Friday, April 11, 2014

The Growth of Atheism: 3. Learning to Love Again

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all
your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,
and your neighbor, as yourself.   
(Lk 10:27)
When asked about the greatest of the commandments, Jesus replied as above.  Some describe His words as a summary of the Ten Commandments, but they are more than that; they are the heart of the Ten Commandments.  It’s kind of like the debate about whether one is saved by “faith alone” or by “faith and works.”  The above words are the faith we should have in our hearts, and the Ten Commandments are how we live our lives (“works”) if we have that faith.  They go together; one is living out the other. 
But that is not how we are living today.
The first two parts on this topic dealt with the roots of atheism and the fertilizer which helped it grow.  Evidence showed the growth of atheism and the decline of religion paralleled the decline of the family in our culture.  Many things contributed to a new way of thinking among people, people of good intentions.  None of them thought of themselves as evil, nor wishing evil on anyone.  They wanted to do good.  What changed, with the decline of the family, was for whom they sought to do good, whom they sought to love.  The Great Commandment written above puts a priority on loving God and then neighbor, as yourself.  Those last two words are an assumption:  of course you love yourself.  With the decline of the family and the love received from the family, however, a evidence shows a subtle mindset change for many people:  they no longer feel sure that they are loved.  A new mindset arose in our culture:  Only you are responsible for making yourself happy; the first priority in love is to love yourself, and your actions must focus on this.  This turned the Great Commandment upside down.  Loving me is first; loving neighbor then is a good thing --- if they deserve it, or they act in a loving way to me --- and love of God, well, many people have come to say:  “Well, I just don’t know.  Maybe there is a God; maybe He loves me, but He has to prove it”
There was a time when most people believed He had. 
How did we go from a point in our culture where God was number one, to where He is not on our list of priorities?  And why?  There are things that happened in families and in our churches and in our country which helped atheism take root and grow, and other things which promoted our selfishness, but it was not all outside influences.  Our ways of thinking changed.  With the advances of science came a new way of logically looking at the world:  we could understand things, and we felt that we MUST understand things.  Understanding things became a way of prioritizing our life, putting us in control, a way of self-love for self-preservation.  We ran our lives, and we wanted to be responsible for them.  Everything must be neat and organized in our minds; this was a new way of thinking, one which did not allow for a faith in things we didn’t understand.
I recently watched a play titled “Falling,” by Deanna Jent.  The play was one day in the life of a family with an autistic son.  The 18-year old son in the play has grown taller than his mother and lives in his own world, and only sometimes can he communicate with the world around him.  He intensely focuses on stimuli and MUST fix things to the orderly reality of his mind, so the slightly out of place toy on the floor MUST be moved, food MUST be served to him in a certain way, and noises must be familiar ones, or they must be changed to HIS way.  A barking dog outside, which can’t be controlled, leads him to almost choke his mother in his frustration.  And his sister tells his mom that he should be sent away:  “I hate him!”  But the mother replies:  “I know you hate him, that’s okay, but mothers don’t get that choice.  We just love our kids, no matter what.”  And this was the reality that the mother lived in, in her neat, organized mind which put things in a way which SHE could understand:  “you love your kids no matter what.”  In a way, her thinking was much like her son’s, and much like the thinking which goes on in our culture today:  we must be in control  A reviewer of the play wrote: “Deanna reminds us as the play comes to a close that many times, we don’t get answers to tough questions, and that sometimes the best thing to do is to let yourself fall into the void.  Not a void of darkness, mind you, but rather of letting go and letting the answers come as they may as we trust in what is higher and bigger than we are.”  Not everything is neat and organized as we would like.
A recent Gospel was about the Jews worshipping the golden calf in the desert.  They had good intentions; they wanted to worship God, but they wanted a God that they could see and touch.  They wanted a God that was, in a manner of speaking, in their image.  There was a portion of their minds which said: “Oh, God.  Well, God is like this, or you can think of Him this way, or you should act around Him like this, or this is what he wants.”  They really wanted to, but really didn’t, understand God.  God can’t be thought of as some portion in our mind, something we fit into a nice neat box that we can see and understand, like a golden calf over there in the corner.  If anything, we are some tiny portion of God’s mind; we are something which is much more understandable to Him, than Him to us.  He is God; we are not.
You see this type of thinking all the time:  “Oh Catholics; Catholics are always saying … or, Christians are people who won’t … or, God?  I know God.  God is …”  How often have you heard words like these, or said them?  Every time you do that you are being just like the Jews in the desert, shaping God in an image you can understand, subjecting Him to your rules.
The play Falling had the mom defining love of her child by rules she had learned.   She did seek to love her child as she loved herself, herself first.  But she finds that love doesn’t fit into her neat little box of: “This is how love acts.”  She was looking at love as like looking at the Ten Commandments: these are the rules on how you act.  But love isn’t a rule of action, it is a rule of your will.  Love can’t be contained in simple rules.  Loving your neighbor is loving someone who you will never completely understand --- he is a totally unique being --- and loving God is loving based on faith because He is someone who you will only understand in the smallest sense.  You love an unperfect child and you love God because you WILL to love them.  You love them not because logically you should, but on faith, a faith beyond human reason.
If someone says: “You must have faith,” our culture teaches us to rebel: “I need to understand!”  This is the warp created in some minds by the absence of a loving father --- one they learned to trust.  This is the warp supported by a science that says: “All things can be measured and proven, or they are not real.”  This is the warp created by the cultural lie broadcast to us hundreds of times each day:  “Look at this; it is a good thing and you are right to want it, and you have a RIGHT to have it!  This is your right!!  You understand that, don’t you?”
And we can’t understand that it could be wrong.  And we can’t understand why we might not understand --- everything.  We can’t accept that what we reason to be right, might be wrong in the eyes of God.  In the Gospel on the 5th Sunday of Lent, Jesus hears His good friend Lazarus is ill --- and so He stays away for two days.  WHAT??!  If Lazarus was His best friend, and if Jesus IS God and could heal anyone, why oh why would He stay away for two days?  To our way of thinking, it doesn’t make sense.  But it did to God.  In His love, it made sense.
I have written here in the past about what it means to understand another person, another being.  We have our five senses, and science says that is how we know something or someone.  It (or he) is what he demonstrates to our senses, his actions or words are things that we can analyze.  But that type of analysis only works for physical objects or animals, not for a man or God, who are beings of a higher order.  We can know and predict most things about a seed and the life of a resulting plant, but we can never know man that way.  Each and every man is a unique being, made in the image of God in a unique way, with a unique purpose in God’s plan, an ideal purpose.   But each man also has a free will, such as no plant or animal possesses, and so each man creates his own being, changing it constantly.  Throughout his life, man is growing in his Being, becoming something different than he was --- hopefully growing better, even holier, as Christians would say.  So one man, in trying to understand another, can never fully understand the other.  NO human being can truly know, in all his depths, another human being.  Each is unique.  To the degree that one comes to understand another more, it is a lifelong growing in knowledge, a lifelong commitment --- like marriage.  Yet, still, one man will never achieve perfect knowledge of another.
So why do we think we can understand, or for some reason MUST understand God, or what He thinks?  Why must we look at Scripture and say: “That doesn’t make sense to me, therefore here is what it must mean …”  Why?  Why must God make sense to us?  That feeling comes about because of all those cultural warps we wrote about earlier:  the culture supports us in thinking and saying that we MUST understand those things.  We have a RIGHT to know!
But we can’t, and we don’t.  We weren’t made that way.
We’ve turned that Great Commandment of God --- to love God, then neighbor, as ourselves --- upside down.  The commandment assumes we love ourselves and then tells us that beyond ourselves we must first love God, and then neighbor.  But the culture, the warps in our thinking, leads us to see the commandment as:  Love ourselves, then neighbor, and perhaps God --- if He exists.   The original commandment ASSUMED we loved ourselves, but we have let the culture warp our thinking into believing we must focus on self-love.  “Look out for number one,” is what the culture screams.  “You have a right to be happy,” --- as if someone is saying you don’t.  But it implies further, kind of like that tempting voice in the Garden of Eden, “And you can make yourself happy.  No one else will.”
And that is the subtle, softly spoken, BIG lie.
And that gets to the heart of the issue with the growth of atheism, the decline of religion and the decline of the family in our culture --- and the decline of our happiness.  It is a decline in feeling loved.  It is a growth in the feeling that we need self-love.  Narcissism has changed from a mental illness to a virtue.  As a society, we’ve forgotten how to love, and be loved.  What once was taught in our families, in our churches, in our communities, and lived out in our lives, has become only a memory of the elderly.  Even as we’ve flipped around the commandment on who we are to love, we’ve flipped around our assumptions about who should love us.
Our educational institutions and our culture assume that God doesn’t love us first; He isn’t there.  Among our neighbors, our family doesn’t love us first --- we can’t rely upon them, our government does, or can be made to.  And our concept of love revolves around what we can know and understand.  We can’t know another person, but we can know a government and its laws --- and if it will give us things we want.  That is how we feel loved, when something gives us what we reason we want, and should have, --- and have a RIGHT to have.  Something that gives us those things, loves us.
And in getting the things we want, our reasoning (strangely) stops, for we “feel” loved.  And we can’t reason the illogic of our feelings:  a government can’t love us; it is a thing.  It is not another person.  Only another person can love.  Laws can’t love.  Even commandments can’t love.  Love is something freely given from one being to another being.  We choose to love.
That is freedom.
So, if our concept of love, and how we feel loved, is warped, turned upside down, how do we turn it right side up?  How do we stop this decline in our culture?  How do we turn around epidemic narcissism?  How do we learn to love again?
There are some who would say it starts at the top.  We need to evangelize and teach people about God.  We need to teach people how to love and have faith that God loves us.  Certainly this is a good thing to do, but I’m reminded about that parable of the miracle of the loves, as I wrote about recently.  Jesus fed the 5,000 AFTER the people did what they could, first.  He worked with their little efforts (their puny 5 loaves and 2 fish), and made them bigger.  With that mindset, I think that our efforts to change our culture should not start at the top, but at the bottom with a change in our actions.  Learning to love again should start where it first stopped:  in the family.  Absent fathers and broken families rooted and fertilized the cultural decline.  And that is where, I believe, the decline should be stopped.
We need to learn to love again, as a family loves, and where there are no families, create them.  The target of our love should be our own family, and then extend out from this to our parish family.  As Jesus commanded his disciples: we should prioritize a love for widows and orphans --- those without a father.  We should be for them the father image they are missing.  The need for self-love and self-dependence can be stopped by changing our focus to one of providing love.  Within our families and within our parish families we need to establish a visible love, a trusting in each other, a knowing of each other.  We need the world to look on us again with envy:  “See how they love one another.” 
Some would have us focus on changing the world, and say that is the example of Jesus.  But they would not be looking closely enough at the Scriptures.  Jesus loved the world one person at a time.  He expects no more from us --- but He does expect us to do what we can, no matter how small in relation to the size of the project.  We need to start learning to love again, by focusing on those nearest to us, and our parish families.  Even as atheism took root in our culture from inadvertent seeds which warped minds, we need to deliberately plant seeds, to begin again the culture which is not focused on self-love, but on God and neighbor.
Next:  4. Planting New Seeds              


  1. I think your analysis is very insightful, but in my mind, the thing that most destroyed the family is money; or more precisely, the rising prosperity that began in the 1950's. When one is prosperous, you have much more control over your situation than a person who is economically destitute. People in families who have little money must stick together to help each other survive. But the promise of prosperity drives families apart; growing up came to mean everyone must own their own car, have their own apartment or house; spend time with their peers, not their family; young adults must move out and start a life of their own, must get a college degree to get a fabulous job (meaning making a lot of money), even if that job means moving thousands of miles away from their families. And lots of money means the person control things, not God. When the goal is to make money, one places gaining above morality. And it has been my experience, in those cases, a person often disregards God because what needs to be done, what needs to be thought. to make money, often flies in the face of God's law. Does a manager hire the best candidate, or the nicest looking person? Does the employee lie easily to the customer because it would be bad for business to tell the whole truth (car companies now in the news comes to mind)? Yes, the lure of prosperity surely leads to a falling away. Who needs God when you provide all you need and want for yourself?
    Have you noticed lately how many people have a repugnance for nature? They are replacing man made things with God made things. They hate bugs, animals, leaves falling from trees, rain, cold, mold, and so on. When you look around, most of our lives are lived within a man made world, interacting very minimally with God's creation. To me, it is man's denial of God made real in the world around us. We are rejecting God by our very creation of an alternate world.
    Well, I didn't intend to offer a rebuttal to your interesting comments, only that I wonder what will happen to us all, when our very fragile man made system collapses (witness what happens in a bad storm, like Hurricane Sandy, or Katrina. Man cannot sustain himself. Without outside help, many, many people would die, and chaos would reign.) God bless. ~ Fran

  2. The self-love that I see prevalent in our culture is certainly measured by many in terms of money, but I think it is more than that. A few months back I read and reviewed a book titled: How the West Really Lost God. It was a great book of many facts. Among them were a large number of studies disputing MY assumptions that poorer people were more likely to be religious (I did my own research, and confirmed the author's fact --- and more). "Economists Raphael Franck and Laurence R. Iannacone postulate that the welfare state caused a decrease in religiosity" (P37) Putnam & Campbell in "American Grace" note that "The trend is clearly contrary to any idea that religion is nowadays providing solace to the disinherited and dispossessed, or that higher education subverts religion." (P72).

    The assumption you make, Fran, is that "People in families who have little money must stick together to help each other survive." Perhaps might it not be that GOOD families, with money or not, stick together, but dysfunctional, broken families seek other solaces, like money. I've noted previously how studies show that the happiest people in the world are in African countries where families -- and religion -- remain strong, despite no money. Studies I've read suggest not that money drives families apart, but rather families ALREADY broken seek other consolations, like money, other Gods to fill their need for love.

    There certainly many instances of money replacing God (and no, no data was firm that welfare money replaced God, but there were many correlations of data), but it appears lack of faith appears more prevalent among the poor, than the rich, who are more likely to be religious. And the data shows that even going back into the 1800's, the poorest people in London were the least likely to be God-believers --- but among those poor, were huge disruptions to family.

    As far as your rebutting my thoughts, Fran, that is what comments are for, to further the thinking. I do welcome yours so much. If I don't see and consider other ideas, how will I know they exist?

  3. Maybe, maybe. I certainly have not studied these things. I surely don't see greater religiosity among people who are poor as opposed to the well off, or greater belief in God. I do see greater dependence on each other and sticking together.
    But it was to your comment, "How did we go from a point in our culture where God was number one, to where He is not on our list of priorities? And why?" that I guess my first thought was the rise of prosperity.
    Have you ever heard about some "games" played in political sciences classes in college (I never did this, only read about it) that demonstrates the hidden rules behind a cartel? It is very interesting. In the game, if all the members of the cartel stick together, they each make x in a deal. If they don't stick together, and each makes his own deal, they typically each make less, x - y, hence the advantage of the cartel. However, if one member makes a deal outside the cartel, he often can make more than the cartel members make, x + y (a better price than he can get by being a cartel member). So the strategy of the members is to try to get everyone else in the cartel to stick together, while they make a separate deal for themselves.
    Comparing that to society, if we are of the same religion, we are like the cartel members. If we obey God's laws, we are predicable, and we can trust each other. However, if I break faith and sin behind your back (say, steal $100 from a store), and you don't know it, you still trust me. However, I get an advantage in that I am acting outside our agreed upon behavior, yet I am still treated with trust and respect, but not placing restrictions on myself. So there is an incentive to secret sin. However, when my sin is discovered, you don't trust me anymore, and I am shunned. So, in society, what happens when the number of people who take the risk of rejection from the group and shunning becomes great enough? Then it is like the broken cartel; everyone gets less because each is acting in their own interest.
    Perhaps it is that those who do believe in and worship God create more stable families, with less self-love, and hopefully, less dysfunction. Maybe when enough families who value the things of God practice them, they change the culture for the better. However, I guess each individual chooses for himself whether the effort and self control it takes to follow religion is "worth it." So probably these things cycle because at some point being a member of a religion begins to have more advantage again (like keeping loyal in a cartel) and the pendulum swings back.
    I don't know, but it is interesting to think about, nevertheless.
    God bless. ~ Fran
    God bless. ~ Fran