Jeremy Beahan experienced a powerful conversion while attending Cornerstone University.
Actually, make that "de-conversion."
As the 26-year-old Grand Rapids resident pored over classical arguments seeking to prove God's existence, he found they no longer added up.
"There were just plain philosophical problems with the attributes of God," said Beahan, who had planned to go into ministry before he graduated in 2005. "It just seemed that the evidence was overwhelming on the side of atheism.
"It was purely an academic conversion."
Beahan's wife, Jennifer, soon followed suit. They took a long walk as Jeremy professed his new-found beliefs. He never pressured her to change her worldview, both insist. It just kind of happened as she delved further.
Both were raised in religious homes, and led their respective youth groups.
"We weren't the fringe kids that never fit in anywhere," said Jennifer, 25.
However, they felt increasingly isolated, convinced their new ideas would not be welcome at the conservative Christian school. Their parents weren't exactly elated, either, but accepted their new path.
Not only do the two feel there need not be a God to explain the universe's existence and order, but also that fundamentalist religion plays a huge role in many conflicts plaguing global society. The events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, they say, are examples of how unmitigated faith can lead to exponential suffering.
Where do we go from here?
Atheism is but one component of the Beahans' beliefs. As Jennifer puts it, "Once you've defined what you're not, you need to define what you are."
The Beahans call themselves naturalists. They rely solely on science, empiricism and observation to unveil truths that believers might seek from their understanding of a divine presence.
They found a friend in the Grand Rapids-based Freethought Association of West Michigan, where Jennifer Beahan is assistant director. The group holds regular discussions, movie nights and celebrations that encourage community and, of course, dialogue.
The two joined the group while at Cornerstone.
"It's very important to have that community and have a group of people that challenge you," Jeremy Beahan said. "That was good because it's very lonely being a Bible college atheist.
"You have to be careful who you say it to."
Negative connotations of the word "atheism" have led some non-believers to utilize a different term -- "non-theist." Spring Lake resident Dr. Robert Collins, 68, calls it "safer."
Collins grew up Catholic. Crucifix on his wall, daily rosaries, nightly contrition -- the whole nine yards.
"It scared the crap out of me," he said.
A Freethought participant since 1997, he said he experienced a strong animosity toward Christianity, but that faded as he became more attuned with his core beliefs.
"There's a stage where there is a lot of anger toward your religious indoctrination and a strong rejection of religion," he said.
Collins and his wife, Sherron, also attend Fountain Street Chruch, 24 Fountain St. NE. The Freethoughts have participated in interfaith services at the church.
Though Fountain Street claims to be liberal in its discourse, Collins said he is becoming disenchanted.
"They're still stuck on theology," he said. "Even though they're quite liberal and try to expand the concept of God, they're still stuck in God language -- they still speak of 'the soul.' "
His heroes today include the likes of Galileo, Darwin and Pasteur -- not Mother Teresa, he said.
One of his favorite quotes is by Benjamin Franklin: "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."
But why is there something rather than nothing?
"I don't know, and that's OK," said Jeff Seaver, Freethought Association director.
The 37-year-old Allendale Township resident formed the nonprofit association as he and two others stood around a fire about 10 years ago and talked about the idea of God. At first an informal group of fewer than a dozen, there are now more than 330 registered members.
The association soon will become an official part of the Amherst, N.Y.-based Center for Inquiry, which Seaver says will open the door to more speakers and programs. Seaver also is a former believer, and said he faced a much less daunting task when he allowed Christianity to fill his knowledge gaps.
"When I was religious, I knew why I was here," he said.
Enter Socrates: "The more I knew, the more I didn't know."
Like the Beahans, Seaver believes ideas are subject to change upon deeper inquiry.
But one thing is for certain: any degree of uncertainty "does not open the door to God as an explanation," Seaver said.
Kelly Clark, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, understands the allure of atheism.
He gave two lectures at Church of the Servant, 3835 Burton St. SE, with Calvin biology professor Steve Matheson in May. They addressed whether evolution presents a problem for religious believers.
In his opinion, the domains of science and faith don't overlap. Each serves its own purpose, he said. And one thing science cannot do is debunk the theory that humanity within the universe is the way it is because that's the way God wanted it to be.
"Thinking that there are natural practices involved doesn't mean there wasn't a divine purpose," Clark said.
Going on the offensive
Atheists have "gone on the offensive," Clark said. He says much of that is due to criticisms of organized religion by
Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith."
Both authors agree that religion is a "net force for evil in the world," Clark said. In some ways, they're right on point, particularly when it comes to "fear of unthinking fundamentalism."
"It's gotten empirical confirmation in the last couple of years," he said.
But Christianity has its own answer to the question, he adds.
"If you believe in original sin, you have a pretty good explanation of why human beings kill other human beings, whether or not original sin is something we're biologically conditioned to," he said.
While atheists might have an advantage when it comes to the explaining the "hiddenness of God" and answering the question of "why there's so much evil in the world," everyone draws facts and inferences from the same sources -- Christianity "plus one."
"Neither of us has any better information to go on than any other," Clark said. "Everyone is making a faith commitment on these matters. (Atheists) act like they have no faith commitment, but that's not true."
Clark believes many turn to atheism to shirk moral accountability, but Jeremy Beahan balks at that notion.
Moral dialogue is something that's been going on since well before Christianity, he said.
"One of the biggest stereotypes or misperceptions about atheists is that if there is no God, there is no basis for morality," he said. "We don't believe we're going to have an afterlife necessarily, so things have to be done here for reasons that make sense here on Earth.
"That can be challenging."