Finding My Atheism at the Yale Divinity School

When I received my acceptance letter from Yale, I sprinted down the stairs of my family home and gave my mother the biggest hug of my life. We were both ecstatic. After my rejection from Tuft’s philosophy program, I had not expected to be admitted to my program of choice. We celebrated, called friends and family, and announced the exciting news on our various social media platforms. The love and support was overwhelming, and I think I will always remember that day as one of the happiest of my life.

Amid the flood of well-wishing, a singular voice spoke up in dissent. The pastor of my mother’s childhood Congregationalist church warned us that if I were not exceedingly careful with my studies, the Ivy tower would eradicate my faith. We laughed. I was a well-educated and progressive Episcopalian, comfortable in my religious beliefs.

Yale Divinity School Campus in the Fall of 2015

I saw no reason to fear pursuing my education further: my commitment has always been to seek the most justifiable understanding of the world that my mind (in its relative finitude) can comprehend. I was confident that my perspective on God was informed and sufficient to weather all challenges: I had already read many of history’s most compelling arguments for atheism and had not yet been moved.

Yet here I am, having now received my Masters of Arts in the Philosophy of Religion, a committed atheist. How did this happen? What changed? My journey to atheism is filled with challenging questions and, I think, some rather surprising answers. I imagine that many of those who are reading this might believe that I simply got better-educated and ‘learned the error of my ways.’ Of course this would be a drastic and unfair oversimplification of the human compulsion towards religious belief. The truth of it is much messier, filled with far less certainty, and (I would argue) a great deal less satisfaction than some might anticipate. Yet on this end of things, I still find myself full of hope and optimism. I still believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than that of which my mind can conceive. I just don’t want to attribute that to a myth. To say that I am grateful for my being is not the same as being grateful to anyone, though of course there are many individuals to whom I am eternally grateful. Just not a Creator, since (I am sorry to say) no such being exists.

In truth, my transition towards atheism began long before I found myself at Yale. I found doubt—not in the high tower of the Ivy League, but in the humble halls of my hometown alma mater. In my junior year, I took a course on late Enlightenment aesthetics that changed my life. This was my first undergraduate course on a topic in philosophy, and I credit the professor with helping me develop this avocation into my greatest passion. Over the course of the semester, my commentary on the assigned readings captured the professor’s attention, and we would meet up after almost every class to take the discussion to a deeper level. After term papers, he invited me to spend the next year undergoing an exclusive independent study with him on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Of course I leapt at the opportunity.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is without a doubt the book which has had the most profound impact on my intellectual development. The great consequence of this work is what Kant calls his ‘Copernican revolution,’ through which he argued that our experience of the world is contingent on the nature of human reason, rather than the pre-Critical assumption of the reverse which is so-often embraced. TL;DR, our mind conditions our understanding of the world rather than the world conditioning our understanding of it. Why is this so important to religious belief? It drastically impinges upon the credibility of all metaphysics: if reason is the precondition of experience, then experience curtails the possible utility of reason when it comes to truth propositions. Reason can furnish no useful concepts about God because God is definitionally an object beyond the bounds of all possible experience. By comprehensively annihilating ideas sparked by specific beliefs in ‘things’ beyond experience, Kant became the all-destroyer of dogmatic metaphysics.

If this is true, then how was I still a Christian after the end of that study? Kant leaves room for what he calls a ‘practical faith,’ essentially a moral conviction that the telos of nature and my inner need for justice ought to compel me to think as if there is a God, even if I can’t sufficiently evince Her through speculation alone. I chose this path in preference to the practical nihilism atheism seemed to proffer, and it would take me another year and a half to fully unpack the problems with Kant’s ‘practical faith’ for myself.

The summer before my first semester at Yale, I grew horribly ill. After a night of observation in the ER, I was brought to the isolation unit in the ICU with a strange and aggressive sickness which seemed to exhibit signs of potentially deadly and infectious diseases. I was in the hospital for a week, and was eventually diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of pneumonia.

What I lived through was quite honestly hell. There are no other adequate words for it. For a week, every breath felt like someone pulling at the insides of my lungs with a series of wrenches, and some of the more intimate sufferings of that experience are simply too

A picture of me halfway through my stay in the ICU.

horrible for me to talk about. They told my family to prepare for my death, but I just kept fighting, even when my lungs couldn’t hold more than half a liter of air (about 10% of what healthy lungs should be able to hold), and slowly my body recovered.

I don’t write any of this to attract sympathy. By any objective measure, nothing particularly noteworthy happened to me that summer: billions of people over the course of human history have suffered similarly. The brutal, unpolished truth is that this sort and magnitude of suffering is the fate of us all. Respiratory failure is one of the leading causes of death in old age, and is simultaneously the most overwhelming physiological anxiety our body faces. Even in cases where it is not the medically-attributable cause of death, bio-chemically it almost invariably is: oxygen deprivation is the nearly universal cause of the termination of vital cell structures at the moment of death. The real question is whether or not this incredible violence against the body occurs while one is conscious, and even when one is fortunate enough to avoid it: the alternatives are not significantly less grim.

It’s easy for people who have never experienced such a thing personally to discuss whether or not a loving God would allow such a thing to happen by ‘Design.’ Those who have actually experienced it know how impossible such a thing really is. If you have lived a life of relative health: I am so, so sorry, but it is much worse than you likely imagine.

I am truly sorry to tell you this, but it needs to be heard; especially by those who live their lives in the luxury of a globalized society. Such frank and honest discussions of death and dying are rare in our culture—and we devise all sorts of clever distractions to assist us in maintaining that desperate ignorance. Without facing this harsh reality, we set ourselves up for an unhealthy relationship with mortality. Please forgive me if you found this portion difficult to read: I assure you it was no less difficult to endure.

And yet even in the wake of this experience, I still left the hospital at least nominally a believer, though I became much more skeptical and open to critique. Over the long course of my recovery, I would discuss my growing uncertainty with those closest to me as they came along with me for my physical therapy walks. Kant had already helped me understand that I could not say anything theoretically meaningful about God. Coupled with this new eye-opening experience, I felt a deep rift between my moral sentiments and the lived experience of the trauma I had endured. Having always been a progressive at heart, I think this tension had always been somewhat of a struggle for me. I often felt guilt on account of my religious belief alongside feelings of compassion when I saw others suffer. Yet it was impossibly hard to really understand the gravity of the injustice of real suffering from the blissfully ignorant position of health and relative peace I’d enjoyed prior to this incident. Suffering is the great equalizer of human being, and probably the best inoculation against dogmatism wherever it seeks to suppress our inclinations towards empathy and commiseration.

Over the next six months, my relationship of four years with my first love crumbled under the mental and emotional toll of this experience. Desperate to hold it all together, I worked towards proposal plans as she struggled to find the words to end things. Given the space of several years, I am now happy that things did not work out with her, but in the wake of this health crisis, the emotional toll of it was unbearable. It felt as though I had lost everything, though of course this was far from true. Yale, which had once been a beacon of hope and joy for me, became the backdrop for an internal struggle with severe depression, acute stress, crippling anxiety, great sadness, and stifled anger. It is only in hindsight that I also see how this experience was a crucible for a profound transformation. My former identity had been so quickly uprooted that I did not realize it was even gone at first. Church felt empty, but everything felt empty then. How was I to know the difference?

Seeking to make sense of this emptiness, I moved towards the “apophatic” tradition in theology, also known as negative theology. Rather than trying to say meaningful statements about God, apophaticism tries to help believers move past their worldly understanding, usually into what is referred to as ‘mystical experience.’ It translates the varieties of transcendental experience people have into a unified and totally different category of understanding. I felt sympathetic to this view: I have had several out-of-body experiences over the course of my life through mediation and the like. I understood the need to be able to speak about experiences of transcendence meaningfully. Apophaticism and mysticism seemed like good outlets for that need.

The last step towards atheism happened in the winter of 2015, when one of my professors assigned Freud and Feuerbach in a course on “Religion Beyond Knowledge and Belief.” I had already read Freud on religion before, but I had brushed it aside because I had encountered it prior to my Kantian studies. I took the general point of his social criticisms of religion in The Future of an Illusion, but since I had yet to admit that the ‘personhood’, ‘intelligence’, and ‘intentionality’ of God are illusions, I found them irrelevant. They could only be useful in a world without God. With God, they were at best a cautionary tale of organized religion gone wrong. With all the doubt and restraint I had developed over the last year and a half, I became more receptive to Freud’s general concerns about religion’s impact on civilization and its discontents. Meanwhile, Feuerbach gave a stunningly compelling account of theology-as-anthropology in his Essence of Christianity. And so I finally felt as though I understood where the idea of God comes from, why it is erroneous, and between Freud and my illness why I could not consent to reappropriating the religious language of dogmatic institutions to account for transcendent feelings and experiences.

All the most sophisticated writings on religion that I encountered at Yale could not escape the weight of these challenges. And it is here that I feel the need to reiterate my purpose in this post: I have no immediate need to convince anyone of the non-existence of God. Having attended a divinity school for two years, I still think there’s probably some substance to the human proclivity to believe. I just believe it misplaced. The ground of being is not anything we could possibly speak about meaningfully. It is not a person. It is not intelligent in the way we think of intelligence. And so how could I call it God, as if it were some mythic thing in an ancient text; a product of a world far more brutal and ignorant than our own (what a chilling thought!) Our idea of the transcendent ought to evolve with the rest of our culture. It is finally time for the idea of God to rest in peace, to give way for newer and grander pictures of the ground of our Being.

This is how I came to non-belief: presented not as a dogma, but as a memoir of sorts, or at least a part of one. As I look back on the whole sequence of events that led me here, I find myself extremely grateful for all of it. Even now, I would not trade my opportunity to study at YDS for anything. Without her, I would not have come to this view of life. My ability to think cogently, and to articulate those ideas are heavily indebted to

Happy and healthy today =)

those studies regardless of their religious (and at times dogmatic) content. Academia thrives off of the informed disagreement between peers. I hope that in some small way, my evolving views helped contribute to the conversation on the idea of God at the Yale Divinity School. The reverse is certainly true for me, and I hope to bring the fruit of those encounters to the banquet of human understanding over the course of my life. Thanks for reading!

Warmest Regards,

L.F. Braley