Belief and Unbelief, Part II of III

Writers who call themselves atheists have often surprised me by their reasons for not believing in God. In the long history of humanity, of course, their unbelief is an anomaly, a distinctly minority position. Even Clarence Darrow once said that he certainly did not believe in the Jewish or Christian God, but any damn fool knows there is a force and an intelligence that has shaped the universe we live in. But a few others, oddly, do not even believe that much. I remember once reading a book about atheism by an atheist, who after considerable study of the situation in the United States wrote that (I forget the exact number) something like 70 percent of those who call themselves atheists do actually believe in a force or energy or ordering intelligence within the natural order. If that is what “God” is, they believe in God. They say “atheist,” it seems, to distinguish themselves from being Christians or Jews. For a similar reason, some call themselves “naturalists,” as if Christianity and Judaism mean “supernaturalist.”

One reason I have often encountered for not believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus runs like this: As long as there is even one orphaned child, who uncomprehendingly sobs alone in the dark, I will not accept a God who permits such a world to exist. I refuse.

Another reason I have heard is this: Any God who would throw human beings into unmitigated torture in hell for all eternity, just because of a minor infraction of some silly taboo, is a being to despise, not to accept.

Doubtless there are other reasons besides these two. A full inventory would make a marvelous anthropological study. Yet, the tribe of atheists worldwide is, after all, a small one. Check out the estimates for the religious beliefs of humankind published in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite the efforts of communist Russia and China to coerce people into atheism, the number and the proportion of atheists are still impressively small. To return to the two reasons for unbelief given above: The first is a rather odd one. The inquirer assumes a position of moral superiority to God, as a person more intelligent, more pure, more noble, more compassionate. It suggests that the inquirer cares more about the child sobbing in the dark than that child’s Creator and Father does. That would certainly be odd.

The second objection, concerning hell, evinces a most primitive notion of hell, and also of what constitutes a sin. A sin, writes St. Thomas Aquinas, is an “aversio a Deo,” a turning away from God, a turning away from Light, a deliberate and fully considered turning away from the light, however dim, of one’s own conscience.

From this it follows that hell is the utter absence of God, made fully conscious to the unfortunate one who with full deliberation excluded God from his life. In his lifetime only dimly aware of the vastness of God’s love for and friendship toward humans, such a person recognizes too late that it is only by his own personal choice that he forever cut himself off from the presence of the Divine Lover. It was pride that led to his total isolation, cold and dark. Pride that led to a fully considered and deliberate choice to live as though there is no God.

No one can complain about being in hell. Hell cannot be entered inadvertently but must be deliberately chosen. The choice that constitutes it is to exclude deliberately the God of Love from one’s own heart. It is to push away the extended arms of the divine friendship.

Some choices, like diamonds, are forever.

In a word, if the rest of us had the same notion of God as such atheists seem to have, if their words are to be trusted (and are not simply rationalizations), we would reject God, too. That is, if God had less compassion than we for those he has created. And if God out of pettiness chose hell for some, rather than giving all a personal choice to accept or to reject his eternal presence in their lives.

Intelligent people, one would think, would spend a little more time in inquiry before squeezing tight to such primitive notions. The real scandal is that atheists appear to think so shallowly about God. But the worse scandal is that believers do not inspire in atheists much desire to inquire more deeply.

Still, for curious minds, let me propose a path to investigate. One might, for example, take Christians at their word; check out the First Epistle of St. John, for instance. There St. John writes that no one sees God. How do we know, then, that we love God? Certainly not just by uttering the words. “No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us” (I John 4:12).

And again: “A man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen” (4:20). St. John has much more to say in this epistle. But questioning this much is a good first step.

Not even a fully believing Christian, an Evangelist, then, can claim to see God. The Christian is in as much darkness, really, as the atheist. So the atheist uses Ockham’s razor and cuts away the excess babbling about what cannot be seen, and just sticks to the darkness. The believer is not surprised by the darkness but interprets it very differently.

Granted that we all live in darkness, even the atheist must decide how he should live. Many in our generation claim that they are every bit as moral as the Christians they know, and maybe even more thoughtful about the needs of others and more compassionate.

In that case, maybe they should go back to another line in St. John’s first epistle, near the end of the New Testament: “God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him” (4:16).

So many of the atheists of our generation do in fact live (at least in many respects) as though they were devout Christians or Jews. What do they lack but churches or synagogues, to distinguish themselves, so far as praxis goes, from being Christians or Jews?

That was the question Albert Camus put after watching the secular saints of his generation sacrifice themselves under conditions of war. That was the paradigm he sketched in the life of the heroic Dr. Rieux in The Plague.

If you listen to their words, they are atheists. But if you watch how they actually live, they are Christians or Jews.

Recognizing this paradox in his own conduct, Jean-Paul Sartre committed himself to scrupulous efforts to live as a true atheist. He tried his best not to draw upon Jewish or Christian capital. He tried to eliminate every trace of Christian or Jewish faith from his practice, even from his thoughts. This task, he wrote, took full-time concentration. Even he, Jean-Paul Sartre, when not on guard, on a truly fresh May morning in Paris, in the brilliant and fragrant air, was tempted to utter a silent “Thank God.” Or in a time of acute danger, to cry out for help. Each time, he had to stop himself.

It is not easy to live as an atheist all the way through.

Published in First Things Online August 9, 2006