Finding God through Atheism

There are as many paths to God as there are individuals. This series on Huffington Post looks at six of the most well-traveled paths for contemporary believers. The first two parts considered 'The Path of Belief' and 'The Path of Independence'.

You might be surprised to hear of agnosticism or atheism as a path to God. But, in my experience, believers have often found themselves on this path. This is not to say that atheism or agnosticism ineluctably leads to God. Obviously it does not. But for some the path ultimately leads to a desire to understand the transcendent.

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Those traveling along the path of disbelief not only find that organized religion holds no appeal (even if they sometimes find its services and rituals comforting), but have also arrived at an intellectual conclusion that God may not, does not or cannot exist. Often they seek proof for God's existence and finding none, or encountering intense suffering, reject the theistic worldview completely.

The cardinal benefit of this group is that they take none of the bland reassurances of religion for granted. Sometimes they have thought more deeply about God and religion than some believers have. Likewise, sometimes the most selfless people in our world are atheists or agnostics. Some of the hardest working aid workers I met in my time working with refugees in East Africa during my Jesuit training were nonbelievers. The "secular saint" is real. 

They also have a knack for detecting hypocrisy, cant or lazy answers: a religious baloney detector. Tell a person in this group that suffering is part of God's mysterious plan and needs to be accepted unquestioningly and they will rightly challenge you to explain yourself. One of my college friends practices his atheism religiously; his questions have kept me on my toes for the last 25 years. Try telling him about "God's will" and you will find yourself on the receiving end of a pointed lecture on personal responsibility.

The main danger for those in this group is that they sometimes expect God's presence to be proven solely in an intellectual way. When something profound happens in their emotional lives, something that touches them deeply, they may reject the possibility that it could be a sign of God's activity. Their intellect can sometimes become a wall that closes off their hearts to experiences of God's presence. They can also be unwilling to attribute to God anything that the believer might see as an obvious example of God's presence.

It's like the parable of the man caught in a flood. The fellow figures that the flood threatening his house is the chance to prove conclusively whether God exists...

Read the rest here.

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Peter Lakeonovich
7 years 5 months ago
"Likewise, sometimes the most selfless people in our world are atheists or agnostics."

Fr. Jim, I don't necessarily have a problem with your personal observation noted above (although I cannot say for sure whether it is true or not), and we need not get into what you mean by "selfless."  I do think, from my own personal observations, that many people would share your view - so many people, in fact, that the Holy Father has written an Encyclical which touches in large part on this very confused notion, Caritas in Veritate.

So let's assume that you are correct and that "sometimes the most selfless people in our world are atheists or agnostics."  What does this tell us as a people of faith?  What does the Holy Father tell us about this?

Well, the Holy Father has written:


Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word 'love' is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite."
And not just any truth will do.Jesus Christ "is the Truth" (John 14:6); and "Charity in truth" is "the Face of his Person." "Adhering to the values of Christianity ... is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development.  A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance.?.?.?. There would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from .?.?. promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis." Only "love in truth," true love, Christian love, can bring about authentic "social, juridical, political, and economic" development.

So, my question would be: what does it mean, if anything, to be "selfless" if it is not "selfless" in Truth, i.e., "selfless" in Jesus Christ?  Or is that "religious baloney"? 
Peter Lakeonovich
7 years 5 months ago
Fr. Jim,

I agree that it does fit the definition of "selfless."  It fits the definition of acts of love even.

But would you not agree, also, that such "selflessness" or such acts of love are incomplete if they are, as Pope Benedict has taught, "untethered to the Truth"?
7 years 5 months ago
Thank you so much, Fr. Martin, for this piece.  It really hit a nerve for me.  I think our problem in talking about God and who he is, is that we just dont have the language to do it with.   Somebody suggested that it's like  explaining the idea of color to a blind person.  So, what is red, yellow or blue to a blind?  What is truth?  A long time ago, Pontius Pilate asked the same question.  I don't remember Jesus' response.  (I'll have to look it up). Anyway, a little while ago I decided,  I won't ask questions such as this one anymore.  If I can  remain appreciative of what's around me, at the moment,  the freshly fallen snow.....  It's so beautiful, even if I have to shovel it later, so I can move my car! .....or  listen to Mozart or Beethoven while I shovel pistachio ice cream into my mouth....  or  hear some relatives and friends say lovingly that I am so nutty and incorrigibly a messy house keeper....   I'd be truly grateful.   The bottom line is we just want to be loved, affirmed, accepted and appreciated for no other reason than that we are who we are.
david power
7 years 5 months ago
Nice article Fr Martin and one that should help us to reflect on the true nature of unbelief.
The likes of Pasolini ,Bunuel and  Nietzsche can teach us a lot about Faith.They strip away the falsity of a lot of what we believe in.
The "secular saint" part though is subjective.I have never met them but often heard of them.Usually I bumped into people riddled with liberal guilt who were searching for meaning and wanted to pour their own measure.
Good for them. 
Recently I was speaking to an Atheist who is also a vegetarian and when he told me this I responded with a very serious "I am a vegan".His look was priceless.I was joking but he revealed that there was a lot of moral oneupmanship in his act and he felt a guilt  normally reserved for Irish Catholics   after my white lie. But Faith is first and foremost an act of reason.News to me a couple of years ago but that is what is coming from those in the know.  
7 years 5 months ago
I have never met an atheist that could defend their belief system.  They ignore the obvious and focus on the shortcomings of organized religion to justify their beliefs.  They are more interested in what is fashionable than what is rational.  Atheist are intellectually bankrupt but not necessarily morally bankrupt though if they press their belief system to its ultimate conclusion, there is no morality in what they believe.  


They can be secular saints only when we use traditional religious morality to judge them.  Many have adopted traditional Christian morality because Western culture has been imbued with it.  Raised in another culture, they might do things we would not consider saintly.


Agnosticism has some merit but the only consistent people are the Deists and they are few today.  To be a Christian and a Catholic one must search for revelation.  It is not something that one could come to logically.
Peter Lakeonovich
7 years 5 months ago
Norma,
The irony of Pilate's question to Jesus, which we would do well contemplate often (especially during Lent), is that Truth was standing right in front of him.  When we, ourselves, ask what is truth, we should know that we can find it in the Church, which brings us into relationship with Christ, who is Truth, and offers us the Bread of Life, Jesus, who is Truth.
Maybe that's exactly what Fr. Jim is talking about.
I liked the honesty in your post, and you sound like someone who enjoys life and the truely simple things in life as well as the beautiful things in life like music.  Sounds lovely and peaceful. 

The call of Christ the King, however, is something altogether different.  As St. Ignatius has succictly summarized, the call of Christ causes us to relect on the fact that Christ died for us, so: (i) what have we done for Christ; (ii) what are we doing for Christ; and (iii) what ought we to do for Christ?





david power
7 years 5 months ago
Pete,

I know a guy who had a swimming pool built near  his office and insisted on going skiing well into his sixties . A man big into his private pleasures. 
The Church has decided he is "blessed".Are you sure your concept of what St Ignatius is correct?
The spiritual exercises are big on the senses and finding God in all things and it seems that is exactly what Norma is doing. She said she was truly grateful which is Ignatian Par excellence. 
Peter Lakeonovich
7 years 5 months ago
David,

I got a kick out of your comment that "faith is first and foremost an act of reason."  I can imagine my wife's puzzled reaction if I told her that my love, faith, and trust in her was first and foremost an act of reason.  Or my daughter's.  Or my best friend's.  Or my parents'.

Isn't faith a relationship that ensues from an encoutner with God who loves us?

Not to engage in what Fr. Jim has described as "Catechism gotcha," but faith is actually: "the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself."

Peter Lakeonovich
7 years 5 months ago
David,
I'm all for those things, and agree with you on the Exercises.
My point is for such enjoyments to be for the greater glory of God, in accordance with the Ignatian Magis and in accordance with the first principle and foundation that such things should bring us closer to God and serve in helping us realize the purpose for which we were created.
I love playing golf.  Sometimes the silence there helps with the above; sometimes it takes me away from more important things.  We're not perfect.  We strive to enter.  But we cannot be content with merely striving, even if, a la St. Paul, we do the bad we do not wish and do not do the good we wish we did.  Today's culture might tell us that it's good enough to be "selfless" (I'm not saying Fr. Jim is saying that!), but it's really not because we were not created to be merely "selfless" (again, I'm not saying Fr. Jim is saying that), we were created to love, serve, and reverence God.  Being "selfless" hits on all cylinders when it is in the service and love of God.

God bless.
david power
7 years 5 months ago
Well now Pete 
 I made two comments but you only responded to one.Funny that. When I wrote the line about "Faith being first and foremost an act of reason" I knew it would elicit a response.Almost certainly in the negative.But it stands. The argument is long and fine and essentially Italian .A certain Don Giussani made the claim over a period of many years.It is an encounter with the revealed God or with revelation.But before the Revelation we respond with our I to His You.A new Factor has entered the equation of reality  . He called faith the "Feast of Reason ".He even ran it by a certain German cardinal who was a pal of his to see if it was doctrinally sound .Guess what?The German gave him the green light.The German then got a promotion and is now Pope.That might send you scurrying for your cathechism but I would recommend instead the Religious  Sense by Giussani which Ratzinger is said to  study.It might not be safe enough for you but give it a shot .  
david power
7 years 5 months ago
Doh! @PeteAnyway apart from you responding to my other comment the argument is as I said Long.
 But given time and study I am sure that most would agree with Don Giussani. There is a subtle diminuition of Reason in catholicism or else it is seen as complementary to faith.
 Your love for your family members is indeed an act of reason just as the stock market is an act of faith as is all of Society built on faith.Even atheists operate on faith all day long. 

On the Ignatian question I can see the danger you point out  but   
"On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive." This is well covered in the encyclical God is Love .Ratzinger knows that it if it is a moral performance it is not christian and so did Ignatius. It is not to be good but to be moved. Those people David Smith spoke of are people who are moved and we all know them have all met them and seen that it is not a force of will that makes them closer to the poor/christ but their simple "reasoning".

God Bless You.   
david power
7 years 5 months ago

Sorry for posting so often. This is a taster about the reason argument. 


"Giussani bets on the fact that his proposal is reasonable. But he also specifies what reason is. It is not simply a kind of biological computer, not simply an abstract and intellectual activity. It cannot be reduced to what we can measure (according to the modern scientific paradigm). It is the capacity to grasp the meaning of reality, and the most important meaning we are looking for is love. If, for example, you go home and do not suspect that your wife has poisoned the dinner she has cooked, you are not crazy but perfectly reasonable. So reason is also made of an affective energy, in addition to cerebral power. Moreover it is born of affection. If a baby is not loved by his mother, it’s quite likely that he will go mad. Through faith, man reaches what his reason is made for, ie, meaning, and meaning is not inside reason but in God .
Jim McCrea
7 years 5 months ago
"But would you not agree, also, that such "selflessness" or such acts of love are incomplete if they are, as Pope Benedict has taught, "untethered to the Truth"?"

And the recipients of these acts of love/charity care WHAT about the rest of your statement?
Matthew Pettigrew
7 years 5 months ago

To JR Cosgrove:  I'm trying not to be offended by your comment.  I do not have to defend my beliefs to you or anyone else and, frankly, I have no interest in discovering how you defend yours.  I neither "ignore the obvious," as you claim, nor am I concerned with what is fashionable.  And I respectfully suggest that you refrain from referring to people like me as "intellectually bankrupt."  Actually, I'm not even sure what that throw-away line means, but I assure you that your generalization is without merit.  My life and my deeds will speak for themselves, and I have no need nor any desire to have you or anyone else bestow the label of "saint" on me.
7 years 5 months ago
In order to defend atheism one has to explain how many things have happened through non intelligent means or directed efforts.  The atheist usually appeals to science to defend his or her beliefs for this but science has never come close to explaining the origin of many important things.  


For example, science has never explained why anything should exist let  alone exist materially in the sense we know it.  Science has never been able to explain why the universe is so well fine tuned that coherent systems can exist that  are necessary to support intelligent activity.  Science has never been able to explain how something as complicated as life could begin once this remarkable universe exists.  Science has never been able to explain how complicated capabilities in life arose after life began.


There are more origins in the natural world that are not explainable by science.  To hold a belief that it all just happened without any direction is not tenable based on reason and to hold such a belief without reason is my definition of intellectually bankrupt.  One could say they have faith that it happened without direction but that is no different than those who have faith in any unexplained phenomena such as using the movement of the stars to explain one's fate or that a great creature from the center of the earth rose up and fought the demons of the world to establish their people.  So yes, the atheist is intellectually bankrupt.  Sorry about pointing out the obvious.  I have watched maybe hundreds of discussions with atheists and they all end up the same way, they ignore the obvious and attack the absurdity of religious beliefs while never defending the basis of their own.


That is why I said the Deist is an intellectually consistent position and to adhere to something like Catholicism requires revelation.  The Catholic position has always included the tenet that it is a mystery since as long as I can remember.  It is interesting that on a Jesuit site we are getting defenders of the atheist position.  There is nothing wrong with one espousing one's position anywhere one wants but I still find it interesting.
7 years 5 months ago
''Perhaps the deficit is the failure of discernment on the part of the author who never met an atheist he did not nail in the first 30 seconds.  ''


I point to a deficit with atheism and the commenter comes after me personally.  This is what I would call an ad hominem attack and was something hammered into me in my Catholic education as narrow minded and bigoted.  The commenter has no idea of my past  level of interaction with atheists or the witnessing of how they defend themselves.  I have challenged atheists in the past or have seen others challenge them to defend their beliefs and in all cases they have deflected or resorted to some sort of faith based statement.
Martin Gallagher
7 years 5 months ago
Great column Fr. J.  I was on that path for a half dozen years.  I'll be interested in reading your forthcoming "Return" column.
Winifred Holloway
7 years 5 months ago
So much aggression, and anger in these comments.  Fueled by what, I wonder.  Testosterone?  I stand with Norma in all this.  Grateful to God for the gift of life and the deep joy that His presence brings.  The God problem atheists and agnostics have, I think, may in some cases be a leftover from childhood.  We are taught that God is our Father in heaven in control of the universe.  We see him as a grandfatherly type with a long white beard sitting on a cloud.  A benevolent figure.  As we grow up, the ugly side of humanity and the world's tragedies are only too apparent.  Is this God a sadist? Reason doesn't bring me to God.  Prayer, love given and received, empathy, and compassion and the acting out of all of these help me see and feel the reality of the force and being we name God.
Matthew Pettigrew
7 years 5 months ago
I apologize if my comment last night was construed to have been written in anger; it wasn't. If anything, it was written out of curiosity. I was responding to a comment that seemed to suggest that atheists and agnostics have to defend themselves and their beliefs. Why should that be? I am not trying to change anyone's mind (a fool's mission, especially on this blog). I merely objected to the unsupported - and unsupportable - generalizations made by another writer (who continues to make them). Who, exactly, is displaying a little intellectual bankruptcy in this conversation? 
Winifred Holloway
7 years 5 months ago
None whatever.  I was referring indirectly to the fact that all the posters were men, with the exception of Norma and me.  And I do think the tone affects who posts and the turn that the back and forth takes.  Not too much of the personal here.  Instead a reliance on bits of formal theology, bits if Ignacian spirituality, bits of church documents.   A real discussion with a little less ego, a lot less heat and without the need to "win" the argument could be interesting and useful. 
Winifred Holloway
7 years 5 months ago
OOps.  Sorry for the confusion.  My last comment was a response to Norman.  And Matthew, FWIW, I agree with you.
7 years 5 months ago
''I merely objected to the unsupported - and unsupportable - generalizations made by another writer (who continues to make them).''


I support  everything I claim.  I provided the basis for my claim which was apparently over looked.  I have never seen an atheist defend their position rationally and observed hundreds of attempts to try to get them to do so, many of which I personally enquired about the basis for their position.  If anyone can justify an atheistic approach to the world, I welcome their attempt to justify it.  As I said I have never seen a rational defense of it.
Matthew Pettigrew
7 years 5 months ago
Sir:  You're either trying to pick a fight or enter into a debate, neither of which I'm interested in. For the third and last time, there is no reason for me to have to defend my atheism, any more than there is a reason why you should have to defend Catholicism. I respect your beliefs and in no way feel threatened by them. By the way, my reading material includes America because (1) it's hard to completely sever ties after 16 years of Catholic education and (2) there's usually some pretty smart people here with pretty insightful things to say.
7 years 5 months ago
I have said I have never met anyone who can defend their atheism.  This includes Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sean Carroll and the other popular writers on this topic as well as your common average person claiming to be one.  You would think that someone would step up to the plate to defend this inconsistent position and show why it is not inconsistent.
 
Nowhere did I say anything else about the behavior of atheists in terms of how they lead their life or what else they believe.  But on the subject of their so called belief in atheism, they are unable to defend their position.  When someone holds a position firmly and cannot defend it then as far as I am concerned they are intellectually bankrupt.  It they want to admit it is based on faith then that is different but it seems absurd to hold atheism as a matter of faith which is what they all do.  One just cannot blithely say ''I am an atheist'' and then provide no basis for that position other than it is just my position.  It is no more than saying I am a Cardinal fan or prefer opera to Country and Western. 
 
So if anyone is going to question my comments please provide some rational basis for disagreeing with them and not cast aspersions about me or my world.   Neither of the two commenters who questioned my comments have addressed what i have said but deflect to some unrelated or imagined issues.  This post above was about ways to find God and one of them was first becoming an atheist.  I responded by saying that the atheistic position has no merit to anyone with reason and if one wants to hold it then they have better have some good reasons.  I have never seen one.  So when that is pointed out to an atheist, they might reconsider their position.  It may never lead them to Christianity as it did not lead Anthony Flew to any organized religion.  I have met people who are now Christians who admit they were atheists but rejected it when they realized how absurd it was.  But the ones who still maintain they are atheists are another animal altogether.  I said agnosticism has some merit and deism is an entirely consistent position.  So maybe someone could shut me up by providing some basis for anyone's atheism.
Matthew Pettigrew
7 years 5 months ago
To Mr. Costa:  Amen!
7 years 5 months ago
The original post was about how someone could find God through atheism.  My point that this is indeed true if the person who claims they are an atheist is honest.
 
There is no rational way to reason to an atheistic position.  I would bet that most posters here do not know this.  Atheism is such a hip idea these days that most assume it is a probable scenario for the world and the universe.  The truth is that it is an extremely unlikely scenario and once the person who espouse atheism understands this, they will be on the path to some type of creator.  Not necessarily the God of the Judeo Christian tradition, but a very powerful creator.  Most assume that science, the basic religion of atheism, supports their position.  Nothing is further from the truth and the science of today makes atheism extremely unlikely and some type of creator extremely likely.
 
To reach the God of the Judeo Christian tradition, one must use revelation added by logic and some basic philosophy.  To reach Catholicism one must accept the word of the New Testament as truth in that Christ died and rose from the dead and what is written there reflects what Christ said.  It is certainly no slam dunk and will not convince a lot of people.  But once the absurdity of atheism is pointed out to those who think it represents a rationale approach, they are on a path to God.

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