One of the world’s most famous atheists no longer has the faith necessary to be an atheist. According to Julie Zauzmer of the Washington Post, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg just renounced his famously atheistic perspective. He now believes “religion is very important,” according to comments he wrote on his Facebook page a week ago. Pressed to share more of this remarkable shift in this thinking, Zuckerberg went quiet.
We note the timeline of his life with interest. His life is a charmed one—he is worth $49 billion—but before his daughter was born, his wife, Priscilla Chan, suffered three miscarriages. Many of us know how sad and destabilizing it is to lose a child in the womb. After the loss of those little ones, Zuckerberg became a father about a year ago. Since then, he has expressed appreciation for the public teaching of Pope Francis. Clearly, Zuckerberg has recently experienced a good deal that life throws at many of us. He’s seen the miracle of birth, even as he and his wife have thrice experienced the tragedy of the loss of an unborn child.
What a story this is. We don’t know all the particulars, but something remarkable has happened in Zuckerberg at the same time that his life has dramatically changed. We can say this for sure: when you are young and left to your own devices, it is not hard to talk a good game as an atheist. This is particularly true if you are successful and filthy rich, as Zuckerberg has been for years. But he is not alone. There are many dorm room Voltaires, many privileged rebels. But here’s the thing: there are fewer atheists in the ER. Life has a way of humbling you. No one is immune to sadness, to tragedy, to suffering, and to trials. Suffering often prompts creatures like us to ask the biggest questions of life, questions we may have answered with a dismissive sneer in easier times.
But it is not only suffering that often pries open the human heart. Whatever took place in Zuckerberg’s heart and mind, the gift of children is a little worldview in itself, albeit one that comes to you with tightly-shut little eyes and a feeble cry. Though you may reject this discovery, having a child introduces you to a world beyond yourself. Suddenly, in a vigorous and unopposable coup carried out by a 7-pound baby, you are dethroned. You no longer have control of your life; you don’t get to be served by others; you can’t claim to be the priority of those closest to you.
You’ve brought a child into this world, and this child needs everything you can give.
This isn’t a utilitarian reality. None of the good things in natural life, and the deepest things, are. Weddings, the daily experience of wedded love, the happiness of a fulfilling vocation, the joy of persevering friendship, the death of a loved one, the birth of a child—these are not rote happenings. They are dipped in transcendence. They echo of eternity. They speak of something beyond us. They call for a greater strength than we have.
We’ve been told that we’re just all flesh and blood, atoms colliding in a purposeless dance. But that’s not what you feel—in your bones, in your heart—when you look at your sleeping child. That’s not what you sense when your tiny loved one is hurt or sick. That’s not why you get out of bed in the middle of the night to calm your two-year-old experiencing night terrors. It’s not because of atoms colliding. It’s not because of chance. It’s not because of chaos theory. It’s because of love. It’s because your heart has opened to another.
When your heart opens to another, even just another person, it does not easily shut. There is now room for other discoveries. If there is a love greater than yourself that envelops you when your child enters your life, there is also the possibility that you yourself are nothing more than a child, a created being who desperately needs a Father, one greater than flesh, greater than blood. If you yourself have instincts to love and protect and provide for, perhaps there is one greater than you who embedded such instincts in you.
Perhaps happiness will come to you in the greatest form not by becoming a father, but by finding one.
Not every person who claims atheism and has children goes through such an experience, of course. But let us say this: the life filled with common-grace kindnesses, including the gift of wedded love and the gift of children, is hard on atheism. It’s tough on skepticism. It’s downright opposed to cynicism. It militates against narcissism. It proves dangerously susceptible to a sneaking awareness of embodied transcendence. It yields the unnerving sense, one that is very difficult to shake, that you are not the measure of all things as you once thought, that you do not have everything figured out, and that you require resources you do not have in yourself.
But these flickers of conscience and truth will remain only dry wood without the Spirit of God. Give the natural man the Spirit, and twigs become fuel, and a little spark becomes a blaze, and a once-proud sinner becomes a vessel of grace. Fatherhood can do many things, and it does, but the great need of our time is this: the grace of God, for billionaires, little children, and every last one of us.