I remember when my sister became a detective. We were probably about seven and eight years old. Christmas was rolling around again, and she was suspicious. It started with simple questions. Mom, why does Santa have the same handwriting you do? And next, why does Santa use the same wrapping paper you and Dad use? You really have to admire her logic. Something didn’t quite add up.
Incisive questions like my sister’s are typical of those growing up. The Church has said that age seven, as a general rule, is the “age of reason”—when children first become morally responsible. There comes a point where the capacity for abstract reasoning starts developing more quickly, and children start to ask questions, particularly about God and religion. The questions can range from the innocent to the bold, from the bold to the rebellious.
Many contemporary atheists see God as akin to Santa, and the mind’s rejection of God as part of growing up and rejecting childish beliefs. When reason wakes up, it sees that belief in God is primitive and naïve—a mere fairy tale. For such atheists, saying there is a God who is the source of everything is like saying that Zeus is the source of lightning. As scientific knowledge increases, belief in God must decrease. Such atheists even say that we are all atheists about any number of gods—Vishnu, Thor, Zeus—they just go one further than we do.
But these are only partial truths. They present only one side of a dilemma.
For the sake of argument, let’s admit that what the atheists say is true, that belief in God is simply infantile, and that, therefore, adults should reject it. That is one possibility. But, as Herbert McCabe observes, there is another possibility: in the process of growing up “we may find, as Job did, that it was our own view of God that was infantile”; “we may in fact come to a deeper understanding of the mystery of God.” The Second Vatican Council speaks of this when it says that some atheists “form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel” (GS §19). The more we grow in faith, the more we realize how inadequate our conceptions of God really are.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit have a special role to play here, particularly the gift of Understanding. Understanding is given to us that we may pierce more deeply the truths of the faith. Paradoxically, however, the result in the believer is not the dazzling clarity of vision, but rather a certain “darkness” in our minds. The gift of Understanding purifies our minds by destroying the images, distortions, and errors that are opposed to the truth of God. This is why mystics like St. John of the Cross speak of the journey of faith as a “dark night.” Progress in faith means progress in throwing off false, inadequate, and idolatrous conceptions of God.
Christians striving to grow in holiness have a special sympathy for even the worst sinners, because the process of sanctification—of deep moral and spiritual conversion—is fundamentally similar to our initial conversion from sin to grace. So too, Christians growing deeper in faith can have a special sympathy for atheists, because they share with atheists the mind’s movement against false and too-human representations of the ineffable God.
During the Year of Faith, we can take this as a starting point in sharing with atheists the riches of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council highlights the urgency of this task, reminding us that depriving man of a truly transcendent goal wounds his dignity: “Riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair” (GS §20).
Our challenge to atheists in this Year of Faith, then, is the following: have you rejected God, or only your own inadequate notion of God? Perhaps—it is just possible—you have rejected God as you thought He was, not as He is. Perhaps, if you study more deeply who God is, under the tutelage of St. Thomas Aquinas, you will find that He makes a lot more sense than you thought. Perhaps you will find that atheism, after all, was only a stage of transition.
Image: James Tissot, The Golden Calf, as in Exodus