The Miracle of Disbelief

The American author, John Updike, wrote the following: “Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity, of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead? Truth has to have more nooks and crannies, more ins and outs than that.”

The current secular irreligious worldview contains an astonishing number of self-described atheists. Web sites, blogs, journals, conferences provide a growing network of support for atheists. There is The American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, and as many as 90 percent of the members of the elite National Academy of Sciences state they are “nontheists.”

A vast amount of modern fiction presents life as though there were no God, and men and women had no religious side to their personalities.

Atheists deserve to be taken seriously, not treated as children. Many atheists lead meaningful lives. They often exert themselves for a better world. Humanist atheists often strive to bring peace, kindness, social responsibility, honesty into society. They are concerned with ending war, racism, poverty, injustice, philanthropic endeavors. Many atheists seem able to make themselves at home in a world without a supernatural.

However, there’s a couple of dispositions I’ve noticed about atheists. Many seem to have decided not to deal with the “big questions,” such as: What is it all about? Why are we here? Who are we? Why is there a world? Does life have a plot? Where are we going? As someone put it: Who are we under these stars, with the wind on our faces? What should we do? What may we hope? As I hear it, atheists think you must find meaning in yourself. You develop your own goals. The main thing is to strive to realize one’s full potential. The world is sufficient unto itself. Let us enjoy while we can, salvage the best that life has to offer.

The Jewish writer, Isaac Singer, points out that if people do not praise God, they will end up praising themselves. With the denial of God, the human community mainly has itself to fall back on. A friend in an email to me sung the praises of secular humanists saying, “they’re all wonderful people, interested in family, career, social justice. You’d love to have dinner with them…” I have had dinner with them. They were everything my friend said. I found them witty and pleasant—for about an hour; then I grew tired of them. When people give God His walking papers, then all we have is us, other people. That’s not enough, at least for me. We’re all flawed. I like people, even get along with people. But without the eternal consciousness, or whatever one wants to call it, they get boring.

I remember a time being with a group of people I would call secular humanists who were defining heaven has having good friends, and being with intelligent, insightful people, complimentary of each other. I thought that according to their definition I was in heaven. The people with me were all kindly, thoughtful, intelligent, complimentary. I kept thinking then why am I getting antsy to leave heaven. We are all surrounded by finite beings, all limited in some way. It can leave us with a sense of incompleteness that never fades. I’ve concluded that people are hungering for more than this world offers. What the earth gives us is often beautiful, but it is too poor to satisfy us fully. People try to tear away from the earth more than she can rightly give. We keep sensing something basic is missing. For me, the maxim of Dostoyevsky becomes more real: “I no longer am able to picture man without Him.” Human beings are ultimately understood in relation to God.

One learns to avoid mentioning anything about death to atheists. Walter Ciszek, in his book He Leadeth me, p. 147), tells how in a communist milieu, no pomp accompanies a funeral procession, Side streets are assigned to be used for funerals, which must skirt busy intercsections or main thoroughfares, so that citizens would not be affected by the scene of a funeral procession.

One of the blessings of atheism is that it takes away any sense of Judgment, any awareness of sin. There is no God who saw, no God who knew.

Atheists commonly argue from the existence of evil that there is no loving God. There have been and are toxic elements in religion, but there is still the problem of good and a long list of positives to add to the ledger: hospitals, orphanages, schools, universities, so much of the beautiful in works of art, in music, architecture, poetry.

Most atheistic writers make use of faulty notions of God. The focus is on religious fanatics, terrorists, superstitions, fundamentalists. They do not grapple with major theologians such as Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, etc.

A couple of final thoughts. Jesus never set out to prove God’s existence; it was so obvious St. Francis was astonished that a philosophy course given to his Religious was taking time to prove the existence of God. St. Paul wrote that what natural men can know about God “lies plain before their eyes” (Rom.1:19). The Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, wrote: “By the miracle of foolishness it is possible to think of God as not existing. There is the miracle of disbelief” (Prayer, p. 29).

Augustine once said that losing the remembrance of God means forgetting life. Only when this remembrance returns do we begin again to live. Atheism is not a natural state.

God pursues the soul. It is a story happening in every human life. Most atheists feel it at a point in their lives. The sense that there is Something or Someone presses in. They hear feet overtaking them, brisk and resolute. I’m certain that great numbers feel it. They are far from settling into a comfortable unbelief. The unrest continues to surface. There is St. Paul’s saying: “God made the whole prisoner of unbelief that he may have mercy on all” (Rom.11:32).