God Didn't Kill the Atheist
One night, the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair received absolute proof of the truth of atheism.
According to Brian Le Beau's great biography The Atheist, "in early 1946 during a violent electrical storm...Madalyn, still pregnant [with a married man's baby] and in despair, announced that she was going out into the storm to challenge God to strike her and her unborn child dead with lightning bolts."
For some time, O'Hair "stood in the rain waving her fist and cursing God."
Her arm failed to act as a lightning rod that day, so she went back indoors.
"You see?" she cried "If God exists he would surely have taken up my challenge."
Her survival, O'Hair said, had "irrefutably proved that God does not exist."
It was this absolute conviction that gave her life purpose. She aimed to drive the Almighty out of American schools, courtrooms, every part of the public square, and to make churches pay up to Caesar.
Now, to most, O'Hair's reason -- if God truly existed, he would have murdered me and my unborn child for my outburst -- doesn't make any sense.
Philosophers of religion will point out that O'Hair didn't disprove the existence of Thor, much less the God of the Bible.
But belief can be a funny thing.
Saint Thomas is also known as Doubting Thomas. When reports of Jesus Christ's post-crucifixion appearances reached him, the Bible reports that he refused to believe it, until he could see the nail marks in Jesus's wrists and touch his spear-pierced side.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus then appeared to Thomas, invited him to investigate, and said "Do not disbelieve, but believe." He added: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
For a long time, I wondered why Jesus added that. It slowly dawned on me that seeing isn't always believing either.
Some of this ocular skepticism is for good reason. Optical illusions exist, our brains take shortcuts that don't always reproduce perfectly in our heads what is in front of us, you get the idea.
Several atheist friends have confided to me that if they received some sort of direct revelation from On High, a vision or a voice or something like that, they would cease their unbelief.
Yet I don't think they would. A good friend who we'll call "Ryan" had something of a religious upbringing, but he is now a skeptic.
Ryan's story would not be terribly notable. Happens all the time, we might concede. Except that Ryan claims he once had a very intense vision of a weeping Virgin Mary while sitting in the pews of a Catholic Church.
Ryan was with friends and kept asking them if they could see it as well. None of them could. The vision to him was ongoing and unmistakable. He went to some effort to see if it was some sort of optical illusion, and decided that it wasn't.
Yet he does not believe.
An acquaintance named "Tom" told me of very intense visions that he'd had of God and of angels. He thought these were the real deal, not some hallucination. So I asked him what church he goes to.
He said that churches are corrupt and, anyway, who has the time?
My own story of finally deciding to become a Catholic didn't involve a vision, just a fight, a blasphemous rant, and one hell of a cosmic coincidence: a perfectly timed playing of "Sympathy for the Devil" on the radio.
I won't bore you with more details because it's not the sort of proof that anyone who doesn't already buy into the truth of Catholicism will find convincing.
Yet all of this foofaraw about belief and unbelief and voices and visions might help us to understand the story of Saint Paul a little better.
According to the book of Acts, this persecutor of Christians was on the road to Damascus to put a stop to this dangerous new heresy. Paul was prevented from doing so by the loss of his sight -- by being blinded from above and being told by a voice that purported to be the Almighty's that he had got it all wrong.
The restoration of Paul's sight signaled a new way of looking at things. He went on to become a leader in the church. He was the "apostle to the gentiles" who helped to spread the early faith to Rome and beyond. His story and his letters make up much of the New Testament.
Seeing is believing? Sure, sometimes. But Saint Paul's story shows that believing is its own kind of seeing, grasshopper.