Five Theses on Atheism
Tomas Halik ABC Religion and Ethics 18 Mar 2014
The struggle between faith and atheism is not between two teams. Rather, it runs through the heart of every human being. Believers wrestle with doubt, and unbelievers often nurture profound belief.
Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists have one thing in common: they don't believe in gods. Indeed, as Cardinal Tomas Spidlik liked to say, "Christians were atheists for the first 400 years." What he meant was that, for the Roman and Greek pagans, the Jews and the Christians of the first centuries were pagans. They had no God whose name others recognized. They were "without" gods. Even now, we Christians may seem like atheists in the eyes of people of other religions.
It is very important to recognize that our God is not merely one exemplar of a group of beings called "gods." He is a great Mystery. Sometimes I find myself agreeing with atheists when they say there is no God, if by that they mean there is not a God who is "a thing among other things." In this they are correct.
That is why I like to begin my dialogues with atheists with the question, "What does this God, in whom you do not believe, look like?" and sometimes, after my partner in dialogue tells me about his image of God - as a heavenly policeman or a big daddy behind the scenes of our world - I say, "Thank God you do not believe in such a God! I don't believe in such a God either."
But then, quite often, this partner in dialogue will admit, "But you know, I am not an obtuse materialist either. I also know there is 'something' beyond us." This is why I say that the most influential religion in the Czech Republic today is not atheism, but "something-ism": People believe that there must be something, even though they will not call it "God." And this is a challenge for the theologian, to continue this dialogue and to interpret this "something."
Atheism is an important partner in dialogue for Christian theologians because some kinds of atheism - and we must be aware that that there are many different sorts of atheism - could be a great help for us. They can purify our image of God, because sometimes - and this is true for many Christians - our concept of God is a projection of our wishes and our curiosity and our fears and so on. In this regard, Feuerbach was quite right to call God a projection of human fantasies and wishful thinking. We should purify our vision of God from this too-human image. Atheist critics can help us with that.
Atheism strikes me as an absolutization of negative (or apophatic) theology - theology, in which we try to describe God by talking about what cannot be attributed to Him. This was, for example, an important method for St. Thomas Aquinas.
On the road of negative theology, we can travel a long way hand in hand with agnostics and atheists. But at a certain point we come to a crossroads: at this place, dogmatic atheists turn away to their own certainties and dogmas. The agnostics stay standing at the crossroads with their doubts. Fundamentalist Christians suppress their own doubts and critical questions.
But people of mature faith, when they come to this crossroads, are able to move forward. They move forward as believers, in spite of their doubts. Their main trait is the courage to enter into the mystery of God, into unknown territory, and not become exasperated. They can withstand the mystery of the unknown and they can withstand their own uncertainties. In this life, as St. Paul told us, "we see though a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is only in the final eschaton that we shall see God face to face.
To be sure, sometimes this first naive stage of religious life is verified by a personal crisis caused by difficult experiences in someone's life. There are always moments in our own story when we realize that things are not simple: we live with many paradoxes, and this is a test of our faith. In this test, if our faith is too closely identified with simple religious notions, then we may turn to atheism.
But it is also possible to come out of such a crisis with a stronger faith. Crises can be like the dark night of the soul, in which we are confronted with the silence of God, with the hidden God, and we sense we are going through a valley of shadow - a desert. In such times, we need somebody who can serve as a spiritual guide; someone who can accompany us and give us an alternative interpretation to the atheist, one that will help us process our experiences. There are classical books that can help here, like the works of the Spanish mystics.
When I meet with people in these critical situations, I try to catch the so-called "second wind" of faith. Sometimes difficulties in our personal life shake our old certainties. But once we rid ourselves of naive illusions we can, with a naked faith, "a little faith", move forward into the future. We know that what is little in our own human eyes can truly be great in the eyes of God. A faith stripped of its certainties and religious imaginings and projections is a small, naked faith. But sometimes it may be very great in the eyes of God. The small things of God are greater than the things of man, as Saint Paul writes (see 1 Corinthians 1:27).
We really must examine this label atheism and discern that it is used to indicate many different things, including agnosticism and what I call "apatheism" in which people are simply apathetic and have no interest in religious questions. Then there are those who are merely critics of religion, or who have a critical approach to the Church and the traditional language of religion.
These are all phenomena that we sometimes call "atheism" - but, in fact, I do not believe that pure atheism can exist. What seems like utter unbelief is really just a limited period in a person's development.
The opposite of faith is not atheism, but idolatry. When a religious person experiences a crisis of faith, they have the opportunity to go deeper in the development of their relationship with God. But there is also the strong temptation in such moments to put something else - a relative value - on the throne of God, who is absolute. Every artificial god, religious simulacrum of God, or idol, begins with the absolutization of a relative value. It could be a nation, a political leader (Fuhrer) or a political party, career, sex, or money: there are many different pretenders to the throne of God in our lives.
The consumerist mentality is connected with idolatry and so is narcissism: if our ego is on the throne of God, it can be very dangerous! A conversion to true faith is a real revolution: the ego is thrown out of the place of God in our life. Yet, this is the greatest kind of liberation: to be free from our own ego. This liberation gives us a freedom we call love.
Love is not just an emotion - it is a great inner evolution of transcendence, in which we recognize that somebody is more important than ourselves. When we love, we can transcend our own interests and our own egoistic perspective and see our lives from a higher perspective. And in fact any sort of genuine love can cause transcendence, because through love God is always present, even if only namelessly.
The struggle between faith and atheism is not a struggle between two teams, like in football. The struggle between faith and atheism runs through the heart of every human being. Believers have an unbeliever inside, and the so-called unbelievers have also a believer inside of them.
I am very excited when I have the opportunity to try to communicate with the believer hidden inside those who declare themselves to be unbelievers. I use the Socratic method in such encounters. I think that this spiritual dimension of life is part of everyone's personality, even though it is sometimes uncultivated and underdeveloped. I am always intrigued by the fact that I am often able to communicate with someone who proclaims himself to be an atheist more readily than I can communicate with many believers.
Yet, when we think about it, if the human psyche is structured as Jung says, where 90% of our personality is subsumed by the unconscious, then faith is not dependent on the ideas we consciously entertain. We have both reason and heart - we might also use the terms conscious and unconscious or, in Augustine's language, reason and memory. There is something deeper in us than merely our rationality.
I am frequently surprised that somebody who calls himself an atheist has a heart which is full of God and open to the mystery of love. For various reasons, his faith is not present in his conscious mind, in his rational thinking. This may be due to cultural influences or because of his upbringing or a traumatic experience with the Church, or a real lack of experience with the living Church and spiritual culture, authentic Christianity. Many such people have "an implicit faith" and we can call them with Karl Rahner "anonymous Christians."
There is also the opposite situation: some people may have God in their minds and their mouths, but you can feel that their heart is absolutely cool and closed, and that their words are merely the echo of years of religious education. There exist, then, both "implicit religiosity" and "implicit atheism." I think we have to be very slow to judge individuals from the outside, just as we should also refrain from passing judgment on the culture of a nation from the outside.
There are people whom I describe as "sorrowful atheists." They are those who say, "I would like to believe but I cannot." Sometimes they have some sort of trauma or they have some wounds of evil and of tragedy, sometimes in their personal life, or they may have trouble understanding the evils of history - wars, concentration camps and so on.
But sometimes, someone whom we might classify as a "sorrowful atheist" is actually participating, in a mysterious way, in the moment during the passion of Jesus Christ when our Lord cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I tell these people that faith is not just some kind of enthusiastic feeling. The subject of our faith is the story of Jesus, and in the story of Jesus as well as in the personal story of every believer, there are dark moments.
I can understand this feeling of emptiness and loneliness. But we must put it in the broader context: there is the fact of Good Friday, but there is also more to the story. Therefore, it is not good to sink into sadness with no sense of hope. Sadness and pain must not be the last word. Sometimes, we must be patient - patient with God.
The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition know the expression hester panim (God turned His face away). I call atheism a hot-headed fore-judgement, a premature interpretation of hester panim, the shyness of the hidden God. As I wrote in one of my books, faith, love and hope are three kinds of the patience with God.
I think all types of atheism are a challenge for theology. So, for example, the type of atheism called "scientific atheism," popular in the Enlightenment, was a challenge that caused Christians to examine their fundamentalism and consider the deistic concept of God. There were also those who claimed, in effect, that there should not be a God, because if there is a God, how could it be possible that I am not a god? That was Nietzsche's attitude. Here is a challenge for the theology of human freedom: we are being challenged to show how Christian life is the way to freedom and not to slavery. We should demonstrate, that servire Deo regnare est - to serve God offers more freedom and dignity than to play a role of God.
I am now writing a new book in which I try to argue something very provocative - namely that, for God, it is perhaps not so important that we "believe" in Him, that we hold some ideas concerning his "existence." As St. Thomas asks, how can we even know what it means that God "is"? But what is very important is that we love God. I am inspired by the pseudo-Augustinian formula Amo, volo ut sis, which appears in Martin Heidegger's and Hannah Arendt's works: "I love you: I want you to be."
There are some people who "believe" in God and are quite certain there is a God, but they have such a bad image of God that they are not happy He exists. They suffer under their image of God, because He seems like a disapproving parent to them. There are other people who are not able to accept the existence of God but would like to believe; they have the spiritual desire to believe - they want God to be.
I think that this second group of people, even though they may call themselves unbelievers, is actually nearer to God than the first group. They have a deep desire that God exist, even though they do not have certainty. And this desire is a true act of love, since love always leaves some space for the mystery of the other.