The American Humanist Association has renewed the efforts of some atheists to remove the words “under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance. The organization argued recently in the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the inclusion of these words is a violation of atheists’ religious liberty and equality.
In “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway claimed that, “All thinking men are atheists.” Yet his characters, when faced with threats and struggles, often turned to prayer. To whom do atheists pray, given that they do not believe they are “under God?” Why do atheists pray? Is there not an inherent inconsistency between prayer and atheism?
Theistic behavior among those who claim to be atheists is common in literature. In his novel “The Cardinal of the Kremlin,” Tom Clancy penned, “God knows, was his unconscious reply. So strange that after a few days of war even the most adamant atheist invoked the name of God.”
In “The Weight of Water,” Anita Shreve marked, “I rhythmically recited the Lord’s Prayer over and over, even though I am not a religious woman. I found the words soothing.”
“You see: I don’t believe and I call on Him in whom I don’t believe. It’s a form of madness,” wrote Henry Roth in “Requiem for Harlem.”
Scott Turow, in his novel “Presumed Innocent,” inscribed, “And now, dear God, I think, dear God in whom I do not believe, I pray to you to stop this.”
In “Bread and Wine,” Ignazio Silone wrote, “I didn’t believe in God anymore, but I began to want God to exist with all my being. I had need of Him to escape the fear of chaos.”
It is a common literary approach that those who claim to be atheists easily become inconsistent atheists when faced with threats, struggles and existential chaos. It does not surprise Christians that atheists struggle to be consistent in their own form of faith, the faith that God does not exist.
We need the presence of God in our lives and in our cultures. In fact, faith in God depends not on work, but in God’s working in us. In “Snow,” Orhan Pamuk wrote, “People can’t ever really be atheists, because even if we wanted it, God would never abandon us here.”
Alas, we as Christians are also often inconsistent in our faith. During times of struggle, we depend upon God and our church. During times of plenty, however, we frequently forget our faith.
In “Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” Walter Mosley penned, “Do you believe in him? If things goin’ good, not too much. But when I’m in trouble I can pray with the best of ‘em.”
Professor Iain Duguid, in his recent commentary, “Esther and Ruth,” made this point, “Yet all too often we live as practical atheists, as if the future of our lives depended entirely on our ability to extract the right response from the empire through our personal subtlety and skill. Often it is only when the situation is absolutely desperate that we will be found crying out to God.”
Substantiating our sinful human condition, we as Christians are also inconsistent in our faith. Living out our Christian faith in a consistent fashion is difficult for us, just as it is for the atheist. There is often disconnect between our theistic statements and our behavior.
This was expressed in “Lost in America” by Isaac Singer when he wrote, “I could live neither with God nor without him.”
Sometimes we consciously rebel against our faith and turn our backs to our previous declarations of faith. Fortunately, this sort of rebellion is often temporary, as Edward Rutherfurd in “The Rebels of Ireland” wrote, “Even when people did turn away from the Church, it only took some small crisis in their lives, often as not, to bring them back.”
God’s existence does not depend on our faith. God’s existence does not depend on our recognition that we are “under God.” Again, from “Esther and Ruth,” Iain Duguid says that though people, “do their best to ignore his existence, he refuses to be written out of the script. Between the lines and behind the scenes, out of focus and incognito, the Lord continued to work to accomplish all his holy will.”
Victor Hugo said it so well in an essay. He reflected, “God remains calm and does His work.”
‑ Dr. Gary Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.