According to the Washington Post, atheism is now in vogue. They say this because two books advocating atheism have recently been on the New York Times Best Seller list. The title of one is The God Delusion, written by Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist. His basic premise is that because so many people have been killing each other in the name of religion for such a long time, that we should discourage religion in order to stop the killing.
The second book is by neuroscientist Sam Harris, entitled The End of Faith. He asks the classic question of why a supposedly good God allows bad things to happen, mentioning both the 9/11 attacks and the Indonesian tsunamis. He wonders why people believe in a god who is invisible when they would demand visible proof to believe in anything else. And he, like Richard Dawkins, says that faith should be discouraged because so many people use faith to justify violence.
The authors of these books aren’t exactly riding a tidal wave of growing atheism in our country. Recent polls indicate that 92% of people profess belief in God. 2% said they don’t know. Only 6% are atheists. However, books such as these raise questions which present serious challenges to faith and religion.
Perhaps these questions have challenged your faith. They’ve certainly challenged mine. They can tempt us to doubt whether God really exists at all. We wonder: Is God real, or is belief in God simply an evolutionary by-product, wishful thinking, or a projection of our hopes and fears? We look at the suffering on earth and in our own lives and wonder: Why would God let this happen? Or for that matter, why would God bother creating anything in the first place? God isn’t supposed to need anything, so he didn’t need to create the universe. If he is eternal, and the past and present are both the same to him, then he knew that there would be sin, suffering, and death. He even knew that his own Son would have to die. So why did he put us here?
What’s more, why does he permit so many different religions with competing claims to exist side by side? And why would a real God allow his followers to act in such ungodly ways? Many people have asked that question in the wake of the clergy abuse scandals. As the famous atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I will never believe in the Christian redeemer until Christians show me that they themselves have been redeemed.”
These are questions we all have to answer. They may seriously challenge our faith. They may tempt us to doubt. When faced with this, how should we respond? What can we do? I would suggest four things:
First, don’t panic. While doubts can be a temptation, they are also a test. And God allows us to be tested in order to strengthen our faith. Many great saints have experienced this. St. Therese of Lisieux, the famous “Little Flower,” sometimes wondered during a long and painful illness if God existed at all. Yet this experience led her to a deeper faith. The same was true of Blessed Mother Teresa. Her diaries reveal that for many years she felt abandoned by God. Yet she too was led to a deeper faith- a “blind faith,” as she called it- through these challenges. Like them, our wrestling with doubts can strengthen our faith. As the esteemed Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport once wrote, “Mature religious sentiment is ordinarily fashioned in a workshop of doubt.”
Second, we need to worship and pray. If your faith is challenged, don’t wait until you think you’ve sorted it out to begin to pray. Pray to help you sort the challenge out. If your belief in God is challenged, not praying will reinforce your doubt, while praying will dispel it. It’s like what the famous theologian Austin Farrer once said: “God can convince us of God, nothing else and no one else can. Attend the Mass well, make a good communion, pray for the grace you need, and you will know that you are not dealing with the empty air.” And be sure to be honest when you pray. Share your doubts with God, even if you doubt God himself. It’s okay to say things like: God, I don’t get it. Are you out there? Why did you let this happen? Why does it need to be this way? We need to pray this honestly, because a God we can’t be honest with isn’t a God worth believing in.
Third, read the Scriptures. They are God’s word and God will speak to us through them. This is especially true when facing doubts and faith challenges. Catholic psychologist Robert Wicks laments that so many people, when facing religious crises, abandon reading those things that they have found religiously helpful in the past- especially Scripture. In today’s gospel, Luke explained that he wrote his gospel so we “may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” In other words, he wrote to strengthen our faith. But in order to have our faith strengthened, we need to read, we need to listen to God’s word, just like in today’s first reading, when God’s people’s faith was strengthened, when they heard God’s word read to them by Ezra the priest.
Fourth, we need to go to the cross. We need to reflect and meditate on the crucifixion. This is critically important when suffering challenges our faith. This side of heaven, we may not have the perfect answer to why bad things happen to good people. But it helps to know that our perfectly good God allowed some terribly bad things to happen to him. When we suffer, it’s easier to believe in God if we can accept that God has suffered with us, and for us. Whenever we ask, “Why me?” Jesus says to us from the cross: “Look at me.”
And maybe that’s the bottom line. We need to look at Jesus, or if we can’t do that, we need to at least look for Jesus, when doubts arise and our faith is challenged. Doubts can be persistent. Which means we should be persistent, all the more.