Maybe novelty is the currency of the blogosphere—but then again, maybe not. Sometimes the brightest-shining gems come out of an old closet at your grandparents’ house (or in this case, an old box of $1 books at a library sale).

It may be old (we’re talking last decade—you know, back when Pluto was a planet and “the Facebook” still had an article in front of it), but Richard Rodriguez’s essay “Atheism Is Wasted On the Nonbeliever” deserves to be talked about. Especially by those who claim to believe in something. Or are claimed by something to believe in, of whom I am one. At least, that’s how I try to put words to the mystery. Rodriguez is more interested in speaking about an everyday, real and sometimes painful human experience of faith, the fact that belief and disbelief can live together in the same person.

Rodriguez says he had the thought that spawned the essay—the thought that “atheism is wasted on the nonbeliever”—while watching Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens discuss the betterment of the human race on Maher’s talk show. Rodriguez, a Christian, watched the two avowed atheists profess their common wish that humanity would put its trust in science rather than religion (never mind that a Christian does not put her trust in “religion” proper but in the person of Christ—who asked me anyway?) and wrote the following:

“I do not, in any case, need this latest book by Mr. Hitchens, or any of the books by the other best-selling ‘New Atheists,’ to persuade me to disbelief. Atheism seems to me a deeply persuasive response to the night. But then again, faith seems to me a deeply persuasive response to the night.”


I know the night, and chances are if you are alive in this world, you have known it, too. I first railed against the night and against the impossible God who allowed it—this situation in which I found myself cold and alone and unable to see anything—in my teenage years. Agnosticism was my initial response to the night: to look into the darkness and say, “I don’t know. I don’t think you can know.”

Later, I would return to faith, but not to the faith of my childhood, with its expectation that surety could be had by a man or a woman. (Again, it could be that Surety has us.) I’d return to the church different, because this sense of not knowing—my “agnostic sensibility,” I now say especially to my friends who are not religious—is something I carry with me, even as someone claimed and sought first by the Christ I confess. Back to Rodriguez:

“I share with the atheist and the agnostic a sense of a God who is hidden… And more: I believe the monotheistic religions would be healthier, less inclined to extremism and violence, if those of us who profess belief in God were able also to admit our disbelief.”

He may be speaking from a political angle, from a sense of wanting to see right done in the world—and I want this, too—but I write firstly out of a desire for honesty, not knowing what it might bring about. I want to be honest before God and before my neighbor, even and especially when that entails admitting profound doubt. Because where else could we start than with truth-telling? Where else could we begin to be freed? He continues:

“It seems not inappropriate that I take my inner atheist with me to church every Sunday. The atheist within me is as noisy as my stomach, even when I am standing in the Communion line.”

Ycommunionkidou and me both, buddy, I thought before it occurred to me to write anything about it. And then I thought, Us and how many others?

So here we are, taking our “inner atheists” to church: him to his brick-and-mortar church, and me to that too, but also to this fiber-optic-and-copper-wire network where I have sat in the pews of desk chairs and couches, sipped on coffee and chuckled “me too” at a screen. We don’t bring our inner atheists to church in order to squelch them with words. We bring them because they just are—and maybe this, too, is a strange and humbling mercy.

But while holding this sense of God’s confusing hiddenness, we share also this conviction of a comfort just as mystifying: that God is revealed in the Nazarene who was reviled by his people and forsaken by his Father. Rodriguez puts it this way:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, the Christ who was a loser in human history—destroyed by this world—whose life reveals in its generosity and tragedy the most complete and challenging version of theism I know. What the New Atheists do not comprehend is that the crucifix cannot be mocked. It is itself mockery.”

The crucifix cannot be mocked. 

Not by those afraid and alone in the night, nor by those who “rage, rage” against the night, nor even by the night itself. Here is the darkest place in the universe: that God from God, light from light, was torn asunder by death. That the one who was in very nature God was abandoned by God.

I feel that I am abandoned by God and experience disbelief and anger, but in the cross Jesus has entered my godforsakenness. I say I’m a Christian humbled by my disbelief (and this is on a good day), but as Jurgen Moltmann writes, God in Jesus “humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

The godlessness of inner atheism that Richard Rodriguez and I bring to church is something Christ himself has entered and taken upon himself, his death a more complete a-theism than any I have known. He’s entered the night not with lantern or flashlight in hand, but with the deepest black of holes straight through the hands of God. And these are the hands that have found me.