Why We Should Be Compassionate Toward Atheists

Atheism is gaining converts every day, and we have a rather daunting job of evangelizing those who would rather God did not exist.

(photo: Register Files)

 Dr. Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy at New York University, wrote in his 1997 book, The Last Word:

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-formed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is no God!  I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

Whether or not Dr. Nagel intended to speak for anyone other than himself, I suspect his sentiments are shared by many atheists who not only don’t believe there is a God, but “don’t want there to be a God.”  

From the standpoint of Christianity, this prompts this question: Why would anyone not want a loving God to exist?  This is a question that all apologists—indeed, all Christians who seek to evangelize atheists—must ask and attempt to answer.  Because if we don’t know the answer to that question, we can have all the other answers to all the other questions, and it won’t matter.  For instance, we can talk about the inexplicable characteristics of the Shroud of Turin, the tilma of Guadalupe, the sun dancing at Fatima, the incorruptibles, and the Eucharistic miracle in Lanciano, but we may not have addressed the real issue for those who wish atheism to be true.     

There may be lots of reasons for atheism’s recent prevalence, but it is clear that the rise in atheism has taken place alongside the fall of the family.  Is there a connection between the two?  In his book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz answers in the affirmative.   

Specifically, Vitz argues that a father often exerts a powerful influence on his child’s concept of God.  (Since his original book was published in 1999, other studies have provided support for this point.)  Dr. Vitz takes a biographical tour of modern atheists and discovers a relatively consistent thread: “Looking back at our thirteen major historical rejecters of a personal God, we find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case.”  Of course, it is not true, nor is Vitz making the case, that every atheist had a bad father—or that the mere absence of a father must propel one to atheism.  It would also be a fallacy to claim that each atheist’s fundamental reason for embracing atheism is his paternal relationship.  But to Vitz’s point (and consistent with the findings of other studies), it is legitimate to argue that some persons may be predisposed to atheism because of their family circumstances.

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI makes an interesting point along the same lines, alluding to the connection between fatherhood and faith.  Pointing out that the “Our Father” is a great prayer of consolation, insofar as it recognizes and professes God as our Father with Whom we have a personal relationship, Pope Benedict XVI notes that consolation is not experienced by everyone:

It is true, of course, that contemporary men and women have difficulty experiencing the great consolation of the word father immediately, since the experience of the father is in many cases either completely absent or is obscured by inadequate examples of fatherhood.”   

As Pope Benedict suggests, the idea of God as a father can be a painful reminder that their own father did not, could not, or would not love them. Thus, the idea of spending fifteen minutes, much less eternity, with a “father” is remarkably unpleasant.  

Where does that leave those who are sincerely and charitably trying to convey God’s love to those who are so desperate to disbelieve?  Perhaps it starts by recognizing that they are hurt, and what we should do is act with compassion instead of trying to win a debate with them.  If you convince someone that their best hope is to spend eternity with a Being they equate with someone who has been abusive to them, you have done them no favors.  You may do well to first explain to them who God is, and what God’s love means to you.  Along with true knowledge, love and mercy are the essential qualities of a Catholic apologist. 

Try to explain God’s love to them, and ask the Holy Spirit for the right words.  Sad though it may be, it’s entirely possible that no one has ever tried—never talked about God’s love to them.  It’s entirely possible that no one has ever told them that God wants them to be happy.

Patience is also critical.  Some might seem obstinate in their refusal to believe, or in their inability to admit the possibility that they might be wrong.  Respond with patience, and remember that though the argument at hand might be Saint Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for God’s existence or the Shroud of Turin, for instance, that may not be what they are actually arguing about.  They might be really arguing about their parents, the past, and their pain.  Thus, for them, the Shroud of Turin serves as a spiritual Rorschach test in which they don’t see God’s pain, but their own.  Explain to them that no one wants to ease their pain more than God.  It sometimes helps to explain to them how God has eased your own.  Don’t forget that “comforting the afflicted” is a spiritual work of mercy not just for other Christians, and it very often must precede “instructing the ignorant.”

Atheism is gaining converts every day, and we have a rather daunting job of evangelizing those who would rather God did not exist. Many people have had difficult and painful family experiences, and they deserved better.  We need to help people understand that God is better.  Scripture does not assure us that our own parents will love us; quite the contrary, God warns us that some parents will not love their own children. That’s terribly sad, but it’s connected with an overwhelming promise that we need to remind people again and again and again: God will never stop loving you. This message is made many times in Scripture, but perhaps most explicitly in passage that must be in our hearts and on our lips going forward in our discussions.  It is Isaiah 49:15, and it reads: “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”