Who Is Capable of Faith?

Over the summer, a number of books in defense of atheism appeared on the market. The titles speak for themselves: God, the Failed Hypothesis; The God Delusion; God Is Not Great; The End of Faith. While some of these books target religion as a system of thought and action rather than belief in God as such, all of them presuppose that God does not exist. In this, they bring to a popular level the presuppositions of thinkers who have shaped academic life for a century: Marx, Nietzsche and, especially, Freud. Often they rely on their interpretation of Darwinian theory to "prove" that God is an unnecessary and dangerous figment of our collective imagination.

Some of the more aggressive atheists today make the argument that we can no longer tolerate religion because it causes violence. This argument became public quickly after the terrorist attacks on our country six years ago. Others argue that God does not exist because science has proven that religious phenomena and divine causality are unnecessary for explaining reality.

There are quick answers to both these objections. To the first, a moment's consideration brings home the truth that nation states and not religion have been most often the cause of the bloodiest wars in the history of the human race. To the second, many scientists do, in fact, believe in God because they recognize the limitations of scientific method itself and know it can't speak pro or con about spiritual realities that can't be measured or become the object of scientific observation in a laboratory. Human reason isn't captive to scientific method. If it were, there would be very little of human experience that we could think about.

Why then has atheism become newly fashionable? Quick answers aren't sufficient to respond adequately to this question. To begin, we might ask if people are, in fact, less and less able to believe. The act of faith presupposes that people can know the truth of things and are free to assent to it. Some would deny that we have access to any truth with real certainty; others would say that freedom is an illusion because we are compelled to think and act by forces we are most often not aware of. People who believe these things about themselves render themselves incapable of faith.

The Church teaches that faith is "the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 162). Rational arguments about the truths of faith are necessary and desirable, because any properly human action calls for an explanation; but the objects of our act of faith are not compelling to human reason. We are not intellectually constrained to believe. Faith remains a gift from God. Professor Mortimer Adler, who taught philosophy years ago at the University of Chicago, was an intellectual disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas. Asked once why he did not become a Catholic, since he accepted Thomism as a rationally satisfying philosophy, he reminded his questioner that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that faith is a gift and that he, Prof. Adler, had not yet received the gift. He received it a few years before he died in his late nineties.

What might predispose someone to become a person of faith, someone who can recite the Creed with personal conviction? Our being made in God's image and likeness places a desire for God at the heart of our being. This desire might often be vague, a sort of dissatisfaction with our work or our lives in general. It leads more easily to a conviction about God's existence when a person is capable of loving what he or she cannot see. As God's grace leads us into the experience of his love for us, God becomes more recognizably present to us in nature, in the history and the sacraments of the Church, in personal spiritual experience. The spiritual journeys of the saints and our own progress in the spiritual life strengthen our belief in a God who loves us.

What might predispose someone to reject belief in God? There are many reasons. First of all, sin darkens the intellect, and one's personal sinfulness can preclude knowing God as friend and lover. Secondly, scandals in the Church weaken the witness to God that is the heart of the Church's mission to the world. Division among Christians also weakens the force of the Gospel and discourages many from looking to the Church for knowledge of God. Thirdly, the existence of evil in the world has often served to convince some people that a good God cannot exist. Encountering deeply rooted injustice, suffering caused by natural catastrophes or the sudden loss to death of a spouse or a child can occasion a crisis of faith.

Some reasons for rejecting the gift of faith are more contemporary. The seemingly endless distractions of a consumer-oriented culture can prevent people from asking the questions about God and about the significance of our lives that might lead to faith in God and love for him. The contemporary argument that man is only an animal with political rights reduces the horizon of human experience and precludes the possibility of raising questions that stretch us beyond immediate experience. The popular conviction that each human being is autonomous and that no one, not even God, should he exist, can place demands upon another makes the "obedience of faith" a practical impossibility. Finally, a conviction that religious truth can be only opinion and that there are no ways to judge the truthfulness of religious statements encourages cynicism about religion and discourages a search for truth about God. Here, we need to examine the state of religious education in the Church, since, as Cardinal Newman wrote in 1859, the neglect of the religious education of the laity "in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition."

Are we becoming people incapable of faith? We become incapable of faith, I would argue, only when we lose our ability to wonder. Perhaps that's the question that should be raised by the current interest in atheism: have we lost the capacity to wonder? If so, then we are no longer capable of worship, and that's a loss no society has yet been able to survive.

Is it polite to tell atheists that we pray for them? In any case, we should pray for them and ask God to bless those who do not believe in him as well as those who do. God bless each of you.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

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Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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