Atheism in contemporary Theology

Thomas Merton, On the contemplative and the atheist chapter X in Contemplation in a world of action (Doubleday: NY 1971)

The contemplative is not one who has to do battle with militant atheism and he is thus perhaps in a position to gain a clearer understanding of the confusion now surrounding the whole question of "atheism" and the "problem of God" in the world of our time.

The apophatic experience of God does, to some extent, verify the atheist's intuition that God is not an object of limited and precise knowledge and consequently cannot be apprehended as "a thing" to be studied by delimitation. As St. John of the Cross dared to say in mystical language, the term of the ascent of the mount of contemplation is "Nothing"--Y en el monte Nada. But the difference between the apophatic contemplative and the atheist is that where the experience of the atheist may be purely negative, that of the contemplative is so to speak negatively positive. ...
There is however a new atheism which has arisen even among Christians in their anxiety to share every dimension of modern men's experience. These "Christian atheists" have asked themselves, in all sincerity, if one could be a truly modern man and not be in some sense an atheist. In other words, is religious belief so essentially alien to the experience and consciousness of modern man that modern man cannot believe in God without a psychological and cultural regression to modes of thought appropriate to former ages but estranged from our own? Since this "Christian atheism" or "religion without God" has had the benefit of a typically sensationalist treatment in the mass media, and since those who proposed it differ greatly among themselves and do not always mean the same thing, there has been great confusion in the minds of many people. Sometimes the doctrine of the so-called "death of God," popular in American Christian circles, is reduced to a mere sensational absurdity. But at other times an attempt is made to raise a serious question in this paradoxical form. ...
It is no longer "natural" for [man] to assume, as St. Anselm once assumed, that if there are any beings at all there must a Supreme Being. ... What could be said with truth in the past, that the human soul was "naturally Christian," is no longer to be taken for granted: on the contrary, the consciousness of modern man is, according to this theory, naturally atheistic. Therefore it is contended that as far as the experience of modern man is concerned, "God is dead"--he is not present spontaneously as the basis for meaning in human existence.

You fortunate believer! You do not know the confusion, the bewilderment and the suffering of an atheist who has suddenly, without any apparent human intervention, been literally overwhelmed by the reality of God, and who does not know what to do. Surrounded by friends who can only mock him, if he reveals his trouble, unable to pray, unable to trust himself to the Church of which he is highly suspicious, he is in a state of heartbreaking anguish.

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created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info