A debut “spiritual memoir” recounts a man’s journey from Christian belief to a moderate atheism.
After he turned 12, Bales moved to a small town in Kansas, his early life dominated by his involvement in a Methodist church. While he was unreservedly devoted to his religious practice, even at a young age he was troubled by questions about his faith that he could not answer and by the variety of mutually exclusive claims to the true Word of God (there were eight different congregations in his town). Over time, those questions deepened into ones marked by a sense of profound philosophical urgency, and his growing skepticism erupted into a full crisis of faith while in college. There, Bales encountered philosophy, and the discipline’s incessant quest for knowledge provided a stark contrast to his experience with his church’s elders, who railed against a caricatured version of science and dogmatically foreclosed a spirit of inquiry. He not only realized that many of the philosophical arguments in support of the existence of God were, at the very least, debatable, but that there was, within the Christian tradition, a rich history of intellectual inquiry. Bales attributes the perpetuation of closed-mindedness in religion to a kind of willful insularity—it’s much easier to find solace in ossified doctrine when one avoids exposure to a diversity of opinion. The author was stirred by what he read in college but also by those he met: a wide spectrum of people with a wealth of varying experiences and beliefs. Bales not only started to change his mind, but began to alter the way he thought as well (“It began to dawn on me that not only was I being introduced to a world of new ideas and experiences, I was also hearing a new approach to dealing with competing beliefs”). The author does a marvelous job accessibly discussing complex philosophical ideas and texts. Also, he carefully distinguishes his approach from the shriller versions of atheism today, allowing for the possibility of a rational defense of faith and crediting religion with great cultural achievements (“I love much of the art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods—art created, at least ostensibly, for the glory of God”). He avoids political partisanship, drawing only limited political conclusions toward the very end of the book.
A philosophically balanced atheism presented in the form of intellectual autobiography.