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Scientist Explains His Atheism 'Conversion' Story

In his book The Big Picture, physicist Sean Carroll lays out his vision for what he calls "poetic naturalism"—a view of the world that has no use for a personal God. In the final chapter of the book, Carroll gets personal and writes about his religious upbringing. He confesses, "I loved the mysteries and the doctrine. Going to Sunday school, reading the Bible, trying to figure out what it was all about." But when his grandmother died unexpectedly when he was ten, the pain shook him. He became a more casual believer. Eventually, as he attended college and became an astronomy major, he lost his faith completely.

Interestingly, Carroll says that while his slide from faith to unbelief was gradual, there were two moments that stuck out. The first took place as a young boy. His local Episcopal church made a decision to change small parts of their service. The previous version had too much standing and kneeling, without enough breaks to sit down. So they reduced the up-and-down activity. That confounded the young Carroll who later wrote: "I found this to be scandalously heretical. How is it possible that we can just mess around with what happens in the service? Isn't all that decided by God? You mean to tell me that people can just change things around at a whim? I was still a believer, but doubts had been sown."

The second incident occurred when Carroll heard the song, "The Only Way" from the Emerson, Lake, & Palmer album Tarkus. The song included something Carroll had never heard before: "an unmistakable, in-your-face atheist message." It made him think, for the first time, that it was okay to be a nonbeliever—that it wasn't something he should be ashamed of or keep hidden.

Possible Preaching Angles: Atheism; Unbelief; Doubt; Hardness of heart; Rebellion; Apologetics. In commenting on Carroll's story of unbelief, Christian philosopher Brandon Vogt comments, "What strikes me about these two events, the most notable experiences in Carroll's journey from God to atheism, is how surprisingly shallow they are. I find it hard to believe that a couple of minor liturgical changes and the lyrics to a progressive rock song were enough to decimate a young man's faith. If that's truly what happened, and I don't doubt it did, then he must have had a very shallow and unsophisticated understanding of God. And he doesn't seem to have moved past it."

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