“If God exists, why did He make us all different? Why didn’t He make us all one colour, one religion? Then we wouldn’t keep fighting each other. There’s been wars ever since the world began. Why would God allow that?”
These questions were directed to me by an avowed atheist whom I’ll call “Jack,” an elderly person who sometimes brings up the topic of religion. On this particular day, he also pointed out the hypocrisy of rabbis, priests, ministers—anyone in a role of religious leadership—who say one thing to their congregations but do another thing in their personal lives. Many things he has seen in his long life have convinced him that all religions are “garbage.”
Jack fought in WWII and has had many struggles; but beneath a mind that remains closed to God, there beats an honest, decent heart. I sense that it’s a restless heart.
Talking to people like him has convinced me that even a person who steadfastly denies God’s existence continues to look for answers. The soul, which is made to know, love, and serve God, struggles to find its way and at crucial times in life, the search intensifies. I’ve seen it in the elderly who turn to the likes of Christopher Hitchens to validate their atheism; in the terminally ill, Catholic or not, who pray the Rosary; in people who read the Bible when faced with overwhelming challenges; and in the wealthy who seem to be trying to buy their way into Heaven just in case it really does exist.
As I listened to Jack, I said a silent prayer to the Holy Spirit to help me out because, quite frankly, I didn’t know how to answer him. I sensed that his questions weren’t aimed at me so much as as to some higher power, something or someone who could clarify doubts that have been present for a long time.
In my response to him, I talked about free will and how God, in His wisdom and great love for us doesn’t want to force us to love Him back. I explained how He allows us to choose whether or not to love Him. Jack nodded and agreed that my answer made sense. I went on to say that even for a non-believer there exists the desire to be decent, caring and to do the right thing. God has hard-wired us to seek out what is good and true and beautiful. I gave the example of the two of us, an atheist and a Catholic who can discuss religion in a calm, adult manner and who respect and genuinely like each other.
It seems to me that my conversation with Jack is one of those times when preaching the Gospel has to do more with actions than with words. True, I did talk about religion but I wonder if the way I delivered the message, my approach and openness, was at least as important as the words spoken. After all, at over ninety years of age, I’m certain that what I actually said isn’t new. He’s heard it all before.
For Christians, there’s an important lesson in this incident. Jack has seen how people who claim to believe in God only pay lip service to Him. He’s not alone in this. Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Our behaviour towards each other is how people like Jack judge Christianity. We not only hurt our Lord when our actions contradict our words, we hurt Jack and we will be judged on that.
I may never know, not in this life anyway, if Jack’s heart was opened, but I know mine was. Our discussion reminded me that if I don’t live what I profess, then all my efforts to participate in the New Evangelization will be dishonest. If my life isn’t grounded in unceasing prayer and the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, my actions as a supposed Catholic Christian will not be attractive to non-believers. “We pray as we live because we live as we pray” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2725).
I keep Jack in my prayers and I hope that God gives us the opportunity to continue our discussion. In hindsight, there were many more things I could have said, that I probably should have said. However, I’m just going to have to trust that my answers were inspired by the Holy Spirit and that what I said and how I acted was enough at the time. I’m confident in the hope that whatever I lack will be made up by the grace of God.