by Carole Duff
For those unfamiliar with the tale of the Atheist and the Bear, the story goes something like this:
An atheist, while walking through the woods, was admiring all the “fortunate accidents” that evolution had created. “What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!” he said to himself.
Suddenly, he heard rustling in the bushes behind him, turned to look, and saw a seven-foot grizzly bear, charging toward him. The atheist ran as fast as he could up the path. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the bear closing in on him.
The atheist tripped and fell, face first. When he rolled over to pick himself up, he saw the bear directly above him. The bear reared upright on its hind legs, reached for him with his left paw, and raised his right paw to strike.
At that instant, the atheist cried out, “Oh God, help me!”
Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent.
A brilliant light shone upon the man, and a voice came out of the sky. “Did you call on me? You deny my existence, teach others that I don’t exist, and credit my creation to cosmic accidents. Now you expect me to help you out of this predicament. Am I to count you as a believer?”
The atheist looked directly into the light. “After all these years, it would be hypocritical of me to ask you to treat me as a Christian.” Then he had a thought. “But perhaps you could make the bear a Christian?”
“Very well,” said the voice. The light faded, and the sounds of the forest resumed.
The bear dropped both paws, brought them together, bowed his head, and spoke: “Lord, bless this food, which I am about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
A few weeks ago, in the wee hours of the morning, I encountered a large black bear, canvassing our neighborhood. I wrote about the incident here. I imagined our bear looked like the story’s grizzly. By the grace of God, I was not the atheist—which I suspect the man in the story lamented as he met his end. I was reminded of this old tale again, and my journey in faith, while reading Emily Fox Gordon’s essay “An Atheist’s Lament” published in the American Scholar’s Winter 2021 issue.
Gordon’s parents were atheists, her father replacing religion with his love for reason and her mother with love for beauty. The family celebrated Christmas and Easter “…in a purely aesthetic spirit,” Gordon explained. “We were not to believe. Belief was an error, an embarrassment…” Thus, Gordon’s lifelong atheism was a family tradition, and she an atheist by default.
But now at the age of 72, she’s developed an interest in Christianity. Though she smirks, her eyes well in gratitude when someone says grace at the table. She envies Christians their fellowship, acceptance of and prayers for others, their holidays and stories. “How absorbing, how suspenseful it would be to move through hours, days, and years with the conviction that what I do matters, that my small choices and responses to contingencies have moral meaning, that they will add up to a whole and that my life will be judged.”
Sadly, like the atheist facing inevitable death, Gordon’s longing has not been enough for her to break with her lifelong tradition of atheism. Since she is not being chased by a bear, she has had time to reason and conclude, “If I were to take a religious turn, it would be toward Christianity. But strait is the gate and narrow is the way. In order to pass through, I’d have to shrink myself to the size of a child I was before I knew better than to believe. How would I do that, and what would be left of me?”
I spoke to my husband about the essay’s conclusion, similar to the atheist’s decision in the story. Keith said these are spiritual versions of the sunk-cost fallacy. That is, a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it, even though it’s clear that abandonment would be more beneficial.
Indeed, Gordon’s choice left me sighing in sorrow and recognition. When I shifted from atheism to belief in my early forties, I had to shrink myself. How? First, by humbling myself—giving up free will—then by coming to the cross, which I wrote about here.
What is left of me now? Plenty, though I am not proud of that self-centeredness. In order for me the child of God to grow in wisdom and faith, He must become greater; I must become less. John 3:30 (NIV)
As I turned on the outside light and stared at the huge creature foraging around our deck that night, I did not ask God to make the bear a Christian. Nor do I expect God to spare me from life’s challenges, suffering, or loss. But regardless of what happens, I know I will live in His light forever. In the meantime, loving God and loving others is the only thing I do that matters.
PerGen regular contributor Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Building a House and Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her at: https://caroleduff.com. Her Twitter feed can be found here.