It’s a common claim one hears from people converting to this or that religion: the sense that the world takes on a new hue thanks to the new religious life. There are a number of ways to explain this if one is a so-inclined atheist. Peter Berger, for example, discusses from a sociological this very phenomenon in a number of books. I’m sure psychologists can explain it according to numerous theories.
As a devoted atheist, I found these explanations as plausible and satisfying (although Berger, for one, does not take an atheistic stance in his book). It provided two things:
- An explanation that doesn’t involve the supernatural, and
- A sense of superiority.
The first was conscious; the second was not. Looking back on my life, though, I see that much of my atheistic thinking amounted to little more than a superiority complex. It was not that I was an atheist in order to feel superior; rather, I felt superior because I was an atheist. I wasn’t one of the dumb sheep, blinded by self-fulfilling desires, fantasies, or cultural memes. I had freed myself from the shackles of Iron Age thinking and was Enlightened Man. Reading Christopher Hitchens, I get the sense — I wonder how? — that he derives the same thing from his atheism.
Yet, for better or for worse, experience trumps all in our lives, and I cannot deny the validity of an experience I had today in my professional life as a teacher.
I was standing behind my rarely used podium as students began the school-required silent sustained reading (SSR) period that begins each day. I’d put on Mozart’s Divertimento No. 10, and all the students were quietly reading their books. I was about to begin my selection when I glanced around the room quickly.
It happened in a flash. A thought seemingly came from nowhere: if God exists, then we’re all children of God. If we’re all children of God, my students and I are equal.” I looked at all the faces — black, Latino, white, Asian — and felt a solidarity with them that I’ve never experienced before.
For a moment, the idea of Original Sin made some sense. Peter Kreeft, in his lectures, constantly points out that we don’t have to know how something works in order for it to work. The notion of the Fall and the consequences has never seemed to make much sense to me, but the truth of the idea hit me today: the Fall is awful, but it gives us undeniable solidarity with each other.