FROM CHAPTER ONE From Minister to Agnostic Some five hundred miles north of where Billy Graham was staging his Indianapolis campaign, I tracked [John] Templeton to a modern high-rise building in a middle-class neighborhood of Toronto. Taking the elevator to the 25th floor, I went to a door marked "Penthouse" and used the brass knocker. Under my arm I carried a copy of his latest book, whose title leaves no ambiguity concerning his spiritual perspective. It's called Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. The often-acerbic tome seeks to eviscerate Christian beliefs, attacking them with passion for being "outdated, demonstrably untrue, and often, in their various manifestations, deleterious to individuals and to society." Templeton draws upon a variety of illustrations as he strives to undermine faith in the God of the Bible. But I was especially struck by one moving passage in which he pointed to the horrors of Alzheimer's disease, describing in gripping detail the way it hideously strips people of their personal identity by rotting their mind and memory. How, he demanded, could a compassionate God allow such a ghastly illness to torture its victims and their loved ones? The answer, he concluded, is simple: Alzheimer's would not exist if there were a loving God. And because it does exist, that's one more bit of persuasive evidence that God does not. For someone like me, whose wife's family has endured the ugly ravages of Alzheimer's, it was an argument that carried emotional punch. I wasn't sure what to expect as I waited at his doorstep. Would he be as combative as he was in his book? Would he be bitter toward Billy Graham? Would he even go through with our interview? When he had consented in a brief telephone conversation two days earlier, he had said vaguely that his health was not good. Madeleine Templeton, fresh from tending flowers in her rooftop garden, opened the door and greeted me warmly. "I know you've come all the way from Chicago," she said, "but Charles is very sick, I'm sorry to say." "I could come back another time," I offered. "Well, let's see how he's feeling," she said. She led me up a red-carpeted staircase into their luxury apartment, two large and frisky poodles at her heels. "He's been sleeping . . . ." At that moment, her eighty-three-year-old husband emerged from his bedroom. He was wearing a dark brown, light-weight robe over similarly colored pajamas. Black slippers were on his feet. His thinning gray hair was a bit disheveled. He was gaunt and pale, although his blue-gray eyes appeared alert and expressive. He politely extended his hand to be shaken. "Please excuse me," he said, clearing his throat, "but I'm not well." Then he added matter-of-factly: "Actually, I'm dying." "What's wrong?" I asked. His answer almost knocked me on my heels. "Alzheimer's disease," he replied. My mind raced to what he'd written about Alzheimer's being evidence for the non-existence of God; suddenly, I felt like I had an insight into at least some of the motivation for his book. "I've had it . . . let's see, has it been three years?" he said, furrowing his brow and turning to his wife for help. "That's right, isn't it, Madeleine?" She nodded. "Yes, dear, three years." "My memory isn't what it was," he said. "And, as you may know, Alzheimer's is always fatal. Always. It sounds melodramatic, but the truth is I'm doomed. Sooner or later, it will kill me. But first, it will take my mind." He smiled wanely. "It's already started, I'm afraid. Madeleine can attest to that." "Look, I'm sorry to intrude," I said. "If you're not feeling up to this . . . ." But Templeton insisted. He ushered me into the living room, brightly decorated in a contemporary style and awash in afternoon sunshine pouring through glass doors that offered a breath-taking panoramic view of the city. We sat on adjacent cushioned chairs, and in a matter of minutes Templeton seemed to have mustered fresh energy. "I suppose you want me to explain how I went from the ministry to agnosticism," he said. With that, he proceeded to describe the events that led to the shedding of his faith in God. That was what I had expected. But I could never have anticipated how our conversation would end. The Photograph That Changed a Life Templeton was fully engaged now. Occasionally, I could see evidence of his Alzheimer's, such as when he was unable to recall a precise sequence of events or when he'd repeat himself. But for the most part he spoke with eloquence and enthusiasm, using an impressive vocabulary, his rich and robust voice raising and lowering for emphasis. He had an aristocratic tone that sounded nearly theatrical at times. "Was there one thing in particular that caused you to lose your faith in God?" I asked at the outset. He thought for a moment. "It was a photograph in Life magazine," he said finally. "Really?" I said. "A photograph? How so?" He narrowed his eyes a bit and looked off to the side, as if he were viewing the photo afresh and reliving the moment. "It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa," he explained. "They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, 'Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?'" As he emphasized the word rain, his bushy gray eyebrows shot up and his arms gestured toward heaven as if beckoning for a response. "How could a loving God do this to that woman?" he implored as he got more animated, moving to the edge of his chair. "Who runs the rain? I don't; you don't. He does - or that's what I thought. But when I saw that photograph, I immediately knew it is not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony - when all that was needed was rain?" He paused, letting the question hang heavily in the air. Then he settled back into his chair. "That was the climactic moment," he said. "And then I began to think further about the world being the creation of God. I started considering the plagues that sweep across parts of the planet and indiscriminately kill - more often than not, painfully - all kinds of people, the ordinary, the decent, and the rotten. And it just became crystal clear to me that it is not possible for an intelligent person to believe that there is a deity who loves." Templeton was tapping into an issue that had vexed me for years. In my career as a newspaper reporter, I hadn't merely seen photos of intense suffering; I was a frequent first-hand observer of the underbelly of life where tragedy and suffering festered - the rotting inner cities of the United States, the filthy slums of India, Cook County Jail and the major penitentiaries, the hospice wards for the hopeless, disaster sites. More than once, my mind reeled at trying to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the depravity and heartache and anguish before my eyes. But Templeton wasn't done. "My mind then went to the whole concept of hell. My goodness," he said, his voice rising in astonishment, "I couldn't hold someone's hand to a fire for a moment. Not an instant! How could a loving God, just because you don't obey him and do what he wants, torture you forever - not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity? There is no criminal who would do this!" "So these were the first doubts you had?" I asked. "Prior to that, I had been having more and more questions about things like, for instance, unanswered prayer. I had preached to hundreds of thousands of people the antithetical message, and then I found to my dismay that I could no longer believe it. To believe it would be to deny the brain I had been given. It became quite clear that I had been wrong. So I made up my mind that I would leave the ministry. That's essentially how I came to be agnostic." "Define what you mean by that," I said, since various people have offered different interpretations of that term. "The atheist says there is no God," he replied. "The Christian and Jew say there is a God. The agnostic says, 'I cannot know.' Not do not know, but cannot know. I never would presume to say flatly that there is no God. I don't know everything; I'm not the embodiment of wisdom. But it is not possible for me to believe in God." I hesitated to ask the next question. "As you get older," I began in a tentative tone, "and you're facing a disease that's always fatal, do you - " "Worry about being wrong?" he interjected. He smiled. "No, I don't." "Why not?" "Because I have spent a lifetime thinking about it. If this were a simplistic conclusion reached on a whim, that would be different. But it's impossible for me - impossible - to believe that there is any thing, or person, or being that could be described as a loving God who could allow what happens in our world daily." "Would you like to believe?" I asked. "Of course!" he exclaimed. "If I could, I would. I'm eighty-three years old. I've got Alzheimer's. I'm dying, for goodness sake. But I've spent my life thinking about it and I'm not going to change now. Hypothetically, if someone came up to me and said, 'Look, old boy, the reason you're ill is God's punishment for your refusal to continue on the path your feet were set in' - would that make any difference to me?" He answered himself emphatically: "No," he declared. "No. There cannot be, in our world, a loving God." He locked eyes with mine. "Cannot be." The illusion of faith Templeton ran his fingers through his hair. He had been talking in adamant tones, and I could tell he was beginning to tire. I wanted to be sensitive to his condition, but I had a few other questions I wanted to pursue. With his permission, I continued. "As we're talking, Billy Graham is in the midst of a series of rallies in Indiana," I told Templeton. "What would you say to the people who've stepped forward to put their faith in Christ?" Templeton's eyes got wide. "Why, I wouldn't interfere in their lives at all," he replied. "If a person has faith and it makes them a better individual, then I'm all for that - even if I think they're nuts. Having been a Christian, I know how important it is to people's lives - how it alters their decisions, how it helps them deal with difficult problems. For most people, it's a boon beyond description. But is it because there is a God? No, it's not." Templeton's voice carried no condescension, and yet the implications of what he was saying were thoroughly patronizing. Is that what faith is all about - fooling yourself into becoming a better person? Convincing yourself there's a God so that you'll become motivated to ratchet up your morality a notch or two? Embracing a fairy tale so you'll sleep better at night? No, thank you, I thought to myself. If that's faith, I wasn't interested. "What about Billy Graham himself?" I asked. "You said in your book that you feel sorry for him." "Oh, no, no," he insisted, contrary to his writings. "Who am I to feel sorry for what another man believes? I may regret it on his behalf, if I may put it that way, because he has closed his mind to reality. But would I wish him ill? Not for anything at all!" Templeton glanced over to an adjacent glass coffee table, where Billy Graham's autobiography was sitting. "Billy is pure gold," he remarked fondly. "There's no feigning or fakery in him. He's a first-rate human being. Billy is profoundly Christian - he's the genuine goods, as they say. He's not very bright, but he is what he seems to be. He sincerely believes - unquestionably. He is as wholesome and faithful as anyone can be." And what about Jesus? I wanted to know what Templeton thought of the cornerstone of Christianity. "Do you believe Jesus ever lived?" I asked. "No question," came the quick reply. "Did he think he was God?" He shook his head. "That would have been the last thought that would have entered his mind." "And his teaching - did you admire what he taught?" "Well, he wasn't a very good preacher. What he said was too simple. He hadn't thought about it. He hadn't agonized over the biggest question there is to ask." "Which is . . ." "Is there a God? How could anyone believe in a God who does, or allows, what goes on in the world?" "And so how do you assess this Jesus?" It seemed like the next logical question - but I wasn't ready for the response it would evoke. The allure of Jesus Templeton's body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend. His voice, which at times had displayed such a sharp and insistent edge, now took on a melancholy and reflective tone. His guard seemingly down, he spoke in an unhurried pace, almost nostalgically, carefully choosing his words as he talked about Jesus. "He was," Templeton began, "the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I've ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?" I was taken aback. "You sound like you really care about him," I said. "Well, yes, he's the most important thing in my life," came his reply. "I . . . I . . . I," he stuttered, searching for the right word, "I know it may sound strange, but I have to say. . . I adore him." I wasn't sure how to respond. "You say that with some emotion," I said. "Well, yes. Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don't think of him that way, but they don't read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There's no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus." "And so the world would do well to emulate him?" "Oh, my goodness, yes! I have tried - and try is as far as I can go - to act as I have believed he would act. That doesn't mean I could read his mind, because one of the most fascinating things about him was that he often did the opposite thing you'd expect - " Abruptly, Templeton cut short his thoughts. There was a pause. He glanced up, he looked across the room, he seemed to want to focus anywhere but on me. He was suddenly self-conscious, almost embarrassed, apparently uncertain whether he should continue. He sighed. "But, no," he said slowly, "in my view. . . ." Now there was a catch in his voice; he inhaled deeply to try to stop from crying. But as he turned toward me, I watched as tears flooded his eyes. "In my view," he struggled to say, "he is the most important human being who has ever existed." His voice cracking, he uttered the words I never expected to hear him say: "And if I may put it this way - I . . . miss . . . him." With that, he broke down sobbing. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed; his right hand wiped away tears. What was going on? Was this an unguarded glimpse into his soul? I felt drawn to him and wanted to comfort him; at the same time, the journalist in me wanted to dig to the core of what was prompting this reaction. Missed him why? Missed him how? In a gentle voice, I asked, "In what way?" Templeton fought to compose himself. I could tell it wasn't like him to lose control in front of a stranger. He breathed deeply. After a few more awkward moments, he waved his hand dismissively. "Well," he whispered, as much to himself as to me. Again he halted, then drew a deep breath. "Enough of that." He sniffed and cleared his throat, then leaned forward to pick up his coffee. More quietly and yet more adamantly, he murmured again: "Enough of that." He took a sip, holding the cup tightly in both hands as if drawing warmth from it. It was clear that he wanted to pretend this unvarnished look into his soul had never happened. But I couldn't let it go. Nor could I gloss over Templeton's pointed but heart-felt objections about God. Clearly, they demanded a response. For him, as well as for me.