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Atheism, Education, and Human Flourishing

Atheism is not natural. Creatures ought to know their Creator. This is a knowledge that is intuitively natural to them–to us. Atheism often results from formative influences that cut against the flourishing of the human person, influences that are a type of violence to the heart or mind, denying one what he should have by right. It is not typical for a person to be convinced by clever arguments against the existence of God unless he has been trained to view reality according to reductive paradigms. This corruption is often something outside the control of a person; it happens by the way one is educated and formed in our society.

Of course, we cannot say that an atheist never bears any culpability for his unbelief.  We are complicated creatures and our actions, interior as well as exterior, are often marred by mixed motives. Aside from the multifaceted life experiences that shape us, a person can reject truth because it is more convenient to adopt a different perspective, to choose a belief system consistent with licentious moral choices. But the widespread atheism and indifferentism of today would not be possible without people being conditioned and educated into patterns of thought antithetical to normal human development and flourishing. There is an educational dimension to what is going on.

The ways that society instills thought patterns, including but not limited to the education system, do violence to the developing human personality. To counter this violence, we need to understand better proper functioning of the human intellect—what prompts and encourages a human soul first to flourish and then to reach beyond itself all the way to the divine.

Natural Knowledge of the Divine

If a person grows and develops in a normal way he will spontaneously come to a knowledge of God. He will look at the world around him, the vast night sky and the various creatures scurrying around, and he will wonder with awe at what the Author of such works is like. The thirteenth chapter of the Book of Wisdom describes human reason open to transcendence and God. The central passage summarizes the normal human experience: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5). St. Paul also makes the same point: “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Note that what is being asserted is not that someone needs to study the science of metaphysics to prove the existence of God (which, by the way, is possible and has been accomplished by St. Thomas Aquinas and others). The claim is more modest and more radical: a normal human intellect will spontaneously—automatically, easily, and naturally—come to a perception of the existence of God. And not only that, this spontaneous knowledge of God includes a sense of the goodness and perfections of God, as well as our obligation to offer Him reverence, obedience and worship.

Implicit in these texts and this perspective is an understanding of the human person as fundamentally open to transcendence, as fundamentally a religious being. If a child grows up surrounded by healthy family relationships and opportunities to connect with the natural world, and he is not corrupted in other ways, he will come to see the world as coming from the hand of God. As he marvels at simple things—such as dew on a spider’s web or how an acorn contains within itself the possibility of a fully grown oak tree—his wonder naturally reaches all the way to the Author of nature, to God himself. 

It is helpful if the child grows up in a religious home, where God is acknowledged and honored. But the child growing up in such a situation does not come to know, love and honor God simply because of the example of his or her parents; rather, the religious example reinforces what the child also comes naturally to know from his or her own reflection.

What We Owe Our Children

To look at this another way, we could identify what society should provide to a child, what a child should receive from society by right. A child has a right to be nurtured in a loving family, ideally with a mother and father who love each other and all their children. He or she has the right to be cared for by parents who exercise their roles as the primary educators of their child, balancing the need for discipline with allowing the child enough space to develop, fostering the freedom necessary for the child to exercise creativity and grow his or her personality. The parents should have the means necessary to partner with others in providing a comprehensive education to their child. As the child grows this education will likely involve participation in classes with students from other families and teachers with specific expertise, perhaps at a formal school.

The education offered to the child should be open to reality as a whole. It should be a complete introduction to the full scope of reality and should propose a way for the person to stand before reality that is informed by perennial truths about God, society, and the human person. This type of education can be called a liberal arts education, especially in its goal to foster authentic personal freedom rather than indoctrination into reductive paradigms.

Understanding Reductionism

And reductionism is a key to understanding the educational problems of today; understanding reductionism sheds light on the violence done to many through the education they receive. Reductionism is any self-imposed limitation to the scope of human reason. It is a narrow mindedness which only considers reality from a limited perspective. 

The most common form of reductionism in education today is scientism, the false assertion that objectivity is only reached through the methods of the empirical sciences. Scientism leads to unnatural divisions that profoundly affect the human person. The objective world becomes seen as an overly mechanical system that is rightly manipulated and dominated by those using cutting edge scientific knowledge. The problem is not necessarily with the dominion of humanity over nature: there is a rightful dominion that we should exercise. The problem is that nature is no longer appreciated as natural in the traditional sense of the word, which recognizes that there are principles and causes within the thing itself. 

Aristotle famously defined nature in a way that highlights the intrinsic principles in a thing, so that it has characteristic perfections that fulfill it according to its givenness. From the traditional perspective, questions of meaning, including all ethical questions, are fundamentally related to nature. When scientism reigns, all questions of meaning are relegated to the subjective, by which is meant the inner emotional world of the human psyche. This objective-subjective division is ruthless. In limiting objective knowledge to what the methods of the empirical sciences can determine about a “denatured” natural world, all human questions of meaning become merely subjective, insubstantial questions that pertain to the inner life of the human person, an inner life which is not connected to the real. By limiting truth to only what is knowable by the methods of the empirical sciences it is really the human person who ends up reduced. 

Scientism thus profoundly injures the human person. It isolates him from creation and others. It is akin to locking a person in solitary confinement, denying him connection to the real world. The natural human desire for transcendence is suppressed. A denatured nature does not point toward God. The resulting atheism or indifferentism stifles the wonder and awe that should point all the way to the divine.

The Full Faculties of Reason

An authentic liberal arts education helps to free the person from this prison by introducing him to the full scope of reality. It is about more than just the humanities. It includes a comprehensive training in the complete use of human reason. Young students develop mental muscle and appreciation for clarity and order through such subjects as mathematics, grammar and Latin. These subjects require a disciplined training of the mind that is essential for later studies in philosophy. Rather than just learn the empirical sciences as the gold standard for human rationality, older students learn both material and formal logic followed by natural philosophy and metaphysics. These philosophical sciences support and contextualize the empirical sciences. In this way the ongoing enlightenment project of imposing limitations on the scope of human reason is countered head on. In a disciplined way students are trained to appreciate the full gift of reason, the spark of the divine pointing all the way to its Author. Atheist apologist Friedrich Nietzsche recognized this quite well when he asserted that if we are to effectively kill God we need to start with destroying grammar.

Promoting and Protecting the Great Stories

This disciplined training of the mind frees the great works of literature from being merely about the subjective world of the human psyche. Classics like the Iliad, the Odyssey and so many others, including recent works, speak to the entirety of the human condition and thus help propose a comprehensive view of reality. Stories resonate with our natural desire to understand what type of story we are living. The best stories highlight that life is a noble adventure, full of the possibility of heroism and sacrifice. Rather than an arena for a manichean conflict between opposing light and dark forces, the best in our tradition presents the world as fundamentally under a higher power, as fundamentally good though marred by a rebellion destined to fail in the end. 

Young children almost universally are enthralled by stories pointing toward transcendent meaning. These stories feed their moral imaginations, presenting life as full of vast horizons of meaning, as a noble adventure. Reductionism can do great violence to these ideals, leading to jaded adults who view such noble horizons as childish, impractical musings detached from the harsh real world. But respecting the full scope of human reason helps to protect these great stories from being relegated merely to the complex, subjective and irrational world of the human psyche. And these great stories in turn contribute to an integral human understanding of reality, an understanding that points all the way to the divine.

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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