The Faith of Atheists
My parents’ marriage was mixed, religiously, and while neither was active in their faith, the differences were a source of conflict. Their solution: negligible church participation.
And so I received very little faith formation as a child — not enough to shield me from the inevitable agnosticism that took hold in my teen years.
Perhaps I should be grateful for this. Because, while I ultimately became Catholic, my early spiritual rootlessness gave me a sensitivity to the feelings of those for whom belief can be a challenge (or an affront).
It’s true that thoughtful individuals can conclude intellectually that there’s no God. Throughout history many have, and some still do. But I believe that comparatively few people become atheists by conviction. My experience, rather, is that people come to doubt God’s existence -- or decide outright for non-belief -- because of several factors:
• They’ve confronted some evil or tragedy so great and shocking as to contradict any understanding of God as loving, compassionate or just, and make all religious precepts seem like lies.
• They’ve experienced profound personal loss or disappointment. It might be the death of a loved one, the breakup of a family, an ongoing sense of deprivation, or the withholding of love and encouragement. Any of which can force someone into an extreme state of self-reliance that’s unhealthy and leaves them totally isolated, convinced nobody on earth or in heaven could possible care.
• They’ve had some disillusioning encounter with a church or with individuals who represent themselves as faithful and moral but behave otherwise. This can be as directly hurtful as experiencing cruelty, rejection, or abuse, or merely observing motives and attitudes that suggest hypocrisy.
• They’ve never witnessed any particular benefit of religion -- especially so in the lives of people they’ve watched go from church to church searching for fulfillment that remains elusive. It’s easy to draw the conclusion:
“Believing never did a damned bit of good for my (mother, father, fill in the blank ____ ), so why should I expect anything better?”
• They’ve discovered that they were misled about religion by people who are themselves ignorant of true Christian teaching or who mistake superstition for doctrine.
• They’ve fallen under the influence of charismatic individuals -- relatives, acquaintances, teachers -- who are emotionally committed to religious denial. These days, it’s hard to avoid such folks. College and university campuses, in particular, are aswarm with them.
• They’ve never come upon an argument for faith that’s convincing, or heard the Christian story told in a way that seems plausible to them. It’s especially defeating when Bible passages appear to contradict the evidence of science or when faith arguments rely too heavily on miracles. We live in a time when people aren’t always comfortable with the supernatural -- ghosts, auras, and astral projection, okay; Jesus rising from the dead, not so much.
There are other discouragements to faith as well. And of course, not everyone touched by some demoralizing life situation goes all the way to atheism. Many find themselves in something like the agnostic confusion I experienced.
Also, it’s common enough to just drift away from religion with no formal or overt break. In fact, people often continue to identify themselves with the church of their upbringing or even maintain some indeterminate belief in God; it’s just that faith ceases to count very much in their daily lives and moral judgments.
But confirmed (or at least acknowledged) atheism is different from mere ambiguity or equivocation. It’s not so much a matter of belief being absent, but of someone embracing an alternative philosophy that’s renounced any allegiance to the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God. From that perspective, most atheists aren’t nonbelievers at all, but rather believers in something else.
I think this is especially true of those motivated individuals who loudly proclaim their atheism to anyone who will listen and are committed to proselytizing others on behalf of what they see as intellectual, spiritual, or moral liberation. Their true religion is rejection.
In recent years we’ve been inundated with news stories about surveys purporting to show a steep decline in religion. While it’s true that church attendance and denominational loyalty have fallen, I think much of this research indicates something different from loss of faith.
For instance, in a 2012 Pew Research study, 37 percent of respondents identifying themselves as unaffiliated with any church nonetheless claimed the popular tag, “spiritual but not religious.” This is a testament to the enduring human impulse to believe -- or at least to want to believe, which is very close to the same thing.
But it’s easy to miss this reality. The Pew researchers apparently did, when they wrote...
“There is little evidence that the unaffiliated are, by and large, ‘seekers’ who are searching for a religion that fits them or that they have embraced New Age spirituality, Eastern religious ideas or other beliefs from non-Abrahamic faiths. Only about one-in-ten U.S. adults who identify their current religion as ‘nothing in particular’ say they are looking for a religious affiliation.”
The researchers (or whoever wrote the report) obviously interpreted their survey findings only in light of practices that could be identified as conventionally religious (and, given its popularity, even so-called New Age spirituality might fit that description nowadays).Yet, in the very next line they observe that...
“The unaffiliated are about as likely as others in the general public to believe in reincarnation, astrology and the evil eye. And they are only slightly more likely to believe in yoga as a spiritual practice and in spiritual energy located in physical things such as mountains, trees and crystals.”
What could be more religious than ideas like “reincarnation, astrology and the evil eye?” They reflect mystical traditions that predate Christianity. Then too -- slightly more likely to believe in yoga (whose basis is Hinduism) or in spiritual energy being located in physical things (which is Pantheism)? This all sounds like religion to me.
There may be psycho-physiological explanations for the impulse to believe. The online journal Science 2.0 recently (July 6, 2014) reported that:
“Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.
“While this idea may seem outlandish ... evidence from several disciplines indicates that what you actually believe is not a decision you make for yourself. Your fundamental beliefs are decided by much deeper levels of consciousness, and some may well be more or less set in stone ....
“This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. ‘A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,’ writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people ‘are only aware of some of their religious ideas.’”
Support for this way of thinking about religion also comes from research based on an evolutionary point of view...
“Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.”
I think what we see here is how God intended us to be. And it goes a long way toward explaining such interesting recent developments as the emergence of atheist churches. People crave community, after all, and community is based on shared outlook and the need for mutual encouragement -- motivations that are all bound up with the religious impulse.
It also may account for the aggressiveness we’re observing among many nonbelievers lately. If, as atheists claim, they’ve succeeded in freeing themselves from superstitious encumbrances, then they should be able to just laugh off the peculiar whims of the faithful. Yet they’re increasingly touchy and defensive.
Because they feel their religion has been attacked.
The historically dominant influences of Judeo-Christian monotheistic beliefs and moral traditions, and all the related cultural practices, are a rebuke to them. Even the parish down the block (with its church bells and tax breaks) can be a real piss-off.
Nonbelievers probably always felt this way. But recognizing their minority status, they largely kept their feelings to themselves. I can recall how, when asked casually about my religious affiliation as a young man, I’d divert my eyes and mumble shyly, “Well, I’m not really a churchgoer.”
The advent of the Internet has changed the public posture of nonbelievers. Online communication provides a means for them to exult in their non-belief and connect with likeminded souls. So, while atheists are still in the minority, they’ve been able to join with other people who harbor doubts about faith and so build up a critical mass that appears larger and more convinced than it actuality might be.
The impact on society is undeniable. And the effect is magnified by Hollywood and the media, which have always had a soft spot for questioners of societal norms. Add to that the predilections of those who like their non-belief spiced with a certain carpe diem hedonism, and you can see why we’re currently experiencing a veritable tsunami of anti-religious/anti-traditional-values propaganda.
(To be clear: I don’t equate non-belief with immorality. But it does correlate with a strongly protective sense of personal autonomy -- What I do and whom I do it with are none of your damned business, so keep your Bible off my body!)
I think it’s important for people of faith to grasp what atheism really is all about. We’ve tended to treat nonbelievers as... well... nonbelievers. But for the most part, this description doesn’t fit. They’re not people with no religion; they’re people who have a different religion.
Even secular science is demonstrating that fact.
I’m not sure how this understanding should by reflected in our outreach to them. But I suspect it requires more than just assuming we’ve got Good News they haven’t heard yet. In fact, I think that’s an assumption which has probably been rather off-putting, because it confuses principle with ignorance.
Just as the Apostle advises us that “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), we must acknowledge that God’s truth is not always self evident -- at least not to everyone. We have to make a case.
With this in mind, a proper understanding of non-belief may demand a greater respectfulness on the part of believers. Because there are very rational and explainable reasons why people turn away from faith -- reasons which might have set any one of us on a similar path, had we walked in their shoes.
Which is not to say we should accept atheist pretensions to greater sophistication, or tolerate their intellectual snobbery in assuming we need to grow out of our pious fantasies. Even more important, we must object strenuously whenever someone tries to paint religion as the source of all the world’s woes or the enemy of progress.
That’s the devil’s lie writ large, and we should give it no quarter.
As Christians, we’re called to evangelize because we have an important message which must be shared: the way to eternal life. But if I’m right about the nature of atheism, then what we’ve called evangelization might be better approached as -- in a certain sense -- interfaith dialogue. And dialogue requires understanding and genuine good will. On both sides.
It would be interesting to see how nonbelievers would respond to our invitation to talk on those terms.
Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer. His essays and random rants can be found online at: www.billkassel.com.