[Credo] means that man does not regard seeing, hearing, touching, as the totality of what concerns him, that he does not see the area of his world as marked off by what he can see and touch, but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode which he calls in fact belief, and in such a way that he finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world.
Introduction to Christianity, 24
Reflection – Year of Faith, coming right up! Less than a month away! Here we see Ratzinger reflecting on the central meaning of this word ‘belief’. I believe—what does that mean?
The liberation of the world from the senses, or rather from the limitations of the senses, for one thing. That there is something beyond the visible, the tangible, the sensible, and that we have a sort of access to it, a mode of contact with it. To believe means we are not limited by that which we share with all animals—sensory knowledge and the immediate data it delivers to us.
Human beings have always, at all times, and everywhere sought to expand their horizons beyond this. It is the most human of things, this urge to the spiritual, the religious, the super-natural. We see it in every culture, every civilization, and in the vast overwhelming majority of individuals.
Yes, there are individuals who seem to have little to none of this urge. But they are a vanishingly small minority in the vast sweep of human history. There have always been individuals who are blind and deaf, too.
Now, the atheist will counter that it’s not the same, and I agree. The very fact that the vast majority of human beings have an interest in a world bigger than the sensible world, and some sense that such a world surrounds us and is deeply connected to us, does not prove that this world exists.
Someone came to me recently agonizing over the question of faith and how one can know that any of it is true. Now there are intellectual arguments for God that are fairly strong, and I pointed those out. But of course, at most these ‘prove’ (and I think that’s stretching the word) that ‘something’ is behind everything that is. It doesn’t prove that the God of the Bible is true, or the God of Catholicism.
To be honest, the only counsel I could give this person was to see where atheism leads and see where Christianity leads. When someone really lives out their atheist convictions of an ultimately random, meaningless and hence amoral universe, and when someone really lives out the Christian faith in a loving, merciful God who comes to us to call us into fullness of love and life—what does that look like?
By their fruits you shall know them. We cannot know the truth of faith directly from the senses—if we could, it would not be faith, but direct knowledge. When we get to heaven and see God, there will be no faith. But we can surmise the truth of faith by seeing its fruits in the lives of those who believe.
It’s tricky, because all sorts of believers, of course, do all sorts of terrible things all the time. But you can trace those terrible things to a failure of faith, one way or another. I know I will offend here, and I’m sorry to do so, but if an atheist does something terrible, it does not flow from some failure to apply atheism to their life.
Dostoevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” (Pedant alert! It’s really a paraphrase, but it accurately represents the thought of Ivan in the novel.) I don’t really see a credible argument to the contrary. An individual may choose to adopt a personal moral code; a society may choose to have laws for the common good; in an atheistic view of reality there is no underlying truth or validity to any of those codes or laws.
By their fruits you shall know them. Christianity yields a coherent vision of the universe that calls us to live in love and generosity, and assures us of a God who secures our life and our future in his goodness and mercy. Atheism does none of those things.