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The Mystery (and Convenience) of Disbelief

By Carl E. Olson
Reflections on the nature of atheism and the Christian response to it

Envoy -

The Second Vatican Council advances the surprising statement that Christians, where they have failed to provide a coherent witness to and presentation of Catholic teaching, may be unwitting contributors to the unbelief of atheists. When Catholics have made their faith appear unattractive or unreasonable, it is not entirely illogical for atheists to question that faith. Olson offers some suggestions for countering atheist arguments—and encouragement to Catholics to “be always ready to give account for the hope that is in them.”

“I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that if he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” - Isaac Asimov, sci-fi writer, now with plenty of time on his hands in eternity.

Just as there are many forms of atheism, there are numerous reasons given for being an atheist. Not surprisingly, many atheists claim that logic and clear thinking have led them to their disbelief in God. But Ignace Lepp, an atheist for most of his young adult years and also a psychotherapist, doesn’t agree: “When an atheist is interrogated on his motives, he almost always makes much of the absurd state of religious dogmas, of how impossible it is as a rational being to subscribe to them. As a matter of fact, most atheists pretend to be rationalists. They criticize religion from the point of view of history or of the natural sciences. … But, in fact, there are few atheists, especially among educated men, who are so for rigorously rational motives” (Lepp, Atheism In Our Time, p. 14).

The Second Vatican Council taught that people become atheists due to a “variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 19).

That seems obvious, but the next sentence is crucial: “Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion” (GS, n. 19). Atheist literature, Web sites and arguments reflect this fact loudly and clearly. Atheists take special issue with Catholicism because they see it as detached, ultra-authoritarian and out of touch with the modern world. Not surprisingly, most atheists demonstrate a faulty understanding of most Church teaching and a sharp cynicism about the perceived hypocrisy of most (if not all) Catholics.

While some of these perceptions are rooted in unfair bias and dislike, the failure of Catholics to adequately explain and live their faith is also to blame. Thus the Council Fathers write that “The remedy which must be applied to atheism, however, is to be sought in a proper presentation of the Church's teaching as well as in the integral life of the Church and her members” (GS, n. 21).  Intelligent and tempered apologetic and evangelistic efforts are obviously a necessary part of this remedy.

Atheism is a difficult and serious challenge to the Catholic apologist. My personal experience is that I am far more comfortable talking to a nominal Christian or even an anti-Catholic Fundamentalist than to an atheist. After talking with an atheist I realize how much we Catholics really do hold in common with other Christians, regardless of significant differences. Atheism requires the apologist to have at least a cursory knowledge of philosophy and science; it also means putting in some time understanding the various forms and types of atheistic thought.

It is helpful to be familiar with some of the classic arguments for the existence of God, including St. Anselm’s ontological argument and St. Thomas’ famous five proofs (Summa Theologica, I, qq. 2), four of which are different versions of the first-cause argument. The fifth is the argument from design, which Catholic apologist Frank Sheed thought was the most useful in his street-corner talks. Others include the argument from conscience, which asks the atheist why it is that everyone seems to have a sense of what is good and evil. C.S. Lewis summed it up in two points: “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, 1961), p. 19].

Another argument is Blaise Pascal’s famous Wager. Pascal, a brilliant mathematician and apologist, essentially said that if the atheist is right, then both he and the Christian will die and that will be it. But if the Christian is right, the atheist has everything to lose and the Christian everything to gain. So the Christian is more logical in believing in God since it places him in the best position once he dies. Many atheists will admit the logic of the argument but then will ask, “But which god? Why yours?” You then need to show the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the religion He founded. Two excellent books that summarize these arguments (and much more) are Fundamentals of the Faith by Peter Kreeft and Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli.

While the apologist can offer good proofs for the existence of God, he cannot prove the existence of the Triune God of revelation by means of logic alone. He can only go so far with logic and arguments, since grace and revelation are beyond mere human logic. Regarding Aquinas and the proofs for God, Dr. Ralph McInerny writes that “The distinction between nature and grace, between the natural use of human reason and reasoning which is aided by grace and revelation, makes it clear that while Thomas holds that theism is natural and relatively easily attained, he does not regard this as making the further step into Christian belief as a continuation of the same sort of thinking” (Prof. Ralph McInerny, “Why The Burden of Proof Is On the Atheist” at

In the end there must be an encounter with Jesus Christ, as the Holy Father so beautifully expressed in his most recent encyclical: “Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give the reason the ultimate answer which it seeks” (Fides et Ratio, n. 23).

In the final letter Kevin wrote to me, he made an astounding statement: “I never stated ‘there is no God.’ A supernatural being may exist. I would submit, however, that YOUR God doesn’t exist, since your concept of God is internally self-contradictory.” In the end this particular atheist didn’t deny the existence of God but rather denied his own standards of logic and reason.

For an atheist to claim a “supernatural being” might be out there, but to then reject the Christian God, indicates a belief that is not rooted in rational thinking, but in a spiritual crisis. Atheism is rooted in spiritual blindness, which only the Holy Spirit can heal. Our job as apologists and evangelists is to be in accord, through patience and prayer, with the heart and mind of the Church, who “courteously invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind” (GS, n. 21).

Copyright © 2000 Carl E. Olson.

Carl welcomes your comments. Email him at

Originally published in the July/August 1999 issue of Envoy magazine, a bimonthly journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization. Visit their Web site at

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