The Authentic Atheist

I have a curious respect for some atheists. There is something heroic about an outspoken unbeliever. He wears his denial of God on his sleeve with a certain panache. He challenges the deity as Cyrano de Bergerac duels with death. The atheist courageously contradicts the instincts of the entire human race to declare the non-existence of God. Like a latter day Don Quixote, the atheist rides off to joust with the windmills of superstition, religion and the God of fairy tales. With touching absurdity, the crusading atheist overlooks the irony: he spends all his real time and effort refuting something he thinks is a myth.

That is why I like atheists. The rebel in me always admires people who paddle upstream, and should they attempt to scale a waterfall in their canoe, my admiration for them increases. The campaigning atheist is like that. Despite all the evidence, despite the universal religious instinct of the human race, he acts on his solemn belief that there is nothing to solemnly believe in. His passion wins from me a grudging respect for the militant atheist, but it also convinces me that he isn’t precisely what he thinks he is. He believes too much and cares too much for truth to really be an atheist.

Is there really such a thing as an utterly authentic atheist? I think so. I have a dreadful feeling that there exists a sort of human sub-species who have lost their spiritual capacity completely. These authentic atheists do not profess belief in God, nor even disbelief. Instead they seem entirely deaf to such ideas. They do not hate the Church or say the Bible is a fairy tale. They do not spit out bigoted remarks that blame the Pope for the holocaust or missionaries for murder. They do not attack the arguments for the existence of God, say the universe is random, or call Rick Warren a simpleton. They do not rage against God, any more than someone born blind has dreams in color. These are the authentic atheists. They plod through life eating, working, shopping, breeding and sleeping, and God never seems to flit across their consciousness. Members of this sub-species may be sparkling sophisticates or ill-bred boors. They may be the decent and moral folks next door, or they could be despicable murderers. In a frightful way, it doesn’t matter. If they exist, perhaps they have bred and spread like the alien bodysnatchers, and exist in our midst like spiritual zombies—indistinguishable in the teeming mass of humanity except to those few who see them and tremble.

Then there are the truly sinister atheists. These are the ones who have adopted the cruelest disguise of them all: they have become religious. They lurk in the stalls of cathedral choirs as well as the stalls of the Christmas bazaar. The religious atheists sing and speak the words of faith but do not believe in a God who is real in any sense. They worship instead a deity of their own imagining—a comfortable grandfather in the sky, or a Great Spirit who gives them pleasant dreams but makes no demands of them. The God of earthquake, wind and fire, as well as the God of the still, small voice is an alien and unreal creature to these devotees of spa religion. Whole parishes are filled with them, every Sunday.

My imagination is too vivid. I am spinning stories and jesting to make a point. Because people laugh and cry, I’m sure all humans have souls, even if they neglect them. But if my hunch is right that some people never give God a thought, then they are the best evidence that such a thing as an atheist might exist after all. If such people exist, then we are witnessing a radical and tragic decline in the human race, for it is sub-human to exist without a god of any kind. Real religion is a universal part of the human condition. In every culture and language—from primitive tribesmen who grunt at the stars to sophisticated technicians who grunt at computer screens, the troublesome religious instinct persists.

When you look at the human religious instinct askance, doesn’t it seem quirky and unexpected? If we are only brutes, why this universal, tender and mysterious instinct to fall on our faces and before our immense and intimate Maker? If we are animals, why do we see spiritual beings everywhere? Dogs sniff and lift their legs at trees; men see mournful dryads imprisoned there. The real religious instinct in man is a kind of madness, and is as unexpected, beautiful and bizarre as those other forms of human madness called music, laughter and dance. What is this surprising inclination to worship and sing to some Almighty Being? What instinct causes men to build an Aztec temple, Stonehenge or Chartres, a basilica or a Baptist chapel, a ziggurat, the Parthenon or Angkor Wat? There is virtually no human society anywhere in time or place where religion was not somehow present. Other than the basic social functions, is there any other phenomenon that is more common to human beings than religion? In fact, you could almost use the instinct and ability to pray as the mark of what it is to be human. Perhaps we should be called homo orans instead of homo sapiens. When a humanist declares his independence from religion, he is not exalting his humanity, he is lopping off an important part of it—for the whole of human history and culture declares that a glorious and eccentric part of being human is to seek God.

The man from Missouri reduces the wild and wonderful phenomenon of faith to the idea that God is merely the projection of humanity’s need for the ultimate sugar daddy. His theory goes like this: primitive man needed to magnify ordinary authority figures like fathers and kings and project them into heaven to create an almighty being to comfort him in the face of the everlasting darkness and reward him with eternal life. In other words, the whole religious phenomenon is a huge case of corporate wishful thinking.

There are three problems with this way of thinking. First of all, it is incredibly dull. Missouri man is not the sort of person you want to go on vacation with. The second problem is that this doesn’t describe the god of most religions, whose gods are not, in the main, sugar daddies who reward their children with pink clouds of cotton candy in the afterlife. Instead, they are cruel and violent supernatural beings who are more likely to devour you than delight you. Even the Christian God—who is good and paternal, and hence perhaps the closest thing to sugar and daddy—threatens final judgment and eternal damnation. This is not what I would have wished for if I were thinking wishfully. Let us stand this on its head. Given that the god of most religions is a lion, not a pussycat, perhaps it is the atheist who is engaged in wishful thinking.

There is a third problem with this line of thought, and this aspect is most disturbing.Read More.



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