Western culture has become increasingly secular. The spirit of our age seems to involve the denial of transcendence. Many consider the development of atheism as a sign of progress.
There is the growing number of self-confessed atheists. According to a 2008 survey, only two percent of the U.S. population was atheist, while 10 percent were agnostic. In 2018, it was estimated that 26 percent of Americans were atheists. This was much higher than the three-to-11 percent rates that were consistently found in surveys.
There is the New England Skeptical Society made up of Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County. This society hosts a virtual event titled “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.” The Italian Catholic Bishops Conference concluded that 30 percent of the Italian population is atheist – around 18 million people.
More college students are calling themselves atheists. Nonreligious identity has become increasingly important to many (“nones”). At Harvard University, there is the “Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy”. The young have been invited to imagine, with John Lennon, the positive effects of a world with “no religion.” In the academic world, the working assumptions seems to be that every serious person is an atheist. There are atheist websites, blogs, journals, conferences that provide a network of support for atheists.
One cannot deny that atheists can live fulfilling lives that are meaningful and happy. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was sympathetic to contemporary atheism. Atheists deserve to be taken seriously. Atheists I know describe themselves as trying to salvage the best that life has to offer right now. They claim that this life is quite enough to give their lives meaning as well as intellectual satisfaction. They settle into a comfortable unbelief. Many see their atheistic lifestyle as something that can contribute to a better world.
The “New Atheists” (e.g. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) would have Judaism, Christianity, and Islam simply disappear, after which we should be able to go on enjoying the same lifestyle as before, only without the nuisance of suicide bombers and TV evangelists, without worrying about getting blown up by God-inspired fanatics. They compare God to belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
The Second Vatican Council stated “believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their learning and growing in the faith and the Scriptures they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion” (Gaudium et Spes 19-21). It’s true—most criticisms of religion are of immature religion.
My own thinking about atheism involves some basic questions: How and why did the big bang start? How and why can something come from nothing? How and why did the constants of the universe arise to create the perfect conditions for human life? How and why did consciousness evolve from which we have purpose and meaning?
For me, the big questions are: What is it all about? Why are we here? Who are we? Why is there a world?
Atheists commonly respond by telling how the universe is old enough to have allowed chance and physical laws ample time to experiment with different chemical and environmental combinations. There have been billions of years of evolution.
The claim is made that truth can be attained only by science. Atheists in general insist that only what can be measured is real. Science alone can give a reliable knowledge of reality. The late Carl Sagan insisted that modern science would engender the same awe as religious faith.
Science can say a lot, but it can’t say everything. There are channels other than science through which we experience and understand the world. There are works of art, literature, music, philosophy and theology—dimensions of reality that science can’t reach. There are a couple of other problems I have with atheistic claims. For example, atheists avoid the idea of creation by claiming that the universe is eternal. That would imply that there would have occurred in the past an infinite number of events, and the number of future events is potentially infinite. I have trouble with the concept of beginningless time.
A few other thoughts: One can marvel at the eye’s capacity for vision, how many different sorts of parts the eye has and how precisely their functions must be coordinated to produce vision. This is repeated in organ after organ. To me, this points to the hypothesis of a supernatural architect who arranges things by an enormous intelligence. Overall, I think God is the animating force of the entire evolutionary process. There is an incomprehensible power with limitless knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.
I do think that, to some extent, many people become atheists so they don’t have to worry about pleasing and being judged by God.
Atheists claim that only evolutionary biology can provide an account of why people are religious. I think that so many people are religious because God has structured our nature towards himself. This world on its own is not enough to satisfy the human hunger for meaning and happiness. Human beings are ultimately understood in relation to God. Augustine was right: “You have made us for Yourself O Lord, and our hearts are ever restless until they rest in Thee.” There is a gravitational pull towards God.
The Protestant theologian Karl Barth said that atheism is a ridiculous invention. Sometimes I have a sense of what he meant. People act as if humans were alone, as if their deeds were carried out in the dark, as if there were no God Who saw, no God Who knew.
Shortly before his death, in the spring of 1980, the hard-core atheist Jean-Paul Sartre made a startling disclosure: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” (Is Man the Measure? An evaluation of contemporary humanism, Norman Geisler, Baker, 1983, p. 46-47.)
The 19th-century mathematician, Bernhard Riemann, once said: “I did not invent those pairs of differential equations. I found them in the world, where God had hidden them.”
Finally, there’s St. Paul’s interesting statement: “God has made the whole world prisoner of unbelief that he may have mercy on all.”