Whither the Idea of God?

The trouble with atheists, some wag once wrote, is that they are always talking about God.  How endlessly they obsess about him!  And what strikes one straightaway about the sheer mind-numbing attention they pay to God, including especially the problems posed by us benighted folk who persist in believing in him, is that it so oddly testifies to the fact that he really does exist.

They are in very good company, by the way, since lots of non-atheists feel the same way.  Of course, some of them are actually talking to God.  It is, after all, the single most fateful human question we all face, taking us, as Pascal liked to say, by the throat.  The esteemed Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, for example, in a seminal series of lectures delivered at Yale University in 1962 called The Problem of God, reminds us that nothing and no one can claim exemption from the God Question.  “The whole man,” he tells us, “—as intelligent and free, as a body, a psychic apparatus, and a soul—is profoundly engaged both in the position of the problem and its solution.  In fact, he is in a real sense a datum of the problem itself, and his solution of it has personal consequences that touch every aspect of his conduct, character, and consciousness.”

So there is no escaping the business, it being the net in which all of us are caught.  Yet for all that the atheists lay claim to having seized the intellectual high ground in the debate, what finally drives them is not an argument about God at all.  What is fundamentally determinative of their position, in other words, is not the result of an abstract intelligence in cool and clinical possession of its faculties, looking straight on at a problem solely in light of the evidence presented.  It really hasn’t got anything to do with what’s under the hood.  But rather an act of the will that is already and ferociously directed against God.  Only after having decided to kill God, as it were, do they then set about finding reasons to justify his non-existence.  “There are indeed philosophies that are atheist,” explains Fr. Murray, “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.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

So one first decides that there is no God.  Then one constructs the discourse needed in order to defend the decision.  A bit like despising the neighbor next door whom you hadn’t even met, then going on to announce that, in addition to being despicable, he also doesn’t exist.  People who steal a base like that, it seems to me, need to be called out on the matter.

What are the weapons typically available to such people?  From the tenured professor, that is, cranking out learned screeds on the subject, to the village atheist, hyperventilating his hatred of God and religion at a local school board meeting?  Both being equally determined to root out every last vestige of pious belief, what is the weapon of choice here?

Perhaps the handiest of all is also the hoariest, namely, the assertion that because the world is so thoroughly wicked to begin with, that if there were a God who made everything, holding it all above an abyss of nothingness, then he must be either powerless to prevent all the wickedness, or else perversely responsible for it.  Far better, it would seem, not to believe in God than to be saddled with one whose nature is steeped in impotence and/or iniquity.

Neat, huh?  Actually, it is the classic objection that has long been current in the circles of Christian theodicy.  C.S. Lewis, for instance, gave voice to the same objection during his own atheist phase, noting that the burden of pain and sorrow in the world was such that if there were a God, a Mighty Spirit behind the universe, he must be either indifferent to good and evil or else, and this is surely worse, an evil spirit himself.

Nevertheless, says Lewis, there was always one question that, in the face of so catastrophically wicked a world, had never crossed his mind to ask.  “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute to it the activity of a wise and good Creator?  Men are fools, perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that.  The direct inference from black to white, from evil flower to virtuous root, from senseless work to a workman infinitely wise, staggers belief.”

So how does the atheist cope?  A cosmos sunk in complete misery, its inhabitants condemned to suffer and die in this life only in order to await everlasting extinction in the next?  Sounds like a no-brainer.  And since God is responsible for this cosmic train wreck, it must follow that only an idiot would believe in him.  And yet great numbers of non-idiots do believe.  Countless millions of people, in fact, who, despite the oppressions of historical experience (“…largely a record,” says Lewis, “of crimes, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonized apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering”), nevertheless persist in their belief in God.

How can this be?  That despite all the evidence of evil, all the numberless fires of deceit and injustice blazing throughout the world, people continue to believe.  Indeed, to believe in a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and, yes, all-good.  Amazing.

Shouldn’t these people be on medication?  Getting therapy?  But for what?  Mass delusional psychosis?

“Lay down this book,” Lewis challenges us in The Problem of Pain, “and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform.”

Who needs five minutes?  It should hardly take half that long to establish the fact that it was never the world itself, or the human events of its history, that gave birth to the idea of God.  And since atheism cannot account for the origin of the idea, we have got to look elsewhere.  And to ask, too, why such an idea would, right from the start, have lasted so long, indeed, with utter uninterrupted tenacity in the teeth of so obvious an absence of anything to commend it?

The answer, of course, is that the idea of God has no particular source, no genesis one could trace back to the point of origin.  Anymore than, say, the idea of geometry, or music, or speech, the movements and rhythms of which are simply of a piece with being human, belonging therefore to the deepest operations of head and heart.  And because the idea of God is both real and unique, abiding in both mind and will from the beginning, there is nothing in science or history or ideology that could possibly have put it there.  Secularism can no more generate this light than it can succeed in putting it out.  It was from the beginning and will always be simply there.  Like a sudden flash point of eternity into time, whose unforeseen illuminations have come to light up the night sky of our lives with the absolute certainty of hope.  Only God can account for the idea of God.  He is the source of that luminosity to which we are drawn, and in whose warmth we are meant to awaken from the first moment of our awareness.  Awareness, that is, of both self and other, which, not having made, we are free to receive and so to rejoice that, however undeserved, here are the gifts God has given.  Because…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God…The light shines in the darkness, and
the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn1:1 & 5).

Editor’s note: The image above depicting the Tower of Babel was painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1563.


  • 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.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...