Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, was jostled to a rude awakening a few years back. For some reason, the world seemed suddenly to be swarming with atheists. The predictable response was mounted – books defending the Faith, CDs pointing out the flaws in the atheist position, speakers explaining what atheists do and do not believe and how to talk them into or out of any given position. Catholic Answers even published a graphic novel aimed at debunking atheist reasoning (or the lack of it).
Who are all those atheists who have suddenly sprouted up over the past decade? The older ones, I imagine, were there all along; they simply feel more comfortable admitting their lack of faith now that atheism has gone mainstream. Many of the younger ones grew up in a world that gives them every reason to doubt, while offering them an overabundance of vapid belief systems in which to place any vestigial “faith” they may feel. In the 21st century, you are perfectly free to follow your heart, and you can even claim that there is a Higher Power guiding your heart, as long as that Power remains amorphous and unnamed. It’s when He is incarnate of a virgin and eats fish around the campfire with the rest of the guys that folks start to question your intellectual capacity.
I was never particularly tempted towards atheism; it always just seemed so dead obvious to me that there must be a Creator, and if there is one, then His name is Jesus. My closest brush with a loss of faith came one sweltering summer night when I was living in Taiwan. It was a day or two before graduation at the nondenominational Christian college where I taught back in my Protestant days. I had gone to bed with the window open, screen in place to keep the mosquitos out, in an effort to get some kind of a breeze going as the school simply couldn’t afford to air-condition the building. My room was on the second floor of a girls’ dormitory, so I felt pretty safe doing that; a ledge 10 inches wide, some 20 feet off the ground was the only thing outside the window – nothing to fear.
A half-hour after midnight I was awakened by the frantic barking of the little Pomeranian who slept on my bed. Apparently she smelled something outside the window. To quiet her, I sat up in bed and lifted her up to the window to let her sniff, in the hope that she would quiet down and let me drift back to sleep. As I lifted her up, the horrific realization swept over me that someone had removed the screen from the window.
I dropped the dog as a man leapt over the sill and onto my bed. It was dark, too dark to see his face, but I could clearly make out the silhouette of the knife he was clutching in his right hand. Ever since I was a little girl, I had wondered whether I would be able to scream if I were ever attacked, or if my vocal cords would be too paralyzed to squeak. At that moment I found out. I screamed bloody murder.
I guess the guy was unnerved. He shot, nimble as a monkey, back out the window. How he maneuvered on that tiny little ledge, and by what means he had climbed to the second floor in the first place I never found out – I ran screaming to the room across the hall where a married couple, Baptist missionaries, lived. They, like many of the people in the building, were still up, and hadn’t heard a thing. Fortunately, my attacker had had no idea that my screams had gone completely unnoticed in that noisy girls’ dormitory.
Every effort was made in the following days to comfort me. It was explained to me over and over again that God had quite obviously protected me from harm – other than a bad fright, I could complain of no injury. Each of the American pastors at the college came in turn to visit me, and each explained patiently that I just had to trust God; He would take care of me. I think each of them took it personally when I refused to be comforted. I was traumatized. The seniors graduated; classes were over for the school year. The Chinese staff went home for the summer, and the American teachers boarded planes back to the States. I had agreed months earlier to stay at the school helping the skeleton staff prepare for the fall semester. That meant that I had to spend nights alone in the now-abandoned dorm.
It was my own personal horror flick. Each evening the building was locked. I was assured that no one could get in, and even if they could, my door was locked and bolted. My window was of course tightly locked; thoughtful students had booby-trapped the ledge outside my window with a multitude of wickedly sharp objects before saying goodbye for the summer. The Baptist missionary’s wife had even tried to explain to me, before she left for the States, how to rig up a flamethrower using an aerosol can (watch out for those Baptist missionaries!!) Nothing calmed my fears. Each evening as the sun went down, I was reduced to a quivering bowl of Jell-O.
Sleep was impossible. The temperature in the locked room was approaching 90⁰, with humidity appropriate to the subtropical climate. I lay on my bed (now pushed to the center of the room), sweat staining the sheets, my ears straining to catch any hint of a footfall ascending the stairs outside my door. I cried as quietly as I could so as not to prevent my hearing my attacker when he returned to finish what he had started.
I begged God to help me, to give me a sense of peace, to fill me with trust in Him so that I could sleep. I really was safe all locked up like that. The guy was gone, never to return. I understood that God had protected me when I was attacked – not a hair on my head had been harmed – but I was filled with rage at the God Who had allowed me to be attacked at all….
And then it came to me – my atheist epiphany. There is no God. That’s why I had been assaulted, because no One was there looking out for me. It meant that I was free, free to go back to the States, free to just buy a plane ticket while looking the cheapskate college president who paid us little more than room-and-board for the privilege of bringing Christ to these college kids straight in the eye and announcing that promises are made to be broken. An enchanting Technicolor vision of life without God illuminated my aching heart, a vision of a life where I made the rules. A life where I only had to apologize when I saw fit, and never had to ask forgiveness. A life where I needn’t concern myself overly with what others might need, because, hey – I have needs, too, and mine outrank yours. A life where I wrote my own ticket. I could be as nice or as nasty as I pleased in my own little universe. The realization that there was no God was the answer to all my prayers.
There is no God, my heart whispered in the darkness.
Don’t be an idiot, my head thundered back. Of course there’s a God. Your not wanting there to be one doesn’t make it so!
My career as an atheist never even got off the ground. Despite myself, I was completely convinced that God is – what I needed to learn was how to live like that was really true….
Of course wishing God away will never work, but that doesn’t stop folks from trying. Wishful thinking is the technique commonly employed when college students suddenly realize that life without God might well be a heck of a lot more fun than whatever their Sunday School teacher has got planned for them. Theirs is an atheism of convenience – no God means no rules, and that’s what perpetual adolescence is founded upon. God just has to be dead; therefore, He is dead. Flawlessly infantile logic.
An awful lot of those atheists-of-convenience grew up in Christian homes, i.e., they should know better. They may well have lived their lives surrounded by faithfully sacrificial examples of devotion to a personally experienced Lord. Or not. All too many of them were raised by Sunday Christians, parents who would miss Mass or Sunday morning services for pretty much any reason if it wasn’t convenient for them to attend, teachers who preached Christianity until it got in their way, and then brushed it aside to introduce their own philosophies, role models who lived for Christ until they were called to die for Him – and then just signed off and walked out. Christians who were in this world, and of it.
“The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” This verse from the book of Proverbs is the one which will most often be waved under the nose of your formerly-Christian, 20-something, Richard Dawkins wannabes. The verse, of course, speaks the truth – it is indeed genuinely foolish to look up at the sky and categorically proclaim the absence of an Uncaused Cause. But tell me, who is more foolish, those who for whatever reason decide that there is no God, or those who proclaim to the world their belief in His existence yet continue to live as if He were not?
Who’s the fool?
On the memorial of St. Marguerite-Marie Alacoque
Deo omnis gloria!