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The comfort of atheism and the consolation of faith


Christof Stache | AFP

David Mills - published on 06/21/17

It doesn't take much effort to believe in nothing. Faith actually requires a nuance of critical and self-critical thinking

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say,” writes a Hollywood screenwriter, “… isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed.” Dorothy Fortenberry is writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books, not a place you’d expect to find a Catholic explaining why she’s Catholic. They even ran it in the print edition.

The most annoying thing is “the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, ‘You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. I wish I could have that certainty. It just seems so comforting never to doubt things.’”

Fortenberry wishes she were as certain as her atheist friends. She doesn’t quite say so, but she suggests that if she were certain that God doesn’t exist, she’d be happier with herself. Catholicism comforts us, sure, but weirdly enough, it’s not as comforting as atheism.

Broken individuals travelling together

The comforts she finds in the Church are the comforts of membership in such a body. She likes singing and praying together. She likes being one of the crowd. “I am not special at church,” she says. The Church tells us that God loves us all equally. “We are all exactly the same amount of special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel embarrassed by are beside the point. I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t draw enough on the comforts of the Church’s teaching, because she doesn’t believe it all consistently, as she admits. “Thought about with even a smidgen of rationality, prayer makes no sense,” she says. Hold a second, I want to say, let’s talk about your defective idea of rationality. If she keeps praying, as she seems intent on doing, someday she should see the reason of it.

I think, if I read her right, she doesn’t really want the comfort of being an atheist. It has a kind of specious attraction, because it’s so simple and easy. No God, nothing to worry about. No God, no Hell below us, all the people living for today, sharing the world. Imagine that.

It doesn’t work out that way. As Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit famously noted, if there’s no God, “then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” Imagine there’s no Heaven. See the Misfit shoot your family.

God’s in His heaven, but …

The atheist seems to think Christianity means the cheerful happy vision of life Robert Browning put in the short passage known as “Pippa’s Song” from his verse play “Pippa Passes”: “The year ‘s at the spring, / And day ‘s at the morn; … / The lark ‘s on the wing; / The snail ‘s on the thorn; / God ‘s in His heaven — / All ‘s right with the world!”

Only sometimes, but basically no. Christianity comforts, but it comforts through the Cross. It requires a subtler, more sophisticated vision of life than the atheist’s or Pippa’s. Among other things, it forces you to see yourself more clearly. God’s in His heaven, and all’s right with the world, except me.

Really not except me. Because I’m not all right, Jesus became man and let the Romans torture him to death. A relief to hear? Yes. But comforting? Yes and no. The Christian sees both sides: the self that sent Him to the Cross and the once dead Jesus walking out of the grave. As the great Lutheran hymn “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” asks: “Ah, keep my heart thus moved / To stand Thy cross beneath, / To mourn Thee, well-beloved, / Yet thank Thee for Thy death.”

Seeing yourself more clearly

Fortenberry explains what it’s like to see yourself more clearly. “It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands,” she writes. The Church shows her the kind of person she wants to be but therefore also the ways she fails to be that person:

“Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket. Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting.”

Church, she says, “is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.”

Comforting? Not in the way the atheists think. But yes.

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