By that, I do not mean I don’t have any affection for them. Some of my best friends are atheists! To be more specific, I do not care about their atheism any more than they care about my theism. Liberalism is wrong to think that toleration is sufficient for a happy and equal society. One must move beyond it to “simply not giving a toss”. This is far from a revolutionary idea, and one might even be able to read it into The Parable of the Sower.
However, some atheists do give a toss, the New Atheists being a prime example. This is fair enough, they have political biases that make this almost necessary. It only begins to bother me when they start coming up to me in pubs and demanding from me a proof of God’s existence, knowing me to be a Catholic. I could write a blog post that used Nietzschean arguments (in other words, proper atheism) to show the irony of this, but I’m not that interested. Unlike Socrates, I do not see it as my mission to challenge and correct the opinions of others; I’m not bothered. I do not care about atheism.
However, I thought it might be useful for my own mind to state clearly and categorically what I would say if I did care, if only to deflect these pub conversations in the future by referring interlocutors to “my published works”. If I were to put this into one statement, it would be: it is impossible to prove to anyone who does not believe in God that He exists, ministry on this level is pointless and, if someone is an atheist, there is nothing you can do about it and you shouldn’t want to do anything about it.
Now, many would respond “Ho ho! You would say that now that science has shown religion to be irrational!”, thinking that atheism has us on the back foot. We have let go of the idea of proving that God objectively exists and will eventually be unable to assert his existence at even subjectively. But, this is a naive reading. I’m not referring to the point about science proving religion to be irrational. This is too absurd to deserve refutation. If you don’t know why, then for the flying spaghetti monster’s sake, read some proper atheism!
No, I say naive because the claim I made is nothing new. It goes back to at least Aquinas, who I will get to in a minute. The idea of proving God’s existence objectively, which would mean that anyone following the line of argument must instantly agree he exists, is a relatively recent idea, as is the idea that the Bible is literally true, that Adam and Eve really existed, and that God really created the world in 7 days. Anyone operating under these assumptions, whether they be religious or atheistic, has no grasp of the history and nature of religion, let alone Christanity.
Now, in his Summa Theologica (1265–1274), when discussing the limits of theological arguments, says this:
As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences, so this doctrine [Christianity] does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else.
What Aquinas says here, while it is put very abstractly, is actually quite straightforward. First of all, he says that all sciences do not argue in proof of their principles. To give an example, physics cannot prove the principles of physics. It cannot prove that the scientific method can be adequately applied to reality such that we can learn things by using it. It can only presuppose this method. If physics is to be proven and shown to be a valid science, it has to be done by meta-physics. This is not saying that physics is wrong or limited. It is simply the nature of any theoretical discipline. Its principles, or basic assumptions, cannot be proven by its progress because any proof it came up with with rely on what it attempts to prove; it would be circular reasoning. But, what would be traditionally called a “higher” science (philosophy/metaphysics) can prove those principles in order to pave the way for physics, hence contemporary philosophy of science as the discipline that gives justification to physics. Similarly, theology (or in the current context, religion) cannot prove its first principles: the articles of faith. Most relevantly, theology (religion) has to presuppose the existence of God. It cannot prove it. As such, theology is only of use to anyone who already believes in God. From this, Aquinas concludes,
[…] if our opponent [the atheist] believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections – if he has any – against faith.
If you are confronted with someone who believes in something religious or spiritual, e.g. someone from another religion, Aquinas thinks you have a chance of arguing them round to Christianity. This is because they accept some of the articles of faith already, and you can argue them into believing the others. So, if someone believes Jesus was the Son of God, but doesn’t believe in the trinity, you can argue them round. If someone believes in God but not in Jesus, you can argue them round. However, if you are confronted by someone who does not believe in anything to do with divinity whatsoever, there is not point even trying. You cannot prove God’s existence, you can only presuppose it. If the atheist has objections, you can try and refute them, but you can never convert them.
This is why I have no interest in arguing about religion with atheists. There is no point. I would actually go further than Aquinas and say I am not even interested in refuting their objections, unless there is something more at stake than their curiosity. All I do is advise them to read existentialists and to take their atheism seriously.
Nietzsche in particular understood the futility of theological dialogue between atheists and theists. The madman in The Gay Science who announces the death of God ignores the religious people and goes straight to the atheists. Thus Spake Zarathustra opens with the atheist prophet having a conversation with a “saint”. Zarathustra realises that he is a genuine theist and reacts as follows.
When Zarathustra had heard these words, he bowed to the saint and said: “What should I have to give thee! Let me rather hurry hence lest I take aught away from thee!” And thus they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing like schoolboys.
In this spirit, if you’re interested in why I believe in God, I say that I do not care that you are an atheist and you should not care that I am not. Let’s laugh and leave the topic behind us.