An Atheist Asks “How Can Goodness Be Possible If I Have No God?”

by Controversial Subjects

Just recently, I found myself in an unexpected conversation with an atheist. It wasn’t our difference in faith, per se, that made the encounter unique.  Rather, it was the fact that our disparate religious views actually came to the fore in the conversation.

What I mean is, most Christians who venture out into the world (for work, school, socializing, or any other activity) find no shortage of opportunities to interact with non-believers.

But usually, our philosophical, theological, or ideological differences are left to smolder beneath the surface.

We suppress these meaning-of-life questions because – assuming we talk to each other at all – it’s safer to talk about the latest episode of Downton Abbey, or the NBA playoffs, or the weather. (Guilty as charged!)

All things being equal (and hopeful), believers and non-believers alike typically do their best to be good to each other. Yet, as Christians living in a pluralistic society, we often avoid explicitly bringing up God because we’re so careful not to come across as confrontational about matters of faith.

The Moral Argument

In any case, back to my encounter with the atheist: This man was agitated merely by the knowledge that I was a Catholic and he wanted to hash something out with me. His apparent itch?  To extract an acknowledgment from me, a stranger, that he – an unabashed and avowed atheist – is a good person.

So he proceeded to highlight for me his various habits and practices of good deeds, including a regular driving route he takes to deliver food to the homeless and the destitute. His litany was unsolicited from my end, but I listened with delight and credulity.  After all, who isn’t pleased to hear about someone doing good?

Good!, I thought, and said to him in reply.

What I didn’t say out loud, but thought to myself was:  Good on you, strange man I don’t know, and thanks be to God, (even if you, my atheist interlocutor, refuse to say so).  So?  Account for my goodness, this professed atheist seemed to be half-asking, half needing to assert out loud to me, a perfect stranger, that he does this good even as he professes zero belief in God: Tell me, Christian, how can my goodness be possible if I have no God?

I wondered at the impulse behind his monologue (especially since he began it as a question, but did not actually want me to answer him; he just wanted me to listen.).  Why was he so eager to put this question to me? I think it was the atypical circumstance that actually saw, placed openly on the table, the normally taboo topic of faith.  There it was, THE itch – obviously located! …out in the open – and he wanted to scratch it.

There seemed to be a restlessness working on this man’s heart, and I just happened to be the vehicle God used at that moment to give this stranger an ear.  I’d go so far as to call it a normal restlessness, even a healthy restlessness.  But sadly it’s a longing that our secular, super-distracted culture DISCOURAGES us from acknowledging… so it just goes on agitating our hearts, unidentified.  Unarticulated.  Off-limits.

Aren’t those undiagnosed aches somehow worse?  Don’t we multiply the ailment by pretending it’s not there? We plug our ears, cover our eyes, and log onto this or that social media outlet, fantasy sports league, or whatever other “outlet” the world has placed in front of us.  Just. Don’t. Feel. The. RESTLESSNESS.

Or do feel it.   But because we can’t talk about God, that prevailing agitation among so many of our contemporaries manifests itself in all manner of malaise and desperation.  Oh how I long to share with my suffering brothers and sisters: There is a key that fits the hole in your heart.  It’s a specific, particular, beautiful God-shaped key.

Or, to mix the metaphor and borrow from my favorite writer:

I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world—it had evidently been meant to go there— and then the strange thing began to happen.  G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

What lengths we’ll go to in avoiding God!  Even if we allow ourselves to wonder about God interiorly, we’re nevertheless subject to all the world’s cues and reminders: Jesus is not a socially acceptable topic of conversation.

Like the video above, I was not stumped intellectually or threatened in my faith by this stranger’s “gotcha.”  If anything, it reveals a bothersome, if usually subconscious restlessness in the man’s heart; a restlessness that this unusual conversation with a Christian gave him a chance to express out loud. As the poignant phrase of St. Augustine’s from his Confessions put it:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

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