Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
With the zeal of those on a mission, atheists today are actively speaking out against religion and belief in God. Spurred on by the tragedy of September 11, 2001, American author and neuroscientist Sam Harris took not only Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism to task. In his 2004 best seller The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, he advocates ending respect and tolerance for religion.
In 2006, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published his best-seller The God Delusion. He argues that religion is a “fixed false belief.” He dismissed a supernatural creator who personally cares for his creation. Instead, he advances the theory of evolution by natural selection as the infallible doctrine of the origin of life on earth.
Science is a logical investigation attempting to explain how things in the universe work. It is an empirical discipline. It conducts experiments on observable data and arrives at its conclusions through observation. The theories and propositions of science are provisional, subject to change with new information. By its very nature, science cannot offer an unquestioned understanding of the world.
Yet, the new atheists are so sure of themselves that they dismiss religion with absolute certitude. Truly astounding! Clinging to their unconditional adherence to their views of the world, atheists differ radically from true believers.
In an op-ed of August 29, 2007, The New York Times published surprising glimpses into the interior life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her private writings showed a woman who struggled with belief. In 1959, she herself wrote “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” For decades, she lived her life of charity without a profound, inner sense of the presence of God. She is not alone in her doubts.
St. Therese of Lisieux is perhaps one of the most popular saints in Catholic devotion. This 19th-century French Carmelite nun showed others the way to God by fulfilling ordinary duties with extraordinary love. However, her holiness did not spare her from doubt. The nuns who edited her writings were surprised to discover her temptation to not believe.
Once, St. Therese told Mother Gonzaga that she had lost the serenity of faith. She said, “You dream of light, of a country of sweet perfumes . . . you think you will one day leave behind the surrounding fog . . . Go ahead, rejoice in a death that will give you ... only a darker night, the night of nothingness.” Nonetheless, even without certitude, she chose to believe, so unlike those who dismiss God’s existence with absolute certitude.
In November 1953, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, later known as Pope John XXIII, returned to his home of Sotto il Monte to bury his much loved sister Ancilla. On his way back to Venice after the funeral, he muttered aloud, “Guai a noi se fosse tutta un’illusione!” (Woe to us if everything is an illusion). Are all the sacrifices that we make and all the hardships that we endure in hopes of something better after death merely wishful thinking? If so, what a loss we make of our lives!
To question and doubt belong to the arduous journey of faith. The path to God requires effort and perseverance on the part of believers. It would be quite unusual not to wonder if this world is all that there is. In the face of so much unexplainable suffering, death and evil, any proof for the existence of an all-loving God who cares for each of his creatures seems so tenuous.
Science, ultimately, cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Science is limited to this world. It analyzes what can be seen and touched by the senses. But, God is not a part of the material world. Science can arouse our curiosity. It can make us wonder why things are interrelated. It can stir us to seek meaning and purpose. But, once it does, science drops its mantle of certitude and stands at the door of philosophy and theology, waiting for an answer.
The great religions of the world teach the existence of God. Belonging to any religion, however, does not eliminate the personal search to find God. The Christian religion teaches that God is love. He is complete self-giving. To believe in such a God cannot be grounded in good health, wealth or worldly success. If it were, faith would be an act of self-seeking. But, to believe, while not being assured, to hold to the existence of God even while still questioning and doubting is a selfless act, just as the faith of Mother Teresa and St. Therese. This is true faith in God.