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Atheism is Acquired, and recent studies show it is not natural to the human person

October 6, 2014

The Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen once remarked that atheism was not natural to the human person and that it was acquired. He used as his reference St. Paul’s words in Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:18-21).

And thus the Holy Spirit, speaking through St. Paul, says that the ungodly  suppress a truth that is plain and available to the human intellect, namely that God exists and is to be honored and thanked. Our capacity to perceive the existence of God is activated by the evidence of God’s power and divinity that is itself perceivable in creation. Hence, to choose to live in an ungodly (atheist) stance is not natural to us, but must be acquired through suppression of the truth and the evidence.

Since this suppression requires effort and an overriding of truth and evidence naturally available to us through our reason, those who engage in this suppression are, as the text says, without excuse. The term suppress is a present active participle in the Greek (κατεχόντων (katechonton), literally “suppressing.” Hence the text implies that atheism requires an ongoing effort to maintain the suppression. 

Now of course none of this would mean a thing to an atheist, since I am quoting a sacred text. However, for us who believe, Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. In other words, it tells us what is really going on. Atheists are suppressing the truth in an ongoing way. The reference to their “wickedness” need not be taken to mean that all, or even many atheists are living wicked lives in a comprehensive sense. Rather, it can simply mean that the suppression of the truth of God’s existence and the evidence for it in creation is itself a sin, a form of  wickedness. As such, atheism is not seen by Scripture merely as evidence of bad luck, poor upbringing, or ignorance. Atheism is sinful because it resists what we are naturally equipped to do: perceive God’s existence. And this resistance is described as on ongoing, sinful state since the verb form used is a participle, indicating ongoing action.

A recent article at Science 2.0, describes some recent studies on the capacity of the human mind to perceive and ponder the metaphysical. The term “metaphysical” refers to concepts and realities that are beyond (meta) the physical world. Hence, concepts and realities such as justice, fairness, mercy, and so forth are not seen under a microscope but as real concepts that we not only debate, but which can both cause war and launch great humanitarian acts. Radical materialists deny metaphysics anywhere in the definable world. However, truly radical materialists are very rare, partly because it is so unnatural for humans to “think” this way, or to suppress the truth of metaphysical reality, which so clearly affects us.

I’d like to highlight excerpts of the article in the usual way, using black, bold italics, and include my own remarks in plain, red text. I do not vouch for the credibility of the Science 2.0 site, and I limit my comments simply to what is written in the column. But even if the science of studying this topic is nascent and is disputed by some, it nevertheless remains interesting that some in the field are beginning to discuss whether the human person is naturally wired to perceive and ponder the metaphysical. The full article is here: Atheism Unnatural?

Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged … We are born believers, not atheists, scientists say. Humans are pattern-seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting. “A slew of cognitive traits predisposes us to faith,” writes Pascal Boyer in Nature, the science journal, adding that people “are only aware of some of their religious ideas” …

And this is just what Fulton Sheen once observed: atheism is unnatural to us and is acquired only through effort. There is also reference here to a kind of “meta-narrative” about justice, to which all human beings seem oriented no matter the culture or the era. We have a sense of justice, of right and wrong. I recently featured an article describing the discovery by brain researchers that this sense is apparent even in the youngest children. You can read that article here: Even the youngest children know right and wrong

While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey by Theos, a think tank, found that very few people—only 13 per cent of adults—agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. For the vast majority of us, unseen realities are very present … In the US, only 20 per cent of people have no religious affiliation, but of these, only one in ten say they are atheists. The majority are “nothing in particular” according to figures published in New Scientist

And this makes sense, since the rejection of God does not necessarily imply a wholesale rejection of the metaphysical, as is proposed by the radical adherents of “scientism.” Scientism is the claim that the physical sciences can and do explain the whole of reality, that there is nothing beyond the physical.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person … the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work

This is what I referred to above as a meta-narrative, which is essentially the set of archetypal stories that illustrate the basic human longing for justice and truth, and the triumph of what is good and true. This is a consistent theme in every culture and in every epoch of recorded human history. It is a remarkably consistent theme that points to its being placed in the human heart and soul, not merely as a learned preference but as an infused attraction to what is good, true, beautiful, and just. Biologists and anthropologists may wish to attribute this merely to a learned biological mechanism that helps survival. But the question still remains as to how the physical can produce the metaphysical. Further, it seems puzzling that this would be a necessary adaptation for survival, since none of the other animals seem to need a meta-narrative, or archetypal stories assuring final triumph of justice, in order to survive. 

But if a belief in cosmic justice is natural and deeply rooted, the question arises: where does atheism fit in? Albert Einstein, who had a life-long fascination with metaphysics, believed atheism came from a mistaken belief that harmful superstition and a general belief in religious or mystical experience were the same thing. 

In other words, atheism arose as a response to spiritual extremism and unbalanced or inaccurate notions of God and faith. But they overcorrected by dismissing good faith along with bad or flawed notions.

But as higher levels of education spread, will … atheism sweep the field, as some atheism campaigners suggest? Some specialists feel this is unlikely … The need for periods of contemplative calm in churches or temples or other places devoted to the ineffable and inexplicable will remain. They appear to be part of who we are as humans.

Yes, it is unlikely that we will outgrow what is a fundamental human trait. Faith is not a lack of education; it is a fundamental human quality that may at times go in wrong directions intellectually, but which is innately correct and essential to who and what we are: spiritual as well as corporeal persons.

When looking at trends, there’s also population growth to consider. Western countries are moving away from the standard family model, and tend to obsess over topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion on demand. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these issues, in practice they are associated with shrinking populations …

Touché

Africans and South Asians, on the other hand, are generally religious and retain the traditional model of multi-child families—which may be old-fashioned from a Western point of view, but it’s a model powerfully sanctioned by the evolutionary urge to extend the gene pool.

The power of the womb and the noticeable dying of the culture of death and selfish decadence; faith will out!

“It’s clearly the case that the future will involve an increase in religious populations and a decrease in scepticism,” says Steve Jones, a professor in genetics at University College London, speaking at the Hay Festival in the UK recently … Bad news for pro-atheism campaigners.

Indeed, I frequently get atheists, and also some non-Catholics, who predict the demise of the Catholic Church. I always respond to them that they must not have not read history. In the 2000 years of the Church, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, theories, heresies, trends, and fads have all sparked and then faded. But the Church is still here. Many have predicted our death, and to quote Chesterton, “We have buried every one of our undertakers.” Where is Caesar, where is Napoleon, where is Stalin, where is the USSR? They are gone, but we are here. I do not write this triumphantly; the Church is ever in need of reform and our numbers may rise and fall, but by the Lord’s promise, the power of Hell will not prevail over His everlasting Kingdom, the Church.

Here’s a hymn by John Henry Cardinal Newman: “Firmly I Believe and Truly”

Comments (18)

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  1. a catholic psychologist says:

    I am not as sanguine about the future over then next century or two. Take for example the problem of higher education. The prospects of reform showing anytime soon within higher education are pretty dim. A reflexive practical atheism has become openly widespread in university administrations. The process of their emergence took 100 years to evolve, and they are here to stay. Just as man has an innate drive to procreate, today his sexual behavior is becoming increasingly self-destructive—so too in academia, although man has an innate drive to contemplate spiritual things, he can be conditioned to do the opposite. Once these habits take hold, they are very difficult to displace because were are not just dealing with ideas, we are dealing with deeply ingrained desires and habits. Also, consider that of all the competing factions in higher education today–pragmatism, individualism, environmentalism and multiculturalism (the latter two being variants of utopianism) these factions all agree on one thing: Christians have to be driven out.

  2. Adrienne says:

    The abovementioned response is a valid one. Conditioning over time is very powerful but its the kind of conditioning that is important. I enjoy reading Mgr. Pope’s daily messages but this one skims the surface of a far deeper and profound reality. It’s what is called psychological seduction and it has its origin in the heart of evil. Sadly we have been conditioned, especially since Vatican II, to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” as the saying goes. Extremely dangerous and today we are living the disaster of its fruits. Today the Church honors Our Lady of the Rosary. She has been given the honor and the succinct mission of crushing the head of Satan. Her Immaculate Heart will triumph. Say the Rosary daily; it’s our best defense against all evil especially that which is committed to destroying every vestige of true Catholicism everywhere. Don’t be deceived by false teachers and teaching.

    • . . . all for Jesus says:

      +MENTAL . . . EMOTIONAL . .. AND . . . SPIRITUAL HEALTH . . .

      “He answering, said: Thou shalt love the LORD thy GOD with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with ALL thy MIND: and thy neighbour as thyself.” – Luke 10:27

      Upon further gentle consideration Adrienne . . . in the light of Sacred Scripture . . . “accentuating the positive” . . . actually . . . is a . . . deeply powerful . . . Scriptural . . . truth and teaching. The Sweet Spirit of our Wonderful GOD has provided us with the below . . . profoundly real .. . Scriptural . . . “recipe” . . . for . . . SOUND . . . mental, emotional and spiritual . . . HEALTH . . . re the . . . “good keeping” . . . of mind, heart and soul as GOD‘S . . . healthy . . . children . . .

      Sacred Scripture writings certainly don’t . . . “eliminate the negative” . . . truths. But moving along toward complete salvation and health . . . GOD’S Holy Word . . . does . . . give . . . MUCH GODLY . . . guidance as to how to . . . “positively” . . . face and deal with . . . “eliminating” . . . the . . . “negative” . . . throughout life. And as far as the FIRST priority mind-set for GOD‘S children is concerned . . . we are given the following . . . “positive” . . . clear guidance re the holy pathway to apprehending the . . . peaceful . . . beautiful . . . “mind of Christ”. . . we are destined to apprehend . . . in time . . . as we go about growing and living our daily lives in the Love of our LORD and love of our neighbor . . .

      “And be renewed in the spirit of your mind …”

      +“Finally, brethren,
      whatsoever things are
      TRUE,
      whatsoever things are
      HONEST,
      whatsoever things are
      JUST,
      whatsoever things are
      PURE,
      whatsoever things are
      LOVELY,
      whatsoever things are of
      GOOD REPORT;
      if there be any
      VIRTUE,
      and if there be any
      PRAISE,
      think
      ON THESE THINGS.”+
      – Philippians 4:8

      One of the fascinating passages in Genesis Iin Scripture that I’ve often reflected upon . . . deals with the reality of the . . . Holy Truth . . . “And the LORD GOD brought forth …the tree of KNOWLEDGE of GOOD and EVIL.” – Genesis 2:9.

      Clearly . . . when GOD created Adam and Eve re . . . HANDLING . . . the . . . KNOWLEDGE . . . of good . . . AND . . . evil . . . this “handling” ability . . . was . . . NOT . . .“built into” . . . their created beings . . . (their spiritual “DNA” so-to-speak) . . . and the learning from GOD as to how to . . . “handle” . . . same has been going on ever since. When they cast God and His Love and Care for them aside . . . and disobediently sinned and partook of the . . . “forbidden” . . . fruit . . . which GOD had . . . out of the depths of His Great Holy Love . . . lovingly and responsibly warned them NOT to do . . . the constant conflict/struggle of . . . discerning . . . and . . . dealing . . . with . . . “good” AND “evil” . . . began . . . and continues on today . . . which conflict and struggle they were NOT created to deal with and brought upon themselves through sin . . . and the enemy of souls has been deceiving and trying to confuse and deceive mankind ever since. Only by the SAVING GRACE of GOD and His Holy Saving Love and Teachings . . . can this constant puzzlement and conflict and struggle be truthfully discerned and “positively” dealt with . . . may GOD forgive us all . . . when we so often miss the mark in so discerning and dealing with His Truth during this constant conflict/struggle between good and evil . . .

      . . . all for Jesus+

  3. Thomas says:

    It ought to be mentioned that the teaching of evolution as a fact, that is “evolution science is science while creation science is religion”, has been an underlying cause because so many Christians (clergy and laity) have accepted it. A self-existing universe and biological evolution is the basic dogma of faith upon which the whole secular humanist world view is based. Google “Humanist Manifesto I” and read the first two affirmations of that non-theistic religion. Then google and read “Humanist Manifesto II” written 40 years later to recognize the blueprint for what the dominant U.S. culture was to become (and has become).Be sure to read the list of influential signers of those Manifestos. If you don’t recognize their names (and most people under 60 probably won’t), google them. The revolution that changed us from a Christian culture to a Secular Humanist culture didn’t “just happen”. Ideas have consequences and propaganda is effective. It is amazing that the speculations of 19th century writers have become so readily accepted as fact despite their being no scientific evidence to support them. Catholic theistic evolutionists are locked in a state of cognitive dissonance in which they simultaneously believe two things that are opposite. Theistic evolution has no basis in either Scripture or science. G.K. Chesterton once said something to the effect that the problem is not that people won’t believe anything, the problem is that they will believe anything.

  4. Maria J. says:

    Thank you for the well thought out presentation ;

    as mentioned , it is sad to hear how many even supposedly ‘religious’ blame ‘religion’ as the cause of all problems ;

    true, religion means binding and if one is bound to the wrong forces and their lies , about the nature of God through such idolatry of errors , then that type of binding /religion does cause problems , as we see around enough !

    Thank God for The Church , who with The Mother can loudly proclaim ‘ My soul magnifies The Lord ‘ ,

    how every human life is called for such greatness of knowing and loving the goodness of God, to love and worship Him and to help others to do so , thus to have The One thing in life that is needed ,

    to bring focus and clarity

    for parents to marvel, hope and trust so , for every little one ;

    .every young person , hoping to get married , to know that marriage is to help bring forth little ones, designed for such great things ..of the start of eternity already here , in the company of heaven, with the angels and saints, to take in the joy of being loved by a Good Father and join the hymn , esp. at every Holy Mass

    May our Mother set hearts on fire , casting down the powers that keep persons in fear of The Truth !

  5. David F says:

    While I’m sure religion will not disappear and in fact increase, that doesn’t mean that Catholicism will have an easy time of it. Islam is growing and here in the West while Christian religions are declining and secular types are on the increase in power and number.

  6. Maria J. says:

    If I may add this too – the Mary mentioned in today’s Gospel readings , sitting at the feet of The Lord, taking in The Presence , the One Thing needed , was not Mary Magdalene , as per writings of bl.Emmerich , who mentions how Lazarus had two ! sisters named Mary and the one with Martha was known as the ‘silent Mary ‘ was a simple soul who died young .

    Would it be that the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of the Sacred Scripture allowed this as a sort of ‘ good joke’ to help the readers to see Magdalene as the good Mary , which she was not yet buy was to be in the future , a hope that we too are blessed to extend to ourselves and others in our lives, starting with the littlest –
    ‘what is this child destined to be ‘ ..

    Too bad that those in fear of trusting in the goodness of God , going for the label of atheism , miss out on so much !

  7. Michael Martinez says:

    Hm. I don’t recall anything in the Bible about species not changing over time (the Bible is peculiarly silent on evolution in this long-running tit-for-tat struggle). The Genesis story is the stumbling point in all these arguments but it is a teaching myth, not a history book. Man felt alienated from God and tried to explain how that happened. And, quite frankly, some of the details preserved in that story bear a striking resemblance to events that we have confirmed happened through science: specifically, the flooding of large areas of the world. Whether anyone like Noah actually built an arc and survived the flood will remain debatable, but every continental shelf includes once-dry regions where we now know people lived. To them and their descendants it would have felt like the world was destroyed by water.

    • Person who replied says:

      ^ Without a “first” Adam, there is not a need for a “second” Adam. Genesis is a correct depiction of historical events and is backed up by it’s literary style as opposed to Revelation which is not written in a historical style but rather in the apocalyptic writing style.

  8. teo says:

    so just for my edification (or not)… ” St. Paul, says that the ungodly suppress a truth that is plain and available to the human intellect,…”
    Is this getting at the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit? I don’t think that that sin has every been explicitly explained to me….
    thanks
    teo

  9. John says:

    I’m not worried at all about Catholicism dying out. But I do worry about European culture (which is to say, that culture that has given us the finest of Christian culture over the centuries).

    My concern is this: European Christian practice has been nearly wiped out, has it not? I’m no expert, but has there ever since the dawn of Christendom been such a spiritual crisis on the continent? In the absence of Christian faith, secular Europeans are refusing to bear children, while simultaneously, they are importing enormous numbers of DEEPLY religious Muslims.

    As a man once said: Europe has age and welfare, Islam has youth and will. The consequences in my lifetime will be enormous.

  10. TeaPot562 says:

    Two comments:
    1. The development by Dr. Stephen Hawking, a self-proclaimed atheist, and others of the Big Bang theory on how our universe reached its present configuration begins with an extremely large mass at a very high temperature (think millions, possibly billions, of degrees) at a single small point! No explanation is available from these cosmologists on what caused the 13 billion or so years ago point singularity. If this point “didn’t just happen”, then a Creator is required.
    2. The acceptance of Darwin’s theory of Evolution requires that the “least fit” be eliminated from the gene pool, and the “most fit” reproduce.
    Consider homosexual behavior.
    IF this behavior is genetic, and NOT a choice, those who display this behavior would have been eliminated from the gene pool centuries or millenia ago.
    If this behavior is a conscious decision – note that among well-known historical figures, both King Edward II of England and Oscar Wilde were capable of fathering children before they became known for this behavior – if the behavior is a choice, rather than being genetic, it is subject to moral criteria such as being “right” or “wrong”. And since it has a negative effect on survival of our species,or the tribe to which the individual belongs, it seems to me that it is “wrong”.
    Thank you for providing me with an excuse to write these comments.
    TeaPot562

  11. Amoratem Veritatis says:

    Excellent post Msgr. Pope. Two statements especially stood out for their profound philosophical implications.

    “But the question still remains as to how the physical can produce the metaphysical.”

    No evolutionary biologist that I am aware of has attempted to directly address this issue. Their approach is either to deny the existence of the metaphysical, an absurd notion that by extension denies 2500 years of philosophical debate, not to mention common sense – or to claim that the most sophisticated, complex and intellectually advanced species in the materialist universe has evolved a delusional (insane?) conception of reality that serves no purpose in the mechanism of natural selection. Then there is the other time tested tactic of simply ignoring those truths which are deemed inconvenient. All three approaches seem to have more in common with superstition than with science.

    “Further, it seems puzzling that this would be a necessary adaptation for survival, since none of the other animals seem to need a meta-narrative, or archetypal stories assuring final triumph of justice, in order to survive.”

    What a dilemma (trilemma?) for the advocates of materialist based scientism! Either the odd psychological tic called “metaphysics” is present in other species to some degree (the integrity of the evolutionary model requires this), or high priests of the Church of Scientism must reluctantly admit that Homo sapiens sapiens is indeed unique. Admitting either shakes the very foundations of the materialist-naturalist school of evolutionary biology and it’s dogma of natural selection. But it does, coincidentally, fit Catholic teaching quite nicely.

    Some final comments regarding the somewhat pessimistic and deterministic tone of some of the comments.

    1. Msgr. Pope has, in his final comment, reminded us of Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16:18. We know, because we have been assured by Truth incarnate, how this movie ends. “Let not your hearts be troubled”

    2. The neo-atheists & quasi-atheists, who are in reality anti-theists (very different), who are certain that rationalism has all but defeated “the superstition of religion”, remind me of the wonderful Mark Twain quote – “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. God, of course, has both a sense of humor and a sense of irony, and I note with both humor and irony the fact that in the short span of two thousand years, the percentage of Christians in the worldwide population has gone from 0% to around 33%. And the percentage of the world wide population that believes in some conception of Judeo-Christian based (based is the key word – we can debate Islam later) monotheism has gone from 0% to around 57%. And there is no objective evidence that this trend has either peaked or is reversing, despite all the nattering nabobs of negativity to the contrary. If all the navel gazers in the West would simply look at Africa and China, their perspectives might change. Forget Sweden, the Netherlands and the rest of post-production modern Europe. The future of the Church is elsewhere. Whether that will include a renewal in the US remains to be seen. Probably not until the Church is rid of the USCCB old guard. Yes…you know who I’m talking about. Until then, read & repeat Matthew 16:18 often.

  12. Amatorem Veritatis says:

    Oops! Typing comments on an IPad is a recipe for disaster when using predictive spelling.

    Should be “Amatorem”, not “Amoratem”

    Should be “post modern Europe”, not “post-production modern Europe”

    Sincere apologies.

  13. Doug Kraeger says:

    Some evolutionist claim that evolution can explain caring about another, ie a parent caring about, “loving” their child. I would not argue that point, only add, atheistic evolution cannot give a reason for us knowing with absolute certitude that it is morally right and we SHOULD care, love our children. The knowledge that we SHOULD do anything is a proof that God exists and has revealed His objective moral law in our hearts. There is so much talk about grey areas that children are not taught to focus on the black and white areas that prove there is a God. Therefore the way we raise our children and teach them to think things through can lead to greater faith, or not.

    And I believe God is so powerful that He can turn the whole world right side up by peaceful means, and this is what His plan is.

  14. Jay says:

    Isn’t atheism, in a sense, another form of religion? If we broadly define religion as belief in the supernatural and a supreme being, atheism certainly meets the criteria.

    They believe in the “supernatural” in a sense because they believe that which is impossible. Creation from nothing

    They believe in a supreme being, Man (or themselves)

    If we want to take this a bit further, they have:
    -Tradition (peer reviewed “science”)
    -Clergy (scientists who publish)
    -A pope (Richard Dawkins)
    -Excommunications (whatever happens when scientists publish on forbidden topis, like Intelligent Design or contra-Global Warming, they lose their jobs)
    -Creed (“prove it”)

  15. Manny says:

    This is excellent! This post is worth saving as a “go to” post on rejection of atheism.