It would appear that atheism is having something of a “moment.” Stories are appearing in newspapers describing atheists “no longer content to live in the shadows” (or some such cliche) who are buying advertising space on subway trains or on billboards.
The recent death of Christopher Hitchens was announced in rock-star obituaries, because although a second-rate (at best) pundit, he was a top-tier atheist. And, in the run-up to Christmas, we heard that many nonbelievers celebrated “Newtonmas,” as the father of the Laws of Motion, Sir Isaac Newton, happened to be born on Dec. 25 (only maybe, it might have been January).
What better way, it seems the thinking goes, to poke religious people in the eye than celebrating the birth of a scientist? “Reasons Greetings,” they cleverly snickered.
That Newton once said of the universe “this most beautiful system could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being” makes him, one would think, an unlikely candidate for the accolades of nonbelievers. The irony that is apparently lost on Newtonmas-revelers shines light on a core and pervasive myth: that religion and science are locked in a zero-sum game as advances in the sciences chip away at religion (which many atheists prefer to broad-brush as “superstition”). Atheists grin at each new scientific discovery as if it brings “their side” ever closer to, ultimately, “disproving” religion.
And yes, there are Christians who are all too willing to engage the argument on these terms, viewing all science with suspicion and jealously guarding against any scientific camels’ noses under the tent. Efforts to keep Charles Darwin away from schoolchildren, for instance, have been at times positively rabid.
This is unnecessary. People of faith have nothing to fear from scientific inquiry, and indeed should welcome man’s ever-expanding understanding of himself and his world. As Pope John Paul II put it, “Since access to the truth enables access to God, it must be denied to none.” In other words, it isn’t “either-or.”
And what about the nature of God is so difficult to believe? While the bearded Great Big Grandpa in the Sky, the Doler-Out-In-Chief of personal favors, scratch ticket paydays and pass completions is not difficult to identify as the invention of a superstitious mind, this is not really what serious people of faith believe in. Let’s go out on the proverbial limb and assume even atheists believe there are such things as existence (for obviously things exist), goodness (for we can agree that some things are better than others) and truth (because certainly some things are demonstrably false).
Religious people know existence-itself, goodness-itself and truth-itself as God. An atheist may not care to call these by the same name, but that is not the same as disbelief. As the French poet Jean Claudel wrote, “You can still pronounce Yes by means of the No.”
Blaise Pascal — a devout Catholic and no scientific slouch himself — said that “men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true.” Can it be that fear, at some level, is behind this rush to “no,” this reluctance to go out and meet God where He really lives?
To do so means to discover what, if anything, He wants. And even earnest people of faith will confess some measure of confusion on this point. But if we start by assuming that all we can observe has a purpose and fulfils its purpose to the extent its nature allows, we may assume that we should also seek to discover and live by the highest purpose our nature will allow.
The old saw that the purpose of life is to “fill what’s empty, empty what’s full and scratch where it itches” has, despite the constant and accelerating goading-on of our secular humanist-consumerist culture, only produced people who report feeling emptier than ever. Surely, despite the comfort of it being somewhat within our control, attending to our own appetites and desires cannot be our highest purpose.
Christians believe that Jesus issued a three-word instruction manual to nudge us in the right direction: love one another. Sounds easy, but the more we understand love and the more we realize the degree of self-denial required, the harder it gets. And it can get very hard. Small surprise, really, that more people opt instead for denial of a higher purpose.
As St. Teresa said, “Ah, Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few of them.”
Paul Tormey lives in Orrington.