Atheism as a Pastoral Problem
May 9, 2023
Daniel Drain, Ph.D. (cand.)
“Atheism, true ‘existential’ atheism, burning with hatred of a seemingly unjust or unmerciful God is a spiritual state; it is a real attempt to grapple with the true God whose ways are so inexplicable even to the most believing of men, and it has more than once been known to end in a blinding vision of Him whom the real atheist truly seeks. It is Christ who works in these souls. The Antichrist is not to be found in the deniers, but in the small affirmers, whose Christ is only on the lips. Nietzsche, in calling himself Antichrist, proved thereby his intense hunger for Christ.” – Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age
In a famous 2011 lecture titled “Atheism for Lent,” philosopher Merold Westphal exhorted his listeners to consider the antireligious thought of prominent atheists Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche as lodestars for examining one’s own belief in God, seeking to prune, purify, and bolster it as a result. In many ways, this approach to so-called “enemies” of God, these “masters of suspicion,” has inspired my upcoming course: “Atheism as a Pastoral Problem.” Others have approached this material similarly in recent years and in superlative ways, as, for example, Justin Shaun Coyle recommends in his “How I Teach Atheism to Seminarians.”
In this course, we will dwell with the best objections from the brightest sources: Nietzsche (The Gay Science; The Genealogy of Morals; The Antichrist), Sigmund Freud (The Future of An Illusion), Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov), and others. Undergirding all of this will be Scriptural context, including Old Testament voices like Jonah and Job. The turning point of the course consists in re-approaching the biblical doctrine of Creation and in its original religious context (with Joseph Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance), in order to be able to approach the Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Our response to all of the above will consist in seeing the mystery of the Atonement accomplished in Christ as the only adequate response – issued by God Himself – to the problems of evil and suffering, which animate so many objections to belief in God.
By the end of our odyssey together, we will: understand the contemporary phenomenon of atheism and its relation to Christianity more broadly; understand the Church’s faith more deeply in light of atheism; and understand that the “grave problem” of atheism (Gaudium et spes, 19) requires as a response a profound understanding of the mystery of Christ’s atonement. With this understanding in hand, students will be able to recognize and diagnose false notions of God both within and without the Church more ably. They will be able to leverage the criticisms offered by the “masters of suspicion” in service of the Church’s mission of evangelization. And they will be able to find Christ present in and through the vastly prevalent unbelief inside and outside the Church.
The transformation I hope to effect in myself and in all who take my class will mean a deeper appreciation of the centrality of the First Commandment in the life and mind of a faithful Catholic: deep appreciation for the atheists we will read will help us guard more firmly against all forms of idolatry. Pastorally speaking, this makes us far more able to not fear those “outside the Church,” and instead be turned to find Christ’s presence – however remote or allegorical – within the thought and life of those on the outside.
I encourage everyone to give atheism a try this summer.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee. – Psalm 139: 11-12