I started my life a devout atheist.
In my teens I was convinced that God was a fairytale, and I looked down on people who believed. Didn’t they see the overwhelming odds against them? One look at the world and all its suffering should be proof enough that there is no benign, all-loving Entity calling the shots. God was just a man-made invention to alleviate his fear of death and the unknown, so said my teenage theological doctrine.
I remember a geography lesson in high-school where I led a heated discussion with a boy in my class who was a God-believer. Although I unleashed one logical argument on him after the other, still the kid wouldn’t listen to reason. If someone would have told my cocksure thirteen-year-old self that a mere five years later I would also believe in God, I would have told them they were crazy.
But I discovered that atheism can be fruitful soil for the spiritual life. It’s like a clean slate, untainted by institutional religion or strict religious upbringing, which God can imprint with His own signature.
How did this miraculous change happen? It was during the year I was an exchange student in Canada. My host parents were religious, and out of curiosity I started reading some scripture. I read that if you wanted to know if God really existed, you could actually ask him with a sincere prayer.
I decided to pop the question.
I went down on my knees, folded my hands and… asked. But before I had even formulated the question, my heart started beating so loud I thought my chest was going to explode. The answer came even before I asked!
To add ‘insult to injury’, this was exactly what the scriptures had said. “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer,” was the quote from the Bible I had read.
I later discovered I was in good company. Some great spiritual figures started their lives as atheists. Swami Vivekananda, the famous disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the first Indian spiritual master to come to the West in 1893, used to be a fierce unbeliever in his youth who often mocked his Guru for his faith in God.
The Indian spiritual master Sri Aurobindo had his formal education in England where he studied at Cambridge and immersed himself in Western culture. He wrote, “They proved to me by convincing reasons that God did not exist, and I believed them. Afterwards I saw God, for He came and embraced me. And now which am I to believe, the reasonings of others or my own experience?”
When people in 18th century Europe first heard stories about the Australian platypus, most couldn’t believe such an outrageous animal existed. Yet it did. God is like the platypus: really exotic and a little incredible at first, but true nonetheless.
The funny thing is that once you really start believing, that’s it; There is no turning back. Here I’m not talking about the agnostic’s belief, which is quite vague and non-descript, but real spiritual faith which results from inner experience.
Once you’ve had a real spiritual experience, you go beyond the reasoning mind to a realm where truth is self-evident. You discover that God can never be separated from your own existence.
We are one.
“Faith always brings deeper faith to the fore.”
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, part 17, poem #16,293)