Mercy and the Atheist

April 6, 2015

St. Faustina reveals on the fourth day of her Novena to the Divine Mercy that Jesus’s merciful heart, while suffering on the Cross, also thought of those who did not know Him and of those who explicitly rejected God.  Christians are often tempted to mistake the plight of atheists, to consider those who explicitly and often times shrilly proclaim their rejection of God, as inured against the message of mercy. 

Yet, we must remember that, as G.K. Chesterton pithily remarked, without God there would be no atheists.  All men are made by God, for Him.  Without God, the Source of man’s very dignity and his only final satisfaction is hidden from him.  The atheist, indeed every man, cannot live fully, cannot find himself without acknowledging and submitting himself to his Creator.  It is true that many atheists may be less aware of their existential misery as should a Christian, but they also are seeking God’s merciful love…though often in all of the wrong places.

In reality, the term atheism is applied to a wide array of issues that must be understood if we are to be prepared to offer Jesus’ gift of mercy to them.  The final document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) provides a very helpful summary of the problem of atheism (see paragraphs 19-21).  Because atheism rejects the source of man’s fulfillment, usually with a misplaced self-confidence, in the words of Gaudium et spes, “atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age….”

Let us try to categorize some of the various categories of atheism, understanding that the same person can have a number of these as both motivation and justification for their atheism.  We might first identify what we could call theoretical atheism.  Theoretical atheists are those who attempt to provide intellectual arguments against God’s existence.  These arguments are usually based upon a caricature of God and religious belief or they are derived from faulty philosophical premises (particularly those that presuppose that the empirical sciences somehow prove the non-existence of God).  While many are simply intellectually vacuous shibboleths, others are serious arguments of which any Christian attempting to argue with an atheist should be aware.  More often this category of atheism is used as a justification for one’s pre-commitment to atheism rather than the cause. 

There are those who we might call protest atheists.  This category might be characterized by Nietzsche’s candid “proof” for the non-existence of God: “I will now disprove the existence of all gods.  If there were gods, how could I bear not to be a god?  Consequently, there are no gods.” There are actually two motivations revealed here.  This quote indicates the root of protest atheism arises from a decadent understanding of God and the human person, which leads to the conclusion that God’s very existence diminishes human dignity.  This is most often the response to a pre-commitment to rebellion against God and a self-destructive, dignity depriving, self-assertion.  It is perhaps the most candid human expression of the ancient non serviam.

Another type of atheism implied by Nietzsche’s “proof” might be called elitist atheism.  Such atheists are usually found in environments in which atheism is expected “among such elite intellects.”  These environments are prevalent among academics, news media, and practitioners of the empirical sciences.  It is often motivated by peer pressure, but is fanned by the uncritical assumption that faith is possible only for the intellectually weak and that among the intellectually superior, there cannot exist the “superstitious” belief in God.  For many, the peer pressure may have been the initial motivation.  Yet, for the majority, the sense of intellectual superiority becomes simply a justification for a lifestyle commitment.

There are those who we might call apathetic atheists.  They are those who have never allowed themselves to experience their innate religious sense because they have been habitually distracted by the goods and by the noise of the world.  For such, atheism is more of a convenient rationalization of their chosen lifestyle than any other motivation to consider themselves to be atheists.

Finally, we might identify the category of scandal atheism.  There are a diverse number of possible scandals (something that has caused the atheist to doubt God’s existence).  Perhaps the most compelling argument for atheism is the scandal of human suffering, especially among the most innocent (Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan in the Grand Inquisitor (Brothers Karamazov), compellingly “justifies” his atheism in this way).  However, the lives of practical atheism manifested by all too many Christians (and many other believers) give lie to their words of belief and so is often used as a justification.  In this way, many of us by our infidelities to Christ, become practical anti-Christs.  Scandal atheists are the most likely, of all forms, to have had this as their initial motivation to atheism.

What this very brief sketch reflects is that proclaiming the message of mercy to any particular atheist must begin with a long session of listening.  One must hear why he believe he became an atheist.  One also must discern what lifestyle commitments or other such motivations will prevent the atheist from opening himself to a critical reassessment of his professed un-belief.  The approach will be different with the different motivations of and justifications for atheism.  For example, if one detects an attitude of arrogant, intellectual superiority a direct offer of mercy may likely be taken as a humiliation.  Yet, the message of mercy is for all of humanity. 

The message of mercy will resonate most strongly with those who come to recognize their own misery, the recognition of which they may likely have been trying to suppress, often by means of the illusory boldness of their atheism.  Helping them to admit to the misery of their existential aloneness and the unlikelihood of such an experience if they were not created for communion with God, might well be the most effective, general approach.

Every single person created by God, is made for His love and so can (potentially at least) respond to His offer of merciful love.  Perhaps, the most effective first step we might take is to pray for him (and for ourselves) before we embark upon the pathway to offering explicitly to him, Jesus’s offer of mercy.

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