“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (Jean Paul Sartre).
(The Crowning of Napoleon: The Self-Made Man)
Atheism is trending, and I’d like to propose a few reasons why (with accompanying pictures and responses):
1. People are tired of “religion” telling them what to do.
(Paris’ Palace of Justice: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity)
Liberte! Freedom! We Americans, especially, appreciate the alignment of freedom of choice with independence from authority. As the King of England restricted the rights of the colonists of the New World, the Pope of Rome treads on the liberated consciences of the citizens of the New Age, right? Right…well…sort of… If you define freedom as “the ability to do whatever you please,” then surely atheism of the existentialist sort is perfect for you. However, if you define freedom as “the ability to do what is good,” then a certain difficulty arises in atheism. What, exactly, is good? Sure, we may all agree that it is “good” to be “good,” but this agreement has no practical effect if we cannot agree about what actually is good. If we want to work for the common good, then doesn’t there have to be something common, something objective, towards which to strive? Therefore, instead of criticizing the Pope for being a moral dictator, it is helpful to ask two deeper questions:
i. Does the Pope actually teach what is good?
ii. Does the Pope have the authority to teach what is good?
The first question is important because it gets at the issue of freedom and goodness. If, for example, the Pope does teach what is good, then his teaching would not be a hindrance to freedom but rather a catalyst for freedom. The second is crucial because it touches upon Jesus Christ Himself. We Catholics don’t blindly follow the Pope–at least not ideally; rather, we follow him because we believe that Jesus wants us to follow him. Jesus gave the Pope the power to teach correctly (Matthew 16). If Jesus is really God, then we might do best to listen. You see, then, that, from the Catholic perspective, the Pope enhances freedom instead of hindering it. There is much more to be said on this topic, but we have a good start here.
2. We have largely accepted the idea that you don’t need to have faith in order to be a good person.
(The Tomb of Voltaire)
You will notice that Voltaire is dead. Why did this ardent atheist make a deathbed confession in order to become a Catholic? Death! Of course an atheist can do good things! But doing good things alone does not lead to eternal life, which is what we really want. The band Queen asked the famous question, “Who wants to live forever anyway?” I do! Hopefully, you do, too. If, in fact, Jesus is God, then we should take His words seriously: “Whoever believes in me will live forever” (John 3).
3. People are saying, “Jesus was not God; he was simply a good moral teacher (or maybe a bad moral teacher).”
(The Sacred Heart Basilica of Paris)
We’ve arrived at the heart of the matter: atheism comes from a lack of faith in the divinity of Jesus. You might say, “If Jesus were God, then, yes, I would follow Him and His Church, but he was not, so I don’t.” I’d like to propose three main points as ways of attacking this predicament. These points are not answers; they are pointers towards the answers that I’ve found helpful.
i. Studying the Bible: The four gospels (accounts of Jesus’ life) claim to be historical, not mythical. St. Luke begins his biography by writing, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Perhaps Luke was straight up lying; however, there are non-Christian sources which reveal that Jesus’ disciples were willing to die for the factuality of what is written in these accounts. Some people were so sure of Jesus’ rising from the dead that they suffered great persecution for it; at least for historical interest, we might seek out why for ourselves by reading the primary source documents.
ii. Praying for Faith: We want there to be eternal life. The possibility of Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope that we might truly live forever. If God wants us to believe in Jesus, then He should answer our prayer for faith. If we are on the fence about the evidence, then prayer cannot hurt. Catholics affirm that faith in Christ (when all is said and done) is a gift. We can be 99% sure that Jesus was God based on the historical data, but only faith propels us to full confidence.
iii. Talking with Real People: The Internet is full of clever phrases for God and against Him. However, live conversations with real people help to keep us honest. It is easy for Christians to look at only Christian websites. It is easy for atheists to look at only atheistic websites. What if we made an effort to dialogue? Here is one virtual location for such conversation: http://www.strangenotions.com/ . Still, there is no substitute for a good heart-to-heart.
May God give us to grace to free ourselves to pursue what is truly good.
David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.