Matt C. Abbott
October 24, 2013
Are atheists of value to religion?
By Matt C. Abbott

Last month, there was a bit of a stir in the media over Pope Francis' interview with an atheist commentator. (Click here if you'd like a refresher.)

Also on the subject of atheists and atheism is a Sept. 1, 2013 column by Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

Father Rolheiser wrote:
    In his monumental study of atheism, Michael Buckley suggests that atheism is invariably a parasite that feeds off bad religion. It feeds off bad religion, picks on bad religion, and picks apart bad religion.

    If that's true, then ultimately atheists do us a huge favor. They pick apart bad religion, showing us our blind spots, rationalizations, inconsistencies, double-standards, hypocrisies, moral selectivity, propensity for power, unhealthy fears, and hidden arrogance. Atheism shows us the log in our own eye.

    On our honest days, we admit that this is a needed challenge. Ideally, of course, we should be sufficiently self-aware and sufficiently self-critical to see all these things for ourselves or, barring that, be attentive enough to our own prophets to stay aware of where we're falling short. But that's rarely the case and, as a result, there's invariably bad religion and this has always helped spawn negativity towards religion and atheism....
Click here to read Father Rolheiser's column in its entirety.

I asked Father John Trigilio Jr., president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, to comment on Father Rolheiser's column.

Father Trigilio's response is as follows:
    Atheism is an intellectual and spiritual cancer. Imagine if physicians began to praise disease and injuries because they challenge us to appreciate good health. How can the denial of God be good for religion and for personal faith? Our enemy's enemy is not de facto our new good friend. Likewise, just because atheism exposes the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of bad religion, that does not transform the intrinsic evil and error of atheism. Just as cancer is a physical evil, atheism denies an innate truth that there is indeed a God (Supreme Being, Prime Mover, Necessary Being, Creator, et al.).

    It would be like praising the devil and evil in general, as one could contend that they make us acknowledge and appreciate God and goodness. The denial of God's existence is an error; it is a false argument and has no merit. Bad religion is a perversion and distortion of religion. There seems to be a dualism or Manichaeism operative here by which one insists that opposing principles need each other. Sin is more than merely the absence of good; it is an absence of a necessary good. Atheism does no one any favors. While it is true that the permissive will of God allows evil so that a higher good may come from it, it is also true that the ordained will of God never chooses that which is evil. Atheism contradicts the truth of reason and divine revelation.

    Bad religion is not salvageable, but human beings can better practice their religion. Bad religion is like bad science: both are harmful. Good science and good religion are what must be promoted and sought. Human beings can improve their skills and commitment to good religion and thus practice their faith better. Bad morality, bad theology, bad liturgy; these are all inimical to true Christianity. None of it can be redeemed. Men and women can, however, renew and repair and restore their practice of good religion. Bad religion, on the other hand, is intrinsically flawed and injurious to the common good. True religion needs to be defended and better practiced.
On the subject of atheism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (paragraphs 2123–2126, 2140):
    'Many...of our contemporaries either do not at all perceive, or explicitly reject, this intimate and vital bond of man to God. Atheism must therefore be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time.'

    The name 'atheism' covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be 'an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history.' Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. 'It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man's hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth.'

    Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. 'Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.'

    Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God. Yet, 'to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God....' 'For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart.'

    Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the first commandment.
© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He has been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR and WLS-TV in Chicago, and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at

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