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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Atheism, Blessing without a Source?


My priest friend Msgr. Pope has an interesting blog article in response to Susan Jacoby’s New York Times article, “The Blessings of Atheism.”

I would urge people to read Msgr. Charles Pope’s critique on the Archdiocesan Blog.

I was “taken aback” by the very notion of atheistic blessings, since I have always envisioned it as the path to despair and senselessness. The catalyst for her article was the murder of the Newtown children and teachers. She tells us that she is sick of all the God-talk and that some must believe, as she does, that this is the only life we will ever know. An associate of hers contended that this is precisely the limitation of non-belief or rather false-belief. I would concur with the criticism, because nothing then remains of hope.  (It may be argued that we all believe in something, even atheists; it is just that they are blind to their almighty suppositions.) What would she have us say to the grieving parents? “Sorry, your children had their lives violently stolen from them and now they are only worm food.” No, a thousand times no, if such were the case there would be no real justice. An afterlife and the existence of God are two intimately connected corollaries. Such belief, which is more rational than not, preserves both the realization of mercy and of justice. Sometimes the wicked flourish and the good suffer. There must be some opportunity to balance the scales. Christians thus look to God as the Divine Judge and the Divine Mercy. Somehow, some way, God will make it right. Otherwise, if everything we know is simply a mad cosmic accident, then it might be better had we never existed or became aware. But God does exist and he is not a monster.

Msgr. Pope is somewhat more sympathetic to atheism than I am, although he would concur that such a view fails to suffice and that Christianity offers something richer. I would add that true faith gives us something more satisfying and real. Atheists might laugh at this because they image theists as battling science and truth. They rank religious faith with fairytales and the made-up world of comic strips. They make no distinction between Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Great Pumpkin and Jesus Christ. Although, having said this, they would allow depictions and songs for all of these in public places and schools, except for Jesus. Because people take this last “myth” seriously, they would contend that it should be restricted or even wiped out. Although it can function for social benefit, religion and its charity always come with strings attached: about human dignity, the sanctity of life, sexual morality, and so much more. Atheists repudiate standards based upon biblical commandments and many are increasingly resistant to claims from natural law, which they view as a back door ploy to sneak religious values back into the picture.

Do atheists have any lessons to teach us? Yes, although maybe not as they intend. Catholicism argues for intelligent design. We would agree with atheists against certain religious fundamentalists that there can be no blind trumping of science by faith. Catholics would speak of faith seeking understanding and the complementarity of truth: theological, philosophical and scientific. Atheists can also help us to avoid a Pollyanna faith where we too easily extricate ourselves from the problem of pain and death with a “pie-in-the-sky” solution. I remember a woman who had lost her baby. A well-meaning friend tried to console her at the wake by saying, “We just have to accept it. It was God’s will.” Yes, it is true that the mysterious providence of God allows moral and natural evil. But just because he may somehow make the crooked lines straight in the end will not take away this woman’s immediate pain. Often a sympathetic presence is more needed than jargon that makes matters worse. The mother in this episode exploded in a tirade of anger and tears against God. On a similar occasion, a mourner told the child of the diseased mother during the viewing, “Doesn’t she look good? She looks more like she is sleeping than dead.” The person really did not know what to say and so she said something stupid. We live in a world more enraptured by appearances than by the truth. But death illumines such a preoccupation as the ultimate absurdity. What does it mean to look good when you are DEAD? Atheists can motivate us to be “real” in our attitude toward questions of meaning and life. Many people SAY they believe but for all PRACTICAL purposes, they live as if there is no God and judgment.

While some atheists might adopt Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness, others would contend that if this is our only life then we should make it count for something. We should leave this world better than how we found it. It is on this level that Popes going back to John XXIII have argued we should find common ground with “people of good will.” Nevertheless, this good will is often absent. Jacoby attacks religion, but where are the meeting houses where atheists weekly assemble to promote humanism and works of charity? No, instead when they congregate it is to mock religion with obscenities, throw out slurs, and deify a science that cannot ultimately save us.

There are serious pitfalls to atheism: notably that they deny God, any direction he might offer and the graces that can sustain and strengthen us. Separated from the true faith, compassion itself can become a type of tyranny. Abortion is the solution to an unwanted pregnancy. Euthanasia is the option for those in great pain or for whom life no longer satisfies. Human life and meaning itself is reduced to pragmatic utility. Relationships become transitory and morality is what we determine or legislate upon. Atheism can become just as intolerant as the religions about which it laments.

I wonder sometimes if religious people have had a hand in the emergence of atheism. In light of the world’s absurdities, have we cast real light or just fed people pablum instead of real food? Has our own hypocrisy as Christians distorted the kerygma of faith, making it unappealing for inquirers? Have we so stressed the stigma of guilt for sin that instead of seeking mercy and healing, critics would brush aside the moral categories all together? If there is no God then there is no moral law and no sin. If there is no sin, then there is no need for remorse, contrition or change.

Jacoby traced her own atheism to a friend’s drawn-out death from polio in the 1950’s. Msgr. Pope is on the mark that she did not answer but eradicated a question that did not make sense to her (why would God allow this?) But, no matter if one believes or not, it is foolishness to brush aside the existential questions.

Nothing comes from nothing, but the fact that I am asking questions is proof that there is something. What is existence and why are we here? Did someone make us? If so, where is he now? Why is there suffering and death? What is the purpose of things? Where are we going? What is evil and what is its source? Is there justice and what is it? Can we be happy and for how long? I want food and drink and I can satisfy both desires. But I also want to live and to know reunion with those who have died; why would I have this desire if its object could not be obtained? I want to know; why would I have this desire if the source of all meaning would always be denied me?

I think Jacoby fails to appreciate that the Christian solution to the problem of pain and death is not a pact answer. It is not resolved in any simple mathematical or doctrinal or philosophical formula. We find the answer in the weaving of our lives into the great story of Christ. We have in Jesus a God who is in solidarity with the mess where we find ourselves. He knows loss, betrayal, pain and death. The innocent Lamb of God suffers death so that we might have a share in his risen life. He does not take away our troubles, nor does he simply make a promise for a better tomorrow. He is with us, right now, saying, “Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me. But not my will, but thy will be done.” He is the one betrayed with a kiss, denied by his chief apostle, condemned by his people, scourged as a criminal and crucified on the dead tree of the Cross. He does not take away all our troubles, but he shares them and gives us hope. We are not alone. We are not abandoned. He is with us facing the gunman’s bullets. He is with us in the iron lung dying from polio. He is with us in the AIDs hospice. He is with us homeless on the street. He is with us facing cancer. Because of the incarnation, Christianity gives a unique religious answer to the problem of suffering and death. United to Christ, these dark mysteries are overcome by enduring them with courage and faith. We do not seek suffering and pain for their “own” sake. Such would be a moral sickness; but such is the human condition, something Christ has made his own so that we might know his divinity and life.

The rest that comes with death is freedom from mortal strife; it is not oblivion. We will be more than just fading memories in the heads of people who will also die. I wonder if atheists ever tell their loved ones, “I will love you, forever!” If so, do they mean to be liars? If the grave is the end of the story then love dies there, too. The Christian faith contends that just as love is eternal, so is life.