Why I’m not an atheist

Gracie Bonds Staples (front left), a choir member, participates in her Antioch Baptist Church North candlelight communion service on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, in Atlanta. Staples lost her mother in 1973 when she was 15 and her older sister Dianne redeemed yellow top Value stamps for her Christmas gift, a stuffed monkey with a plastic face. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Gracie Bonds Staples (front left), a choir member, participates in her Antioch Baptist Church North candlelight communion service on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, in Atlanta. Staples lost her mother in 1973 when she was 15 and her older sister Dianne redeemed yellow top Value stamps for her Christmas gift, a stuffed monkey with a plastic face. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

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.

ExploreI understand belief in Him/Her – take your pick – is becoming less popular and the number of atheist is on the rise.

Why?

Apparently there’s ample evidence pointing overwhelmingly toward the non-existence of God, particularly the non-existence 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.

“They see tragedy in the world, yet you see people claiming God just got them a parking space. So God will answer the prayer for a parking space while millions of people are in poverty?”

It reminded me of these words from Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?”

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.

ExploreBut in my search to understand, I reached out to the only former atheist I know, the Rev. Fredrick Robinson.

Robinson, now 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 six thousand years old. More than that, there seemed to be a disconnect between what Christians believed and how they behaved.

“Because of its ostensible rejection of reason and science, I started to believe that religion was an enemy to human progress,” he said.

At the same time he continued to attend church, taking every opportunity to challenge believers’ faith in God.

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.

He was also starting to see firsthand the transformative power of the gospel in his brother, whose faith led him out of a life of addiction.

“That was a turning point for me. I had overlooked how impactful some churches were in the lives of hurting people,” Robinson said. “It helped to rekindle my faith in God.”

And so in 1993, Robinson walked away from atheism and became a believer because while still in Atlanta he sensed a divine call on his life. He accepted his call into the ministry and eventually became a pastor. His goal, he said, “is to be God’s hands, feet and heart in the world. To save bodies as well as souls.”

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; vice president of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP and executive board member of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice.

ExploreHe believes the recent uptick in atheism has more to do with rejecting the way Christianity is practiced than with rejecting God.

“In its desire to be all things to all people, Christianity in America glosses over injustice, turns a blind eye to evil and rubber stamps greed, racism, sexism, homophobia and the status quo,” he said. “People are rejecting a religion that has become more about what you believe than what you do. More about church attendance than living out the principles of Christ.

“As we witness the rise in police brutality, income inequality, poverty, the shrinking middle class, hatred of the foreigner, mass incarceration, and a host of other injustices, people are wondering where the church stands. And to the extent that it stands with the status quo, it is being rejected. They are rejecting a religion that makes justice secondary.”

We’ve created a religious culture where we worship Jesus rather than following him, Robinson said. We have turned faith into a system of beliefs rather than a journey toward union with God. We are more interested in belonging and being instead of being transformed.

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.

ExploreRELATED: Liberal or conservative? Religious outlook can blur the answer.

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