Man's religious orientation stems from his nature as a creature,
which spurs him to long for God who created him in his own image and
likeness (cf. Gn 1:26). The Second Vatican Council has taught that
"the dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to
communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed
to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is
because God has created him through love, and through love continues
to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth
unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his
Creator" (Gaudium et spes, n. 19).
The way that leads human beings to knowledge of God the Father is
Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes to us in the power of
the Holy Spirit. As I emphasized in our previous catecheses, this
knowledge is authentic and complete if it is not reduced to a mere
intellectual achievement but vitally involves the whole human
person. The latter must give a response of faith and love to the
Father, in the awareness that before knowing him, we were already
known and loved by him (cf. Gal 4:9; 1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 4:19).
Unfortunately, this intimate and vital relationship with God,
weakened by the sin of our first parents from the beginning of
history, is lived by man in a fragile and contradictory way, beset
by doubt and often broken by sin. The contemporary era has known
particularly devastating forms of "theoretical" and "practical"
atheism (cf. Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, nn. 46-47).
Secularism proves particularly ruinous with its indifference to
ultimate questions and to faith: it in fact expresses a model of man
lacking all reference to the transcendent. "Practical" atheism is
thus a bitter and concrete reality. While it is true that it
primarily appears in economically and technologically more advanced
civilizations, its effects also extend to those situations and
cultures which are in the process of development.
2. We must be guided by the Word of God in order to interpret this
situation in the contemporary world and to answer the serious
questions it raises.
Starting with Sacred Scripture, we immediately note that there is no
mention of "theoretical" atheism, while there is a concern to reject
"practical" atheism. The psalmist calls foolish anyone who says in
his heart: "There is no God" (Ps 14:1), and behaves accordingly:
"They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does
good" (ibid.). Another psalm condemns the wicked man who "boasts,
'He will not avenge it'; 'There is no God'" (Ps 10:4).
Rather than atheism, the Bible speaks of wickedness and idolatry.
Whoever prefers a series of human products, falsely considered
divine, living and active, to the true God is wicked and idolatrous.
Lengthy prophetic reproaches are devoted to the impotence of idols
and likewise of those who make them. With dialectical vehemence, the
emptiness and worthlessness of man-made idols is countered with the
power of God, the Creator and Wonderworker (cf. Is 44:9-20; Jer
This doctrine is most fully developed in the Book of Wisdom (cf. Wis
13-15) which presents the way, to be recalled later by St Paul (cf.
Rom 1:18-23), to the knowledge of God based on created things. Being
an "atheist", then, means not knowing the true nature of created
reality but absolutizing it, and therefore "idolizing" it, instead
of considering it a mark of the Creator and the path that leads to
3. Atheism can even become a kind of intolerant ideology, as history
shows. The last two centuries have known currents of theoretical
atheism which denied God in order to assert the absolute autonomy of
man, nature or science. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic
Church emphasizes: "Atheism is often based on a false conception of
human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence
on God" (n. 2126).
This systematic atheism has been widespread for decades, giving the
illusion that by eliminating God, man would be freer, both
psychologically and socially. The principal objections raised,
especially about God the Father, are based on the idea that religion
has a compensatory value for people. Having repressed the image of
the earthly father, adults are said to project onto God the need for
a greater father from whom they must free themselves because he
hinders the growth process of human beings.
What is the Church's attitude to these forms of atheism and their
ideological justifications? The Church does not scorn serious study
of the psychological and sociological elements of the religious
phenomenon, but firmly rejects the interpretation of religiosity as
a projection of the human psyche or the result of sociological
conditioning. In fact, authentic religious experience is not an
expression of immaturity but a mature and noble attitude of
acceptance of God, which in turn gives meaning to life and implies a
responsibility to work for a better world.
4. The Council recognized that, by not always showing the true face
of God, believers may have contributed to the rise of atheism (cf.
Gaudium et spes, n. 19; CCC, n. 2125). In this regard, it is bearing
witness to the real face of God that gives the most convincing
response to atheism.
This obviously does not exclude, but rather demands a correct
presentation of the rational reasons that lead to the recognition of
God. Unfortunately, these reasons are often obscured by the
influence of sin and of many cultural circumstances. The Gospel
message, confirmed by the witness of a sensible charity (cf. Gaudium
et spes, n. 21), is thus the most effective way for people to
understand something of God's goodness and gradually to recognize
his merciful face.
I extend a special welcome to Cardinal William Keeler and to the
American Catholic and Jewish leaders involved in the Interreligious
Information Center in Baltimore. Upon all the English-speaking
visitors and pilgrims, especially those from England, Ireland,
Denmark, Sweden, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Japan and the
United States of America, I invoke the joy and peace of the Risen