I will quickly confess that I am not a philosopher. I am not trained in the subject and always struggled in the few doctoral classes that were in the area of “Philosophical Theology.” Thus, this will not be a philosophical response that settles matters for believers viz. atheism, or settles matters viz. Orthodox Christianity for atheists. It is just some observations.
That the world would be better off if everyone were an atheist is to me, a silly thought. We have too much evidence to the contrary. Atheist states have been the most efficient killing machines in all of history. Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” It is questionable that he ever wrote it in that succinct fashion, but it certainly reflects a number of statements that occur in his writings. And it is true.
Though there are some very strange things happening in our culture as the result of religion, they hardly hold a candle to the strange things taking place among those who are committed to hedonism and other forms of modern atheism.
The greatest challenge from Atheism is what Orthodoxy would term the “problem of the human heart.” Orthodoxy (and many other Christians) understand very clearly that human beings have a “dark” side and that religious “delusion” is a constant issue for believers. Properly taught and nurtured, Orthodox Christians should be more sensitive to questions of religious delusion than non-believers.
The problem of the human heart (this deep, spiritual center of man) is that it very easily becomes hard. And that in its hardness it is capable of almost anything. The amount of atrocities carried out by professed believers is ample testimony to the dangers of the heart, even for Christians.
What would an atheist propose for the treatment of the heart? It cannot be that less religion means a healthier human heart. Indeed, the modern nation state is what threatens to take the place of religion. And the modern nation state has not shown itself to be a repository of kindness, gentleness and altruism with regard to its clients.
If anything, the spiritual teaching of the Orthodox Church is particularly directed towards our distortions of reality and our denial of the True God in an acceptance of a false god. The proper practice of Orthodoxy is ruthlessly self-honest and self-critical and believes that true belief in God can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy. Anything less than this is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.
Our conversation with Atheism is not about the stars and the planets, or about how our planet came to be and how long ago. Our conversation with Atheism is not about the literal character of stories in the Old Testament. Christians who focus on such things in their discussions with Atheism are largely agreeing that these are the essential questions for humanity – and they are not.
The central question for humanity is the God revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. If that God is the true God, then our religion can only be measured by the love we have for our enemy.
By the same token, we can ask of anyone, Atheist included, “Do you love your enemies?” If they do not, then we can say with confidence, “Your heart is in trouble.” And if anyone’s heart is in trouble (most are) then the world is indeed a very dangerous place (it is).
We believe that the world is so dangerous that even God Himself is not safe within it (cf. crucifixion). We also believe that our mission as Christians is to follow the example of the God/man Jesus Christ and yield ourselves up for crucifixion on behalf of our enemies. Anything less than that is not Orthodox Christianity in its fullness.
St. Paul noted: “One will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). While this is undeniably true for Christ – it is also meant to become true for all who follow Him. Anything less is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.
The challenge of Atheism is the challenge of despair. For Atheism cannot claim that human beings are improving. If anything, technology only makes us capable of far worse than the past. The marvels of this internet now mean that evil men have easy access to vulnerable children and are manifesting that evil in epic proportions. The Atheist can only (if he is honest) look at history and despair. We are heading towards a certain destruction on our present trajectory. If there is no one who can intervene and heal the human heart then our fate is indeed a sad one.
Orthodox Christianity does not believe that all religion is good. Indeed, we might very well argue that most religion is not good because it embraces the delusion that clouds the human heart. Most religion does not measure itself by its love of its enemies. In that sense, much of religion among men is just a peculiar manifestation of politics and nothing more.
But I believe that Christ is truly God in the flesh and that God so loves us that He emptied Himself and endured death on the cross in order to rescue us even from the relative non-existence we had brought on ourselves (in Hades). I believe that we can judge ourselves only by the standard of the love of God on the Cross. Either we are denying ourselves and extending our hearts towards others, especially our enemies, or we are not following Christ. Anything less than that is not the fullness of the Orthodox faith.
There is a path to salvation but it only goes through the cross (not just the Cross of Christ but through the cross He has set before each of us). It is the only means of curing the sickness of our heart. Such religion endangers no one. Such religion would see the Atheist not as our largest problem, but simply one of many examples of the heart of man in need of healing. Indeed, many Atheists may be closer to that healing than many deluded Christians. We can and must pray for all mankind and for the triumph of the Cross in their heart. The sooner the better. And let it begin with me.
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