The Dilemmas of Atheism

“When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

The following random reflections on atheism address what many think has become the central issue of our day: the radical decline of faith throughout the world dramatically announced by the philosopher Nietzsche at the dawn of the twentieth century, when he said, God is dead, and we have killed him. Atheism needs to be answered with a challenge to explain and justify itself, just as atheism demands of religion that it should explain and justify itself. Blessed John Henry Newman said we could no more talk a person into religion than we could torture him into it. Granted, but talk surely has a useful purpose. Talk gets the mind honed and focused on the search for truths hidden in that most secret of places, the human heart. Moreover, for some people talk helps to clear away the debris of objections and prejudices built up against religion over a lifetime. And then we have the urging of the apostle in I Peter 3:15. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. As a corollary, should the atheist also be ready to give a reason for his lack of hope? And despair it surely must be to argue that we will never get out of this life alive.


Atheism is not indifference. It is more often a fiery dislike for the very idea of God. This is why the atheist is more movable toward God than the cold and indifferent agnostic, in the sense that fire is more movable than ice. The empty spaces of atheism are full of fire. Jacques Maritain put it succinctly: atheism calls for the death of religion, but is itself fiercely religious.


Atheists might seek to confuse the issue by asking: “How do you know which god to worship?” A reasonable answer would be: “I choose to worship the only God who matters, who came to earth and loved me enough to die for my sins. Is there any other god known in history so worthy of love and adoration?”


We are not surprised to hear of a dying atheist who calls for a priest. We never hear of a dying Christian who calls for an atheist. Faith is the heart’s command.


Believers are sometimes tempted to suspect that God might, after all, not exist. There is a comparable suspicion among atheists that God may, after all, be hiding in the shadows. God tempts all of us with doubts, or we might cease to search for the Light that shines, even dimly, in the heart of darkness.


As Chesterton remarked, should religion disappear, so would atheism, for it would have no flesh to feed upon. Any triumph of atheism is prelude to the death of atheism, because Christ forever rises from the dead to confound those who forever seek to kill him.


What might truly horrify the atheist is the prospect of someday deciding that he was wrong all along. This hidden horror will not go away, and daily reminds him, in the absence of any other hero he could worship, to fall prostrate before the altar of his own Ego.


The atheist astronomer Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos (1980) described the process by which the Big Bang was supposed to have started the universe billions of years ago. According to Sagan, during the early era, out of primordial darkness there was an explosion of light that flooded the universe long before the stars and their planets could be created. So it should be something of a puzzle to astronomers that in the book of Genesis, written over three thousand years ago, a prophet should have written that God’s first command for creation was, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). That light is described as being created before the creation of the stars, which give us our present light. Considering the primitive state of science in the days of the prophet, “Let there be light” was an amazing shot in the dark.


Yes, it is true that religious leaders have done wicked things in the past. But it is in the frailty of human nature, not in religion, that we find the cause of wicked actions. We do not blame medicine for the quack doctors who use it to kill their patients. We do not blame the law for the wickedness of politicians who use it to plunder citizens or to destroy their rivals. Nor should we blame religion for the corruption of our bishops and our priests.


Dostoevsky: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”

Nietzsche: “God is dead.”

Hitler: “Everything is permitted.”


A paramount weakness in any case to be mounted for atheism is that it cannot prove how much better the world would be without religion since, so far as we know, the world has never been without religion. We need only consider the quality of life in those countries where religion is barely tolerated, such as in North Korea and China, to conclude that a world with authentic religion has a more likely chance of being a better place to live in than a world without it.


The atheist says the believer is like a child who wills God into existence because he cannot abide the thought of death and eternal darkness. The theist says the skeptic wills God out of existence because he cannot abide the thought of a higher law interfering with his personal freedoms. These arguments tend to cancel each other out. God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on whether we wish or do not wish God to exist. Rather, religion depends on our authentic ability to open up to the presence of God in our lives. As Alice von Hildebrand so briefly put it, “Is God dead, or is man deaf?”


When God is made to go away, there is a tendency for us to regard each other as mere animals. Accordingly, some of us think of others as beasts of burden, or animals to ride as we dig our spurs into them. Any worldview that takes man’s divinity out of him consigns him to a hellish existence, or to no existence at all when he is judged no longer to serve his merely animal purpose.


Voltaire said that God was invented to explain an otherwise unexplained universe. But we could take the more interesting view: that the universe was invented by God to explain his otherwise unexplainable Self.


Atheists struggle to find moral authority amid the chaos of conflicting wills. They assure us that moral relativism will be sufficient for a well-ordered society because bad conduct will be tempered by the tradition of shared values. Alas, even a mob, and in particular the well-ordered mob called organized crime, is based on shared values. There must be a higher law than the Law of Shared Values we can invoke to combat evil, and it must be the law of the Father we call God rather than the law of the Godfather.


There is no greater authority on atheism than the atheist who has gone to rot. I refer to the atheist convert to religion who has discerned every motive for choosing atheism and has overcome them all.


Some in the scientific community still like to remember the case of Galileo and fear the Church as a potential threat to their intellectual freedom. But a more recent Inquisition, in fact, was authorized by the atheist Stalin. Soviet scientists were ordered to be card-carrying atheists, and we are hard-pressed to find a single scientist who raised his voice in protest.


Atheists strive for a way to make materialism and determinism into something positive. Much ink is spent arguing how preferable atheism is to a life guided by religious values. But there is no way to overcome that starkest and darkest of facts: the absence of hope that the atheist will get out of this life alive. However positive and hopeful the atheist may claim his life to be, he knows he is defeated in the end. Since the honest atheist is conscious deep down of his everlastingly hopeless condition, sooner or later he stops sugarcoating the sour milk of unbelief.


It does no good to bring against religion the charge that it contains more sugar than milk. True religion, as opposed to the make-believe sort, nourishes not only because it offers hope, but also because it requires the strenuous exercise of our spiritual muscles, without which body and soul are destined to entropy and death.


According to the atheist Arthur Schopenhauer, “Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think. ” Why could he not have gone on to say: “Atheism is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they should not think?”


Old wisdom says the wish is father to the deed. Modern science and technology operate on this principle. Wish for something to be possible, such as new and better kinds of transportation or cures for deadly diseases, then by hard work these things are found in the laboratories of science. But there is no finding without first the wish and the search. Likewise, how does the atheist find God and everlasting life if he does not go into the soul’s laboratory to wish and to search?


Must we understand how God exists in order to have faith in God? Yet in the ancient days, twenty centuries before men discovered three particles in one atom, God revealed himself as Three Persons in One.


When the notorious 19th century atheist Robert Ingersoll declared, “To hate man and worship God seems to be the sum of all creeds,” we may justly wonder if Ingersoll ever read the Gospels or heard of Jesus Christ.


Auguste Comte considered religion an illusion of children that will end by proper growth into adulthood. But there is another point of view: atheism is the illusion of adults that will be outgrown on a proper deathbed?


When the agnostic Clarence Darrow said he did not believe in God because he did not believe in Mother Goose, he should have been challenged on the spot with the most daring of taunts: “Who then laid the cosmic egg that got scrambled into a universe?”


Atheist Chester Dolan asks when America will know it has thrown off the yoke of religion. America will know this when the Supreme Court has endorsed the slaughter of the unborn. America will know this when the Supreme Court has defended pornography on the grounds of free speech. America will know this when the Supreme Court has booted the Supreme Being out of the public square. America will know this when the Supreme Court has licensed same-sex marriage. In short, there is mounting evidence that in the corridors of power America has already thrown off the so-called yoke of religion. True religion centuries ago hid in the catacombs, fearful for its life. By the policy and practice of persecution, the enemies of Christ thought they could render him harmless to the empire. But in due time the banner of a Cross raised aloft would rescue the empire from the barbarism of a world that had centuries earlier thrown off the yoke of religion. Surely what was done once can be done again.


What distinguishes man from all the other creatures is religion. No other animal seems to have a sense of the Creator, or of a destiny beyond this life. Even the atheist has to admit this when he insists that religion is a universal delusion. But since man’s brain is a good deal more advanced than a monkey’s, this seems to be an argument for man’s exceptional discovery of a profound truth, rather than for his being deluded about God and eternity.


Did God make the universe for us and for us alone? If so, the atheist might object, so vast a universe seems to suggest a great lack of economy. Yet what seems so much larger than we are in another sense might seem smaller. As Pascal asked: which is larger … a vast universe that cannot think, or the soul who can think of Something larger than the universe?


Unbelievers scoff at the idea of a God who requires praise. Yet the case can be made that God does not require praise for his sake, but for ours. How else are we to signal how dear God is to us? This is just as true on the human level. A man and a woman never really learn to know and love each other until they have found a reason to praise each other. In some cases, the praise is a long time coming.


The lies we tell ourselves are sometimes a hundred times more dangerous than the lies we are told or that we tell others. The template for this truth is in the case of Adam and Eve. It was not the Serpent’s lie that brought about the Fall. It was our first parents’ lie to themselves; they told themselves the lie that the Serpent was telling the truth and God was not. The unbeliever has a comparable dilemma: how does he know he has not lied to himself when he tells himself there is no God?


Now here is a great thought experiment for the unbeliever. Ask him to imagine that the whole world is atheist and that religion never existed. How would the conscience of anyone be formed? Who would have the final say on right and wrong? Would it be the person with the biggest club?


The unbeliever never seems to fathom this crucial point: if virtually all around him are unbelievers and agree on doing evil, he cannot brandish the laws of God as a brake on doing evil. He can object, if he dares, but his objection will likely go unheard; and if he persists, he may face the fate of all true martyrs. Finally, he will have to explain to himself the source of that Voice within him that tells him to object.


Since the time of Charles Darwin, and especially in our day, there has grown up an alarming suspicion among thinking people that if you tell children they are mere animals, they will not disappoint you.


Mark Twain pronounced that men are kinder when they are not excited by religion.

It’s true that religion excites its advocates, but true religion excites them to be kind as they can be. False religion may well excite them to cruelty. Interestingly, it is irreligion that specifically does not excite kindness and produces no formal and binding injunction against cruelty.


The only way we can know God is by opening our eyes to the sight of Him, however clouded our vision may be. The horse that wears blinders sees only what the rider wants him to see. When we do not see God, we have got to figure out why the rider inside us wants us to wear blinders.


Man is the only creature who mourns his own death because he is the only creature who can imagine and fear eternal nothingness. The atheist Meursault, in Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, mourns his coming execution for the homicide he has committed, then flatly rejects a priest’s counsel and consoles himself by submitting to the “benign indifference of the universe.” Yet Camus abruptly halts Meursault’s interior monologue and we are never allowed to know why indifference should be called benign, or why benign indifference should produce a creature who mourns – when it would more likely produce a creature who would rather hope than mourn, especially if that indifference is truly benign.


Anyone who wishes to know why people among the educated class become atheists should read the great sermon on that subject by Blessed John Henry Newman, “The Self-Wise Inquirer,” published in his Parochial and Plain Sermons. Among the insights found there is the following: “In proportion as we lean to our own understanding, we are driven to do so for want of a better guide. Our first true guide, the light of innocence, is gradually withdrawn from us; and nothing is left for us but to ‘grope and stumble in the desolate places,’ by the dim, uncertain light of reason. Thus we are taken in our own craftiness.”


Any survey of biographies of famous atheists will tend to show that many of them abandoned religion in their teen years. Locked into that self-trained mindset at so immature an age, it is a marvel of grace that one might in later years acquire the sense of awe and desire desperately needed to know God up close and personal.


Voltaire, an infamous enemy of the Church, makes surprising remarks in his essay “On Atheism.” He says: “The atheists are for the most part impudent and misguided scholars who reason badly, and who not being able to understand the creation, the origin of evil, and other difficulties, have recourse to the hypothesis of the eternity of things and of inevitability….That was how things went with the Roman Senate which was almost entirely composed of atheists in theory and in practice, that is to say, who believed in neither a Providence nor a future life; this senate was an assembly of philosophers, of sensualists and ambitious men, all very dangerous men, who ruined the republic.”


In India, traditionally a religious culture, atheism today has emerged to compete with the local religions. Atheist Centers promoting positive atheism provide charitable works of mercy for the hungry and the poor with, as someone has suggested, the selfless instincts of a Mother Teresa. It is precisely this kind of atheism that is doomed to a short life because it takes its cue from the Sermon on the Mount. They are two thirds of the way to Christ who find themselves spreading hope and charity among the poor, and who now must await the first quiet stirrings of faith.


A curious thing, is it not, that some atheists may admit to the profoundly moving experience they may have in a Christian church on Christmas Eve or Easter morning? The stated calls to worship at every other day of the year a skeptic might easily ignore, but celebrations of the birth and death and resurrection of Hope could sometimes be a joyful clarion call even to him.


Some say the Christian religion is more like wishful thinking than anything else. It is difficult for such persons to make a convincing case, as hardly anyone wishes for the devil and hell to exist.


The atheist writer Andre Malraux said that Christianity is irrevocably finished, and that people should stop wasting their lives trying to resurrect it. But he offered no saving purpose for life with the loss of Christianity. Billions of Christians still live and refuse to comply with the wish of Malraux. Perhaps the best answer to his wish is St. Augustine’s insight: “He who denies the existence of God has some reason for wishing that God did not exist.”


The atheist writer Albert Camus said that lack of faith is prelude to considering the question of whether suicide is justifiable. Whether or not suicide is justifiable, it is a fact that world wide the percentage of suicides is greater in dominantly non-Christian countries than in dominantly Christian countries. The nexus between atheism and suicide needs to be studied in depth. If suicide is in essence the loss of all hope in a supremely generous Helping Hand, isn’t that very closely the definition of atheism?


Ignace Lepp has suggested that atheism tends to produce a meaningless life. Certainly not all atheists agree, and will point to many causes worth dedicating one’s life to. The point remains; finding a cause one may dedicate oneself to may keep one busy, but does not of necessity make life meaningful. Many atheists will not find the noble cause that renders a noble life, and will concede the tragic necessity of ultimate defeat at the hour of death. Many others will not find a noble cause, or, thinking they have found it, will not have the vigor and discipline and intelligence to be fulfilled in serving such a cause. In the absence of a noble cause, life still offers a person many consolations, much as the fat man who cannot find a way to trim his girth will not be stopped from finding a noble box of chocolates by which to increase it. Hedonism (obsessive pleasure seeking, which is hardly noble) has many root causes, not least of which is being distracted from the pursuit of a noble reason for living, or even for dying. It is difficult to imagine how a universe that is said to have no Creator can be said to give rise to a noble race of creatures. Surely the skeptic does not think of dinosaurs or whales or mice as noble creatures. They, along with mankind, are regarded merely as equal opportunity survivors in the history of life on the planet. Man may be at the top of the food chain, but that does not make him noble, they say. And if in the atheist’s view he is not particularly noble, why should his life be meaningful? In the Christian view human life can be noble, or it can be degenerate. Again, the skeptic needs to show how his philosophy can contribute to a noble race of men. In other words, what mandate in atheism makes men want to be better (or more noble) than they are?


Since atheism denies the Absolute, it veers inevitably toward moral relativism. Good and evil, if such are even conceded to exist, are determined by the individual at any given moment in any given situation. In Berlin the unemployed were recently warned that if they refused to work at a brothel, they could be denied unemployment benefits. Here we see the logical consequence of a dogmatic relativism … the stupid tyranny of evil.


The habitual skeptic denies the certainty of everything. But “doubt everything” must sooner or later doubt itself. The doubter cannot logically resist this certainty of self doubting. So the doubter has painted himself into a corner. If one thing is certain, why not two? Or three? The door opened a crack can then be pushed all the way open to let God in.


Atheists freely admit that they cannot know why the universe exists. It just exists. This can be a fatal admission. If it is reasonable for an inscrutable universe to exist, why can it not be reasonable for an inscrutable God to exist?


There is no getting around it: whoever does not pray, despite evidence of great intellectual depth, is still in the shallows of life.


Atheists ask how their hearts can acquire faith when their heads are so adamantly set against doing so. This question was asked of the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins. He replied with only two words: “Give alms.” In other words, let the heart assume command over the head, because it will search for and find God everywhere … perhaps most often among the persecuted, the imprisoned, the hungry, and the poor.


G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man speaks of how atheism transformed the ancient world, of how the ancient Romans had a sinking feeling, as the great days of paganism began to wane, that their notion of deity had somehow failed them, for they began to mock their gods and even began to doubt their existence. They did this until one by one “the motley mob of gods and goddesses sank suddenly out of sight and the Sky-Father was alone in the sky.” Atheism in the modern world has had its own “motley mob of gods,” from Karl Marx to Bertrand Russell to Ayn Rand. They too can be counted on to sink suddenly out of sight when the prophesied Sky-Father in the last days descends upon us, robed in the splendor of his Truth and his Love.
















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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics