For me the reward of virtue is to see Your face,
and, on waking, to gaze my fill on Your likeness.
Universally—but how does it happen?—people ‘believe’ in an unseen Power or powers, whatever they call it, whatever they think it is. All of that comes from the society they are born into, all of that is the cultural ‘religion’ that they just accept. It supports and gives meaning to their natural, innate belief. Being an atheist is something that takes effort. It almost never begins in childhood. It is a mental state and philosophical stance that is as unnatural as some of its religious opposites, asceticism, for example. It is as unnatural and difficult of execution as Christ’s invitation to ‘take up your cross and follow Me.’ (Matthew 16:24).
Atheism is thus, for those who try to uphold it, a kind of burden. An atheist would prefer—if he or she could—to believe in God, but that would be too easy. Society and family expects it, sometimes rewards it, but his own obsessive, existential self-denial forces him to follow his single-minded train of thought—there is no God—and so annihilate all meaning, all truth, all beauty, all love. Because none of these—meaning, truth, beauty, and love—can exist without acknowledging the unseen Power, the God who must be, who has to be, always ‘there,’ creating, watching, sustaining us and the whole universe.
Take that Power away, and even our faculties of sight, sound, and touch, are idiocy, our thinking madness, and the universe we find ourselves in is revealed in all its sheer terror to be dark, silent, intangible and without significance. The child wonders, where does the world go, how does it continue, when he shuts his eyes, covers his ears, or simply falls asleep? And, when that happens, where does he go? Someone must be ‘there’ to know everything and everyone is still there. As we grow up from childhood into adulthood we can forget our first experience of the world as it appeared when we first opened our eyes.
Then, we were engulfed in the glory of undiluted beauty, and we moved unself-consciously from wonder to wonder, love being a nourishing cup we lifted to our lips or, even earlier, had gently coaxed into our hungry mouths. Faith was total, overcome as we were by the sensation of being held, carried, not against our will—for we little knew anything we wanted but what was given—but ‘with the flow.’ The flow of what? The flow, just the flow of events and sensations that were the borders of our ‘known universe.’ We were as unconscious of religion as we were of God or Power, yet we knew and enjoyed the unseen Provider.
The adulthood we find ourselves forced into, comes with—indeed is defined by—a series of assaults by unnatural expectation, commanding us to deny ourselves. We resent this unasked-for education at first, but then find ways to make it ‘work’ for us. Fighting against it from the start, all of us finally become imbued with the spirit of our unnatural enemy. Then dichotomies surface, and we enter the kingdom of choice, where we must pay the tax to Caesar, and render to God what we owe Him because, at some point, we were apprised that He is there. What we did with that knowledge paved our path, either away from, or towards, happiness.
So where does that leave the unbeliever, the atheist? Though the evidences of a God cannot be measured and handled in quite the same way as scientific facts, if He does indeed exist, to know Him in more than a ‘gut feeling’ way requires very much a scientific attitude. In this sense, the advent of modern humanism is a blessing, because it makes possible the rigorous discernment which at least the Christian scriptures require. If the atheist is rejecting and removing himself from only the superstitious and half-baked ideas of nominal or enthusiastic believers—both extremes of the same ignorance—then he has not yet rejected God.
For the real God, if He is to exist, can be nothing other than the Original of which everyone is the reflection or reverberation on a lesser scale. This is the meaning of ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness, and let them have dominion…’ (Genesis 1:26). And it is exactly this dominion which gives humanity the mental abilities to explore, dissect and understand the created universe to the uttermost, studying the facts of nature in counterpoint to experiencing the acts of super-nature, that is, the Divine Nature, God. Thus, what science really is, and what religion really is, are reflexions of the unseen Power as human beings.
The choice, if there still is one, is no longer between theist and atheist. Believer and unbeliever, not this either, for no one can live a moment without some kind of belief, if only in an idea. Interest and disinterest, maybe, for one can choose to look at or ignore a beautiful sunrise, sunset, or rainbow-infested cloud, and again, choose further, whether to appreciate it or not. What the professed atheist can claim to disbelieve does not in fact exist, yet that will not insulate him from Him Who does. And the Day that he fears will in fact arrive, when the atheist cannot continue to sleep under covers, but will have to awake, as everyone else does, and look upon the Face that longed to look upon his.
Then, what will he say?