Most contemporary atheists get it wrong. Today’s atheism tends to stand on an absolutely self-contradictory claim: only that which can be seen can be known. (It’s a pseudo-scientific claim.) The application of this sentiment to God is simple. Because God can’t be seen, God can’t be known. The problem with the statement is simple.
Any time we say that a concept can or can’t be known, we ought to be able to apply the criterion given to itself. If we say that all things knowable must be visible, then so should that statement be visible. Unfortunately, you can’t see that criterion statement: it can’t be "empirically verified" or "falsified," to use a couple of philosophical terms. In other words, it’s a criterion used to decide what’s true and what’s not true that cannot vouch for itself. Because of that, the silly criterion ought to be thrown out and with it most contemporary forms of atheism.
I make this statement because, frankly, we all deserve the more intellectually rigorous and existentially pressing versions of atheism than the pedantic and anti-intellectual versions going around today. I want the real thing, found in the existentialists of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
These versions didn’t hide under the pseudo-intellectual idea that the sciences have answers to all our questions — that we could progress our way out of suffering somehow. They simply adhered to a bare and unsentimental world, a world they saw through the atrocities of war and tyranny. These atheistic thinkers have, as such, been invaluable to me as I think through the depth of human despair, and I could not be the religious person that I am without them.
I think, in fact, that these forms of atheism are so powerful because they’re grounded in the same questions that religiosity are grounded in. They’re helpful to religious traditions because the atheist of this bent doesn’t settle for certain premade answers to questions of suffering but asks for authenticity, demands honesty in any answer given. Such atheists are committed to their response, too.
There’s an understandable, defiant, and even moral rejection of God’s possibility in the unsettling response to suffering: That were there a God, God wouldn’t allow for such suffering. This atheist faces up to the fact that one has to make it in a cold and valueless world.
Still, the atheist’s response is not the only response.
The Buddha, for instance, was interested in the question of suffering. Mind you, unlike the atheist, the Buddha remains absolutely silent on the question of God, knowing that our agonizing over God’s being or no-being can cause suffering in itself. Rather, the Buddha simply beckons us to, if you will, get over ourselves.
When we get over ourselves, we’ll no longer experience suffering in the same manner, which rests on a false ideal that things are supposed to be different than they are. The Buddha’s response is, indeed, powerful.
On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian response (and I’m absolutely Christian in my views) is that, indeed, things are supposed to be different, should have been different, will be different again. Suffering was never welcome in this world, however it was ushered in.
The vision produced in biblical texts, especially Genesis and the Gospels, is a vision of restoration: where persons, peoples and worlds are made whole again through God’s response to suffering — perhaps even co-suffering in Christ — on the cross. It’s just as powerful of a response as the Buddha’s.
But here’s my point. If indeed religiosity is at least partially a response to the question of suffering in this world — if this is part of the definition of religiosity — then atheism is, strangely, a form of religiosity itself, at least in its best form. It’s that version that we have to pay attention to because it’s asking the same question as any believer.
This version of atheism can only help to clarify the terror and honesty of the question we’re all already asking, even if its answer is ultimately in the wrong.
Eric E. Hall is the assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Carroll College.