Sometimes we imagine—those of us who try each day to believe—that it must be nice to be an atheist and be so sure. It must be easy, we think with some rue and a little envy, not to have to prove anything because you swear there’s nothing real beyond what you can prove.
C.S. Lewis, the well-known Christian apologist, was baptized in the Church of Ireland, but abandoned his faith in adolescence. He was a professed atheist until the age of 32, when, moved by his friend, J.R.R. Tolkein, he returned to the Church of England.
Knowing that about Lewis helps to fully appreciate these words of his on faith and doubt.
Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamor of this visible and audible world is so persistent, and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist also has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may, after all, be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe. Believe in God, and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in Him, and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction religious or irreligious will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of faith resulting in the habit of faith will gradually do that.
-from “Religion: Reality or Substitute?”
in Christian Reflections, by C. S. Lewis
I don’t know who the top atheist in the world is but I do know one of the great believers of our time, Mother Teresa, harbored doubt. It was a part of her journey and likely a very important part. For me, it took a long hard look into the abyss and something inexplicable that helped get me out that really opened me up to the possibility.
I have friends who are atheists who have had people close to them get gravely ill and to a man they have turned to prayer. It’s as you said this evening, a moment when the big self rises to the occasion.
David Anderson says
Yes, the small self within each of us is a functional atheist. Only the big self can stand down in the Presence.
David, thank you for this post. Unfamiliar with the term “fifth columnist”, I poked around a bit. According to Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi, the term “Fifth Column” is “believed to have been coined in 1936 by Emilio Mola y Vidal (1887-1937), a nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), as his army of four columns was approaching Madrid, and he said that a “Fifth Column” would join them from within the city. Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938) is a homage to that coinage.” Elsewhere, a “fifth column” is a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group such as a nation from within; a group of people who act traitorously and subversively out of a secret sympathy with an enemy of their country. Thus does Lewis bring to mind several logion of the Gospel of Thomas (which The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault deems an important piece of Christian scripture that’s gone missing) that speak of the enemies within and outside ourselves who seek to gain entry. Lewis continues in Christian Reflections with this reminder that Faith is a gift, plain and simple: “Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just as long as Satan pleases. There is nothing we cannot be made to believe or disbelieve. If we wish to be reasonable, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth. And the answer to that prayer will, perhaps, surprise us when it comes. For I am not sure, after all, whether one of the causes of our weak faith is not a secret wish that our faith should not be very strong. Is there some reservation in our minds? Some fear of what it might be like if out religion became quite real? I hope not. God help us all, and forgive us.”
David Anderson says
Thanks, Gail–I had a vague sense of that “Fifth Column,” but it was good to have some background. And that final quote of Lewis–of all the things “reason has delivered to us as truth”–the atrocities of the 20th C were starting to mount, and the artists and intellectuals were looking for some way to account for it. Had to copy that one so I could print it and read it again in a week.
clark johnson says
David, your comments and those of Matt , as well as C S Lewis are so human,at least this human thinks so
David Anderson says
I love what “this human,” Clark, thinks.
Good post David. It got me to thinking…
If a devout Mormon came to me with doubts about whether Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates that had been buried by an angel in upstate New York, what should I say to him?
If his Mormon faith is giving him comfort and hope, if it’s helping him love his wife and children, if it’s making him a good citizen of his community, how should I advise him?
Should I say: Hang in there. Just trust your faith and follow its precepts? Should I say: Remember, ex-Mormons have doubts too?
Mark Mosier says
And I thought I’d have a calm mind-free day off at home. First there was my catch-up session w/ Charlie Rose’s show on my DVR and now this episode of your blog?!
I, too thank Gail for her research (my procras-self wanted to blame my ancient computer for how LONG the search for an explanation of the “fifth column” would take. Really liked her inclusion of the Lewis’ “teeth of reason” section.
I shall think of my lower teeth (base, foundation) as the ones of reason, and my upper teeth that show as the ever-present “lust, terror, etc.” I appreciate them all (the latter can produce a smile as well…), but it is better for me to experience them in the work of others, real or imagined (especially during Oscar seaon). I now have less despair that (hopefully) ALL of them will remain with this human–the analogy is becoming sophmoric meandering, I know, so I will stop!
Thank you, David for starting this conversation. Your column is very meaningful to me.