What does a lapsed-Catholic atheist do when he wants to prove God doesn't exist?
I mean, strip away all the Church stuff, the rituals, the community … what makes a religion, what makes faith? It’s very possible to have a form of “religion” without God: create a club, do good things for the earth or the community, create rules and sacraments and “corrections” (a.k.a. penances), acknowledge an authority and boom, you’ve got a religion.
Look at history, look at all the false gods that have been invented to sway or appease the masses; what makes this God, Jesus Christ, the real one? How can you be sure?
These are scary questions, especially for people who say they believe but deep down have their doubts. They’re even scarier for people who just practice faith because it is what the family, or the culture, does. But is religion “real” if you believe it out of fear, or because you’re too afraid to not believe?
Do you know who those questions aren’t scary to, at all? Those who do not believe. I know this because I wasn’t scared at all to ask any question. I was curious but not scared, and not especially serious, either.
Several years ago, though, the questions became serious, and a little scary, as I weighed “wasting money” to send my kids to a Catholic school. Economic concerns aside, what would I do—I, who didn’t believe in any God, let alone the Christian one—when my kids came to me with questions? Lie? Deflect? No. Being a pretty typical fallen-Catholic-cum-atheist, I had a pretty decent knowledge of the mechanics of the faith, enough to know that if there was a God I was going to hell anyway, but I still couldn’t lie.
Something had to give. I knew one thing for certain. I did not “love” God. I doubted he existed, but on the off-chance that he did, I didn’t love him. But now, I needed to know for sure whether God existed. Because it makes no sense to make a point of not loving what does not exist.
I did what every sane miscreant trying to disprove God does; I went to Mass. I started going to Mass every day, without a single expectation. Each day I would say, “Hi. You know I don’t love you, and it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because you probably don’t exist, but here I am. Amen.”
This odd little effort went on for 80-plus days, and then suddenly something happened.
All I can say is, God touched me. I knelt down to give my usual, “If you’re there I don’t love you …” speech and then slam! Everything was different.
Words are completely inadequate to describe the experience. I felt a Presence that completely overwhelmed my senses and I experienced it: love, joy, peace—completeness!—and it was so intense I thought I would pass out.
After Mass I stumbled out of the church and didn’t know what to do. I am a photographer; the world looked different. God exists! It was like going from life in black and white to life in Technicolor.
As I write this, I am sitting in the back of a bus, one of a group of journalists returning from Machaerus in Jordan—the place where Salome danced for Herod and John the Baptist was beheaded—and now I get why the sands of the Middle East are so rich in the blood of those who would rather sacrifice their lives than deny God.
Once you have had the encounter, you’re changed forever: I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back; no turning back.
So okay, here’s my unsolicited advice: if you don’t believe in God or you think he doesn’t exist, seek him out. Put your intellectual stuff to the side for a moment and genuinely seek him. You don’t have to tell your atheist friends you’re doing it, but you owe it to yourself to begin the search, because if you find the Christ you will know joy. He will reshape you in ways you could never imagine.
And then you will want to tell your friends.
And if you do believe in God, but sometimes doubt, tell him so. Be persistent, and don’t worry. Low spots come to everyone in the life of faith, and I had been hitting one. But here in Jordan I have been reassured: he will reveal himself to you when you really need it.
What I learned that day in Mass, what I can reaffirm now from the back of this bus is this: God is real, and there is really nothing more important than hanging out with him and serving him in whatever meager way I can.
By the way: hi, God! I know you’re here, and I love you.