Books and Documents

Interview (24 Jul 2018 NewAgeIslam.Com)

Atheism, Faith and Interfaith

By Roshan Shah

24 July 2018

Fr. Sebastian Athappilly

Fr. Sebastian Athappilly, a Catholic priest, is the author of a recently published thought-provoking book The Delusion of Atheism (Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore, 2017). In this interview with Roshan Shah, he reflects on a range of issues, including atheism, faith and interfaith collaboration.

Q: Could you please tell us something about yourself and your professional background?

A: I am a Catholic religious priest from Kerala, South India, belonging to the religious congregation of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI). My father was a lawyer of the Kerala High court at Ernakulam, but later, for health reasons of my mother, he shifted to a lower court. For him, God and religious practice were top priority. Only after attending the religious service in the church would he go to the court. In every need he relied on God and prayed to Him. He did not accept any case of litigation that would require lie and dishonesty to win. My mother was a woman of strong faith, prayer, patience and courage. Their example of life inspired me from childhood onwards to love God and to give utmost importance to religion and conscience, which meant love, justice and honesty.

I had my studies in India (Pune and Bangalore), Austria (Graz) and Germany (Freiburg and Frankfurt): Master’s degree in Philosophy (M.Ph.) and in Theology (M. Th.) and a doctorate in Theology (Dr.Theol). My doctoral dissertation was on the theology of a German Catholic Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984), which I had to write in the German language. This was published in 1987 by the Austrian Ministry of Education under the title Glaube und Welt. Eine Studieüber das Wohl-Heil-Verhältnisbei Karl Rahner (‘Faith and World: A Study of the Relationship between Welfare and Salvation according to K. Rahner’). Since 1985 I have been teaching at the Dharmaram Pontifical Athenaeum of Philosophy and Theology in Bangalore.

By the grace of God I have written several articles and a few books on philosophical and theological themes. I have also translated, from German to English, a book written by Andreas Bsteh on interreligious dialogue: History of a Dialogue: St Gabriel Dialogue Initiatives at the Turn of the Millennium.

Q: What inspired you to write this book on Atheism?

A: My encounters (disputes and discussions) with atheists on the one hand, and the stunning and fascinating experiences of God’s existence and His loving providence, on the other, inspired and motivated me to write the book. I was especially impressed by two special types of experiences—the marvellous experiences of how God has been guiding me and also many others. Firstly, in certain cases when no solution was in sight I prayed and submitted myself to God and, to my great surprise, obtained the hoped-for solution, which was not at all possible in ordinary circumstances. Secondly, I was also wonderfully saved from some unforeseen grave physical dangers; I could carry out certain tasks that would not have been possible left to myself. At times, certain things happened, and at other times they did not happen, which were all beyond my control. At every time, it was for my good. I also had the experience of getting my innermost secret wishes and desires fulfilled. All this strengthened me in my faith in God and His loving Providence: God is so farsighted and foresighted in His concern for me!

My observations and reflections on how things in this world correspond to one another in a kind of mutual compatibility and “dove-tailing” led me to the necessity of a Mastermind behind it all. This is manifested also in our own body, where each organ is structured in view of something outside of the whole system. For instance, the nose is made in such a way that it has nostrils to allow the passage of air coming from outside. The ears are shaped to receive sound waves from outside. The reproductive system shows that it is envisaged and developed in view of another body. This arrangement in which one organ or item is interlinked with another element or organ outside is not possible of itself. It is possible only if directed by a Conductor in a kind of a universal concert or orchestra—and that is God. Mere chance, as many atheists claim, cannot bring it about. That all the bodies invariably follow this structure of development simply cannot be by chance.

Even atheists have to admit that the elements of this Earth have their predictable properties and are governed by certain fixed laws. To hold that the universe came to exist by mere chance and that it is governed by mere chance and that the laws that govern the universe came about by mere chance one needs stronger faith than the faith of the theist in God the Creator! The “faith” of the atheists is thus stronger, but ridiculous!

Atheists sometimes point to the problem of evil and suffering in the world and use it as an argument for their claim about the non-existence of God. But they have no answer to the existence of so much good and beautiful in this world. Nor do they have any meaningful solution to overcome evil in the world. Denying God’s existence is no solution to the problems of the world. It is, above all, faith in God that urges us to help people in their suffering. Atheism has no inner dynamism or intrinsic potential to inspire people for selfless love and service. It only leads people to violence, despair and anxiety.

In addition to this, one must also ask why there is something at all rather than nothing. Nothingness might have been an option. But instead of nothing, we experience something that is, that exists; we have an undeniable reality before us. And being cannot emerge from non-being or nothing. In other words, non-being or nothingness cannot be the ground of being or reality. If at all there is reality really, there should be also the Ground or Source of reality really—which is God. On an imaginary or fictive hook you cannot hang a real fan!

An absurd and ridiculous demand of the atheists is that God the Creator should show Himself as one of the creatures as ‘proof’ of His existence! And then, if He does come as a creature, they would say that he is merely a creature! The atheists do not provide a norm of how the proof of God should be like. At the same time they expect a proof of God along the lines of just any other proof applicable to creatures. This is almost like demanding that in order to accept the existence or reality of an apple, it must show itself as a mango!

Q: When did you start writing your book, and how long did it take you?

A: I started writing the book in 2016. To begin with, I wrote a  booklet titled The Pity of Atheism and Pitfalls of Post-Modernity. Later, in 2017, I worked on it further and wrote the present book, The Delusion of Atheism. This took about one year to complete.

Q: Besides your personal reflections and reading, did interactions and discussions with atheists also provide insights for your book? If so, could you please provide some details?

A: The insights I gained from discussions with atheists were in the form of counter-arguments. For instance, atheists often argue that we cannot prove God’s existence. This atheistic “argument” is not at all an argument, for this is not a proof against God’s existence. If someone is unable to prove the reality or existence of an entity, it only means that the concerned person is incapable of it, or that the concerned reality is of a different sphere, surpassing the possibilities of proof according to the prevalent tools and methods.

Physical realities are objects that can be analysed with the help of physical and material tools and experiments. Spiritual realities cannot be treated the same way as physical realities. Each being has its own properties. The special nature of God surpasses and overrides all human means to locate and prove Him as though He were a being among the many beings of this world.

The atheistic statement that we cannot prove God’s existence is in itself not a proof against His existence. It is illogical to conclude the non-existence of something just because you are not able to prove its existence. No one has disproved God’s existence to date, and no atheist has also proved that God does not exist.

Secondly, many important things in our life do not depend upon proofs. We do many significant things in our life without first proving them. A great part of our life is based on reasonable trust. Is it only after a proof or DNA test that we have accepted our parents as our parents?

Some atheists argue that the believers have created a God for the sake of consolation in face of the bitter experiences in this world, caused by nature as well as society; God is, for the atheists, hence a creation of mere wishful thinking. This argument backfires in the counter direction: atheism can be equally said to be the creation of wishful thinking of atheists in order to avoid any sanction against, or accountability for, their evil deeds. Faith in God helps us, in fact, to face the crises of this world more peacefully and serenely than otherwise. What is wrong with that? Simply because something helps us in our difficulties does not necessarily mean that it is an illusion or a product of wishful thinking. Food and water really help us, for example, in our hunger and thirst. Are they, therefore, illusions?

Here another point needs to be considered: Atheism also does not provide us an answer to the question of injustice in terms of any sanction to prevent evildoers or in terms of reward to those who have lived and loved selflessly.

Atheists hold the view that everything came to exist by sheer chance. This view of the atheists makes me ask them why then they cannot hold, by the same token, that God came to exist by chance! The question is: If everything came and can come to exist by chance, why not also God? Further, no atheist has actually ever proved that everything came to exist by chance. Yet, even though the claim that the universe came about simply by chance is not a proven one, many atheists tenaciously hold on to it! And so, they are not consistent in their views and actions.

Q: Violence, hate, misogyny, discrimination, oppression, superstition etc. have long been sought to be justified in the name of religion. Many people might lose faith in God because of the terrible things that have been (and continue to be) done in the name of God and religion. In this context, do you agree that ‘religious’ people are to a considerable extent responsible for many people losing faith in God and turning atheist? If so, what do you think needs to be done?

A: Unfortunately, violence, hate, oppression, etc. have happened in the name of religion or God. This occurs because of a distorted idea of God and religion, on the one hand, and for political and economic reasons, on the other. If hate and killing are carried out in resonance with the teachings of a particular religious tradition, it is really bad. Such an understanding of religion has nothing to do with God, for God is life, love, justice, and peace. It can, however, happen that members of an authentic religion practise evil deeds which are condemned by their very religion. In this case, they would be acting against their religion. This has to be condemned by the respective religious authorities, showing the reasons for this condemnation from within their religion.

Religious leaders should recognize that hate and violence do not belong to authentic religion and that it is against God. They should be bold enough to condemn such activities. This would be possible, however, only if the teachings of the concerned religion plainly and unambiguously condemn hate and violence. But if the original message is clearly in favour of violence, we need a thorough assessment and critical reconsideration.

Q: In some cases, it is immature, fearsome, brutal or otherwise unhelpful and alienating notions of God preached by some religionists that turn people away from God. Also, many people may turn away from God because of the insistence by priests on unverifiable beliefs and dogmas and rituals, which they claim are absolutely necessary for salvation. Do you agree with this? If so, what do you think religious scholars, priests etc. should do?

A: Since we are limited and God is Infinite, our notions about God will definitely be imperfect. This is not surprising. Perfect notions about God can be communicated by God alone. In other words, only God can reveal God perfectly and adequately. In this sense we speak of self-revelation and self-communication of God. Even in that case, as long as the recipients are imperfect beings, their notions can also be imperfect. Imperfect and fearful notions about God can also alienate people from God and even make people think there could be no God. In that case, they are only rejecting the wrong notions of God.

What religious people should do in this regard is to be aware of their own limitations in speaking about God. We can speak about God only analogically. In analogy we affirm and negate at the same time. One example would be that when we say that God is our Father, we have also to say that He is not our father as a human father is. The same applies to other concepts and images.

So, too, we have to be careful in presenting God as a taskmaster or someone to fear. Here we need the authority of someone who can authentically state what and who God is like. Therefore we need an instance where we can say with sufficient reason that here God Himself has spoken. In my view, this confirmation is given by God in the form of miracles. Miracles are extraordinary happenings that draw our attention to something higher (transcendent), events which are not explainable by natural sciences. Whether they would be later explained by the natural sciences is not the issue. The fact that miraculous things happen at the hands of a certain person or at a certain place is an indication as well as an appeal and invitation to see God at work there in a special way, with a special message.

Actually, everywhere God is at work. But the quality of being of this day-to-day experience may not serve as an eye-opener to many. In contrast, extraordinary experiences can draw our attention to the working of God in a special way.They do not, however, compel anyone to believe in God or in God´s power.

Q: Do you think it is possible that for many people today, religion, as conventionally understood, is a major barrier to faith in God. They may find things that are said about God in some texts or traditions to be absurd or cruel etc., and this might make them believe that God is a myth. They might also find some things mentioned about some key figures in some traditions to be problematic. This, too, may be a principal cause for them to lose faith in God. What do you feel?

A: I agree that this problem does really exist. In order to understand the apparently absurd, cruel things about God that may be found in some texts we need to recognise that the said texts have to be understood in their proper context. Precisely because God speaks and reveals to human beings who are imperfect, the reception is defective according to the mode of the receiver. It is a fact that everything is received in accordance with the modality of the receptacle. The problem is hence not of God but of the medium. In faith there cannot be anything against reason, although it can be above reason, for God is the source of reason as well.

The case with the key figures is, however, different. In case some of these figures are or were themselves immoral, then their words are not credible. Immorality is not the same as imperfection or limitation. Immorality affects personal life, in which freedom and decision are involved, while imperfection or limitation is a matter of human nature as a creature, where one is helpless. We have also to distinguish between statements that are really irrational and absurd and those that appear to be so. Really irrational and absurd statements coming even from key figures can be rejected. Yet we have to take into account what the speaker wants to express. Even irrational and absurd statements about God by some key figures are, nevertheless, not an evidence of the non-reality of God or the absence of divine experience, but merely the logical and rational inability of these figures. In fact, those who have really experienced God may not be able to express their experience in words correctly. For instance, one who really has experienced love may not be able to adequately and rationally express it in concepts. All the mystics are not necessarily rationally clever people. Expression always lags behind experience. What is unacceptable and absurd are only those statements that go against God as love, life, truth, mercy, etc. If, for example, God is presented by someone as one who demands hatred, murder and lies, this has to be considered as false and rejected. God cannot be against His own creation. God never approves the violation of human dignity and freedom. Statements that contain any form of such violation are undoubtedly to be rejected.

Q: Do you think there could be something positive in the growing phenomenon of atheism across the world? Do you think the atheist critique might help people of faith refine their understandings of God, Religion and Spirituality?

A: Atheistic critiques of religion can help us refine our understandings of God. For instance, Marxist atheism has criticized certain notions of God, religion and spirituality that have tolerated social injustice. This is, in fact, a call and reminder to the believers to return to the original message of the scriptures, where God, through the prophets, always condemns the oppression of the poor and social injustice. Religion is not merely a private affair between myself and my God but has something to do with the society and the world; spirituality is not confined to some prayers and ascetical practices, but is oriented to the socio-political system and ecology/nature.

Q: Traditionally, parents and other members of the family played a key role in transmitting religious faith to their children. But now, this role of parents is much reduced, especially with many mothers also going out of the home to work, so that the time that parents spend with their children is much less than before in many cases. Children now are expected to learn things at school, but at school (even schools run by religious organisations), if at all children get religious instruction, the time devoted to this is very little. As a result, many children get hardly any spiritual nurturing—whether at home or at school. Not surprisingly, many of them become atheists or ‘practical atheists’, that is, not denying God in theory but living as if God didn’t exist. What do you think could be done in this regard?

A: Whatever we teach the children about God and spirituality in educational institutions will not have any impact on them unless parents themselves teach and live out the divine values. Finding time for children in order to educate them spiritually is a very important duty of religious parents so that their children may not easily succumb to atheistic and materialistic ideologies. The religious formation and instruction  of their children is an important parental duty. Faith in God and handing on spiritual and moral values are the greatest and most precious thing that parents can do for their children. 

Q: In some countries that define themselves as ‘secular’, religion in school may not be allowed. Religion may be kept out of schools totally. Consequently, students may get little or no exposure to religion throughout their years at school, as a result of which by the time they finish school, they may have no religious faith at all. In fact, ‘having fun’ or ‘becoming rich and famous’ may become their de facto religion, and money may become their ‘god’. In this regard, what do you think parents who want spiritual nurturing for their children should do? Could you share your views about spiritually-appropriate parenting? How do you think this issue could be addressed? Also, do you think it might be a good idea to incorporate the teaching of religion in schools? If so, how do you think it could be done in multi-religious societies, where religion and religious differences might be a very sensitive subject?

A: In view of the pluralistic religious context and world-view, the state cannot be in a situation to handle the issue of religious education and spiritual formation adequately. Hence, all the more is religious education the right and duty of the parents. Spiritually-appropriate parenting would consist in imparting children the sense of the Divine and the transcendent world, the need for prayer, the value of self-discipline, loyalty to conscience, respect for life, non-violence and commitment to truth, justice, honesty and universal love.

In the sort of contexts that you refer to, where there is no teaching of religion in the schools, we will have to remind the authorities that secularism in itself is not a-religious or anti-religious; secularism means only that the government does not officially declare a particular religion as the state religion. Politicians and civil authorities should be made aware of the fact that proper religious education and moral and ethical instruction can only enhance the common good of the country, whereas a generation devoid of religion and ethics will be prone to despair, depression and violence, which would undermine peace, welfare and prosperity.

How religion can be taught in a multi-religious society is a delicate issue. One way would be to teach the children at the first and second phases all the religions, especially those prevalent there. In the next phases the children could be taught their own religions. Besides this, a general ethical instruction should be taught for all, whether believers or non-believers. The textbooks for this purpose would have to be drafted by a committee appointed by the state and approved by the concerned religious communities.

 Q: Given that atheism (including ‘practical atheism’, i.e. not denying God in theory but living as if there is no God) is something that affects all religious communities, do you think this is something that can bring different faith communities to work together about? If so, in what ways do you think they might be able to collaborate on this?

A: Living as if there were no God is ‘practical atheism’. This is detrimental, just as theoretical and verbal atheism is. In order to counter these trends, believers in God from all faith traditions should be made aware of their current forms and challenges. Common prayer meetings and sharing can be a great help in this regard.

Talking about ‘practical atheism’, or atheism in practice while not in theory, people could live as if there were no God when they forget to thank God and pray to Him, amass wealth at the cost of the others (especially the poor), do not share their resources with the needy, refuse to pay just wages, engage in corruption and exploit the weak. Such concrete examples could be treated in interfaith gatherings, which could serve as an eye-opener to many believers who might be not conscious of the real issues at stake.

Q: In this ‘scientific’ age, do you think that science can play, to at least some extent, the role that scriptures once played in leading people to faith in God—to an understand of God that is free from dogmatic and absurd claims about God and key religious figures that are made in some religious traditions?

A: Science can lead us to the awareness of our limitation in grasping the whole of reality and thus make us humble and at the same time open to a greater Reality that is called absolute Mystery. About God science cannot reveal anything. Science does not pertain to the realm of faith. God can be experienced only by faith. Science cannot take over the traditional role of the scriptures!

Q: Do you think it a growing possibility that the findings of modern science can help people develop a more refined faith in God shorn of dogmas and beliefs about God that are propagated in some religious traditions that cannot be proven and that their authorities insist must be taken on faith and blindly accepted?

A: The findings of modern science can help us in wondering about the intelligence and wisdom of God. I remember here the words of the renowned scientist Charles H. Townes, Nobel Prize winner and inventor of the maser and co-inventor of the laser, which I cited in one of my books from The Times of India of June 9, 2003: “No one can deny that the universe is the outcome of intelligent placing … So there is indeed a spiritual world; a Creator...God initiated the universe; He created it…Science attempts to understand how the universe works. Religion attempts to understand the purpose and meaning of the universe.”

The realms of science and religion are different. God is the source of both. Science can help us lead to faith in God. I do not see, however, how modern science can help people develop a more refined faith in God. Refined faith in God is provided not by science, but by meditating on God and His nature with the help of the scriptures and life witnesses of holy persons who have been shown to be credible.

Q: Do you feel that faith in God must necessarily be mediated through one or the other traditional religious system, which necessarily set apart ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’, believers in this system from those who do not believe in it? Or, do you think we could, and should, move towards a universal spirituality beyond the confines of traditional religious and communal boundaries, where communion with the Divinity is not linked to believing in certain unverifiable dogmas and beliefs about God and key religious figures?

A: Faith in God is something that will have to be mediated since God does not encounter each and every one directly. Just as He works in this world through created causes and mediators, so, too, He chooses some to be His agents to convey His message to the entire world. They are known as prophets, seers, gurus, etc. Since human beings are socially and culturally involved, the response of faith in God will also have social and cultural forms of expression. Just as we need individual families, societies and cultures for our self-realization, the celebration of faith also needs some concrete forms. This is based on the nature of human beings as concrete bodily entities. Our faith in God also will have to be concretised in particular systems with rites, symbols and beliefs. This is at least so in the initial stages of development. Just as families are conducive to healthy breeding, so, too, the particular religious systems need not be seen as boundaries in the negative sense. After the maturing process has come to an end, these systems may converge into a common system with a universal spirituality. But the concrete ways of believing, practising and celebrating would remain. The basis of all this is the anthropological fact that the human being can come to realize himself/herself only concretely, for the human being is an embodied being in history, in time and place.

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