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The Sadness of Rising Atheism

We were made for eternal union with God and our souls ache for him, whether we realize it or not

It’s one of the oldest recurring conversations known to man. What does it mean for a human person to be truly happy, and what does this tell us about his nature? Amidst a classroom debate, a student of mine remarked that Christians and other believers are clearly losing the popular conversation, given the widely-reported increase of atheism in America.

“That may be true,” I replied, “and it saddens me.”

“Why are you sad about that?” came the reply.  The lively conversation that followed touched on some of the great questions considered by numerous philosophers and theologians through the centuries, who thought a lot about why humans need more than merely material satisfaction.

“Is it possible that a life devoted solely to the pursuit of bodily pleasures can really satisfy a human being?” I asked my students.

“I don’t think so,” one young man answered, “because then we couldn’t have other things we want, like committed relationships and other things like that.” Indeed, if we lived our lives solely focused on the pleasures of the next tasty buffet, the next drink, the next one-night-stand, we would become miserable, undisciplined, and shallow slaves to animal inclinations. We would miss the wider range of things, the deeper things, that humans crave.

“What about fame, power and money? Could a life solely devoted to one or more of such ‘successes’ really satisfy us?”

“I don’t think so,” another student replied. “There are too many unhappy people who have lots of money.” Indeed. One need only glance at the list of “confirmed suicides” on the Wikipedia article, “List of Suicides in the Twenty-First Century,” to see that notoriety, beauty, athleticism, money, musical talent, and influence are no cure for the underlying pain of so many human souls.

How often do we hear of broken relationships, anxiety, and depression among the famed elite? What about the searches for peace and transcendence through meditation and religious fashion among those who seem to have it all? Like the exclusive focus on fame or bodily pleasure, the pursuit of self-centered success leaves a soul closed within itself.

No one knows this better than those who have undergone a profound conversion. There is a great deal of talk about Kanye West, one of the most popular and influential artists in the world, who professes to having given his life to Christ. With a net worth of well over two hundred million dollars and a litany of public scandals on his record, West’s recent declaration that Christ has changed his life is turning millions of heads. We pray that his conversion continues and strengthens, and that he can lead many more souls to the Lord.

But even if you’re not a pop star, feeding the soul with food, drink, sex, money, power, and fame as if they were the end for which we were made eventually ruins the soul that craves to run on something more than thrills and emotion. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

My students, at least the ones who spoke up, were largely in agreement on the point. But they weren’t done yet.

“Well, Bill Gates has a lot of money and gives a lot of it away. But he doesn’t believe in God.” While he may not have been right about Gates’s faith, this student touched on something important.

Turning outward in an effort to find a greater meaning in one’s life is a profound and positive shift in focus. It suggests a natural desire, available even to those with little or no religious faith, to transcend oneself and live for others.

Such generous attempts to better our world through giving, while necessary and laudable, are still not enough to satisfy our deepest desires. The painful trickle of news about our worsening political and social situation in America points to deep divides in understanding the nature of human persons, our history, our purpose, our true good. Even some in the Church seem to have replaced the core of our self-understanding with “causes” and activism to the neglect of the transcendent, to which the soul must look to truly understand itself.  Made in the “image of God,” we are equipped to discern the voice of God calling us to union with him, whose image we bear (CCC 1706).

We want joy. We want to love. We want to know. Bodily pleasure, fame, power, money, and even acts of generosity towards those most in need can easily distract us from what ultimately reveals who and what we are made for. We were made for eternal union with God and our souls ache for him, whether we realize it or not.  “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself” (CCC 27).

“Why do you think I am sad about the growing number of atheists in our culture?” Several students raised their hands.

“Because after denying God’s existence, they are left only with things that cannot really make them happy.” The bell to end the class rang. No, really, it did.

As I walked by the crucifix on the wall near the door, the sadness of contemplating the possible loss of so many souls was followed by the joy that there are others for whom the light of truth still shines. For Christians, even sadness is not without hope. Since everyone is really searching for God, our witness to him as known in the face of Jesus Christ is always good news, even for those who do not yet recognize him (2 Corinthians 4:6). We have a lot of work to do.

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