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No atheists in foxholes.

I have developed a theory as to why there are no atheists in foxholes.

Recent evidence persuades me they are all much too busy at their word processors pounding out angry letters to the Calgary Herald denouncing me for a column in which I dismissed their creed as a black superstition.

In many years of column writing, I have never received such a sustained barrage of angry missives as my remark about the fantasy of denying God's existence has elicited. Normally, such incendiary responses flare up and fade out within a week. In this case, it's six weeks and counting. Still the e-mail and snail-mail bomblettes keep coming.

Things have reached a point where new atheist writers are now rising to the defence of original atheist writers who attacked me and were, in turn, debunked by Christian writers rising to my defence. For such an exchange to occur in the letters pages of a secular newspaper in the so-called post-Christian era is fascinating. Even more engrossing is the often vitriolic vehemence of the atheist force in protesting the credibility of its belief in non-belief.

Or as one man put it in what is perhaps my favorite response to date: "It's wrong to call atheism a superstition. A superstition means a belief in something. Atheists do not believe in anything. We just believe God does not exist."

Oh well, then. That settles it. Or does it? For if atheists truly did place their faith in having no faith, why would they become upset at the suggestion, en passant, that their faithless faith has so little worth as to be worthless? Surely it is only when we believe our nothing is worth something that we bother to clamber out of the foxhole and man the word-processor to defend it.

The question, then, becomes what it is in the atheist heart, mind and - dare it be said? - soul that so compels devotees of the cult to do something to defend their beloved nothing. Ironically, that question was actually answered in the main part of the column in question. What I was really writing about was a very good speech by a University of Calgary religious studies professor, Irving Hexham, dealing with what he calls the "supermarket of spirituality" so prevalent in North America.

Hexham's take on the topic was particularly enlightening because his academic speciality is the study of cults, and he has just published a book on the appeal and spread of new religions and New Age cults.

In his speech, Hexham carefully distinguished the flakery of New Age charlatans from legitimate Christian renewal efforts such as the male-only Promise Keepers movements.

He pointed out, however, that the common denominator of the offerings picked and chosen in the "supermarket of spirituality" is their appeal to the appetite for something beyond the materialistic sweet-nothings of North American life.

New Age hucksters draw in the gullible and spiritually lazy. Promise Keepers maintains a rigorous moral foundation and make their members work for what they gain. But both arise from the same urgent human need to believe in something - even knowing it's nothing - beyond themselves. Intriguingly, Hexham acknowledged under some prodding from a columnist who shall remain nameless (hi mom!) that a synonym for his "supermarket of spirituality" is simply Protestantism.

Though Protestant himself, Hexham agreed that Protestantism is the inability of non-Catholic Christians to sustain their faith in concrete acts of devotion. He cited last autumn's million-man march in Washington by Promise Keepers as an example of ersatz Catholic pilgrimage undertaken to satisfy this yearning for the union of faith and life.

Ultimately, this can partially fill the spiritual void. No amount of militant marching or fervent promise-making or restless church-shopping, let alone New Age nonsense, can ever fully satisfy it. The human heart not only needs to believe, after all. It needs to know what it believes is "true" - the same yesterday, today and always.

What is true for those who are faithful Christians, albeit separated from the full Truth of His Church, is also true of those who believe they have no belief. That is why they become so angry when their disbelief is dismissed. Deep in their foxhole hearts, they know only God can make something from nothing. All others can write letters to the editor.

Peter Stockland's column appears in Catholic Insight every other issue.
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Author:Stockland, Peter
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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