Why It Must Be Hard to Remain an Atheist

A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

January 18, 2015

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

I Samuel 3:1-20    Psalm 139   John 1:43-51


Dressed in suits and ties, dresses and hats, the group began its determined march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Sitting uncomfortably in my seat at the Cinemax, watching the movie “Selma,” I flinch as hate-fueled, helmeted policemen charge the marchers, landing blow after blow on arms, backs, necks, faces.  Heavy boots kick passive, groaning, bloodied human beings lying on the ground; anguished screams and pleading cries fill the air.  In Birmingham later, the police would use fire hoses and attack dogs against the protesters.  Because they wanted to vote.

March 7, 1965.  Bloody Sunday.

Midway across the Pettus bridge, Martin Luther King was asked why the group just didn’t turn back, do this some there way, spare the bloodshed, the loss of life that could come:

“Because we’ve come too far to turn back now.”

King was a man of prayer, saturated in Scripture.  Yet you have to wonder how he kept faith in a God who did not always seem to be on his side.  How did he know what he knew?

That is also the big question raised by today’s lessons: How do you know?  How do you know what you’re supposed to do? How do you know who or what God is? How do you get the clarity and strength to cross the bridge to the next phase of your own life?

In today’s first reading, the boy Samuel mistakes the voice of God for that of his master Eli.  Eli tells Samuel that he’s not calling him; it is God’s voice Samuel is hearing, God calling him to a life of service and prophecy.  Like Samuel, one way we know who God is – that God is– is through other people.

The Anglican writer C.S Lewis was a hardened atheist for the first part of his life.  He speaks of the perils that attacked the foundations of his atheism: the beauty of nature and of art, the gift of unexpected joy, the words of real people, as well as those people he met in books.  He wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.  There are traps everywhere…. God is, if I may say it, unscrupulous.”  Later in his Narnia books for children, he would describe God as the great lion Aslan that “goes in search of man, hunts him down, only to embrace him.”  Lewis says he was “converted” to Christianity one evening after a long talk with his friend J.R. Tolkien (yes, Lord of the Rings). 

While Lewis says that his faith was given him in an instant of blinding insight, the ground had been prepared by years of passionate reading about Christianity, reading he thought he was doing to bolster his arguments against it.

Since age five, reading has been a source of strength for me.  When I first learned I was pregnant, I insisted we stop at the library before going to my parents.  During a difficult divorce, I came into the house loaded with books.  My daughter Anna, then age nine, said, “More self-help books, Mom?”

In addition to Scripture, so many writers, books, artists have cleared away theological obstacles for me.  Not only Lewis, but Frederick Buechener, Joan Chititser, Christian Wimans, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mary Oliver, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Rilke, Rumi, hundreds more.  As I pour over their words, I am helped to fill in the gaps in my fragile, solid faith.  From these mentors, living and dead, I learned the questions to ask, the arguments to make, the prayers to pray.  Most mysterious was how the right words appeared when I needed them, even if I had to spend hours hunting them down.

Someone badgering me to “accept Jesus as Lord” doesn’t do it for me.  Being threatened with hell because of unbelief doesn’t do it for me.  Being told to “just have faith” doesn’t do it for me.

What does it for me is an emotional or “spiritual” experience that is followed by trying to figure out what the heck happened, by talking to other people, by reading, by praying.  And then trying not to dismiss it as coincidence but putting it in my arsenal of experiences to trust when the going gets rough.

It must be hard to remain an atheist if you are doing this work.

Sometime it is the artist who shows us who God is, even in the most impossible circumstances.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is a movie about Andy Dufrense (played by Tim Robbins), a banker convicted of a major, white-collar crime and sent to Shawshank prison, a very rough place.

One day Andy finds himself alone in the prison library and notices a pile of record albums.  He thumbs through them, and then notiices the door open to the room that houses the P.A system that plays announcements throughout the prison.  He puts a duet from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro ” on the player, connects the P.A. system, turns the volume up to the max, and the opera reaches every corner of Shawshank: the yard, the cells, the infirmary, the guards’ quarters, even the warden.  The effect of this music is to completely silence everyone.  There is no laughter, no questions, no protests, no wisecracks.  His friend Red (played by Morgan Freeman) says:

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  Truth is, I don’t want to know.  I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

It must be hard to remain an atheist at such moments.

Besides other people and art, we learn who God is and who we are by considering our physical selves.   Today’s psalm, the 139th, one of the most lyrical in all of Scripture, says this:

For you yourself created my inmost parts; 

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.


I will thank you because I am marvelously made…”


We are created in infinite complexity: the length of the blood vessels in our body could circle the earth two and a half times.  We are able to identify 500 different smells.  The system of connections of neurons in our brains mimics the structure of the universe.  We are each a little planet made from the same elements present at the Big Bang.  From the double helix – the smallest known part of our body, deep within each cell — to the farthest point of outer space—that span is the scope and the canvas of the Creator.

Consider the miracle that is your hand, an engineering marvel with 27 bones, 34 muscles, that is so strong people can climb vertical surfaces and support their weight by their fingertips, so sensitive that the fingertips can identify differences in texture as small as the diameter of a human eyelash.

And on each fingertip and in every cell in our body, is a unique DNA formula, different from any other being in the universe.

It must be hard to remain an atheist in the face of such science.

Finally, we know who God is by really looking at other people, and allowing yourself to be struck by the sheer wonder of their being.  Maybe it’s the brief, vulnerable look crossing the face of a tough street kid, or seeing how hard the young mother is trying, or when you catch a particular glimpse of someone you love, reading.

The mystic Thomas Merton had such an epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, in March of 1958.  On an errand from the monastery nearby where he lived a life of solitude and contemplation, Merton was standing at the intersection when he described what happened when he watched the people walking by:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun. 

Last week I was talking to young man who is an artist.  He was telling me of his latest musical project and after a while I stopped listening and just looked at his face.  It was radiant, almost transfigured, fully alive with passion and enthusiasm, creative urgency, and the knowledge that deep within himself was the talent.

He was shining like the sun, his face with the brightness we see in some of the pictures from the clinic in Kayoro, the radiant faces of women who live in poverty and are still shining like the sun.  The irresistible babies and AIDS orphans, inspite of uncertain futures, shining like the sun.  Or mission team in Kayoro: Leanne, Jennifer, Shirley, Jered, Cammie, Rob shining like the sun.  Maybe we should mark these moments and say something when we see each other this way, when God has to be smiling at the wonder of what she has created.

The suffering in the world is unspeakable and overwhelming, but Christianity says that the Light will win eventually if we work faithfully to overcome the darkness.  It has before.

Before President Johnson signed voting rights legislation five months later, it took three tries to get across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The third time there were not the initial 600 marchers; there were three thousand.  By the time they reached the capital of Montgomery on March 25, Martin Luther King and all who were with him, they were 25,000 strong,

Each one, shining like the sun.


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