Prayer and the New Atheism

by Michael C. McCarthy, S.J. |

Shortly after I came to Santa Clara, I had a religious experience.

It was spring break, and I had planned to spend a few days with a good friend. We would meet halfway down the California coast in a town called Cayucos. Leaving campus after dinner, I drove south on Highway 101 and at 10 p.m. found myself somewhere between King City and Paso Robles. I had been on that stretch hundreds of times in my life, and it is unremarkable terrain. Usually that leg of the journey is the part I wish could pass faster.

On that night though, the moon was
full, the car’s sunroof was open, and the dry, flat landscape was utterly luminous. On that ordinary road (of all places!) for about 10 or
15 minutes I felt I was traveling within the heart of beauty itself. And I felt this powerful, unexpected joy. Nor did I feel alone in any way. Spontaneously, I found myself saying words that I use infrequently, but in that moment they seemed right. In fact, I cannot think of
a more natural way for me to respond to such
experience than the expression that came unbidden from my heart: “Praise you, God! Thank you, God!”

In this issue of explore various members of the community answer the question, “Why do
I pray?” Today ancient practices of prayer face unique challenges posed by recent proponents of what has been called the new atheism. Writers such as the British biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), journalist Christopher Hitchens (god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), and neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason) have introduced to the reading public best-selling critiques of religion, faith, and belief in God. In a campaign that has even more direct public exposure, groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation have posted billboards in several cities with the messages, “Millions are good without God,” “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds,” or (in December) “Reason’s Greetings.”

Why do we pray in light of such messages?

It was spring break, and I had planned to spend a few days with a good friend. We would meet halfway down the California coast in a town called Cayucos. Leaving campus after dinner, I drove south on Highway 101 and at 10 p.m. found myself somewhere between King City and Paso Robles. I had been on that stretch hundreds of times in my life, and it is unremarkable terrain. Usually that leg of the journey is the part I wish could pass faster.

TWO OBJECTIONS TO RELIGION
AND A RESPONSE

Although these thinkers reflect a variety of attitudes and arguments, throughout their writings two themes reappear that ground their opposition to religion and their resistance to the idea of what others call, under various names, God.

First, the new atheists note just how
much violence, misery, and sheer brutality has attended religion throughout the history of the world. Christopher Hitchens’ chapter titled “Religion Kills” catalogues only a few examples of stupidity and cruelty inflicted by adherents of multiple traditions, from Christian anti-Semites to Taliban thugs. Sadly, our species has provided too much raw material for these authors to use in their florid accounts of atrocities committed out of devotional zeal. Their conclusion is
that religion is inherently flawed. We would
do better to free ourselves from anything that would valorize madness by calling it holy. On balance, a humanism that makes no reference
to God provides a better way for the world. Thus Richard Dawkins concludes a chapter
by observing: “Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history. I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism.”

Second, the new atheists find religious people incapable of offering a sufficient justification for their core beliefs. Whereas scientists prize evidence and hold themselves
to standards of verification based on open observation, religionists rarely attempt to
offer sufficient proof for what they believe,
but instead resort to a kind of dogmatism. Religious authority—it is alleged—whether derived from a sacred text or holy persons, gives rise to beliefs that are intrinsically dangerous because they cannot be questioned. Dawkins holds that, whether in Christianity or Islam, “What is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” The alleged irrationality of faith not only seems disreputable in an age that can explain so many things scientifically, but it generates the kind of intolerance that stonewalls against reasonable inquiry and challenge. At its worst, this closed- mindedness leads to the violence and repressive ideologies that have marked history. In our own time, moreover, it has also legitimized ignorant resistance to the theory of evolution, for which there is strong evidence and scientific consensus.

As someone who has often struggled with my own faith, I feel considerable sympathy and agreement with many of the complaints of the new atheists. Yet these same struggles have led me to a different place. What I understand by “faith” and “God” always feels more complex than the atheists seem to concede. “If that’s what is meant by ‘God,’” I frequently think, “then I too am an atheist. If that’s all religion does, then neither do I want any part in it.”
At their best, atheists stretch me to reconsider parts of my intellectual and spiritual landscape, and the challenge is a serious one. Sometimes, however, I feel as if I am listening to a critique of Mozart by someone who has never heard
a good orchestra. For one thing, it seems as if faith in God connotes to them a wager on a big, invisible creature with lots of power, rather than a committed disposition of trust, even love, in
a holy mystery revealed in the apprehension of good, beauty, truth. I do not deny that many believers have immature or even dangerous ideas about God. But one of the principal functions of a religious tradition is to help people correct false images and grow in spiritual maturity and responsibility.

Nor can I deny the immense violence that human beings have exacted on one another
out of religious motivations and claims. Yet if, hypothetically, we did away with religion or belief in God, we would still have other massive human institutions that are just as prone to violence: nationhood, for instance, or property or economy or family. I doubt that we would wish to dissolve them. Even science itself
(as we saw when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima) must be applied by people capable of extraordinary generosity as well as massive destruction. As the essayist Richard Rodriguez soberly observed, the real problem with religion or science is the human race.5 If we could learn to pray authentically for forgiveness and teach our children to pray (as Jesus taught us) to
 

As someone who has often struggled with my own faith, I feel considerable sympathy and agreement with many of the complaints of the new atheists. Yet these same struggles have led me to a different place. What I understand by “faith” and “God” always feels more complex than the atheists seem to concede. “If that’s what is meant by ‘God,’” I frequently think, “then I too am an atheist. If that’s all religion does, then neither do I want any part in it.” At their best, athe- ists stretch me to reconsider parts of my intellectual and spiritual landscape, and the challenge is a serious one.

“deliver us from evil,” we would be leaving the world a more hopeful legacy than if we were simply to abolish religion or the idea of God.

IS FAITH UNREASONABLE?
Of the new atheists’ objections, the less credible to me is the claim that faith requires no justification, or brooks no argument, or that somehow it is the opposite of reason. My whole life and training as a Jesuit runs so counter to that idea that it strikes me as a gross caricature. Surely there are religious people who feel threatened by questions they cannot answer and criticisms they cannot rebut. There may even be many such people. My experience as a priest, however, has led me to believe that people’s faith is most robust and trustworthy precisely when it attempts to address hard questions and applies reason honestly. That will include the acknowledgement that there is much we do not know and that we feel conflicted about many things. As a professor who teaches at a Jesuit university, I feel it is part of my mission to help students to discover what these important questions are, so that they can answer them with ever greater sensitivity and intelligence. But I do not promise certainty.

“Healing,” photograph by Troy Vander Hulst ’10, finance major, studio art minor, Santa Clara University. Troy Vander Hulst ’10

It is to be expected that religious claims about God will fail to satisfy the norms of scientific proof because science and religion operate out of different conceptual schemes. But human beings operate out of different conceptual schemes all the time, with a fair degree of success. Moreover, the most credible justification for faith of any kind lies in the quality of its adherents’ lives. The reason I am a Catholic, finally, is because of the deep holiness I have encountered in other Catholics. That does not make religion irrational or unreasonable or lacking justification for its ideas: it just presumes (quite reasonably) that, in the end, reason itself does not exhaust what is most important to us as human beings. Commitment to values such as truth, justice, goodness, peace making, and love are not reducible to scientific propositions.

The claim that I love you nearly always has reasons leading to the assertion. The reasons themselves can be articulated in a variety of ways: in language, for instance, that is clinical (“When you enter my visual field my hormones act up”) or practical (“You bring in my dry cleaning”). The expression may be ethical (“You care for me when I am sick”), poetic (“The smell of your hair is the freshest wind”), or romantic (“Every time I kiss you I remember the first time we kissed”). All those sentences can be true, and yet the expression, “I love you,” surpasses the reasons that can be given as explanations. It is a communication in which speakers reveal and give themselves freely to others, even when the “I” who gives and the “you” who receives remain deep mysteries to

It would be a great loss if we lived in a world where we did not risk loving and believing because we cannot offer a scientific account for it. It would be a less beautiful world if we did not offer prayers of thanksgiving for wonders we cannot explain.

each other. That exchange creates a new reality and a deepened commitment that did not exist before. Furthermore, even though the sentence, “I love you,” is not scientifically verifiable, one can test whether it is said “in good faith” with a variety of other indicators, such as fulfilling duties, expectations, or promises associated with that relationship. It would be a great loss if we lived in a world where we did not risk loving and believing because we cannot offer a scientific account for it. It would be a less beautiful world if we did not offer prayers of thanksgiving for wonders we cannot explain. The future of our planet and the world’s communities would be significantly more hopeful if we taught our children how to pray with authentic gratitude and an attitude of intense care.

LOVE, GRATUITY, AND GRATITUDE
One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, frequently speaks of his love for his family, his community, and the farm he cultivates. His later writing especially refers to his own sense of the gratuity of what has been given. At the end of one poem about his experience of aging, for example, he turns to address his wife:
...And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.
The years he spent with her gave him plenty of reasons to love her, but in retrospect what strikes him is that what he loved most in life
did not have to happen. What he loved in life happened, not as if by necessity or sheer luck, but as if by gift, for which the natural response is gratitude.

At the end of Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, we find a similar idea. The protagonist, Hannah, has led a life filled with deep joys as well as tragedies. Her first husband, Virgil, was killed in the Second World War, and her second husband, Nathan, who survived the Battle of Okinawa, experiences post-traumatic stress throughout
his life, even as he tries to settle into a farmer’s ordinary life. By the last chapter, Hannah is a widow and remembers what it was like when Nathan held her at the end of the day. She knows, she says, “the entire touch of him. He looks at me with a look I know. The shiver of the altogether given passes over me from head to foot.”

Hannah’s experience reflects what I have frequently felt to be at the heart of religious consciousness—an awareness that there is something where there could have been nothing. That awareness is the soul of prayer, and if cultivated it can yield a habit—even a discipline—of gratitude. That awareness grounds mystical experience, which is far more ordinary than we think.

A student of mine who is a surfer once related to me why he must go out to the waves at least once a week. He did not go just because he liked surfing a great deal; rather, his regular practice on the waves put him into a deep encounter with “the altogether given.” I have heard similar moments in the stories students have told me about time in a rain forest, or under the wisteria in the Mission Gardens, or in a village in El Salvador, or reflecting in gratitude for their time here. I have seen it in the faces each other. That exchange creates a new reality and a deepened commitment that did not exist before. Furthermore, even though the sentence, “I love you,” is not scientifically verifiable, one can test whether it is said “in good faith” with of parents walking their child down the aisle to be married. For a moment the aisle represents the whole history of “the altogether given,” from the birth of that child, through the deep pains they suffered together, to this occasion of supreme fulfillment in their lives as parents. If we could put such moments into words, we might say something like this: “This is what I live for. Right now, this is where I want to be and nowhere else. At this moment, everything connects. To this moment, I give myself wholly, freely, and without reservation.” As Berry says: “I am astonished at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.”

Such moments no more constitute proof
of the existence of God than they negate the pains, the tragedies, the evils that we also endure. Nor can they be detached from other explicable causes. Undoubtedly my experience of joy driving down Highway 101 was triggered by my anticipation of a few days of vacation with a friend, as well as whatever physiological thrill comes with going fast in a car, feeling
the warm wind through the sunroof, and sensing the effects of a full moon. I would love to have a neurologist explain to me what was happening to my brain at that moment. Religious experience is every bit as compatible with natural causes as the Christian doctrine of creation is compatible with the theory of evolution. But the spontaneous shift to praising and thanking God for what is good
(or conversely, lamenting and complaining
to God for what is rotten) does not happen automatically from the antecedent conditions. It includes a choice and/or a habit of shifting to a different way of imagining things.

At a very deep level I want to thank someone when I experience goodness; I want
to lament to someone when I face terrible things; I want to ask someone for help when 
I am in trouble or when someone I love is in serious need. Although my desires have been cultivated through my own upbringing and
may very well reflect what Freud described as an impulse toward wish fulfillment, it still seems very credible to me to think that humans are constituted in such a way that some, if not most, of us want to look for what lies beyond what we can account for in terms of hard data alone. To me, the words of St. Augustine to God express it so well. Toward the very start of his Confessions, he prays: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.”

HUMAN BEINGS, GOD, AND PRAYER
Very recently I was teaching a class on the Council of Chalcedon. This pivotal event in the history of Christianity took place in 451, and
it produced a famous definition held by most churches that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly human.” As our class struggled together with that formulation, one very perceptive student (I’ll call him Andy) noted that when
we use terms like “God” and “human” we frequently don’t know what we mean by them. People usually grant that “God” refers to a reality we cannot fully describe, but (as Andy pointed out) what we mean by “human” is not always easy to determine either. An evolutionary biologist may offer very good indicators of what constitutes a human, but even in this case the reality is ever emerging.

Although a science major himself, Andy noted there are sometimes good reasons to shift our frameworks and talk about ourselves in nonscientific ways. So he offered the following: “Being a human, ultimately, is being a very deep mystery who, while finite, also possesses
a radical capacity for openness. Somehow that radical openness corresponds to another, even deeper mystery, who transcends the sum of finite objects. We may or may not call that mystery God, and we may or may not be able to talk about it or even be conscious of it. At
a profound level, however, I feel that reaching out for that God is at the core of who I am as a person.”

Andy’s insight echoes the thoughts of many theologians throughout the ages, and it also (frankly) explains quite eloquently why I pray. I cannot not pray. Like Andy, I feel that reaching out for God is central to who I am. The great Jesuit theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, understood God to be a holy mystery who communicated to us, not

I cannot not pray, because at times I am simply so grateful for the offer that everything in me leans forward in thanks and praise. As grateful as I am, however, I am also profoundly aware of the vast difference between the way I want my life to be and the way it is, between the way the world should be and the way it is.

abstract propositions about divinity, but indeed God’s very self: the way, when you tell your children you love them, you’re not articulating an idea but offering your self to them, making a commitment to share your life with them. To be human, for Rahner, is to be someone to whom that divine self-offering is constantly being made in countless, ordinary ways. We only have to notice. To pray is nothing else than intentionally being open to that offer in whatever form it may take at any moment of our lives.

As I say, I cannot not pray, because at
times I am simply so grateful for the offer that everything in me leans forward in thanks and praise. As grateful as I am, however, I am also profoundly aware of the vast difference between the way I want my life to be and the way it is, between the way the world should be and the way it is. I feel deep dissatisfaction at multiple levels, so at times I lean forward in anger, fear, sadness, need, or in preparation for decision. Lamentation, petition, and discernment are also key elements in the repertoire of those who pray. Even the experiences of dissatisfaction that prompt us to these kinds of prayer, however, stem from an awareness that nothing finite can satisfy us. Again and again, we reach out for
the self-offering of God, who alone can fill our longings. That is who we are.

As challenging as the new atheists can be, I am less and less sure that they really address what I (and many others whom I trust) hope to convey with words such as “faith,” “God,” “prayer.” Surely, whenever we use such words our speech is an instance of stammering rather than eloquence. Anyone who prays does well to confess in humility what great mystics have called a “learned ignorance” or “ways of unknowing.” Even in the twenty-first century, however, it makes immense good sense to me—and amazingly to many of the young people I teach as well!—to utter haltingly with Augustine: “You have made us for yourself; and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
 

Endnotes


  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004).
  2. Dawkins, 278.
  3. Ibid., 307–08.
  4. On this and various theological presumptions implicit in the new atheists’ writings, see Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
  5. Richard Rodriguez, “Atheism is Wasted on the Nonbeliever,” Image 55 (Fall 2007): 68–70.
  6. For a fascinating study on the complexity of human cogni- tion and its relation to the debate, see Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
  7. Wendell Berry, “Sabbaths, VII,” in Leavings (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 40.
  8. Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004), 186.
  9. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 1.1.1.
  10. For a theologically rich set of essays on prayer, see Karl Rahner, The Need and the Blessing of Prayer, trans. Bruce W. Gillette (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997).

 

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