Stanford Neurosurgeon Killed by Cancer Accepted Christ After Embracing 'Ironclad Atheism'

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, M.D., speaks with a fellow healthcare professional in this undated photo.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi, M.D., speaks with a fellow healthcare professional in this undated photo. | (Photo:

A California neurosurgeon who died from lung cancer in 2015 explained in a memoir published this year what it was that compelled him to reclaim his Christian faith after embracing "ironclad atheism."

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford's Department of Neurosurgery and a fellow at the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, died on March 9, 2015, after fighting a two-year battle with stage IV lung cancer.

Being an educated man who graduated from the Yale School of Medicine, Kalanithi earned a master's in English literature from Stanford and earned master's in history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge, Kalanithi was considered to be a deep thinker who constantly pondered how "biology, literature and philosophy intersect."

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Despite the fact that Kalanithi had high career aspirations laid out for himself once he graduated from residency, the ladder to achieve his career goals was ripped out from underneath him when his life was cut short.

Book 'When Breath Becomes Air,' Released in 2016.
Book "When Breath Becomes Air," Released in 2016. | (Photo: Courtesy of A. Larry Ross Communications)

Although God called home the 37-year-old Kalanithi while he was in the prime of his career, death did not come before Kalanithi was able to achieve one of his life's aspirations: becoming a writer.

While dealing with his illness, Kalanithi penned a memoir that focused on the meaning of life and death and also addressed other existential questions that his sickness forced him to wrestle with.

Although cancer took Kalanithi before he was able to complete his memoir, it turns out that what he had written was enough to be published posthumously in the form of The New York Times best-selling book, When Breath Becomes Air.

Much of Kalanithi's book examines the experience of death through the perspectives of both a doctor and patient. Kalanithi, however, also discussed in the book how he personally wrestled with faith and disbelief.

Although Kalanithi grew up in a very devout Methodist household in Kingman, Arizona, he began to turn away from his faith in college.

In the book, Kalanithi admits that his relationship with God became "tenuous" as he began to embrace the arguments put forth by "reason" atheists.

"During my sojourn in ironclad atheism, the primary arsenal leveled against Christianity had been its failure on empirical grounds," Kalanithi wrote. "Surely enlightened reason offered more coherent cosmos. Surely, Occam's razor cut the faithful free from blind faith. There is no proof of God; therefore, it is unreasonable to believe in God."

Kalanithi's wife, Lucy, who wrote the epilogue for her husband's book, explained in an interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday that it was around 2005 that her husband really began to re-embrace his Christian faith.

"Around 2005, when we were in our second year of medical school, right around Easter of 2005, he said something like, 'I had a religious, religious experience,'" said Lucy, who is an internist at Stanford University's Clinical Excellence Research Center. "He had a moment in which faith made more sense to him than not."

Paul Kalanithi wrote that although he spent much of his 20s believing in "material conception of reality" and a "scientific worldview that would grant complete metaphysics" except for "outmoded concepts like souls, God and bearded white men," he found a problem with the atheist worldview.

"The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning — to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in," he argued.

"That is not to say that if you believe in meaning you must also believe in God," he added. "It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn't have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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