Reading Time: 3 minutes

(Post 23 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

7:00 pm EDT

One of the most remarkable spots in Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God is near the end, as she feels herself crossing that line between the will to believe and the will to find out:

One day, as I was Cometing out my bathtub, I thought, “What if it’s true? What if humans are here because of pure random chance? What if there is no guiding hand, no external regulation, no one watching? It is clearly possible that this may be true. In fact this is what our scientific evidence is pointing towards. But if it were true, what would that mean?”

I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant, that I hadn’t really spent any time thinking about what not-God meant. A few days later, as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, “There is no God.”

And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. “There is no God. There is no God. Oh my God, there is no God!”

I sat down in my backyard under my barren apricot tree. (I didn’t know trees were like people, they stop reproducing after they get old. Maybe that barren fig tree that Jesus condemned to death was just menopausal.) Anyway, I sat down and thought, “Okay. I admit it. I do not believe there is enough evidence to continue to believe in God. The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural. My best judgment tells me that it’s much more likely that we invented God, rather than God inventing us.”

She momentarily struggles with the implications, then has a realization about maturity that I’d never thought of in quite this way:

And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.

And then I thought, “But I can’t! I don’t know if I CAN not believe in God! I need God. I mean we have a history together.”

But then I thought, “Wait a minute. If you look over my life, every step of maturing for me, every single one, had the same common denominator. It was accepting what was true over what I wished were true. This was the case about guys, about my career, about my parents.

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God, and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

It goes on in a brilliant cascade as she wonders how the Earth stays up in the sky, realizes Hitler got off without a final judgment, and proceeds to (as she puts it) kill off everyone she knew who had died, before finally showing God, who she sees as a tired old man, gently to the door. It’s an extraordinary metamorphosis. And it’s all made possible by her decision to accept what is true over what she wishes were true. We can prepare the landing place, we can encourage them — great word, en-courage — but ultimately it’s a decision that every person has to come to on her own.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.