Dialogue with an Atheist

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | Apr 25, 2019

A famous atheist, British professor Richard Dawkins, holds that atheists are generally smarter than Christians. Atheists might be more humble than Christians, too. Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, supported a bus ad campaign with the relatively humble slogan, “There’s probably no God.” I’ve yet to see a comparable religious ad that says: “There’s probably a God.”

Most believing Christians are indeed not as world famous as the humble Richard Dawkins. We’re simple folk. We’re accustomed to rebukes for our simplicity, beginning with that of Jesus to His disciples on the Road to Emmaus: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25)

We believe in the existence of God without hedging our bets. And when faced with the towering intellects of atheists, we can only invoke Job: “Doubtless you are the only people who matter, and wisdom will die with you.” (Job 12:2)

We know that an atheist might have some fundamental questions about our uncomplicated beliefs. Who made you, an atheist asks, and we would reply that “God made me.” Why did God make me, and we would respond, “God made me to know him and to love him and to serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the life to come.”

Do you believe in miracles, Mr. Atheist asks? Our reply is, yes, of course, we believe in miracles. We believe Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. We firmly believe He defeated sin, suffering, and death by his glorious Resurrection. His Resurrection from the dead is the greatest miracle in history.

These are our honest answers to the questions of Mr. Atheist. Fair is fair, and we should expect Mr. Atheist to answer a few of our questions.

Who made you, Mr. Atheist? Perhaps the answer has something to do with random molecules colliding and, presto! There you are, with a body, intelligence, and free will. But mysteriously, you are in desperate need of a mother and father to care for you for many years. (Even baby monkeys have a shorter biological learning curve.) For a humble intellectual, considering questions of causality cannot bring very many satisfying answers.

Ask any high school kid who has ever dissected a frog. If he’s thoughtful, he concludes the unpleasant exercise with more scientific questions than he had before his scalpel made its mark on the unfortunate critter. The ever-expanding mysteries of science must be very frustrating for an atheist. For Christians, scientific mysteries delight and remind us of the Greatest of mysteries. When puzzles of science are solved, they open the door to more astounding wonders.

What is your purpose in life, Mr. Atheist? Since you define yourself by your denial of the existence of God, you must believe that you exist—let us guess—to “feel good about yourself without God.” But Mr. Atheist, suppose you don’t feel good about yourself? Suppose you do things that violate your nature as a human being—or, if you prefer, disrupt the clusters of your random molecules—and you feel terrible. Mr. Atheist, where do you turn? Therapy?

We’re Christians. Psychological treatment has its place, of course. But we don’t believe in salvation by psychological therapy alone. When we violate our nature as human beings—as by lying or stealing or killing—we call it “sin.” We know we cannot forgive ourselves; we don’t even try. We seek forgiveness from God, often in the confessional. Where, O Mr. Atheist, do you seek forgiveness? For that matter why do you feel you need forgiveness? (Because deep down, Mr. Atheist, we all know that you do.) The need for forgiveness is about as common as the need for food.

Mr. Atheist, forgive us for pressing the point; we’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer, as you know. Are you ever struck with a sense of awe? Perhaps it is true you have seen the sunrise or the sunset without the slightest feeling of the magnificence of some Thing called “God.” But doesn’t a sense of awe suggest a Benevolence that infinitely exceeds our own? Or are the wonders of creation merely examples of random physics, the multiplication, and collisions of molecules?

Have you ever looked upon the face of a child in wonder? Or are the features of a baby merely clusters of molecules as well, somehow arranged by unknown forces of nature? Or do you see the face of innocence? And if you see innocence, what does it mean to be guilty? What comes to mind when you look at your face in the mirror?

Mr. Atheist, pardon our persistence. We are ignorant and dull Christians. Like you, we seek innocence. And like you, we’ve seen Innocence Crucified in the faces of all those who suffer in this troubled world of ours. But this is where we are different from you. As ignorant believers, we do not trust ourselves in ignorance. We turn to the Other Who reveals Himself to us in the Gospels.

Mr. Atheist, you say that the words of Christ are similar to the words of many other religions. But where, Mr. Atheist, do you find “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) in great literature? Where do you find the daring of these words in all of religious literature: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mt. 24:35)

And where else would you read that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity through Whom all things were made—the Son of God, the Word made flesh—gazing at a human being after his ignominious Passion and saying with love one word: “Mary.” The words of Jesus are so direct, beautiful and miraculously perfect that there is no equal in all of the history of great literature. No offense intended, Mr. Atheist. God loves you and knows you by name.

The Resurrection is a fact of history—indeed, the center of history. We believe there is hope for us, even for atheists. That’s how ridiculous we are. God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). And we’re proud to be Christians.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: Cory - Apr. 29, 2019 2:41 AM ET USA

    Sorry Father but I totally disagree with the assumption that some atheists have "towering" intellects. This certainly does not apply to Dawkins nor to any Empiricists or Naturalists. These fail to support their assumptions. Yes, their ASSUMPTIONS. ASSUMPTIONS that they hang on to through faith probably more fervent than the believer's and certainly fervently irrational. I have yet to know a truly intelligent atheist. One way or another their assumptions and biases dooms them to irrationality.

  • Posted by: Athelstan - Apr. 27, 2019 9:09 PM ET USA

    Amen!