We live as if we believe, on the most fundamental level, that some things are intrinsically good, and some things are intrinsically evil. Even atheists are moralists at times. And, atheism cannot account for such an objective, transcendent reality.

We are all intimately familiar with realities that are transcendent, and we embrace them as meaningful and some of the most treasured of our experiences. On the cold reason of atheism, those most significant of human experiences are vacuous:

[S]o many joys in this world have nothing to do with self-preservation or successful reproduction: art, music, a beautiful sunset, etc. I think deep down we all recognize that those kinds of aesthetic experiences may be the most joyful in this life, and these joys serve no productive purpose. The richness of life, which is on full poetic display in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, made me recognize that supposedly rational atheism did not reveal the truth of things; instead, it removed their intrinsic wonder and worth.

But the tension is not between reason and emotion (or whatever you want to call the experience of these transcendent realities). The tension for the atheist exists in the inability of atheism to explain the realities that we fundamentally know to be true. Morality is not a fiction. Though we have many opinions on what is moral, we all ascribe to a moral reality that atheism simply cannot explain. Aesthetic experiences are among the most significant experiences we have, and we treasure them though they are not productive of anything having to do with survival. Atheism cannot explain their significance.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Heidemann’s characterization of “the evangelistic power of beauty and narrative”. In this statement, he echoes the words of Peter Hitchens, the brother of the late atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who said, “[T]hose who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.” Heidemann proves the words of Hitchens that the position of a staunch atheist is more likely to be “countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time”, than by argument.

Substitute non-fiction for prose and fiction for poetry, and same principles apply, as Heidemann aptly observes:

[Beauty and narrative in works like] The Lord of the Rings … are effective precisely because God is hidden and able to fly below the atheist radar that balks at anything overtly religious. In Middle Earth, the effects of a God-created universe are everywhere, but the source, God Himself, is hidden. No, it’s not that we believers understand The Lord of the Rings on some special level that the atheist does not. Just the opposite. The atheist who truly understands The Lord of the Rings is more of a believer than he thinks.

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