Are Atheists Addled?

“If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”  ∼ G. K. Chesterton

“When I hear the word culture,” Herman Goering boasted, “I reach for my revolver.” Since he was, after Adolf Hitler, the second-most powerful man in the Third Reich, attention was paid. And while he may have stolen the line from Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, it would not have been wise to accuse Hitler’s Air Marshall of plagiarism. Take away his pistol, however, and all his airplanes, and see how fast his standing as a culture critic goes down in flames. The point is, we don’t ask people who despise or disbelieve that which we deem necessary and good, to tell us what it is, or why it might be worth preserving. Anymore than, say, a hospital patient suffering from rickets qualifies as an expert on matters of diet and health.

Why, then, do we pay attention to atheists when they tell us anything at all on the subject of God? Or of the life of the spirit, inasmuch as atheism makes no provision for it in its system? Which, we need often to remind ourselves of, is an utterly claustrophobic option, sealed so hermetically shut that it leaves its denizens gasping for air, for that oxygen without which the soul cannot breathe. Atheists are the least competent of all, in other words, when it comes to assessing the evidence for God. Or anything else, for that matter, touching on the unseen world. How reliable can a judgment about God be coming from someone whose whole life is determined on proving he doesn’t exist? If I want to know something about sanctity, does it make sense to talk to someone who hates holiness? To learn about the love of God, I need to go and talk to a saint. Or an honest sinner, who, despite repeated failures to become one, soldiers on anyway. And when I finally do get to the heart of the matter, it will be both the saint and the sinner whom I shall meet there.

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It is perfectly natural, then, that we should forever be thinking about God. He is, as Maurice Blondel puts it in his great work L’Action, “at the center of what I think and of what I do…. To go from myself to myself, I pass through him constantly.” Indeed, in no instance of human thought or action is God ever absent. But whatever idea of God we have, compared to all the other ideas we already have, it will not be in the least like any we’ve ever known before. Because, as Henri de Lubac reminds us in his remarkable compilation, The Discovery of God, the idea of God is an altogether unique and unrepeatable one, which cannot be forced onto some Procrustean pre-suppositional bed. “It strikes down like a flash of lighting,” he tells us, “and can be seen cutting through the history of humanity.” The very instant that “the intelligence reaches maturity, the idea of God germinates spontaneously.”

Rather like the idea of geometry, he adds, a phenomenon equally without provenance. This is why most theories that set out to explain the origin of the idea of God, sniffing it out like some relentlessly stupid bloodhound, “explain nothing or, without realizing it, disintegrate the idea they set out to explain.” Grant their preliminary premise, de Lubac is saying, which is that belief in God is pure chimera, then of course the idea gets blown out of the water even before it’s had a chance to swim. “At the very beginning we find atheism, which continues to guide their steps; little wonder if we find it at the end of the journey.” That such massive question begging informs the atheist mindset, should come as no surprise to those who have been its victims.

Fr. John Courtney Murray, for instance, in his elegant little book on The Problem of God, reminds us that,

atheism is never the conclusion of any theory, philosophical or scientific. It is a decision, a free act of choice that antedates all theories. There are indeed philosophies that are atheist in the sense that they are incompatible with faith in God. But they are reached only by a will to atheism. This will, and the affirmation into which it is translated (‘There is no God’), are the inspiration of these philosophies, not a conclusion from them.

The point is, people do not arrive at atheism as a result of hours heuristically spent perusing the philosophical journals. That is because it is not a matter of the intelligence that compels one to choose disbelief, but a movement of the will. One would have to be pretty witless if, on the strength of a syllogism, one were to conclude that there is no God. An atheist can no more eliminate God’s existence by his refusal to believe than a blind man can by his inability to see expel the sunlight. “The essence of God does indeed lie beyond the scope of intelligence,” Fr. Murray freely concedes, “but his existence does not.” And not to know at least that much, “is to nullify oneself as a man, a creature of intelligence.” Because belief in God is, very simply, the bedrock truth upon which everything else depends. To think otherwise, he argues, amounts to “a miserably flat denouement to the great intellectual drama in whose opening scene Plato appeared with the astonishing announcement that launched the high action of philosophy—his insight that there is an order of transcendent reality, higher than the order of human intelligence and the measure of it, to which access is available to the mind of man.”

Once again, not to know that is to remain steeped in the darkness of the cave, to recall that doleful image drawn by Plato, depicting the awful state of the lost soul, of one who shuns the sun because, perversely enough, they find the light too bright to bear. It is to choose sickness over health, even as the evidence mounts that, unless one gets well, it will prove to be a sickness unto death. And while there are none who prattle on as incessantly about God as those who disdain to believe in him, it may well be their fate to do so forever.

The thing that must surely be self-evident even to the most obdurate among us, is the fact that none of us has the capacity to self-generate. That the moment we experience the least awareness of self, we necessarily realize that we did not make that self; rather it was given to us, conferred upon us from our first moment … by another. Who can only be God. Or, failing which, life becomes a total illusion, and by its terms the nightmare never ends. Because life, as Chesterton would say, “to the very last, remains a problem of the will.”


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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