I joined a Facebook group that dealt with questions about God’s existence this month, before the Christmas season overwhelmed me. (It was helpful because I was writing an article for the National Catholic Register about 2012: The Year of Atheism.)
I can’t make blanket statements about atheists in general – they are as diverse as Christians – but I noticed a couple of alarming things about the enthusiastic ones who join Facebook groups.
First, I learned that activist atheists are not satisfied with just disagreeing with theists. Not anymore. They want to make their views obligatory. In one post, an atheist wrote:
“You can believe god exists because there is evidence, in which case we should discuss the evidence. If it is valid, no one should deny god exists. If it is unacceptable or doesn’t lead to the conclusion that god exists, then no one should believe god exists. Or you can believe god exists on faith, in which case you must admit there is no evidence, and everyone else is free to reject your belief. If it is the latter, then we must immediately abolish any reference to god or religion in our kids’ education, in government and law. We can’t be a Christian nation if we believe god’s existence only on faith. But if there’s evidence, there can be no faith. So it all boils down to the evidence.” (Emphasis added.)
I pointed out that the search for “evidence” is odd if it disqualifies all the available evidence. If you see a farm plowed neatly in rows, you know that a farmer exists … and to demand that the farmer either be visible somewhere in the field or declared non-existent is to misunderstand the difference between farm and farmer.
But I was more troubled by the quick judgment: Those views that don’t meet my standard deserve to be suppressed.
This is in fact the judgment atheists have made at each point in history that they have ruled. They either do it mildly and ban God from textbooks and libraries (as in America’s public schools), or more aggressively and jail, guillotine or machine-gun those who believe in him. In Albania, they even went to the trouble of forcing people to change their names from Christian names to work-related names like “Tractor” – and destroyed Christian symbols in graveyards.
Why can’t we agree to disagree? For one reason, it’s because atheists either don’t have self-doubt, or are so afraid of that doubt they don’t want to admit it.
To be fair, this is a problem with Christians also – and it in fact may be the obstacle that keeps us from effectively engaging atheists.
I’m sure it was poorly expressed on my part, because I got blowback from both sides when I suggested it. I said that Christians sometimes doubt God’s existence and that atheists must also sometimes doubt his non-existence. What I wanted to say was that Christians’ sincere questions about God should lead them to grow in the truth, and that atheists should fearlessly question their assumptions too.
I even quoted St. Paul, who said it best: “Test everything; retain what is good.”
We are blessed with a Holy Father in Pope Benedict XVI who embodies that maxim.
Brennan Purcell’s Benedict of Bavaria includes a detail about a mentor of the young Joseph Ratzinger who was suppressed by the Nazis.
“One of these dispossessed was Gottlieb Söhngen, a professor of fundamental theology, who provided a formative influence on the young scholar. Ratzinger described Söhngen as a ‘radical and critical questioner.’ For him no subject was untouchable, nothing taboo, and at the same time he was a man deeply committed to his Catholic faith. …. According to him, no Catholic should fear any question, and no thought calls for violent suppression.”
If faith in God is worth its salt, it can stand rigorous examination and shouldn’t demand that the world be forced to share its assumptions.
And if atheism is worth its salt, it shouldn’t force itself on others, either. Let God breathe in our schools and libraries and public places; make your best case against him, but let us make ours, too.
When both sides declare themselves unwilling to be open-minded, discussion stops – and we start talking among ourselves about how to force our views on others.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.