Atheism and the Experience of God

Books arguing for atheism are topping the best-seller lists these days, and more and more people seem to be listening.  Those who take on the issue usually try to fight scientific dogma with religious dogma.  They would perhaps do better if they appealed to the unprovable but, to those who give their lives for it, undeniable experience of the living God.

The names Dennett, Dawkins and Harris have recently become well known in both atheistic and fundamentalist circles.11  Their writings and interview musings have elicited a heated response, especially from people who are convinced that the world was created some six thousand years ago and that the Bible was virtually dictated, word for word, by the Holy Spirit.  On the one side we are offered scientific (read “secular”) explanations for everything from the Big Bang and the origin of species, to human consciousness and life-after-death experiences.  On the other, we are given evidence, if not proof, for the existence of God either by a literal interpretation of Scripture, or by such “useless” realities (in evolutionary terms) as human altruism and the nearly universal belief in supernatural power, however it may be perceived and venerated.

Between these two extremes there is a significant number of scientists and others of an intellectual bent, who defend notions of “intelligent design” (ID) or of “theistic evolution.”  The representatives of ID have been accused of putting forth a sophisticated version of the “God of the gaps” theory.  This is true of some, but certainly not of all.  Most ID theorists argue that a great many phenomena are so complex (the human eye, for example, or the system of blood coagulation) that they could not have arisen spontaneously, as products of natural selection working on random mutations.  It is true that many things once considered to be scientifically inexplicable (the movement of heavenly bodies, the conception of a child) now have a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation.  In the future, scientists may find what is arguably a material explanation for these other phenomena as well.  As scientific knowledge advances, the gaps God fills become increasingly narrow.  It is quite possible, nevertheless, to hold to a theory of intelligent design without succumbing to the “gap trap.”  Michael Behe, for example, in his book Darwin’s Black Box, has argued persuasively for ID, based largely on the argument of irreducible complexity, in a way that opponents dislike but have not yet been able convincingly to refute.

Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is perhaps the most articulate representative today of the theory of “theistic evolution.”  In his deservedly acclaimed book, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), he develops a synthesis between science and religion that rejects both young-earth creationism, typical of today’s Christian fundamentalism, and the theory of intelligent design.  To Collins (who draws from the writings of C.S. Lewis), existence of the universal Moral Law and altruistic self-sacrifice – which cannot be explained by the laws of evolution – clearly point to the existence of a benevolent Creator who relates personally to human beings.  His argument is multi-faceted (affirming the Anthropic principle and appealing to the “language of God” revealed by the human genome), but to some minds it, too, represents a “God of the gaps” approach.  Perhaps, they argue, the “moral law” and altruism can also be explained scientifically, as due to the activity of neurons, as the simple products of body chemistry.  If so, then the “God hypothesis” once again appears to be irrelevant.

This entire debate between what has been called “the New Atheism” and traditional Christianity calls up some basic observations.  First, it’s clear that the world is vastly more complex than either scientists or theologians can imagine, much less describe.  From the interplay between matter and energy to varieties of mystical experience, reality in its fullness simply cannot be grasped, either by human reason or by religious intuition.  This is why the great theologians of the Church have always declared that God is beyond existence, indeed, beyond any conception we might have of Him (hence the importance in Orthodoxy of “apophatic theology,” the via negativa that alone leads to true knowledge of God).

Then again, it should be obvious that atheists, by definition, deny what they know nothing about.  They suppose, erroneously, that if they have no verifiable knowledge of God, then no one else can have any either.  This conclusion is grounded in the conviction that knowledge can be acquired only through scientific inquiry.  Science is indispensable if we are to understand empirical reality.  The point is, however, that there is a Reality beyond the empirical, which remains essentially inaccessible to rational, scientific investigation.  Yet this Reality, too, can be known and even participated in by persons who approach it in a particular way, with a particular perspective and disposition, which we will discuss briefly below.

In fact the “God” most atheists deny should be denied – rejected as a mere caricature – by any informed Christian.  Many years ago the British theologian J.B. Phillips wrote an impressive little book titled Your God is Too Small.  What seems to lie behind the atheism of many people, it seems, is less a perceived conflict between science and religion than a visceral rejection of a God who is simply too small, and who consequently is not God at all.
It really shouldn’t trouble us that these “new atheists” are currently making headlines, even if the motive behind some of their writings is to create scandal, break taboos, and reap profits.  In fact, we should be grateful for the impact they are having.  They force us to take a long, hard look at our own conception of God and to ask ourselves whether that conception, that treasured image often retained from childhood, is perhaps also too small.  Insofar as it is, we unwittingly place ourselves in the camp of non-believers.  We align ourselves with the very atheists whose non-belief we reject.  For in that case, our faith is in a god or gods of our own making, rather than in the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ as both Creator and Redeemer.  “This is the true God and eternal life,” St John tells us (1 Jn 5:20), who embodies infinite power and glory, compassion and love.

Those who hold that the only sure ground of knowledge is scientific inquiry and rational analysis actually represent not so much science as the heresy of “scientism,” a purely materialistic view of reality.  Yet science itself debunks that approach with its acceptance of principles such as those embodied in quantum mechanics and relativity theory.  In a universe where subatomic particles constantly appear and then disappear; where electrons can “communicate” with each other instantaneously, irrespective of the distance that separates them; where nebulae trillions of miles high spawn entire galaxies; and where gratuitous beauty exists in so many things from abalone shells to Pacific sunsets, is it intellectually responsible to conclude that the countless millions of Christian believers on earth (to consider only them) who claim to have direct, immediate and personal experience of God are simply deluded, that they are all merely victims of fantasy or wishful thinking?

Certainly, most atheists and agnostics do draw this conclusion, and they believe they base their judgment on fact, on what is real.  Just as certainly, the believer cannot prove that he or she actually believes.  Yet this is true of a great many aspects of our life.  We cannot prove that we love another person (our gestures of affection, support, even self-sacrifice may be motivated by self-interest; we cannot demonstrate the contrary in a purely scientific way).  Yet few would want to argue that genuine, self-giving love does not exist.  The same can be said for faith.  No one can verify either the content of their faith or that they actually hold to that faith.  Yet we can argue empirically that the multitude of martyrs, who have died under torture in defense of their convictions, bear an eloquent and virtually irrefutable witness to the fact, the reality, of their belief.  That witness is nevertheless irrefutable only to those who are open to receive it.  Are those multitudes simply deluded (as we might hold a suicide bomber to be)?  Or is their death, voluntarily assumed like the death of their Lord, proof or evidence that not only their faith is real but that the content of that faith is real (true) as well?  A theist would say yes, while an atheist, of course, would say no.

In fact, there is probably no such thing as a true “atheist.”  Your God is whatever constitutes your highest, most treasured value.  It may be the self or some virtue.  It may be a possession or some aspiration.  Most of us, including atheists, are in fact idolaters.  We substitute our intellectual capacity and our mundane desires for ultimate, transcendent Reality, and we offer them our homage.  Still, a great many people have searched the Scriptures, followed the wisdom of the Church’s spiritual elders, and celebrated the mysteries of faith in personal and communal worship, because there they find the key to the absolute Truth beyond every empirical reality.  There they perceive and rejoice in the presence of divinity.  And with that presence, they come to what is for them an undeniable and genuine knowledge of the God of infinite compassion and love.

They may not be able to offer scientific evidence for the object of their belief, but that is irrelevant.  The experience of the living God – in prayer, in liturgical worship, in the beauty of creation, in self-sacrificing gestures of love – is all the evidence they need to be convinced that true Reality lies beyond the limits of scientific inquiry.  That Reality can be known only by what the Fathers call “intellection”: a direct and immediate “noetic” experience of God that flows forth from the intimate, personal relationship He establishes with us.

The holy monk Silouan of Mount Athos (+1938) was canonized as a saint of the Church in large part because he embodied just such a noetic experience of God.  Referring to believers and atheists alike, he says this:

“Here is an enigma: there are souls that have come to know the Lord; there are souls that have not come to know Him but believe in Him; and there are others still that not only do not know God but do not believe either, and among their number are to be found learned men.

“Pride is at the root of unbelief,” he continues.  “The proud man would acquire knowledge of things through his mind and his studying, but it is not given to him to learn to know God, in that the Lord reveals Himself only to the lowly in heart…  With the mere mind we can only come to know the things of this earth, and then only in part, while God and all that is of heaven are known through the Holy Spirit.”2

These celestial things the atheist (or nominal believer) knows nothing about.  Knowledge derived from noetic experience is a knowledge beyond empirical knowledge.  It is the experiential knowledge of and communion with a Reality that scientific inquiry cannot possibly grasp.  It is a Reality that can elude the sharpest brain, yet it is open and accessible to a little child.  In the simplest terms, it is a matter less of the mind than of the heart.

  1. 1 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Sam Harris, The End of Faith. Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and Letter to a Christian Nation.  See also the article by Gary Wolf, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” in Wired 14:11 (Nov. 2006). []
  2. Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite (New York: SVS Press, 1999), 354f. []