A fascinating essay in the New York Times on Sunday by a woman who lost her Christian faith before moving to New York begins with a lovely description of what it’s like to plunge into the ocean for the first time each summer, and describes the experience as the “best way I know to belong again, body and soul, to some part of the planet, not just the city, not just the job.”
The essay reads remarkably like what Christians call a “testimony”—a story about how a person’s life has changed as a result of adopting a particular set of beliefs about how the world works. Christian testimonies generally focus on how repenting and embracing Jesus has reconciled them to God and transformed their life.
One of the perhaps counterintuitive arguments I make in True Paradox (not yet out—but due out early next month) is that testimonies—or testimonials—are important evidence of whether a set of beliefs is true. Not decisive, but important. If a set of beliefs helps a person to better navigate the world, this is evidence that the beliefs could be true. Similarly, if adherents to a set of beliefs cannot point to testimonials, this is evidence the beliefs are not true.
The New York Times essay is an example of an increasing tendency for atheists to produce their own testimonials. Many, like this one, emphasize the joy the writer gets from realizing she is part of something much larger than herself, such as the web of nature. One question I always have with this kind of testimonial is whether it is sustainable, given that there is so much brokenness and horror in the world. What resources does a set of beliefs like this one provide for dealing with the ugliness of the world?
But the increasing prevalence of atheist testimonials is, in my view, evidence of a recognition that if our understanding of the world is true, it will make sense emotionally as well as intellectually. It will help us to navigate both the big things in life and the little ones.
Christianity has a long history of testimonials from those who have been lifted up from darkness. Who were once blind, as John Newton put it in “Amazing Grace,”but now see. It will be interesting to see if comparable atheist testimonials emerge in the coming years.