Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Atheism


Atheist buses, God's Chocolates, but .... atheist Christians? 

 By Thomas F. Dritsas


We are living in a demanding world. Demands for better education, demands for political rights, for the abolition of all forms of discrimination, for a superior quality of life; we even demand to be loved.  Our entire contemporary civilization is based on demands. And we may protest, so we can have our demands met. And yet, something is missing. We can feel it every day, when we go to work, or when we try to sleep at night. Something is missing. We don't feel as though we are actually living. We sense there is a void - an existential void. And yet! We are Orthodox!  We may go to Church, attend services, receive Holy Communion, go to confession... but something is always missing and we don't know what it is.  To some, this void can draw them away from the Church, because they believe Orthodoxy is inadequate. Others simply pay no attention to this feeling and they repress it.  In both cases, the reaction is exactly the same as that of atheists or of fellow-citizens who are indifferent to Ecclesiastic matters and who simply blot out pieces of their soul in order to conceal the existential void that they occasionally feel.

Recently, "atheist buses" made their appearance in London, through a campaign that was initiated by a young woman - a twenty year old atheist - a British woman called Ariane Sherine. Along with their human load, about 800 buses were also laden with an advertisement that said: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". However, that slogan happened to be a response to a previous slogan by Protestants, which advertised....Hell!  It was not advertising God; it was advertising the Hell that awaits those who do not believe in God.  In Orthodox theology, "Hell" and "Paradise" are God Himself, and not some "boiling cauldrons of sulphur". That very same Grace of God is felt by some as a burning flame (love burns those who hate...), while others feel that it deifies them - refreshes them.  The same thing is observed with chocolate: when one who is not allergic eats chocolate, it gives him a sensation of pleasure.  But when one is allergic to chocolate, it will cause him pain and discomfort. According to Saint Isaac the Syrian, "the damned are 'chastised' by the whip of God's love... It is absurd for one to believe that sinners 'in Hell' are deprived of God's love, for God's love - which is sequential to one's knowledge of Him - is given to all, indiscriminately, but it acts in two different ways: it chastises sinners, and delights the righteous" [Homily 84].  The chocolate is not to blame; the problem lies in the organism's reaction to it.  We choose to be allergic to God. The Orthodox Church provides psychotherapeutic means for curing the allergies of our soul against the "chocolates" of God's Grace... In Protestant theology however, Hell is nothing more than a place where God will be depositing the wicked, in order to punish them for their wickedness. That is the reason they especially like to stress Hell and threaten the unfaithful with it - i.e., we ,the "good guys". are warning you ,the "bad guys", that if you don't do what you must, then a hand will reach down and grab you, and take you away to a place of punishment. Be good, whether you want to or not, otherwise you will be tortured..  

The fear of Hell is real in Orthodoxy too of course; if we do not want to be cured, we can choose to remain "allergic" to God. But this "fear" has nothing to do with God or His Chocolates, but rather with our own will to be cured. This type of fear is a creative one and it helps us in our struggle towards therapy, but it is also accompanied by the anticipated "reward" of enjoying chocolate in the future. After all, that is the reason we struggle to be cured.  When "fear" is perceived with its Western inference, it becomes a fear of punishment; it is the ominous fear that "if you don't do what I want, you'll see what will happen to you", or, "if you're not good, I will torture you".  Fortunately, our God is not a judicial God. Just like every parent who loves his child isn't even-handed. God's "punishments" are educative, but He does not desire to punish anyone - not even the worst pedophile or murderer. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian: "Do not refer to God as 'just', for God's justice is not made apparent in your works... He is benevolent, both towards the wicked and the impious." [Homily 60]  He allows punishments to befall us, but not because He desires it. Thus, when the time comes, He will distribute His "Chocolates" to everyone, regardless whether they deserve them or not. He will hand out His chocolates to our common, human nature. He will not mete out His Judgment in the manner that we imagine, but as the Elder Paisios had said:  ".... I mean, Christ will not say, 'hey you, come here! what have you done?' or 'you are going to Hell and you are going to Heaven'; but rather, each one of us will compare himself to the others and will proceed to where he knows is his place"  [Elder Paisios the Hagiorite, Homilies, Vol.4]. Saint Simeon the New Theologian says exactly the same thing, when writing: "....and quite simply, when faced with that terrible Day of Judgment unto eternal life and in that ineffable Light, each sinful person shall see the one who is the same as him, and shall be judged by him." [On Repentance, Homily V, Sources Chretiennes 96, 434.]

Given the above clarifications, we can perhaps comprehend why the the atheists' exasperation is justified, to a certain degree. They object to the "religiose" Protestants' insistence on depriving them of their freedom!  Because it is one thing to be afraid and to urge yourself to be cured of your deadly allergy against a sweet loving God, and another thing to be forced to do what you are told, or else "The Master" will submit you to torture.  The former involves a freely-chosen struggle, and the latter involves enslavement to an oppressor. Since God is such a dynast according to that kind of theology, certain atheists were under the impression that with means such as this slogan, they would be signalling liberation as well as a path towards the joy of life.

That both Protestantism and contemporary Atheism have their roots in the 16th century may perhaps be a coincidence. But it also may not. Protestantism implies "protesting". It began as a protest against the arbitrariness of the Latin "Church", which demanded to have an infallible human - a Big Boss - in the place of Christ. That boss had taken it to himself to impose and to mete out - according to his judgment - both Hell and Heaven.  The Protestants protested, and, instead of correcting the wrongs and returning to the Orthodox Tradition, they decided to protest against almost the entire tradition of the Saints and to hold on to only certain parts of it, selectively (for example the Holy Bible).  Interpretation would again have meant human involvement, except that now, there wasn't just one "Big Boss", but many, smaller bosses.  Each one of them protested against whatever didn't suit him personally, and would thereafter begin his own "church", demanding his own "truth".

In this sense, the contemporary atheist movement is likewise a "protest" - but of an extreme nature. They are no longer protesting against the Holy Traditions of God, whose aim was (and is) the healing of our soul's allergies; they are protesting against God generally, and against (whichever) Religion. This phenomenon began with the unweaving of the theological "Carpet" of the Latin "Church" by people inside her who sought worldly wages and knowledge, and ended in the rug being thrown out of the window altogether, since it was gradually ruined by the Protestants who had undone the biggest part of the fabric and left behind large gaping holes...  The atheists of the West in turn regarded the shredded old rug a useless thing and threw it away altogether, demanding total freedom. They brought protesting to its natural end.

So, we now return to the "void" that we often feel inside us. I wonder, are we truly Christians? When someone once said to the Elder Sophrony "Elder, I have become a Christian!" he replied "I have been trying to for years, and I don't know if I have managed to." The Elder Porphyry spoke in the same way. Are we Christians? Do we look at Christ? Do we have any experience of His Uncreated Light? Do we at least see Christ in the person of our fellow-man? If not, then what kind of Christians are we? Is it really enough for us to be baptized? "No", says Saint Simeon the New Theologian.: "...Here I am again, addressing those who claim that they have the Holy Spirit without being sure of this, and who think that they acquired it inside them, through Holy Baptism. They, who think they possess the treasure (2 Cor. 4:7) but are aware that their self is entirely vacant of it; (...) those who admit that they felt absolutely nothing during Holy Baptism, but who nevertheless believe that from that moment, the gift of God has resided inside them and continues to remain inside their soul, without them perceiving it and feeling it; (...) and not only those , but also those who claim that they never had any awareness of the Grace of the Holy Spirit through theory ('sighting') and revelation, except through their faith and their contemplations alone, and who have not received Grace through experience but have held it inside them, by just listening to divine words. (...) If baptized ones “don Christ” (Gal.3:27), then what are they donning?  God.  So, doesn’t one who has “donned God” mentally understand and “see” what he has donned? (...) If the one who dons God doesn’t feel anything, then what has he donned?  Therefore, to you, God is a…. “nothing”!  (…) Because only the dead do not feel anything when they are being clothed and I am afraid that perhaps those who assert these things are indeed dead and naked.". [Saint Simeon, Ethical Homily 5, 'Orthodox Kypseli', Thessaloniki 1999].

It is like having a house - the house of our soul - in which, through Baptism and Chrismation, we have cleaned and installed Light inside!  A huge lightbulb. We also have the lightbulb switched on. The house is flooded with Light. But sadly, we keep our eyes - the eyes of our soul - tightly shut! That Light does not exist for us! We move about in the house and we trip over things and injure ourselves. We are not actually blind; we just refuse to open our eyes and see. We don't want to. We don't try. The result is the same.  Whether we have the Light (which we do), or we don't have it, nothing changes. The difference between us and someone who has no Light whatsoever (e.g. an atheist or unbaptized person) is that even if the the latter wanted to open his eyes, he would still not be able to see. He has not acquired electricity or Light. We (the baptized) can open our eyes whenever we want, and be able to see.  If the unbaptized opens his eyes , he might just notice the Light in neighboring houses and wish to likewise install electricity and a lightbulb (=be baptized). But what about us?  Where is our God? Where is our Light? Why don't we see it? God must indeed be a "nothing" to us, as Saint Simeon wrote.  Aren't we in fact "atheist Christians" in that sense?  We need only to open our eyes and see Him. God calls to us every day, every hour, every moment, to do just that. (See the chapter titled "Experience of God" from the book "The Gurus, the Young Man and the Elder Paisios", by D.Farasiotis).

We might say "But the Saints were special cases! Spiritual champions! What can we, the plain and ordinary athletes of Christ achieve?"  Well, the Saints were also ordinary people like all of us.  By idealizing them to such a degree might not imply respect at times, but also weakness and truancy from labours on our part. There are not only the "official" Saints; there are thousands of "next-door" saints who could well be even greater than many familiar saints. The Elder Paisios had spoken of a man working as a porter, carrying luggage, a lay person, who had actually resurrected someone from the dead or of a Greek-American family man , who, out of ignorance did not even observe the formal fasts, and yet, because of his love, patience and selflessness, was blessed with a vision of the Uncreated Light, without even realizing what he had seen! Finally, the learned and extremely educated fr.Nicholas Loudovikos had met simple folk in tiny villages talking about the Uncreated Light with unprecedented simplicity, as though it were an ordinary, everyday occurrence for them! All of the above incidents tell us that the sighting of God is neither that distant, nor is it only for the few and chosen. There may be a Saint, filled with the holy spirit, hidden inside the little old lady who is working,  sweeping the stairs, next door to us, while we go searching for God in the mountains and the deserts.

Recently, while walking through the streets of London, I noticed that certain "Christian religious organizations" had likewise mounted their own responses on buses, in their passionate desire to answer the atheists' message.  It would have given me great joy, if I had seen a bus with an Orthodox response, such as:





-The Orthodox Church- 


or maybe even:




-The Orthodox Church- 



Selected Bibliography:

·        Elder Paisios the Hagiorite , Homilies, Volume IV (Greek Edition)

·        Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, Orthodox Psychotherapy

·        Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, Life after Death



Translation: A. N.

Article published in English on: 22-3-2009.

Last update: 8-3-2010.