Interview With Fr. Sebastian Athapppilly
Father Sebastian Athappilly, a noted Indian Catholic priest, is the author of a recently published thought-provoking book ‘The Delusion of Atheism’ (Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore, 2017). He is associated with Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Bangalore, one of India’s leading centres of Catholic learning. In this interview with Roshan Shah, he reflects on a range of issues, related to atheism and faith.
Q: What inspired you to write this book on Atheism? What are some of your major arguments?
A: My encounters (disputes and discussions) with atheists on the one hand, and the stunning and fascinating experiences of God’s existence and His loving providence, on the other, inspired and motivated me to write the book.
My observations and reflections on how things in this world correspond to one another in a kind of mutual compatibility and “dove-tailing” led me to the necessity of a Mastermind behind it all. This is manifested also in our own body, where each organ is structured in view of something outside of the whole system. For instance, the nose is made in such a way that it has nostrils to allow the passage of air coming from outside. The ears are shaped to receive sound waves from outside. The reproductive system shows that it is envisaged and developed in view of another body. This arrangement in which one organ or item is interlinked with another element or organ outside is not possible of itself. It is possible only if directed by a Conductor in a kind of a universal concert or orchestra and that is God. Mere chance, as many atheists claim, cannot bring it about. That all the bodies invariably follow this structure of development simply cannot be by chance.
Even atheists have to admit that the elements of this Earth have their predictable properties and are governed by certain fixed laws. To hold that the universe came to exist by mere chance and that it is governed by mere chance and that the laws that govern the universe came about by mere chance one needs stronger faith than the faith of the theist in God the Creator! The “faith” of the atheists is thus stronger, but ridiculous!
Atheists sometimes point to the problem of evil and suffering in the world and use it as an argument for their claim about the non-existence of God. But they have no answer to the existence of so much good and beautiful in this world. Nor do they have any meaningful solution to overcome evil in the world. Denying God’s existence is no solution to the problems of the world. It is, above all, faith in God that urges us to help people in their suffering. Atheism has no inner dynamism or intrinsic potential to inspire people for selfless love and service. It only leads people to violence, despair and anxiety.
In addition to this, one must also ask why there is something at all rather than nothing. Nothingness might have been an option. But instead of nothing, we experience something that is, that exists; we have an undeniable reality before us. And being cannot emerge from non-being or nothing. In other words, non-being or nothingness cannot be the ground of being or reality. If at all there is reality really, there should be also the Ground or Source of reality really which is God. On an imaginary or fictive hook you cannot hang a real fan!
Q: Besides your personal reflections and reading, did interactions and discussions with atheists also provide insights for your book? If so, could you please provide some details?
The insights I gained from discussions with atheists were in the form of counter-arguments. For instance, atheists often argue that we cannot prove God’s existence. This atheistic “argument” is not at all an argument, for this is not a proof against God’s existence. If someone is unable to prove the reality or existence of an entity, it only means that the concerned person is incapable of it, or that the concerned reality is of a different sphere, surpassing the possibilities of proof according to the prevalent tools and methods.
Physical realities are objects that can be analysed with the help of physical and material tools and experiments. Spiritual realities cannot be treated the same way as physical realities. Each being has its own properties. The special nature of God surpasses and overrides all human means to locate and prove Him as though He were a being among the many beings of this world.
The atheistic statement that we cannot prove God’s existence is in itself not a proof against His existence. It is illogical to conclude the non-existence of something just because you are not able to prove its existence. No one has disproved God’s existence to date, and no atheist has also proved that God does not exist.
Secondly, many important things in our life do not depend upon proofs. We do many significant things in our life without first proving them. A great part of our life is based on reasonable trust. Is it only after a proof or DNA test that we have accepted our parents as our parents?
Some atheists argue that the believers have created a God for the sake of consolation in face of the bitter experiences in this world, caused by nature as well as society; God is, for the atheists, hence a creation of mere wishful thinking. This argument backfires in the counter direction: atheism can be equally said to be the creation of wishful thinking of atheists in order to avoid any sanction against, or accountability for, their evil deeds. Faith in God helps us, in fact, to face the crises of this world more peacefully and serenely than otherwise. What is wrong with that? Simply because something helps us in our difficulties does not necessarily mean that it is an illusion or a product of wishful thinking. Food and water really help us, for example, in our hunger and thirst. Are they, therefore, illusions?
Q: Violence, hate, misogyny, discrimination, oppression, superstition etc. have long been sought to be justified in the name of religion. Many people might lose faith in God because of the terrible things that have been (and continue to be) done in the name of God and religion. In this context, do you agree that ‘religious’ people are to a considerable extent responsible for many people losing faith in God and turning atheist? If so, what do you think needs to be done?
A: Unfortunately, violence, hate, oppression, etc. have happened in the name of religion or God. This occurs because of a distorted idea of God and religion, on the one hand, and for political and economic reasons, on the other. If hate and killing are carried out in resonance with the teachings of a particular religious tradition, it is really bad. Such an understanding of religion has nothing to do with God, for God is life, love, justice, and peace. It can, however, happen that members of an authentic religion practice evil deeds which are condemned by their very religion. In this case, they would be acting against their religion. This has to be condemned by the respective religious authorities, showing the reasons for this condemnation from within their religion.
Religious leaders should recognize that hate and violence do not belong to authentic religion and that it is against God. They should be bold enough to condemn such activities. This would be possible, however, only if the teachings of the concerned religion plainly and unambiguously condemn hate and violence. But if the original message is clearly in favour of violence, we need a thorough assessment and critical reconsideration.
Q: In some cases, it is immature, fearsome, brutal or otherwise unhelpful and alienating notions of God preached by some religionists that turn people away from God. Also, many people may turn away from God because of the insistence by priests on unverifiable beliefs and dogmas and rituals, which they claim are absolutely necessary for salvation. Do you agree with this? If so, what do you think religious scholars, priests etc. should do?
A: Since we are limited and God is Infinite, our notions about God will definitely be imperfect. This is not surprising. Perfect notions about God can be communicated by God alone. In other words, only God can reveal God perfectly and adequately. In this sense we speak of self-revelation and self-communication of God. Even in that case, as long as the recipients are imperfect beings, their notions can also be imperfect. Imperfect and fearful notions about God can also alienate people from God and even make people think there could be no God. In that case, they are only rejecting the wrong notions of God.
What religious people should do in this regard is to be aware of their own limitations in speaking about God. We can speak about God only analogically.
A: Atheistic critiques of religion can help us refine our understandings of God. For instance, Marxist atheism has criticized certain notions of God, religion and spirituality that have tolerated social injustice. This is, in fact, a call and reminder to the believers to return to the original message of the scriptures, where God, through the prophets, always condemns the oppression of the poor and social injustice. Religion is not merely a private affair between myself and my God but has something to do with the society and the world; spirituality is not confined to some prayers and ascetical practices, but is oriented to the socio-political system and ecology/nature.