Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

Order 'Evolution for the Catholic Student' - Click on the image above

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Mystery of Atheism

The Mystery of Atheism

I have worked with young people for many years in Catholic settings.  The biggest tragedy for me is when I hear that one of them has, somewhere down the line, decided that he or she is an atheist.  I have become very conscious of that and often try to subtly plant the answer to atheist arguments years before my students are ever likely to face them.  (Of course, the strongest argument against atheism is a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Regardless of the arguments presented, no one could convince me that my mother does not exist.  I personally know her.)

With atheism seemingly all the rage these days, it has had me wondering what causes people to embrace it.  There are many factors, and some could argue it is “in vogue,” as once eugenics, racism and disco have been.  But clearly there’s more to it than just that.  Atheism is a response to the most basic of human questions, and it is a tragic one.  What leads people there?

It seems to me there are three main categories of reasons people become atheists.  Bear in mind I am not a professional sociologist, theologian, or expert on this issue in any sense of the word.  However, perhaps there is something worthwhile in my musings.

The first category contains the intellectual atheist.  This person has intellectual arguments against the existence of God.  Very often he has come across some “science” that he feels disproves an important aspect of the Christian faith as he understands it.  Therefore, he believes, atheism is true.

This is, in my opinion, the easiest type of atheism to “cure,” because all it requires is education.  The evidence (scientific, historical, philosophical, etc.) all points clearly to the existence of God.  Very often this type of atheist has become a disciple of evolutionism.  Forgetting for a moment the weaknesses in the theory of evolution, the Church has allowed that it can be compatible with Christian faith, and it certainly does nothing to suggest simply that a transcendent Creator does not exist.

Of course, I think the purely intellectual atheist is very rare.  If someone’s lack of Faith is based solely on intellectual grounds, he’s much more likely to be an agnostic.  If he doesn’t think the evidences for the existence of God are impressive, he certainly can’t be impressed by the evidences for atheism, since there essentially are none.  The best atheism generally does is debate the motives of credibility for Faith; it rarely produces positive arguments for itself.

The second type of atheist is the emotional atheist.  I think this is actually the most common.  This is a person who has experienced an intense suffering, or is just very sensitive to the suffering of others, and can not reconcile that to the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God.

There are certainly many answers to this objection, and much has been written about suffering from a Christian perspective (see On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering).  But I think the first thing we need to do is show this person compassion.  Can he or she see in us the Face of the God who not only suffers with us, but suffered for us?  If we can somehow bring Christ’s peace and love to these people, perhaps their hearts will open to the answers to their questions about suffering, and to a relationship with the One who can heal them.

Finally, there are those who are atheists for moral reasons.  Living in a culture that promotes anti-Christian values, many people find themselves attached to or habituated with behaviors that they know are inconsistent with belief in an all-holy God.  The response often is to build their belief system around their behaviors, rather than the other way around.  We have all been guilty of this to a point.  It’s called rationalization, and when taken to the extreme of atheism, can sometimes lead to very angry people, and the accusation that “people of Faith are all judgmental and hypocrites, so why would I want to be one of them anyway?”

Unfortunately I haven’t found the answers to all these problems.  Trent Horn has done his best to present them, though, in his new book Answering Atheism, which I intend to review next week.  My point in this article is that if we are close to someone who has identified him or herself as an atheist, the first thing we may need to do is find out what is at the root of that atheism, as our approach may vary depending on what it is.

Of course, one thing that shouldn’t vary is our witness of a Christian life that is authentic, loving and joyful.  It is hard for anyone to argue forever with that.

Note: If an atheist should stumble across this post who can not see himself as falling in any of the three categories I mentioned, please email me at, as I would be very interested.  Please note if you would prefer I not publish what you write.