Atheism Is A Lonely Business


by Richard E. Wentz

"When the load gets too heavy for you, just pick up your feet and keep moving." That's what my grandfather used to say.

Well, today I might be giving you a heavy load. You'll just have to keep moving. I want to share some thoughts about atheism. A few Sundays ago. The Arizona Republic published an article from The New York Times by Natalie Angier. Ms. Angier was writing about the loneliness of being an atheist.

"I'm an atheist," she wrote, "I don't believe in God, gods, godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself."

Then, a week or so ago, Arizona atheists held a meeting in Phoenix and had difficulty getting an enthusiastic response. Apparently Natalie Angier is not alone in her loneliness. Why is that so? Well, for one thing, atheism is of necessity a lonely business. It represents the struggle of the private, individual, autonomous mind trying to find a practical reason to come to the conclusion that there is a god, godlets or any sort of higher power. For the most part, atheism is a modern intellectual problem. The modern world has undone the restraints to the old Atlas myth, so that each of us thinks she is an isolated self with the responsibility for shouldering the entire world. I, too, am probably an atheist much of the time because I have been taught to think that whatever does not make sense to my little, old, narcissistic mind has no meaning at all.

Then, too, even those who have no trouble believing in God, live in a world that functions as if there were no higher power. Physical scientists, engineers, and economists live in a world where it is possible to think and to work without any reference to what their minds would call "God" or "the supernatural."

If that is so it seems absurd for us to reserve a special place for this higher power in the inner recesses of our private minds or "souls." If this higher power has no public worth or recognition, then what is it: a matter of whim or fancy or belief? Why do we need it/him/her? Just for private consolation? Why should I pray for "daily bread" when I know that the Holsum distributor will deliver it to the shelves at Bashas' or Safeway? If God is a private mater, if God has only to do with private consolation, self-esteem, or salvation, then atheism may be more plausible than my little faith.

This reality we call God cannot be reduced to the stipulations of private thinking. It can't even be reduced to my hope for salvation or to belief or unbelief. After all, if this God exists, then try to imagine him/her worrying each year whether the pollsters will come up with enough of a percentage of believers to keep him/her from jumping off the Bay Bridge.

This reality we call God has to do with how people think. It is a reality that lives in community. It's a matter of whether a people not a private self knows that life is personal, that it is greater than the sum of its parts, that it is more than we know.

Think of the Jews. There are many lonely Jews who are so convinced of the power of their private, technical reason that their minds have no place for "God." They are atheists. But the Jewish people as a whole have throughout their history known that the loneliness of atheism is part of their life as a people.

In Chaim Potok's novel, "The Promise," there is a Jewish professor of philosophy who teaches in a small college in Manhattan. Professor Gordon is an atheist. His modern mind cannot make place for God; it can find no reason to believe. But Professor Gordon also is a Jew. He lives among his people. Each Sabbath he recites the age-old prayers with his family. On Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur he participates in the liturgies and ceremonies of his people. He asks forgiveness from his family and friends.

Professor Gordon is not a hypocrite. He knows what the Jewish people know; he knows what they do. He realizes that what they know is bigger than the capacities of his shimmering intellect. His inability to believe is a lonely business that is resolved in the love of his tradition and its people.

Richard E. Wentz is a resident of Strawberry, holds a doctorate from George Washington University in American history and served on the faculty at Penn State. Comments and questions can be sent to the Roundup at P.O. Box 2520, Payson, AZ 85008; c/o Richard E. Wentz.

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