An Open Letter to Atheists
EDITOR'S NOTE: Today's post comes from our friends at New Apologetics, a movement sharing a similar mission to Strange Notions. They use new media to dialogue about life's biggest questions, and have generated some great conversations on their Facebook page, which currently has over 65,000 followers. The authors of this article have offered to defend it and engage any questions or criticisms in the comment boxes below. So comment away!
As Catholic apologists, we want to do something that our name would suggest we do far more often:
We’d like to apologize.
By that we mean exactly what you would think; we want to say that we’re sorry. We understand that you might be suspicious right now, that you may be thinking that this is another “tactic” for drawing you in. It isn’t. In fact, having tactics is one of the things we’re sorry for.
You see, historically, we haven’t really known what to do with atheists. We felt helpless, and we wanted to do something. So we did something. You pointed out the ugliness in the way we held our beliefs, but we couldn’t see it because we were afraid.
We were afraid of losing ground to you, afraid (even within ourselves) that if we heard you, we would lose our own hope. It wasn’t all bad; there was something within us (under all of the unsound arguments) that we knew and recognized as true, good and beautiful, but we weren’t able to communicate it, and we thought your objections threatened it.
So, now we are going to come clean. And we are now going to come to your defense as human beings without asking anything of you in return.
To Tell You the Truth
We’ll just come right out and say it: Modern atheist rhetoric definitively smashes typical theist justifications about there being some divine purpose behind human tragedy. It doesn’t matter if the theist gets the technical win because of a slick argument. Debates on this topic invariably position the atheist in the manifestly righteous defense of the dignity of human persons and the right of innocence to go unmolested, while the well-intentioned, but humanistically impaired (and reaching) theist is left trying to sell a deity with inexplicable innocent blood on his “all-good” and all-powerful hands.
God can take care of himself; he doesn’t need our defense like that. Neither do we need to defend ourselves from looking foolish or from seeing what you see as clearly as you see it.
In response to your questions, a simple “I don’t know, but I believe that he’s good” would have been enough. It’s okay to look stupid if we believe he is defending us.
Time to tell the truth and shame the devil: We don’t really believe in God as much as we say. If we did, we would have had confidence enough to admit we were stumped. We would have remained silent out of respect for God, you, and ourselves: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 24).
We pray to have faith enough to see things from your perspective and still know we are safe.
Christian Apologists vs. Home Depot
We once saw a window screen with a sticker reading as follows:
“Warning: Screen will not prevent child from falling out of window.”
If one changes the word “screen” to “God”, then all thinking people who believe in God have a really keen problem. It seems that a pane of glass counts in protecting a child from tragedy, but omnipotence and infinite love do not. All the writings of Christian philosophers piled in a great heap before us do little to take the edge off the meditation introduced by this little sticker. There is no applicable knowledge on the part of the child, no informed consent, the horrendous fact that it’s a real child, an apparent infinity of opportunities for God (all-powerful and all-knowing) to intervene, and yet there is no intervention. Any attempt at explanation which says tragedy of this sort is for a ‘greater good’ is absolutely out of touch with reality.
As Catholics, we do believe that there is a reason for God to not prevent evil, and are assured that he never fails to bring a greater good out of every evil. However, this recognition has nothing to do with God “permitting” evil in the sense of “approving of innocent suffering for some higher purpose”.
We have often used those P-words (permits and purpose) to mean God does not oppose evil perfectly, and we were wrong.
All talk of God permitting the tragic suffering of children as a means to an end or as the intentional ‘shadow’ component in a masterful cosmic painting is such that it cries to heaven for vengeance, but it was the best we knew how to say.
The view of the Catholic Church is not the view of the apologists in this regard, and we were wrong to let you think it was.
“God is infinitely good and all his works are good… We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on him who alone is its conqueror.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 385)
Wisdom. Arise. Let us be attentive: The conqueror of evil is not also its architect. And infinite goodness admits of no degree of compromise with evil.
These are not sophisticated, subtle, or hard to grasp theological nuances; they are the basic recollection of that easy and obvious standard of justice which we human beings (made in God’s image) intuitively upheld and radiated as children – before we got intimidated and started making excuses for God we had no right to make.
We believers, in ascribing a divine purpose to things like cancer and freak accidents (thus making God the “architect of evil”) did not intend harm (or blasphemy), but we are deathly afraid of what happens when we let the “other guy” be right.
This is a problem, and you atheists have been right to be offended and worried about us.
A Revival of Purity of Heart
“Purity of heart is what enables us to see.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth)
To have a pure heart is to love what is good and hate what is evil. On the atheist view, people of goodwill can easily hate what is hateful (i.e. childhood cancer), and love what is good (i.e. children). To do so is to attain purity of heart to a large degree. It easy to do, and (let’s be honest) it also happens to be a huge relief. Nowadays, there are a lot of people who care more about suffering people than they care about being cast into hell by a cosmic tyrant, and that’s a heroically good stance.
A revival of “purity of heart” is coming upon our culture without much trying, and this is the biggest reason why people are leaving churches in droves.
And we need not be afraid to see with such purity of heart because God guarantees the outcome: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8).
What we need to learn from you is to see is that good is good and bad is bad, lest our hearts remain impure.
A Moratorium on Inhumanity and Blasphemy
“And aren’t we—the lovers of the Word, the people who sing of the Good, we believers—aren’t we the ones who are most sensitive and most upset by our observation and experience of evil?” (Pope Paul VI, General Audience November 15, 1972)
Not really. Did we forget something important?
“The Lord says to his disciples: ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch’ …while it refers specifically to Gethsemane, it also points ahead to the later history of Christianity. Across the centuries, it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the Evil One. Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by… all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth. In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad..." (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth)
But it really is that bad, and you were trying to tell us all along.
Our offering has been unacceptable to you for one reason: Because it truly has been unacceptable.
We asked you to believe in a God who took away your hope of simply loving what is good and hating what is bad. And we condemned you for not selling out like we did.
We wanted our offering to be enough. It wasn’t. And we wouldn’t listen because we thought it was only our right to have the offering.
It is why Cain killed Abel. And Cain’s punishment is the same as that of the apologists:
“If you till the ground, it shall no longer give you its produce. You shall become a constant wanderer on the earth.” (Genesis 4:12)
And this is the cure:
“Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5)
While we fell asleep, you atheists who are most sensitive and most upset by your observation and experience of evil have remained with the Lord in his agony. And we’re not asking you to believe us about that. Instead, we confess that we need to learn from you.
“Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.” (1 Cor 4:5)
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