I first wnat to disavow the title of this article. We cannot get inside the heart and the mind of a secularist/atheist. We can not get inside the heart and mind of anyone unless he reveal something of himself. Even then, because we only know ourselves partially, we can not fully describe ourselves. So what I will describe is partial and incomplete. I portray my impressions from observation and reading, hoping to avoid stereotypes.
Here is the obvious. An atheist is a human being, though we may be tempted to describe him or her as some sort of fantastic being whose ideas do not fit in to the world as we see it. Though atheism is far more common now after the Enlightenment and the ideological, scientific, and philosophical developments of the nineteenth century and may now be more popular than religious thinking, we who dwell in the midst of this thinking and yet beyond the edges of it, may find it inexplicable. We believe that any effective meaning structure must include as its compelling idea, the existence and reality of God in our lives and in society.
As we investigate this subject, we must make some distinction between secularism and atheism. Secularism does not necessarily imply or mean unbelief; but, it would seem, it denotes God as remote from the minds and hearts of people.and that the motivating idea at the heart of it is something other than the transcendent whether that idea be a human-made utopia (there are religious utopias), a world of unlimited human progress and ingenuity, or human motivations that are thoroughly grounded in time with no beyond time and history consummation or goal. The Latin word, secular, means “of this world.” Contrariwise, religion is described by the same word secular in a certain construction used in the Latin service at the end of prayers, saecula saeculorum, translated “for ever and ever or world without end.” Christianity does not utterly reject the world. The world is God’s good creation. But, it places a much greater emphasis on the world to come.
Atheism, literally “no god” explicitly, and often with great vehemence, rejects the idea and commitment to deities or a deity. Buddhism, in fact, in its origin was essentially atheistic but is also religious. Liberation and transcendence, though, must be achieved by one’s own personal efforts without God. Nirvana is the term for the state of achievement of that bliss whose natue and quality are almost impossible to describe. The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, did not deny the existence of gods, but maintained that they were not interested in humanity and did not create the world. Humans had to find their own salvation. So there are actually different types of atheism in all of which God is irrelevant to human life, if He exists at all. The aforesaid is an introduction to my almost hubristic attempt to describe an atheist.
We had left the description of an atheist for other related matters after I asserted that atheists are not fantastical beings, but human beings. They experience and suffer the same range of emotions that we find part of the human experience. They seek meaning, suffer things humans are prone to, love, feel guilt and anger, and die. They too fear the fundamental human problem, death, though they may be reluctant to admit it. Their atheism may have its source in negative experiences, loss of loved ones and loved things, and intellectual discovery that causes them to conclude that there is no God. Challenges to the existence of God have led them to disbelief, while the believer endures through them to strengthened faith. Ideological inclinations have provided grist for their skepticism, or their skepticism had led them to certain ideological conclusions Personal experiences of the failure of the church can be a highly signifcant factor.
All of these factors are not adequate excuses for the believer to disdain them in private and public conversation. It is incumbant upon Christian believers to try to understand atheists and not dehumanize them, a psychogical process that always gives an excuse for mistreatment.
Some atheists are wicked; all of them are sinners. They, however, do not recognize a need for God and may believe that they can do all things on their own. This belief bespeaks a very high view of human moral and intellectual capability. It is a non-recognition that they stand coram Deo, before God, who judges and saves. Their atheism eventuates in nihilism, a view that shapes day to day life as meaningless.
The atheist can lead a life that ranges from live for the moment, to indifference (Camus), to jubilation at his autonomy. I would add, perhaps a bit sarsactically, that atheism is a lot more enjoyable for the rich and the famous. The oppressed of the world can find no consolation therein, even though some may reject God in their bitterness. The rhetorical question of the Lord concerning the poor and downtrodden, referred to in Luke, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?” Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily,”(Luke 18: 7-82 ESV) the atheist answers with an emphatic “No.” There is no relief and recourse from a compassionate and merciful God. The world is given over to evil. Evil is real; God is not. The Christian rejects this view of life. We leap into the arms of God despite the uncertainty that always attends life.
The apologist must be committed to the welfare of the nonbeliever and seek to show him the way of God that will lead him to the liberation everyone desires.
This is as far as I can take this description of one who would not believe in God and our responsibility to him. Anyone who wishes to comment so as to add to this description or critique it are most heartily welcome.
Michael G. Tavella
January 13, 2020
Saint Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers