Atheism is a parasite that feeds on bad religion. That’s why, in the end, atheistic critics are our friends. They hold our feet to the fire. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, for example, submit that all religious experience is ultimately psychological projection.

For them, the God we believe in and who undergirds our churches is, at the end of the day, simply a fantasy we have created for ourselves to serve our own needs. We have created God as opium for comfort and to give ourselves divine permission to do what we want to do.

They’re largely correct, but partially wrong, and it’s in where they’re wrong that true religion takes it root. Admittedly, they’re right in that a lot of religious experience and church life is far from pure, as is evident in our lives. It’s hard to deny that we are forever getting our own ambitions and energies mixed up with what we call religious experience.

That’s why, so often, we – you and I, sincere religious people – don’t look like Jesus at all. We’re arrogant where we should be humble, judgmental where we should be forgiving, hateful where we should be loving, self-concerned where we should be altruistic; and, not least, spiteful and vicious where we should be understanding and merciful. Our lives and our churches often don’t radiate Jesus. Atheism is a needed challenge because far too often we have our own life force confused with God and our own ideologies confused with the Gospel.

Fortunately, God doesn’t let us get away with it for long. Rather, as the mystics teach, God inflicts us with a confusing, painful grace called a dark night of the soul. What happens in a dark night of the soul is that we run out of gas religiously, in that the religious experiences that once sustained us and gave us fervour dry up or get crucified in a way that leaves us with no imaginative, affective or emotional sense of either God’s love or of God’s existence.

No effort on our part can again conjure up the feelings and images we once had about God and the security we once felt within ourselves about our faith and religious beliefs. The heavens empty, and inside of ourselves we feel agnostic, as if God didn’t exist and we were no longer able to create an image of God that feels real to us. We become helpless inside of ourselves to generate a sense of God.

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