Righteous Father! The world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you sent me. I made you known to them, and I will continue to do so, in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and so that I also may be in them.
In the modern world, atheism and materialism strongly challenge the faith and the traditional methods of evangelizing. Therefore, members should carefully study the causes of this phenomenon, realizing that in this situation they are called upon to give witness to a stronger personal faith in the living God and also to seek out new ways of fulfilling their vocation to evangelize.
It is not the same to evangelize in a Christian setting as in an atheistic one, in which persons not only do not believe in God, but are convinced that they have reasons not to believe in Him. How will we, as missionaries, act if we are called to evangelize in an atheistic setting? Number 2 of our Statutes, as cited above, indicates some ways.
1. Atheism, a Serious Phenomenon of Our Time
The greatest measure of human dignity is our communication with God. Nevertheless, there are many who do not notice this vital union with God; some even reject it. Attitudes are as different as the forms of atheism:
The word atheism is used to signify ideas that differ considerably from one another. Some people expressly deny the existence of God. Others maintain that we cannot make any assertion whatsoever about him. Still others admit only such methods of investigation that render God meaningless. Many, trespassing the boundaries of the positive sciences, either contend that everything can be explained by the reasoning process used in those sciences, or, on the contrary, hold that there is no such thing as absolute truth. With others, it is their exaggerated idea of the human person that causes their faith to languish; they are more likely, it would seem, to affirm the human than to deny the divine. Yet others have such a faulty notion of God that, when they disown this product of their imagination, their denial has no reference to the God of the Gospels. There are also those who never inquire about God; religion never seems to trouble or interest them at all, nor do they see why they should bother about it. Not infrequently, atheism is born of a violent protest against the evil in the world, or from the fact that certain human ideals are wrongfully invested with such an absolute character as to be taken for God. Modern civilization itself, though not of its very nature but because it is too engrossed in the concerns of this world, can often make it harder to approach God1.
According to Paragraph 19 of Gaudium et Spes, we who believe bear some responsibility for atheism. Our neglect in forming our faith, the way we teach it, and the defects in our own religious, moral and social life have hidden the face of God and allowed others to choose different paths, such as the road of complete human autonomy:
Modern atheism often takes a systematic form which, along with other ideas, insists on the human desire for autonomy so much that it objects to any dependence on God whatsoever. Those who profess this sort of atheism maintain that freedom consists in this: the human person is self-sufficient and the sole creator of personal history, with supreme control over that history. They claim that this outlook cannot be reconciled with the assertion that there is a God who is the author and the end of all things, or that, at least, it makes such an affirmation of God completely unnecessary. The sense of power which modern technical progress begets in us may encourage such an outlook. Among the various kinds of present-day atheism, the one that looks for human autonomy through economic and social emancipation should not be overlooked. This form of atheism holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts our emancipation by raising our hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving us and discouraging us from working for a better life here on earth. That is why those who hold such views, wherever they take control of the government, violently attack religion. And to spread their atheism, especially when educating the young, they make use of every means the civil authority has to bring pressure to bear on their citizens2.
3. What to Do
The phenomenon of contemporary atheism raises serious questions for anyone who would evangelize. The Council has directed us toward helpful attitudes:
The Church holds that acknowledging God in no way opposes the dignity of the human person… She further teaches that hope in the life to come does not take away from the importance of the duties of our earthly life—that hope actually adds importance by giving new motives for fulfilling those duties. When, on the other hand, we are without divine support and without hope of eternal life, our dignity is fatally wounded, as we see so often these days. The problems of life and death, of guilt and of suffering, remain unsolved for the atheist; and so some of them are often cast into despair. Atheism can be disproved by good teaching presented in an appropriate and telling way, as well as by the experience of the rich and full life of the Church and her members. This is brought about chiefly by the witness of a vital and mature faith—a faith so well formed that it sees difficulties clearly and deals with them well… This faith should show its fruitfulness by permeating the whole life of believers—even their wordly activities—and by moving them to be loving and just, especially toward those most in need. Lastly, what demonstrates God’s presence most unmistakably is the Christian love of the faithful who, united in mind and spirit, work together to share their faith in the Gospel and who are themselves a sign of unity3.
- Have I perceived signs of atheism in the setting in which I do my apostolic work?
- If I have, how have I reacted?
- Has my reaction led me to some special response?
Almighty and eternal God, you created humankind so that all who long to find you might have peace when you are found. Grant that, in spite of the hurtful things that stand in their way, they may recognize in the lives of Christians the tokens of your love and mercy, and gladly acknowledge you as the one true God and Father of us all. We ask this through Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen4.