Event #4: Visiting the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

By the time my first child was three years old, I had decided there were three possibilities regarding God’s existence:

a) He didn’t exist
b) He existed but was some kind of jerk or moron who couldn’t manage a just universe
c) He existed and was so infinitely more advanced than I was that it was impossible for me to understand the method behind the apparent madness

Most Christians prefer something close to “c”, but I was a father and a scientist at this point in my life, so I had grave doubts that in His infinite advancement God had somehow not acquired anything like the love I felt toward my daughter. If his love and intellect were more advanced, wouldn’t he just have more of the same love I felt? And if so, wouldn’t he move mountains, entire planets and galaxies just to ensure that none of the disgusting and meaningless harms that afflict daughters every day would afflict one of his own?

I hadn’t resolved the issue before my son was born—one month early, with breathing difficulties. During one of several visits to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where I saw many babies in much worse shape than mine, I recall feeling ashamed for all the thoughtless responses I had given people who had asked me the why-so-much-suffering question over the years. No loving father with omnipotence in his toolkit could stop himself from stopping this, I thought. And this was a miniscule (if heart-wrenching) fraction of the suffering presently occurring in the world. “c” wasn’t just an inadequate answer anymore, it was an intensely offensive one.

So in those blurry days when I had a moment to think about something other than when my son would be well enough to come home from the hospital, I had this fleeting thought about the existence of God: either God doesn’t exist or He exists but is an unfit manager. It was while I was in the NICU, fixed on the desperate rise and fall of a panting baby’s chest, that I first allowed my conscious mind to say, “I am an atheist”. That is when I stopped sincerely praying.

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