One Atheist’s View of Religion

Marty (not his real name) is one of my patients.  He’s articulate, intelligent, opinionated, materially successful, relatively healthy for  90-something male, kind, and looks like Pope Benedict.  He was born into a Jewish family but is a die-hard atheist.  Marty and I had an interesting conversation this week.  Or at least, Marty talked and I listened.

I’m not sure how the topic came up, but some how we started talking about religion.  Not any specific religion, but the whole God thing.  His arguments were rational and passionate.  Among his reasons for being an unbeliever, these are the ones he kept repeating:

  • there are so many religions yet we all claim to be the “right” religion
  • people continue to be killed in the name of a so-called God
  • religion breeds hatred
  • the Bible and Torah are full of legends
  • Moses, Abraham et al were fictional characters
  • people say they are a certain religion but don’t follow all the rules of that religion

Marty talked as if he had to get it off his chest.  Fascinated, I watched while his normally calm demeanour became more animated.  He said he had seen too much in his life to ever believe in any God.  His voice trembled as he told me of his 4- month old son who died because of a doctor’s negligence and if there was a God, how could He let that happen?

He kept insisting that he meant no disrespect since I looked like a religious person and there was no animosity in his words.  He told me how he once dated a Protestant girl who became furious with him when he told her he was Catholic, just to see her reaction.  He didn’t understand how Protestants could hate Catholics so much, and vice versa.  How can we both claim to be Christian and yet not believe the same things?

It wasn’t the Jews who killed Jesus, he repeated over and over, it was the Romans.  Pope Benedict even said so and still the Jews are blamed.  Pope Benedict seems like a nice man, but he’s wrong too.   And the Jews are no better because they believe in the fictitious Moses and all the other characters in the fictional Old Testament.  And the Muslims are killing everybody, and on and on he went.  Of all people in the world, he thinks that Black Jews have it the worst since not only do they have to deal with the problems of a black person in society but even among the Jews, they’re outcasts.

Our conversation reminded me of the quote by St. Thomas Aquinas:

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.

To one without faith, no explanation is possible.

But Marty’s observations are legitimate.  This is how a rational, kind-hearted non-believer sees those of us who profess to believe in God.  There really are too many discrepancies between what we say and what we do.  Maybe we need Marty to show us our hypocrisy.  Maybe we need him to challenge our complacency and moral superiority.  Maybe Marty’s unbelief is a grace in itself.

I reassured Marty that he didn’t offend me in any way but I had no answers for him.  What would you have said?

Deo Gratias

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13 Responses to One Atheist’s View of Religion

  1. Daniel Undem says:

    Tough call on what to say. I know that on the topic of the different religions, I usually say to people that if one looks at all the different religions in the world they do contain some universal truths. That on some level there is some similarity that runs between all of the different faiths. These similarities, in my mind help to prove the existence of God.

    For the comment of people of different faiths hating/killing each other it is a function of the human brain and not God. I think more has been done to harm the name of God through people “acting” in the name of God over the course of human history than we can imagine. If one truly believes and practices their Faith, then acts of hatred and violence against others would not happen.

    It as my Father told me long ago when it comes to dealing with other religions. Bless what you can bless when dealing with others and let God work on the rest.

    God Bless.

  2. dgcree says:

    As an ex-member of her Brittanic Majesty’s armed forces, I spent thirteen years of my life listening, parrying and countering such statements on a regular basis , but ultimately one has to agree with our revered father, St. Thomas Aquinas “To one without faith, no explanation is possible”

  3. It is sad but more often than not it is our poor discipleship that gives the unbeliever more reason than ever to disbelieve. When we show others the joy that is in our life for our love of Jesus it invites the the non-Christian to inquire from us why we have so much joy in our lives. To that we may respond that in the freedom that love grants to us we choose to live as we do, make choices that adhere to the commandments of the one we love and that we do not feel encumbered by these rules. In fact they free us from ourselves and our self-centered ways. We decry that people have acted in horrible ways and fashioned themselves as members of this religion or that but they are like all of us who fail to live our lives as perfectly as we would should be given another chance. The love we have for Christ gives us the ability to forgive them and he would find that should he also learn to forgive, the pain of carrying the load of anger will also pass. I pray that he can find a happy death in the end and find that love is a light burden when compared to hate.

  4. Well, no one will be changed by a conversation.

    I think I would find a way to get him to read just one truly good biography of a saint, like Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Gemma Galgani or Therese of Lisieux. I would ask him if he could read just one of those and then let me know what he thinks of the peace and joy that saint found in practicing their faith. Then I would challenge him to explain how their faith could be so bad if they found something so good through it.

    Personal witness is always the best. I think the lives of the saints provide that witness, and when people see what it is like to live that faith through a saints life they may at least get a better appreciation of the faith.

  5. I’ve found that you cannot convince a lot of people through conversation. Some yes. But many believe what they want to believe, regardless of the evidence.

    However, if he is open to having his unbelief challenged, I would actually recommend that he reads “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. In regards to suffering in the world, I would recommend that he reads “The Problem of Pain”, also by C.S. Lewis.

    My summary of Christianity is this (blatantly stolen from Pope Benedict XVI):

    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
    Matthew 22:37-40

  6. I’m under a time constraint when I visit my patients and having a long drawn-out discussion with Marty isn’t possible. The other thing is that Marty is in his 90’s and has seen his share of holy, God-loving people as well as those who are not ; he’s seen personal witness in action. Since he’s an avid reader, I might suggest some of the reading material mentioned, including CS Lewis and some of the lives of the saints. For all I know, someone else may have suggested reading books as well, to no avail. I agree that we all believe what we want to believe.

  7. I guess having lived on this earth for 90 years he has seen his fair share of pain (having lived through WW2 but, he also sounds like someone that may view the world with the glass half empty. There are so many positives about religion, and I believe they far out weigh the negatives. That’s why I love Father Barron’s DVD series “Catholicism” he shows how truly beautiful and wonderful Catholicism is, and that, is what Father Barron’s says we need to recapture.

  8. Mr. V. says:

    Tough situation, but in the end, no words are sufficient by themselves to win a person over to Christ. Words may win an argument, or at least stymy the other person for a time, but they don’t have the power by themselves to win a heart.

    Marty is right about all the problems with religion, but ultimately, all he’s doing is pointing out all the faults with mankind, period. The problem with religion is that it’s made up of people, and people are far from perfect. We have hatred and lust and greed and racism and dishonesty and a host of other evils. And one can look at any religion or denomination or sect and find all of that, and more, because people are involved.

    God’s grace is above all of that.

    I remember a story once, about a debate that took place between a prominent, well-educated atheist and several ministers on stage before an audience. The atheist tore apart every argument the ministers could put forth, and in the end, they were rendered silent. The atheist then aggressively challenged the audience to give him even one piece of evidence that there was a God at all. No one spoke for a time. Then a woman stood up, tears on her face, and began singing “Amazing Grace.” Slowly, others stood up and began singing with her, till finally almost the whole audience was standing and singing. The atheist tried speaking to the crowd, but they just kept singing, and finally he just turned and left.

    With people like Marty, I think the only thing one can do is cling to one’s faith. You won’t win him over in an argument, and as you said, with his age and amount of life experience, you probably won’t be able to tell him anything that he hasn’t already heard and come up with an answer for. But cling to your faith.

    The Romans were shaken to their core as they watched Christians persevering in their faith regardless of all the horrendous tortures and fates thrown at them by the rulers. In the end, nothing the Roman authorities did or said had any real effect. In the end, the faith of those early Christians and the grace poured out by God because of their faith transformed an entire empire.

  9. lilyboat says:

    At least he is not a lukewarm soul. Once he believes, he will become a passionate believer. I am praying for him. thank you for sharing this story.

  10. reinkat says:

    I agree with pretty much all of the comments you received above. Especially, that our failure in living the ideals of our faith gives a negative impression to others . . . and also that words are not enough in this situation. I think the fact that you listened attentively and compassion to his underlying anger, and accepted what he said as being part of who he is, that is enough. He may talk again. He may eventually ask you a question about your own faith and peace-of-mind, and then it will be time for words.
    I think all of his points do have valid counterarguments, but in order to have it be a fruitful conversation–it has to be just that: a conversation with give and take, and listening. Marty needs to finish venting, perhaps, before he can hear the Word.

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  12. HappyMappy says:

    Wow, that was an interesting encounter but I think you did the right thing of not trying to argue with a 90-yr old. But what I noticed about the things of his unbelief are mostly related to his grief-stricken experiences. I’ve been a Catholic all my life and probably one thing that I will share with him is the “joy” that my faith has sustained me all these years regardless how tough life has been. I’m not a welknown person to prove it

  13. HappyMappy says:

    Wow, that was an interesting encounter but I think you did the right thing of not trying to argue with a 90-yr old. But what I noticed about the things of his unbelief are mostly related to his grief-stricken experiences. I’ve been a Catholic all my life and probably one thing that I will share with him is the “joy” that my faith has sustained me all these years regardless how tough life has been. I’m not a well known person to prove it but there are real and famous people who have testified the love of God in the face of sufferings. Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, etc. just to name a few. Our faith is so powerful that even in the face of death, we can even managed to be joyful. Take for instance the thousands of martyrs in the history of the Church, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch or St. Therese of Lisieux in her death bed. I think it is important that the light of Christ and the joy in our hearts must reflect from our lips and actions so that the same light will illuminate and others may see it and believe.

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