The Sterile Life of the Everyday Atheist

“Atheism is the death of hope, the suicide of the soul.”

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

It seems that there’s been a resurgence of atheism recently, across the nation, and certainly here in Rhode Island. The epicenter of this godless movement, at least for the moment, is in Cranston, Rhode Island, where a fierce battle over a public high school prayer banner has pitted believers against non-believers.

With that backdrop I’ve been thinking about atheism recently, and the toll it takes on the human person, and my reflections are well-summarized in the quotation, from an anonymous source, referenced above: “Atheism is the death of hope, the suicide of the soul.”

In the title I refer to an “everyday atheist,” for here I’m thinking not so much about philosophers or scientists who adopt atheism as a hypothetical construct, although they too have a problem explaining the ultimate mysteries of life. But I’m thinking more about the person who claims to be an atheist and then tries to live without any reference to God. This is the “practical and existential atheism” which Blessed John Paul II described so well in his writings.

The life of the everyday atheist must indeed be a very sad, sterile and hopeless experience.

If you don’t believe in God, how do you explain the reason for your existence? After all, you can’t refer to a Creator, or a divine plan. If you’re not created in the image and likeness of God, as the Bible tells us, from what source do you derive your human dignity? Or are you nothing more than an accident of arbitrary biological forces? Does your life have any more value or meaning than other living creatures – even the simplest life forms that crawl in the mud or swim in the seas?

If you don’t believe in God, how do you approach the question of your ultimate destiny? Is it simply a question of living a few years and then returning to the dust? Are you no more than an insignificant cipher in the long history of the universe, here today and gone tomorrow? Is there no final judge, no accountability for the way you lived on earth? Is there no spark of immortality, no heaven, no eternal life where the human soul is released from its earthly shackles? And when you die, are the precious bonds of love you forged with family and friends erased forever, never to be enjoyed again?

If you don’t believe in God, how do you integrate the ups and downs of everyday life into some meaningful pattern? How do you make sense of the suffering and pain that inevitably comes your way? What is there that keeps you from getting depressed? Unlike people of faith, you can’t ask anyone to pray for you, nor can you depend on the intercession of the beloved saints. And when a loved one dies, you can’t pray for them, for their eternal happiness and peace, can you?

If you don’t believe in God, what is there to celebrate in life, beyond those things that are merely superficial and passing? Don’t you occasionally envy the joy that religion brings to families of faith – in moments of Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, and religious weddings when God blesses the commitment of lovers? What do you celebrate on Christmas and Easter, or do you just withdraw to the silent, darkened solitude of your home? And what about Thanksgiving Day? Someone wrote that, “An atheist’s most embarrassing moment is when he feels profoundly thankful for something, but can’t think of anyone to thank for it.”

If you don’t believe in God, how do you navigate the secular world that is, nonetheless, infused with references to the God whose existence you deny? How do you manage to use, without a compromised conscience, our currency that proclaims our trust in God? Aren’t you offended every time you recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing God Bless America, or America the Beautiful? Do you leave the room when public events are bookended between invocations and benedictions? Do you avoid cities and towns named after things religious – like Providence, for example? Do you close your eyes every time you pass a Church with a religious name? Your daily existence must be really miserable.

My question is this: If you don’t believe that God exists, why do references to Him bother you so much? Can’t you just shrug it off as you would other fables or fairy tales? Why does God bother you – unless of course – way down, deep inside, at some subliminal level, you’re still wrestling with the possibility that God really does exist?

You see, some people are allergic to the sun. But they can’t hide the sun or make it disappear, so they get help to deal with their allergies. Some people are “allergic” to God. But they can’t make Him disappear either, and that causes a reaction. In the end, though, God will not be denied.

As Christians, we don’t persecute atheists or belittle them. We will, however, defend our core beliefs and values whenever they’re attacked. We should be patient with atheists and try to understand the difficulties that arise from their limited worldview. And most of all, we should pray for atheists and conduct ourselves in a way that convinces them of the goodness of our faith. In that way, perhaps, they too will come to know the “Unknown God” in whom they “live and move and have their being.” (Acts 17: 22-28)