Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Practical Atheism

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 22, 2018

We often hear people say they no longer believe in God because there are so much evil and suffering in the world. They may add that they find the deeds of Jesus inspiring, but He spoils it all by saying that “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” The Crucifixion has little appeal. These objections are worth examining.

As a rule, atheists invoke the supremacy of science. True atheists view science as a means by which to solve certain technical problems, to make life easier, or to reduce suffering. These usually are noble aspirations. If the truths revealed by science are mysterious to the atheist, he assumes that this is not because certain realities are beyond man’s comprehension, but because the questions have yet to be investigated.

Christians know that God teases us with mystery. God’s handiwork is revealed through the study of science. When science untangles a few of God’s riddles, God opens up new horizons of mystery to be pondered and explored. Human intelligence will never grasp the ever-expanding wonderful mysteries of God.

Atheists typically explain creation with the purported science of the big bang theory. Matter was contained in a capsule the size of a walnut, and Bang! the universe began to expand. (We’re not sure who lit the fuse, nor how that first capsule of material came into being.) After eons of evolution, an amoeba became a fish, a fish became a lizard—and down the line—finally, a monkey gave birth: not to a monkey, but to the first potential atheist.

The Christian believes that God somehow created the universe out of nothing and created man in his own image and likeness. But Adam and Eve wanted to play the part of God, to tell God what good and evil is. Original Sin, therefore, is the choice to become a practical atheist—to claim the authority of God on our own. As a result, suffering and death entered the world for all of history. The connection of evil to suffering and death is another mystery of our faith. Without a Savior to overcome evil, all of us would be condemned to the fires of Hell. So the basic message of the Old Testament is: don’t play God; obey his Ten Commandments as we await the Redeemer.

Whereas Christian morality is to “do good and avoid evil,” it is fair to suggest that atheist morality is “seek pleasure and avoid suffering.” This is not necessarily a bad rule of life, as long as it is framed by the demands of good morality. So atheists—especially atheists of the comfortable West—share many principles in common with the moral absolutes of Christian morality. Most of us detest murder, theft, and lies, for example. But to avoid suffering, atheists admit to exceptions to these Christian moral absolutes. To avoid personal suffering, antiseptic and murderous violence—where the screams are unseen, silent, and without legal repercussions—is permissible as a matter of “choice.”

It is beyond dispute now that the general atheism of today’s culture places a high premium on the right to sexual pleasure as a moral absolute. The practical atheist insists on the supreme value of choice and consent as the only proper boundaries for his sexual pursuits. Further, the atheist insists that others should be inclusive and never judgmental about the choices he makes. But in establishing these principles of behavior, the atheist is instituting a set of moral principles of half-truths—principles that are every bit as uncompromising as the Ten Commandments.

God is the Author of the Ten Commandments. When the atheist invokes his own commandments, he usually points to popular opinion or sociological experts. He may appeal to science—except when science interferes with his lifestyle. Then the moral principles of the atheist allow for the distortion of authentic science in pursuit of his pleasures.

The honest atheist points to himself and claims the right and power to define the true Godless meaning of life. In 1992 Justice Kennedy couldn’t have been more concise in articulating the foundational moral principle of the atheist: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” An excellent working definition of Original Sin!

Without God, there would be no reason to avoid our personal inconvenience and our personal suffering. The elimination of my suffering would justify a direct and malicious taking of human life, even my own. Of course, the cumulative result of such uncompromising selfishness is what a comfortable atheist detests: injustice, conflict, hatred, murder. An honest atheist is unable to justify selfless acts of virtue. Without God, the chaos of an atheistic world would be normative.

But an honest atheist is confronted with a true paradox. If there isn’t a God, how do we explain the many good acts of personal selflessness? Why are there truly good people who have the courage to break the bonds of selfishness—hating their own lives to love others? A true atheist would scoff at such behavior as unreasonable.

Who would not esteem the courageous sacrifice of a soldier in battle, or a father risking his life to save his child, or a doctor who heroically and selflessly spends his life healing others? God’s goodness is implanted in the heart of every man and can only be extinguished by extreme selfishness. So to preserve his atheism, the atheist must be vigilant. He’s in grave danger of learning what it means to hate one’s life in the service of others. The atheist needs to be careful not to be attracted to the words of Jesus: “Greater love than this no man has than to give up his life for his friends”—lest he allow Jesus to sneak into his life.

The Crucifixion of Jesus reveals the iron grip that evil had on the world. But his glorious Resurrection has broken that grip forever and beckons us to follow Him through the wreckage, on the way of the Cross. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16:25)

It’s time to hate our self-absorbed selfishness—our practical atheism—and to begin living for others as Jesus taught.

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. See full bio.

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