Sunday, October 20, 2013


Atheism in Western Society

Originally an assignment at Catholic Distance University

The modern world is faced with a crisis of faith, much of which is derived from a lack of belief in God. For many of us, we mistakenly group non-belief into a large category of “atheism”, but in reality atheism has a variety of groups within it. In order to effectively evangelize to those who do not believe in God, or whose disbelief stems from a confusion of who or what God is, it is important to understand who these groups in atheism are. Although it is generally accepted that there are at least eight species of atheism, several of which may overlap one another, we will explore just five of these types: disbelief, positivism, relativism, humanism, and indifference.

“Disbelief correctly describes those who positively deny the existence of God; while they often call believers “credulous” or “gullible” because they blindly accept what is simply unprovable” (Hardon, 61). There are two prominent atheists who have become “poster children” for this view and their names are Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Hitchens, who famously quipped, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” (Good Reads), went to his death bed holding strong to his belief that there is no God. He stressed in his book God is not Great that religion is a “malignant force [that] poisons everything” (Amazon). Hitchens spent his entire life trying to convince people that “religion is a man-made wish, a cause of dangerous sexual repression, and a distortion of our origins in the cosmos” (Amazon). Meanwhile, in Dawkins' book The God Delusion, he insists that “There is almost certainly no God” (Aitkenhead) and challenges the intelligence of anyone who believes in the contrary. For both of these gentlemen, their adhere to a strict sense that not only through science, but mainly through human reason, anyone can easily see that there's no such thing as God.

The problem with these views is that it assumes faith and reason are diametrically opposed to one another; nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, the Catholic Church has always taught that science and faith are not enemies and must not ignore one another. Auxiliary Bishop Cecilio Raul Berzosa Martinez of Oviedo, Spain, said that “they must be complementary, as they are traveling companions in the mystery of life” (CNA). The bishop further explained the Church's teaching by saying, “Science opens doors and windows to the mystery and the Church offers a reflection based on theology” (CNA). Since God is constant, He never changes; therefore, the faith is logical because there is a reasoning that compliments the faith. When we divorce faith and reason, then you have the contradictions in theology that currently exists between the various faith traditions, Christian and non-Christian. Through this scandal of division, especially in the Christian community, we open ourselves up to the ridicule of people such as Dawkins and Hitchens, who cite our inconsistencies as further “proof” that we have invented a God in our own image.

I believe that the atheism of disbelief can easily be blended with the atheism of positivism, “which says that we cannot penetrate beyond the empirical world of space and time, or know anything (least of all God) for certain beyond the external phenomena that affect our senses” (Hardon, 61). I think the most prominent example of this way of thinking can be found in the works of the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking, a man of enormous wisdom but very little faith. In his book The Grand Design, he asserts that God did not create the universe because, due to the existence of gravity, “the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (Greene). He bases his views on a measurable spectrum that he calls M-theory, which claims that there are 11 space-time dimensions, “vibrating strings, ... point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space” (Greene). Because of the fact that so much of space is occupied by existing matter, Hawking believes that there must be life somewhere else in the universe and if there is life somewhere else, then life exists due to natural means instead of supernatural creation willed by a Divine Creator. Once again, faith is being shown as the enemy to – or at least a roadblock against – true scientific enlightenment.

The fact of the matter is that the Church has always encouraged the study of the sciences as it helps us better understand God's relationship with His creation. He has given us the universe to pique our interests and stroke our curiosity and through our understanding of the world and universe around us, we come to a better understanding of our Divine Creator. In regards to astronomy, the Church has expressed its interest since at least the 16th Century. “In 1891, Pope Leo XIII decided to officially create the Vatican Observatory to show that the Church is not against scientific development, but rather promotes it” (CNA). For many non-Christians, they mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church is opposed to scientific development because of the Biblical views commonly expressed by Protestants, such as Creationism vs. evolution. However, while the Protestants adhere to a literalist interpretation of the Bible - in which the passage's context, audience, writing style, and purpose are ignored and taken at face value – the Catholic Church holds to a literal interpretation – taking all of those things into account – and which does not find theories such as evolution and the big bang to be necessarily in opposition to the Bible or the faith. While the Church doesn't rule out the theory of Creationism, Father Jose Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, recently said that the “big bang” does not contradict the faith. He said that Catholics need to observe and enjoy the beauty of the universe, seeing it as a gift from God. He added, “This beauty we see in some way leads us to the beauty of the creator...And also, because God has granted us intelligence and reason, we can find the logos, that rational explanation that exists in the universe that allows us to engage in science as well” (CNA). In response to this desire to know God and to explore the universe He created, the Vatican not only has its observation telescope in Tuscan, Arizona, but has also set up the new Science and Faith Foundation, whose goal it is to be the bridge between science and theology. “Their stated aim is to explore 'the possibility of being believers at the dawn of the Third Millennium without renouncing scientific progress'” (Kerr).

“ the present context...refers to those who hold that truth is relative and therefore varies from individual to individual, from group to group, and from time to time, having no objective standard” (Hardon, 61). I believe one of the most blatant examples of this is the Church's teaching on human sexuality, most notably on contraception. Many have argued that the Church's teaching is outdated and out-of-touch with reality. They cite the fact that the rest of the Christian world has “seen the light” and allowed married couples to contracept; therefore, instead of acknowledging the eternal truth of the Church's teaching, instead the Catholic Church must be wrong and should cave in to the demands of modern times. “Most Catholic theologians...reject the church's teaching on the issue, and have argued that a teaching that the majority of the faithful have rejected is not valid” (Soko). This relativistic argument has come out in full force during the present day debate on the US Department of Health and Human Service's decision to deny religious organizations an exemption for the national health care law's requirement that employers offer their employees health plans that cover contraception, abortion, and sterilization. “Should the U.S. bishops speak for all Catholics on a matter of national public policy, an issue that most Catholics disagree on within their own church? And the bishops are all male. What about Catholic theologians, academics, social workers and health care professionals? What about Catholic women?” (Soko).

The Church has always responded to this criticism, reflecting upon the timeless truths of the sexual act. In 1979, Blessed John Paul II said, “Marriage must include openness to the gift of children. Generous openness to accept children from God as the gift to their love is the mark of the Christian couple. Respect the God-given cycle of life, for this respect is part of our respect for God himself, who created male and female, who created them in his own image, reflecting his own life-giving love in the patterns of their sexual being” (Foy). As we constantly hear challenges made by these relativists, we remember back to one of history's most famous relativists, Pontius Pilate, as he asked the Lord, “What is truth?” We have nearly 40,000 Protestant denominations today because we've answered that question in 40,000 different ways. However, as Catholics we trust in the Church's teaching – on contraception and other matters of faith and morals – because of the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church “in all truth”. To declare the Church's teaching as false on any subject regarding faith and morals is to call Jesus Christ a liar and the Holy Spirit as fallible.

“ the deification of man to the exclusion of a transcendent God” (Hardon, 61). This secularism excludes God and replaces Him with ourselves. The American Humanist Association, who advertises the mantra that “Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God”, is one of the United States leading organizations dedicated to expelling religion and religious thought from public life due to the misguided belief that religious belief is an attack on freedom. In their Humanist Manifesto III they explain their belief that “values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance” (AHA). Secular humanists see God and religion as opposed to man's progress. “[T]he defiance of religious and secular authority has led to democracy, human rights, and the protection of the environment. Humanists make no apologies for this. Humanists twist no biblical doctrine to justify such actions” (Edwords). The secular humanist convinces himself that without the “chains” of God and religion, we humans are now free to finally live our lives, in effect, becoming our own arbiter of truth and our own authority of what's right and wrong. The humanist view of the “freedom from religion” is expressed clearly by the American humanist Robert G. Ingersoll:

“When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free-free to think, to express my thoughts-free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination's wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds” (Edwords).

Yet this humanism is merely the sin of pride, the sin that thrust Satan from Heaven; the very same sin that cast mankind from the Garden: and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Secular humanism grew throughout Europe thanks in part to the so-called Enlightenment. “To many in the eighteenth century, man himself seemed invincible; indeed, many eighteenth-century Christians were actually Pelagians—believing that man could and did work out his own salvation as a result of his own reason, faith, and intellect—without divine aid” (Daly). Whereas the Church has always taught that we are one human family, tracing ourselves to our common parents in the Garden – parents made in the image and likeness of God and deserving dignity because of our creation – secular humanism encourages mankind to nurture his selfishness. “The chief attraction of secular humanism then is that it enshrines selfishness and makes it into a virtue. Indeed, the only religious obligations with which one must comply are quite enjoyable: one must indulge and fulfill oneself. Since one's chief duty is to oneself and to one's own desires and needs, one can treat others cavalierly, dispensing with whatever does not gratify one's own ego” (Daly). This is, in effect, idolatry as we have set ourselves up to be gods.

“There is, at last, the indifference of millions in nominally Christian cultures for whom God does not 'really matter'” (Hardon, 62). For many Christians, there isn't time for God in their lives. Perhaps they honestly believe they love God and believe in Him, but He is never on their minds. The busy pace of life leaves God on the side, for there are more important things to worry about – bills to pay, jobs to find, promotions to be had, vacations to take, things to buy. God becomes that ever-present “man in the shadows”, occasionally making an appearance – perhaps at Christmas and Easter – but never really causing us to live our lives in any particular way. This indifference causes us to forget that God even exists or that our lives need to be lived in accordance to His will.

Pope Benedict XVI understands this threat to Western civilization. “We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations” (Thavis). The Church teaches that it is up to all of the baptized to spread the message of the Gospel throughout the entire world. Religious indifference harms that universal call to holiness that all Christians are asked to live. Without the light of a true Christian witness, the world remains in its present darkness. The Pope continues, “Even today, the new evangelization needs well-trained, zealous and courageous apostles, so that the light and beauty of the Gospel may prevail over the cultural trends of ethical relativism and religious indifference” (CNA).

The Second Vatican Council, understanding the prevalence of atheism in the modern world, mentions these various types of unbelief that can be found today. One of the hardest parts of the discussion, however, seems to be the Council's teaching that much of this unbelief can be attributed to the actions of Christians. “[B]elievers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion” (GS, 19). We must realize as Christians that the Church holds the key to navigating through life's mysteries, joys, and tragedies. We should not fear addressing the unbelief of the secular world because we have 2,000 years of answers that can address the concerns of others. We must live our faith every day in order to evangelize the world through our lives. The antidote to atheism is true, orthodox Catholicism – if we dare to live it.

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