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 …
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”