Tuesday, November 30, 2004

on the meaning of atheism

A couple of years ago, a well-known author noticed a spate of books published during the past few years with titles and themes such as: "Women who run with Wolves," "Iron John," "A Blue Fire," "The Wildman's Journey." He observed that these books seem to make the same point that many of the ancient religions and philosophies have known all along--that deep within the recesses of human nature is a wild fire. And we want to be taken over by that fire and to be possessed by it because herein resides our real energy, our creativity, and our longing to transcend.

These writers would say that we catch a glimpse of this spark in the everyday. People who exhibit qualities such as bravery, altruism, wisdom are said to have tapped into this energy. They have moved beyond themselves into something greater. Another example is romantic love where the same desire to go beyond ourselves is met in our delight in the beloved.

And in other aspects of life we can recognize hints of this spark--in our desire for lasting peace, in art, in our desire to leave our mark in history. In our prayer and worship, some religions would say, this flame burns the brightest. This fire is spiritual and propels a person to search for what is ultimately good, perfect, and beautiful, and for life's meaning.

Where does this attribute in human nature come from? Some today would theorize that this is an extrusion from evolution. It may be overstepping the competence of physical science to explain through evolution an inquiry that more fittingly belongs to philosophy and metaphysics. Any attempt to explain this through evolution should address the philosophical and metaphysical axiom that nothing in the material realm can bring about something that is ethereal. Just as only that which is alive can beget another living being, so only that which is spiritual can engender something of the spirit. According to Plato, "We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine."

The Church will have little to disagree with Plato's words. But she would fine tune them by using words from Genesis. The Bible tells us that humans were created in the "image" and "likeness" of God: the imago Dei. Also, Scripture tells us that God is like fire--sacred, indestructible, wild (note the burning bush and the tongues of fire). To be created in the imago Dei is to have this wild light in us, which explains the inherent human capacity to be inclined to the transcendent.

Moreover, as beings created in the imago Dei, we are called to enter into relationship and communion with others. And we are also uniquely called to enter into an intimate and covenantal relationship with God. God longs to be in intimate fellowship with every person, and conversely it is in this fellowship that individuals find the answer to their deepest longing, the meaning of life, and peace. This is what St. Augustine (d. 430) one of the Church's greatest theologians meant when he wrote: "The thought of You stirs [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises You, because You made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

Atheism negates this intimate bond between God and humans. This negation is articulated in the various forms of atheism which the Second Vatican Council identifies in one its documents entitled Gaudium et Spes (the following quotes are from this document).

The council names "practical materialism" as one common form which, in addition to denying the existence of God, restricts the aspirations of humans to space and time. Trespassing beyond the boundaries and competence of science, those who espouse this type of atheism contend that "everything can be explained by the reasoning process used in [the] sciences."

This position can be addressed by saying that to eliminate possibilities outside the empirical is to limit ourselves intellectually to nothing more than the reality we perceive. To embrace this outlook requires too much reliance in a logic defined in our particular time and space. Believers in God require a more expansive mindset, whereas the outlook of an atheist can be as limiting as the outlook of a Biblical fundamentalist.

Another form is "atheistic humanism" which considers humans as the end to themselves, the "sole maker, with supreme control, of [their] own destiny." This kind of outlook "cannot be reconciled with the assertion of a Lord who is author and end of all things." The sense of power fueled by present-day technological progress encourages this type of outlook. Moreover, those who hold this view acquire an exaggerated idea of humans that "causes their faith to languish; they are more prone, it would seem, to affirm man than to deny God."

The Church responds to this by saying that "To acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God." Rather, the Church "knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart since it champions the dignity of man's calling."

A third form is one which "looks for man's autonomy through his economic and social emancipation." Religion "thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth." With Communism in mind, the fathers of the council add that "those who hold such views, wherever they gain control of the state, violently attack religion." To this the Church responds by reiterating "that hope in a life to come does not take away from the importance of the duties of this life on earth but rather adds to it by giving new motives for fulfilling those duties."

What causes some individuals to make these atheistic assertions? In order to fully address an atheist's views, a thorough knowledge of its causes in the person is necessary. The Church names various causes. First, "Not infrequently atheism is born from a violent protest against the evil in the world, or from the fact that certain human ideals are wrongfully taken for God." Writing some 20 years after the Second World War, the conciliar fathers were aware how the devastation from that war as well as from the First World War shook the faith of many. Giving up on the notion of God, some have then invested their hopes on human effort alone.

Another cause is the failure of some of the members of the Church. This is where the Church reserves her harshest criticism. Some believers have caused the atheism in others: "To the extent that [believers] are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion." Called to be mirrors of God to others, Christians, when they fail in their baptismal calling, cast doubt on the credibility of their faith and thereby harm the nascent faith in others.
The misdeeds and misrepresentation by believers actually spawn another cause of atheism: an erroneous image of God and the Church. When the idea of God and the Church is rejected, it is a false conception that is actually being denied: "when [non-believers] disown this product of the imagination their denial has no reference to the God of the Gospels."

The implication of these words from the council is that even within an atheist is "belief" in God, because in the inner recesses of every person's heart resides a true and indestructible image of what is ultimately just, good, and perfect. When a false notion of God is presented to them, this false concept is the one discarded, yet the true inner conception of God remains within them. Therefore, any theological reflection on the hope of salvation for non-believers (an important topic which could be the subject of another tract) should take this into account. Culpability does not entirely rest on them.

However some responsibility is rightly theirs. "Without doubt those who willfully try to drive God from their heart and to avoid all questions about religion, not following the biddings of their conscience, are not free from blame," the council says. This is why the council has declared atheism to be "one of the most serious problems of our time." It is serious not necessarily because God is denied, as if God needs human recognition. Rather, it is serious because what is natural in the heart of a person--this bidding, this innate orientation to the Light--is being put to death. It is as if a vine that has been growing out in the field is suddenly transplanted indoors away from sunlight and is expected to thrive. It will not. The result is etiolation.

Ironically, a person who denies that the divine exists or that there is any meaning to life betrays the fact that he has some sort of "belief" after all, because deep down--in the level of the soul--is that abiding and indestructible fire. Otherwise, he wouldn't have had the wherewithal to make the negation. C.S. Lewis who was a staunch atheist before his conversion to Christianity said it best: "Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning."

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