Reluctant Atheist

Edward Burne-Jones, Christ Church Oxford, Faith Hope and Charity

I  am a reluctant atheist.

For years, the rational arguments of my sceptical mind have done battle with the emotional remnants of my Catholic upbringing. I would really like to be able to believe again; to participate in the exhilarating beauties of the sacred tradition; to feel connected to a faith community. Religion was always hugely important in the history of my family, and there was a great deal of personal unhappiness and suffering involved to maintain it, so I also feel that I am letting my family down. But there it is. I don’t believe. And I refuse to pretend, even though that makes me an outsider. Christmas is hard. Easter is worse.

So I look again at the prayers I recited thousands of times as a child, and I decide again.

The act of hope is traditionally expressed as a humble admission of human failure, of feeling powerless to conduct oneself without the help of God’s guidance, and without the threat of damnation and promise of salvation. Listen to the Act of Hope : “O my God, relying on Your almighty power and infinite mercy and promises, I hope to obtain pardon of my sins, the help of Your grace and life everlasting, through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer. Amen.”  But even as a child I thought this was strange. If a friend is reliable, he is there when you need help. And the rest is just too oppressive.

The traditional act of charity places love of God before all else, and affirms love of humanity, not as an act worthy or necessary in its own right, but as something done to please God. “O my God, I love you above all things with my whole heart and soul because you are all good and worthy of all my love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of you. I forgive all who have injured me and ask pardon of all whom I have injured. Amen.”  Human love, love for and from the rest of the world, is inferior to love of God, who must be loved above all things with one’s whole heart and soul. References to human love are based on concepts of forgiveness and pardon for injury, almost as though there can be nothing positive in such love, only damage control for injurious behaviour.

The act of faith is traditionally expressed as acceptance of creed… I believe.   “O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I believe that your divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy catholic Church teaches, because in revealing them you can neither deceive nor be deceived. Amen.”  Those lines still create in me a feeling of profound anxiety, a terrible ambivalence; even as a child I could not understand, could not believe. So when I recited them at church and school, I was afraid that God would know that I was pretending to believe, that I was lying! But I did not understand, and without understanding, I could not believe. The Apostle’s Creed was worse. Quelle horreur!

So here I am again in 2012. I will not be making my “Easter Duty,” saying confession and taking communion. Every year I feel less and less uneasy about this. Maybe eventually this reluctant atheist… reluctant only because of emotional ties… will be free. Meanwhile I will return to my new “acts” of faith, hope, and charity… revised by a very complex and influential thinker, for a more modern world.

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

These words are by Reinhold Neibuhr who also allegedly wrote the other famous “prayer” we non-believers take comfort from:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can change;

And wisdom to know the difference.

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