Atheism is a parasite that feeds on bad religion. That’s why, in the end, atheistic critics are our friends. They hold our feet to the fire.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, for example, submit that all religious experience is ultimately psychological projection. For them, the God we believe in and who undergirds our churches is, at the end of the day, simply a fantasy we have created for ourselves to serve our own needs. We have created God as opium for comfort and to give ourselves divine permission to do what we want to do.
They’re largely correct, but partially wrong, and it’s in where they’re wrong that true religion takes it root. Admittedly, they’re right in that a lot of religious experience and church life is far from pure, as is evident in our lives. It’s hard to deny that we are forever getting our own ambitions and energies mixed up with what we call religious experience. That’s why, so often, we, you and I, sincere religious people, don’t look like Jesus at all: We’re arrogant where we should be humble, judgmental where we should be forgiving, hateful where we should be loving, self-concerned where we should be altruistic, and, not least, spiteful and vicious where we should be understanding and merciful. Our lives and our churches often don’t radiate Jesus. Atheism is a needed challenge because far too often we have our own life force confused with God and our own ideologies confused with the Gospel.
Fortunately, God doesn’t let us get away with it for long. Rather, as the mystics teach, God inflicts us with a confusing, painful grace called a dark night of the soul. What happens in a dark night of the soul is that we run out of gas religiously in that the religious experiences that once sustained us and gave us fervour dry up or get crucified in a way that leaves us with no imaginative, affective, or emotional sense of either God’s love or of God’s existence. No effort on our part can again conjure up the feelings and images we once had about God and the security we once felt within ourselves about our faith and religious beliefs. The heavens empty and inside of ourselves we feel agnostic, as if God didn’t exist, and we are no longer able to create an image of God that feels real to us. We become helpless inside of ourselves to generate a sense of God.
But that’s precisely the beginning of real faith. In that darkness, when we have nothing left, when we feel there is no God, God can begin to flow into us a pure way. Because our interior religious faculties are paralyzed we can no longer manipulate our experience of God, fudge it, project ourselves into it, or use it to rationalize divine permission for our own actions. Real faith begins at the exact point where our atheistic critics think it ends, in darkness and emptiness, in religious impotence, in our powerlessness to influence how God flows into us.
We see this clearly in the life of Mother Teresa. As seen in her diaries, for the first 27 years of her life she had a deep, felt, imaginative, affective sense of God in her life. She lived with a rock-like certainty about God’s existence and God’s love. But at age 27, praying on a train one day, it was as if someone turned off some switch that connected her to God. In her imagination and her feelings, the heavens emptied. God, as she had known him in her mind and feelings, disappeared.
But we know the rest of the story: she lived out the next 60 years of her life in a faith that truly was rock-solid and she lived out a dedicated, selfless commitment that would disempower even the strongest atheistic critic from making the accusation that her religious experience was selfish projection and that her practice of religion was not essentially pure. In her religious darkness, God was able to flow into her in essential purity, unlike for many of us where a faith life that’s clearly self-serving belies a belief that we are listening to God and not to ourselves.
Even Jesus, in his humanity, had to undergo this darkness, as is evident in Gethsemane and his cry of abandonment on the cross. After his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are told that an angel came and strengthened him. Why, we might ask, didn’t the angel come earlier when seemingly he most needed the help? God’s assistance couldn’t come until he was completely spent in terms of his own strength; his humanity wouldn’t have let the divine flow in purely but would have inserted itself into the experience. He had to be completely spent of his own strength before the divine could truly and purely flow in. So too for us.
Dark nights of faith are needed to wash us clean because only then can the angel come to help us.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.