The Interior Life of Atheism

Recently I ran a series of articles on The Incoherence of Atheism in the Register.

As a result, I’ve received inquiries for advice from readers with loved ones tempted by atheism.  Not infrequently such inquiries center on what arguments are effective.

This is understandable. Arguments are important. The existence of God is a philosophical, not a religious question. My articles focused on a couple of these arguments.  St. Thomas has five.  Peter Kreeft points us to twenty four.  Beyond the purely philosophical arguments, evidence for the supernatural can be culled from every nation, language, people, tongue and religious tradition in the world.

Indeed, one standard rhetorical ploy of atheists is to say, “Christians arrogantly say their God is the true God but all these other religions can also point to claims of the supernatural and Christians denounce those as false. So why can’t I dismiss the Christian claims too?”

Two things are prompted by such an argument.  The first, at the intellectual level, is to point out that the Christian is quite free to believe that every religion in the world has gotten something right (some more than others). You are even free to believe that adherents of other traditions have had real encounters with the supernatural (whether divine or demonic). However, if you are an atheist, you have to believe, a priori, that 99.999% of the human race is absolutely wrong about the thing that matters to it most. Christians have the luxury of being able to be humble before the facts. When it looks for all the world like the apostles’ behavior is best explained by the Resurrection, Christians don’t have to resort to lame theories like psychedelic bread mold at the Last Supper to account for it.  When thousands (including atheists) witness the miracle of the sun dancing at Fatima, Christians don’t have to attribute it to mass hallucination.  Atheist ideology has to take these desperate measures being constrained to so by its own ideology.

That said, it should also be noted that this tendency of atheism to cling to dogma in the face of countervailing evidence reveals something even more important about the cramped ideology of atheism. 

Consider: the French novelist Emile Zola said he just wanted to see one person dip a cut finger in the waters of Lourdes and be healed.  He got more than he bargained for. Zola met a woman dying of tuberculosis, whose face had been half eaten away with the disease and who was spitting up blood from her infected lungs.  She washed at Lourdes and was presented to Zola immediately afterward, her face already covered in new, dry skin and her tuberculosis in dramatic retreat.  “Ah no!” said Zola, “I do not want to look at her. She is still too ugly”. He left declaring, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”

Whatever that is, it is not the voice of Reason.  Rather, it is proof that the artillery of the intellect is subject to the will.  That artillery can be ranged to defend against truth just as much as to defend truth.  For atheism is often, though not always, driven by anger, pain or disappointment. Atheists (especially former believers) are quite often people who feel betrayed by God and who react by trying to punish him for the abusive relationship they were in, or the treacherous way their pastor dealt with them, or God’s failure to live up to their childhood expectations. Often they have very deep wounds. And often those wounds are caused by us believers. Not a few atheists are what they are because a Christian has behaved very badly.  Zola himself may be an example of this.  He was one of the few defenders of a Jewish officer named Dreyfus, who was wrongly convicted of treason and persecuted largely by French Catholics.

Indeed, atheism is a very diverse phenomenon.  Many atheists are, theologically, fundamentalists under the skin often having the most childish and literalistic notions of what Scripture says (Richard Dawkins is an especially egregious example here). Some atheists are simply confirmed in cold hard pride. Some are honest people who just can’t, for the life of them, see what theists are talking about when they speak of their belief in and experience of the supernatural. And that just scratches the surface of the various causes of atheism.

So it’s important to have a handle, not just on the philosophical and intellectual reasons for theism, but also on this pastoral dimension as well. Very often, when somebody says, “I don’t believe in God” they mean, “I am very angry at someone who hurt me.” If that’s the case with your loved one, then the pain beneath the atheistic temptation is the main thing that needs to be addressed.


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