I do not write this to come up with some indirect way to cleverly get atheists to realize the errors of their ways and become Catholics. Nor do I wish in any way to encourage atheists to continue in their quest to try to “prove” that anyone with a sincere faith in Christ is a deluded fool or worse, a covertly manipulative power-hungry freak.
What I feel will be helpful is to continue to help people explore the full dimensions of their beliefs, whatever beliefs they sincerely feel called to embrace or at least explore.
Is there a way to help atheists deepen their convictions and experiences of their creed?
Is there a way to help sincere Christians further explore the dimensions of their beliefs, intuitions, sacraments, and faith and to find greater fulfillment in their efforts.
I also feel it will be helpful for sincere atheists and believers to simply listen to one another’s stories as to why they believe as they do. This simple act of hearing one another’s stories will help people of both camps better understand each other’s views and to better empathize with each other’s deeply felt convictions and experiences.
For example, the raw violence of the animal kingdom where the only way most animals can live is to kill and devour other living beings seems very clear proof to scientifically-minded atheists that the idea of a loving God creating the earth is a badly misguided one. Indeed most Christians I know are simply unwilling to be honest about how serious a challenge to their core beliefs is represented by the violent struggles of animals, insects, and many humans to simply survive.
Instead they persevere in saying their vision of God is proved by the beauty of nature. Too bad they miss the hundreds of millions of life and death struggles which occur every day in the eat-or-be-eaten fields of the animal and insect kingdoms.
On the other hand, many Catholics who have a deep and sincere faith in God and Christ come to know experiences of profound mystery, beauty, and peace as a result of their surrender to God. Despite the difficulty of coming up with scientific ways to measure or explain such experiences, many believers have a hard time understanding why atheists snicker and sneer at such empirical phenomena.
After all many of the world’s greatest art was created by people such as DaVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, Bach, Handel and countless others who were inspired by Christian tradition. Is it so difficult for atheists to concede that the sources of this inspiration are somehow welling up from profound and very real watersheds of one form or another even if it is hard to explain what those watersheds may be? The same is true for the profound and evocative impressions conveyed by the best of Buddhist sculpture and paintings and the art of many non-Christian traditions such as the art work of Islamic mosques, or Navajo folk stories.
If you study the Catholic and Greek Orthodox mystics and the Jhana masters of Vipassana Buddhism you will find there is real common ground. As Vipassana Buddhists are committed atheists, the common end-points of mystics of both traditions are particularly relevant to serious dialogue between believers and modern scientifically minded atheists.
Clear the heart of anger, fear, excessive desire, vanity, doubt in your beliefs, and delusion. Be patient with such efforts. They are harder than most teachers usually imply. But persevere with the same diligence it takes to finish a PhD or launch a tech-start up. See what you find.
Perfect the art of offering love and compassion to all beings in all realms seen or unseen.
Clear the mind of all words, perceptions, doctrines, judgments and attempts to describe reality. Experience existence as pure and elemental existence.
See the depths of peace and lucidity arise from such efforts whether you are a God centered monk or nun or a devout atheist.
The deep states of boundless compassion and perfect peace that arise, often only after protracted efforts, are the common ground where people of all beliefs and faiths and ways of life can meet in respectful silence, stillness, and emptiness.
After returning to “everyday mind” and “everyday communication” you will find that any dialogues you enter into will proceed along far more creative means and efforts.
It will be possible to see that the labels of “believer” and “atheist” both miss the point, in some ways, as do any angry and judgmental words lobbed over the barricades toward those deemed to be “the foolish ones.”
Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” and host of MeditationPractice.com