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Confronting doubt about God’s existence: two paths to a chasm

It would be disingenuous not to question the existence of God or the validity of those institutions that purport to represent him. To be “born again” into a complete and permanent acceptance of God, while perhaps comfortable, seems more emotional than rational.

Doubt is the natural product of an inquisitive mind. Courage is overcoming fear – without the one, the other is suspect. So, too, faith is the affirmation of hope – without doubt, it is blind acceptance.

Some too easily dismiss or condemn those whose doubts lead them to disbelief, yet many intelligent and thoughtful persons are atheists. They look at science and the chaos and evil so evident in the world and determine that belief is a myth. They conclude that we are on our own in a world without intelligent design or purpose beyond what evolution and science has, or will, reveal.

In an odd way, believers and non believers alike follow the same path to a chasm beyond which there are two paths: one to faith, the other to denial. Often relying on the same evidence, they go in different directions. Believers use hope in a guiding spirit to bridge the gap to faith. Atheists see science and evolution as the way forward. Both make a leap of faith since neither can say beyond a reasonable doubt that they have achieved certainty.

Agnostics simply stop at the chasm. They see the evidence supporting both sides as inconclusive and are unable to commit. Their position is rational and honest but it underscores the limitations of the intellect: It will only take us so far, and for them the chasm is too wide.

Embracing hope and choosing faith does not eliminate doubt. It remains an unwelcome companion, at times more apparent than others. For some it is a constant effort to confront the world with all its discord while clinging to the one thing that offers purpose, hope, and fulfillment. Many saints have struggled to overcome their doubts.

While faith may ebb and flow, it can be reinforced by contemplation and prayer. For me, the very existence of things, the order and beauty of the universe, the goodness I see in people, our often-flimsy efforts to identify truth, do justice and love one another provide compelling evidence of intelligent design. That life as we know it is the result of some cataclysmic eruption followed by a series of accidents and coincidences seems more preposterous to me than belief.

I understand how others come to a different conclusion, but I fail to grasp how they cope with the absence of meaning and purpose in an accidental world inhabited by creatures so fundamentally flawed. Perhaps believers lack the strength to face such a profoundly distressing reality, or perhaps, through faith, they see another reality beckoning beyond.

How does a loving God react to those who either deny him or are unable to decide? I suspect that a sincere and conscientious atheist or agnostic has essentially the same path to salvation as believers. The two great commandments are to love God and love your neighbor; if you are sincere about doing one, you necessarily do the other.

A nonbeliever who truly loves his neighbor constructively loves and pleases God. Conversely, one cannot really love God while despising or ignoring his neighbor. They are different sides of the same coin.
Sadly, there are many professed believers who overlook their duty to love, assist, and care for the poor, sick, and homeless by supporting programs to help them – like universal health care. Also, there are many nonbelievers who feel a moral obligation to feed and house the poor and care for the sick and disabled. Which is more pleasing in the eyes of God?

I believe a merciful and all-knowing God will embrace non-believers, unable to cross the faith barrier, who in good conscience and a sense of morality give of themselves in service to their neighbors. “Whatever you did for these, the least of my brethren, you did for me,” will be their welcome.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.