Atheists may not have been blessed with faith, but God has graced them with a mischievous wit and a love of the arts that has led to some of the most beautiful depictions of religion.
BOGOTÁ — It's the culmination of Holy Week, the most sacred period in the Christian liturgical calendar. Like a religion, atheism has its sects: there are the pious atheists and radical atheists. The latter are its guerrillas, such as the French novelist Émile Zola, who declared civilization would peak once the last stone of the last church had fallen.
Or the German writer Friedrich Nietzsche, who "rushed" to cleanse himself every time a religious man rubbed against him.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus speculated that if God wanted to but could not prevent evil, He was not omnipotent. And if He could but would not, then He was plainly mean! Where does evil come from, he asked, if God is willing and able to stop it, and why call Him God if He cannot, or will not?
In the 19th century, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described religions as "cosmologies for children, which is why they are allegorical, illustrated and menacing."
In contrast with these militants, the pious atheist is mystical and courteous. These won't spit out blasphemies, but their dignity gives them away. Like the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who termed himself a humanist, trying to "behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead."
I'd wager God suffers His religious flock (with their perpetual kneeling, pleading and anxiety), pities the radicals and loves the pious. Not because he wants to corner that niche in the market, but the honest reproaches of disbelievers may bring a smile to His "face" as it were.
Polytheism and pantheism were, I suspect, hidden forms of atheism, or theological alibis to avoid the fiery experience of burning at the stake.
Sculptures representing different religions.
Non-believers on God
Perhaps it's the literary vocation God loves best in atheists. The world's most beautiful oration is by a disbeliever, the astronomer Carl Sagan. All the atoms of our bodies were formed billions of years ago in distant planets, he observed, and we contemplate the stars even as we "are made of star stuff."
The most poetic of Catholic liturgies is the work of a medieval French heretic, William Durand. On Easter Thursday, he wrote, church lamps are put out to indicate the abolition of the law that used to illuminate the world. The celebrant priest blesses a new fire to represent the new law. He makes it spurt out of stone because Jesus Christ, as Saint Paul said, was the world's cornerstone.
All I can do now is to trust in God's injustice.
Then the priest stands before the paschal candle. It is immaculate and made of beeswax. For the bee is a creature both chaste and fertile, like The Virgin who brought The Savior into the world. Into the wax the priest sinks five grains of incense that recall Christ's five stigmata and the perfumes bought by five women to embalm them. He then lights the candle with the new fire, and to represent the diffusion of the new law in the world, the lamps are lit again throughout the church.
The passage is cited in Death Comes for the Cathedrals, an essay in which the novelist Marcel Proust imagined a Roman Church that had died a thousand years before, leaving its ruined cathedrals, like boats stranded on a beach. I wonder if the Holy Spirit didn't inspire in Proust his incisive observation that atheists had deemed creation to be so perfect that they dared to dispense with its Creator.
Cheekier still was the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran who, stubborn to the end, said on his deathbed, "I was never good. All I can do now is to trust in God's injustice."