I was an Atheist Until I Read “The Lord of the Rings”

by Fredric Heidemann

I grew up in a loving, comfortable atheist household of professional scientists. My dad was a lapsed Catholic, and my mom was a lapsed Lutheran. From the time that I could think rationally on the subject, I did not believe in God. God was an imaginary being for which there was no proof. At best, God was a fantasy for half-witted people to compensate their ignorance and make themselves feel better about their own mortality. At worst, God was a perverse delusion responsible for most of the atrocities committed by the human race.

What broke the ice? What made me consider God’s existence a real possibility? The Lord of the Rings. I was a young teenager when I first read the Tolkien tomes, and it immediately captivated me. The fantasy world of Middle-Earth oozes life and profundity. The cultures of the various peoples are organic, rooted in tradition while maintaining a fresh, living energy. Mountains and forests have personalities, and the relationship between people and earth is marked by stewardship and intimacy. Creation knowing creation. Tolkien describes these things with beautiful prose that reads like its half poetry and half medieval history. Everything seems “deep” in The Lord of the Rings. The combination of character archetypes and assertive “lifeness” in the novel touches on an element of fundamental humanity. Every Lord of the Rings fan knows exactly what I’m talking about.

In my narrow confines of scientism, I had no way of processing what made Tolkien’s masterpiece so profound. How could a made-up fantasy world reveal anything about the “truth”? But I knew it did, and this changed my way of thinking. Are good and evil merely social constructions, or are they real on a deeper level? Why am I relating to ridiculous things like talking trees and corrupted wraiths? Why was I so captivated by this story that made fighting evil against all odds so profound? Why did it instill in me a longing for an adventure of the arduous good? And how does the story make sacrifice so appealing? The Lord of the Rings showed me a world where things seemed more “real” than the world I lived in. Not in a literal way, obviously; in a metaphorical, beyond-the-surface way. The beautiful struggle and self-sacrificial glory permeating The Lord of the Rings struck a chord in my soul and filled me with longing that I couldn’t easily dismiss.

My attempts to explain these problems in my naturalistic, atheistic worldview fell flat. The idea that being, beauty, and morality were merely productive illusions imposed on us through biological hardwiring crafted through the random process of natural selection rang hollow. If things so fundamental to human existence as meaning and morality are nothing more than productive illusions, what else is untrustworthy? Our five senses? Logical process? Our whole minds? If our being is nothing more than a collection of atoms reacting with each other in enormous complexity through cause and effect chains stretching back to the beginning, then we are floating blindly through space and time: there’s no rhyme, reason, or purpose. And, if that’s the case, then so much of what we consider essentially human is tragic a joke. After all, the human race, the earth, and the universe will go extinct. With a long enough timeline, what’s the point? Even the idea of accomplishing something is finally an illusion. At this juncture, the fruits of atheism were inevitable: nihilism, despair, and, most ironically, confusion…

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