Pastoring Atheists

A woman called me in my role as the pastor of a large suburban parish and asked if she could come to talk. I had officiated at her wedding several years before and knew a bit of her background. She was having some difficulties and thought perhaps I could make a referral. My schedule had an opening that afternoon, so I invited her to come in.

She was in her mid-30s, in a troubled marriage, had no children, was looking for work and felt depressed. She talked, I listened. At one point I asked if she took time for prayer. “Oh, no,” she answered immediately, “I am an atheist.” I listened as she shared her disillusionment with religious faith and her current plight. Then I began to engage her in conversation, offering some insights, only to find myself being rebuffed. Again I quieted down and resumed listening.


After making a couple of referrals, as she requested, I could see that our time together was ending. It was then that she startled me with this comment: “Do you know a place of quiet where I can go to meditate and also worship in a simple manner? I find Mass in most parishes—when I do go—too ‘busy’ for me. I need the quiet, but I also need the structure of the Mass.” Resisting any temptation to seize that moment to comment or, worse, to moralize (as we priests are tempted to do), I named two places. She thanked me and left.

Unique or Typical?

Stories like this are often discounted as anecdotal. Reflecting on my 38 years of pastoral experience, however, I find the story typical. It contains key elements of an atheistic motif that frequently is played out in the lives of contemporary people. Here are three of them.

Awareness.Atheism often is rooted in disillusionment. The disillusionment is tied, first, to what is going on in the life of the person, oftentimes a significant negative experience or set of experiences. In the case of a college student, the negative experience may be that a professor has shattered all the categories of belief that have until then shored up the student’s religious faith. Disillusionment may also be tied to a notion of God that no longer fits the person’s world. We have all heard the cry, “How could a loving God, who is supposed to be good, allow this to happen?” Human suffering can be made more painful by one’s limited view of God. Judging by pastoral encounters I have had, atheism tends to be a response to a person’s shattered world where God no longer fits, or seems not to fit.

Steps to move beyond atheism include an acknowledgement that one’s notion of God is not God, and that one’s own “take” on life is narrow and limited. The road toward faith is not about persuasive logic or winning argumentation, but about an expanded consciousness. When the woman who had confided in me that day said she needed a time for meditation and also structured worship, I found it a hopeful sign. She needed to expand her awareness, and meditation is a great place to start.

Will.Atheism routinely finds a person who is stuck in his or her head. We often try to work things out rationally, when the true issue is rooted not in the intellect but in the will. Our culture thrives on verbal banter. Think of the talk show hosts who take a position on some topic, then seek to convince others of their position through intimidation, factoids and narrow reasoning. Such arguments are rife with syllogistic inference: once you buy the major premise, you buy the conclusion. (I often muse that Rush Limbaugh might come on the air some morning and take a position diametrically opposed to what he espoused the previous day and, using the same method and techniques, argue his new position in just as convincing a manner.) Such debate might make for great entertainment, but it generates far more heat than light.

A man once told me of his father’s favorite quip: “A man persuaded against his will is of the same opinion still.” Atheism in the life of an individual is ultimately not an intellectual issue. God is not a product of logic or a piece of data. Belief or nonbelief is about the human faculty of free will, and the use of this faculty continues to be underrated. How, when, and to whom do I say yes? That question lies at the heart of any discussion of atheism or faith. I love the phrase from the Liturgy of the Hours, “Bend my heart to your will, O God.”

Hunger.There is a deep hunger inside all of us, and the atheist is no exception. Life is about trying to satisfy that hunger. Organized religion and atheism both proclaim that they have the answer to that hunger: their version of God or no god. As a priest, I find myself succumbing to that temptation. Yet the truth is that God is an elusive presence in a world looking for certitude and control. Our hunger takes us out of ourselves again and again into a realm beyond our limited capabilities. We begin to satisfy that hunger with a profound sense of surrender.

Engaging the Atheist

As a pastor, I have experience with atheists, but it is limited. As the theologian Michael J. Buckley, S.J., has written, there are atheists who think “God is not worth a decent argument.” Such individuals rarely come into the ambit of my ministry. A significant number of atheists, however, seem to need to verbalize their position to a pastoral minister and offer convincing arguments in support of their position. They seem bent on conversion—of the believer. I have met with such individuals. Yet, in a pastoral setting, I have sensed a deeper desire on the part of the atheist to be converted (that is, to be persuaded by me), rather than to convert me from my faith. I have learned to resist the temptation to engage such persons in debate.

The fact is that I do not have all the answers. I have a response. The response is not an answer; it is an invitation to the person to take a stance. That stance is characterized by one word: faith. Faith in whom? Faith in what? Ah, now we are getting someplace.

Some atheists make a faith stance; that is, they exhibit a faith in science and in human capability as guarantors of truth. One rarely dissuades any person from a faith stance. Change occurs more readily when a person sees that the who or what at the center of their faith (God, science, human goodness, self) is not worthy of it.

Ministering to an atheist requires patience. Faith is a response to God’s invitation, not an initiative that the believer (or doubter) takes. Most important, faith is the only way of accessing God. The God I have come to know in my life is constantly providing access. God meets us where we are, individually, and draws us into God’s very self. So, it begins with God, not me.

But whose God? I have to be careful to avoid marketing my product. What my product has to offer may not be what this person seeks at this point in the journey of his or her life. Pastoring is about truth, not about denominational membership. Coming to the truth is unique and personal for each of us. As a Christian, I have come to see that Jesus is the truth (Jn 14:6). I further believe that we are all being led to that truth. The question is, Who is doing the leading, and how do we get there?

I have long liked these haunting lines from Dag Hammarskjöld’s journal, Markings: “I don’t know Who—or what—put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t ever remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender, had a goal.”

As a pastor I am committed to walking with such seekers of Truth, knowing that they are being led into all truth by the one who is Truth. There will be a time of witnessing—yes. After all, if there is any case for God to be made, there will be a need for witnesses and their testimony in due time.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of accompanying a number of souls who came to me while in their atheistic stance. Watching God work in their lives has been a wonder. I marvel at the diverse ways God works in the lives of people entangled in unbelief. But then, aren’t we all? I have come to understand that I do not have to make a case for God, that God is quite capable of doing that. My role is to be a willing witness when called upon to testify. In the meantime, I listen, wait and prepare.

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roberta gittens
8 years 11 months ago
YES! God (and Jesus too) showed us the value of every 'doubting Thomas' in our own spiritual lives. Friends, family, atheists all - make me more knowledgable of my own religion and culture, more compassionate, and a 'better' Catholic - daily.
YES AGAIN! Centering Prayer, meditation, allows us a kind of 'monastic' time out of the hurly-burly of our speeded-up culture, our outer trappings of ego, and inner mind chatter. It becomes a time for the whisper of Grace to be heard by all - religious and atheist.
Doubt (whether in our own religious faith or in those around us) is part of God's gift to us. It allows us to constantly examin, expand and deepen our views of God.
Fred Close
8 years 9 months ago
Wow! Fr. Santen hit the nail on the head, the best writing on this subject since (methinks) Bernie Bassett, SJ's "We Agnostics" or the Joseph Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity"! What a joy!


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